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

The Room Tone of the City

A field recording four times over

I was sitting in a room, perhaps like the room you are in as you read this. It was very early on April 13, 2022, and I had been listening to the city I was in, Manhattan, as it woke, and as I woke along with it. Construction had already begun by the time I lifted my head, and I hit record on my phone to capture the combination of irritant and coziness that the muffled sounds of building provided. On the one hand, these were not comforting noises. On the other, they were quite quiet, especially from my tiny, 12-floor hotel room. I thought about how much the annoyance of the sound was tied not just to the time of day, but to how the small sounds could permeate my otherwise remote and private hotel room: how the sounds could be present without being overwhelming.

And so, having recorded 45 seconds of the sound from where I was seated, at a small desk, I decided to combine the outdoor sound with itself — to, in effect, magnify it. To accomplish this task, I played the initial 45-second recording on my laptop’s speakers, and recorded it as it sounded in the hotel room, while a variation on the outdoors naturally (or unnaturally, depending on your perspective) proceeded. Then I did this layering a second time, and then a third. Each time I added sound, the result was not particularly louder, or even all that eventful. There was clanging and droning, but there was still a lot of space present, not silent space but quiet space: the room tone of the city.

At first I thought I would just upload the fourth track, but instead I made a longer recording that presented the transition from one segment to the next. I treated each of the four recordings with a fade-in, and then I concatenated them, so just before the first recording ended, the second one began, and then the third, and then the fourth. And then I faded out the fourth track, so the full piece didn’t end suddenly. It’s quite remarkable how little happens in the finished piece, how the sound combined with a variant on itself multiple times is not that much more dense, not that much more full, than was the original. It speaks to both the relative quietude of morning Manhattan, and to the way the ear processes aberrations and unwanted occurrences. This is “Construction Kit.”

Track originally posted to soundcloud.com/disquiet.

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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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  • 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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