This is a bit of a ramble. Tomorrow, January 6, 2022, marks the 10th anniversary of the Disquiet Junto. A decade ago, I sat at a coffee shop, having put together this idea I had about how musicians communicate online, how they provide each other with mutual support, how they thrive thanks to indirect, asynchronous, long-distance communication. And then I proposed something.
It was the first week of January 2012, six years after I started sending proposals to musicians to respond to a prompt — a concept, an inquiry, an idea — in musical form, in sound.
The first time was to rework some Brian Eno and David Byrne stems, off their album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The stems weren’t themselves the impetus. The impetus was how much I didn’t like the music I heard that used the stems. See, Eno and Byrne posted the stems for free use as part of an anniversary promotion. I let some musicians know about the source material, and they all told me they liked the idea, but agreed the resulting music was lacking. And so we released it ourselves at the Internet Archive, under the title Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet.
Subsequent projects happened when I felt that writing about something didn’t satisfy my desire — my need — to fully address the given topic. Each time, having musicians respond to the topic was satisfying in a way that writing hadn’t alone fulfilled.
Up until 2011, each of these projects was what I think of as “select commission” mode, in that I selected the list of musicians I hoped might participate, and then invited them to respond. At the end of 2011, I took a different approach: I opened it up to anyone who wanted to join in. The idea at the end of 2011 was to get musicians to collaborate indirectly. This led to [Instgr/am/bient]: 25 musicians were given an Instagram image that another participant made, and then they were told: “Here’s the cover of your next single. Now go record it.”
The Eno/Byrne stem remix project in 2006 was a response to a communal sense of an idea that had fallen short: That the music was lacking because it was unmediated by any editorial perspective. Five years later, in 2011, Instagr/am/bient was founded on my then strong disinterest in Instagram. Some friends, notably Ted Laderas, made me think about it from another perspective. In particular, I came to realize that aesthetically speaking, a lot of Instagram images looked like the music I liked to listen to sounded. By that I mean that Instagram images were, at the time (long before “stories” loaded with people dancing in sync), pictures of everyday scenes, often taken amid nature, put through digital filters. Field recordings put through digital filters is, in essence, a solid chunk of my listening.
And so, to explore this parallel, we did Instagr/am/bient, to forge that connection between vision and sound, and to do so in a way that explored the aesthetic inherent (then) in a technology platform. It was also new because, as I mentioned above, I opened the invite wide. It wasn’t select anymore.
Instagr/am/bient, for reasons too detailed for an already long reminiscence, got a lot of attention. Hundreds of thousands of streams and downloads. And so I decided the open-call nature worked in 2011 in a way it hadn’t in 2006. I think this had to do with a sense of community. The result of it was: what if I opened it even wider, still. The Instagr/am/bient project required coordination. We had a beautiful PDF designed by my friend Brian Scott, of Boon Design. What if, instead, it was simply people uploading music themselves?
Like Instagram. SoundCloud has changed since 2012, and not entirely for the better. Part of what changed is what it no longer has: Groups. When it had Groups, people were able to communicate where they posted their music. Back in 2012, SoundCloud was, to put it succinctly, pretty freaking awesome. I’d been online almost 20 years at that point, since 1993 or 1994, and I’d loved the pre-blog days of nascent digital self-publishing, and, later, the rise of netlabels. Netlabels happened when internet connections were so slow you had to download music before you listened to it, whereas hosting was cheap enough that posting music was easy. That combination was magic. A glorious time.
OK, hosting wasn’t easy. The interface at the Internet Archive, for example, was finicky, but it worked. I do sometimes wonder if difficulty is a virtue: a filter on intent. If something is a little harder, if you have to wait a bit, both to post and to download, then you kinda need to mean it. SoundCloud, in any case, made posting and streaming easy, and that was meaningful. I don’t think there would have been a Junto without it.
And so, that sunny day in 2012, sitting in a cafe with a friend (Susan Blue) on Valencia Street here in San Francisco, I shared a concept, mostly on Twitter, but also on my website, which had just turned 15 years old the month prior. Come to think of it, Disquiet.com just turned 25 years old last month (on December 13, 2021), meaning it is now as old as Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was when I did the first communal (proto-Junto) Disquiet project back in 2006. (What’s the emoji for jeepers?)
The “Disquiet” in Disquiet Junto comes from The Book of Disquiet, written by that exquisite loner (a loner containing multitudes), Fernando Pessoa. The “Junto” comes from a club that Benjamin Franklin, the enthusiastic and prolific founder of organizations, formed in 1727. There were a lot of approaches I drew from. High on the list were sample-based groups, notably Iron Chef of Music and what was then called the Stones Throw Beat Battles. Also on my mind were art movements, notably Fluxus and Oulipo, and mail art, too.
I truly had no idea that first week if anyone would participate in the Disquiet Junto. The image in my head was being stuck with supplies for a party that no one attended. Instead, people did show up (in internet terms), and we’ve gathered every week since. There are way too many people to thank for their support, encouragement, and guidance. I’ve met so many amazing people since starting the Junto, made friends, collaborated on projects, and learned more than I could recount. I’ve given talks, and been interviewed for magazines like The Wire and Bloomberg Businessweek. We’ve done concerts, and a San Jose Museum of Art exhibit, and an Apex Art gallery installation (major thanks to Rob Walker for that invitation), among other escapades and satellite operations.
And while SoundCloud no longer has Groups, we’ve got the llllllll.co community and a Junto Slack, and plenty of communication in various other forms, including Twitter, which is where a lot of the early Junto momentum got rolling. Of course, all that communication takes a back seat to the weekly tracks uploaded by participants, because ultimately, the idea of the Junto is to communicate through music. That’s what we do every week. That’s the Disquiet Junto.
Tomorrow will be the start of the 523rd consecutive weekly Disquiet Junto project. Every Thursday I send out a project assignment, and musicians post their tracks by the following Monday at 11:59pm (their local time). Ethan Hein summed up the process best, and I’ll paraphrase what he said here: I write record reviews of music that doesn’t exist yet, and then internet strangers make it real. You can become one of those strangers. Sign up at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto to receive the weekly instructions. Join in.