Quote of the Week: Playing House

“You ever tighten a guitar string really really slowly, past the point it can handle the strain? It makes this weird sound, almost like a scream.”

That’s Robert Sean Leonard‘s Dr. James Wilson, in the TV series House, addressing Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House, whose electric guitar he has taken hostage — from the episode “Alone,” which aired September 25, 2007.

Royal Trans’s Buddha Machine MP3 Album

The Buddha Machine is a collection of loops that keeps on giving. The original device, a cheap little plastic box available in a variety of colors, was developed by the China-based duo FM3. It contains nine short loops of sound that are rendered with lo-fi grit thanks to the machine’s thrift-minded construction. Since its release, the Buddha has become something of a sleeper hit, reportedly selling more than 50,000 copies by this past summer.

It’s also served as an inspiration for numerous musicians. Minimal techno artist Robert Henke (aka Monolake) has recorded a full album of remixes of the Buddha Machine loops, Layering Buddha. Another album, Jukebox Buddha, contains mixes by Henke, dub figure Adrian Sherwood, sludge metal band sunnO))) and others. The Iowa-based musician Mark Rushton has performed with his laptop and the Buddha Machine, and released the music for free download. And FM3 themselves have been touring the world, using the machines in a variety of performance settings.

Now comes Royal Trans and the nine-track In an Expression of Form: The FM3 Experiments album, available for free download from the Internet Archive (aka archive.org). There isn’t much information on the release at that page, but the Royal Trans myspace.com page includes this explanation: “we recorded in different environments including our home studio, the kitchen, by the lake, in abandoned buildings, outside, alongside crazy people… etc you get the picture.”

Oh, and they used “the pink one.”

The tracks range in length from range from a minute and a half to five and a half. In each, the short loops trace the contours of whatever space they fill, mixing with crickets in the back of “Black Mother Teeth” (MP3), echoing beautifully in “Ceramic Disposure” (MP3) and at times taking on the breathy quality of a flute improvisation (R. Carlos Nakai comes to mind) on “Familiar Capsules” (MP3). The resulting pieces are elegant, yes, but there’s a richness to them that benefits from listening on speakers rather than headphones — and at a room-filling volume. (Thanks to Larry Johnson for the tip.)

Michael Jarrett’s Thoreau Listening MP3

Walden Pond is the Galapagos Islands for English majors. The transcendental musings of Henry David Thoreau are rooted in his experience there, and those writings made him something along the lines of America’s version of William Wordsworth, both of them having limned the place where not town and country so much as human and nature meet, overlap, do battle, make peace, conspire.

The pond stands as a place to witness where Thoreau conceived of the American experience in terms that continue to resonate, in matters practical (in terms of ecology), political and poetic. We visit Walden to stand where location informed one of the country’s great philosophers, where Walden became Walden. Philosophy is heady stuff, and place helps to make it visceral — even if falsely so.

What I didn’t recall until I read the essay “Walden + Railroad + Sound” by Penn State York professor Michael Jarrett is that a railroad (the Fitchburg) ran “right beside the bank of Walden Pond.” In the essay, Jarrett quotes Thoreau scholar Robert D. Richardson, Jr., to the effect that Walden “was anything but peaceful. … One could see the new railroad from almost any point on the pond.” I haven’t read Thoreau’s Walden since shortly after college, when a friend’s fascination with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance sent me back to the work of Emerson’s peers — and in my imagination, it’s the pond itself that is the focus of Walden. But of course, the rail is repeatedly mentioned in Walden. Thoreau informs us: “The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell.” It’s just nostalgia and a hazy memory that turn Walden (and, thus, Walden) into some sort of idyll.

Railroads have long been a source of fascination for Jarrett, and in this essay he dives deep into how Thoreau’s wrestling with the rail’s presence has meaning for us today, as we wrestle with a new imposition of the man-made upon our senses, in the form of lives increasingly mediated by digital media; the essays traces the line between literacy and post-literacy. Jarrett’s also much more appreciative of rails than was Thoreau, who wrote in Walden: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”

Jarret doesn’t just ride the railroad; he kicks back and listens to it. At the very end of the essay, he quotes a member of Kraftwerk: “As soon as you travel in a train, you’re in a musical instrument.” That’s a perspective he took to heart. Using the sonorousness of the train as a starting point, he created a mixtape to complement the essay. The hour-long track (yeah, double meaning understood) combines the subdued groove of a song by the Austrian jazz trio the Necks and a field recording of a rail journey (MP3). Jarrett writes of the audio experiment:

Elemental stuff, my remix–a mash-up really–relies heavily on a field recording I made, while in British Columbia, riding Vancouver’s SkyTrain. I hear the loud hum (or, maybe, it’s a pleasant roar) of “the world’s longest automated light rapid transit system”as a giant Buddha Machine.
The mix has many elements: the Necks’ slow burn of a rhythm, the lulling rattle of the rail, the mechanical action of the train stopping and starting. If any single element can be said to stand out, to jar, it’s the human voice. A woman is heard, but in a series of passenger instructions that feel no less automated than does the train. Men, however, are heard on several occasions ranting at an uncomfortable proximity. In the audioscape that Jarrett has yoked together, rail, automation and song are one; it’s humans who interrupt. What would Thoreau make of that?

Jarrett’s train tune, 60 minutes long, is built on a Necks track called Drive By, which was released in 2004 as a single-song album. No doubt he was attracted to the Necks piece for that extended playing time; for its opening synthesized tones, which resemble the pings of public-transportation turnstiles; for the hypnotic nature of its steady pace; and for the Necks’ own employment of field recordings. Heard during the original are what sound like waves, crowd noise and insects (the latter being another form of crowd noise, I suppose).

The full essay, in draft PDF stage, is available, fittingly, at emerson.edu. Oh, and I can’t take credit for the “Thoreau Listening” pun — that was the subject line of an email Jarrett sent to me. Visit his home page at yk.psu.edu/~jmj3. Check out the Necks at thenecks.com. And (re)read Walden at Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org) or in annotated hypertext form at thoreau.eserver.org. Back in December 2005, Jarrett participated in the Disquiet.com online discussion “After ‘Thursday Afternoon,'” in which he, science fiction writer Richard Kadrey and musician Robert Henke (aka Monolake) compared notes on the great Brian Eno record, another album that consists of a single track.

Carl Stone Field Recording MP3

Composer Carl Stone has been writing a column — that is, he’s been blogging — for the newmusicbox.org website since August of this year. He’s posted on such topics as the use of a turntable in advertising, the end of the Osaka Festival Beyond Innocence, the sound art of Yukio Fujimoto, Curtis Patterson’s score for a film about Frank Lloyd Wright’s relationship with Japan, the composer and radio producer Ted Szántó, and hearing text as sound.

The attraction of this online residency is not just his experience as a musician, but the fact that Stone spends much of his year in Japan, where he teaches electronic music. He writes of his expatriate experience, “For me, the urban soundscape of Tokyo is the largest payoff I get by living in an already great city.

In a September 20 post he captured the Japanese festival Asagaya Matsuri not only in photos and writing —

… Others join the din with whistles and wooden clappers. An ensemble of drums and flute play while perched atop an elevated scaffold in front of the train station. Add the occasional sound of an ambulance along with the normal sounds of traffic—incredibly they don’t close the roads but let the paraders mix in with the cars—and you get a wonderful sound stew which I offer up herewith for your enjoyment.
— but in a four-minute audio field recording that is all ritual chanting and whistling, all whirling momentum (MP3). “I travel everywhere around town,” he writes, “with my trusty pocket recorder tucked away, well, in my pocket, ready to grab whatever interesting sonic environments I happen to stumble in to.” Read the full post at newmusicbox.org.

Clovis Heald’s Slacker Exotica MP3s

What to make of the surface noise that’s fairly high in the mix on the languorous song “Conceptual Crush”? The song appears on Clovis Heald‘s Wading for Motorcycles, which is being released as a tape cassette (you read that correctly) by Moore & Moore (moore.perris-beauchamp.com). The run is limited to 100, but lest the idea of a limited edition strike you as anathema to everything that’s good about music these days, Heald has posted six of the album’s 11 tracks for free download.

At their best, as on the album’s “A Very Small Bedroom,” a gently looping instrumental, the Wading songs summon up the modest, mundane pleasures of a Kid Koala or a Tommy Guerrero (MP3). Likewise “Cardigan Lonely,” with its sedate, Rhodes piano basis and the light chimes and cardboard-box drum beat that tag along (MP3). As for “Crush,” on which Heald sings, that surface noise may be a sample of raw turntable static, or it may be part and parcel the slacker exotica that infuses the track with the feel of a hungover Sunday afternoon that lasts all summer. Either way, it’s seductive.

He’s joined on “Calling in Sick,” which has the waxen guitar of a Brian Eno pop tune, by drummer Josiah Wolf (of the band Why?), who contributes what sound like the martial drums of a deeply dispirited army (MP3). Also guesting are the Bomarr Monk and Odd Nosdam, on “Our Song,” which is so tremulous it feels like it might dissolve if listened to too often (MP3); so much for strength in numbers.

Please keep in mind that one of the odd tenets, the odd results, of so-called slo-core, to whose ranks Heald’s album is an exemplary addition, is that terms of seeming derision are in fact high praise. Everything that is wan and slight and decrepit and worn out about Clovis Heald’s Wading for Motorcycles is what makes it wonderful. Get the full set of downloads at the apt URL druggedconscience.com/clovisheald.

I remember the most recent cassette tape I bought, which was back in 2004 or 2005: Japanese avant-hop figure Turntabrush’s Direction of Rainbow. And I got it on cassette because it was only available as a tape, the tape being part of a “trilogy” of related releases, the others being on CD (View of Rainbow) and 12″ vinyl (Rainbow EP). I bought a few cassette singles (aka “cassingles” — talk about memory lane) and DJ mixtapes in the decade prior, but the next previous cassette I can clearly remember buying was a Kinks compilation. I bought it way after dark at a truckstop in the desolate southwest in the spring of 1995. Just minutes thereafter, a police officer pulled us over for speeding (Tucson beckoned) and asked if we had anything illegal. I told him I’d just bought a tape a few miles back and that it appeared to be a bootleg Spanish pressing of a classic “British Invasion” rock band. He said, “Heck, if that was illegal they’d have hauled me and my computer away long ago.”

Sorry for the tangential reminiscence, but that’s the state of mind that Heald’s Wading for Motorcycles produces.