15 Reflections on the 15th Anniversary of Disquiet.com

Today, December 13, 2011, marks the 15th anniversary of the launch of this website. What follows are 15 semi-discrete recollections on this occasion.

When in a given year I have had time on or around this day, I’ve tried to reflect on the site’s past: what I have learned about sound, how my thinking about art and technology has changed over time, what the early days of the web feel like from an increasing distance, the people whom Disquiet has connected me to.

If you were to look back at this site on or around the 13 previous December 13s, you might find some repetitions amid these recollections — and you might also find some discrepancies. Such is the nature of memory. The fixations and incongruities correlate with the mindset that informs this website. For Disquiet.com, if it is about anything, is about how a recorded document is by no means a finished document — it is about how the act of having recorded something is the beginning, not the end, of the creative process.

01. DISQUIET ALPHA: Before Disquiet.com was Disquiet.com, it was a collection of files hosted on such web services as Calweb and Netcom. Some of the earliest posts appeared in an email newsletter I founded for Tower Records in 1994. After Disquiet.com first launched, for a short while it didn’t look anything like this site. The interface was a scan of a little piece of paper with some handwritten notes on it, and each of those notes clicked through to a different set of materials. Sadly, I have no record of this image.

02. OLD SCHOOL:. I coded most of what became the design of this website, in its first iteration, during late 1996 and early 1997, when my girlfriend, now wife, was working on her PhD in the computer lab at the University of California, Davis (a school now unfortunately best known for its association with pepper spray). I kept her company by fiddling with the design and code on a neighboring computer. The whole thing was built in basic Paint and Notepad, and was maintained in those rudimentary tools for the first 11 years of its life. Even the RSS feed, when first introduced to the site, was programmed by hand in Notepad.

03. DATE LINES: I started adding dates to entries when my wise friend Jorge Colombo (jorgecolombo.com) said something along the lines of, “Why don’t you add dates? That way when those of us who don’t visit every day do visit we can have a sense of what is new?” Since the word “blog” reportedly dates from 1999, this site has at least three years of a grandfather clause, which helps explain why I don’t use the word “blog” that often, or with any particular comfort. I do use it when necessary, though more as a noun than as a verb.

04. FUTUREPRÃœF-ING: I’m proud to have a newly refined design for the site, as of last night, and I greatly appreciate the work of futureprüf.com on it. The design will continue to be tweaked in the coming month or so. There will be optimized (“responsive”) versions for browser-enabled phones and for 7″ (or thereabouts) screens. This new design seems to work fine on a standard (i.e., iPad) tablet browser, so I have no plans at the current time for an iPad-specific design. (Perhaps one would be beneficial for the “portrait” view.)

05. SPARE ME In the late 1990s I was not infrequently criticized, or affectionately teased, for having a visually bland site (“spare,” “spartan,” call it what you will). Other sites at the time were taking advantage of new tools and increased bandwidth standards. Today, in the age of Tumblr and some of the more popular WordPress themes, it’s fair to say that the idea of a simple site that loads quickly has gotten its due. The irony is that in that same age, this site had come to look too busy. Hence the newly stripped-down appearance. (More on the new design in this post from yesterday: “Welcome to Disquiet.com 3.0.”)

06. HTML5 DREAMING: I’m excited about the promise of HTML5, but I’ll believe it’s being fulfilled when there is an open-source audio player as easy to implement, and as elegant, as the Flash one I’ve been using for several years (I’m referring to the streaming tool on this page, for example: “The Sound of the Sound of Recording”). I know there will be such an HTML5 player. I just think if people spent less time telling us how great HTML5 will be and more time actually making tools in it, we’d be further along.

07. PEER REVUE: I don’t have a prominent “blogroll” on this site because there are so many sites out there that are part of the ongoing discussion about ambient music, sound art, interactive audio, and related topics. I certainly would know where to begin such a list. I just wouldn’t know where to end one. Political blogs seem to be able to list the five or ten other blogs they follow. In music, there are dozens upon dozens upon dozens of relevant sites. Perhaps music/art blogs have an embarrassment of riches in terms of colleagues because their subjects (musicians and artists, and cultural institutions, in contrast with politicians) themselves have websites that are actually worth reading. I do hope in the coming year to focus on these peers more. (There is a “blog” section in the site’s “elsewhere” department, but I don’t tend to it much.)

08. PICTURE THIS: This site had essentially no editorial images from its 1996 launch until mid-2007, when I switched it over from hand-coded HTML to WordPress, with the code-craft assistance of a Pittsburgh-based web developer named Nathan Swartz (of clicknathan.com). For those first 11 years, I was Fugazi-like (perhaps more Minor Threat”“like) in my straight-edge ways, using only words to express what I was thinking. Even when writing about interactive applications, I didn’t generally show their interfaces. I have learned the error of those ways.

09. AUDIO-GAMING: I used the word “audio-games” for the first time around the year 2000, when I was living in New Orleans, and after about half a decade I began to neglect the area, much as I did my “Page-spotter” bibliography. The bibliography I have little to no intention of returning to. It’s frozen in time, whereas the “audio-games” term is more prominent than ever on this site, and will continue to be. (I am also working on developing such applications, as an extension of this website. More on that in the near future.)

10. TAG LINES: For the initial years, this site had no motto aside from the descriptive phrase “ambient/electronica” that appeared next to the Disquiet logo. Then came this phrase, which lasted for a long time: “Reflections on ambient/electronic music & conversations with the people who make it.” As of today, the site has a new motto, more true to what I am up to: “Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code.”

11. TALK TALK: The site is written entirely by me, but it’s not just my voice, because I regularly interview others about their work, and increasingly I take the opportunity to correspond (and Skype) with them about their work to flesh out my written impressions.

12. SOFTWARE MODEL: WordPress is a pleasure to work in. I think it’s a remarkable organization, and a remarkable piece of software. I think musicians would benefit from paying attention to the manner in which WordPress distributes its code for free, has fomented a community of developers, and runs a strong business off a commercial version. There are parallels to how Creative Commons musicians give away their music for free, often allow people to remix it, and then look for ways to, for lack of a better term, monetize it.

13. SLIGHT RETURN: I’ve been more involved with “song” in the traditional sense of the word in the last 15 and a half months, since the birth of my first child, than in the previous 15 years combined. I’m still figuring out how to introduce that renewed association to the site, but it will show up more and more here. This isn’t to say I am suddenly going to be writing a lot about the latest electro-pop release, but I am thinking increasingly about the role that “song” plays in our conception of sound. This is because I am of the firm belief that while “sound” is indeed as “musical” as “music” (and vice-versa), it is music that provides much of the model for the reason we find sound to be musical. There is a strong and active community of field-recording artists, or “phonographers,” and I sometimes wonder if in our emphasis on the sonic artistry inherent in field recordings we may have lost track of the legacy and influence of the song.

14. SOUND COMMERCE: I have with each passing year listened to less and less commercial music. I hope to reverse course in that regard in the coming year, though not to the neglect of the sound art, mobile apps, and Creative Commons music that have increasingly consumed me and, by extension, this website. (Arguably “sound art” and “mobile apps” themselves have “commercial music” roles. I’m aware of that.)

15. PAST FUTURISM: This website is named for a work, The Book of Disquiet, by the Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa (1888 – 1935). More on him and his influence on this site’s Welcome page, and in the secreted Pessoa’s Trunk section.

3 thoughts on “15 Reflections on the 15th Anniversary of Disquiet.com

  1. An absorbing summary of Disquiet’s history. Congratulations on your 15th anniversary! This site, with its precise yet rich language and carefully-selected images, is a constant source of information and enjoyment. Thank you, Marc.

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