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

Monthly Archives: February 2004

Seven Ninja MP3s & Videostreams

The longtime British label Ninja Tune is promoting a new set of Zen retrospective collections, consisting of a DVD, a full-length hits album, and a remix set. The Disquiet.com Downstream presents, in conjunction with Ninja’s ninjatune.net portal site, four free MP3 downloads (all compressed at a generous 192 kbps) and three streaming videos — past (Coldcut, DJ Food), present (Jaga Jazzist) and future (Skalpel). The MP3s are also available as streams in the Real and Windows Media formats. The videos come as Real and Windows streams.

1. Blockhead‘s “Carnivores Unite” (MP3, Real Audio stream, Windows Media stream). The former producer for Aesop Rock submits his debut full-length, Music by Cavelight, from which this stretch of sedate instrumental hip-hop is drawn.

2. cLOUDDEAD‘s “The Velvet Ant” (MP3, Real Audio stream, Windows Media stream). Taken from Ten, the second album from cLOUDDEAD (has anyone else tried to pull off a name like this since fIREHOSE?), the track is a glitchy bit of deadpan indie-rock hip-hop nonsense.

3. DJ Food‘s “Dark Lady” (MP3, Real Audio stream, Windows Media stream). According to Ninja, the song was featured in the NBA Street video game, and its deeply funky bass line was lifted by Bomb the Bass for its better known “Bug Powder Dust.”

4. Coldcut‘s “Atomic Moog” (Cornelius Mix)” (MP3, Real Audio stream, Windows Media stream). A classic anthem of slapdash DJ histrionics by the duo who founded the Ninja label, remixed by Cornelius (aka Keigo Oyamada), Japan-born colleague of Money Mark, Pizzicato Five and the Avalanches.

Also available, three Ninja videos, all streaming:

5. Blockhead‘s “Insomniac Olympics” (Real Video, Windows Media). More like slacker Olympics. Downtempo hip-hop with a touch of psychedelic rock accompanies this humorously widescreen footage of bachelor boredom.

6. Skalpel‘s “1958” (Real Video, Windows Media). Polish act cuts ‘n’ pastes fiery jazz loops to black ‘n’ white clip-footage. 7. Jaga Jazzist‘s “Day” (Real Video, Windows Media). Retro-interstellar visuals liven up a caffeinated slab of jazz-infused drum’n’bass.

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New Warp-Bleep MP3 (And Stream)

OK, so the new stream from Warp Records isn’t exactly user-friendly, and the MP3 isn’t free, but the arrival of Plaid‘s Dialp (a one-hour mix of “back catalogue, unreleased live tracks and edits”) is a good opportunity to remind Downstream readers of the label’s new online MP3 store, Bleep (at bleep.com). Dialp is the first newly added release to the store since it debuted in mid-January, coincident with the preview of new Squarepusher material. Bleep doesn’t copy-protect its downloads, so once you purchase an MP3, it’s all yours. The tradeoff is that the lo-fi stream, for online preview purposes, comes in sequential 30-second snippets. So, it’s a sweet stream of loungey ambience that grows into a dark funk, but you have to work for it. Or purchase the MP3.

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Circuit-Bent MP3

Chachi Jones bends childhood memories into pop music. He takes Texas Instruments Speak & Spell toys, along with other tech juvenilia, and tweaks them until they make sounds for his brand of glitchy, noise-infused electronica. Jones (born Donald Bell) spoke at the Robotspeak store in San Francisco in mid-January at one of its free monthly clinics. He played for half an hour, on a mix of laptop, familiar DJ equipment, and assorted toys, and then took questions.

Among Jones’ lo-tech tools was a plastic turntable for 7″ singles, on which he played a Halloween sound effects record, spinning it back and forth, and letting it come to a slow natural stop. He rubbed two metal spheres on a reconfigured Touch & Tell, which emitted semi-random noises. “That’s the fun of bringing the toys out,” he said. “It’s unpredictable” He pointed out, for example, that the turntable sometimes picks up radio stations.

Much of the audience was drawn to the event thanks to an informative story (“Bed, Math, and Beyond“) in one of the local alternative weeklies; it described the circuit-bending community that has coalesced online, and in which Jones participates, and some lingering issues with an artist, Reed Ghazala, who is understood to have originated the techniques that Jones and others have adopted.

In the discussion part of the clinic, Jones explained the workings of his machines, for example how he added a pitch control to the Speak & Spell (it goes “from Barry White to Barry Gibb”), and the comfort zone in which his bending (not to mention soldering) takes place: “You’re not gonna electrocute yourself, since its battery operated.” His machines resemble Frankenstein’s monster, with the little switches extending unnaturally from their familiar plastic casings.

If the machinery behind Jones’s music seems intriguing, there’s a batch of free MP3 files and streams on his chachijones.com website, notably a remix of “10,000 Gallon Hat” by Big Tex (a fellow Sacramentan, whom Jones credits as a kind of mentor in the ways of circuit-bending); it’s a downtempo-ish bit, with a pleasingly robotic drum pattern, and a blissful repetitive upper-register riff, which occasionally bursts apart — techno on a bender. (More information on Robotspeak at robotspeak.com, and on Reed Ghazala at anti-theory.com.)

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Scanner Interview Stream

In his February update to his scannerdot.com website, Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud) directs readers to a streaming interview he did in Amsterdam for the 3voor12.vpro.nl site (page here; click on the little animated widget of film in the center of the screen). The eight-minute video includes some performance footage (note the iPod that’s part of his setup), and he discusses a variety of subjects, including his difficulty making funky music, the power of repetition, the persistence of his Scanner modus operandi, his upcoming plans for field recording compositions in Vietnam and Australia, and the threat of homogenization of music due to standardized software. “I think the most important thing,” he says, “is to find a voice … whether you’re making your own music, [or] whether you’re curating … by DJing.”

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Lets Active

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — This year’s Activating the Medium Festival began with a pair of mini-marathons on consecutive nights celebrating all manner of sound art. The music ranged from the theatrical to the minimalist, from chains rattling on hard wood to delicate noises pulled from radio waves.

Founded in 1998, the Activating the Medium Festival, now in its seventh year, describes its mission as follows: “to expose and educate new audiences to trans-disciplinary themes explored within the genre of Sound Art.” This year’s events were curated by Randy H.Y. Yau and David Prochaska. Yau is a principal at 23five, the sponsoring non-profit organization.

Both of these two initial nights took place at the SomArts gallery and performance space. The second, on February 7, started with a solo set by Joe Colley, who recently moved to San Francisco from Sacramento. At a time when laptops and digital synthesis command much of the attention in electronic music, Colley tends to work with common stereo equipment, spare parts and raw feedback. He has recorded under the name Povertech, which aptly describes his barebones system, and the evening’s music exemplified his visceral, hands-on approach.

Once the pre-concert music had faded, Colley emerged from backstage and sat himself on a folding chair, the dimmed stage lights exaggerating his long, angular build. He then stood and approached his simple set up, a stack of components on a wheeled cart, from which wires and cords extended. Over the course of half an hour he built a wall of feedback, with static clicks amid rich noise. He tapped a wire into an exposed, oversized speaker cone. As the feedback thickened, Colley took to rocking back and forth, like a pinball wizard, and the music seemed to move with him, matching his nervous energy. He ended the piece by literally pulling the plug. Off went the music, and out went the light that illuminated his equipment. He was economical to the end.

Colley exited stage left and another man entered. Replacing the lanky, casually dressed Colley was Trevor Paglen, an Oakland-based artist, wearing coat and tie. His piece, titled “Listening to Pelican Bay,” used the tools of a corporate presentation to deliver its message. The piece was as much a performance as it was a sound event, taking as its subject the practical concerns of California’s controversial Pelican Bay prison (a notorious location even by the standards of the state’s troubled prison network) as well as the more theoretical issues of privacy and silence.

Directing video sequences from a Windows laptop, and speaking occasionally in a near-monotone, Paglen presented his work as a kind of agit-PowerPoint. He has described it as an “experimental lecture,” and spoke eloquently about silence and its various manifestations, like Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish distilled to an infomercial. Video segments showed the driver’s-eye-view of a trip north from the Bay Area by car, eventually leading to the gates of Pelican Bay. By showing the tape in fast forward, a kind of low-budget Koyaanisqatsi, Paglen highlighted visual patterns, in particular the winnowing car traffic, which narrowed from multi-lane highway to empty country road. He was emphasizing the sense of isolation at the prison, whose own solitary confinement cells are the subject of complaints from human-rights activists. In another sequence, pictures of slaves, graphs of crime statistics, photos of celebrity suspects, like OJ Simpson, and of nameless terrorists urged the audience to extrapolate a general image from the prison’s specifics: America as police state.

Paglen showed a video of a himself attaching hidden microphones to his torso, then played audio in which he solicited surveillance advice on a phone conversation. Occasionally he interrupted his presentation to play stark sounds that, the audience might surmise, were recorded on the sly at the prison. A broader inference was implicit. Silence is the foundation of much electronic music, bringing with it such associations as meditation, peace, and the white walls of gallery space. Paglen however focused on the mind-numbing despair of loneliness, in particular the reality of solitary confinement. He also drew a connection between the affordable technology that has spurred the electronic-music community, and the price we pay for our own security by not questioning the surveillance equipment all around us.

Paglen’s presentation was followed not by another solo performer, but by a trio of sound-making robots designed by Matt Heckert. One pair of machines consisted of short wooden bleachers, maybe 10 feet long, painted in bright, highway-worker orange. Draped along each of a bleacher’s three horizontal planks was a single long chain. When activated, those chains, either in unison or in ear-damaging cacophony, pounded out a simple rhythm, like percussive chamber music performed by Survival Research Labs (of which Heckert is one of the founders). Toward the end of the performance, they pounded so heavily as to fill the space above them with woodchips and dust.

A third machine, center stage, was feminine to the bleachers’ masculine, a hemispherical metal cauldron that rotated. It emitted a more downtempo sound, abetted by a loose chain that dangled from the top of its head. (Attendees who had witnessed the same robot’s performance the previous night reported that this headdress was a new addition.) This third machine moved sensually, like Jabba the Hut’s idea of a Sony Aibo. At times the trio sounded like minimal house music from the Chain Reaction label. At others, perhaps thanks to lingering images from Paglen’s presentation, not to mention of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, the chains sounded like the rhythms of slave music.

Generally speaking, these first three performances of the evening’s five would have been nowhere near as interesting as audio recordings. Colley’s nervous energy and opaque technique, Paglen’s deadly serious demeanor, and Heckert’s wondrous inventions all made for great theater, as well as interesting sound-work.

The second half of the night consisted of two separate duos, and were more like traditional concerts. Solid Eye, from Los Angeles, performed for close to half an hour. The two men produced what amounted to three sound elements, heard in varying combinations: background electronic atmospheres, snippets of prerecorded music and semi-intelligible spoken word, and member Rick Potts’ guitar, which he used for its textural properties, and the neck of which he bent like a piece of fresh licorice.

The final act of the night teamed hometown favorite Thomas Dimuzio with Michael Thomas Jackson, visiting from North Carolina. Dimuzio’s nook of electronics resembled some prog-rock keyboardist’s touring setup, and contrasted with Jackson’s eccentric collection of tools: a clarinet mouthpiece, an AM/FM radio, a tape recorder, an electric razor, a mixer and a kalimba, an African thumb piano, to which he had added a handful of springs. Their half-hour set was delicate, and if it benefited from an attentive audience, it also suffered from occurring at the end of a long and occasionally demanding night. When Colley first appeared, three hours earlier, the crowd was standing-room only. By the time Dimuzio and Jackson started to play, a good quarter of the seats were empty. The lessons to sound art curators were clear: work with an active visual component is compelling; however, one can have too much of a good thing.

The previous night had featured work by Canadian Jean-Francois Laporte and East Bay residents John Bischoff and Kenneth Atchley, in addition to Heckert’s machines. The remaining events in this year’s Activating the Medium festival include a February 20 performances at Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo, by Solid Eye and Dimuzio, with works by Aaron Ximm (aka Quiet American); an exhibit from February 6 – 29 of work by Ted Apel at the Cuesta College Fine Arts Gallery; and a March 4 lecture by Heckert at UC Santa Cruz.

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