My 33 1/3 book, on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, was the 5th bestselling book in the series in 2014. It's available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

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

Monthly Archives: December 2011

Past Week at Twitter.com/Disquiet

  • Haven't watched Boss yet, but just noticed Brian Reitzel does the music. Must check it out. #
  • Convinced that due to its digital texture & similar arrangement with original, the Zep cover in Dragon Tattoo is as much a remix as a cover. #
  • Instagr/am/bient update: Already have 4 of what's looking like 25 entries. Beautiful stuff so far. Picturesque, you might say. #
  • Really confused by the 20k song limit in Google Music. #
  • 7:30pm, people. Looking forward to this. RT @UnsilentTweet: Tomorrow night, San Francisco! http://t.co/Qrxv7juq #
  • Witnessing far more tablet-reading in public. The fetish has thankfully given way to practical use. #
  • [email protected] @telstarlogistic @inceptiontheapp There should be a Buddha Machine of scifi spaceship HVAC/engine drones. in reply to dizzybanjo #
  • More to my taste. Thanks. RT @TelstarLogistic: Or, if you prefer to idle with the original Enterprise: http://t.co/4emW5Dji #
  • "For Marc: The Next Generation's Enterprise engine noise, looped for 24 hours. http://t.co/UGFczlmq" #EmailOfTheDay #
  • Read more »
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TheAtlantic.com: “Toward Silent Computing”

“Toward Silent Computing” is a piece I had published today at theatlantic.com, the website of the magazine The Atlantic. It’s a combination of news-you-can-use tips on quieting a laptop that’s running the OS X Lion operating system, and a reflection on the unintended consequences inherent in sound design: Remove one sound, and others appear. The background becomes the foreground. In the case of the laptop that is the subject of the piece, my month-old Macbook Air, the removed sound is that of the hard drive and, by extension, the computer fan that is often called into service when the drive or CPU go into overdrive.

Here is the first paragraph:

I changed laptops about a month ago. I had a Windows netbook, and I opted up, as it were, to a Macbook Air. Part of the attraction of the Macbook Air was its solid-state drive. Unlike a traditional hard drive, which is in effect a high-tech LP player with read-write capability, the SSD has no moving parts — well, except at the level of the electrical charge that allows data to be stored. (If you can hear that, please get in touch while the next X-Men movie is still in pre-production.) The lack of a physical interface means the SSD is silent, and also less likely to trigger the computer’s fan, which in most cases is the primary producer of computer noise on a laptop or desktop. (Note: You can, indeed, upgrade netbooks to SSD drives, but the one I had, a slim Acer, had its drive buried so deep in the device that it was beyond my abilities and my time.)

I then cover three particularly annoying sounds: the trackpad click, the boot-up sound, and the plink that accompanies the raising or lowering of the machine’s volume.

Here’s a fourth tip that didn’t really fit in the article:

Once upon a time, in Apple’s OS you could hold Shift+Option while raising and lowering the volume of the computer (speaker or headphone jack), and you’d quadruple the scale at which it shifted up or down. This didn’t make it louder, or quieter for that matter — it just provided a more gradated range between silent and whatever the machine’s loudest level was. That may sound unnecessary, but the fact is that at midnight, if all is quiet, the difference between silent and just a notch above silent can be significant. Unfortunately, Shift+Option doesn’t work in OS X Lion. I tweeted something to this regard (“OS X Lion could use 1/16th the number of keyboard-lighting settings and 16x the number of volume-level settings”), and got a prompt reply from Lin Mu (aka @linmu), directing me to an anonymous post at hints.macworld.com from this past August that provides a hack to regain the finer-grain volume shifting. (For the record, I haven’t actually tried this approach yet.)

Amid all this detailed trivia about the sound design of Apple’s operating system, it’s worth noting that Apple’s OS outdoes Spinal Tap. Its volume control goes to 16:

For a long time, DownBeat (founded: 1934) was the oldest magazine I’d ever written for. Then it was Nature (founded: 1869). But The Atlantic was founded in 1857, so it’s now the oldest I’ve been published in (again, technically, I wrote for its website).

You can read “Tower Silent Computing” at theatlantic.com.

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Revealing the Glitch in Voice (MP3)

By all appearances, the musician who goes by All N4tural is the only one on the Soundcloud.com audio-hosting service who applies the tag “colliding banter” to his recordings. This is unfortunate, because the resulting work is deserving not just of a listen, but of emulation.

The “colliding banter” material uses spoken words — not “spoken word” as in poetry,” but “spoken words” as in “spoken words,” i.e. human speech captured in its colloquial form — for source material in the pursuit of a glitchy funky music. Though a given track has no semblance of the shape of a song, the presence of bits of human speech amid a kind of rough tunefulness lend it the feeling of a song. Fans of Scott Johnson, Steve Reich, and John Oswald will likely appreciate the sonic machinations. Here, for example, is “They Was Utterly Helpless”:

The term “glitch” is applied here purposefully. Not because the music, with its naked brokenness, has the fast data-processed cut’n’paste feel of music often described as glitch — though, of course, it does — but because glitch at its core is about error, and the work All N4tural applies to the human voice celebrates all the inaccuracies and unintended accentuations of speech.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/all-n4tural. His music has been covered here frequently in the past.

The image shown here is a detail of the photo that the track took as its “cover”; it’s from flickr.com.

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Tangents: Lunch Sounds, Shuffler.fm, Polluting Noise, …

Audio Flaneur: The excellent soundscrapers.blogspot.com by Nick Sowers is three deep in a new series of “Lunchwalks.” What’s a lunchwalk? Explains Sowers, “Got an hour? Take a walk. Inside of a thirty-minute radius, an infinitely detailed (though finitely bound) landscape is within reach.” On each walk, he records the sounds he encounters. He maps the walks, and takes photos, which tend to feature his microphone, which in turn takes on the appearance of Sowers’ fuzzy walking buddy (see above). His descriptions are splendid (“The gear boxes and cable junctures add a constant hum to the background static of the city”), and he also posts samples of the audio, such as this from his third walk:

Read them, as his walking progresses, at soundscrapers.blogspot.com.

Banner Music: I don’t look too deeply into the statistics for this site. When you write about free music and about galleries that require no entry fee, as well as commercial music that often sells in the under-500-unit zone, the whole notion of pageviews can be an exercise in misdirection, if not futility. I do take note, because the dashboard in WordPress (the publishing tool that is this site’s backend) puts the information front and center, that this site seems to get a lot more visitors via Facebook than Twitter, even though I dedicate more time to Twitter than to Facebook. (Perhaps the automated posting of Disquiet’s RSS feed to Facebook that currently occurs is something I should do more of on Twitter? Somehow that doesn’t seem right. My approach to Twitter is conversational.) Anyhow, in the mix of sites sending somewhat significant traffic to this one is a service that was previously unfamiliar: shuffler.fm. The site is an aggregator of blog-filtered music (it bills itself as an “audio magazine made by music blogs”). You can search and sort by artist, genre, blog, and so forth. And, niftily enough, you can end up navigating this very site with a top bar that lets you listen to the music on a given page and navigate the site that way. The following link, unlike the previous one in this entry, will take you to an example: shuffler.fm. For the time being, the shuffler.fm service doesn’t seem to be infringing on this site’s non-commercial Creative Commons license, though there is a page on the site that talks about advertising.

Outside Man: Perhaps the craziest thing about the movie Bunraku isn’t its surreal set (part Kill Bill, part Sin City), its peculiar cast (Demi Moore and Ron Perlman and Woody Harrelson and Josh Hartnett), or the voice of its narrator (Mike Patton, of Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Fantômas, etc.), but that the score is by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, best known for his numerous Spike Lee films. (The New York Times called the movie “a potpourri of genres that ends up a morass of clichés”) Back in reality, Blanchard is also tied to Red Tails, about the African American Tuskegee Airmen.

Dark Portal: The second and third freely downloadable volumes of the score to the excellent video game Portal 2 are available at thinkwithportals.com. The first volume was covered here in late June, in the Downstream department. (Via joystiq.com and nobuooo.com.)

Polluting Noise: Noise pollution is a subject that gives noise a bad name. A story in a local news site in my area, the San Francisco baycitizen.org, touched on how emotions color perception of noise: “On Sept. 12, 2001, no flights took off at San Francisco International, but complaints were lodged nevertheless.” The science-and-scifi site i09.com has been noting how birds and dolphins have shown adverse effects of human-made sound.

The Listener: Author Warren Ellis has launched a new podcast. Second episode came out the 5th of this month, at warrenellis.com, featuring such Disquiet.com favorites as Daphne Oram and Scott Tuma. Episode one had Moondog and Tangerine Dream.

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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.

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