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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Sounds Behind the Sounds (MP3)

There’s a tremendous narrative juncture early on in Mathias Delplanque‘s “Radio Station,” when the droning electronic music that has been playing thus far is stopped, and we hear what seems to be the button on a cassette player pushed. We then exit a composed world and enter the “real” one, as presented as a series of footsteps and other “real world” sounds. The distinction between real and composed fades quickly, though, as droning, semi-melodic music returns, interpseresed with voices speaking and cars passing by (MP3). Is this subsequent musical sound the work of the individual whose footstapes we heard? Is it the soundtrack of the individual’s life. Are the two mutually exclusive? The sounds, as it turns out, were all collected in May 2008 by Delplanque at JET FM (Nantes), a radio station. The result is a non-narrative, impressionistic documentary on the sound world of the radio station — the sounds, as it were, behind the sounds.

[audio:http://download.cronicaelectronica.org/cronicast083.mp3|titles=”Radio Station”|artists=Mathias Delplanque]

Track originally posted at cronicaelectronica.org More on mathiasdelplanque.com. Learn more about the radio station at jetfm.asso.fr.

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The Two Worlds of Alva Noto (MP3)

Alva Noto is both the odd figure out, and the compositor of odd figures. In the month of September these roles coincided, as he was both initiating a new art installation at the esteemed Manhattan gallery Pace (under his given name, Carsten Nicolai — thepacegallery.com) and posting an hour-long mix on the dancefloor-friendly website residentadvisor.net. The exhibit features a work for an inflated parachute (see image below). The mix collects two dozen tracks into a purposefully seam-laden whole, one that dispenses with the idea of a steady beat in favor of peculiar congruities, sudden silences, and expanses of stasis. It opens with the locked-groove rigor of Andy Stott’s rarefied “Execution” and proceeds through several of Noto’s own works, and everything from MIA to dance-oriented Boys Noize, somehow working in a bit of Angelo Badalamenti (from the Mulholland Dr. soundtrack) and currently ubiquitous Steve Reich — his pastoral “Reed Phase,” which follows some squelchy Nine Inch Nails, appears briefly on its own, and then settles under the latter-day disco of MMM.

Registration at residentadvisor.net is required for free download of the mix. More on Nicolai/Noto at carstennicolai.de and alvanoto.com.

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Past Week at Twitter.com/Disquiet

  • Far as I can tell, the sonic fun of the season premiere of Fringe was solely Walter growing an ear in his lab. #
  • That's what I'm talking about RT @EdieBushwick Theo Parrish doing "Trouble Man"/"Super Fly"; Philip Jeck doing "Once Upon a Time in America" #
  • The neutrinos in my neighborhood are getting all "look what we did." #
  • Pavement paraphrase: netlabels start up each & every day, I saw another one just the other day, a special new netlabel: http://t.co/rUJ8f8qt #
  • RIP, guitarist John Du Cann (b. 1950), of Atomic Rooster, and other bands. #
  • Musicians should cover film scores. Like to hear Scanner do Code 46, DJ Krush do Blade Runner, Battles do Requiem for a Dream. #
  • Read more »
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The Nostalgia of Murk / The Murk of Nostalgia (MP3)

Philip Jeck is one of the masters of warped media. His work with vinyl, for example, takes fixed recordings — frozen documents of sound — and transforms them, ambitiously, into ambiguous territory. Like many manipulators of the LP, he plays with texture, but not just the texture of the media, also the texture of the music as it slowly … falls … apart.

It’s one thing to mess with a recording until it is no longer familiar, to snatch a repurpose-worthy riff from the jaws of copyright infringement. It’s another entirely to leave that recording largely recognizable, and instead to celebrate its distant memory by fogging the memory. Jeck replicates the effects of memory by muddying the water of his appropriated melodies, and in turn memory — the desire for memory, what we more commonly refer to as nostalgia — becomes his subject matter.

That approach reaches a mournful, artfully melodramatic height in “Live at the Brücknerhaus,” a captured performance from earlier this month. By all appearances — including the above photo, as murky as the audio — there is no vinyl involved, but still there is that Jeck approach, melodies slowed to a pace that allows you to listen through them (MP3).

[audio:http://www.touchshop.org/touchradio/Radio69.mp3|titles=”Live at the Brücknerhaus”|artists=Philip Jeck]

Performance recorded on September 6, 2011, in Linz, Austria. Track originally posted at touchradio.org.uk. More on Jeck at philipjeck.com.

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The Waveform: The Shape of Sound

Is the waveform the optimal visual cue symbolizing music?

That is the question to which Rob Walker, a friend and a contributing writer to The New York Times Sunday Magazine, replied at length in his designobserver.com blog earlier this month. (Disquiet.com doesn’t have a “belatedly” tag, and this post is a good reason to consider adding such a thing.)

In the course of pondering the rise of the waveform as a visual icon for music, he generously quoted me and referenced this site multiple times: on comparing the waveforms of winners and losers of a Steve Reich remix contest (one example shown up top), on “looking at” the sound of fireworks, in discussion (on Twitter) with Ken Ueno on his album cover, and other related subjects.

The DesignObserver piece, titled “Stealth Iconography: The Waveform,” is a fascinating treatment of the subject, tying together the logos of sites like Freesound.org and Soundcloud.com, both of which feature a waveform, to the waveform’s appearance in jewelry and contemporary art. As he says toward the opening, the rise of the waveform “can be gauaged by the fact that it has inspired some to de-digitize it into the physical world.” Here, for example, is a proposed “waveform labeling system” suggested by designer Joshua Distler. Each track on a Björk album is identified by its waveform, title, and numerical sequence:

Just to continue the discussion, a few thoughts:

¶ Music v. Sound: It’s great that Freesound.org is recognized in the article for having employed the waveform prior to Soundcloud.com’s launch. It’s important not only as a means to track the image’s trajectory, but also because it broadens the waveform’s meaning. I entirely agree with Rob that the waveform is a useful visual icon for music — and I think its application is fundamentally broader, applying to sound. Music being organized sound — thank you, Varèse — the waveform’s utility in serving as a marker for both “music” and “sound” emphasizes what they have in common, and that any perceived distinctions occur along a continuum.

¶ Data Visualization: The waveform-image propagation has something to do with the exploding interest in data visualization — what exactly, I am not sure; I’m still wrapping my head around it. To talk about the sound waveform right now is to back up and talk about the rise of data visualization. No doubt to Edward Tufte’s dismay, the enginneer-mediated society in which we now live is flooded with nifty vibrant charts of all sorts of data — from cloud formations of frequently used terms in political debates, to blinky-blinky grids of product consumption, etc. It’s like we’re all part of some grand quantitative sociological research project. The problem being: these charts don’t necessarily have any specific meaning intended. We’re at a “look what we can do” stage that reduces much data visualization to the practical utility of a laptop screensaver or T-shirt design: colorful visuals, signifying nothing, with the added deficit of being so impossibly beautiful that it takes you awhile to realize there isn’t much to take away from them. They provide the illusion of meaning. We know our culture is technologically mediated. We sense that we can know more about our world by crunching the data and looking at it in new ways, that data visualization will answer old questions in new ways. The waveform seems like a succinct, utilitarian realization of this concept.

¶ The Equalizer: The waveform’s strongest pop-cultural precedent goes back at least to the days of the high-fidelity home stereo system, specifically to the standalone graphic equalizer, which let you control aspects of your sound at a much more nuanced level than just dual treble and bass knobs, and which in some systems showed you what the music “looked like” in terms of where sound levels peaked at various points along the spectrum.

¶ Sketching Sound: This idea of “what sound looks like,” moving beyond the waveform, is part of the synaesthesia inherent in so-called “sound art.” The idea is the reason I started the “Sketches of Sound” series here back in April 2010, and why I was especially glad that, amid drawings of kazoos and synthesizers, artist Gustavo Alberto Garcia Vaca opted to present a sine wave.

Read the full piece by Rob Walker on waveforms at designobserver.com. (There are some interesting comments on the post, too, about the relation between the waveforms and the EKG readout, and about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s praise for Ernst Chladni.)

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