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: August 2018

Listening to le Carré

Key moments of sonic telling in Our Kind of Traitor

Surveillance is both a phylum and an order of sound. It is both a context within which sound occurs, and a subset of the way sound functions. We listen intently, and we overhear; we overhear on purpose, and by chance. Our ears are focused by what we want to hear, and by what, as the pristine familiar phrase so succinctly summarizes, catches our ear.

There is very little overt, carefully detailed attention to sound in Our Kind of Traitor, the 2010 thriller by master spy novelist John le Carré — despite the fact that throughout the book, secrets are documented on little tape recorders, and phones are tapped, and everyone with the slightest bit of skin in the game is paying fierce attention at all moments, deciphering words and the tonality in which they are couched. With the exception of a few key moments, that action goes unexamined. However, when le Carré does choose to apply his scalpel of a pen to discerning the act of listening with the same consideration he applies to manners, posture, class, the intersection of international and personal politics, and all things sartorial, he of course excels. Here are five such instances from Our Kind of Traitor:

1. In the Wind:

He could hear the three winds battling round Dima’s glistening bald head. He could see the treetops above him shaking. He could hear the crashes of leaves and a gurgle of water, and he knew it was the same tropical rain that had drenched him in the forests of Colombia. Had Dima made his recording in a single session or in several? Did he have to brace himself with shots of vodka between sessions in order to overcome his vory inhibitions?

The “he” here is a second-tier spy — nth tier in the circles of hellish bureaucracy that define the modern intelligence service, but second in the small crew that make up the book’s team. The spy’s name is Luke. Here he is listening to a tape recording by a would-be defector, a Russian money launderer by name of Dima. We witness Luke’s craft and shortcomings, his perceptive skills and his self-pity, working hand in hand as he listens to, and projects his own experience onto, a recording Dima has made. The recording is Dima’s entreaty to the British spy service. In a way that a written document might not, the sound both provides additional detail about Dima’s situation and transports Luke, momentarily, into his own troubled past. (“Vory” is the term for a Russian crime syndicate of fierce loyalty.)

2. For Ears Only:

“Has Hector been listening to us?”

“I expect so.”

“Watching us?”

“Sometimes it’s better just to listen. Like a radio play.”

The Hector mentioned here is the book’s spymaster. The interlocutors in the bit of dialog are an inquisitive source and the mid-level spy Luke, who is under Hector’s command. Luke reinforces the unique power of sound when taken on its own, devoid of other sensorial data. He also posits a connection between the story being told by le Carré and the concept of the characters experiencing their own lives as if in a scripted drama, touching on matters of fate, and of Luke’s emerging notion of having less control over his own than he would like. (Elsewhere in the book we learn that Luke fails to enjoy the Harry Potter books — an anhedonia that reinforces his separation from his young son. There’s enough fantasy, we’re told, already in his life. There’s something especially British about John le Carré describing a British spy’s inability to appreciate Harry Potter.)

3. For Whom the Bell Tolls:

Perry pressed the bell and at first they heard nothing. The stillness struck Gail as unnatural so she pressed it herself. Perhaps it didn’t work. She gave one long ring then several short ones to hurry everyone up. And it worked after all, because impatient young feet were approaching, bolts were being shot and a lock was turned, and one of Dima’s flaxen-haired sons appeared.

The person who does the listening in this moment is also the one with the least agency of the assembled protagonists. Gail is the girlfriend to Perry. Perry is the book’s initial hero, except in the moments when it lets Luke, Hector, and Gail be the heroes of their own threads of the narrative. Perry and Gail are caught up in Dima’s negotiations with British intelligence. Here, they have gone to collect the family of Dima. Gail’s legal experience often comes into play when she pitches her voice one way or listens to someone else’s. Here her listening skills are brought to bear on her not uninformed paranoia.

4. Go to the Tape:

Then quite suddenly — it was in the evening of the same day — the weather changed, and Hector’s voice rose a notch. Luke’s illicit recorded played the moment back to him.

Luke again here, now in seclusion with Perry, Gail, and Dima’s brood. He has been taping audio late in the book, both his own notes about goings-on, and phone calls with his boss, Hector, who is calling in with updates regarding how he is navigating the halls of power in Dima’s interest. Here, for the first time, Luke revisits a tape, to confirm a suspicion he noticed in the conversation he just had only moments prior. The instance ratchets up Luke’s anxiety, and projects the isolation they all are experiencing.

5. Left in the Cold:

And either there was someone inside to close the door on them or Luke did it for himself: an abrupt sigh of hinges, a double clunk of metal as the door was made fast from inside, and the black hole in the plane’s fuselage disappeared.

That fifth and final sonic moment occurs pages before the book ends. It’s a fateful moment. The book has returned to the point of view with which it originated, the novitiate Perry — Perry, who has learned much as the book has unfolded, including how to listen, and what to listen for. And then it’s a full stop. What happens next is simply, to use one of le Carré’s favored terms, a void. It’s a void for the reader to fill in. The answer may be left to how well the reader has been listening.

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Stasis Report: Ellen Arkbro ✚ Olafur Arnalds ✚ More

Five new and recent tracks added to the ambient playlist on Spotify and Google Play Music as of August 26, 2018

The latest update to my Stasis Report ambient-music playlist. It started out just on on Spotify. As of last week, it’s also on Google Play Music. The following five tracks were added on Sunday, August 26.

✚ “Mountain of Air” from For Organ and Brass by Ellen Arkbro, of Stockholm, Sweden. It was released on the Subtext label back in April of this year: ellenarkbro.bandcamp.com.

✚ “Memory Block” from Music for DOS by Simon Stålenhag, of Sweden. Per album title, the music was recorded using an old-school Pentium 266 Mhz (which was state of the art roughly 20 years ago), running the music software Impulse Tracker. Boing Boing featured the album this past week. The album was self-released two weeks ago: simonstalenhag.bandcamp.com.

✚ “Momentary” from re:memeber by Olafur Arnalds, based in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was released last week on the Mercury KX label: mercurykx.com.

✚ “Aerosols for Pluviculture” from The Biode by Robert Rich, based in Mountain View, California. It was released back in February of this year on Rich’s own Soundscape label: robertrich.bandcamp.com.

✚ “On the Day You Saw the Dead Whale” from Hundreds of Days by Mary Lattimore, based in Los Angeles, California. Dave Depper of Death Cab for Cutie singled it out recently in an interview. It was released on Ghostly in May of this year: marylattimoreharpist.bandcamp.com. “Never Saw Him Again” from the same album previously appeared in Stasis Report from June 4 through June 24 of this year.

Some previous Stasis Report tracks were removed to make room for these, keeping the playlist length to roughly an hour and a half. Those retired tracks (by Daniel Aged, Ethan Gold, Kano, Simon McCorry, Orquestra de las Nubes, and Marta SmiLga) are now in the Stasis Archives playlist (currently only on Spotify).

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“Unknown SoundCloud Producer Dead”

The rich ambiguity of music on Insecure

If you watch Insecure, Issa Rae’s excellent HBO series, you know the music of Raphael Saadiq, who has scored it since it debuted two seasons back. Part of the impact of Saadiq’s work on Insecure is how the back beat of the show works seamlessly with whatever the characters might themselves be listening to. The latter is the craft of music supervisor Kier Lehman. Sometimes the distinction is entirely unclear, much to both Saadiq and Lehman’s credit. And this season of Insecure, its third, music production is becoming a narrative tool of interpersonal ambiguity.

Part of what makes the character Daniel — whose role has expanded significantly of late — so important to Insecure is that while music was already important to the show from the start, now there’s this nuanced secondary figure we see making music, and stressing about making music, and building a career in music — and, this past Sunday night, fearing his own eventual obituary’s headline if he doesn’t get his act together: “Unknown SoundCloud producer dead.”

Just moments earlier, Daniel had beatboxed into the ear of Issa’s character at a nightclub. His stated intent was to layer his sense of what would enrich the music of the performer they were witnessing at that moment, were they to every collaborate. However, in order to be heard over the club, Daniel had to lean extra close to Issa to do his beatbox impression. It’s a rare feat for beatboxing to signify subconscious intimacy and compositional refinement, even more so for those to occur simultaneously.

An especially artful moment came at the close of the episode (“Familiar-Like,” the new season’s second). Daniel is at his production desk. Issa walks to him from the living room while music plays. It’s the music Daniel’s making, but it’s also the moment’s music: relaxed, sophisticated. The ambiguity is rich. Is he doing work or sending a message? Is she helping or replying? The show doesn’t tell us directly, because the characters don’t know either, and that’s the point. Music in filmed entertainment all too often tells the audience precisely what to feel. Here it’s accomplishing something much more complicated.

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Disquiet Junto Project 0347: Remix Remodel

The Assignment: Update a track by one Junto participant by adding beats from another Junto participant's imaginary drum machine.

Each Thursday in the Disquiet Junto group, 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. (A SoundCloud account is helpful but not required.) There’s no pressure to do every project. It’s weekly so that you know it’s there, every Thursday through Monday, when you have the time.

Deadline: This project’s deadline is Monday, August 27, 2018, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are on. It was posted in the afternoon, California time, on Thursday, August 23, 2018.

Tracks are added to the playlist for the duration of the project.

These are the instructions that went out to the group’s email list (at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto):

Disquiet Junto Project 0347: Remix Remodel
The Assignment: Update a track by one Junto participant by adding beats from another Junto participant’s imaginary drum machine.

Major thanks to Matt Nish-Lapidus and Jason Wehmhoener for having helped put together this project.

Step 1: Two weeks ago in the Disquiet Junto, people made beats for their own imaginary drum machines. Last week in the Junto, people used other people’s beats from the prior project to make their own tracks. This week, the third week of this multi-part project, you’ll remix a track from the second week using beats from the first week.

Step 2: Listen through the tracks from last week, and choose the one you want to remix:

https://soundcloud.com/disquiet/sets/disquiet-junto-project-0346

In addition, there may be some other tracks from the project in the Lines discussions, here:

https://llllllll.co/t/disquiet-junto-project-0346-drum-machinations/

Step 3: Listen through the tracks from the first week’s project, and choose the one whose beats you want to use in your remix of the track you selected in Step 2. The beats appear at the start of each of the participating tracks in the week’s SoundCloud playlist, here:

https://soundcloud.com/disquiet/sets/disquiet-junto-project-0345

In addition, there may be some other tracks from the project in the Lines discussions, here:

https://llllllll.co/t/disquiet-junto-project-0345-sample-time/

Step 4: Having chosen tracks in Steps 2 and 3 above, confirm the tracks are downloadable. If one isn’t, either get in touch with the musician who made it, or choose another track.

Step 5: Remix/rework/remodel the track you selected in Step 2 with beats you selected in Step 3.

Six More Important Steps When Your Track Is Done:

Step 1: Include “disquiet0347” (no spaces or quotation marks) in the name of your track.

Step 2: If your audio-hosting platform allows for tags, be sure to also include the project tag “disquiet0347” (no spaces or quotation marks). If you’re posting on SoundCloud in particular, this is essential to subsequent location of tracks for the creation a project playlist.

Step 3: Upload your track. It is helpful but not essential that you use SoundCloud to host your track.

Step 4: Post your track in the following discussion thread at llllllll.co:

https://llllllll.co/t/disquiet-junto-project-0347-remix-remodel/

Step 5: Annotate your track with a brief explanation of your approach and process.

Step 6: Then listen to and comment on tracks uploaded by your fellow Disquiet Junto participants.

Other Details:

Deadline: This project’s deadline is Monday, August 27, 2018, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are on. It was posted in the afternoon, California time, on Thursday, August 23, 2018.

Length: The length of your track is up to you.

Title/Tag: When posting your track, please include “disquiet0347” in the title of the track, and where applicable (on SoundCloud, for example) as a tag.

Upload: When participating in this project, post one finished track with the project tag, and be sure to 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. Photos, video, and lists of equipment are always appreciated.

Download: It’s important for this project 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 online, please be sure to include this following information — as well as the name of the individual whose beats you’re using, and a link to that source track:

More on this 347th weekly Disquiet Junto project (Remix Remodel / The Assignment: Update a track by one Junto participant by adding beats from another Junto participant’s imaginary drum machine) at:

https://disquiet.com/0347/

Major thanks to Matt Nish-Lapidus and Jason Wehmhoener for having helped put together this and the preceding two projects.

More on the Disquiet Junto at:

https://disquiet.com/junto/

Subscribe to project announcements here:

http://tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto/

Project discussion takes place on llllllll.co:

https://llllllll.co/t/disquiet-junto-project-0347-remix-remodel/

There’s also a Junto Slack. Send your email address to twitter.com/disquiet to join in.

Image associated with this project is by Bradjward, used thanks to Flickr and a Creative Commons license:

https://flic.kr/p/9FEusR

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

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Small Box, Big Sound

A live modular synthesis performance by State Azure

In the expanding realm of live synthesizer performance videos, even the more informed among us sometimes can’t see the ensemble forest for the module trees. Despite the assembly of knobs and cables in this video, uploaded by State Azure, the activity is limited to just two pieces of equipment packed into a tidy little box in the foreground, two little modules designed for the manipulation of sound. The slight twists and adjustments on State Azure’s part align in various ways with interstellar spaciousness, wind chime chill, and dusty static, though by no means are all the correlations self-evident. There’s an understandable disconnect between how something so small can make something so vast, something so compact can make something so internally varied and vibrant. But still, watching those manipulations unfold in no way diminishes the elegance of what transpires sonically. It’s a graceful series of maneuvers that direct the sounds from start to end.

This is the latest video I’ve added to my YouTube playlist of recommended live performances of ambient music. Video originally posted at YouTube. More at stateazure.bandcamp.com. State Azure is based in Southampton, U.K.

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