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A Future in Commons: A Tribute to Bassel Khartabil

A Junto compilation in honor of the slain open-source coder

This is a wonderful thing. Longtime Disquiet Junto participant Rupert Lally gathered tracks from 30-plus musicians to create a tribute album, A Future in Commons: A Tribute to Bassel Khartabil, for the late open-source coder. I think the strength of a community can be gauged to some extent by what occurs when the community’s lead moderator is not involved, and this is an example of such a thing. Aside from putting Rupert in touch, at his request, with the people I know who have been keeping Bassel’s flame lit (Niki Korth, Jon Phillips, Barry Threw), I only wrote this liner note essay. It was Rupert who proposed this compilation album, and it was Rupert who made it happen. I’m very proud of the many Disquiet Junto projects we have done over the years to spread Bassel’s story by finding music in his life and work. I’m hopeful this compilation on Bandcamp will spread that story even further, and help raise funds for the Bassel Khartabil Memorial Fund (more at creativecommons.org).

He was held in a small cell, from which he could view a small patch of sky for a small part of the day. That was after nine months he spent in a cell with no light at all. Before he was imprisoned (detained, held — the words have varying shades of truth and meaning, emphasis and appropriateness, detail and futility), he made three-dimensional CGI renderings of an ancient city. In his old life he created these virtual spaces to help us remember what the world once looked like. Perhaps those powers of imagination helped him envision a world beyond his cell once a cell became his world.

His name was Bassel Khartabil. He was a coder and open-source advocate born in Syria, the same country that would later imprison him and execute him. During his incarceration, and during the extended period when his death was presumed but not yet confirmed, his story became a rallying point around the world. His plight inspired essays, and conference sessions, and political statements. And it inspired music. All the tracks in this collection are sourced from different projects undertaken by members of the Disquiet Junto music community to keep Bassel’s story alive.

The Disquiet Junto is an open community of musicians who respond weekly to shared compositional prompts. Facets of Bassel’s life provided several such prompts over the years. We created soundscapes to bring a new dimension to his CGI renderings. We sampled his voice and turned it into music. We created VR scores, and we tried to extrapolate sound from the poetic language of his correspondence. In the end, what we tried to do was spread word of his plight, to keep his story alive even after he was no longer.

The “commons” is an essential metaphor that inspires open source activity. It is in the Creative Commons that people can build on each other’s work, to freely create things that neither party would have imagined possible separately. We often speak of the commons through related words, such as “community” and “communal.” We speak of the open-source community, and of communal effort. Through the Disquiet Junto projects, we’ve tried to connect with Bassel in yet another way — to commune with his spirit.

More on Bassel Khartabil at freebassel.org.

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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