Happy New Year / Looking at Fireworks

This is what fireworks look like when they go off:

But this is also what fireworks look like when they go off:

The difference is that this second set of images is all visualizations of the sound of fireworks, not photos of the fireworks in the visual spectrum. And nonetheless, they are spectacular, these controlled explosions. Here’s what they sound like, clockwise from upper left:

[audio:http://media.freesound.org/data/110/previews/110391__soundscalpel.com__firework_explosion_fizz_preview.mp3|titles=”Fireworks”|artists=soundscalpel.com] [audio:http://media.freesound.org/data/109/previews/109753__SoundCollectah__tre_hit_long_preview.mp3|titles=”Fireworks”|artists=Soundcollectah] [audio:http://media.freesound.org/data/109/previews/109749__SoundCollectah__multi_hits_distant_orchestra_preview.mp3|titles=”Fireworks”|artists=Soundcollectah] [audio:http://media.freesound.org/data/99/previews/99200__dobroide__20100612.fireworks_preview.mp3 |titles=”Fireworks”|artists=dobroide]

They’re by soundscalpel.com (freesound.org), SoundCollectah (freesound.org), SoundCollectah (again: freesound.org), and dobroide (freesound.org). Happy new year.

(Top photo by photobunny, aka Earl, from flickr.com, used per Creative Commons license. Technically, those are Labor Day fireworks, not New Year fireworks.)

PS: Another fireworks-related entry from earlier this year, documenting the relaxation of a fireworks ban in China: “Chinese Red Glare & Blare.”

Best of 2010: 10 Best Netlabel/Free/CC Releases

There seemed to be more music than ever this past year — commercial and free alike. In order to make a list of best free music, it’s helpful to narrow the field a little. Not everything below is from a netlabel, but the netlabel spirit infuses it — that is to say, this is all music intended by the musicians for free distribution. Much of it is associated with the Creative Commons and all is selected from this site’s Downstream department during 2010.

Listen Up: The Estonian hangar in which Thomas Ankersmit recorded his live performance

To constrain the field, to make it knowable, this list is limited to recordings that are “of the web.”The following were not considered for inclusion: individual promotional tracks (and excerpts) posted from existing or forthcoming commercial albums (special “mixes”were considered for inclusion, as were situations in which entire commercial albums were made available for free download, as in “choose your price” scenarios in which zero is an accepted amount), downloads that were placed online for a stated limited period of time, audio that is streaming-only, and dated archival material (work that would be considered a “reissue” in the commercial world, such as the majority of what is housed at ubu.com). Also not considered for inclusion were tracks whose links have subsequently gone offline. (An intelligent case has been made that there is no such thing as “streaming” — that all audio is downloaded, in that it is at some point resident on your computer. However, for the purposes of this list, the focus is music that is fully intended to be downloaded.)

All of which is to say, everything on this list is of recent vintage and is available to download, for free, right now.

These 10 are listed here in the reverse chronological order in which they appeared on Disquiet.com. Given the fluid nature of publication, attribution, and collation on the Internet, I cannot be certain that these audio files first appeared online in 2010, but many if not all of them did. And if some of them are older than that, at least this mention might gain them a new audience. Click through to each original Downstream entry for more information, and to the release’s source to get the tracks.

1. Site-Specific Estonian Deep Listening: Based on a recent recording by Berlin/Amsterdam-based saxophonist Thomas Ankersmit, he can be added to the list of Deep Listening devotees. Earlier this year in the Estoian city of Tallinn, he filled a reverberant, abandoned seaplane hangar with echo upon echo of his solo horn. The performance was captured (not just as audio, but in the color photos) by John Grzinich on May 29 of this year. Downstream: October 8, 2010.

2. Halls of Silence: John Kannenberg visited 11 of the world’s best-known museums, and all we got was 11 blank tapes. Well, not really — what we get is recordings of silence, each 4’33” in length. That’s silence with an implied capital S, silence as in John Cage’s framing of unacknowledged sound, the background noise of real life. Each track — from the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing to the Van Gogh Museum in the Amsterdam — contains 4’33” of uninterrupted, unedited semi-silence (“unmanipulated phonography,” as the liner note puts it). And with a sly nod, the collection ends at that bastion of popular noise, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Downstream: October 1, 2010.

3. Where Drone and Orchestration Meet: Saiph‘s Diffusion limns that space where electronic drone and classical orchestration meet. There is no doubt, in “Einsames Element,” that those are, indeed, tremulous strings amid the woodsy percussion, even if the strings are playing a role more likely to be handed to a synthesizer these days. And even on repeat listen, the knowledge of those traditional, symphonic materials doesn’t make it any more clear what, exactly, is the source of the light gusher of white noise, the fizzy wonder with which begins “Der Letzte Mensch.” Saiph’s melding of these elements puts guesswork aside, in favor of a contemplation of the inherent narrative, as when after-dark ambience, brush fire, footsteps, and horror-show voices collide late in “Mensch” for a truly filmic enterprise. Downstream: August 12, 2010

4. A Netlabel Retrospective: The variety on Elisa Luu‘s recent release, The Time of Waiting, from the netlabel known playfully as La Bèl, is enough to suggest less an album than a reel — less a collection of interrelated music than a set whose lack of self-evident correlation serves the primary purpose of expressing the wide range of which Luu is capable. And to that end, it more than succeeds. There are playful beats, distorted as if through a watery mirror. There is quasi-orchestral extravagance, shot through with a theremin-like lead. But if one track must be selected, the keeper is the set’s opener, “r735,” which has four distinct elements that balance each other perfectly. Downstream: July 19, 2010

5. A Solar Salute: There are 25 tracks on the compilation One Minute for the Sun, each 60 seconds in length, and each paying tribute, in one manner or another, to that great blinding fireball in the sky. Sublamp, a woozy, deep drone, offers thick bass-heavy undercurrents, while Koutaro Fukui’s track, which directly precedes it, is a watery burble, like a dozen frogs gargling before bedtime. A lot of the tracks traffic in a certain gauzy ambience, but the best of them disrupt it, like so many rays piercing a cloud. Downstream: July 15, 2010

6. When Ennio Met Primo: Texas-based lawyer-cum-beatmaker (and, more recently, San Antonio City Council candidate) Diego Bernal returned with Besides …, nearly a dozen tracks of downtempo, hip-hop-infused, crate-digging goodness. Lightly strummed guitar at the opening of “A Long Second” suggests some regional flavor, as flanging light noise and a raspy drum kit kick in, followed by wisps of r&b horns that sound more like memories than like samples. “Blue Neon,” a particular favorite, makes the most of a back beat, a hi-hat, a vocal call-out, and some sour organ playing. The music is the like some secret side-project team-up between Ennio Morricone and DJ Premiere, mixing atmospheric melodrama and rough beats. Downstream: April 8, 2010

7. Electronic Free Improvisation: If only there were a thin line between electronic music and European free improvisation. Instead, there’s more of thick, broad line — a gulf at times, really — between digitally processed music and the rich culture of abstract ensemble play. It’s a gulf occasionally, and increasingly, bridged by individuals like Ikue Mori and bands like Diatribes. The latter, consisting of d’incise (laptop & treatments, objects, percussions) and Cyril Bondi (drums, percussions), recently teamed up with the trio HKM+ (Ludger Hennig: laptop & software instruments; Christof Knoche: bass clarinet, live electronics; and Markus Markowski: prepared guitar, laptop & software instruments) and three other musicians: Piero SK (saxophones, metal clarinet), Robert Rehnig (laptop & software instruments), and Johannes Sienknecht (laptop & software instruments). The result is spectacular. Downstream: April 5, 2010

8. A Jazz/Hip-Hop Rematch: The feedback loop between jazz and hip-hop takes another enticing spin in the work of the Chicago quartet Spinach Prince. As heard on its recent self-titled album, the group has come up with a highly potent recipe that mixes jazz touches (trap-set rhythms, meandering woodwinds, instrumental soloing) and the basic building blocks of old-school beat-making (samples of found vocals, emphasis on texture, tight metric loops). Downstream: March 22, 2010

9. The Dark Side of Fusion: The murky and atmospheric noise-jazz of Leandro Ramirez‘s album jaja sh represents the dark side of fusion. His loosely strung instruments play rough, sour chords and single-note riffs in a manner that traces its mode back to that of Ornette Coleman, the great jazz saxophonist. Even though there’s no saxophone heard here, there’s something in the way Ramirez’s melodies seem to move backwards, as if feeling their way up a creaky staircase, that brings to mind Coleman’s more outward-bound experimentation. Downstream: January 27, 2010

10. Every Photograph Has Multiple Soundtracks, Don’t It: As part of a new experimental series (titled simply Synaesthesia — i.e., the confusion of senses) at his musicofsound.co.nz site, Tim Prebble asks his readers to compose works that are suggested by a given image. Three audio segments were uploaded when I first wrote about the music inspired by a photograph shot at Tanah Lot in Bali. Martin’s is a dirgey drone supplemented by echoed vocals and a slow, noisey rhythm. The track by üav works in bell tones and kettle-style drums and otherworldly halos of sound. And a piece by ccu is more fragile and closely mic’d than the other two, a mix of taut ringing sounds (perhaps from a kalimna) and rough surface texture.

Play Bali: The photo that Tim Prebble challenged musicians to provide a score to

All three, especially when heard with Prebble’s photograph in mind, suggest rituals at dawn or dusk. A fourth track was added after I first wrote about the series. This year-end acknowledgment is as much for Prebble’s assignment-based project overall as it is for this particular episode thereof (it dates from very late 2009). The series is currently up to its ninth edition. Downstream: January 7, 2010

And three others:

¶ WHY?Arcka‘s 26-track Exhibits A-Z compilation of experimental break beats was still a work in progress when I listed it, last year, as one of 2009’s best. This year, he completed it: arckatron.bandcamp.com.

¶ This easily ranks as one of my favorite releases of the year, but since I was directly associated with it even if entirely uninvolved in its creation, I took it out of the running for the ten best: Soothing Sounds for Baby: luvsound.org.

¶ Every year there is at least one track that I listen to repeatedly yet never manage to write about. I will at some point sum up what is great, in my estimation, about “Homage to Jack Vanarsky,” a duet for viola and motorized gadget on the album Solo Viola d’Amore by Garth Knox (volume 5 at shskh.com), but until then, just go give it a listen.

Bloomsong: A Bloom Song (MP3)

A subject of some regularity of late has been not so much whether apps are instruments, as what it means, from an authorship standpoint and a copyright standpoint, that apps are used as instruments.

The discussion coalesced in the comments section to a post at the start of December (“A Bloom Is a Bloom Is a Bloom”). The post took as its subject a recording based on Bloom, the iOS app developed by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers. During the discussion, one of the participants, named Travis Nobles, mentioned a piece of music he used Bloom in, and that became the subject of a post a few days subsequently (“Bloom + Birdsong”).

Alec Vance, of the New Orleans electronic group Chef Menteur, has produced music he’d recorded with Bloom. It wasn’t entirely a surprise, since back in September he’d listed Eno/Chilvers’ Bloom (along with Terry Riley’s “In C”) as inspiration for a piece of music he’d recorded; that earlier piece was the subject of a post here titled “Generative Experiment.”

Vance’s Bloom-derived piece (MP3) is quite different than Nobles’ — perhaps more “Apollo” than Thursday Afternoon, to use two Eno recordings as reference points.


I asked Vance to provide some background on how the piece came together. He wrote back as follows:

Background — Mike Mayfield started the Liteworks project as a outlet to explore more minimal ambient music using vintage electronics after working in more uptempo bands like Electrical Spectacle and the Buttons. Since he’d also played with us in various incarnations of Chef Menteur from time to time, he asked me to join him to recreate some of the music in a live setting. (For the actual live show back Jan 2009 we were joined by Mike from Belong and Joey from the Buttons.) Since then the two of us have gotten together very sporadically to work on kosmiche-inspired sounds. A few months back we got together to make ambient music for an Aquarium Blu-ray disc, that I also was contracted to develop the iPhone app for. (I think you’ll really dig that app, by the way, and it should be up any day now…) We were getting together for 2 days last week to record some new pieces Mike had made demos for when you asked about Bloom; I’d played around with it a while back when we were doing Liteworks live rehearsals and it sounded really nice through the Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man (new digital model) that I regretted not trying it again; I’d often thought of using it for a background drone and trying some guitar over it. So I asked Mike if it would be OK if we tried to improvise over a Bloom drone and he said sure! Mike was playing a Casiotone ct-410v and a Roland Juno-60 synth, as well as a Roland CR-78 drum machine (as heard in “I Can’t Go For That”, and “In the Air Tonight”). I was playing an Epiphone Riviera with E-bow through a overdrive, delay and/or looping pedal into a ’68 Fender Deluxe Reverb. I think we had Bloom set to “Freestyle” and let it create the notes, till the end when I added a few as I turned up the delays. I can’t recall which “mood” we had it set to, maybe “Bergamot?”. Plugged in (as above) the EHX SMM2. The unfortunate hiss was coming mostly from the VOX AC-30 that one channel of the synths, including the iPhone playing Bloom, were plugged into. I actually rolled most of it off, but it still sounds terrible!

More information at backporchrevolution.com.

Best of 2010: 8 Best iOS Sound/Music Apps

Following is a list of the eight new iOS apps that this year best exemplified the intersection of sound/music, interactivty, and mobility — that is, of apps designed for the Apple iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. Last year’s list of best iOS apps had 10 entries, but the shorter list this year isn’t intended as any sort of sign of a diminution of creativity in iOS development. Quite the contrary, this year’s list is simply more categorically selective.

There are at least two major branches of iOS sound apps right now: those that emulate (or otherwise augment) instrumentation, such as virtual pianos and turntables (as well as guitar tuners and effects pedals), and those that explore new realms of interactivity.

In its widely reported year-end “Rewind” assessment of “app trends,” Apple labeled these categories, respectively, as “Band in a Hand” and “Generative Art & Sound” (which combines visual and sonic tools). This year-end Disquiet.com list focuses on the latter.

Further winnowing the potential contenders, all the apps listed below were released this year. I thought about including previously existing apps that showed a major upgrade this year, but decided to focus on new apps, in large part because an insignificant number of apps from 2009 in this interactive realm showed any significant improvement in 2010.

The eight best sound/music apps of 2010 are, in alphabetical order:

1. Aura 2: Flux: This ambient-music creation tool nudges toward instrument territory (or, more to the point, compositional territory) but emphasizes the casual playfulness of its own homegrown visual interface (iTunes), one that encourages an exploratory approach. Various moods and sounds can be combined to create systems-fueled compositions based on how elements are organized. Aura’s interface provides a kind of visual programming language made of building blocks (and, like another app listed here, Reactable, is thus reminiscent of the old Logo programming language). More details at the developer’s website, higefive.com.

2. Immersion Station: This seemingly simple app allows you to place a set number of globes on a grid, each globe representing a different sound loop (iTunes). The grid is distorted based on a one-point perspective, which means that the further back a globe is placed (the closer it approaches the horizon), the quieter it is in the mix. The real clincher is an “evolve” mode that takes a given arrangement and slowly shifts it as time progresses. The app was developed by longtime electronic musician Steve Roach and software engineer Eric Freeman. More details at immersionstation.com.

3. Inception: This is a bespoke edition of the RjDj app, developed as a free adjunct to the Inception film (iTunes). It processes the sound around you in real time, transforms it in ways that the developers liken to a dream state. Some of the transformations involve musical cues from the film. The common software-development term for this kind of thing is “reactive,” or “augmented.” An even more appropriate word would be “wonderful.” Additional Disquiet.com coverage: a story I wrote about the app’s release for boingboing.net, a list of the RjDj/Inception developers’ favorite aspects of the apps, and a list of the best movie scores of 2010 (which includes Inception). More details at inceptiontheapp.com.

4. Mixtikl: This app almost doesn’t belong on this list, because there is nothing casual about it (iTunes). It is a highly detailed generative-sound creation tool, one that has far more in common with computer music software than with the playful, intuitive apps listed here. However, even if that does put it strongly in the “instrument” category, the fact is that it has no analog (so to speak) in the realm of traditional musical instruments. It also includes a growing library of in-app sound generators. As a sign of its non-iOS-specificity, there are Mixtikl versions for a growing number of operating systems, including Windows and Mac, at the developer’s website, intermorphic.com.

5. Thicket: This is, at its essence, an interactive single (iTunes). The touch screen lets the user alter in various ways a piece of music — an alternately bouncy and reflective bit of refined techno — and the visuals associated with it. The alterations depend on the number of fingers used, the patterns drawn, the speed at which they are drawn, and the angle at which the device is placed. Additional Disquiet.com coverage: an interview with one of the app’s developers, “Being Decimal: The Anticipatory Pleasures of the Thicket App.” More details at intervalstudios.com.

6. Reactable: This is, like Flux, a node-based ambient-music tool with its own internal structural logic (iTunes). It is the second most complex of these apps (after Mixtikl), but the invested time is rewarded handsomely. Like Aura (mentioned above), its building-block interface and systems-oriented progressions suggest a distant lineage to the Logo programming language. It originated as physical, tabletop interface and was later ported to a software-only tool. More details at reactable.com.

7. Sonic Wire Sculptor: In simplest terms, this iOS app takes line drawings and turns them into sound (iTunes). Create new compositions by carefully delineating a structure, or just input an existing image, like a face, and listen to how it sounds. Then — and this is what really pushes Sonic Wire Sculptor over the top — rotate the line drawing in three-dimensional space to hear geometric variations on the musical theme. More details at sonicwiresculptor.com.

8. SoundyThingie: This one is the sole iPad-only app on the list (the developer has stated that iPhone development is “tricky because iPhones have very weak processor”). It provides a blank slate on which the user draws lines, lines that are subsequently interpreted as sonic instructions (iTunes). Speed, position, and other factors influence the resulting audio. Of all the apps here, this one probably has the most self-evident roots in the tradition, so to speak, of non-traditional graphic scores in avant-garde music. More details at linienmusik.net.

A few additional notes:

¶ These are all iOS apps, which is not intended to dismiss mobile-app development on Android (I own a G1 phone, and when its contract runs out at the start of 2011, I will almost certainly replace it with another Android-based phone), Windows 7, or any other operating system, or browser-based (largely Flash) interactive sound toys. Much of the energy that for over a decade fed the audio-games/sound-toy world in web browsers seems to have migrated to Apple’s operating system, but here’s to hoping that the development world diversifies in 2011.

¶ There are, indeed, other types of sound apps, including streaming audio, like Pandora and Soundcloud; so-called “soundboards,” which collect sounds related to a specific subject, like The Simpsons; and brand fodder, which provide fans with a virtual trinket, the app equivalent of glossy pamphlets purchased from concert concession stands. And judging by sheer number, “farts” could easily be its own subcategory.

¶ I considered including Papa Sangre on the list (iTunes) because it is (reportedly) the first ever audio-only video game. However, much as that sounds like a wonderful melding of Janet Cardiff and Nintendo, there is no sound manipulation within Papa Sangre, so it doesn’t really fit into this list.

And needless to say, if anything prominent is missing, do not hesitate to let me know.

Monograph 51: Early BBC Radiophonic Workshop Pamphlet

It’s been over 50 years since the BBC saw fit to create its own applied laboratory for electronic audio — which at the time meant, to a great extent, the creative use of tape recordings and turntables. That lab was known as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and it existed from 1958 through 1998, during which time it benefited from the efforts of such early electronic music figures as Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, and produced untold hours of sounds and music (the distinction between which was a source of near-constant inter-departmental drama) for BBC radio and television, including, perhaps most famously, the theme song (aka “signature tune”) for Doctor Who.

Sonic Warfare: A gadget created early in the life of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop: “weighs only 12 lb.”

In the process of reviewing a recent book on the Workshop — Special Sound (Oxford), by Louis Niebur — for another publication (that review should be out in January), I was introduced by a friend to an online trove of BBC engineering monographs, some of which include Radiophonic-specific documentation. There’s one in particular, from 1963, that’s entirely about the Radiophonic activities. And it’s the subject of my latest post at boingboing,net, “BBC Engineering Monographs from 1950s and ’60s: Once 5 Shillings, Now Free.”