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

What Kind of White Noise? (MP3)

John Dombroski plays guitar and plays with sound

Is that a submerged train playing along in the role of rich, if emotionally remote, sound bed at the opening of John Dombroski‘s “That Lonely Guitar at 4AM”? The main focus of the track is elegant acoustic guitar phrasing, but what’s beneath the guitar — what’s beneath the melody — attracts attention as well. There is some sort of white noise, and which type of white noise lends potential meaning (meanings, of course; this isn’t a matter of Newtonian causality), much as the sound in question itself, a white noise that waxes and wanes, adds texture.

Public transport suggests the guitar as the work of a busker, plying the world’s 15th or 16th oldest profession at an hour unlikely to be of much profit — less busker than busker understudy, busker intern, busker moonlighter. There’s also the similarity to the whir of surf, which sets a contrast to the more backwoodsy six string; try as it might, the ocean cannot suggest this as a Beach Boys sketch — it’s more John Fahey than “Sloop John B.” And then there’s the more neutral white noise of errant technology, the white noise of a radio tuned to a dead channel, to borrow a comparison.

That might prove to be the best reading of the noise, since around the four-minute mark the noise subsumes the guitar entirely, in a manner that does nothing to clarify its source, even as the transition makes it clear the noise is as comfortable in the foreground as in the background. The transition makes it clear that the noise has compositional agency. What follows is a dreamy flow of muffled melody, melody reaching out from under the noise. At times it’s a thick drone, at others (notably around the 14-minute mark) it is a bright static, like campfire sparks, or the surface tension of a vinyl record player. If the white noise started as a sound bed, at some point Dombroski flipped the mattress.

Track originally posted for free download at soundcloud.com/johndombroski. More on Dombroski, who is based in Baltimore, Maryland, at dombroskij.com.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • about

  • 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

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