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This Week in Sound: Heartbeat Surveillance + Classical Metadata + …

A lightly annotated clipping service

This is lightly adapted from the June 30, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound. I don’t usually wait a full week to post the material on, but the July 4 holiday messed with my schedule. The July 7 issue of This Week in Sound went out a few minutes ago.

If you maintain a blog related to music and/or sound, please reply to this email to let me know. Thanks. Some recent favorite posts:

The bass player Steve Lawson ponders the pluses and minuses of making album-length recordings: “I just want to keep making the music that matters to me. And the few hundred people I need to be interested in what I’m doing in order to make it viable are statistically insignificant in terms of the wider music industries.”

Ethan Hein on developing an introductory course to music theory: “If you read this blog, you know that I take a dim view of traditional music theory pedagogy, which tends to present the aesthetic preferences of Western European aristocrats of the 17th and 18th centuries as if they’re a universally valid and applicable rule system.

This isn’t quite a blog, but Susanna Caprara, who goes by La Cosa Preziosa, has a great monthly newsletter that’s called The Secret Soundscape Club, and that’s what it’s about. It’s wonderful. (She also has a blog.)

A lightly annotated clipping service

Beat Surrender: Your heartbeat has a signature, and the Pentagon has developed technology to read it with a laser from a distance. “The system is 95 percent accurate and can be used at distances of at least 200 meters, making them useful at locations such as military checkpoints.”

Space Music: Brian Eno is now the name of an asteroid. The day prior to the announcement, he earned the Stephen Hawking Medal.

Cloud Cover: Bitcoin may be the “native currency” of the internet, but its diehards are looking for redundant forms of communication, should the internet fail them, so that their accounts are always accessible. They are now tapping satellites and even ham radio to do their bidding.

Speak & Teller: There’s a new version of the board game Monopoly that comes with a “voice-controlled AI” that manages players’ finances and transactions.

Blast from the Past: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, something mysterious launched a burst of radio waves into the cosmos. Last September, that powerful pulse collided with an array of radio telescopes in the western Australian Outback. Though the fleeting barrage lasted mere milliseconds, scientists were able to trace the radio burst back to its source: A galaxy roughly four billion light-years away.”

Mic Drop: ProPublica and Wired reported on “an aggression detector that’s used in hundreds of schools, health care facilities, banks, stores and prisons worldwide, including more than 100 in the U.S.” The tool uses sound as a detector of suspicious activity. “Yet ProPublica’s analysis, as well as the experiences of some U.S. schools and hospitals that have used Sound Intelligence’s aggression detector, suggest that it can be less than reliable.”

Bat Mobile: Now that cars can be nearly silent, due to electric and hybrid engines, they require sounds to be added. BMW has tapped composer Hans Zimmer (Inception, The Dark Knight) for its forthcoming BMW Vision M NEXT concept car.

Right Stuff: The song of the North Pacific right whale has long eluded researchers, until now, reports Smithsonian Magazine. Why might this scarce species of whale sing? Same reason humans generally do: “the rarity of the whales has led to the animals becoming more vocal to find mates.” (via Subtopes)

Rock Lobster: It’s been said that the Chinese-American dish known as chop suey helped keep miners from getting scurvy. Madeline Leung Coleman argues persuasively that Chinese food later fueled West Coast punk rock. (via the NextDraft newsletter)

Within the Context of No-Context, Part 358: The information associated with streaming classical music, such as conductor, composer, and performers, is often found to be lacking: “critics of the status quo argue that the basic architecture of the classical genre — with nonperforming composers and works made up of multiple movements — is not suited to a system built for pop,” writes Ben Sisario. It’s worth nothing that the system fails pop music, too. Streaming services often leave out the record label, liner notes, band members, and song/production credits. Just this past week I was trying to find a 1996 album from the Lo Recordings label of collaborations (it’s titled Collaborations) that teamed pairs of musicians, only to find that Google Play Music leaves out half of each pair in the track listing.

Summer School: Ableton, the German software-development company behind the widely used digital audio workstation called Live, launched a fun web-based tool for teaching the basis of audio synthesis.

Concierge DJ: A year or so ago while searching for a hotel in New York City, I selected the Ace because it provided free loaner guitar to anyone staying the night, and I wanted to be able to practice while away from home. Were I to stay at the lower Manhattan hotel Sister City, created by the folks behind Ace, I might never even spend much time in my room, as musician Juliana Barwick has created a score for its lobby, and it’s interactive. Lobby music is the new elevator music.

Psych Out: This recent research may not bode well for my mental future, but let’s wait until its findings have been verified several times: “A machine-learning method discovered a hidden clue in people’s language predictive of the later emergence of psychosis — the frequent use of words associated with sound.” (via Jason Richardson)

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The Blog Cemetery

This is data provided by Feedly, which is the RSS reader that I use. The feeds I follow were imported from Google Reader six years ago today, when that service shut down, and many have been added since. The red skull in this image marks many a dead blog and, especially, many a dead netlabel. I get the dead netlabels, as times and technology of changed. Doesn’t mean I’m happy about it, but I do get that culture and the infrastructure that supports and shapes culture have, to a large degree, moved on from what was, in retrospect, a fairly short-lived and narrowly distributed media phenomenon (though there are still many netlabels out there). The blogs, however, are another story.

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Submissions Guidelines

An occasional reminder

I get hundreds of tracks/albums in my inbox (week)daily.

My approach is as follows:

I listen continuously to heaps of stuff.

I re-listen when something grabs me.

I write about it when I feel compelled to.

Note: Sending follow-up nudge emails may work to your disadvantage.

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The Conference Call v. Acoustic Literacy

An interview I did with the Article Group

It was a pleasure to have been interviewed for an article about the contentious and ubiquitous sound technology known as the conference call, especially because the article’s author, Rae Paoletta, sets the correct tone right from the start. The article begins: “The conference call is a gangrenous finger on the clammy hand of human achievement.”

After speaking with Paoletta on the phone (not a conference call, just two humans on a shared line, very old-fashioned and convivial), I was a bit concerned with how harsh I was about conference calls, specifically the often non-technological reasons for why they so often fall short of their purpose. How I put it is: “In a broad sense, people are ultimately kind of lazy,” but even before the article gets to my concerns about what I refer to as a societal lack of “acoustic literacy,” someone else says it more directly: “generally people are selfish dickbags and this translates to terrible conference calls.”

In advance of speaking with Paoletta, I sketched out a list of conference-call grievances, key aspects of the conference call, both as a technology and a site of human interaction, that are susceptible to failure. It played out like this:

  • voice quality
  • background noise
  • voice menu commands
  • hold music
    • signature brand sound
    • signature cues
    • signature hold music
    • option for no music
    • options for music
    • misreading digital silence
  • spatial orientation
  • visual orientation (cues on screen)
  • politics of being on hold pre-call

Paoletta’s piece, which also quotes Dr. Julie Gurner, is available at

Not so much ironically as inevitably, I has several conference calls in the wake of speaking with Paoletta, including on the morning the article came out. I imagined this was a jinx, and the call would utterly fail. It didn’t, fortunately. My main observations of the call, in my heightened state of awareness due to the Paoletta conversation:

  • sonic moire/cutouts (from cross-talk)
  • squelchy feedback
  • uneven volume levels
  • Max Headroom vocal glitch
  • cicada-like atmospheric noise
  • background construction noise

I posted that list to Twitter. A friend joked in reply, “The way you describe it, I’m like, where can I find that track on Bandcamp?” This made me realize something: The exact same sonic issues that I abhor in conference calls I seek out in electronic music.

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Staring Down the Future

I’m committed to my sonic stare-downs with robocalls. These are the steps:

  1. Pick up the phone.
  2. Say nothing.
  3. Listen intently to the call’s background static for the ghost in the machine, for some sense, some signal, of the system on the other end as it cogitates its next move.
  4. Rejoice when it almost inevitably hangs up.
  5. Put another notch in belt.
  6. Sometimes ponder if this is a Roko’s basilisk scenario.
  7. Sometimes ponder if there is a correlation between which particular textures of background static trigger Roko-anxiety, and if that’s some sort of ESP equivalent of a Turing test.

We’re so conscious of self-learning algorithms and of nascent digital sentience these days, I do wonder if the phrase “ghost in the machine” has much traction any longer, or if the phrase is shifting to mean something slightly different from what it once did.

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