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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Municipal Graffiti

An ongoing series cross-posted from

Municipality infrastructure marker, or graffiti for Missing Foundation solo project? (Or as someone followed up on Twitter: an indicator for missing soundmarks, which in San Francisco means the recent shut down of the Tuesday noon outdoor public warning siren.)

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Zines Then and Now

A paper memory

You do anything for long enough, you live through transitions. Generally these are revealed to you in hindsight, when a recollection is distinct enough from the current moment for the shifts, the fissures, to have come into focus. Sometimes, though, you experience these transitions in real time.

I have probably told this story before, but it’s a short one, so I’ll give it another go. Not long after I started, back in 1989, working for the Tower Records retail chain, we were visited at the company’s home office, in West Sacramento, by representatives of one of the country’s major music labels. Shifts were happening in the record industry, not just generic business pressures like consolidation, marked by mergers and acquisitions of record labels, but also key among the threats such familiar terms to us denizens of the 21st century as mobile, video, and technology.

However, those words didn’t mean in 1990, when the visit occurred, what they mean now. Mobile meant the prevalence of the Walkman and its ilk, and the perceived accompanying rise in home taping. Video meant MTV, and the oversize influence of a single network. Technology meant the compact disc, which was enticing music fans to buy their entire record collections all over again, to the point that even long sedate classical labels were becoming cash cows.

Wherever there are that many threats, there must be others, and it was these unknowns that were on the minds of our visitors that day.

As they toured our office and spoke with our senior staff — I was a junior editor on Tower’s music magazine, Pulse!, mostly handling its letters page and the Desert Island Discs lists from readers, when not imploring my coworkers to let me cover musicians in the orbit of the Knitting Factory — our visitors inquired about what we were listening to, and how we had come to discover it.

I wasn’t surprised, decades later, when researching my book on Aphex Twin’s album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, to learn from Clive Gabriel, who signed Aphex Twin to the publisher Chrysalis, that Gabriel himself had come to Chrysalis’ attention thanks to his writing for British music magazines. It may seem a catch-22 that a label would look to a music critic for hints at the future, since by definition much of the music being written about would already be on a label. But that isn’t always the case, and even when it is, the myopia of big labels can make them blind to the wide field of smaller ones.

In any case, I found the perspective of the visitors fascinating. I lingered in the open area of the Pulse! offices to listen in. And at some point I heard one of our visitors begin to put forward a question in a tentative tone. “Do you,” it was asked, “read … zines?” I put the ellipsis there because there was a definite pause, as if someone were testing out a newly learned term from a foreign language. What I can’t do except through comparison is note that the word was pronounced in a dramatic and sudden hush, much like the mother of Ally Sheedy’s character says “cancer” at the dinner table in the movie St. Elmo’s Fire. And what I can’t do except through description is to note that the word wasn’t pronounced “zines” as in the third syllable of “magazines,” from which the term emerged, but as “zines” with the “i” like “eye,” which is to say, a word so alien that its source and meaning were truly obscure to the person speaking it.

There’s far more to be said about zines at the start of the final decade of the 20th century, but not right now. I will note it was especially appropriate that day for the visitors to have asked this question because, unbeknownst to them, just one building away from ours was the Tower warehouse, where a vast zine distribution project was underway thanks to the vision of an employee named Doug Biggert.

I remember this visit as if it happened yesterday, even though it was three decades ago, and I am remembering it right now because just this weekend I received a package containing two zines: the first and second issues of Deft Esoterica, a project by Claude Aldous, of Canton, a city in upstate New York. I’ve been enjoying reading them, but I had to put down the stapled pieces of 8.5×11″ paper to get my memories typed out because they were distracting me from what was on the page.

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All the Mod Cons

An ongoing series cross-posted from

When a prospective* choice for a shower head looks a whole lot like an old-school telephone. Alexa truly is everywhere.

*No, not really my style.

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Reverse-Engineering Musical Composition Prompts

A response to a frequent Disquiet Junto question

Someone recently asked if the well of Disquiet Junto projects, now numbering 424, will ever run dry. I get asked that on occasion, so I took a few minutes to respond about the thought process that leads to Junto projects. The short answer is no, it likely won’t run dry, in part because of the generative nature of impetus for the majority of the projects, and in part because projects also originate from members of the Junto and third parties.

For background, the Disquiet Junto is an online music community in which participants each Thursday receive via email a compositional prompt, and then they have roughly four days or so to respond with a recording. I started the Junto back in January 2012, and it’s been running weekly ever since. The ongoing flow of prompts comes up on occasion as a topic of discussion, so I thought I’d post a lightly revised version of my response here.

The best way I have come to explain the Disquiet Junto project development process — how the weekly prompts come to be — is that the vast majority of the projects result from a kind of “reverse-engineering” scenario. Something – a natural phenomena, a bit of math, a cultural or historical tidbit, a bit of text in a novel, a report in the science pages, a stray observation – is noted, and then I work to figure out how that source concept could become a Junto project: How can we probe the source concept by investigating it through music and sound and, by extension, online collaboration. Then, having selected one of these topics, I break it down into steps. Each weekly prompt consists of those steps.

This approach goes back to the start of the Junto. When the Junto began, an especially important founding concept was the idea of non-verbal communication. The Junto was a way for us to communicate across cultures musically/sonically, and to pursue ideas musically/sonically. (If you’re interested in the topic, there’s video online of a presentation I gave at the SETI Institute.)

An example would be helpful: There’s an upcoming project that resulted from the t-shirt a friend happened to be wearing one day. The shirt depicted a common mathematical sequence in an unfamiliar (to me) way. Soon, we’re going to take that unfamiliar way (it’s visual rather than numerical), and imagine it as a graphic score. That way we’ll “hear” the source mathematical concept in action.

I spend a lot of time thinking not only about the individual projects, but about the sequence of projects: making sure they’re balanced, that we alternate heavy concept ones with straightforward ones, and ones that require wholly original production with something sample-based, and so forth.

Sometimes we repeat past projects, or tweak previous ones. Some are proposed by other people, such as the 424th, which was proposed by an artist we’ve worked with in the past. I regularly add to a long list of potential projects, and often those are delayed because other ideas present themselves and are acted on immediately.

Proposals for prompts are always appreciated, both from Junto members and observers, and from folks interested in having their ideas acted upon by a diverse, global community of curious, talented, experimental musicians who are generous with their time and creativity.

Read more at the Disquiet Junto FAQ.

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Teaching “Sounds of Brands” (2020), Week 1 of 15

This past Wednesday, February 5, 2020, was the first class meeting of Sounds of Brands / Brands of Sounds: The Role of Sound in the Media Landscape, a course I’ve been teaching since 2012 in San Francisco at the Academy of Art. The course is about the ways things express themselves through sound, and by “things” I mean companies, products, services, and so forth. It can be everything from the sound design of an electric vehicle to the jingle of a fast-food restaurant to the music played in a retail establishment. How sound is employed as a form of expression in the marketplace, especially beyond the realm of pop-music storytelling, is what we explore each week.

I’m hopeful to find the time this semester to detail the class sessions here on, but I also know I’ve tried and failed every semester so far. I’ve occasionally started off strong, and then the realities of teaching, and work beyond school, and life beyond all of that become reality, and the posts pretty soon fade out. I’ve documented the first week of class several times in the past, so the point of today’s post — as I get tomorrow’s class materials together — is primarily to link to those posts (2012, 2015, 2016).

To recap in brief, the course is divided into three sections, as depicted in the above chart. We spend the first three weeks on Learning to Listen (aka Listening to Media); the following six weeks on the core of the course, Sounds of Brands; and then the final six weeks on the opposite proposition, Brands of Sounds, or how things related to sound (headphones, music equipment, streaming services, record labels, etc.) express themselves in non-sonic ways.

Up top is what the blackboard looked like at the end of the first day of class. The writing seen here is a repository of notes, not a structured document. I’ll unpack some of that here:

“Sound Journal” refers to the centerpiece of the homework: writing four times a week in a diary about one’s experience of and thoughts about sound.

Below that are things like “laugh -> ha” and “keyboard -> click,” a list of a half dozen or so correlations between “things” and “the sounds things make.” That’s the result of the opening exercise in the course, when students sit for 10 minutes and write down every sound they hear. There are various things that come out of the exercise, among them an opportunity to discuss the difference between object and emission. To understand that saying “car” isn’t sufficient to describe the sound a car makes is an important lessons for a student just beginning to explore sound.

The note about onomatopoeia is pointing out that several of the things people heard (the list originated as bits of the students’ work in the exercise) that much of the description is quite literally a verbal expression of the sound. But some achieve a greater, more verbal level of detail, such as the “deep, guttural” sound of a motorcycle, and the “high-pitched, repetitive beeping” of a truck backing up.

The list in the upper left-hand corner contains elements the students noted in a series of TV commercials that, creatively, employ everyday noise sources (keyboards, pencils, coffee, books) to recreate the melody of a classic jingle.

Other terms, such as “soundscape” and “anechoic,” will be discussed more in week two, which happens tomorrow. I’ll try to get the time to report back on that class meeting, and the others as the semester proceeds. There are 15 weeks in all, 16 if you include spring break. There is one class meeting each week, and it lasts roughly three hours, a mix of lecture, discussion, and in-class exercises. Students than have nine hours of homework outside of class. If you’d like a copy of the syllabus outline, shoot me an email at [email protected]

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