Despite a name that suggests otherwise, the Grand Canonical Ensemble makes modest linear music that sounds like one person working concertedly at a laptop.
Apparently hailing from Cardiff and Manchester in the UK, it released a three-song, pay-as-you-will EP at the very start of the year, available at grandcanonicalensemble.bandcamp.com (and pay-as-you-will includes paying nothing, which is why this is being listed in the Downstream section, but don’t let that deter you from slipping them a few euros).
Titled Saying Goodbye, it comes highly recommended, and all but the title cut should appeal to regular Disquiet listeners (that the title one being fairly deep in pop territory).
In fact, this post was written right around the same time yesterday’s was (“Offworld-weary”), and shortly after yesterday’s went live, a reader rightly critiqued it for positing a clearcut distinction between music and sound design. Part of what that error in judgement was based on was a rumination on the first track on this record, and what distinguished it as seeming less, for lack of a better rubric, Downstream-y than the other two. It comes down to it putting its melodic content far ahead of its sonic content; it comes across far more like a fun little rendition of a song than as a piece for which the sonic material is its core concern. It isn’t technologically mediated sound; it’s a technologically reproduced song. (That distinction, by the way, is why not much so-called electro-pop pops up on Disquiet.com.)
Pop music that has a central, strong melodic component — a riff for example, a verse-chorus-verse mode, a sung lyric — isn’t by any means unwelcome in this site’s coverage, but it’s the rare non-hip-hop/r&b track or non-new-weird-folk track that ends up sounding really conscious of its sonic material, conscious of how it is shaped technologically, conscious of how sound is a component unto itself. Hip-hop (and much modern r&b production) uses a studio-based cut’n’paste method that emphasizes its artificiality; such sampling is a populist manifestation of musique concrete. New-weird-folk, at its most mantra-like, tends to feature melodies that dissolve into something ethereal, more background than foreground, more sound than song (a distinction that I was going for yesterday, when I mistakenly and erroneously conflated “song” and “music”). That was a very long (and at this stage somewhat of a sketch of a) digression. Thanks for bearing with me.
Now, back to the scheduled Grand Canonical Ensemble coverage: “Months Pass” is a drowsy synthesized hum, with hints at vocal source material — likely an aural illusion, but there’s something in the frictionless end result that makes a rough randomness at its origin seem plausible. And “Summer Clothes” has a momentum that seems to contradict itself, artfully. On the one hand there is a pitter-patter beat that will have your head tipping side to side within seconds (it’s a bit like an especially upbeat Ryuichi Sakamoto movie-score cue), but it plays against this slow, blunted, underlying beat that sounds less like an alternate rhythmic element and more like a melody striving to make itself heard.
Direwires‘ release Insomnia’s Grin/Sleep Reprieve is not as dire as it sounds, but certainly as wired. It’s also the rare piece of music for which a thorough reviewer risks complaints of revealing a spoiler.
Ontario, Canada-based Direwire (born Adam W. Young) recommends headphones. This is as much, one imagines, for the stereo play, the way sounds ping back and forth across the continuum that connects one ear and the other, as for the immersive sense of offworld weirdness, the sci-fi resonances, the overarching hints at inhuman sentience. Headphones serves as suffocation proxies.
Perhaps more than offworld, this is offworld-weary: muffled, rank, troubled. Those words are compliments, they are descriptions invoked by cues purposefully placed in the music. Its two sections are clearly divided, moving from the burbling-vat sounds of the first half to the vapor trails of the second, the beat reduced to an occasional, life-confirming blip. It’s more sound design than music, consisting of synthesized whirring that gives way to a surprisingly life-affirming aura, complete with birdsong, like some Eden discovered at the end of a dark alien tunnel. That is not at all what’s expected after what preceded it, and the pursuit of narrative-based music is praiseworthy, especially since that sense of if not surprise then at least of a story in motion reasserts itself on repeat listens.
At nearly half an hour in length, the single-track release is downloadable as a Zip file. More on the work at vagueterrain.net. More on Young/Direwires at direwires.com.
NB, per the liner note: “The track contains edited portions of field audio by Rob Danielson and Daniel Schiller ”“ courtesy of soundtransit.nl. Licensed under a Creative Commons License Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).”
In the city’s Financial District, there is an institution called swissnex San Francisco, which bills itself as a science/education/art/innovation platform. Last Wednesday, January 19, it welcomed Zimoun to town for a performance, just prior to the opening of his solo show at Gray Area Foundation for the Arts on Saturday, the 22nd. He was paired with local innovator Jim Haynes, each playing solo. Haynes played with fire, Zimoun with cardboard. And ping pong balls.
Zimoun, who hails from Bern, has gained deserved renown for his precise, mechanically implemented installations, in which myriad tiny devices combine to suggest a robotic mix of sound and motion that verges on the life-like — not necessarily sentient, but resembling simple and vibrant animals or natural environments: insects, blades of grass, amoebas. They are vibrant to the point of chaos, chaotic to the point of ecstatic. I was delighted that GAFFTA had featured a paragraph I’d once written (“Maximum Effort for Minimal(ist) Impact “) about Zimoun’s work in its exhibit announcement:
“Zimoun’s primary instruments are entirely of his own making, each a large-scale installation of small mechanical devices — tables lined with whipping little bits of tubing, small sets of fetishistically situated mini-motors. They are architecturally precise and their beauty is forged by that precision. The meticulous engineering of Zimoun’s work is a set-up — not an end unto itself, but a staged step toward its end result, an orderly step enacted so as to let chaos flourish. His chaos takes place in close settings, in carefully defined spaces, in systems as thoroughly considered as a laboratory experiment. And the sound emitted by them is not an after effect, or an afterthought. It’s a core principal of his practice.”
I wrote that (and some earlier appreciations) as a long-time admirer of Zimoun’s work, and as one who had only experienced it thanks to Internet-sourced videos and some audio recordings. This concert was my first opportunity to see his work in person. Particularly of interest was how the setting blurred the line between installation and instrument.
The swissnex San Francisco show took place in the rear room of its ground-floor space, a large white rectangle with a few support columns, the walls lined with acoustic tile. The head of swissnex San Francisco’s Interdisciplinary Programs, Luc Meier, introduced the evening with one of the most polite admonitions ever directed at a concert audience: “Please turn off or at least down your phone.” He spoke briefly of a scientific component of Zimoun’s work, and thanked Haynes and his 23Five collaborator, Randy Yau, for helping set up the evening.
Bankers Beatbox: One of Zimoun’s quintet of carboard music-making devices
Zimoun played for 20 minutes straight, his instrument being a set of five apparently identical devices of his own design. This notion of hermetic, parallel procedures is quite characteristic of his work overall, which takes a systems-oriented approach. To witness a Zimoun work generally involves watching and listening to a batch of similar automatons. The appearance of machine-produced similarity initially masks and eventually reveals a machine-produced cacophony. And then the work takes another turn, as from the cacophony emerges something that a sympathetic ear will liken to a musical experience.
Motor City: While the constructions differ, the materials and sonic effect in this Zimoun video are similar to those employed at the swissnex San Francisco concert.
Each of the devices was a plain, brown-cardboard banker-box cover, on top of which a long, stiff, thin wire was attached on one end to a motor and the other to what seemed to be a ping-pong ball. He started up one initially, the vibration of the ball echoing in the box below, resounding off the hard surface of the table and summoning up a low level frenetic effect. (I confirmed with Zimoun after the concert that no audio processing was employed, other than equalization.) The percussive sound was like that of some distant drum corps, like a Brazilian Carnival parade right through Dr. Seuss’ Who-town.
In time, a second and then a third box was added to the mix, eventually all five thrumming at once. Zimoun achieved this combination by maximizing the chaos yet somehow minimizing the sense of accrual. The noise was increased so slowly that only when, toward the end of the performance, he began to turn off individual boxes did it become apparent just how energetic the work had grown since he had initiated it.
Balls to the Wall: Zimoun in performance at swissnex San Francisco
Jim Haynes could not have provided more of a contrast, his table looking more like something from a laboratory, packed with various devices, including a matrix of speakers in a piece of dark wood, and a crusty suitcase that wouldn’t be out of place in a production of Death of a Salesman. After an unfortunate bit of unintended ear-rattling, arm-hair-raising feedback, he moved into a sinuous haze whose fluidity and ether-like quality contrasted with the rough collection of materials from which it was made.
Key among those tools was flame, an item under-utilized by electronic musicians. As the smell of candle smoke and spent matches filtered into the room, flames flickered coyly from behind some beaker stands (which would later, it appeared, pour sand near a contact microphone for what must be the most literal interpretation ever of the phrase “granular synthesis”). The sound of these flames then emerged from the swissnex speakers as that peculiar noise that seems, contradictorily, at once like water and fire, and crumbled paper. There were sounds of irregular radio signals, and raw and filtered field recordings. In time the source material became less recognizable, subsumed as it was in Haynes’ real-time production of a lingering near-hush that complemented, in a kind of theater, the way the smoke had made its way through the room. (A look at the mad-professor table after the show revealed a tape recorder, a Dr. Sample machine, an MP3 player, an effects pedal, and more.) The flames notwithstanding, the strongest impression came from an ambient torque, the sense of a sound being contorted in real time like a piece of bent metal.
Have Sampler …: Jim Haynes’ set-up from the swissnex San Francisco performance
Earlier this year, a track by Hoist made an especially strong impression. Titled “Bleakscape,” it featured a drone that brought to mind a slow meander, a kind of edging away from the sense of stasis that is often a key constituent part of a drone-based piece of music. Showing himself to be no mere drone-centric composer, Hoist recently posted another track, titled “Skittery I (excerpt),” which like “Bleakscape” signals its sound with its name. On first listen, it is all tentative pixelation, a lo-impact pixel-dust rendition of the modular synthesizer experiments that Keith Fullerton Whitman has been making on such albums as Generator. What it shares with “Bleakscape” is a sense of drift, here heard as a mix of shifting layers that lead to slight alterations in counterpoint, like if Steve Reich had scored the video game Centipede:
One of the beauties of social networks, just to follow up yesterday’s post, is watching musicians in action. Not watching them work, though there is plenty of video on YouTube, Vimeo, and elsewhere of just that, much of it with a social network component, in that musicians share tips, or compete for ingenious maneuvers, and that there’s often viewer feedback in the comments.
No, it’s a matter of watching them talk about their work over time, and watching work emanate, later along the timeline, from that talk. On a network like Twitter, musicians regularly comment on the equipment they use. Sometimes this is deep inside-baseball stuff, like the backroom discussions at a gearhead magazine, largely unintelligible to the general public. Still, even that information can be useful, in that it washes over you, and over time it gives you a sense of what group of musicians might generally employ what types of equipment: oh, virtual synthesizers are on the rise; oh, cassette tape loops are making a return; oh, there’s a cheapo version of the Monome that is infiltrating its development community, etc. (NB: Not every casual impression need be preceded by “oh” marker of a casual epiphany.) Twitter is a mainstay of so-called ambient communication, in which it’s as much a matter of finding patterns in quickly scanned information, leading to a kind of background sense of facts, as it is of strictly read-digested-collated facts.
One case in point, quite obviously, is the iPad, which since its release by Apple has been a subject of praise, concern, conjecture, future-gazing, and even, on occasion, just plain practical employment as a musician’s tool. Mark Rushton, who is based in Iowa City, Iowa, mentioned his use of an app called OMGuitar on January 20 at twitter.com/markrushtoncom. My memory tells me this wasn’t the first time he’d mentioned OMGuitar, but Twitter’s memory (i.e., its search.twitter.com/advanced page) tells me otherwise. (Which may serve as one knock against the ambient-knowledge theorizing.)
For a follower of Rushton’s music, which often involves a slow haze and a focus on field recordings as a sound source, the idea of his use of a virtual guitar app is an intriguing one. As it turns out, he has made it a tool for slow music. His brief note on a new track, “The Snowy Hill,” reads: “OMGuitar for iPad loops stretched, layered, and de-tuned into blissful goodness.” The result has a tremulous undercurrent which one might recognize as being source from guitar:
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
• February 5, 2020: The first session of the 15-week course I teach at the Academy of Art about the role of sound in the media landscape.
• April 15, 2020: A chapter on the Disquiet Junto ("The Disquiet Junto as an Online Community of Practice," by Ethan Hein) appears in the forthcoming book The Oxford Handbook of Social Media and Music Learning (Oxford University Press), edited by Stephanie Horsley, Janice Waldron, and Kari Veblen. (Details at oup.com.)
• December 13, 2020: This day marks the 24th anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• January 7, 2021: This day marks the 9th anniversary of the start of the Disquiet Junto music community.
• There are entries on the Disquiet Junto in the forthcoming book The Music Production Cookbook: Ready-made Recipes for the Classroom (Oxford University Press), edited by Adam Patrick Bell. Ethan Hein wrote one, and I did, too.
• At least two live group concerts by Disquiet Junto members in the San Francisco Bay Area are in the works for 2020.
• I have liner notes for a musician's solo album and an essay in a book about an art event due out. I'll announce as the release dates come into focus.
• The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: disquiet.com/junto.
Since January 2012, the Disquiet Junto has been an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making community that employs creative constraints as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list (each Thursday), listen to tracks by participants from around the world, read the FAQ, and join in.
• 0438 / Deep Plan / The Assignment: Compose a piece of music in which something special is situated at the very center.
• 0437 / Echo Relocation / The Assignment: Record someone else's field recording of their environment playing within your own.
• 0436 / Planetary Headspace / The Assignment: Share a recording of your local environment to create a communal soundscape.
• 0435 / Woodshed Report / Share something you've been working on (and respond to what others post).
• 0434 / Beat Kit / The Assignment: Create music with beats crafted by fellow Junto participants.