Patterns and Illusions

From Unstable Range, aka Andrea Peregrini of Austria

Unstable Range’s “Karussell” is two things. The first is a series of short melodic bursts, little single-note streams of playful, buoyant effortlessness. They bring to mind a childlike perspective. They glitch and rupture on occasion, notes held in a near-static space, bouncing like marbles in a small box made of rubber sides. Notes toward the end of their duration fizz upward and outward, like a distant firework or a spray of soda.

The second thing is an underlying layer of echo, of repetition. Each segment of these playful melodies is heard several times, bounding quickly into the sonic distance. There’s an illusion of chords, the notes teaming up in small groups, but it’s just that, an illusion. The repetition isn’t merely a harmonic slight of hand. The patterning suggests, at times, that the piece is moving more quickly, the pacing of the echo matching nearly enough that of the main melody and doubling it, tripling it. Despite which appearances, it’s just a single thread repeated as if in a hall of mirrors. It’s quite splendid.

Track originally posted at Unstable Range is Andrea Peregrini of Austria.

Listening to Yesterday: Blinded

After the window opens


The back window hadn’t been open regularly for some time, not for more than an hour or so at a time, always with the shade pulled down to the slit opening. This was because of the drought. The drought meant turning off the water in the yard, and turning off the water meant the plants that were supposed to grow didn’t and the plants that weren’t supposed to grow did. Working in the back room, far from the street, meant a certain amount of quiet. The shut windows reduced planes and birds to a muffled whisper.

This summer the yard was reworked with low-water plants, native to our region or to regions that bear climatic resemblance to our region. The yard was no longer a post-apocalyptic vision of neglect, and the window was open all the time. Briefly. Then came the discovery of black widow spiders — speaking of things thriving in the absence of rain — which led to some research before the exterior ledges and walls were cleaned (broom rinse repeat).

Yesterday the window was open much of the day, and I was home much of the day. Having the backyard rejuvenated makes the house seem bigger. The open window extends sight lines. The space to sit expands in turn, even when that usable space is imaginary (mental sight lines) during the summer San Francisco fog. Planes and birds are louder now, as are the wind, and the neighbors, and the stray cat, and the occasional helicopter.

Previously the window muffled the outside. Yesterday I sat at my desk, back to the window, peaking occasionally over my shoulder out the window at plants whose names I knew and herbs I’d cooked with just the night before. Something had drawn my attention. There was a rattle. The pull-strings from the shades rustled in the breeze. They conversed with a small mobile on the other side of the house. Having an open window in the back meant the open window in the front now had a partner in air-flow. The mobile rustled. The shade strings rustled. The rustling created a foreground noise. It provided a sonic metric of the wind, and also a distraction from noises further away. Deep into the afternoon I realized I hadn’t heard a plane or a bird or a neighbor. The rustling string had created a subtle aural distraction, something for the mind to secondarily focus on, in favor over more distant distractions. Opening the window had removed a physical partition, but in turn a sonic partition had presented itself.

(Photo by i_yudai, used via Flickr and a Creative Commons license.)

Listening to Yesterday: Bathroom Cues

The absence of sound as consumer-product sound design

Twice a day my mouth turns into a cavernous venue for what could be mistaken for a solo didgeridoo concert. This is when I use my electric toothbrush. It’s battery-charged, and takes close to half a day to get enough power for it to last a few weeks. I know the toothbrush is due for a charge when the light persists in blinking after I’m done brushing. I know I’m done brushing because the room, along with my mouth, goes silent. Previous to that silence, for two minutes straight from start to finish, my mouth reverberates with the sound and sensation of bristles going full speed.

When I first started using the electric toothbrush, after a lifetime with the unplugged sort, I was concerned I’d made a terrible and not inexpensive mistake. Those vibrations are my least favorite part of my thrice-annual dental visit. There’s a quiet ferocity to them, and the hum of the machine is matched by the ticklish tinging where gums meet teeth. After a short time, thankfully, I became comfortable with the brush, and now I rarely travel without it. I came, in fact, to admire the vibrations, or more specifically the use of the vibrations as a design element.

There’s a particularly ingenious aspect to the electric toothbrush’s vibrations. Every 30 seconds there is a lull, not a cesura, just the briefest of pauses. The lull is a signal. It means rotate, like we used to do in volleyball during gym class back in high school. The brush is programmed to match the quadrants of a human mouth: front top, front bottom, back top, back bottom. The lull, a split-second drop in the rotary drone, is a signal to switch quadrants. Kudos to the device’s designers, who opted to use the absence of sound as a cue, rather than adding a beep. The absence of sound is one of the great tools in a sound designer’s toolbox. It’s a difficult choice for a designer to leave something out, rather than to add something.

The lack of a beep in the brushing is matched by that battery alert. It’s risky to have something as important as battery life be gauged simply by a little light. What if you put down the toothbrush quickly after brushing? What if you place it on the counter so the light is turned away from you? What if the bathroom is brightly lit? No matter. This brush would rather you learn the hard way. One cycle back with the archaic “manual”brush is a small price to pay to be trained to keep an eye on that light in regard to your toothbrush’s battery life. The absence of the beep as an alert, for both the quadrant-swapping and the battery notification, feels like a conscious acknowledgement of the utility scenario, of the quiet period when brushing takes place: early in the morning and late in the evening. Those are times when any additional noise is especially unwelcome, in life and in consumer-product design.

The World-Weary Robots of Wouter van Veldhoven

Something akin to a team-up between Pierre Bastien and Nam June Paik

Before hitting play, consider expanding this video to full-screen, and turning off your lights, and wearing headphones, and maybe even dimming the screen a bit. For 10 minutes, immerse yourself in this compound-like studio installation of Wouter van Veldhoven. The performance is titled “automated reed organ, old televisions, radios and other machines,” which is helpful, because otherwise we’d very much be in the dark, quite literally, about what’s going on. Lights swell and recede, giving snapshot glimpses of equipment, notably a wide array of old reel-to-reel tape recorder-players, and cathode-ray TVs tuned to no channel in particular. The pacing and the clack of the momentary illumination suggests a slide projector is in effect. The “automated” aspect of the title gives some sense of what’s going on, that the machines are being triggered in various ways that treats them more like samples in physical form than as musical interfaces, and the line items of equipment explain what’s being triggered. The result is something akin to a team-up between Pierre Bastien (robotic derivations of old-world instrumentation, notably that sad-sack reed organ) and Nam June Paik (Cold War”“era media art). It’s a tremendous piece, bringing to mind steampunk aesthetics, but exploring them without the emphasis on fashion filigree. There’s little here that doesn’t need to be here. There’s no visual artifice added to the tape machines or the TV, for example. They’ve just been jacked into a hand-made system that produces archaic, romantic music. Part of the romance relates to van Veldhoven’s presence. He’s seen coming in and out of view, apparently tweaking the apparatuses, like a custodian from a Hayao Miyazaki movie who is charged with the constant maintenance of some fragile, failing infrastructure.

Video originally posted at the YouTube channel of Wouter van Veldhoven, who is based in Utrecht. More from him at and

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

Listening to Yesterday: Printing Sound

How onomatopoeia gets presented in books

Reading books to my little kid has been an education, for me, in how words are presented and expressed on a page, especially words related to sound. Onomatopoeia is ever present in kids books, often set off from the rest of the text in italics, and with an expressive exclamation point, like the thunk! with which a car trunk closed prior to the start of a family trip in a book I read aloud just yesterday at bedtime. That thunk! was in a book written in full chapters. In books for a younger age, books intended for early readers, such “sound words” might appear as playful typography, the letters of a “boing!” treated in varying sizes, and with numerous n’s, to suggest a spring-like effect, or set off in an artist’s rendering, apart from the main body text.

It’s unclear to me if the distinction is intended to be playful or cautious, if effort is being made early on to make it clear that, say, “blech” is not a word in the way that, say, “bleach” is a word. (Then again, “blech” is from Yiddish. It’s a transliterated onomatopoeia, so maybe it gets grandfathered in as an “actual” word after all.) In books for older kids, the distinction is presumably already ingrained. By that stage, italics seem sufficient as a gentle reminder. Italics are a useful tool, able to imply speed and slowness, loud and soft, depending on the context. Also useful is a pair of em-dashes, which provide a safe zone — a “these aren’t real words” quarantine — from the rest of the narrative.

I was reminded, while staring at the “thunk!” on the page, of how, when I first started out interviewing musicians, I took cues from plays as to how to present the dialog of a Q&A, how “…” at the end of a statement meant someone was trailing off in their speech, and how an em-dash meant they were being cut off. And, how after their interlocutor spoke, starting off with an em-dash suggested they were picking up where they left off. I thought about how, when I worked in manga for half a decade, I became conscious of how Japanese comics use any number of dots in an ellipsis to suggest the length of a pause, and how in Japanese and American comics alike, and elsewhere around the globe, “sounds words” are often presented as dramatic, page-spanning events unto themselves. By then, though, my kid was deep asleep. We’ll discuss this all another time …