New Disquietude podcast episode: music by Lesley Flanigan, Dave Seidel, KMRU, Celia Hollander, and John Hooper; interview with Flanigan; commentary; short essay on reading waveforms. • Disquiet.com F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #field-recording, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

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

Monthly Archives: August 2021

Kenneth Goldsmith by way of PDQ Bach, and More

An early (April 2020) pandemic livestream review I wrote for The Wire

Happy Valley Band + Erin Demastes + Repairer of Reputations
Various locations/Twitch

The valley in the name of Happy Valley Band is for Silicon Valley. The happy today, April 18, 2020, is nominal, due to widespread Covid induced seclusion. Happy Valley Band, an AI-arbitered experiment, is headlining a live stream that features noises from Erin Demastes and synth flashbacks from Ryan Page, the latter performing as Repairer of Reputations. The live stream phenomenon, like the coronavirus itself, is still novel.

The concert, held by the experimental promoter Indexical, occurs on Twitch, a platform for watching other people play video games. The Twitch website is correspondingly colorful and antic. For those less engaged in gamer culture, it can also be confusing. Like a waiter missing the hint that you have no interest beyond the club’s minimum drink requirement, Twitch often pesters you about ways to level up, mystifyingly so.

Demastes’ opening set is brightly illuminated, and otherwise a stark contrast to the manic framing of Twitch’s interface. On screen, color fields shift slightly and meaningfully. She is patiently engaged in microsound, in closely miking textiles and other materials. Her audio is at first quiet, so much so that latecomers keep entering the Twitch chat room to ask if the sound is even on. It is. (One good thing about Twitch concerts is that musicians and audience can silence crowd chatter with a click.)

As the volume rises, more sounds are heard as she probes and amplifies things seen through a microscope. These are as curiosity-invoking as they are abrasive. An after-show interview sheds additional light. Demastes lists her tools. These include beads, Styrofoam, and corkboard (that “gross brown stuff,” she reminds us), as well as a Slinky, a lobster fork, and a doorstop.

Happy Valley Band go second. Like the audience, the group’s members have assembled, far and wide, from the comfort of private spaces. They appear in the all too familiar virtual-conference grid of torsos. David Kant, the band’s leader, sets a self-mocking tone: “We’re going to be here for the next … too long, destroying your favorite songs.” What Happy Valley do is play music as heard through artificial intelligence. The musicians — including Kant on tenor sax, Mustafa Walker on bass, Alexander Dupuis on guitar, and Pauline Kim on violin, among too many members to list here — play notation produced by software that listens to pop classics and spits out what the algorithms observe. The Happy Valley Band are Kenneth Goldsmith by way of PDQ Bach: cultural plundering in the service of joking forensic dismemberment. They churn through hits like Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” Much as synthesizers have an easier time inferring pitch from woodwinds than from multi-timbral instruments, the barebones nature of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” yields the least frantic results of the show: the chords are anything but standard, but do leave space for the ear to focus on individual elements. The bombast of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” however, yields frenzied mush.

Like Demastes, Page performs work where visuals and sounds are inseparable. Throughout his set, the screen fills with ancient cathode-ray images, snatches of what seems like a VHS tape of a forgotten Roger Corman horror flick. The occasional narration reads like the script to a text adventure (“You open the door. … As you enter, you are sure this is your house”). The eeriest thing, nonetheless, is just how period-perfect are the synth-score cues that Page plays to accompany the footage.

There’s some additional context in a post I made when I first announced the article’s publication (“This is the first freelance concert review I have ever written on the same device on which I witnessed the concert”).

This article I wrote originally appeared in the July 2020 issue (number 437) of The Wire.

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twitter.com/disquiet: Jacks, PKD 2.0, Thunder

From the past week

I do this manually each Saturday, collating recent tweets I made at twitter.com/disquiet, which I think of as my public notebook. Some tweets pop up in expanded form or otherwise on Disquiet.com sooner. It’s personally informative to revisit the previous week of thinking out loud.

▰ I’ve come to so associate high-pitched whines with the aftereffects of combat as portrayed in TV and film, that when one emanated from the supermarket’s public address system I briefly wondered which of my fellow shoppers had just barely survived a mortar round.

▰ I’ve apparently adjusted to the reappearance of the bus that goes up and down our block a bit more quickly and less vociferously than have the neighborhood’s canine residents.

▰ Hard won

▰ Private rail

▰ “It was — and for me, at least, remains — a truly strange thing: an audio jack that leads nowhere. … The jack had the so-called ‘male’ end, and then it dead-ended. It was, I learned later, called a dummy jack.”

Happy to see my little essay reprinted at semiovox.com.

▰ What ongoing (i.e., currently still in progress) science fiction (or spy) series should I read? Thank you. I’m up to date on The Expanse novels, and Fonda Lee’s Jade books, and Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, and the latest William Gibson trilogy, and Murderbot.

▰ PKD 2.0:

We Can Remember It for You Freemium

Flow My Tears, the Surveillance Capitalist Said

The Man in the High Stack

▰ The new Disquiet Junto project, going live asks participants to do something the projects rarely do: to sing. In the end, though, it won’t sound vocal. (Via tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto, though I’m thinking of switching to Buttondown or another tool, if anyone has thoughts.)

▰ I love Thursdays. An idea goes out, and then music starts flowing in. I have some idea what will come of it, but often that idea is nothing in comparison with what arrives.

▰ The teacher from Stranger Things as a teacher on Stargirl in a setting like Breakfast Club quoting Ferris Bueller’s Day Off made my Tuesday night. Stranger Things has now been around long enough to be a source in addition to a recipient of references.

▰ When you’re thinking, “Oh, why have a white noise app running when I can just listen to someone walking in a rainstorm around Manhattan,” and then … BOOM 🌩️ there’s massive thunder. Massive.

▰ Computer 5000! There’s a longtime computer store in the neighborhood called Computer 5000, which I always assumed was, like, Tron-era scifi hyperbole. Today I recognized that 5000 is its street address.

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Not Song but World, Not Composition but Soundscape

A new track from HEXA (aka Lawrence English and Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart)

My favorite atmospheric music is often produced by people who have a pronounced and longerm dedication to environmental field recordings. These individuals bring to their synthesized sounds the immersive experience of real world recordings. The scale of their work is not song but world, not composition but soundscape. Such is the gloriously harrowing “Elastic Body,” the first preview track from Material Interstices, a forthcoming album from HEXA, the duo of Lawrence English and Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart. It is a droning turmoil of white noise and shuddering dread, of voices straining against unseen forces to be heard and pipes echoing as they’re pulled long distances against rough surfaces.

It is neither a surprise that the sounds were inspired by dreams, nor that those dreams are deeply personal ones for the musicians, nor that the dreams have surfaced for them during the extended period of the pandemic. English describes it, in part, as follows: “The dream usually started with me playing on the lunar dirt and gradually a sound would emerge from a large concrete pit that was in the centre of the space. The sound would get louder and eventually I would have to go and inspect it. It called me in, there’s no other way to describe it.”

More on the album at lawrenceenglish.bandcamp.com. It is due out October 15, 2021.

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Disquiet Junto Project 0503: Sing Song

The Assignment: Record a song using only your voice transformed beyond recognition.

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 the end of the day Monday, August 23, 2021, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted on Thursday, August 19, 2021.

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

Disquiet Junto Project 0503: Sing Song
The Assignment: Record a song using only your voice transformed beyond recognition.

Step 1: Prepare to record a piece of music using primarily your voice, albeit transformed beyond recognition. Disquiet Junto projects rarely involve singing. This one is an exception. All Junto projects are experiments, this one in particular.

Step 2: Your recording should consist of several layered tracks. Record one, perhaps a rhythmic one, to set the beat, first. Then layer two or three more. Keep each layer isolated, so you can process it later in the process. In the case of each layer, you might improvise your singing, or you might plan in advance with notation. Certainly you might need to do several takes of each track layer in order to get it right. Don’t think of your singing as the final audio. Instead, think of your voice as a sketchbook for a work-in-progress. You sing a bass drum, you sing a guitar line, you sing a synth bed, and so forth.

Step 3: For each of the the three or four layers you created in Step 2, process them drastically so the vocal elements no longer sound like the human voice.

Step 4: Mix the processed layers from Step 3 into a final track.

Seven More Important Steps When Your Track Is Done:

Step 1: Include “disquiet0503” (no spaces or quotation marks) in the name of your tracks.

Step 2: If your audio-hosting platform allows for tags, be sure to also include the project tag “disquiet0503” (no spaces or quotation marks). If you’re posting on SoundCloud in particular, this is essential to subsequent location of tracks for the creation of a project playlist.

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

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

https://llllllll.co/t/disquiet-junto-project-0503-sing-song/

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.

Note: Please post one track per weekly Junto project. If you choose to post more than one, and do so on SoundCloud, please let me know which you’d like added to the playlist. Thanks.

Additional Details:

Deadline: This project’s deadline is the end of the day Monday, August 23, 2021, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted on Thursday, August 19, 2021.

Length: The length of your finished track is up to you, with or without the Martian time-slip.

Title/Tag: When posting your tracks, please include “disquiet0503” in the title of the tracks, and where applicable (on SoundCloud, for example) as a tag.

Upload: When participating in this project, 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 is always best to set 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 503rd weekly Disquiet Junto project — Sing Song (The Assignment: Record a song using only your voice transformed beyond recognition) — at: https://disquiet.com/0503/

More on the Disquiet Junto at: https://disquiet.com/junto/

Subscribe to project announcements here: https://tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto/

Project discussion takes place on llllllll.co: https://llllllll.co/t/disquiet-junto-project-0503-sing-song/

There’s also a Disquiet Junto Slack. Send your email address to [email protected] for Slack inclusion.

The image associated with this project is by John, and used thanks to Flickr and a Creative Commons license allowing editing (cropped with text added) for non-commercial purposes:

https://flic.kr/p/2hMq7fw

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

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The Radio as Musical Instrument

An article I wrote for a special 2021 issue of The Wire


The OP-1 from Teenage Engineering

In 2011, six decades to the year after John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No 4 instructed two dozen performers at Columbia University to use radios as instruments, a small Swedish company named Teenage Engineering released a portable music-making device. With the OP-1, radio went from being used as an instrument to being part of an instrument. An FM receiver was among the OP-1’s feature set, alongside a keyboard, synthesizer engines, sequencers and a digital record mode that borrowed its user interface from old-school cassette tapes. (Which wasn’t entirely unprecedented. In the 1980s, Casio released a piece of Frankengear called the CK-500, which combined two cassette decks and a radio with a four-octave keyboard. It went precisely nowhere.)

The design of the tidily integrated OP-1 earned a spot in the permanent holdings of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, meaning it’s in the same collection as various Cage drawings, including the graphic notation Score Without Parts (40 Drawings By Thoreau). “It felt natural,” says Teenage Engineering co-founder Jens Rudberg via Zoom. “Because to make music it helps to have inspiration, so you can sample from the OP-1’s microphone, or what you’re playing, or you can tune into whatever radio stations are around you.”


The ADDAC102

Something must have been in the air in 2011. Two other notable instruments with radios debuted that same year. San Francisco Bay Area synth legend Don Buchla debuted the 272e Polyphonic Tuner in 2011 at NAMM, the massive Southern California trade fair. The 272e module, released commercially the following year, includes four separately tunable FM receivers. Also in 2011, ADDAC Systems, based in Lisbon, Portugal, launched the ADDAC102 module, which, like Buchla’s, provided the ability to alter FM tuning via control voltage, the electrical impulses by which synthesizers send and receive instructions for things like volume, pitch and pace.

Joel Davel, who worked on the 272e with Buchla, says the device took half a decade to complete: “In particular, Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No 4 was motivation to have at least a quad radio module.” Davel himself uses the module: “It was while playing with Don in 2011 in Mexico City that I learned of Steve Jobs’s death over Mexican radio through the 272e.”

Among 272e enthusiasts is San Francisco electronic musician Thomas Dimuzio, who tells a funny story about radio’s adoption by synthesizer designers. In spring 2007, two years after Bob Moog’s death, his namesake company announced the MoogerFooger MF/FM. Its advertising read: “Actually captures radio signals, routes them through electronic wizardry.” Dimuzio and a friend excitedly called the Moog offices, only for the receptionist to reminded them it was April Fool’s Day.


The radio function on the Tracker from Polyend

Four years later, come 2011, a radio instrument was no longer a joke. And a decade on, there are still more gadgets purpose-built for adding radio to musicians’ kits. Even as conventional broadcast radio is on the decline with the rise of streaming services, it is experiencing unprecedented utility as a tool for making music, rekindling a legacy of radio experimentation that runs through Cage, Keith Rowe, Holger Czukay, Christina Kubisch, John Duncan and many others. Polyend’s Tracker instrument, a grid device with a generous screen, includes an FM radio, which company founder Piotr Raczyński used in late 2019 on vacation: “I went to Egypt with my preproduction unit, and I grabbed samples from religious radio. I love those samples. They opened a totally new window for my music.”


A view of the Tracker from Polyend

Teenage Engineering’s co-founder Rudberg agrees: “When you’re somewhere else, it’s easy to find something to sample because it’s different. It’s easier to do something new.”

Several recent radio devices are, like ADDAC’s, in the Eurorack format. These include the ST Modular Radio and the Tesseract Modular’s Low Coast, the latter of which looks like it was yanked from a car dashboard. Another, the KOMA Field Kit – Electro Acoustic Workstation, was initially funded on Kickstarter by nearly a third of a million euros in 2017, and includes not just FM but AM and the enduringly popular zone of shortwave, too. KOMA was founded in 2011 (there’s that year again) by Christian Zollner and Wouter Jaspers. Speaking from its Berlin office, Zollner talks about the personal influence of the annual event Klangwolke, which translates as Sound Cloud, in his native Linz, Austria: “Ever since I was a kid, every civilian is supposed to put their radio in their window. Pieces play, and as you go around the city, you go through this sound cloud.”

Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner is synonymous with radio music thanks to his sampling efforts in the early 1990s, and credits the tool with maintaining tension in his performances. As part of a lengthy email correspondence, he writes: “I enjoy letting these sources take me in a direction I might never expect, using indiscriminate signals that I just pull down in real time and improvise around.” Rimbaud’s sense of chance aligns with the indeterminacy Cage sought in composition, much as the employment of control voltages connects with the role of process in his work.


The Field Kit – Electro Acoustic Workstation from KOMA

American musician King Britt in turn credits Scanner with having opened his ears to the textural qualities of radio. Britt identifies the KOMA as his instrument of choice. Speaking after teaching a UC San Diego course, he tells me about recording his 2005 album Sister Gertrude Morgan. “Tim Motzer and I were in the studio. His guitar was super loud and his amp started picking up radio signals, including this organ part that was in the same key we were playing in. I immediately hit record, and we worked it into the song.”

The lesson being: you don’t even need a radio in your instrument for radio to get in your instrument.


The 272e from Buchla


The fictional MoogerFooger MF/FM

There are widely available videos of most if not all of these devices in action, including the Arradio, ST Modular, OP-1, Buchla 272e, and ADDAC102. When this article first came out, I wrote a bit about a Scanner (Robin Rimbaud) performance using radio.

This article I wrote originally appeared in the July 2021 issue (number 449) of The Wire. It was titled “Received Wisdom” and had the subhead “The mercurial sound of the radio dial has led a new generation of instrument makers to tap into the airwaves.”

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