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Monthly Archives: April 2010

Oval: After ‘So’ Comes ‘Oh’

Anticipation for the upcoming album by Oval, titled Oh, may be even higher among electronic-music fans and observers than was that for the recent Autechre full-length. Autechre’s Overteps followed Quaristice, its previous album, by a mere two years. Oh by Oval (aka Markus Popp) ends something along the lines of a decade-long break from commercial recording, since he put out Ovalprocess (2000) and Ovalcommers (2001) in quick succession. (In 2003 Popp and vocalist Eriko Toyada collaborated under the name So on the album So.)

Oh is due out on June 15. In the meanwhile, above is an image of the album’s cover, which appears to feature a detail of the work “from here to ear” (2007) by French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, in which birds serve as nature’s own resonators as they sit atop an electric guitar. The work serves as something of a pastoral response to Christian Marclay’s famous “Guitar Drag” (in which an amplified guitar is pulled from behind a pick-up truck).

Review copies of Oval’s Oh are now circulating, and I’m reserving judgment until I have had enough time to really take in its 15 varied tracks. As with the recent Autechre album, Oval’s Oh signals a significant shift — in both cases to something more melodic, less fractured, than listeners might expect. While Autechre on Quaristice employed recognizable synthesizer sounds (in contrast with rougher tonalities of the past), Oval’s Oh often sounds like broken segments of raw recordings of a post-rock band in rehearsal. And whereas Oversteps was, to me, a serious disappointment, Oh so far is anything but.

More details on Oh, including full track listing, at the website of its releasing label,

My 1997 interview with Popp/Oval (which I was pleased to see referenced in the recent MIT Press book Cracked Media by Caleb Kelly) at

And my brief review of So, which I listed as one of the top albums of 2003, at

And speaking of Boursier-Mougenot, here is a video segment of his entrancing work “from here to ear”:

PS: An update (as of April 27). A representative at the Thrill Jockey record label provided a little more information on the album cover, and on Boursier-Mougenot’s relationship to the Oh album: “Céleste didn’t have anything to do with the music but he did provide permission to use the image as our artwork almost immediately.”

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A Copyleft Rorschach Test

Looking back at the editorial illustration that accompanied Megan McArdle‘s article (“The Freeloaders,” in the May Atlantic) about how “a generation of file-sharers is ruining the future of entertainment,” it occurs to me that the picture, by the very talented Jeremy Traum, serves as a kind of Rorschach test for the reader:

Does it look beautiful to you, or does it alarm you?

Do you want to hear what this music sounds like, or does it immediately telegraph the degradation of composition?

Perhaps not surprisingly, I thought it looked beautiful when I first saw it, and I still do. Of course, car crashes can be beautiful, assuming you’re not in them, so I should add that it’s also something that I’d want to hear — it resembles some dream collaboration between illustrator Istvan Banyai and composer/sound-artist Stephen Vitiello.

Full article at My concerns with McArdle’s thesis at

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Music for/from Buddha Machine (iPhone Edition) MP3

Familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it does breed familiarity. Those ambiguous, free-associative, light-noise sounds that the Buddha Machine emits were, for some time, exemplary background music. The soft loops of esoteric audio were just odd enough to be interesting, and just generic enough to not be distracting. But in time, as the machines proliferated — a sound-art object that’s become a cottage industry — the sounds themselves have become as familiar as commercial jingles. That isn’t anyone’s fault. When the duo FM3 first thought of creating the Buddha Machine, they had no reason to foresee that their small plastic box that endlessly (well, until the batteries dies) plays short bits of ambient sound would attract the sort of attention it has — praised by Brian Eno, the subject of major media coverage, followed up with a sequel.

Probably the sole development that wasn’t a surprise, pleasant or otherwise, was that other musicians would use the Buddha Machine as a tool of self-expression. Among the latest is Paul Bailey, whose recent Music for Controllers album includes several tracks featuring the Buddha Machine (in this case, the Buddha Machine app for the iPhone and iPod Touch). The opening tones on the album’s opening track are familiar, their patient looping like waves brushing up against the shore, albeit in slow motion (MP3). But that’s just the start. Then comes a pitter-patter like some children’s wind-up toy acting up, and a tentative bit of melody that slowly, ever so slowly, over the course of nine minutes, finds a common sensibility with the looping tones, and insinuates its own drone-like hymn. In the process, Bailey manages to do what many Buddha Machine adopters have not, which is to once again relegate the machine to the background.

[audio:|titles=”Music for Controllers I”|artists=Paul Bailey]

Get the full set of five tracks at More on Bailey at

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What, After All, Is the “Music Industry”?

What exactly is the “music industry”? In Megan McArdle‘s article “The Freeloaders” in the current (May 2010) issue of The Atlantic (available for free at, it appears to be synonymous with the record industry.

Even if the term’s breadth is expanded to include concert touring, which McArdle does loosely though far from definitively, this is like talking about “the U.S. economy” but only really speaking of the health of Wall Street. It’s an easy, concise shorthand that, inevitably, does little justice to the subject at hand.

McArdle mentions that touring is booming “despite the downturn,” thus framing it as a matter of parallel processes that emit a peculiar whiff of unrelated-ness, rather than allowing for causality: that more widely (if, yes, freely) available recorded music may have expanded the audience for live performances by a wide variety of acts. (She touches on this, noting in a brief list of alternate opinions that recorded music may serve as a “loss leader.”)

As the title of her piece suggests, McArdle sees the decline of record sales as the de facto negative, as the major story, and points her accusatory finger at “freeloaders,” which she defines along generational lines. She directly singles out the generation that followed her (and my) own, Generation X, as the prime participants in filesharing — and for the brunt of the economic blame.

To paraphrase the title of an Elvis Presley record that is no doubt available for free via rapidshare, soulseek, and numerous other services frequented by so-called freeloaders: 50-million-plus casual downloaders can’t necessarily be held individually responsible for their actions. Rather than blame this generation, why don’t we look at the culture they grew up in, and why don’t we do so objectively — not to divine the poisoned roots of supposedly miscreant behavior, but to sort out how the notion of their dissociation of “value” and “commerce” from “content” and “entertainment” came into being. (And that’s allowing for this even to be cast in generational terms — were older generations more inherently technologically adept, would their actions be any different? Are they any different?)

McArdle notes that the cost of tickets has risen along the lines of inflation. What she doesn’t note is that unlike this generation, ours was not saddled in early adulthood with the cost of cellphones and cellphone plans, computers (then only beginning to come into general use) and Internet access, video games and console systems, software subscriptions, and arguably even cable access. We had the Sony Walkman, certainly, but we didn’t swap it out with the frequency of iPod upgrades, nor were we enticed to purchase apps for them: built-in obsolescence was a generation away. This generation’s wallet has far more suitors than did ours at their age, adjusting for inflation or not. That reality, that experience, makes her depiction of them as “Generation Free” all the more mistaken.

Which isn’t to excuse theft. It’s just to point out that money not spent on recorded music is being spent elsewhere on music, and on culture — often on the hardware increasingly required to consume it. (There are days when, using my iPod Touch, I wonder if the only reason I upgraded from the “classic” iPod was to “keep up” with what’s going on with apps, rather than to actually enjoy using them.) The more money is spent on hardware (and hardware-exclusive software, such as smartphone apps and DVR video), I wonder if that doesn’t in some way reinforce the low estimation of a dollar value for free-floating virtual goods.

The Atlantic article uses numbers and market research to provide a foundation of objective distance, but then limits the scope either through rhetorical contrivance, or general shortsightedness. Just as touring’s boom occurs “despite” the decline in record sales, McArdle mentions how Radiohead fans averaged “just” six dollars for its In Rainbows album, the record the band made available in a pay-what-you-like “scheme” (her word). Would Radiohead have made “just” six dollars a pop had the record been sold solely through the traditional record-industry channels? McArdle, concerned about the devaluation of music, bases the “value” of an album not on what the artist makes in profit, but on what the audience is willing to pay. Perhaps that perception is at the root of the problem.

Vinyl LP or MP3, McArdle sees music as something sold as a fixed cultural object. Little context is given in the article for music licensing as a revenue stream. No consideration is given to sales of music gear, including instruments and software, nor to the growing realm of music-related experience in which the role between audience and performer is blurred through interactivity. Despite which absence from the article, that is all part of the music industry.

Is it inevitable in an article on the business of art, popular or otherwise, that the motivating factor must be presumed to be financial profit? Do musicians need to aspire to stadium seating in order to have fire in their hearts. McArdle seems to believe so, writing, “What happens to the supply of willing musicians when the prize is an endless slog through medium-size concerts at $25 a head?” She claims that the music industry has “always worked on a tournament model: a lot of starving artists hoping to be among the few who make it big.” Which sounds a lot like she’s OK with musicians starving, so long as a few make their millions. In the end, I ask, define “always.”

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Music for/from Birdfeeders

If the lovely square-format Polaroids featured last Sunday as this site’s “Images of the Week” ( resembled album covers, then this entry should be no surprise. Those images were the work of the active, crafty artist and musician Marc Fischer, who has now shared the sounds of the elegant, vaguely retro birdfeeder-cum-microphone featured in one of the photos. That particular shot now serves as the “cover” for this “release.” This Polaroid looks slightly different than the version posted Sunday — still hazy like a memory, the colors washed out to artful effect, but this time around the birdfeeder is all the more the focus of the picture, thanks to a green highlighted section.

Writes Fischer of the recording:

as promised, here is a sound sample of something that i started working on using recordings that i have collected from the ceramic bird feeder that we have hanging from our front porch. you can really hear the bird’s beaks tapping and pushing the bird seed around inside the feeder. i had set my digital recorder to automatically begin recording when the contact mic picked something up. after two days i had about a hundred samples ranging from 5 to 25 seconds. i have only gone through about thirty of them at this point.

The track provided here (MP3) uses, according to Fischer, 12 of the brief recordings. They’re gathered together above a light, lush electronic bed of sound, like found pebbles wrapped in a piece of velvet. Slight digital effects mix in small, bright sounds that are the aural equivalent of the sun glinting on a camera’s lens.

[audio:|titles=”100420 (birdseed-birdfeeder-birds)”|artists=Marc Fischer]

More on the birdfeeder music in the original post at If you live in or near Portland, you might be interested in a workshop that Fischer will be running on the kinds of contact microphones he employed in this project. Details in that same post.

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