This set of nine tracks by Ambienteer lays out slivers of atmospheric tonal gestures. At a low volume they are barely discernible, fully on purpose, from the low level electric hum of daily life. At mid-level they are more likely to suggest activity one or two rooms over. Some, like “Echoic” and “Darkening,” include gentle sonic baubles that engage in rhythmic play, but the majority, like the opening “Aethereal,” are intentional wisps. One anomaly is “Ariel,” which layers in the Sylvia Plath poem from which it takes its name, the voice roughly recorded, seemingly like it’s emerging from the depths of history. The poem’s opening line, “Stasis in darkness,” could stand for this entire album.
Classical music and synthesizers go hand in hand, in part because of the academic origins of much beta-era synthesizer experimentation, and in part because of how renditions by Wendy Carlos, Tomita, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, among others, of standard repertoire helped expand the early audience for electronic music. The tradition is alive and well. This coming month, Sony will release the retro Bach to Moog by Craig Leon.
What follows are two different versions of a contemporary classical favorite: the same Arvo Pärt piece performed on two very different synthesizers. The piece is Pärt’s “Solfeggio,” which in its original form is arranged for a gently shifting array human voices. Here it is with its tones transferred by the artist Tomorrow the Cure to the Tetra, from Dave Smith Instruments, the “father” of MIDI:
There is also a version from 2009 on the Doepfer Dark Energy by the same musician, who is based in Norfolk, Great Britain (more at soundcloud.com/tomorrowthecure). That Dark Energy recording is not available for embedding, but can be accessed at the musician’s youtube.com account.
Many artists and musicians end up in, strive to be in, museums. Fewer make the museum the subject of their work. One such artist-musician is the prolific John Kannenberg, who in various pursuits has studied the sonic property of the institutions where art is on display. He may make sound art, but more to the point he makes art of the sound of art. He’s been sharing well-edited, studiously sequenced videos of his work, including “A Sound Map of the Art Institute of Chicago: Security (Excerpt),” which combines the voluminous echo of the place with overheard snippets of directives and responses from staff security, such as “No flashes” (as in photography) and “Being told the elevator doesn’t go where I want to go.”
I’ve been thinking for a long time to make a Disquiet.com podcast, and I’m still intent on doing it, but not quite yet. I even have the theme music in the can, thanks to a regular participant of the Disquiet Junto project series, but I’m still fiddling with the format, and I want to make sure I have the time to do it regularly. I may wait until after this semester is over, since I’m already dedicating time each week to creating 2,000-word summaries of each lecture in my “role of sound in the media landscape” course, and sending those to my tinyletter.com/disquiet email list.
What’s been on my mind lately has been how best to frame the abstract work I’m often up to in sound, so that it can have an audience beyond those already attracted to abstraction. The goal isn’t a larger audience unto itself; the goal is an audience that would quickly find the work of interest when given the proper context.
The “Sonic Frames” installation I developed for the San Jose Museum of Art was an attempt at this, and I think a fairly successful one. Using imagery, and elegant physical frames, and directional speakers, along with other tools, the piece can attract a potential listener from across the room, and keep them focused once they decide to interact with it.
For the Junto projects, I share the written instructions each week as part of the setlist I create for the given project, but that requires someone to take the time to read. Also, those instructions are intended for a different audience: the participants in the projects. So, three weeks ago I acted on the instinct to record myself describing the project. It’s very different to be told a story than to read one, and very different to have a (somewhat?) friendly voice explain something abstract than to have to decipher it on a page. So now each week’s setlist begins with me, for a minute or so, explaining what the project is about. Collectively the intro and the tracks that follow it comprise something akin to a podcast, though it’s not quite yet the podcast I have in mind.
Below are the first four such project-introduction narrations. The first week I did this, I actually made two separate playlists, for reasons explained in the audio below:
CHAUCER’S EAR: There’s a new book about 14th-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales), which is something of a feat since we at this point know very well how little we known about him. The book is The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and the Year that Made the Canterbury Tales, written by Paul Strohm. In a (characteristically unsigned) review in The Economist, we’re told what Strohm does in his history: “What he does instead is create a soundscape.” This is very promising, indeed. I am not accustomed to writing about books I have not yet read, but in this case I’m expressing enthusiasm and getting the word out. (Thanks for the tip, Scott Fletcher.)http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21642124-chaucers-year-living-dangerously-racket-genius
MOUTHING WORDS: At Boing Boing, Kortny Rolston reports on technology that allows one to use one’s tongue to hear. This would potentially remove the need for cochlear implants. It is fascinating to understand that both the production and reception of speech might be accomplished with the same muscle. One thing that gets glossed over sometimes in writing about sound is how senses themselves overlap, that hearing is a form of tactile experience — a form of touch — and this tongue-listening development further blurs our received conception of what it means to be human.
HEARING VOICES: What did the development radio mean to voices that had previously not necessarily expressed authority? Christine Ehrick has uploaded to academia.edu an essay titled “Vocal Gender and the Gendered Soundscape: At the Intersection of Gender Studies and Sound Studies” that serves as an advance notice on her book Radio and the Gendered Soundscape in Latin America: Women and Broadcasting in Argentina and Uruguay, 1930-1950, which will be published by Cambridge this fall. Ehrick is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Louisville, and she writes in detail not just about the way radio informed conceptions of gender, but also about the way the increase in sound studies is changing gender studies. In the class I teach we spend time on related topics by studying the work of Nina Power, specifically public address systems and how they relate to the notions of the feminine and the robotic. I guess, again, I am writing about a book I haven’t yet read — in this case one that has not yet even been published. The essay originated in the sound studies blog Sounding Out! this month as part of a forum on “Gendered Voices.”
This first appeared in the February 10, 2015, edition of the free Disquiet email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.
• May 13, 2015: Last spring-semester class meeting of the 15-week course that I teach on the role of sound in the media landscape at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I'll next teach it in spring 2016.
• December 13, 2015: The 19th anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• Ongoing: The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: soundcloud.com.
• My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury, is now in its second printing. It can be purchased at amazon.com, among other places.