My 33 1/3 book, on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, was the 5th bestselling book in the series in 2014. It's available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

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

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Rhythmic Segmentation

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt

Unlike at clock shops in movies, in this tiny, one-person clock shop the majority of the clocks that tick are blissfully still. But enough are ticking to provide a nice quiet rhythmic segmentation of each second. I’d love to record this place in the middle of the night.

What Sound Looks Like: An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt.

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25 Years of Selected Ambient Works Volume II

How the 1994 album prepared us for today

It’s now 25 years and a day since Aphex Twin’s album Selected Ambient Works Volume II came out. It was released on the Warp Records label following fast on a single, “On,” one that in no way laid the foundation in listeners’ ears — and, before that, two years earlier, had been Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which was far more foregrounded sonically.

There were other releases from Richard D. James in between — notably the full-length Surfing on Sine Waves, under another Aphex pseudonym, Polygon Window — that came closer, but SAWII was and remains its own quiet beast, with little precedent or subsequently in the works of Aphex Twin that approaches its emphasis on atmosphere and the subtle nuances of its rhythmic expression.

When RDJ resurfaced in 2014 after an extended quiet period, he uploaded hundreds of unreleased tracks to a variety of playful SoundCloud accounts, turning a new generation of listeners on to his deepest crates, and many of them into trainspotters. Still, few among those vast outtakes felt of a piece with Selected Ambient Works Volume II. The SoundCloud files confirmed a longstanding rumor of vast archives, and also further identified SAWII as a unique recording.

Another quarter-century gap from, say, 1955 to 1980 can be measured in various ways. From Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” to Queen’s “Queen Crazy Little Thing Called Love” it seems quite proximate — from the McGuire Sisters’ “Sincerely” to Kurtis Blow’s self-titled debut, considerably less so. The gap from 1994 to 2019 doesn’t feel as wide to me, but that no doubt has to do with me having been alive and a fully conscious adult for the duration. There may be less music by Aphex Twin that sounds akin to Selected Ambient Works Volume II, but there is considerably more music in general today that does than in 1994, not just music but more broadly a culture that reflects its rich interiority, its minimalist impetus, and its acoustic curiosity — from the sound design of filmed entertainment and video games, to the ubiquitous if rangy field come to be known as sound art, to the increasing personal attention we pay, individually, to our intimate sonic spaces.

In many ways Selected Ambient Works Volume II — building, of course, on its own decades-old influences — laid the groundwork for what sound sounds like in 2019. Here’s to another quarter century.

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Sounds of Brands: Initial Concepts

The blackboard after reviewing the first three weeks of the semester

The course I teach each spring, “Sound of Brands,” passed an early milestone this past Wednesday, February 27. Our fourth weekly class meeting, it marked the end of the first major arc of the syllabus and the start of the second arc.

The first arc is “Listening to Media,” three weeks during which students work on their listening skills. They accomplish this by starting their sound journals, which they are to write in four times per week, and by exploring two primary topics: first, a time line of sound and its relation to the nature of being human; second, a more compact time line of sound and its relation to film (and other media).

This Wednesday began the second arc, which is the core of the curriculum, the six-week stint (out of fifteen three-hour sessions total) from which the course takes its name: “Sounds of Brands.” In this arc we explore how things use sound to express themselves in the media landscape. We’ve already looked, to date, at film and television, and a bit at video games, but now we’re looking at products and services and corporations and so forth. (I use the word “brands” because it provides a broad stroke. That said, I do suggest that if the word “company” works fine in a given situation, then please say “company” instead of “brand.” There’s something uncomfortably anthropomorphic about the term “brand,” and something narcissistic to that particular anthropomorphism. When it’s useful and necessary, use it, certainly. When it’s not, don’t feed the beast.)

To make that shift from the first arc of the course to the second, we paused at the start of class Wednesday to reflect back on concepts we worked through during the first three weeks. This blackboard displays what accumulated during about 45 minutes of discussion that I led. Looking at it now, I realize it’s essentially three things: a lot of neat ideas, and a bunch of super-accomplished thinkers, and Dragnet. The board was getting packed and we needed to shift to the new material, so I should mention one additional concept that should have been on there: “sound design as score,” the TV series Southland, associated with it, much as Dragnet is here associated with “voice over,” which in turn is associated with “non-diegetic.”

And while on the subject of diegetic sound, I should mention something else. Now, “diegetic” and “non-diegetic” are useful, hallowed terms in film studies. In case they are not familiar, “diegetic” refers to sounds that correlate with action happening on screen, in the story as it is unfolding (dialog, sound effects, etc.), while “non-diegetic” refers to sounds that are separate from whatever realism you want to attribute to the filmed image. Classic examples of “non-diegetic” sound include the score and, yes, voice-over narration.

I just want to note some issues with characterizing “voice over” as expressly non-diegetic. I think the diegetic/non-diegetic pairing, while useful, suggests a binary when there’s really more of a continuum. There’s an argument to be made that voice overs are sometimes expressions of thought of a character who is part of the story, not an omniscient narrator, and that thought is sometimes concurrent with what is on screen, and that what is on screen is sometimes out of sync with everyday conceptions of time.

In any case, with that over, we moved on to the origins of the jingle. I’m not doing a week-by-week online summary of the course here this semester, but I am mentioning material on Twitter, and will likely do a few more focused write-ups in the coming months.

Oh, and yes, the classroom I’m teaching in this semester does have an actual blackboard, and I am filthy with white dust at the end of each session. There’s a pencil sharpener hanging on the wall, too.

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Live Stream Aphex Twin Discussion March 11 (10am Pacific)

On Vivian Host's Peak Time show

Oh, yes, the 25th anniversary Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II is on March 7 — and on March 11, days later, at 10am Pacific time, I’ll be on Vivian Host’s Peak Time show (on Red Bull Radio) to extol its timeless virtues. You can bookmark this URL for the stream:

https://redbullradio.com/shows/peak-time/episodes/march-11-2019

Here’s Peak Time’s description of the episode:

Music critic and journalist Marc Weidenbaum calls up to discuss this quarter-century anniversary of this seminal release.

Richard D. James AKA Aphex Twin is undeniably one of the most important figures in modern electronic music. His IDM and ambient techno productions of the early 90’s helped shape a new era of music and he continues to influence sounds of today. This year, his sophomore album Selected Ambient Works, Vol II, a record that dazzled critics and fans with its indefinable aesthetic and was touted for reinvigorating ambient music, turns 25. On today’s show, Vivian will speak with a leading expert and the author the 33 1/3 on this album, the music critic Marc Weidenbaum.

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The Module’s Underbelly

The wriggly life of synthesizer printed circuit boards

Yesterday I said goodbye to another synthesizer module. I packed it up into a box and now it is on its way to the interior of Japan, where a new owner will nestle it into a new rig and where it will make new sounds in a new context, amid a new set of modules. I bought this module used from Toronto. I don’t know where it was before that.

Many modules will emit some sort of sound on their own if you push them hard enough — well, almost all still need to be connected to a speaker somehow — but almost all modules are intended for use with other modules, as a local network passing audio as well as commands in the form of electricity. When a module is in the rig, its innards go out of view. I often joke I wish I had a Lucite case for my modular synthesizer, so those innards, the close stacks of printed circuit boards (PCBs), were always available to be pored over. Part of the joke is I can’t stand Lucite, but the real impossibility of the joke is that a rack’s power supply, interior wiring, and structural support would occlude even the most transparent of synth boxes. Once a module is installed, its underbelly is disguised by a faceplate, knobs, and jacks.

Some of those synthesizer PCBs are wildly colored and arcanely inscribed, while others are as generic as the materials that allow your microwave to heat popcorn. Much of this is purely aesthetic, but aesthetics mean something. If the utilitarian appearance of one speaks of a company’s goal to reduce costs and perhaps a mission to make widely available what was once lavishly expensive, the filigrees of another’s speak of the whimsy, the fantasy, at the organization’s — often, an individual creator’s — heart. I’ve wondered about the intentionality and readability of these visual characteristics previously (at length — see my article “Is the Printed Circuit Board a Form of Musical Notation” at NewMusicBox) — and the upturned module reminded me of just how much I still have to learn.

This module in my hand is of a fairly homebrew variety. It is from the Ieaskul F. Mobenthey family, designed by the inventive Peter Blasser. Some are made by Blasser himself, while others are built in synth workshops that he runs, like some PCB Johnny Appleseed. The module goes by the name Fourses, because it is designed around a quartet of oscillators, the circuits that produce the frequencies we experience as sound.

Before I mailed off this module, I did what I always do during a sale. I investigated it for any shortcomings. What struck my eye were the paramecium-like formations of this tiny machine’s even tinier components. A chip resembles a little bug under most circumstances, but the asymmetrical, angled gang here have the look of things scurrying intently. Exposing the underbelly of the module felt like pulling a rock from a garden and exposing all sorts of wriggly life. The relative sizes and shapes of these things, how they’re all nestled together as part of coherent integration, suggest the presence an ecosystem. And the lines seen in the green of the board, often committed with rectilinear certainty, here have a topological quality, the squiggles of a mapmaker making sketches of new territory — territory explored subsequently by the people who, over time, invite the module into their sonic world.

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