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: May 2019

Interviewed for Wired

On generative apps and their discontents

I was interviewed for this Wired article by Arielle Pardes, published this morning, about a new wave of generative music apps, among them Endel and Mubert:

Marc Weidenbaum, a writer and cultural critic who studies ambient music, sees this adaptive quality reshaping the future of music itself. “The idea of a recording as a fixed thing should’ve gone away,” he says. With a generative music app, there is potential not just to listen to something organic and ever-changing, but something that strives to emulate your desired mind state exactly.

Weidenbaum says we may be seeing a surge in generative music because our phones are capable of more computational power. But another reason might be that the genre offers a way for companies, advertisers, and game-makers to skirt licensing issues when adding music to their products.

“That’s a little cynical,” he says, but “I think it has a lot to do with cost savings, control, optimization, and a veneer of personalization.” For the rest of us, these apps offer a pleasing surrender to the algorithms–ones that shape the world to our desires and ask nothing in return.

Now, to be clear, I love generative music. I was an early and strong supporter of the RJDJ app, which later evolved, in a manner of speaking, into the Hear app mentioned in the article. (RJDJ creative director Robert M. Thomas has been a frequent participant in and friend of the Disquiet Junto music community.) I’ve also avidly tracked and used Bloom, among other apps created by collaborators Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers. A central theme in my book about Aphex Twin’s album Selected Ambient Works Volume II is the wind chime, a pre-electronic tool for generative expression.

The distinction I’m drawing is between art and commerce. Art projects of course have financial restraints of their own, but it is modern commerical products and services that undergo rigorous cost-benefit analysis as part of their ongoing development and maintenance. This distinction is what led to my self-described cynical (perhaps a better word is skeptical) view of certain economically incentivized flourshings of generative music.

Much as Uber and Lyft are simultaneously employing countless drivers and pursuing driverless transportation, some activities in generative music seem less like artistic ventures and more like attempts to remove the need for human participation. If the clear primary goal is simply to cut costs through automation, that’s when I think the venture should be viewed (and, to mix the imminent metaphor, heard) through a keen, critical lens.

As a friend recently reminded me, ambient music has its foundation in the writings on cybernetics by Norbert Wiener, a mathematician and philosopher who inspired Brian Eno, the genre’s originator. A key text is Wiener’s 1948 book, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, which developed a following in management theory. You might even say that the interest by corporations in generative sound in 2019 is the 70-year-old cybernetics concept coming full circle. Then again, in his later book, God & Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion (1964), Wiener employed the image of the golem, a pre-Frankenstein symbol of artificial life gone awry. Which is to say, skepticism isn’t unprecedented.

Read the full piece at wired.com.

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Disquiet Junto Project 0387: Everything & More

The Assignment: Make a single piece of music using every single instrument that you have at your disposal.

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.

Tracks will be added to the playlist for the duration of the project.

Deadline: This project’s deadline is Monday, June 3, 2019, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted in the afternoon, California time, on Thursday, May 30, 2019.

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

Disquiet Junto Project 0387: Everything & More
The Assignment: Make a single piece of music using every single instrument that you have at your disposal.

There is only one step to this project:

Step 1: Make a single piece of music using every single instrument that you have at your disposal.

Seven More Important Steps When Your Track Is Done:

Step 1: Include “disquiet0387” (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 “disquiet0387” (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-0387-everything-and-more/

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

Step 6: If posting on social media, please consider using the hashtag #disquietjunto so fellow participants are more likely to locate your communication.

Step 7: Then listen to and comment on tracks uploaded by your fellow Disquiet Junto participants.

Additional Details:

Deadline: This project’s deadline is Monday, June 3, 2019, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted in the afternoon, California time, on Thursday, May 30, 2019.

Length: The length is up to you. Shorter is often better.

Title/Tag: When posting your track, please include “disquiet0387” 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: Consider setting your track as downloadable and allowing for attributed remixing (i.e., a Creative Commons license permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution, allowing for derivatives).

For context, when posting the track online, please be sure to include this following information:

More on this 387th weekly Disquiet Junto project — Everything & More / The Assignment: Make a single piece of music using every single instrument that you have at your disposal — at:

https://disquiet.com/0387/

More on the Disquiet Junto at:

https://disquiet.com/junto/

The title for this project come from the 1994 novel by Geoff Nicholson, but David Foster Wallace’s book about infinity arguably applies as well.

Subscribe to project announcements here:

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

Project discussion takes place on llllllll.co:

https://llllllll.co/t/disquiet-junto-project-0387-everything-and-more/

There’s also on a Junto Slack. Send your email address to twitter.com/disquiet for Slack inclusion.

Image associated with this project adapted (cropped, colors changed, text added, cut’n’paste) thanks to a Creative Commons license from a photo credited to Clayton Parker:

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

https://flic.kr/p/7WhgM9

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Speaking Privately to the Algorithm

What happens when we assume that always stating our opinion is in anyone's best interest

I spend a good amount of time watching YouTube videos by musicians. Not just of them, but generally by them: studio-journal videos that musicians make to show how they work. Not just recordings of their music, but videos of the process, of the effort, required.

And I marvel at (which is to say, more directly: am dismayed by) instances when a positively received video on YouTube also receives a small handful of dislikes. By this I specifically mean mute negative gestures, devoid of any comment, just a downward-facing thumb. Say what you will about haters, at least when they comment they leave some fingerprint on their dissenting opinion. There’s a uniquely buzz-killing pall cast by the unqualified, unidentified, anonymous thumbs down.

Certainly everything will have its detractors, but I wonder if something else might be going on here. (Now, by “popular” I don’t mean the given video has racked up hundreds of thousands of views. I just mean maybe a couple dozen accounts have given it a thumbs up, and the video is innocuous, not to say inconsequential, just a musician doing their thing.)

I wonder if the issue is that the YouTube interface should provide an opportunity for the watcher/user to say, privately to the algorithm, “I’m not interested in this.” That suggestion is in contrast to requiring, as YouTube currently does, that you register your disinterest publicly.

Right now it’s like the waiter asks how your meal was, and your only option is to stand up and announce it to your fellow diners. And the issue may not be the food; it may not be that you didn’t like the food. The issue may be that it just wasn’t your sort of food, or you would have liked this for lunch but it didn’t satisfy your dinner appetite.

As I’ve thought about this user-interface conundrum, I’ve become entranced by the concept of speaking “privately to the algorithm.” Perhaps that should be capitalized: “I’m speaking, privately, to the Algorithm.”

In that formulation, it’s like a confession, not a religious confession toward addressing your personal spiritual and all-too-human shortcomings, but a confession in the hopes of tailoring your reality. That is, toward addressing the shortcomings you perceive in (digital) reality.

And this is where the constant request for feedback can have (big surprise) unintended consequences. The tools have trained us to let them know what we think, because it’s in our best interest. But is it in anyone else’s interest that you found the given musician’s music uninteresting? While making your world better, have you yucked someone else’s yum? What is the good in that? What does it mean when acting to address the shortcomings you perceive in your digital reality has the direct effect (not merely a side effect, but a direct and immediate one) of negatively impacting the digital reality of other people?

Note the following three different scenarios on YouTube and how the user’s feedback is constrained, even directed, by the interface.

Below is a screenshot of the egregious situation I’m currently describing. If you’re on the page for a video, you have only the options to ignore, comment, or give it a thumbs up or thumb down, and of course to “Report” it, but that’s a different situation entirely:

Contrast that with the option you have for videos that YouTube serves up to your account based on what you’ve viewed before. Note that here, there is a plainly stated means to say “Not interested”:

And note that this isn’t merely a matter of whether you arrive at the video through your own actions or through the recommendations of YouTube. For example, if you subscribe to channels on YouTube, you can still, from the Subscriptions page, elect to Hide something:

Now, perhaps if you select “Hide” that is all that happens. Perhaps it just takes the video out of view. Perhaps YouTube doesn’t register your action as a means to adjust how its algorithm triangulates your viewing taste. But that seems unlikely, doesn’t it? We use these interfaces today with the impression that they will inform our future use of a given tool. Which is why when faced with no “Not interested” or “Hide” equivalent on a page, the user is, if not justified in registering their disinterest, forgiven a little for registering their dissatisfaction.

The issue is that the user’s dissatisfaction isn’t necessarily with the video. It is, indirectly and yet significantly, with YouTube.

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Synth Learning: “Tako Friday”

The soap-opera narrative of my modular synthesizer diary is me breaking up with and then getting back together again with my Soundmachines UL1 module. I think we finally committed to a long-time engagement last night. Season-ending episode.

This evening, to celebrate the 24-hour-versay of our vows, I ran a slow arpeggio of a series of electric guitar chords through the UL1, and through four other processing units.

Here’s more technical detail, as part of my modular diary, mostly for my own memory: All five of these separate processings of the guitar play simultaneously, though two are being gated, meaning you don’t hear them consistently. The UL1 is a lofi looper, and it’s the thing here being pushed into glitch territory. The UL1 is receiving a narrow, high-end band of the guitar signal, as filtered by the Make Noise FXDf. Another narrow band, also on the high end, is going from the FXDf straight out. A third narrow band, the highest of the trio, is going into a slowly clocked Befaco Muxlicer, the relative volume of the signal changing with each pulse. That same pulse is determining whether a fourth channel, the guitar through the Make Noise Erbe-Verb reverb module, is to be heard or not (as clocked by a slow square wave on a Batumi). That Erbe-Verbe is also having its algorithm flipped into reverse, on occasion, based on the same clocked pulse, but the gate delayed a bit (thanks to the Hemispheres firmware running on an Ornament and Crime module). And finally, the guitar is running through Clouds, a granular synthesis module, which is also being clocked to occasionally snag a bit of the guitar signal and turn it into a haze.

It took awhile to get the chords right. The only note the four chords have in common is an open D. The piece fades in with the D played on two strings, setting the backing tone. It also took awhile to get the right processing decisions made. I started with the UL1, and then built up and adjusted from there. I’m working on having more randomness in the triggering of the UL1, but this is pretty good, far as it goes.

It sounds a bit “Octopus’s Garden,” so it’s titled “Tako Friday” (tako being Japanese for octopus, and this being Friday). In retrospect I hear a bit of “The Dark Side of the Moon” in there, too. The audio was recorded through a Mackie mixer into a Zoom H4n, and then trimmed and given a fade in and fade out in Adobe Audition.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/disquiet.

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Disquiet Junto Project 0386: New Colors

The Assignment: Out with the old white noise, in with the new.

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, May 27, 2019, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted in the afternoon, California time, on Thursday, May 23, 2019.

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

Disquiet Junto Project 0386: New Colors
The Assignment: Out with the old white noise, in with the new.

Thanks to Todd Burns, a conversation with whom led to this project, and to Jason Wehmhoener for the use of his original art.

Step 1: The goal for this project is to develop new realms of white noise, new colors of noise.

Step 2: Think of your audience as a new parent, and also their newborn. Think of noises that can cancel out the world, that can provide comfort and a sense of safety.

Step 3: Record a piece of music that results from your thinking about Step 1 and Step 2.

Seven More Important Steps When Your Track Is Done:

Step 1: Include “disquiet0386” (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 “disquiet0386” (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-0386-new-colors/

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

Step 6: If posting on social media, please consider using the hashtag #disquietjunto so fellow participants are more likely to locate your communication.

Step 7: Then listen to and comment on tracks uploaded by your fellow Disquiet Junto participants.

Additional Details:

Deadline: This project’s deadline is Monday, May 27, 2019, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted in the afternoon, California time, on Thursday, May 23, 2019.

Length: The length is up to you. Presumably this piece will be played for a long time, perhaps on loop.

Title/Tag: When posting your track, please include “disquiet0386” 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: Consider setting your track as downloadable and allowing for attributed remixing (i.e., a Creative Commons license permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution, allowing for derivatives).

For context, when posting the track online, please be sure to include this following information:

More on this 386th weekly Disquiet Junto project — New Colors / The Assignment: Out with the old white noise, in with the new — at:

https://disquiet.com/0386/

More on the Disquiet Junto at:

https://disquiet.com/junto/

Thanks to Todd Burns, a conversation with whom led to this project, and to Jason Wehmhoener for the use of his original art for this project’s “cover.”

Subscribe to project announcements here:

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

Project discussion takes place on llllllll.co:

https://llllllll.co/t/disquiet-junto-project-0386-new-colors/

There’s also on a Junto Slack. Send your email address to twitter.com/disquiet for Slack inclusion.

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