Ring Out the Old

434 posts in 2021

And it’s a wrap. 2020 was the first year since I founded Disquiet.com in 1996 — this month having been its 25th anniversary — that I posted at least once each day. Today, the last day of 2021, marks the first time I’ve done so two years in a row. I imagine evolving priorities may change things at some point, but the habit got me through these two tough years. This year the activity came to a total of 434 posts, including this one. (I may be counting a couple of unpublished drafts in there, but they’ll see the light of day eventually.) And on that note, have a great evening and a great start to 2022.

Sonic Infrastructure

A piece I wrote for an April 2012 edition of Art Practical

I’ve learned that the publication Art Practical is no more. I used to read it regularly, but only contributed once, back in April 2012. I’m posting the full text of my piece, “Sonic Infrastructure,” here for archival purposes. The essay was part of an issue devoted to sound. The issue included an introduction by Tess Thackara (who invited me to contribute), an interview with Paul DeMarinis by Renny Pritikin, a discussion between artists Joshua Churchill and Chris Duncan, Matt Sussman on Infrasound, Liz Glass on the Tape Music Center, an interview with Jacqueline Gordon by Ellen Tani, a profile of Ethan Rose by Bean Gilsdorf, a discussion about the Invisible Relics exhibit at Park Life (a gallery in the San Francisco neighborhood I have long called home, the Richmond District), and an essay by Aaron Harbour drawing from his experience as a curator and DJ.

. . .

“Sonic Infrastructure”

So, a sound artist walks into a chamber …

This joke-without-a-punch-line likely brings to mind the archetypal sound-exploration incident in which composer John Cage famously entered the confines of an anechoic chamber in pursuit of pure silence. As the oft-told (and, some have argued, perhaps apocryphal) story goes, Cage did not experience the silence he had led himself to expect. Instead, he heard something—two things, in fact: his heartbeat and his nervous system.

But there’s another chamber worth talking about, one with increasing prominence in the sonic arts: it’s called the ambisonic chamber. In contrast with the sonic exclusion one finds in an anechoic chamber, an ambisonic chamber produces absolute sonic immersion. It employs numerous speakers to reproduce not mere stereo sound or even 5.1-surround sound, but 360-degree sound. For example, a stationary ambisonic recording made in San Francisco’s Union Square at noon on the last shopping day before Christmas would reproduce the fully immersive experience of sound: the distant rattling of the Salvation Army bells, the “ho-ho-ho” of the Macy’s Santa, the multilingual voices of shoppers passing from and in every direction, the whir of news helicopters hovering overhead, and the rumble of skateboards passing underfoot.

Should you have the opportunity to enter an ambisonic chamber and happen to hear your heart pounding, it’s simply the result of an emotional response to the sheer imaginary promise inherent in such an installation. And, perhaps, the momentary desire to install such a thing in your living room.

Global Network of SoundLabs

A fully functioning ambisonic chamber is the heart of the SoundLab at Arup, an engineering consultancy with offices in San Francisco and dozens of other cities around the planet. Arup describes its ambisonic room as “a controlled auralization environment that allows clients to experience and compare the acoustic performance of various design options.” The SoundLab doesn’t merely reproduce ambisonic recordings; it allows for computer systems to manipulate them, adjusting the recordings based on hypothetical physical environments. It is essentially the CAD of sound.

There are such ambisonic labs in more than half a dozen different Arup city offices, including not only San Francisco but also Manhattan, Los Angeles, London, and Hong Kong. The rooms serve consulting acoustic engineers in a wide variety of endeavors, from confirming that a proposed physical sound barrier will limit the noise produced by nearby mass transportation to tweaking the architectural design of retrofitted concert auditoriums.

Such traditional engineering applications are, however, merely the beginning. As with the SoundLabs in its peer cities, the San Francisco Arup SoundLab, located in the company’s offices in the JPMorgan Chase Building on Mission near Second Street, is increasingly a source of sonic infrastructure for the arts. Shane Myrbeck, a musician, sound artist, and Arup employee, recently gave me a tour of the lab and a thorough overview of its implications for the arts. By way of example, he played me a piece of classical music as it would sound in a half dozen different venues from Vienna to Boston; the system flipped seamlessly from one to the next and back again. When I mentioned that the ambisonic chamber is like some sonic version of the Star Trek holodeck, Myrbeck said that an Arup colleague of his routinely refers to the room as such.

Bill Fontana’s Sonic Shadows (2010), installed on the catwalk atop SFMOMA’s atrium, was developed utilizing virtual, computer-design test runs in the Arup lab. The work takes sounds from inside the museum’s physical plant and reproduces them as sound art. The San Francisco office also assisted Arup’s New York office in several projects, including an ambisonic recording of a live 2009 performance by Lou Reed with guest saxophonist John Zorn of Reed’s Metal Machine Music (1975), as well as preparation for a Marina Rosenfeld performance at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan. (They helped her plan how to best make use of the space for a performance of her Teenage Lontano [2008] as part of the 2008 Whitney Biennial.) An Arup office also documented the ill-fated Ai Weiwei installation Sunflower Seeds (2010) at the Tate Modern in London with the intent to have visitors step on the one-hundred-million hand-crafted seeds, but that interactive element was cancelled after concerns arose about noxious porcelain dust.

Bill Fontana. Inside Sonic Shadows (2010). Courtesy of the San Franciso Museum of Modern Art.

The San Francisco Arup office is also working to build connections directly to the local arts community. Arup’s acoustic and lighting departments collaborated with blacksmith Jefferson Mack Metal to create Sent Forth (2011), an imaginary sonic time machine currently on display at Fort Mason. In late 2011, Arup allowed the ambisonic SoundLab to serve as a performance venue for a concert production by the arts organization ME’DI.ATE. The event featured the musician Greg Kowalsky and the duo Myrmyr, among others; Arup’s Myrbeck also performed.

Arup San Francisco’s SoundLab is slowly making its name alongside other long-running local institutions, most notably the music program at Mills and the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) department at Stanford. There’s an interesting distinction, though—San Francisco is expanding from being a sonic-arts center to being a sonic-arts-infrastructure center. Mills and CCRMA routinely produce graduates who carry elsewhere the cultural DNA of the Bay Area’s indigenous sound explorations. Arup joins a growing number of local individuals and organizations that are attracting client artists from around the globe to San Francisco to help them realize their ideas.

The Codification of Glitch

Barry Threw is one such an individual. Speaking over a dinner of Sichuan food in the Richmond District, Threw talked about the work he does at Obscura Digital. From its office in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, Obscura, not unlike Arup, manages the technological realizations of design ideas for an international client base.

Threw also discussed his own development projects, among which are a Bluetooth-enabled “sensor bow” for Berkeley-based Keith McMillen Instruments and sampler software for an orchestral work by the Oakland-based composer Mason Bates. Threw discussed in detail his latest venture: bringing to fruition a long-planned piece of general-use sound software designed by Markus Popp. Popp, who resides in Berlin, is best known as Oval, the electronic musician whose albums, such as 94 Diskont (1995), helped bring the word “glitch” to both media studies departments and the international club scene.

Sent Forth, a collaboration between Arup and Jefferson Mack Metal, sound by Shane Myrbeck

Currently, Berlin has more than its share of programming brainpower. It’s home to both the music production software company Ableton and the data-sharing service SoundCloud—and as a sign of the city’s increasing prominence, the journalist and musician Peter Kirn recently relocated his CreateDigitalMusic.com there from New York. Nonetheless, Popp selected Threw to implement his software idea. The two were introduced by Naut Humon, whose surround-video/sound Recombinant Media Lab employed Threw as an engineer and developer between 2006 and 2008. OvalDNA, the Popp/Threw sound-manipulation software, will be made available online for free in conjunction with a recent Oval album by that name. The tool will allow users to rework thousands of existing audio files, free of copyright restrictions.

Threw agrees that there’s a wealth of digital engineering resources in the Bay Area supporting international artists. He also suggests that one reason local technologists enjoy collaborating with people from elsewhere is the wanting state of the major-league Bay Area arts institutions. For a region that is home to Google, Twitter, Apple, and Facebook, the artistic seasons at the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera, as well as Cal Performances in Berkeley, are decidedly retrograde.

Icelandic iOSphilia

Back in 2008, Threw worked with Scott Snibbe on a media installation for the Beijing Olympics. And thanks to a growing suite of mobile apps and other bespoke innovations, Snibbe has become a key example of a Bay Area technologist who has helped secure the region’s reputation for providing next-generation implementation resources. His Snibbe Interactive, based on Howard Street near Seventh Street in SOMA, counts among its clients science and history museums from Mexico to France to Thailand.

As at Arup and Obscura Digital, much of Snibbe’s work involves providing somewhat behind-the-scenes support to institutions; yet sometimes credit is given where it is due. He has had perhaps his most public success this past year with the release of Björk’s Biopholia. The Icelandic techno-chanteuse engaged Snibbe not only to develop the images projected during her concert tour, but also to code a groundbreaking app for Apple’s iOS platform. The app was no mere interactive advertisement for the full-length recording. It was itself a kind of “full-length app,” as it were, with different mini-apps extrapolating interactive experiences from each of the album’s individual songs. The video-game reviewer for the New York Times called it “among the most creative, innovative and important new projects in popular culture,” and he didn’t even like the music that much.

Arup, Threw, and Snibbe are simply three examples in which San Francisco technology is the engine on which the global sonic arts increasingly run. There is plenty of precedent for the Bay Area providing sonic infrastructure to the world; the region is home to the leading sound technology firms Dolby and THX. Instruments from Don Buchla’s debut analog synthesizer (1963) to the contemporary virtual tools of Cycling 74—most notably Max/MSP—originated here. San Francisco’s current generation of innovators can easily take a drive down memory lane: along Highway 101 in Redwood City is the roadside logo of the legendary audio-storage firm Ampex, founded by Russian immigrant Alexander Michael Poniatoff back in 1944.

This article originally appeared in April 2012 as part of the online publication Art Practical, which is now archived at archive.org.

More on the Myrbeck at shanemyrbeck.com, the Fontana at sfmoma.org, and Biophilia at snibbe.com.

Disquiet Junto Project 0522: Just Backdated

The Assignment: Create a sonic diary of the past year with a dozen (or more) super-brief segments.

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, January 3, 2022, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted on Thursday, December 30, 2021.

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

Disquiet Junto Project 0522: Just Backdated
The Assignment: Create a sonic diary of the past year with a dozen (or more) super-brief segments.

As is the tradition at the end of each calendar year, this week’s project is a sound journal, a selective audio history of your past twelve months.

Step 1: You will select a different audio element to represent each of the past 12 months of 2021 — or you might opt for even more elements, choosing a segment for each week, or each day, for example. These audio elements will most likely be of music that you have yourself composed and recorded, but they might also consist of phone messages, field recordings, or other source material. These items should be somehow personal in nature, suitable to the autobiographical intention of the project; they should be of your own making, your own devising, and not drawn from third-party sources.

Step 2: You will then select one segment from each of these (most likely) dozen audio elements. If you’re doing a dozen items, one for each month, then five-second segments are recommended, for a total of one minute. Ultimately, though, the length of the segments and of the overall finished track are up to you.

Step 3: Then you will stitch these segments together in chronological order to form one single track. There should be no overlap or gap between segments; they should simply proceed from one to the next.

Step 4: In the notes field accompanying the track, identify each of the audio segments.

Seven More Important Steps When Your Track Is Done:

Step 1: Include “disquiet0522” (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 “disquiet0522” (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:


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 for this 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, January 3, 2022, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted on Thursday, December 30, 2021.

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

Title/Tag: When posting your tracks, please include “disquiet0522” 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 522nd weekly Disquiet Junto project — Just Backdated (The Assignment: Create a sonic diary of the past year with a dozen (or more) super-brief segments) — at: https://disquiet.com/0522/

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-0522-just-backdated/

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

My Troubles with MP3s

An archival conundrum

MP3s continue to be a source of confusion — consternation? apathy? entropy? all of the above? — for me. I should be clear that by “MP3s” I mean any fixed digital documents of audio. So, by “MP3s,” I also mean WAV files, and FLAC, and ALAC, etc. Actually, I specifically don’t mean WAV, because WAV files don’t play nicely with metadata, and files (at least cultural, third-party files) that don’t include self-explanatory contextual information seem inherently problematic. But in any case, I’m using “MP3” here as shorthand for fixed audio files that have contextual information (in this case, things like artist, title, album, year of release, etc.).

I struggle with MP3s to the extent that I have failed over the course of two and a half decades to actually employ them in the long term, to engage with them repeatedly, casually, in an active archival manner, as I have, by comparison, with CDs and vinyl. MP3s are fine to download, to preview music, to listen to for a while — but actually returning to them? Scanning through a collection of files as one might a wall full of alphabetized spines? That was barely a habit for me in the age before and of the iPod, and even considerably less so today.

Yes, physical formats involve their own shortcomings. I have tons of old CDs packed away I haven’t listened to in years. The organization of my LPs is sloppy at best. I recall one time, back in the late 1990s or early 2000s, when a friend mentioned how I hadn’t talked about a certain type of music in a while. Initially I was confused by the comment, but a week or so later I noticed I had, indeed, at some point put boxes of research materials directly in front of the lower wall racks where those particular CDs were stacked. I hadn’t listened to the music because it was out of sight and, thus, out of mind. With MP3s, which bear no physical form besides pixels on a screen, out of sight is an even bigger issue.

There are technical matters, as well. Time has not been kind to CDs. The media was plagued with rumors that they would decay when the years passed. The years have passed. As someone with thousands of them, I have never experienced a single one going bad; perhaps there is a ruined one buried deep in my collection, but I’ve yet to come across it. However, the things we play CDs on don’t work forever. The multi-CD changer in my living room died recently, after 30 years of service, and finding a good single-CD replacement has been tellingly difficult. It’s easier to locate a good turntable these days than it is a proper CD player. I bought a cheap DVD player to fill the void in my stereo system, but only temporarily: it doesn’t even have a readout of where you are in the disc. I have my eyes out for a used one.

Now, part of this MP3 issue is about my own listening habits. I’ve always been listening forward, listening ahead, dipping back on occasion, but doing so more instinctively and for research. I’ve always been focused on new releases, part by predilection, part because I’ve written professionally about music since 1989 and did so in college beginning in 1985, and for the high school newspaper before that. I listen back, yes, but what’s coming up is where my ears are directed. As a result, I am not naturally inclined to collate, to tend the garden. And MP3 collections require tending.

And I’m not alone. If there were more of a common habit of managing our MP3 (etc.) collections, there would be better tools to accomplish the task. There are tools, mind you. Apple Music does a fine job even if you don’t subscribe, and there are contenders like Vox (vox.rocks), but their usage pales to streaming. Streaming, in the modern sense of the word, on services like Spotify and YouTube Music, is more like how I imagine exploring my own hoard of digital music files, and yet a useful system to accomplish has never worked for me: RAID discs accessible like a private cloud, nested folders on Dropbox, sync’d across devices like Apple Music and Vox. All nice, or nice enough, in theory, and yet for all my listening, and I listen a lot, not one approach has stuck. And not for lack of trying.

When I purchase an album from Bandcamp, or receive one as a cloud-accessible Zip archive from a musician, or download a set of tracks from a blog, the online place where those files originated is part of the way I think about them henceforth. In the absence of a physical object, the connections between bits of information provides a semblance of an object. I have a few albums I associate with the places where I purchased them (a Laurie Anderson box set I got at a steal used when I could not have afforded it new, a few LPs still bearing the labels of the stores where I snagged them), but it’s different with MP3s. MP3s sort of scream out for context. These lighter than air files that contain music benefit from tethering; additional information — a cover image, a title, the musicians’ own comments — gives them something akin to weight. Best I can, I have tried to gather notes and documents, and set them alongside the tracks in a folder, much as I’ve occasionally slotted interviews, reviews, and other (flat!) artifacts inside album sleeves, not just LPs but CDs as well (folding one-sheets to fit inside a jewel box is a hard-earned skill). These additional files aren’t generally accessible from within whatever app I use (or, more accurately, try to use) to organize my MP3s, so it’s a bit of a fool’s errand — which may be the fact of MP3 collecting more broadly, as well.

So, another year ahead, and along with it more files. Will they linger on hard drives, or will they gather into something useful? I don’t know.

Novels Read in 2021

That is, the ones I finished reading

A year in other people’s pages: To say 2021 was a tough year would be an understatement. I read a heap of books, which helped, what with what was going on more broadly in the country and the world. I read a lot more than novels, but here is a list of the 24 novels I finished reading. (I started a lot of books that I didn’t finish. Those aren’t included here.) It’s pretty much all what could broadly be described as “escapist” stuff, which makes sense (since who didn’t want to escape 2021?). I’m guessing I left one or two off by mistake, since I’m not great about updating my Goodreads account.

These novels are listed in reverse chronological order. I’m pretty sure I won’t finish reading the novels I’m currently reading until the start of 2022, but there’s still plenty of vacation days ahead, so who knows? (The better of them is Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee, and so far I am really enjoying it, as of 43%. It’s the third and, sadly, final book in her Jade series.) The ones with + signs are the ones I particularly recommend.

Technically I finished Time War at the very very end of 2020, but the book still felt fresh at the start of the year. It’s pretty revealing to look back at a year of reading, and to observe how some books feel quite recent, while others don’t. For example, I finished Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice before January 2021 was half over, and it feels like much much longer ago, whereas I finished Kay Larson’s truly excellent Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists in May, and it feels like yesterday. (Neither of those are fiction.)

With almost all of these novels, I have a sense of where I was when I read them. That’s more complicated during pandemic life, since every day has pretty much been the same (excepting a trip to New York, to see my family, during which I didn’t read much at all), but still these are breadcrumbs that trace the path I took.

Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson
Silverview by John le Carré
+Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine
The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford
An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer
The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer
The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer
The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross
Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace
The Atrocity Files by Charles Stross
This Is What Happened by Mick Herron
Duchamp Versus Einstein by Christopher Hinz
+Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert A. Heinlein
+A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes
Nobody Walks by Mick Herron
+Slough House by Mick Herron
Why We Die by Mick Herron
The Last Voice You Hear by Mick Herron
Down Cemetery Road by Mick Herron
+Joe Country by Mick Herron
+Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone