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

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Celebrate World Listening Day

And R. Murray Schafer's birthday

Wondering how to celebrate World Listening Day, which occurs today, July 18, as it has every July 18th since 2010? Try this listening exercise:

Step 1: Prepare to sit still for 10 minutes, preferably outside.

Step 2: For the 10 minutes, listen intently. Also record the sound (with, for example, a phone).

Step 3: When the time is up, make a detailed list of every sound you can recall.

Step 4: Having made the list, then listen back to the recording. Note divergences from your list. Write down your observations about those differences.

World Listening Day has its roots in environmentalism and the field of audio ecology. The date July 18 was chosen because it is the birthday of the famed composer and sound theorist R. Murray Schafer, who turns 86 this year. However, don’t ignore, avoid, or devalue machinery, urban ambience, and other human-made sound. And if you do the listening exercise, please consider sharing your notes and observations. Thanks.

More on World Listening Day at

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Portnoy’s Cassette

Stereo system provenance

Items from the estate of the late novelist Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral) are now up for auction. Among the household possessions: Roth’s stereo system, a fairly mundane assortment of aged components, pictured above.

Look closely at the image. I do wonder what the three apparent cassette players, a single deck on the left and a dual on the right, were for. A friend pointed them out when I shared the image elsewhere. I imagine Roth recorded himself telling his stories, and then used the system to dub copies for the transcription process. (I also like to imagine he was making generative tape loop compositions with Mia Farrow for the score to a Rosemary’s Baby sequel. A reader can dream.)

I found the Roth item via a brief rant in the Guardian that focused on its author’s deeply felt antipathy for “literary fetishists,” antipathy that didn’t manage to muster 300 words. I get the concern. I’ve killed my heroes several times over, but I also imagine that if Roth’s stereo were later found in a thrift store or garbage heap, there would have been 1,000 words to the contrary. I’m not sure what the best option is, but waiting over a year and then holding an online auction seems OK. Starting bid: $150.

This is lightly adapted from the July 14, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound.

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This Week in Sound: Scream Studies + Ankle Eavedropping + …

+ Voice Recognition + Why Gorillas Sing + More ...

A lightly annotated clipping service

If you find sonic news of interest, please share it with me, and (except with the most widespread of news items) I’ll credit you should I mention it here.

Scream Therapy: “Recently, however, I have witnessed two cinematic screams that were neither sexy nor Snow White-y, but instead guttural and visceral and bizarre — and so vulnerable that I felt like a bit of a creep watching them,” writes Rachel Handler. The screams are Meryl Streep’s in Big Little Lies (anything to get that theme song out of my head) and Florence Pugh’s in Midsommar. Here’s to more scream studies, an essential branch of sound studies.

Insert Spinal Tap Joke: This is the second experimental archeology story in as many weeks: “A diminutive model of Stonehenge could help crack the acoustic secrets of the ancient site, according to scientists who have built a version of the megaliths at a 12th of their size.” (via Trevor Cox)

Leg Up: A little known fact about ankle monitors used by law enforcement: “officers wouldn’t just be able to track his location, as most electronic monitors do. They would also be able to speak — and listen — to him.” For context, the “him” in this example if a 15-year-old Chicago resident. (via Matthew Kenney)

Listen Up: After the “Belgian leak” brought renewed attention to the privacy issues surrounding voice assistants, Forbes weighed the weaknesses and norms within the system. On the one hand, “No part of this story indicates Google is listening surreptitiously to find out what people are saying.” On the other, “the fact that the leak occurred indicates data security for Assistant voice recordings is inadequate,” and: “Recording when the Assistant activates without hearing the wake-up command is a more serious problem.” You can put a piece of tape over your laptop’s camera, not so easily the microphones around you. Voice recognition, far less attended to by the press than is facial recognition, is a brave new territory, a story that is just getting started.

Let’s Buzz: “City officials in Philadelphia are under attack for their increasing use of an acoustic deterrent — described by a local councilwoman as a ‘sonic weapon’ — to keep the city’s children and young adults away from certain recreational areas at night.” This is the device known for years as “the Mosquito.”

Keeping Score: I’m kind of addicted to‘s detailed coverage of who is composing the music to which TV shows, movies, and (occasionally) video games. This week we learned that Dustin O’Halloran (of A Winged Victory for the Sullen) and Hauschka are scoring The Old Guard, adapting the Greg Rucka graphic novels (I kinda want Rucka’s Lazarus more, but hey, it’s something). Tyler Bates is scoring Primal, the highly anticipated forthcoming animated series from Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars). Max Richter is scoring Temple, a UK medical drama. (And since I missed this last week: tomandandy are working on Lucky Day, a movie from Roger Avary, who worked on a lot of early Quentin Tarantino movies.) There’s a huge glut of video entertainment these days, and a good composer is as much a cue (so to speak) for me as to what to watch as are the writers, actors, or directors. Furthermore, in our current moment of streaming-entertainment overload, it’s clear the studios have better access to great mood-setting cinematographers and composers than to great writers (or they aren’t affording the writers time and resources to get the stories right). Even if the shows aren’t great, however, those scores are available to us to lend a soundtrack to our daily lives.

Monkey Business:Gorillas sing and hum when eating, a discovery that could help shed light on how language evolved in early humans. … Singing seems to be a way for gorillas to express contentment with their meal, as well as for the head of the family to communicate to others that it is dinner time.”

Hall Mary: “The silence of this place used to fill me with joy. Now it’s all I hear.” So says the disillusioned, and at the moment sauced, priest in the first episode of the new, fourth season of the TV series Grantchester.

Reading around the web

Space Is the Place: Jason Richardson picks up the Robert Fripp blog quote from last week’s issue of This Week in Sound (“The primary factor in choosing a setlist is the performance space”), and connects dots back to Bach, then back further to Gregorian chant, then on back to the recent past in the form of Bertolt Brecht, eventually coming around to a consideration of the role of digitally simulated reverb in today’s music: “Given how those reverbs impart a famed character and can be used to connote an atmosphere, it seems like we’re getting back to writing music with specific ambiences in mind.” I love this idea.

Air Play: Dan Carr at Reverb Machine breaks down Brian Eno’s classic 1978 album Music for Airports into its constituent parts and talks in detail about how the album was recorded, including Eno’s employment of graphic scores, a detail of which appears above: “There are no real melodies present, and the voices occasionally form chords, but there is no discernible structure. This song is composed of seven loops, all of different lengths, with each loop playing back a single, sung note. In the graphic score, you can see Eno’s use of rectangles to represent looped tracks, with the spaces between them varying.” The Carr piece even includes loops if you want to play with them yourself. (via Robin Rimbaud on Twitter)

Having Words: Tom Armitage goes into detail on “Building the world’s most advanced subtitling platform,” CaptionHub, which “allows teams to generate and edit captions inside a web browser, previewing them in a real-time editor.” Particularly interesting among the features that took hold: “adding a visible audio waveform on the timeline, generated by our encoder tool. This made cutting captions to video much easier — it was instantly possible to see speech starting or stopping, and mark the ins and outs of captions to match.”

Feed Bag: And in this ongoing discussion of blogs, Patrick Howell O’Neill has a simple proposal: “reconsider something that feels lost in this era of algorithm-fueled newsfeeds and timelines: RSS.”

This is lightly adapted from the July 14, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound.

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This Week in Sound: Experimental Archeology + Defiling Asimov + …

Sonic Fictions + Robert Fripp's set-list advice + more

A lightly annotated clipping service

If you find sonic news of interest, please share it with me ([email protected]), and (except with the most widespread of news items) I’ll credit you should I mention it here.

Choral Culture: “Experimental archeology at its finest.” That’s how Andrew Henry describes efforts to (re)experience chants in the sorts of ancient spaces where they were first performed. Henry hosts the Religion for Breakfast YouTube channel, and talks on a video for the 12tone YouTube channel about “How Music Shaped Roman Cities.” It’s less than seven minutes long, and well worth your time. Particularly interesting are observations about just how quiet life was before the invention of gun powder, how far such chants would travel in the relative silence of the era’s cities, providing a constant background sound to daily life: “Music would be heard hundreds of meters away as you went about your daily life.”

Cock Up: Put September 5 on your calendar. That’s when a French court will rule whether or not the now famous rooster Maurice is producing “abnormal noise.” Some background: “In 1995, faced with a similar case that led to a death notice being served on a cockerel, a French appeal court declared it was impossible to stop a rooster crowing. ‘The chicken is a harmless animal so stupid that nobody has succeeded in training it, not even the Chinese circus,’ that judgment said.”

Nuke Chords: Just to follow up on an item from two weeks ago about Hildur Guonadottir’s employment of nuclear-reactor field recordings for her score to the HBO series Chernobyl: the sound designers behind the video game Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 ventured to the infamous region to get audio for its production. The following article is a detailed overview of the audio development for the game, in particular about the use of “impulse responses” to provide a sense of different spaces: “In the exteriors the team had a system called ‘Bubblespace’, which constantly checks a player’s surroundings, and change the sounds of the ambience and reverbs based on where the player currently is. ‘For every single tree we have a specific leaves in wind sound (tied to the wind speed), as well as a chance to play D.C. specific bird-calls tied to the correct time of day.'”

Bad Robot: You know how voice assistants don’t always understand what you’re saying? Well, apparently even when Alexa understands you’ve requested to delete your voice recordings, it reportedly doesn’t actually follow through entirely with your request. If true, this seems to mean that Alexa is breaking the second of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics: “Amazon last week confirmed that it keeps transcripts of interactions with Alexa, even after users have deleted the voice recordings. Based on reports that Amazon retains text records of what users ask Alexa, Sen. Chris Coons in May sent a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos, demanding answers.”

AVAS, Matey: To paraphrase Pavement, as I often do, “Sound scene is crazy / acronyms start up each and every day / I saw another one just the other day / a special new acronym.” Or at least new to me: “AVAS” stands for “acoustic vehicle alert system,” which means adding sounds to those vehicles that, due to the welcome retirement of internal combustion engines, no longer make the sounds to which humans have become accustomed. In the UK, AVAS has found a natural supporter in the Guide Dogs UK, a charity for the blind and partially sighted. As mentioned here last week, BMW hired film composer Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight, Inception) to make sounds for its latest future car. In the UK, some of the vehicular sounds apparenlty suggest the ghost of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is haunting newer-model driving machines: “At the presentation, the transportation organization reportedly played six sounds. Welsman [a Guide Dogs UK representative] assessed that the sounds were ‘all very spaceshippy,’ and suggested the electric buses instead use audio recordings of the classic Routemaster buses. ‘As a blind person I could spot the old Routemaster a mile off, because it was so distinctive, but that’s not what they are suggesting.'”

Children’s Revolution: Are hand dryers damaging to the ears of children? “To investigate that question, Nora Keegan, the study’s author, spent more than a year taking hundreds of measurements in public restrooms throughout Calgary, her hometown.” The key factor in this story: Keegan is, herself, just 13 years old.

Bird Brains: In Emergence Magazine, both text and podcast, David G. Haskell has a beautifully written piece on the languages of birds, and the many reasons that humans can’t comprehend them: “The same sound vibration is received and understood in profoundly different ways by birds and mammals.”

Out-Bopped: “Researchers from Queen’s University in Northern Ireland discovered that human background noise disrupts how robins hear aggressive warning calls, which could lead to population declines in urban areas.”

Play Time: The current edition of the American Theatre website contains a plethora of articles about the role of sound design in theatrical productions. Particularly informative is a piece singling out a half dozen plays for sonic excellence.

Reading around the web

“The primary factor in choosing a setlist is the performance space,” writes guitarist Robert Fripp, now on tour for the 50th anniversary of his band, King Crimson. The blog post continues: “Only part of this is the acoustics. Each performance space / venue / auditorium has its particular spirit of place: churches, burlesque theatres, rock clubs, classical halls small and large; with performance and listening practices, determined mainly by the culture and history of the region. All these situated within the wider social / cultural traditions and conventions of the locality; and, in Italy, also the idiosyncratic nature of how the business works.”

Georgi Marinov has some concerns about cassettes: “I keep thinking about cassette tapes. Specifically about their environmental impact. … Not sure how well known is that tapes have a nasty habit of shedding after a couple of decades (as in the particles falling off the carrier tape to which they’re ‘glued’). All that dirt ends up on the cassette deck transport and it starts malfunctioning with otherwise healthy tapes.”

Much of what I read is and has always been science fiction, and I’m becoming something of an obsessive for genres of music invented for future and alternate realities, such as those in Malka Older’s three Centenal Cycle books, as well as Ramez Naan’s Nexus Arc books. I just started reading Fonda Lee’s Jade City, and came across this in the fifth chapter:

As he drove away from the Kaul estate, Hilo rested an arm out of the open window and drummed his fingers in time to the beat from the radio. Shotarian club music. When it wasn’t Epsenian jiggy — or worse, Kekonese classical — it was Shotarian club.

There’s also an excellent bit earlier on in Lee’s novel, about how the titular jade enhances the listening powers of those who are capable of not being driven mad by its influence.

This is lightly adapted from the July 7, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound.

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The Virtue of Virtual Cables

Andrew Belt talked about the VCV Rack software at Stanford on July 3.

Over the past two years, a remarkable piece of free software has helped make modular synthesis widely available. The software is called Rack, from the company VCV, which like many small software firms is essentially a single person serving and benefiting from the efforts of a far-flung constellation of developers. Andrew Belt, who develops VCV Rack, this past week visited the San Francisco Bay Area from Tennessee, where he lives and works, to give talks and demonstrations. I caught his presentation at the Stanford University’s CCRMA department this past Wednesday, July 3. It was a great evening.

Belt spoke for an hour, starting at around 5:30pm, about the origins and development of VCV Rack, how it began as a command-line effort, and how then he went back to a blank slate and started on a GUI, or graphic user interface, approach. That GUI is arguably what makes VCV Rack so popular. Rack provides emulations of synthesizer modules that look just like actual physical modules, including virtual cables you drag across the screen, much as you’d connect an oscillator and a filter in the physical world. The occasion of his visit is the release of version 1.0 of VCV Rack, following an extended beta honeymoon. He covered a lot of material during the talk and subsequent Q&A, and I’m just going to summarize a few key points here:

He talked about the “open core” business-model approach, in which the Rack software is free and open source, and how third parties (and VCV) then sell new modules on top of it. (This is a bit like a “freemium,” the difference being that the foundation here is open source.)

Belt went through various upcoming modules, including a “timeline” one, a “prototype” one, a “video-synthesis” one, a DAW-style “piano roll,” and one that is a bitcrusher emulating super low-grade MP3 encoding. He didn’t mention which existing synthesizer module companies are due to port theirs over to Rack, and no one asked, likely because, this being CCRMA, the conversation was way more deep in the DSP (digital signal processing) weeds — which was great, even if 90% of that material was way over my head. He showed tons of examples, including how the new polyphony (up to 16 voices) works.

There was a great moment midway through the talk. Belt was discussing the employment of a type of synthesis in Rack called FM synthesis, and he asked if anyone in the audience could remind him who had first developed FM synthesis. One of the senior CCRMA professors chimed in and explained that we were all in this room precisely because of FM synthesis: CCRMA was funded for many years thanks to profits on the patent for FM synthesis, which was developed by Stanford professor John Chowning. FM synthesis was what made the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer a massive success during in the 1980s. For many years to follow, Chowning’s FM synthesis patent was, reportedly, the single most profitable patent in all of Stanford’s existence. After drinking in the impromptu history lesson, Belt pulled up a DX7 emulation in Rack. Someone in the audience noted how things come full circle.

I highly recommend giving VCV Rack a try. It’s available at

This is lightly adapted from the July 7, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound.

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