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Near Silent MP3s

Few netlabels free themselves from the vestiges of traditional commercial recordings as thoroughly as does Term, an ongoing project of 12k, a boutique record company run by musician Taylor Deupree. Netlabels by definition traffic in free downloads. Yet many netlabels offer “cover” art despite the fact that there is no physical object to wrap, as well as detailed liner notes even though there is no lining on which to print explanatory text, not to mention a cumbersome array of additional files that can sometimes make a free EP download feel like a box set. To the contrary, Term, located at 12k.com/term, simply posts its free MP3 files, in chronological order, against a blank white space, with a small amount of information. And, yes, it’s all set in lowercase type.

This presentation is fitting not only with the modus operandi of netlabels in general — that is, to post music online for free — but with Term’s sonic realm in particular. Term houses microsound recordings, music of a fragility that would have been almost unrealizable prior to the rise of digital phonography. Not unimaginable, mind you, simply impractical, because Term typically celebrates sounds that we learn from birth to ignore, sounds buried by, if not inherent in, the surface noise of pre-digital recording mediums.

The 11th and most recent entry on Term, posted January 14 and titled “two compositions” (“for c.” and “untitled 10/04/04”), is credited to a musician called Asher. For liner notes, we’re to make do with a short quote from Samuel Beckett, which reads, in part: “it was a night of listening, a night given to the faint soughing and sighing stirring.” And soon thereafter: “the far unchanging noise the earth makes and which other noises cover but not for long.” The quote’s a nice find, a pre-digital premonition of the sort of listening that Term champions, and that Asher’s “two compositions” exemplifies. For historical context, it’s worth noting that the Beckett text is from Molloy, published in 1951, one year before John Cage performed publicly for the first time his famous 4’33”, which cemented Cage’s notion that silence is anything by silent. (Beckett, for point of reference, was barely a half decade Cage’s senior.)

Something was in the air in the early 1950s, and it’s in the air now. There’s a growing catalog of near-silent sound art today that has the consistency of vapor and the texture of grime. Asher‘s two Term pieces are good examples of this music, so quiet, so attenuated — so quiet, you can miss them if you do not pay attention; so attenuated that the more you listen to them, you’d swear you can hear them falling apart. Each crackles on for over ten minutes, never breaking stride, moving back and forth between small grinds that sound like machines and gurgles that seem almost lifelike. They’re as casual as a stroll, albeit one witnessed at a microscopic level.

I don’t mean to do Asher’s “two compositions” a disservice by spending so much time talking about the website on which they appear, and the text that serves as their introduction, and the historical context they invoke, and the movement they participate in, but it is a Cageian given that silence in music exists to frame, to let through, the sounds we might otherwise ignore. In a broader sense, Term’s mission is the backdrop that Asher’s music illuminates.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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