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

Reverse-Engineering Musical Composition Prompts

A response to a frequent Disquiet Junto question

Someone recently asked if the well of Disquiet Junto projects, now numbering 424, will ever run dry. I get asked that on occasion, so I took a few minutes to respond about the thought process that leads to Junto projects. The short answer is no, it likely won’t run dry, in part because of the generative nature of impetus for the majority of the projects, and in part because projects also originate from members of the Junto and third parties.

For background, the Disquiet Junto is an online music community in which participants each Thursday receive via email a compositional prompt, and then they have roughly four days or so to respond with a recording. I started the Junto back in January 2012, and it’s been running weekly ever since. The ongoing flow of prompts comes up on occasion as a topic of discussion, so I thought I’d post a lightly revised version of my response here.

The best way I have come to explain the Disquiet Junto project development process — how the weekly prompts come to be — is that the vast majority of the projects result from a kind of “reverse-engineering” scenario. Something – a natural phenomena, a bit of math, a cultural or historical tidbit, a bit of text in a novel, a report in the science pages, a stray observation – is noted, and then I work to figure out how that source concept could become a Junto project: How can we probe the source concept by investigating it through music and sound and, by extension, online collaboration. Then, having selected one of these topics, I break it down into steps. Each weekly prompt consists of those steps.

This approach goes back to the start of the Junto. When the Junto began, an especially important founding concept was the idea of non-verbal communication. The Junto was a way for us to communicate across cultures musically/sonically, and to pursue ideas musically/sonically. (If you’re interested in the topic, there’s video online of a presentation I gave at the SETI Institute.)

An example would be helpful: There’s an upcoming project that resulted from the t-shirt a friend happened to be wearing one day. The shirt depicted a common mathematical sequence in an unfamiliar (to me) way. Soon, we’re going to take that unfamiliar way (it’s visual rather than numerical), and imagine it as a graphic score. That way we’ll “hear” the source mathematical concept in action.

I spend a lot of time thinking not only about the individual projects, but about the sequence of projects: making sure they’re balanced, that we alternate heavy concept ones with straightforward ones, and ones that require wholly original production with something sample-based, and so forth.

Sometimes we repeat past projects, or tweak previous ones. Some are proposed by other people, such as the 424th, which was proposed by an artist we’ve worked with in the past. I regularly add to a long list of potential projects, and often those are delayed because other ideas present themselves and are acted on immediately.

Proposals for prompts are always appreciated, both from Junto members and observers, and from folks interested in having their ideas acted upon by a diverse, global community of curious, talented, experimental musicians who are generous with their time and creativity.

Read more at the Disquiet Junto FAQ.

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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    December 13, 2021: This day marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Disquiet.com.
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    July 28, 2021: This day marked the 500th consecutive weekly project in the Disquiet Junto music community.
    There are entries on the Disquiet Junto in the book The Music Production Cookbook: Ready-made Recipes for the Classroom (Oxford University Press), edited by Adam Patrick Bell. Ethan Hein wrote one, and I did, too.
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    The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: disquiet.com/junto.

  • My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, was published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury. It has been translated into Japanese (2019) and Spanish (2018).

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    Since January 2012, the Disquiet Junto has been an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making community that employs creative constraints as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list (each Thursday), listen to tracks by participants from around the world, read the FAQ, and join in.

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  • 0511 / Freeze Tag / The Assignment: Consider freezing (and thawing) as a metaphor for music production.
    0510 / Cold Turkey / The Assignment: Record one last track with a piece of music equipment before passing it on.
    0509 / The Long Detail / The Assignment: Create a piece of music with moments from a preexisting track.
    0508 / Germane Shepard / The Assignment: Use the Shepard tone to create a piece of music.
    0507 / In DD's Key of C / The Assignment: Make music with 10 acoustic instrument samples all in a shared key.

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