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.

field notes

News, essays, reviews, surveillance

This Week in Sound: Chakra Con + Sleep App-nea +

+ Label M&A&R + the Music Conservatory of Minecraft + More

A lightly annotated clipping service

As always, 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.

Chakra Con?: “For centuries, various cultures, including my own, South Asian,” writes Amitha Kalaichandran in the New York Times, “have used sound as a part of religious ceremonies and prayer, with one goal being to promote and facilitate meditation. In that sense, it’s not terribly different from singing hymns in a church. Most religions and cultures use music and sound for spiritual reasons. … But what about the promise of healing? After all, the use of sound is advertised as an activity that can do many things, including ‘realigning your chakras’ and ‘mind expansion.'” The article explores the growing phenomenon of “sound bath” as a practice and a service. Some scientific studies are providing that show evidence of health benefits, especially for stress and depression.

Mozart Effect: BBC Radio 3, which focuses on classical, jazz, and other non-popular music and audio, has reported an impressive 6% growth since this time last year. Given the increasing prominence of chillout playlists on streaming services like Spotify, it’d be interesting to know if this is an example of listeners also seeking “functional” or background music.

Sleep App-nea: More on music to sleep to. Last week from the New York Times. This week from the Los Angeles Times. That both articles focus specifically on the same app (Calm) in what is actually a wide and diverse field (including Insight Timer, Endel, Headspace, etc.) suggests this cycle of cultural discussion is being led by a line item in a single company’s marketing budget, which is exactly the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.

The Business of Music: (1), the online musical-instrument retailer, was bought by, the DiY marketplace, just a few weeks ago. (2) Now this week, Milan Records, a major force in the soundtracks of movies and, to a lesser degree, television, has been bought by Sony Music. (3) And between those two announcements, the sound branding agency Listen became part of Superfly, which has its own creative agency and produces festivals like Bonnaroo and Outside Lands. These are all situations in which companies that serve(d) sizable niches have become, over night, components of larger, related businesses. These deals get at how the internet has made such niches more substantial. Milan has a sizable catalog of exactly the sort of music that Sony had long defined itself as above, as apart from. Sony has released plenty of movie soundtracks over the years, but the perception to some degree is that Sony releases the major works (or, to borrow its label terminology, Masterworks), leaving the vast remainder to labels like Milan, Lakeshore, and Varèse Sarabande. Now that distinction is muddier, as Sony gets deeper into the field. The question that such deals, especially when occurring in close proximity, raises is: What’s next? Does SoundCloud become part of some other, adjacent streaming business, like YouTube or, who knows, Netflix, which might seek a way to entertain its subscriber base when the audience’s eyes aren’t available? Does the manufacturer Native Instruments join Beats as part of Apple? Does Ikea outright purchase Teenage Engineering, its recent collaborator? Will an app like Calm or Insight Timer become a part of the audiobook service Audible, itself bought by Amazon just over a decade ago? And more importantly, what happens when such businesses become part of a larger organization? Do they reap benefits of a broader audience, or get whittled down due to larger internal forces? We’ll see.

The Key of 3D Flat: Have you ever taken a music-theory course involving a live flames (see below), or giant pits filled with a human-scale mechanical sequencer? Well, if you make it through the Minecraft Conservatory of Music, you’ll be able to answer in the affirmative. That’s the name of a new video series on YouTube by a longtime player of the retro, 3D-block video game, and who also has a master’s degree in music performance (focused on bassoon). The first video explains how “blocks” are employed inside Minecraft for musical expression, with examples including works by Tchaikovsky, Bach, and Gershwin, and a modern classic: Legend of Zelda. Episode two discusses time signatures.

Human Touch: Back in January, Apple put up a large billboard in Las Vegas ahead of the Consumer Electronics Show. Apple historically hasn’t participated in CES, but as a cheeky gesture it did deign to join the conversation this year, speaking in large letters above the Strip. The billboard read, “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone,” which was both a play on Las Vegas’ long-running tagline, and a not-so-subtle critique of the role passive surveillance plays in Google’s advertising network, not to mention the broader privacy issues of the Internet of Things. Barely half a year later, Apple is dealing with its own privacy concerns, following revelations about how things dictated by users to Siri are reportedly sometimes overheard by flesh-and-blood contractors. Now Google, Apple, and Amazon are taking action. The latter, whose Alexa service is reportedly on the largest number of internet-connected consumer devices, is providing ways to “let customers disable human review” of their audio.

Phone Bank: You know the saying about how every company is now a technology company? Well, that means that every company has the opportunity for tech-company woes: “A bank has left more than one million audio recordings of phone calls seemingly made by bank employees exposed to the open internet, letting anyone listen in on sensitive conversations, including ones with potential customers.” The exposed folder contained recordings dating back to 2015.

Richter Roll: I’ve been a curious admirer of the 1974 film Earthquake for years, in particular due to the balance of John Williams’ score and the film’s sonic effects. Marke B. (a friend since the mid-1990s) takes a deep dive into the subwoofer for a Red Bull Music Academy article on the equipment constructed for the movie: “When it was time for the theater to quake, the soundtrack played two inaudible ‘control tones.’ These tones would trigger a special Sensurround box, which would use what was called a pseudorandom noise generator to create the low frequency rumble, sending it out to the amplifiers in the specially constructed speakers.”

Rotor Rooters: Helicopters are being normalized as a form of high-flying commute and general-use transportation in the New York City area, leading to complaints about noise pollution, in addition to concerns about safety due to increased air traffic. “Just because somebody’s got a couple hundred bucks to get to the airport,” says a Queens resident, “doesn’t mean they should be doing that to the negative impact of somebody else. They can get to the airport the same way everybody else gets to the airport.” (via Ethan Hein)

Sweet Little Things: “There’s something immensely calming about the turtle dove’s song,” says singer Sam Lee to journalist Patrick Barkham. “It has this low frequency that suddenly appears and disappears. It’s almost the flicker of a film – and such a metaphor for its own situation. The silence around it is as powerful as its presence.” Barkham writes at length about the threat of extinction for the famed migratory bird. (via subtopes)

Song Kraft: In a ruling whose ramifications are still being sorted out, a “nearly 20-year legal battle over the unauthorized sampling of a Kraftwerk song appears to finally be near an end after the European Court of Justice ruled in favor of the pioneering German group.” An initial read of the decision seems to state that artists will need approval from the original artist before recognizably sampling their work. While there are clarifications, this certainly seems troubling. Makes me wonder if I needed to copy that sentence in quotation marks, even though I’m including the link here to the source.

This is lightly adapted from an edition first published in the August 4, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound.

Tag: / Leave a comment ]

Boogie Down

To the local used record shop

Nothing like living down the road from a great used record store where you walk in, after a tasty dim sum lunch nearby, and the owner says, “Oh, we have some new arrivals you will like.” Not might like. Will. And it’s true. And from that abundance you select a 27-year-old instrumental remix by A Tribe Called Quest of Boogie Down Productions’ “We in There,” off their final album, Sex and Violence. And it turns out the vinyl is a bright, translucent orange. You’re in it for the instrumental, but the color is a plus. “From your eye drops a tear,” indeed.

Tag: / Leave a comment ]

Listening to and in the Mars Trilogy

How technology mediates discourse

I’ve begun re-reading the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve been listening rather than reading: revisiting by having a story I already know read to me. This following chunk of a paragraph stood out, and I hit pause on the audiobook so I could locate the exact words. It’s an insightful depiction of the interaction of two individuals in space-suits (Mars-suits?) as they travel across the planet’s surface:

Michel drove the jeep and listened to Maya talk. Did conversation change when voices were divorced from bodies, planted right in the ears of the listeners by helmet mikes? It was as if one were always on the phone, even when sitting next to the person you were talking to. Or — was this better or worse — as if you were engaged in telepathy.

In case you haven’t read the series, it might help to know that Michel is the lonely French psychologist assigned to the 100-person crew setting up camp on Mars at the start of the first book, and that Maya is a captivating and highly driven Russian member of the international assortment of captivating and highly driven characters who populate the novel and the planet.

A few paragraphs earlier, the narrator set the stage for this depiction — two people next to each other, and also quite isolated from each other — as follows:

Michel asked the questions that a shrink program would have asked, Maya answered in a way that a Maya program would have answered. Their voices right in each other’s ears, the intimacy of an intercom.

The way the technologically mediated conversation assists in dehumanizing the characters, turning each into a “program,” is further emphasized by that verb-less standalone clause that comes immediately after. The impact of the observation is further heightened because just two pages earlier still we were told:

intimacy consisted of talking for hours about what was most important in one’s life.

Robinson (or Stan, as he likes to be called, as I learned when I interviewed him over the course of several conversations a few years ago: “The Man Who Fell for Earth”) always gets deserved credit for the scientific knowledge and imagination he brings to his depiction of how Mars might be terraformed, how it might be made habitable by humans. What makes the novels really work, though, is his awareness of technology at not just an industrial or societal level, but at an interpersonal one as well: how technological change impacts the individuals as much as it does the planet. To remake Mars is to remake ourselves.

Tags: , / Leave a comment ]

This Week in Sound: Quantum Microphones + Whispering Whales + …

+ Caption Culture + Sleep Apps + Sonic Erotica + More ...

This is an unusually long issue of the This Week in Sound email newsletter. Why? Because I took off a week. Why? Because of jet lag. So, think of this as a double issue. Because it is. To reduce the impact of so much sound news, I’ve divided this issue in half. There’s a brief intermission in the form of a beautiful excerpt from a bleak novel from 1946. Come to think of it, that doesn’t sound like much of a respite.

A lightly annotated clipping service

As always, 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.

Speak Now: There are ebooks and there are audiobooks, and if you purchase “DRM-free” ebooks you can run them through software that reads them to you, but if you purchase “non-DRM-free” ebooks then you can’t, because audiobooks are a big business, and the publishing industry is generally set up to make you buy the book twice. However, Audible appears to be reversing the process, with a new program: “The program, called Captions, which requires the company to transcribe audio to text, was highlighted in a story in USA Today with a headline touting that Audible is looking to let customers ‘”read” an audiobook while [they] listen.’ While the company disputes that description, saying Captions is not at all akin to the act of reading, publishers, literary agents, and organizations representing authors are skeptical. … While Audible said in a statement that Captions ‘does not replicate or replace the print or eBook reading experience,’ publishers are unconvinced.”

Hum Dinger: “The hum” is the term given to a constant sound heard by many people, a sound once written off as tinnitus, but increasingly considered to possibly be something else. The Atlantic highlights a video on the topic, part conspiracy theorizing, part fringe research, part obsessive inquiry.

App Amplitude: “Google has introduced Sound Amplifier which is a new communication mobile app that helps people hear more clearly. What it does is customize frequencies to augment any sound you need to hear.”

Ruido Awakening: The saga of the purported Havana, Cuba, sonic weapon that reportedly led to America diplomats suffering a range of maladies had an update this week, when the New York Times reported that brain analysis of the diplomats indeed evidences “something” happened. Slate followed up with “A Comprehensive List of All the Potential Causes of the Cuban ‘Sonic’ Attacks.” Note that sonic is still in quotes there. (via subtopes)

Shark Tank: The concept of a “sonic weapon” sounds sorta futuristic, but often it’s pretty mundane, like playing annoying songs on repeat to keep people away. In West Palm Beach, Florida, this means children’s music, like the “Baby Shark” song, is now the front line of an effort to disperse the homeless. It seems like a lullaby would be more humane.

Cop to It: “Amazon’s home security company Ring has enlisted local police departments around the country to advertise its surveillance cameras in exchange for free Ring products and a “portal” that allows police to request footage from these cameras, a secret agreement obtained by Motherboard shows.” While we’re busy worrying about the unintended consequences of modern technology, it can be helpful to remember sometimes the intended consequences can also be troublesome.

Vocal Opponent: NPR ran a story about how U.S. technology is helping the surveillance state in China grow stronger. The details about voice surveillance are especially chilling. For the radio spot, NPR had to use a voice actor to read the part of a Chinese interviewee named Alim, and this editorial decision became part of the story itself: “MIT is collaborating with a Chinese company called iFlytek, which supplied voice recognition technology to Xinjiang. By the way, this is why we’re using a voice actor for Alim. China has his voice now. And engineers at NPR told us, even if we tried distorting Alim’s voice to protect his identity, it could be reverse-engineered.”

Leak Siri: A whistleblower opens up about the confidential material overheard when Apple users think they’re just talking to their personal-assistant robot service: “There have been countless instances of recordings featuring private discussions between doctors and patients, business deals, seemingly criminal dealings, sexual encounters and so on. These recordings are accompanied by user data showing location, contact details, and app data.”

Animal Rites: The July 17 issue of New Scientist has reports on both goat and whale sounds. Apparently goats’ bleating actually discloses a range of emotional states, and whales “whisper” to their calves to avoid detection by predators.

Human V. Nature: It’s a core concept in sound studies that human hearing is an evolutionary trait that assists us in sensing danger. As it turns out, much as our ears keep danger at bay, our voices do as well: Researchers have found that “even the gentlest of human speech can make wild animals–even top predators–unnerved and watchful, in ways that shake entire food webs. It’s the clearest demonstration yet that we are among the scariest of animals–a super-predator that terrifies even the carnivores that themselves incite terror.”

A lightly annotated clipping service (continued)

Tiny Tunes: “Stanford physicists have developed a ‘quantum microphone’ so sensitive that it can measure individual particles of sound, called phonons. … The quantum microphone the group developed consists of a series of supercooled nanomechanical resonators, so small that they are visible only through an electron microscope. The resonators are coupled to a superconducting circuit that contains electron pairs that move around without resistance. The circuit forms a quantum bit, or qubit, that can exist in two states at once and has a natural frequency, which can be read electronically. When the mechanical resonators vibrate like a drumhead, they generate phonons in different states.” (via Micah Stupak-Hahn)

Word Play: It’s a bit ironic, for me at least, that this story about the increasing use of captions by people who aren’t hearing-impaired appears in The Guardian, since the primary reason I started using captions was to understand what British people were mumbling on my TV. And then it became something of a norm at home, yielding benefits like the identity of songs that are playing in the background, and unintended humor, like when particular soundtrack cues are identified for their narrative purpose (“solemn music,” “upbeat music,” etc.). Interestingly, this apparently isn’t a particularly recent trend. A study in 2006 found that “of the 7.5 million UK TV viewers using subtitles, only 1.5 million had a hearing impairment.”

I Like Mic: The New York Times Sunday Magazine has this excellent ongoing series where people write in favor of something. It’s titled Letter of Recommendation, and two weeks ago David Rees, best known for the Get Your War On comics, wrote in favor of piezo microphones: “They look unassuming, but once they’re plugged into an amplifier, piezo discs become psychedelic microscopes for your ears, completely changing your sense of sonic scale. I taped one to the bottom of a water bottle on a hot afternoon and ran the signal through a reverb pedal; the ice cubes banging around sounded like gongs from distant planets. Rubbing a piezo mic against a felt cowboy hat sent me down a sound-dappled path of contemplation, musing on the subtleties of surface texture and how difficult it would be to play croquet on a felt cowboy hat if you were, say, 10 molecules tall. My dumb guitar never led me to such insights.

Pillow Talk: Amanda Hess, in the New York Times, surveys the range of sleep aids in the form of meditation and related apps. Helpfully, she provides beneficial context: “Internet culture is often described as hyper-visual, but it has also cracked open new relationships to sound. The rise of podcasts — designed to be listened to alone, in interstitial moments — has forged new aural pathways, and carved out its own aesthetic category: the ‘podcast voice,’ that wry, stammering, cool-nerd cadence. YouTube’s A.S.M.R. practitioners work their whispers and breaths and mouth noises to evoke physical sensations. Even the sounds of jogging geese and crackling ice are preserved for their #oddlysatisfying effects.” Her main focus is the Calm app. (I’d also recommend Insight Timer.)

Good Sex (Writing): And at the New Yorker, Sarah Larson on a subset of post-podcast erotica: “audio details that enhance a sense of pleasure, safety, and calm.”

Material Whirl: The latest edition of the Journal of Sound Studies was edited by Caleb Kelly (author of the excellent book Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year). I’m still working my way through it, but it’s packed with interesting material, which makes sense, since its subject is “materials of sound.”

Re: Recount: WNYC recorded what an election recount sounds like, and shared a nicely edited collection of those sounds in a short broadcast segment. (via Mike Rhode)

Semi Annual: The cicada family has some 2,000 species around the world, and, according to Japan Times, some 35 in Japan (where “cicada” translates as “semi”). As with much life here on Earth, the cicada’s sounds correlate with mating. “The distinctive sound, appearance and short lifespan of cicadas have earned them a special place in Japanese culture, and the insects have appeared in numerous pieces of art and literature over the years.”

Elementary, or Not: This is both utterly inconsequential and, yet, for pure curiosity’s sake, worth noting. IBM’s Watson Marketing is now owned by Centerbridge Partners, and that Watson business has been renamed … “Acoustic.” Even though it seems to have nothing in particular to do with, well, sound.

Kitchen Aid: In Puerto Rico, a metal food receptacle, known as the cacerola, has a history as an instrument of protest. (via Sounding Out!: The Sound Studies Blog)

Social Studies: A study finds that people laugh more at televised jokes that are accompanied by laugh tracks. I don’t watch much comedy, so I’ll trust the science on this: “we’re just naturally more receptive to jokes when we already hear people laughing at them.” One additional interesting aspect of the study: autistic individuals made up a third of the people whose reactions were observed. (via NextDraft)

Bone Spur: You know how in every slightly scifi spy show someone puts a finger near their ear and they can tech-magically communicate with someone else on their highly trained squad? Well, bone conduction may yet make that real, thanks to a Kickstarter. (via IFTF)

Game On: The excellent A Closer Listen website singles out the best video-game scores of the year thus far.

Casual FX: A lot of writing about sound in video games comes back to the moment-specificity of sound in massive games that distinguishes them from the fixed recordings that accompany movies. At the Gamasutra website, Pavel Shylenok talks about the other end of the spectrum: casual games.

Reading the web

I’ve had this separate section for a few issues now where I highlight recent blog entries. The fact is, what is and isn’t a blog is a bit hazy, and has been for a long time. In any case, these are interesting, recent items from the blogs of sizable American institutions. If you have a sound/music blog or if there’s a sound/music blog you love, lemme know.

Minnesota Ranger: Andrew Fenchel, who runs the excellent Chicago-based concert series and arts organization Lampo, wrote at the blog of the Walker Art Center about a day-long “marathon” of sound art performances. It’s a great piece, with highlights of work by Christine Sun Kim, Walter Kitundu, Haroon Mirza, and other artists.

Summer Schooled: A summer intern at the Library of Congress writes about his dive into the institution’s resources: “I was able to find a few news articles about why music gets stuck in your head, and using the Library’s database resources, I located quite a few journal articles relating to the topic of earworms, or, to use the more scientific terminology, involuntary musical imagery (INMI). Interestingly, these journal articles dated back to the mid-2000s at the earliest–for some reason it was not a topic that was studied very extensively until the 21st century, and there still is no definitive answer as to why earworms happen. However, most studies I looked at found that longer note lengths and smaller intervals between notes made songs more likely to appear as INMI.” (via Mike Rhode)

This is lightly adapted from an edition first published in the July 28, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound.

Tag: / Leave a comment ]

Homeward Bound

Listening on the East Coast

There was no This Week in Sound email July 21 because I’d returned shortly after 1:00am Sunday from a 16-day trip to New York to visit family, mostly on Long Island, where I’m from, and also upstate for a brief spell. It was a family-first trip (that’s me speaking to friends who read this and wonder why I didn’t get in touch), but I did manage one very hot day in Manhattan, getting to the Whitney Biennial and a few neighboring art galleries. More on all that if time allows in the coming week.

Happiness, I will note, is overhearing your mid-octogenarian father on the phone explaining/translating your interest in sound to a friend and, in the midst of this attempted explication, the microwave beeps throatily, and then having just tried to clarify why sound is an important topic, he has to explain to his friend what that beeping noise just now was.

I left Brooklyn for California in 1989, a year out of college, to work at Tower Records’ home office in West Sacramento, where I was an editor on its music magazines. Whenever I go back to visit New York, I count the minutes after arrival until I hear either Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen, and then I note which I heard first. I heard each of them just once on this lengthy recent trip, and the Springsteen occurrence barely counts. His tunes appeared in the trailer for the upcoming movie Blinded by the Light (which seems to have been green-lit so people could write think pieces about it and Danny Boyle’s Yesterday); it showed before the screening I caught of Spider-Man: Far From Home. As for Billy Joel, I heard him in between tracks from Yes and the Decemberists at a Mexican restaurant at JFK just before I flew home to San Francisco. And in fact, I heard San Francisco’s own Journey, Huey Lewis, Metallica, and Santana on this trip before I heard either Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen. Being that I was visiting from San Francisco, it was as if real life were acting like a hyper-personal Spotify algorithm.

This is lightly adapted from an edition first published in the July 28, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound.

/ Leave a comment ]