Drones as Background Noise as Context

Putting the ambient sound in ambient awareness

One of the pleasures of following Dizzy Banjo (aka Robert Thomas, aka the Chief Creative Office at Reality Jockey, aka the home of the RjDj app) on soundcloud.com is having an ongoing sonic sense of his whereabouts. This is because Thomas/Banjo is keen to post brief snippets of field recordings. His SoundCloud account is a stream of tidy segments of real-world audio. Each track’s title generally serves as sufficient explanatory context. Like, most recently as of this writing, “Drone from loud air conditioning unit on bus at London,” which is 25 seconds of said industrial whir.

The thing about real-world sound is how much our ears edit out what we think we hear from what we’re actually hearing — the distinction not only between listening and hearing, but between something even less conscious, something about how our brains process the inputs at a purely functional level. A fascinating exercise is to carry a tape recorder with you, tape 10 minutes during which you pay attention to the sounds around you, and to then listen back to the tape. Not only are the things you missed suddenly evident, but the relative prominence of the things you were aware of often differs significantly as well. Part of this is purely mechanical, as two different microphones will also record different sonic vantages. But much of it is perceptive. To hear Thomas’ audio recordings is to get a sense of what he, aesthetically, edits for: the sounds he elects to extract from the broader world he inhabits. And, of course, because Reality Jockey has as its focus the way real-world material can be processed digitally, his SoundCloud posts also give us a glimpse into the kind of world Thomas is thinking about as he develops RJ projects.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/dizzybanjo.

Listening to Geoff Dyer’s Zona

About a book about a film about a journey to a room

I recommend Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room for anyone who’s seen the movie Stalker (a science-fiction road trip by director Andrei Tarkovsky that’s a modern classic of Russian film) and for anyone who wants a glimpse into the mind of a true cinephile.

By “true cinephile” I mean not an aficionado of film, but a habitué of the cinema as a physical place, someone for whom cinema-going is — and, more to the point, was — an essential part of the movie-consuming process.

The key thing that occurred to me as I read Dyer’s book about this fairly infrequently viewed movie is that there’s a clear and maudlin parallel between his concept of cinema and the facts of the world in which the film was made. Both were systems defined by a culture of significant deficits. The movie was released in 1979, during what we have come to understand as the waning years of Soviet communism, an economic engine that worked, when it did work, in fits and starts covered up by a veneer of bravado saber-rattling.

Dyer’s depiction of his core film-going years is one in which his viewing was defined not by what he wanted to see — the case in our Netflix-friendly, Tivo-enriched, BitTorrent-supported era — but by what was available. I think his depiction of how limits shaped cultural consumption is on par with what Jonathan Lethem accomplished in his recent 33 1/3 book on Talking Heads’ album Fear of Music. Lethem has a clear view of his past, but doesn’t wallow in it. Dyer’s evident nostalgia for that period is at times like that of Stalinists who miss standing in line for a loaf of bread — it is, more than anything, an act of willful disregard for modernity.

Dyer’s relative distaste — his adoption of the robe and role of the old fogey — for the world in which he finds himself isn’t just related to film. He evidences a professor emeritus’ generational cluelessness, for example when he riffs about how the index finger has less of a privileged role in our post-rotary-phone age. Clearly this is an individual with limited experience on a touch-screen device. (At the risk of venturing into the sort of first-person aside that is very much Dyer’s mode: I had a severe cut on my right index finger while I was reading a hardback copy Dyer’s book. I found that using my touchpad on my laptop and the screens of my phone, iPad, and iPod Touch to be an initially painful and, later, at best awkward experience, as bandaids impeded use, as did the wound’s scab as it formed.)

Beyond that, Zona is a book about obsessions, both Dyer’s for the film and Tarkovsky’s for the process of filming. The book is frustrating, because it feels like it was written fairly quickly, and benefited from limited acts of revision. Still, the full range of associations that Dyer draws within the film’s working parts and between the film and the world at at large is phenomenal. The personal asides have gotten the book a good amount of negative attention, but I think of them as an expression of how much the movie — how much movie-going — bleeds into Dyer’s sense of his own life. A lot of critiques of those personal asides neglect to note that they appear mostly as footnotes, not in the actual main body text of the book. Then again, those footnotes are often so long as to make it unclear on the page which one is reading: the main or the supporting text. At least in the hardcover book, there is no apparent distinction in how both are treated typographically. There is simply a thin line dividing them.

As I read the book, I came to think of that thin line as being not unlike the line in Stalker that divides the world from the Zone that is the initial destination of the title character and his traveling companions.

There are references to sound throughout — especially a certain “clang” that Dyer seems to feel is the movie’s intrinsic soundmark. I was a bit anxious about their potential absence from the narrative in advance of reading the book, because after scouring many reviews before reading Dyer’s actual text — taking a slow approach somewhat aligned with the film’s own vision of a journey: reading various writings about this book about a film about a journey to a room before reading the book itself — I found little mention of sound. The score to Stalker is by Edward Artemiev, one of the most essential electronic musicians in Russian history (I interviewed his son, Artemiy Artemiev, who runs the label Electroshock, back in 2003: “Shock the Bear”), and the music is an essential part of the movie’s structure and effect (I highly recommend listening to the track titled “Train,” embedded below). It’s quite likely that the “clang” that registers with Dyer is the railway noise that Artemiev folded into his richly layered, yet still often threadbare-ambient, score. I read Tatiana Yegorova’s book Edward Artemiev’s Musical Universe when it was first released, and I think I’m going to stalk it now for its Stalker material.

Past Week at Twitter.com/Disquiet

Geoff Emerick on Being the Brian Eno of the Beatles

His 2006 memoir may also be, unintentionally, the best book for Westerners about how manga is made today.

Highly recommended. Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles is a survey of the recording of many of the major Beatles albums from the recording room’s perspective, which is to say from that of Geoff Emerick, the band’s longtime engineer. It also provides a peek into some of Paul McCartney’s solo work, including an incident when the band was threatened by supporters of Fela, who felt McCartney might be in Lagos to steal his rhythms. The book is valuable for its insight into the creative life of the Beatles (who did what, how they related and — more to the point — didn’t relate with each other), but for two other key reasons as well.

The first reason is the extent to which the engineer-as-composer is an underlying theme of the book. Emerick makes negligible claims to any traditional compositional activity — he doesn’t suggest himself to have written a major part, or to have penned a lyric — but his role in creating the recordings that we generally think of as the songs is paramount throughout. Initially he’s a technological interpreter of John Lennon’s mumbled and hazy requests for particular effects, and later he’s more of a direct instigator of such things. This book is essential reading for anyone who has a serious interest in musique concrète, in Brian Eno’s pioneering ambient work, and in Glenn Gould’s studio seclusion.

The second reason is more tangential, but I’ll mention it here. In many ways, Geoff Emerick’s book about working with the Beatles in the 1960s is the best book I’ve ever read about manga (Japanese comic books and graphic novels). It is by far the closest thing I’ve read to my personal experience observing how manga is produced today in Japan. This is because he gives a great presentation of how bands during the 1960s were signed to record labels and then how those bands’ music was produced in what was, in effect, a fairly traditionally managed business environment. That old-school business model, as with so many ancient mid-century norms (from workplace suits to institutional sexism to presumed lifelong employment), remains the way much mainstream culture is produced in corporate Japan, manga especially.

The book was published in 2006, and I read it earlier this year, in March.

Disquiet Junto Project 0026: Compos(t)ing

The Assignment: Record the music to a PSA using sounds sampled from your garbage bin.

Each Thursday evening at the Disquiet Junto group on Soundcloud.com a new compositional challenge is set before the group’s members, who then have just over four days to upload a track in response to the assignment. Membership to the Junto is open: just join and participate.

We’ve reached the mid-year point. This is week 26 of the project series, and as with last week’s project, the theme this week — as it would be with anything focused on remixing — is recycling. This week, though, it’s even more literally the case, as you’ll see.

The assignment was made late in the day, California time, on Thursday, June 28, with 11:59pm on the following Monday, July 2, as the deadline. View a search return for all the entries as they are posted: disquiet0026-composting.

These are the instructions that went out to the group’s email list (at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto). They appear below translated into six additional languages: Croatian (for the first time), French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Turkish, courtesy of Darko Macan, Éric Legendre, Allan Brugg, Naoyuki Sasanami, Norma Listman, and M. Emre Meydan, respectively.

Disquiet Junto Project 0026: Compos(t)ing

The theme of this week’s project is creative reuse — call it recycling, or unconsumption, or upcycling, or compos(t)ing. You’ll sample four objects in the process of developing an original musical track. Please compose the track as if it might be used as background music for a PSA about recycling.

Here’s how you’ll determine the objects whose sounds you will sample for the piece: choose a garbage pail in either your home or workplace that you know not to be empty. Take four objects from the garbage. These will be your sonic source material.

You can transform the sounds of these elements, but only lightly, so as to respect their inherent sonic properties (for example, feel free to edit selectively to isolate segments, and to adjust relative volume and pitch).

Deadline: Monday, July 2, at 11:59pm wherever you are.

Length: Please keep your track to between 2 and 5 minutes.

Information: Please when posting your track on SoundCloud, please include a description of your process in planning, composing, and recording it. This description is an essential element of the communicative process inherent in the Disquiet Junto.

Title/Tag: When adding your track to the Disquiet Junto group on Soundcloud.com, please include the term “disquiet0026-composting”in the title of your track, and as a tag for your track.

Download: As always, you don’t have to set your track for download, but it would be preferable.

Linking: When posting the track please include this information:

More details on the Disquiet Junto at:


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