The Conference Call v. Acoustic Literacy

An interview I did with the Article Group

It was a pleasure to have been interviewed for an article about the contentious and ubiquitous sound technology known as the conference call, especially because the article’s author, Rae Paoletta, sets the correct tone right from the start. The article begins: “The conference call is a gangrenous finger on the clammy hand of human achievement.”

After speaking with Paoletta on the phone (not a conference call, just two humans on a shared line, very old-fashioned and convivial), I was a bit concerned with how harsh I was about conference calls, specifically the often non-technological reasons for why they so often fall short of their purpose. How I put it is: “In a broad sense, people are ultimately kind of lazy,” but even before the article gets to my concerns about what I refer to as a societal lack of “acoustic literacy,” someone else says it more directly: “generally people are selfish dickbags and this translates to terrible conference calls.”

In advance of speaking with Paoletta, I sketched out a list of conference-call grievances, key aspects of the conference call, both as a technology and a site of human interaction, that are susceptible to failure. It played out like this:

  • voice quality
  • background noise
  • voice menu commands
  • hold music
    • signature brand sound
    • signature cues
    • signature hold music
    • option for no music
    • options for music
    • misreading digital silence
  • spatial orientation
  • visual orientation (cues on screen)
  • politics of being on hold pre-call

Paoletta’s piece, which also quotes Dr. Julie Gurner, is available at

Not so much ironically as inevitably, I has several conference calls in the wake of speaking with Paoletta, including on the morning the article came out. I imagined this was a jinx, and the call would utterly fail. It didn’t, fortunately. My main observations of the call, in my heightened state of awareness due to the Paoletta conversation:

  • sonic moire/cutouts (from cross-talk)
  • squelchy feedback
  • uneven volume levels
  • Max Headroom vocal glitch
  • cicada-like atmospheric noise
  • background construction noise

I posted that list to Twitter. A friend joked in reply, “The way you describe it, I’m like, where can I find that track on Bandcamp?” This made me realize something: The exact same sonic issues that I abhor in conference calls I seek out in electronic music.

Staring Down the Future

I’m committed to my sonic stare-downs with robocalls. These are the steps:

  1. Pick up the phone.
  2. Say nothing.
  3. Listen intently to the call’s background static for the ghost in the machine, for some sense, some signal, of the system on the other end as it cogitates its next move.
  4. Rejoice when it almost inevitably hangs up.
  5. Put another notch in belt.
  6. Sometimes ponder if this is a Roko’s basilisk scenario.
  7. Sometimes ponder if there is a correlation between which particular textures of background static trigger Roko-anxiety, and if that’s some sort of ESP equivalent of a Turing test.

We’re so conscious of self-learning algorithms and of nascent digital sentience these days, I do wonder if the phrase “ghost in the machine” has much traction any longer, or if the phrase is shifting to mean something slightly different from what it once did.

Disquiet Junto Project 0391: Front Page

The Assignment: Make music that fills in where the news trails off.

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, July 1, 2019, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted in the afternoon, California time, on Thursday, June 27, 2019.

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

These are the instructions that went out to the group’s email list (at

Disquiet Junto Project 0391: Front Page
The Assignment: Make music that fills in where the news trails off.

Step 1. Select a news article from a prominent, local-to-you newspaper or news website. The article should originate from the day when you begin this project.

Step 2. Select a sentence from the article, likely the first sentence but any sentence will do.

Step 3. Record yourself or, perhaps better, a machine reading that single sentence.

Step 4. Create a short piece of music to initially accompany and then supplant the sentence being read. Include the recording from Step 3 at the start, but have it glitch and fracture toward the end of its run time, so that the full reading of the source text isn’t completed. Have the music then continue after the reading is over, filling the void that the truncated sentence has left behind. Continue the music for as long as you see fit.

Seven More Important Steps When Your Track Is Done:

Step 1: Include “disquiet0391” (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 “disquiet0391” (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

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, July 1, 2019, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted in the afternoon, California time, on Thursday, June 27, 2019.

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

Title/Tag: When posting your track, please include “disquiet0391” 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 391st weekly Disquiet Junto project — Front Page / The Assignment: Make music that fills in where the news trails off — at:

More on the Disquiet Junto at:

Subscribe to project announcements here:

Project discussion takes place on

There’s also on a Junto Slack. Send your email address to 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 Pol Anuivatje:

This Week in Sound: Commercialized ASMR + Rooster Politics + …

A lightly annotated clipping service

Soft Machine: Arielle Pardes (who interviewed me a few weeks ago for a Wired article about generative music apps) writes this week about the commercialization of ASMR (“videos created to encourage the ‘brain orgasm’ that can come from listening to gentle whispers or watching people touch soft objects”). “Brands capitalizing on the interest around ASMR,” she writes, “often do so with a wink, as if to suggest that they, too, are in on the joke.”

Playing Chicken: There is a special beauty to the conflict in which people who supposedly prize the supposedly idyllic country life go to war against people who actually live in the country and, you know, have animals. A crowing rooster has “become a symbol of a perennial French conflict — between those for whom France’s countryside is merely a backdrop for pleasant vacations, and the people who actually inhabit it.” (Related: Why is it that we say a rooster “crows”? What is it, in turn, that crows do?)

16 Coaches: I will never tire of linking to stories about the sounds associated with Japanese trains. Here’s an interview with Hiroaki Ide, who in 1989 worked on the sounds for the JR East railway company: “This, Ide says, is important if the sound of a bell is to work successfully as a departure melody. He likens this to a Buddhist concept called chudo, or the ‘middle way,’ which attempts to strike the right balance between a harmonious sound and one that catches people’s attention at specific moments.”

Let’s Buzz: A writer goes in search of quiet in New York City, and comes to recognize the attractive power of volume, though the word “noise” gets beat up along the way: “The human roar of the metropolis is why so many of us gravitate to it.”

Blipverts 2.0: Among various technologies being initiated by NBCUniversal to appeal to advertisers is something referred to as “Must Hear” TV: “audio cues that play as a program fades to commercial and are meant to hold the viewer’s attention.”

Holy Crap: “After Facebook banned posts featuring the cover of Led Zeppelin’s 1973 album, the social media giant say they’ll be restoring posts that were previously removed.” The album in question is Houses of the Holy, the image by Aubrey Powell, co-founder of the storied design firm Hipgnosis.

Czech Marks: “This November, the Prague Philharmonic will perform the third and final movement of ‘From the Future World,’ an AI-completed composition based on an unfinished piano piece by the famous composer Antonín Dvořák, 115 years after his death. Emmanuel Villaume will conduct.” (via Jeff Kolar)

Make It So: Engadget makes the case for voice-controlled computing.

Morse Majeure: Google has been accused by Genius of stealing the latter’s lyrics database. What raised the media-tech company’s awareness? Old-fashioned Morse code:

Peep Show: A “renter-friendly” doorbell has been announced by Ring. It goes in your peephole.

Customer Service: Can a technology have a future if it isn’t a conduit for commerce? That’s the question lingering around voice shopping:

DAW Inspiring: Install pirated music-production software, and end up with a bitcoin miner running in the background on your laptop. (via rbxbx)

King Missile: Things that go 15x the speed of sound are anxiety-provoking.

My paean to the benefits of blogging lead to a great amount of correspondence this past week, and I want to say thanks to everyone who shared the article, and who wrote in about the topic. I had planned to write a little follow-up this week, but frankly there was so much of a response, I need to still consume it all. I will say, if you have a blog that is focused on sound and/or music, please let me know. Blogs will have an increased presence in the This Week in Sound newsletter as the weeks proceed. A few blog favorites from the past week (or so):

Westy Reflector on a more harmonious urban automobile experience.

Kira Grunenberg on the effort that went into the effortless music of Christopher Willits’ new ambient album, Sunset:

Trevor Cox on the unique “fluttering reverb” of a railway tunnel.

Ethan Hein on the music theory behind why it’s difficult to tune a guitar.

Starthief on the uncanny valley in synthesized impressions of physical instruments.

And this last one isn’t a blog. It’s a zine in the form of a PDF, which is an awesome medium unto itself (perhaps it’ll be the blogging of 2020, when the hemlines shift again.) The zine is called Plurletariat and it’s about socialism in dance music. It opens with a great quote from Ayesha A. Siddiqi: “Debating fascism is a precious waste of time. Bass might be a more effective strategy of drowning it out.” (via Iain on the Disquiet Junto’s Slack)

This is lightly adapted from an edition first published in the June 23, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound.

The Machine Intelligence of Autechre’s Confield

A sample of Joel Ebner's proposed 33 1/3 book

Having published a book in the 33 1/3 series, I occasionally get inquires from writers who want to propose 33 1/3 books of their own. My advice is generally the same: pick an album with a sizable audience, an audience that can be expected to want to read something detailed, and be sure to have a point of view on the topic. Less frequently does the individual actually go ahead and write the proposal. Joel Ebner completed his proposal for a book he intended to write about Confield, the 2001 album by the British electronic duo Autechre. When the proposal was rejected, I suggested to Ebner that his sample chapter might find a home on, and he said yes immediately.
–Marc Weidenbaum

“There is this notion that electronic music is not human because it is artificial. I think it is intrinsically human. I haven’t seen or heard of any other species who use computers. They are uniquely human things.”
–Sean Booth, 2018

After a moment of hushed digital static, Confield begins with the sound of a beat accelerating, the very notion of linear rhythm multiplying towards infinity, the laws of basic arithmetic graduating into exponential functions.

For the next two minutes, “VI Scose Poise” tests the limits of a single type of sound — iterations on a stuttering, metalloid pulse which gets stretched and reconfigured into dizzying arcs of free rhythm: the sounds circle one another like electrons, jockeying for headspace, unexpectedly changing direction and velocity; dueling meters fall in and out of phase with one another before colliding, combining, and disappearing; new pulses emerge from nowhere, deformed by the pull of sinusoidal shifts in frequency and pitch, seemingly pulling away at the fabric of time.

It’s a bracing start to a spectacularly strange record, a statement of purpose announcing the fact that Confield is a very different kind of album than we might have been expecting.

Either by design or by default, Autechre spent the early part of their career pushing against the boundaries of techno, electro, and hip-hop while still following many of the basic rules of those genres. That’s especially true with respect to beat: for all of the rhythmic innovations found in their earlier work, Autechre’s still tended to parse their arrangements of kicks and snares into quarter notes, eighths, sixteenths, and so on — ever more granular, but quantized. Increasingly, they put the deterioration of those interlocking cogs on full display, but cogs they were, fixed in place and turning in unison — a machine corroding over time, slowly.

The opening of Confield does away with all of that. Instead, what we hear transforms the repetitive, rotational gear-grinding of Tri Repetae and Chiastic Slide into a study of complex systems, the sounds of neural networks and telecommunication hubs. Booth and Brown seem especially careful about how they open each of their albums; though it’s unclear what their intentions are here, if they had had any hopes of disruption, then their efforts were a success. The effect — both as an isolated listening experience and with greater respect to their evolution as producers — is jarring.

At the 1:57 mark — nearly a third of the way through the song’s seven-minute runtime — an electric piano enters the frame. With a spare, minor pentatonic line, the piano instantly balances the shock of “VI Scose Poise”‘s rhythmic calculus, providing reassurance that Confield still contains the DNA of Autechre’s earlier recordings. As the track progresses, however, “VI” once again starts losing its balance: the melody begins to mutate, modulating between three- and four-note phrases, adding one-off flourishes, changing rhythmic emphasis. What’s more: the piano, too, seems unwilling to conform to a strict tempo. Instead, it follows its own pace, speeding up and slowing down at will, imparting an expressiveness typically associated more with classical composers like Frédéric Chopin than with contemporary electronic artists. (The technical term for this style of playing is tempo rubato, or “stolen time” in Italian.)

It’s easy to miss just how unusual this is. Before Confield, nothing in their body of work had approached melody in this fashion before. Even if the melodic tone of “VI Scose Poise” bears more than a passing resemblance to Tri Repetae-era classics like “Overand” and “Vletrmx21,” the rhythmic sensibility of the piano gives us something far looser than those tracks — it implies a degree of freedom that we associate not only with a humanistic style of music but literally with human performers.

Rethinking the full arrangement with this in mind reveals something interesting: it’s not just the melody that moves through the song with a more naturalistic sense of phrasing — everything here is acting and reacting, conversing, evolving. With both beat and melody given the latitude to behave on more human terms, the song presents us with music that sounds at once more unsettled and at ease, resulting in an uncomfortable paradox: though we are generally welcoming to melodies which offer the lilting romance of jazz or classical, it’s profoundly strange to hear percussive sounds operating with this kind of freedom. That’s especially true when so much of what we’ve heard of Autechre’s past work had been predicated on metronomic forms like techno, electro, and hip-hop. “VI Scose Poise” is the uncanny valley of electronic music — we expect our beats to operate with the pulse of machinery; when the resemblance gets too much like people it freaks us out. Moreover, the piano is never allowed any space to be heard on its own. We spend nearly a third of the song’s intro with those dizzying, electromagnetic anti-rhythms, and in the last twenty seconds of the track we get one more solo from this aspect of the arrangement. The melody, for its part, is only heard with respect to the other, responding to a chattering rhythm that acts of its own free will; the resulting interaction between the two, though often beautiful, is ultimately disruptive for the piano, disruptive for us.

At the time of this writing, computer processing power is roughly one-twelfth the speed of the human mind. (It is estimated that the human brain processes information at roughly one exaFLOP — a billion billion calculations per second. In June 2018, the U.S. Department of Energy’s supercomputer, the Summit, reached 122.9 petaFLOPs, where one exaFLOP is equivalent to one thousand petaFLOPs.) It’s estimated that computers will have intelligence on par with humans by 2029. We aren’t there yet, but it’s ironic that Autechre shows us not just a metaphor but literally a product of our path toward that landmark.

One of the critical moments of their early career was their inclusion on the 1992 Warp compilation Artificial Intelligence. According to Autechre, Warp label founder Rob Mitchell’s title for the series was a provocation — neither fans nor detractors got the joke, instead taking the series title as a commentary on the intellectual brilliance of the music, the people who made it, and those who enjoyed it. With decades of hindsight, it’s possible to extract something more serious from Mitchell’s title, and also recognize that our interpretation excluded the one variable of the equation hiding in plain sight: the intelligence of machines. Maybe it was simply too obvious at the time — after all, the term “artificial intelligence” literally refers to the cognitive function of computers — but we are now living in a reality where the notion isn’t simply an outlandish concept for an abstract future; it’s actually on the horizon. If that’s true, then the linearity of Autechre’s earliest recordings might be just a bit too perfect, a projection that captures the spirit but not the intricacy of a technologically advanced society. By comparison, “VI Scose Poise” reminds us that if machines are rapidly mirroring human thought and behavior, then the unfolding relationships between people and computers are bound to be messy, beautiful, and very, very complicated.

Joel Ebner ( is a musician, artist, and designer. Formerly a writer for Pitchfork, his music — made under the names Avvenir, Contretemps, Modal Voices, and City States — has been featured by Popmatters, Impose, and Spotify’s Fresh Finds playlists. He lives in Chicago with his wife and their Shiba Inu, Bowie.