February 13, 2014, is the official release date for my 33 1/3 book on Aphex Twin's 1994 album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: turntablism

disquiet.gizmodo.com

On Disquiet.com now participating in the Gizmodo ecosystem

These are two things that I think Geoff Manaugh, editor-in-chief of the technology and design blog Gizmodo.com, didn’t know about me when he asked if I’d consider bringing Disquiet.com beneath his website’s expanding umbrella.

1: My “to re-blog” bookmark file has been packed in recent months with scores of items from pretty much all of the Gizmodo-affiliated sites — not just Gizmodo, but io9.com, Lifehacker, Jalopnik, Gawker, and Kotaku. Probably Jezebel and Deadspin, too, but the file is too thick for me to tell.

2: Pretty much the first thing that I read every morning with my coffee — well, every weekday morning — is the “Morning Spoilers” at io9.com, the great science fiction website that is part of the Gawker network that also contains Gizmodo.

I knew Manaugh’s work from BLDGBLOG and, before that, Dwell Magazine. He’d previously invited me to involve the weekly experimental music/sound project series that I run, the Disquiet Junto, in the course on the architecture of the San Andreas Fault that he taught in spring 2013 at Columbia University’s graduate school of architecture. And I am excited to work with him again.

And so, there is now a cozy disquiet.gizmodo.com subdomain URL where I’ll be syndicating — simulposting — material from Disquiet.com, as well as doing original straight-to-Gizmodo writing. I’m hopeful that members of the Gizmodo readership might further expand the already sizable ranks of the Disquiet Junto music projects (we just completed one based on a post from Kotaku), and I’ll be posting notes from the course I teach on “sound in the media landscape” at the Academy of Art here in San Francisco.

For new readers of Disquiet, the site’s purview is as follows:

* Listening to Art.

* Playing with Audio.

* Sounding Out Technology.

* Composing in Code.

I’ll take a moment to break that down:

Listening to Art: Attention to sound art has expanded significantly this year, thanks in no small part to the exhibit Soundings: A Contemporary Score at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. That exhibit, which ran from August 10 through November 3, featured work by such key figures as Susan Philipsz (whose winning of the Turner Prize inspired an early music compilation I put together), Carsten Nicolai (whom I profiled in the new Red Bull Music Academy book For the Record), and Stephen Vitiello (whom I’ve interviewed about 911 and architectural acoustics, and who has participated in the Disquiet Junto). But if “sound art” is art for which music is both raw material and subject matter, my attention is just as much focused on what might better be described as the role of “sound in art,” of the depictions of audio in various media (the sound effects in manga, for example) and the unintended sonic components of art beyond sound art, like the click and hum of a slide carousel or the overall sonic environment of a museum. Here’s video of Tristan Perich’s “Microtonal Wall” from the MoMA exhibit:

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Playing with Audio: If everything is, indeed, a remix, that is a case most clearly made in music and experimental sound. From the field recordings that infuse much ambient music to the sampling of hip-hop to the rapturous creative reuse that proliferates on YouTube and elsewhere, music as raw material is one of the most exciting developments of our time. Terms like “remix” and “mashup” and “mixtape” can been seen to have originated or otherwise gained cachet in music, and as they expand into other media, we learn more about them, about the role such activities play in culture. And through the rise of audio-game apps, especially in iOS, such “playing with sound” has become all the more common — not just the work of musicians but of audiences, creating a kind of “active listening.” This notion of reuse, of learning about music and sound by how it is employed after the fact, plays a big role in my forthcoming book for the 33 1/3 series. My book is about Aphex Twin’s album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, and it will be published on February 13, 2014, just weeks ahead of the record’s 20th anniversary. As part of my research for the book, I spoke with many individuals who had come to appreciate the Aphex Twin album by engaging with it in their own work, from composers who had transcribed it for more “traditional” instruments (such as chamber ensembles and solo guitar), to choreographers and sound designers, to film directors.

Sounding Out Technology: A briefer version of the Disquiet.com approach is to look at “the intersection of sound, art, and technology.” The term “technology” is essential to that trio, because it was only when I learned to step back from my fascination with electronically produced music and to appreciate “electronic” as a subset of the vastly longer continuum of “technology” that connections became more clear to me — say, between the sonics of raves and the nascent polyphony of early church music, or between creative audio apps like Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers’ Bloom and what is arguably the generative ur-instrument: the aeolian harp. With both Bloom and the aeolian harp, along with its close relative the wind chime, music is less a fixed composition than a system that is enacted. As technology mediates our lives more and more, the role that sound plays in daily life becomes a richer and richer subject — from voice-enabled devices, to the sounds of consumer product design, to the scores created for electric cars:

Composing in Code: Of all the technologies to come to the fore in the past two decades, perhaps none has had an impact greater than computer code. This is no less true in music and sound than it is in publishing, film, politics, health, or myriad other fields. While the connections between mathematics and music have been celebrated for millennia, there is something special to how, now, those fields are combining, notably in graphic systems such as Max/MSP (and Max for Live, in Ableton) and Puredata (aka Pd), just to name two circumstances. Here, for reference, is a live video of the Dutch musician and sound artist Edo Paulus’ computer screen as he constructs and then performs a patch in Max/MSP. Where the construction ends and the performance begins provides a delightful koan:

All of which said, I’m not 100-percent clear what form my disquiet.gizmodo.com activity will take. I’m looking forward to experimenting in the space. I’ll certainly be co-posting material from Disquiet.com, but I’m also planning on engaging with Gizmodo itself, and with its broader network of sites. I’ve already, in advance of this post, begun re-blogging material from Gizmodo and from Gizmodo-affiliated sites: not just “sharing” (in the UI terminology of the Kinja CMS that powers the network) but adding some contextual information, thoughts, tangents, details. I’m enthusiastic about Kinja, in particular how it blurs the lines between author and reader. I like that a reply I make to a post about a newly recreated instrument by Leonardo Da Vinci can then appear in my own feed, leading readers back to the original site, where they themselves might join in the conversation. Kinja seems uniquely focused on multimedia as a form of commentary — like many CMS systems, it allows animated GIFs and short videos to serve as blog comments unto themselves, but it goes the step further of allowing users to delineate rectangular sub-sections of previously posted images and comment on those. I’m intrigued to see how sound can fit into that approach. (It’s no surprise to me that Kinja is innovative in this regard — it’s on Lifehacker that I first learned about the syntax known as “markdown.”) I think that all, cumulatively, makes for a fascinating media apparatus, and I want to explore it.

While I typed this post, it was Tuesday in San Francisco. I live in the Outer Richmond District, just north of Golden Gate Park and a little over a mile from the Pacific Ocean. The season’s first torrential rain has passed, and so the city sounds considerably more quiet than it did just a few days ago. No longer is the noise of passing automobiles amplified and augmented by the rush of water, and the roof above my desk is no longer being pummeled. But where there is the seeming peace of this relative quiet, there is also an increased diversity of listening material. The ear can hear further, as it were — not just to conversations in the street and to passing cars, but to construction blocks away, to leaf blowers, to a seaplane overhead, to the sound of a truck backing up at some considerable distance, and to the many birds that (unlike what I was accustomed to, growing up on the north shore of New York’s Long Island) do not all vacate the area come winter. It is shortly past noon as I hit the button to make this post go live. Church bells have sung a duet with the gurgling in my belly to remind me it is time for lunch. And because it is Tuesday, the city’s civic warning system has rung out. 

Dim sum, anyone?

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Dustmotes’ Inaugural Podcast (MP3)

Free MP3: Beats that veer toward ambient

The Soundcloud.com platform has many strengths. Key among them is how the fluid nature of postings on the service leads to a specific situation that few if any other music-hosting services have approached. It’s one in which a truly fluid sensibility is easily associated with the postings. In other words: a musical sketch — a rough draft or a work-in-progress — makes sense on Soundcloud in a way it does less so, say, on cdbaby.com or in iTunes. Those latter two systems emulate the tradition of the recording as document, as self-enclosed entity. Soundcloud allows for such a thing, with its “sets” feature, but the default mode on Soundcloud is a reverse chronological list. It’s just a thread of whatever the musician uploaded most recently (the majority of Soundcloud accounts appear to be associated with individuals, though bands and organizations house there efforts there, too). Which is why it makes all the more sense that Dustmotes, the ace turntable-textured beatmaker, has launched a new podcast series hosted on Soundcloud. The six-minute inaugural entry is a suite, a medley, of found and homemade bits, filtered through Dustmotes’ trademark old-school-yet-of-the-moment, veering-toward-ambient approach to what could be broadly described as instrumental hip-hop. Which is to say, it’s downtempo, and it’s promising. Looking forward to the sophomore effort.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/dustmotes. More on Dustmotes, aka Paul Croker, at dustmotes.net.

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Music for Drawing (MP3)

Following up a recent interview with Kid Koala about the intersection of scratchboard comics and turntablism scratching, here’s another audio interview with the Canadian musician and longtime Ninja Tune Records roster member on the occasion of his new graphic novel and accompanying soundtrack, Space Cadet (MP3). He was interviewed for the excellent Panel Borders comics podcast series, part of the generous offerings of resonancefm.com. Koala is a thoughtful participant in and observer of the more sedate vestiges of street culture. He spins a good tale about the origins of his “Music to Draw to” series, in which he DJs downtempo music to inspire the artists and other creative types who show up for the special live shows, held in places like art galleries. The series began during a Canadian winter, as a way to inspire his friends to get out of their apartments and do something creative together — or at least side by side. It isn’t just for artists. He reports that fashion designers, video-game coders, and writers have joined in. At least once, someone brought along a loom. The first rule of “Music to Draw to” is: be prepared to do something creative. The second rule of “Music to Draw to” is: no dancing.

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MP3 originally posted at resonancefm.com.

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Kid Koala on Scratchboard and Scratching

Kid Koala is one of the mainstays of the Ninja Tune label, his expressly nostalgic and maudlin approach to turntablism fitting comfortably between texture-oriented art music and mood-setting party music. His latest release, Space Cadet, is a follow-up to an earlier such venture, Nufonia Must Fall: it’s a graphic novel with a score. He recently discussed the overlap between his comics and turntablism — between the scratchboard on which he made the drawings, and the scratching that is the foundation of his music — as part of a wide-ranging, and highly recommended, interview on the record label’s podcast. It’s downloadable as an M4A file — essentially an MP3 with embedded images, and a slightly more finicky nature in regard to playback.

Among the influences on his work discussed during the podcast interview is Carter Burwell, best known for his scores for Coen Brothers movies. Koala talks about the difference between scoring a movie and scoring a book, noting that while the music is intended to be listened to while one reads the graphic novel, he’s not particularly dictatorial about the speed at which the book is read, or how specific instances in the score are intended to align with instants in the narrative.

He’s touring in support of the album. The evenings are something he’s described as a “seated headphone concert,” in which the audience settles into “space pods” and listens to the music on devices that allow them to adjust the volume. Interestingly, Amon Tobin, arguably the other main artist on the Ninja tune roster, is also doing a multimedia tour right now, though Tobin’s audio-visual effort, titled Isam, is far more technologically demanding than Koala’s (it’s described at amontobin.com as a “25′ x 14′ x 8′ multi-dimensional/ shape shifting 3-D art installation … enveloping him and the audience”).

Video originally posted at youtube.com. More on the release at kidkoala.com and ninjatune.net.

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Turntablism Before and After Hip-Hop (MP3)

Like the violin, just to point to one parallel example, the turntable has different uses in different settings, means different things in different settings. The violin seen on its own may signal “classical” (whether that means chamber or orchestral is left to the viewer’s imagination), but could just as likely be jazz or bluegrass. The turntable, seen on its lonesome, tends to signal hip-hop — more to the point, the turntable, when seen in pairs, tends to signal hip-hop.

But, of course, the creative employment of the turntable as not just an audio-playback system but also as a means of artistic production, as a performance instrument, is a long tradition. John Cage’s “Imaginary Landscape No. 1″ included turntables in 1939, which means just as long prior to the birth of hip-hop as we now are far from it. Hip-hop by and large has left the turntable behind in favor of digital samples, but avant-garde use of the turntable continues apace.

Take the work of Jay Sullivan, as recently displayed in a live performance broadcast as part of the Rare Frequency radio show, on WZBC 90.3, and later disseminated more widely as a podcast MP3.

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The piece begins with the texture of the turntable, the slow warble and mechanical cadence of its rotation, the surface static noise. The introduction of a bellows sound, likely a harmonium (the credits on the site are minimal), serves several compositional purposes. It provides a drone that suggests an affinity for the underlying currents of Indian music. It shifts the opening texture from foreground to background. It suggests the turntable texture as the most minimal of rhythms, to be contrasted with the most minimal of melodies that is a drone. But most importantly, it simulates that distinction between foreground and background: The airy breath of the bellows, like a harmonica or organ on some surreally attenuated sustain, hovers above the texture of the turntable. The turntable surface doesn’t adversely affect the sound, as would be the case if the bellows noise were in fact recorded on the vinyl we hear. Instead, a cavern opens, and we listen to that void as much as we do to what is on either side of it.

Track originally posted at rarefrequency.com.

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