The Monk by the Desert

A conflicted meditation by Zagreb-based Ivan Ujevic

The track has a protean rattle, a breathy noise that shares kinship with the antic blare of the vuvuzela, with the mystic call of the didgeridoo, and with the vibrant particulate of the rain stick. But since the sound is not as immediately recognizable as any of those, it shifts easily into a nether zone. Thick overtones charge the track with meditative spaciousness, even as that reflective cast is challenged by arid textures and an underlying sonic turmoil. Swells introduce pause-like structural moments as they die down, and an anxious sense of narrative as they inevitably rise back up again. Titled “Desert,” it’s a nearly three-minute piece by Ivan Ujevic of Zagreb, Croatia, who records as the Monk by the Sea. It’s from his album Drones, which includes a collaboration with Victor Yibril, released earlier this week.

Track originally posed at More from the Monk by the Sea at,, and

A John Cage Master Class (on the Junto Slack)

Mark Lentczner recounts an hour-long meeting with the bard of chance.


This thread is extracted from a conversation yesterday on the recently launched Disquiet Junto discussion Slack — that is, on the platform (if you’re interested in joining in, send me an email at [email protected]). The subject of “randomness” or “chance” in music was brought up by J. Siemasko (aka Schemawound), and then fleshed out in conversation between Joe McMahon, Ian Joyce, Anatol Locker, Robert M. Thomas (aka Dizzy Banjo), and others. And then Mark Lentczner said he had a story about John Cage he wanted to share.

Around 7:30pm Lentczner (aka mtnviewmark on the Junto Slack) did exactly that, recounting an encounter with Cage at Harvard where Lentczner studied with Ivan Tcherepnin. The above photo (from shows Tcherepnin, right, and his two sons, on the left, with Cage. The photo below (from shows the Harvard Electronic Music Studio from that era. This is Lentczner’s story about Cage visiting a music class he was attending (“in the early 1980s”), along with some interstitial comments from other Junto Slack members.


mtnviewmark [7:33 PM]
Randomness is the topic of the day

SO – Once, a long time ago, in a land before MIDI, I studied electronic music.

(This is early 1980s)

One of the assignments in the electronic music class taught by Ivan Tcherepnin was to make a realization of Cage’s ”‹Variations I”‹

If you don’t know this piece, it involves taking a square piece of paper with splattered ink drops on it, and overlaying it with five pieces of acetate, on each of which is a single line. The idea is the dots represent musical events. You then overly the first acetate sheet, and measure the distance from each dot to the line- the closer it is the sooner in the piece the note occurs, the further, the later. Then you repeat with the second line, only here distance from the line gives the pitch of the event. Third is volume, fourth is duration, and fifth gives timbre.

So essentially you generate a random collection of musical events (perhaps notes), from this very random process… and then you play it. On whatever instrument(s) you want.

So – every year the dozen students in the course would do this. Some would tape splice carefully. Others would turn knobs on the modular synth to match events. And so on… And it was always interesting the day the assignments were played where we’d listen to these dozen realizations of a “random” piece.

[Strikes me like Cage was writing us a Junto…. eh?]

After having done this myself, my first year. In a subsequent year (I was at this point not in the class, just studying 1-on-1 with Ivan), I decided that I would “get at the heart of this piece” by ”‹automating the randomness”‹: I programmed an Apple ][ (pre-Mac, folks!), to make the spatters, draw the lines, do the measurements, assemble the notes, play the tones (covering occurance, pitch, duration, and volume), and output CV to a modular synth (for timbre), which processed the whole output.

Essentially, you hit play, and…. it’d played a 90 second ”‹Variation I”‹ realization. Press it again, and you got another.

It so happened this year that we were to be treated to a very special experience: A week or two after the class did ”‹Variations I”‹, Ivan arranged for John Cage to come visit and talk with the class.


Over the course of the afternoon, Cage talked with us, and listened to us – and at some point the class played their ”‹Variations I”‹ realizations and there was wonderful discussion.

But then…. Ivan had also arranged that after the class was over, Cage would spend an hour or so with just me, in the small side studio I now used for my computer and synth work.

Of course, I was brimming to tell him, and play him, my automatic ”‹Variations I”‹ program. I explained how it worked, what it did… and how I loved that “by listening to variation after variation, as the randomness played out across the space, eventually the listener would come to hear the ”‹essence”‹ of the piece, the ”‹composition would show through”‹ the randomness.”

To me, this was obviously wonderful – indeed a key to randomness in music: We want to add variation, with some degree of unpredictability, to elicit a kind of feeling in the music – whether it is just tiny sample & hold added to our percussion patches to make the drums sound less mechanical, or it is random melodies choosen by Markov chain – this is a kind of controlled-unpredictable algorithmic composition.

Ahhhhh…. and I had done it for this great work, ”‹Variations I”‹ by the great master, John Cage.

(can you see where this is going….?)


marc.weidenbaum [7:53 PM]
@mtnviewmark: I think so, but I hope I’m wrong.

mtnviewmark [7:54 PM]
Cage listened, and in his incredibly thoughtful, quiet tone, being the great teacher who doesn’t aim to teach, but is just before their students….

qdot [7:54 PM]
braces himself.

mtnviewmark [7:54 PM]
…pointed out that I had completely missed the point of the piece, and my realization was just wrong.

For ”‹his”‹ aim, in employing randomness, was not to employ a controlled chaos in service to his composition. But to get away from it ”‹being his composition”‹. To remove his ego from his composition as much as possible [his direct phrasing].

He did not want a different set of random notes on each repetition. He wanted exactly the set of notes the randomness determined when the performer prepared the work. He wanted the audience to listen to ”‹that”‹ exact musical line. To hear it, for what ”‹it”‹ is, not for what ”‹he”‹ composed.

natetrier [7:58 PM]
So the preparation was crucial, in his perception. Almost like a ritual. Interesting.

mtnviewmark [7:58 PM]
Yes – and needed so that it wasn’t ”‹him”‹ we were all applauding at the end. But the experience.

I can’t begin to tell you how profound this hour with Cage was for me.

For not only did I now begin to understand what his work was truely about.

But I began to think about what was my work about, for me, what was I doing, and why.

And it was an incredible expansion of my understanding of what it could mean to make music.

I hope the story helps bring that expansion in some small way to you.


marc.weidenbaum [8:03 PM]
That is really great. Thanks, @mtnviewmark.

qdot [8:03 PM]
Wow. :smile:

mtnviewmark [8:04 PM]
Most welcome! So glad to have finally found a community, lo these many years out of college, who are into thinking so much about music. Thank you again, @marc.weidenbaum!

qdot [8:04 PM]
And I mean, I consider you energetic /now/. I can’t imagine back then, as opposed to quiet, reserved Cage. :slightlysmilingface:

marc.weidenbaum [8:04 PM]
I have to ask, did he inquire at all about the effort you put into your realization, the employment of that early Apple?

mtnviewmark [8:05 PM]
He was quite interested in the means of preparation, he was genuinely interested in any means to make music.

We also talked about some of my other algorithmic works and I played some for him – I think he liked using anything to come to music.

leerosevere [8:11 PM]
Great story! It reminds me of his love of employing the I Ching method for composing almost anything. I would love to read a book of personal Cage stories.

mtnviewmark [8:12 PM]
I was using Forth on an Apple ][, after meeting with David Behrman in NYC (his loft studio was like a wonderland to me at the time – to be living in a warehouse loft in NYC surrounded by analog music devices all day…..) I’m pretty sure that Cage knew of Behrman’s work at the time.

Dave Wilson had built for me this giant interface board for the Apple ][ – something like 16 CVs out, 8 CVs in, and I think 12 triggers in each direction

it was a monster – but it enabled us to interconnect the Apple ][ to the Serge Modular .

marc.weidenbaum [8:15 PM]
So cool. So very cool.

mtnviewmark [8:17 PM]
But I admit the impact of that discussion, and implications for my philosophy of music, overshadowed anything else we talked about.

mtnviewmark [8:27 PM]
@leerosevere: I had found a book on the I Ching as an 11 year old in the bottom of a box of contents from a county auction. Dutifully cut yarrow stalks and followed it. Imagine my surprise in college discovering musical works made with it!

jicamasalad [11:08 PM]
@mtnviewmark: Thanks for sharing that beautifully Cage-ian episode – I can’t begin to imagine what a treasured experience that must be for you. I’ll throw in my (second-hand) Cage moment because it speaks to the same heart of his art: A good friend worked on the union stage crew at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall in the early 1990’s; there was to be a performance by Merce Cunningham’s group with a new work by Cage employing something along the lines of 50 or so loudspeakers on the stage. My friend, being well aware of Cage’s music and methods, wanted to make sure everything was set up just right, and summoned the courage to approach the master as the speakers were being brought in. “Excuse me, Mr. Cage,”he said, “do you have a stage plan, layout or instructions for how these 50 speakers should be set up for the performance?” JC turned with his characteristic kind and open smile and said: “It makes absolutely no difference whatsoever.” !! I think of that nearly every time I get myself stuck on some detail or other”¦.

A Pixel Fire

Three frames capture the performance, and occasional "brutal digital audioclipping"

The musician working from the traumaduo/spacebox720 account on YouTube apologizes at the opening of this video for the “brutal digital audioclipping” — his exact words — that occurs in the track. The clipping is especially evident right after the nine-minute mark, when a harsh rupture, a pixel fire, briefly invades the previously placid, lightly padded space. That sonic fire quickly recedes, and the patient, soft music, gently percussive music proceeds. The clipping there is as much an echo as it is a rupture, bringing to mind a quieter fissure at the three-minute mark, and other punctuations that occur over the course of the piece. I note this video not only for its listening pleasure, but for the format of the performance presentation. It appears as three images: one large, two small, each showing a different perspective on the instrumentation, allowing him to move freely among the tools and almost always have his actions captured. (Such a format has been on my mind for a possible project, and then I stumbled on this employment while searching for music that uses devices by the musician-designer Meng Qi, who’s based in Beijing, China). In addition there are computer-generated images that lend some science-fiction drama to the undertaking.

Video originally posted at It’s the latest piece I’ve added to my ongoing YouTube playlist of fine “Ambient Performances.”

RIP, Other Music

Aphex Twin makes its top-100 sales chart.


This white board shows the top 100 albums sold at the excellent record retailer Other Music in its 20 years of existence in downtown Manhattan. The store shuts this week, on June 25, and the board was posted commemoratively at the website yesterday with some light annotation. I first saw the picture when Amon Tobin tweeted about it, saying, “Peace out Other Music. There will never be another store that can move over 1000 copies of an Amon Tobin record.” There’s only one Aphex Twin record on the board, and while the photo cuts off, it appears to be Selected Ambient Works Volume 2. All it says is “Ambient” with what looks like the “2” truncated mid-numeral (a reading confirmed by that Brooklyn Vegan post).

20160620-othermusic copy

When Bloomsbury published my 33 1/3 book on Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 in 2014, one bit of feedback that confused me was from people who couldn’t understand why I hadn’t written instead about the earlier Selected Ambient Works, or the album titled Richard D. James Album, or another of his releases. My response was usually along the lines of “I wrote about this record because it’s the record that captured my imagination.” What interested me about the Other Music board is that no other Aphex Twin record made the list — not only did Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 appear on the top 100, it was the only Aphex record to make that cutoff. As the discussion at Brooklyn Vegan makes clear, Other Music had its own take on culture (“OM was more DJ Shadow or … J. Dilla than the Beasties,” writes Bill Pearis). While consumers were free to buy what they wanted at the store, the store in various ways shaped the tastes of the people who shopped there.

The store was also, in turn, shaped by time. Other Music’s history closely parallels’s. It launched in 1995, a year before did, and it was right around the corner from Tower Records. I was still an editor at the Pulse! music magazines published by Tower in 1995 — I joined the company in 1989 and left in 1996, a decision that led me to start, which turns 20 on December 13, 2016. Tower was based in West Sacramento, and I lived alternately in Davis and Sacramento during my tenure. I’d moved to California from Brooklyn in 1989 to take the job. Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 was released in 1994, a year before Other Music opened.

The culture of a record store, the way you learn about music, is something that online retailers (including streaming services) have failed so far to emulate particularly well. Rdio probably came closest among the streaming companies, and it still went out of business. When you are in a physical record store, you learn from the room, watching what others buy, conversing with clerks, reading short reviews, listening to what’s playing and asking about it. Other Music was a valuable one-room schoolhouse, as record-learning goes. Up until Tower Records closed down, whenever I went back to New York to attend a Bang on a Can festival or interview a musician, or meet with record labels, Other Music was always a stop. It felt a bit like cheating to walk across the street from Tower, but the cheating was always in service of the magazines’ coverage.