My 33 1/3 book, on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, was the 5th bestselling book in the series in 2014. It's available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

Monthly Archives: February 2018

Instagram Improvisations

A turntable-sampler miniature from San Francisco musician k'in sventa

A post shared by k'in sventa (@kin_sventa) on

It’s almost redundant for a self-producing musician to employ the word “improvising” when posting a short performance video on Instagram. The Instagram shorts are invariably bedroom setups, or portable-rig excursions, or trial runs of new tools and new techniques. They’re almost all improvisations to one degree or another. These videos feel intimate not just because they’re shot in a personal setting. These videos feel intimate because the musician involved has opened up their world a bit, done something they’ve maybe not done before or that they know full well to be a work in progress. The idea of work in progress excites them, and they’ve invited the listener to check it out — not just the listener, but the viewer, who witnesses the cables and equipment, the hesitation of an extended finger, the imperfection of the framing, the minimal editing and virtual absence of post-production.

In this brief recent Instagram video from the musician k’in sventa, who is based in San Francisco, you hear the clackety keys of the sampler almost as clearly as you do the old piece of vinyl spinning nearby. That sound of the keys is almost — not quite but almost — part of the piece as a whole. In it, a short segment of the vinyl recording is fed into the sampler, and we hear it at the same time as the sampler hears it. Then, with a few key presses, the sample plays back, at first stuttered, then layered, then flourishing into a vibrant array of half-familiar elements, some glitches and others held tones, all as the turntable needle is returned to a resting position. Eventually a proper beat kicks in. If you look closely, the left hand is momentarily doubled as the video splices to later footage with the drums employed. The production of the video is as much an improvisation as the performance itself. That’s part of the pleasure.

Video originally posted to the k’in sventa Instgram page. More at soundcloud.com/kinsventa and trueindigo.bandcamp.com.

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The Sound of One Sound Glitching

The work of the Japan-based musician Ichion

The Japan-based musician who goes by the name Ichion explains the barebones appellation in a brief SoundCloud account bio. By this telling, “ichi” is the Japanese word for “one,” and “on” is the Japanese word for “sound.” All of the music on the Ichion account is extrapolated from a single sound. Well, more than one sound is present on the account. It’s that each individual Ichion track is “made from one sound only.” There are, of course, multiple sounds within each track, because Ichion transforms each seed sound into glitchy, rhythmic treats.

Some of the resulting music is downright club-ready, and some, like “Dada,” is enticingly minimal. “Dada” begins with the sense that something has gone wrong. The beat snaps and repeats like a machine rebooting on instinct. That cycle continues to dominate the track, as darker, more mechanical renditions of the central sound become more pronounced. A low throb and a froggy clip-clop then dominate until all the sonic pieces slowly disappear one at a time. The work is a small triumph of editing, of doing more not just with less but with virtually nothing.

“Dada” is just one track among dozens on Ichion’s account. Dig into the chase-scene momentum of “Erueee,” or the funky industrial music of “Chikara Chikara,” and all the other one-note wonders.

Track originally posted to soundcloud.com/ichionmusic.

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The Actions Within

An ambient performance video by r beny

I grew interested in live performance videos of ambient music based on an idea, and perhaps inevitably what came to be of interest to me was in marked contrast with where I started out.

What interested me at the start was the tension between inaction and inaction, between the perceived stasis of much if not most ambient music, and the simple fact that, in live performance, action is taking place. In other words, if ambient music is a balloon floating in air, then performance — that is, live production — is the hands that keep the balloon afloat.

There were other things afoot, too. As someone who writes about technologically mediated sound and to that end fiddles with the technology involved in mediating sound, I was always looking for videos in which the technology was put to use in a manner that was informative. Sometimes this meant tutorials, but often it just meant observing an instrument — a synthesizer module, a foot pedal, the construction of a tape loop — in practice. Problem was, the vast majority of videos employing this equipment usually had music I had no interest in listening to.

So, I started a YouTube playlist, now 79 videos long and growing, by collecting videos of live ambient performance. A regular presence in this playlist is r beny, whose music is richly ambient, and whose videos do nothing to disguise his techniques. Quite the contrary, they are studies in the connection between the action and inaction I was initially interested in. But as time has passed, one of the things I’ve noticed about r beny’s videos in particular, and many other live ambient performances in general, is how much the music comes alive when you pay attention to what’s happening on screen.

On its own, the audio of this video, “The Magnetic Sea,” is a lush conglomeration of sun-dabbled synthesis and warped, sun-damaged tonalities. But when watched live, when attention is paid to what r beny is up to, the interior moments of the piece gain a sense of distinction that was previously hidden beneath the sublime surface (which, if you studied literature in college, is sort of a redundant comment, but more on that another time). You needn’t know what r beny is using in this set, or what the individual controls necessarily do. Much as the lights on the devices give you a sense of interior tempo, his hand actions are synced to shifts and changes within the greater work. “The Magnetic Sea” is a beautiful piece of music to do other things to (read, write, think, sleep), and an all the more beautiful piece to pay utmost attention to — a duality that is at the heart of the definition of ambient music in the first place.

Video originally posted to r beny’s YouTube page. The musician r beny is Austin Cairns, who is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. More from beny/Cairns at soundcloud.com/rbeny and rbeny.bandcamp.com.

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When a Study Isn’t an Étude

A guitar pedal put through the motions

If you listen to experimental music in public, you might be familiar with being helpfully informed that what you’re listening to isn’t actually music. That approbation takes on a different meaning when it comes to another sort of listening, which is when musicians post rough initial takes of new equipment. Take “Tensor 1 02-18-2018,” which is a guitarist running through settings in a new effects pedal. The loping, sinuous tones are sent backwards and forwards, turned into dense guttural utterances and glitching broken figments along the way, but generally resting in a diffuse, reflective zone. The very shape of the depicted waveform makes it clear this isn’t a single work, but a collection of pieces, of attempts: it is broken into distinct segments, each with its own visibly evident start and end. Yet, while this isn’t even an étude, per se, it is an example of study, and there’s a pleasure to be taken in studying the study, to appreciating the sonic transformations afoot as the musician comes up to speed.

Listen to the track at soundcloud.com/roofhare. The audio is by Kees de Goot, based in Rhode Island. More at twitter.com/Groovehare.

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Music from Instrument Makers

A track from Beijing-based Meng Qi

The talented synthesizer creator Meng Qi is known for crafting a variety of musical equipment, often one-off projects that mix noise and design, touch and technology toward unique creative ends. Based in Beijing, China, Meng Qi also releases music that combines these instruments as part of larger arrays of equipment. Out this past week is a single, “Lights Are from a Window,” self-released on Bandcamp. The music emerges from a thick hum, filling the void with short-circuit fidgets and a melodic drone that brings to mind mid-period Aphex Twin. At just over three minutes, it ends like it’s just getting started, leaving the listener primed for what comes next.

Track available for one dollar (U.S.) at mengqi.bandcamp.com. More from Meng Qi at mengqimusic.com.

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