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Monthly Archives: November 2014

For the Record: Raster-Noton

An essay on the label's Olaf Bender and Carsten Nicolai


I mentioned this last year, but am only now getting around to posting the text. I was invited to write an essay for the tremendous book For the Record: Conversations with People Who Have Shaped the Way We Listen to Music. Published by Red Bull Music Academy in late 2013, it is a collection of marvelous team-ups, such as Martyn Ware talking with Nile Rodgers, and Lee “Scratch”Perry talking with Adrian Sherwood, and Robert Henke talking with Tom Oberheim. Each of the participants has an essay providing background on their activities, and I was asked to write one on Carsten Nicolai and Olaf Bender, who co-run the great Raster-Noton label and who speak with Uwe Schmidt in the book. Here’s the text of my essay:

By 1999, the Berlin Wall was dust for a decade, and a new threshold was in view. Though the next millennium would not begin, technically, until 2001, the year 2000 hovered just ahead in the popular imagination with a mix of portent and promise. This anticipation in mind, the German record label Noton invited an international assortment of musicians to contribute to a monthly series of recordings titled 20’ to 2000.

Each participant was directed to record what they felt might play on a home stereo for the 20 minutes just before bells would bring in 2000. A dozen in all, these contributors included Thomas Brinkmann, Scanner (AKA Robin Rimbaud), Mika Vainio (of the duo Panasonic) and Wolfgang Voigt. Their music, a mix of emotionally remote glitch and ambient, signaled a considered ambivalence about the future. The releases were as stark in packaging as they were sonically: Composed of standard-size CDs, the outer two inches of which were fully transparent, encased in nearly mark-less clamshells, each connecting to the next with small magnets, resulting in something like the vertebrae of a squat cyborg snake.

Also among the participants were Carsten Nicolai, who had since the mid-1990s run Noton as his own concern, and Olaf Bender, who had around the same time founded — alongside Frank Bretschneider — the label Rastermusic. The imprints shared an interest in viscerally ascetic, ecstatically minimal tracks. Music that whittled the rhythmic intent of techno down to myriad displays of patterning.

The series not only announced the beginning of a new chronological mindset, but coincided with a merger: Noton and Rastermusic would become Raster-Noton. Since the 1999 union, visual design and sonic experimentation have been its hallmarks. The label has released a sequence of recordings that, while originating from a variety of musicians, can be heard to collectively explore a shared territory. Raster-Noton effectively existed as a homestead on the frontier of digital art, and then waited until the rest of the planet caught up.

Today, of course, data visualization is pervasive, but its accepted norms can be tracked back to the early efforts of Bender, Nicolai, and the cohort they assembled at Raster-Noton, most notably Ryoji Ikeda, who has made a name for himself by filling art spaces with immersive barcode projections. The expressly global Raster-Noton label has served as a safe haven to Russian-born CoH, Swedish tape-music tinkerer Carl Michael von Hausswolff, British broken-techno duo snd (Mark Fell and Mat Steel) and a crew of Americans, among them to sound artist Richard Chartier, microsound explorer Kim Cascone and William Basinski, best known for his work with decaying tape loops.

The label has also been home to the unceasing productivity of Bender and Nicolai themselves. Nicolai’s solo releases, usually under the name Alva Noto, can often sound less like individual records than like the latest in a series of missives from a rarefied landscape. He is also prolific collaborator, having recorded alongside artists as diverse as Ryoji Ikeda, with whom he shares a love of immersive data environs, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose melodic proclivities offer a useful counterpoint. Those efforts have increasingly made him as prominent in art galleries as he is in clubs (How many techno musicians have work in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art?) His books, such as Grid Index and Moiré Index, look exactly like his music sounds: geometric structures whose complexity is rooted in slight shifts rather than sweeping gestures.

Like Nicolai, Bender is as much a graphic innovator as musician. It is a distinction that he willfully blurs, as in the title to his 2008 album, Death of a Typographer. The music found within has the cadence and intent of techno, but registers as barely a sequence of blips — the blueprint for techno in the form of a click track. Bender generally records under the moniker Byetone, and is given to koan-grade pronouncements about dedication to luxurious aridity. He once told an interviewer that he prefers the phrase “How less can I do”to “How much can I do.”

In 2013, Bender and Noto opened for the global synth-pop act Depeche Mode. Bender and Noto’s project for this stadium-proportioned enterprise was Diamond Version, a trio with the Japanese musician Atsuhiro Ito, a virtuoso of the fluorescent light bulb, which he wields like an especially theatrical Jedi knight. The association with Depeche Mode was not implausible, despite the seeming gap between their audiences. In the year prior to the tour, Diamond Version began releasing a series of hard-hitting, club-teasing EPs on the Mute Records label, a longtime residence for Depeche. Around the same time, Noto contributed a remix to a single by VCMG, the two-man supergroup comprised of Depeche Mode’s original songwriter, Vince Clarke, and the man who inherited those duties when Clarke left the band early on, Martin Gore.

The beats of Diamond Version are more louche than much of what Bender or Noto have previously produced — the effect is less white-wall gallery, more opulent urban lounge — but the dance-party tonalities only serve to disguise a trenchant minimalism that is of a piece with their collective catalogs. Diamond Version should be heard not as deviating from their more abstract Raster-Noton activities, but as another layer in the social graph that is Bender and Noto’s combined artistic vision. For we know what happens when new layers are added to corresponding yet inherently distinct data sets: familiar patterns are disrupted, and a new moiré emerges.


More on the book at And here’s something I wrote about the early Raster-Noton set 20′ to 2000, pictured above, back in 2000.

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Year-End Sounds

A seasonally appropriate track by Carbonates on Mars

The sheer glisten of “Warm Tranquility” by Carbonates on Mars suggests it almost immediately as holiday music, as year-end background sounds suitable to the fulcrum-like moment when one year slows considerably, almost to a halt, so as to ease transition to the next. It’s all gentle lulls and bright swells, a full 10 minutes of peace — “peace” often being what people mean when they use the words “silence” or “quiet.”

Track originally posted for free download at Carbonates on Mars is Gareth Farmer of Walsall, Great Britain, more from whom at

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Two Recent Talks

Sound art at CCA + "music comics" at the Academy of Art

I gave two talks recently in San Francisco. The first, on October 23, was part of Chris Kallmyer’s course at the California College of Art. The second, on November 11, was a standalone event at the Academy of Art.

The one for Kallmyer’s course, which is about sound as an artistic medium, was a chronology of my work in sound, starting in 2006 and running up to the present. That initial year, 2006, a decade after the launch of, was, in retrospect, a big transition year for me. That was the year I put together the Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet compilation, as a response to the open call for remixes that Brian Eno and David Byrne created to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their classic My Life in the Bush of Ghosts album. I then connected the dots from Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet through a subsequent series of compilations I put together, all of which involved me asking musicians to respond to a specific compositional prompt — for example to defend Susan Philipsz in Lowlands: A Sigh Collective, to refute Megan McArdle in Despite the Downturn. Those 2010 projects led to a loosening of the curatorial method in the 2011 Insta/gr/ambient compilation, which was broader minded, and had about twice as many members as the earlier projects, and that in turn led to the far more open-ended Disquiet Junto, which as of this writing is finishing its 151st weekly project. In between I touched on the 2009 piece I had at the gallery Crewest in Los Angeles, the 2012 project of putting together a score for the exhibit Rob Walker curated at Apex Art in Manhattan, and my piece at a Dubai art gallery at the start of this year, and brought things into the present with the exhibit I currently have at the San Jose Museum of Art (more on which here at shortly). I don’t think I’d ever really done a talk before in which all those things were connected as one continuum. It was very enjoyable to walk through, and Kallmyer’s students were curious, thoughtful, and intelligent.

The talk I gave at the Academy of Art was an overview of the work that went into the four comics I edited recently for Red Bull Music Academy (MF DOOM, DJ Krush, Can / Damo Suzuki, Isao Tomita). In the talk, I began back in 1992, when I started editing the comics at Pulse! magazine for what would turn out to be a decade, and then my half decade at Viz, the manga publisher. The Red Bull Music Academy comics combined those two periods, in that the comics drew creators from both Japan and North America. In preparation for the talk I had a bit of a realization about a question I’ve been asked regularly since 1992: “How do you edit comics?” I’ve long struggled with detailed explanations of what it means to edit a comic, and developed this theory about how people who can’t draw can have a tendency to read too much into how complex drawing is, when for someone who can draw a rough illustration is about as much effort as a paragraph is for a good writer. But I now think the question “How do you edit comics?” may have at its root a more simple misunderstanding. When a lot of people hear the word “edit” they think it means, at most, “copyedit,” and they are confused by how you can “copyedit” a picture. In the talk I gave at the Academy of Art I explained that true editing is, ultimately, a form of creative direction, whether or not pictures are involved. Anyhow, the opportunity to talk about comics at the Academy of Art (which is where I’ve taught my sound course for five semesters so far) was very enjoyable, and it was organized by Cameron Maddux.

Many thanks to Kallmyer and Maddux for the opportunities.

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Disquiet Junto Project 0151: Reliving Dead

The Assignment: Score a segment of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead using the movie's audio as source material.


Each Thursday in the Disquiet Junto group on and at, 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 in the Junto is open: just join and participate.

This assignment was made in the evening, California time, on Thursday, November 20, with 11:59pm on the following Monday, November 24, 2014, as the SoundCloud deadline — though the encouraged optional video part of the assignment can wait a day or two longer, if necessary.

These are the instructions that went out to the group’s email list (at

Disquiet Junto Project 0151: Reliving Dead
The Assignment: Score a segment of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead using the movie’s audio as source material.

Step 1: Download the classic film Night of the Living Dead, which is in the public domain, at the following URL:

Step 2: Locate a short segment of interest, between 1 and 3 minutes, in which there is no musical score present.

Step 3: Compose a score for your chosen segment using only the audio from that segment as the source material. You can alter the source audio in any way you choose. You just can’t add any new sounds.

Step 4: Upload the finished track to the Disquiet Junto group on SoundCloud.

Step 5: Listen to and comment on tracks uploaded by your fellow Disquiet Junto participants.

Step 6: This part is optional, and you can take an additional couple of days if you need them. Upload the video segment combining the original audio and your score, and link to it from the notes field in your SoundCloud track.

Length: Your finished work should be between 1 and 3 minutes long, depending entirely on the length of the segment you selected.

Deadline: This assignment was made in the evening, California time, on Thursday, November 20, with 11:59pm on the following Monday, November 24, 2014, as the deadline.

Upload: Please when posting your track on SoundCloud, only upload one track for this assignment, and 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, please include the term “disquiet0151-relivingdead” in the title of your track, and as a tag for your track.

Download: It is preferable that your track is set as downloadable, and that it allows for attributed remixing (i.e., a Creative Commons license permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution).

Linking: When posting the track, please be sure to include this information:

More on this 151st Disquiet Junto project — “Score a segment of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead using the movie’s audio as source material”— at:

Disquiet Junto Project 0151: Reliving Dead

More on the Disquiet Junto at:

Join the Disquiet Junto at:

Disquiet Junto general discussion takes place at:

Image from the George Romero film Night of the Living Dead.

Tags: , , / Comments: 2 ] Email Newsletter

Getting back into people's inboxes

As the past few items posted here suggest, I’ve rebooted the email newsletter. I used to do a Disquiet email newsletter quite frequently back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In fact, I created Tower Records’ email newsletter, epulse, way back in 1994, two years before I launched Disquiet, and edited it on and off for a decade. I’m feeling pretty good about the new Disquiet email newsletter format, and that online reading habits are back in an email-friendly, newsletter-friendly mode. The old newsletters will be archived at The first one is there now. Subscribers got it late Tuesday evening (California time — well, technically just after midnight on Wednesday). Generally speaking the material in it is a series of short items about music, the role of sound in media and art, some recent listening. I’ll occasionally have contests for giveaways of books and albums and apps and so forth. Some of the published material will be unique to the newsletter, some will draw from existing Disquiet posts, and some will be repurposed on the site.

You can subscribe here:

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