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Best of 2010: 8 Best iOS Sound/Music Apps

Following is a list of the eight new iOS apps that this year best exemplified the intersection of sound/music, interactivty, and mobility — that is, of apps designed for the Apple iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. Last year’s list of best iOS apps had 10 entries, but the shorter list this year isn’t intended as any sort of sign of a diminution of creativity in iOS development. Quite the contrary, this year’s list is simply more categorically selective.

There are at least two major branches of iOS sound apps right now: those that emulate (or otherwise augment) instrumentation, such as virtual pianos and turntables (as well as guitar tuners and effects pedals), and those that explore new realms of interactivity.

In its widely reported year-end “Rewind” assessment of “app trends,” Apple labeled these categories, respectively, as “Band in a Hand” and “Generative Art & Sound” (which combines visual and sonic tools). This year-end Disquiet.com list focuses on the latter.

Further winnowing the potential contenders, all the apps listed below were released this year. I thought about including previously existing apps that showed a major upgrade this year, but decided to focus on new apps, in large part because an insignificant number of apps from 2009 in this interactive realm showed any significant improvement in 2010.

The eight best sound/music apps of 2010 are, in alphabetical order:

1. Aura 2: Flux: This ambient-music creation tool nudges toward instrument territory (or, more to the point, compositional territory) but emphasizes the casual playfulness of its own homegrown visual interface (iTunes), one that encourages an exploratory approach. Various moods and sounds can be combined to create systems-fueled compositions based on how elements are organized. Aura’s interface provides a kind of visual programming language made of building blocks (and, like another app listed here, Reactable, is thus reminiscent of the old Logo programming language). More details at the developer’s website, higefive.com.

2. Immersion Station: This seemingly simple app allows you to place a set number of globes on a grid, each globe representing a different sound loop (iTunes). The grid is distorted based on a one-point perspective, which means that the further back a globe is placed (the closer it approaches the horizon), the quieter it is in the mix. The real clincher is an “evolve” mode that takes a given arrangement and slowly shifts it as time progresses. The app was developed by longtime electronic musician Steve Roach and software engineer Eric Freeman. More details at immersionstation.com.

3. Inception: This is a bespoke edition of the RjDj app, developed as a free adjunct to the Inception film (iTunes). It processes the sound around you in real time, transforms it in ways that the developers liken to a dream state. Some of the transformations involve musical cues from the film. The common software-development term for this kind of thing is “reactive,” or “augmented.” An even more appropriate word would be “wonderful.” Additional Disquiet.com coverage: a story I wrote about the app’s release for boingboing.net, a list of the RjDj/Inception developers’ favorite aspects of the apps, and a list of the best movie scores of 2010 (which includes Inception). More details at inceptiontheapp.com.

4. Mixtikl: This app almost doesn’t belong on this list, because there is nothing casual about it (iTunes). It is a highly detailed generative-sound creation tool, one that has far more in common with computer music software than with the playful, intuitive apps listed here. However, even if that does put it strongly in the “instrument” category, the fact is that it has no analog (so to speak) in the realm of traditional musical instruments. It also includes a growing library of in-app sound generators. As a sign of its non-iOS-specificity, there are Mixtikl versions for a growing number of operating systems, including Windows and Mac, at the developer’s website, intermorphic.com.

5. Thicket: This is, at its essence, an interactive single (iTunes). The touch screen lets the user alter in various ways a piece of music — an alternately bouncy and reflective bit of refined techno — and the visuals associated with it. The alterations depend on the number of fingers used, the patterns drawn, the speed at which they are drawn, and the angle at which the device is placed. Additional Disquiet.com coverage: an interview with one of the app’s developers, “Being Decimal: The Anticipatory Pleasures of the Thicket App.” More details at intervalstudios.com.

6. Reactable: This is, like Flux, a node-based ambient-music tool with its own internal structural logic (iTunes). It is the second most complex of these apps (after Mixtikl), but the invested time is rewarded handsomely. Like Aura (mentioned above), its building-block interface and systems-oriented progressions suggest a distant lineage to the Logo programming language. It originated as physical, tabletop interface and was later ported to a software-only tool. More details at reactable.com.

7. Sonic Wire Sculptor: In simplest terms, this iOS app takes line drawings and turns them into sound (iTunes). Create new compositions by carefully delineating a structure, or just input an existing image, like a face, and listen to how it sounds. Then — and this is what really pushes Sonic Wire Sculptor over the top — rotate the line drawing in three-dimensional space to hear geometric variations on the musical theme. More details at sonicwiresculptor.com.

8. SoundyThingie: This one is the sole iPad-only app on the list (the developer has stated that iPhone development is “tricky because iPhones have very weak processor”). It provides a blank slate on which the user draws lines, lines that are subsequently interpreted as sonic instructions (iTunes). Speed, position, and other factors influence the resulting audio. Of all the apps here, this one probably has the most self-evident roots in the tradition, so to speak, of non-traditional graphic scores in avant-garde music. More details at linienmusik.net.

A few additional notes:

¶ These are all iOS apps, which is not intended to dismiss mobile-app development on Android (I own a G1 phone, and when its contract runs out at the start of 2011, I will almost certainly replace it with another Android-based phone), Windows 7, or any other operating system, or browser-based (largely Flash) interactive sound toys. Much of the energy that for over a decade fed the audio-games/sound-toy world in web browsers seems to have migrated to Apple’s operating system, but here’s to hoping that the development world diversifies in 2011.

¶ There are, indeed, other types of sound apps, including streaming audio, like Pandora and Soundcloud; so-called “soundboards,” which collect sounds related to a specific subject, like The Simpsons; and brand fodder, which provide fans with a virtual trinket, the app equivalent of glossy pamphlets purchased from concert concession stands. And judging by sheer number, “farts” could easily be its own subcategory.

¶ I considered including Papa Sangre on the list (iTunes) because it is (reportedly) the first ever audio-only video game. However, much as that sounds like a wonderful melding of Janet Cardiff and Nintendo, there is no sound manipulation within Papa Sangre, so it doesn’t really fit into this list.

And needless to say, if anything prominent is missing, do not hesitate to let me know.

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Best of 2010: 10 Best Film Scores

There are two subsets of ambient/electronic music that often get overlooked in discussion. One is the instrumental backings of hip-hop (and, increasingly, r&b and pop songs), which are constructed from fragments of samples in a manner that would make John Cage or John Oswald proud — and whose inherent abstractions become self-evident when relieved of the songs’ vocal content. Much of my music-buying every month is of instrumental hip-hop tracks, yet year in year out I never seem to make much progress on putting an end-of-year list together of my favorites.

In any case, the other subset is soundtracks, not just to films, but to television, video games, advertising — and, increasingly, to consumer devices, such as alarm clocks. Easily one of the most intoxicating electronic “hits” of the year was Chilly Gonzales’ “Never Stop,” which appeared in several iPad commercials. I, personally, consume far more television than I do movies, and I need to pay more attention to television incidental music. That is, I pay attention to it — I’m especially fond of the late Rubicon, of The Walking Dead, of Big Love, of Fringe and, of all things, of CSI: Miami, the latter of whose sound designers have been out of control lately — but, again, I never seem to manage to get a proper list together. (NCIS, by the way, deserves some credit, too; that show has an almost vaudevillian approach to music timing.) Perhaps next year.

Now, there may be far fewer films — and, thus, far fewer film soundtracks — than there are non-soundtrack CD releases each year, but like any such list, this one is still hampered by how much time I have. (It’s also hampered by how many scores are actually released commercially, though I’ve come to understand that’s become less of an issue thanks to digital-only albums.) There are many 2010 movies I didn’t have a chance to see, especially ones with work by some of the leading composers in the realm of so-called underscoring, in which the music bleeds into the sound of the film, such as Gustavo Sanaolalla (Biutiful), David Holmes (The Edge), and Lisa Gerrard (Oranges and Sunshine), just to name a few.

All of which is to say, here are the 10 movies scores of the year — scores that employed tenets of an ambient/electronic approach, alphabetized by movie title.

1. The American Herbert Grönemeyer (EMI) No major motion picture this year confronted silence — or at least the absence of speech — with the elegance and coherence of The American. The story of a mercenary gun craftsman on the run in Italy, it probably has less dialog than does any other movie to open in the top three, let alone the number one spot. Grönemeyer, as a result, has vast spaces to fill, but he does so without ever letting the audience lose a sense of the sounds of the world, whether it be the workspace where the gunmaker plies his trade in secret, or the city and rural environs he finds himself in. One particularly great scene has him timing his efforts so that he can mask his hammering with the ringing of church bells. Of course, that scene’s credit goes to the movie’s director, Anton Corbijn, but it provides a sense of the silence-coaxing context in which Grönemeyer was composing.

2. Black Swan Clint Mansell (Fox Music) Martin Scorcese’s Shutter Island wasn’t the only film this year to take classical music and let it serve a psychological thriller. Here, it is, of course — we are talking about ballerinas — Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, but mixed with Mansell’s trademark electronic textures. It isn’t quite chopped and screwed, but it’s enticingly on its way there.

3. The Fighter Michael Brook (Relativity) Michael Brook is one of those few composers whose scores are always listenable unto themselves, apart from the films they serve, and yet they serve the film nonetheless. It was very risky for this particular film’s director, David O. Russell, to align his movie’s desperate realism with Brooks’ fourth-world dreaminess. But Russell no doubt heard in Brooks’ tonal sketches something akin to the flow of blood in one’s ringing ear.

4. The Illusionist Sylvain Chomet (Milan) This is, on the surface, by far the least technologically mediated of the soundtracks listed here, but it’s not only for association with the winning Triplets of Belleville score that director Chomet draws attention. His take on jazz and chanson pastiche emphasizes atmospheric content over song content in a manner that’s quite conscious of the functional purpose of popular music: as a soundtrack to goings-on, as a mood-setter. There’s also, for all Chomet’s love of swing, an animator’s metronomic pulse in everything he does. Just listen to the pitter-patter xylophone in “Blue Dress,” or the piping piano of “Paris London.”

5. Inception Hans Zimmer (Warner Bros.) No score this year got more attention, and deservedly so, for its accomplishment in taking narrative structure to heart. Inception would be receiving major year-end praise if only for its utilization of elements of “Non, je ne Regrette Rien” by Edith Piaf to seem as if Zimmer had majestically slowed it down, matching the relationship that the film suggested between nested dreams and temporal experience. But, in addition to that, Inception is simply one of Zimmer’s best scores. Along with Sherlock Holmes, it shows that he’s moving away from the synthesizer-driven material with which he’s long been associated. (And, in a true act of dedication, he and director Nolan then teamed up with the crew behind the iPhone reactive-audio app RjDj — more on which when I post the best iOS apps of the year.)

6. The King’s Speech Alexandre Desplat (Cutting Edge/Decca) The rare orchestral score that is subdued, truly subdued — not Mahler-subdued, all that inner turmoil, but Satie-subdued. The movie is about a British royal overcoming a speech impediment. The work probably served as a good balance as Desplat toiled around the same time on the score to a film about another anointed one overcoming childhood trauma and gaining leadership skills and self-confidence: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.

7. Shutter Island various (Rhino) Not a particularly great film, but a fascinating score. No original music, just various greatest hits of 20th century (and some 21st century) classical music. To use Ingram Marshall’s “Fog Tropes” (performed by the Orchestra of St. Lukes, conducted by John Adams) in a psychological thriller would be obscene, only if you live in a world that cherishes the self-ghettoizing of classical music. Also here: Nam June Paik, Brian Eno, John Cage, and Max Richter, among others. The approach brings to mind Stanley Kubrick (think of all that Ligeti in 2001: A Space Odyssey, forcing out poor Alex North’s original music), though apparently it was not the film’s director, Martin Scorsese, but instead Robbie Robertson (of the Band) who put it all together.

8. Social Network Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross The movie is directed by one of the most formally accomplished filmmakers, David Fincher, and written by one of the contemporary screenwriters most comfortable with theatrical staginess, Aaron Sorkin. So who better than rock’s romantic figure with the drum-machine heart to score it. Reznor and his colleague Ross turn in a spectacle of cold-bloodedness, emotional short circuits, and frayed nerves. (The one unfortunate thing about the score to Social Network is how frequently it is attributed solely to Trent Reznor, when in fact it plainly bears a dual credit between Reznor and Atticus Ross. So, also check out this year’s The Book of Eli, which Ross scored by himself. Lackluster movie, but a bracing score; Ross funnels ragged industrial pop into a song-less space that is rich and vibrant.)

9. The Tempest Elliot Goldenthal (Zarathurstra) Goldenthal is one of the most scene-chomping film composers of our time, and yet there’s always a detail-mindedness to his work. There’s something about his broad palette, his mix of rock’n’roll energy and minimalist patterning, that makes him a kind of Hollywood kin of the Bang on a Can folks. He especially goes all out when he teams with his wife, director Julie Taymor, as he does here.

10. 127 Hours A.R. Rahman (Interscope) It isn’t a surprise, after the triumph that was Slumdog Millionaire, that its director, Danny Boyle, would re-team with its composer, A.R. Rahman. What is a surprise, one that speaks to Boyle’s counter-intuitive imagination, is that he brought Rahman, one of the major figures in Bollywood movie music, to work on a film that takes place in desolate Moab, Utah — and that Rahman would, for the most part, rein in his penchant for the boisterous in favor of a story-appropriate aridity.

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Best of 2010: 10 Best Commercial Ambient/Electronic Albums

Another year, and more music than ever. The sheer number of recordings released in 2010 makes this year’s list-making somewhat easy, because the volume made the effort’s absurdity more broadly self-evident than in the past. We are all swimming in music, in sound, and keeping track of it is more than most if any of us can manage.

That said, it is nonetheless a rewarding experience to construct the final list, to work through the raw goods, sorting listening notes, revisiting previous writing, conversing with friends. It’s a reflective, year-closing holiday tradition unto itself.

I didn’t spend a lot of time looking back at previous lists, but I did notice that in 2002 three musicians listed here were also on the list: Marina Rosenfeld, as part of the CD that accompanied the catalog of the Whitney Biennial; Keith Fullerton Whitman, for his Playthroughs; and Fennesz (who appears on the Food record listed below), for Field Recordings 1995:2002. And only one musician, Scott Tuma, is repeated from last year, when he and Mike Weis teamed up for Taradiddle.

So, here they are, in alphabetical order by musician. If they weren’t in alphabetical order and I had to put one at the top, it would be Scott Tuma’s Dandelion, followed closely by Keith Fullerton Whitman’s Generator.

1. Marcus Fischer Monocoastal (12k) An album of such thorough tenderness and fragility, it feels as if at any moment it might disintegrate. There is such a fetish of craftsmanship today, that the mere act of handcraft is far more valued than is the intensity of the effort. Fischer is a deeply dedicated craftsman of atmospheres, and an especially imaginative one at that.

2. Food Quiet Inlet (ECM) The group Food delivers precisely the modest fourth-world spectacles of fusion-made-good that one expects, but receives far less often than one recognizes, from the label ECM. The album features key Food members Thomas Strønen (drums, live-electronics) and Iain Ballamy (tenor soprano saxophones), joined by Nils Petter Molvær (trumpet, electronics) and Christian Fennesz (guitar, electronics). This is Fennesz’s first appearance on an ECM album. Let’s hope it is not his last.

3. George Lewis & Marina Rosenfeld Sour Mash (Innova) If Rosenfeld’s highly recommended collection from 2009, Plastic Materials, was diminished only to the extent that it collected disparate and largely unrelated recordings, then she returns with George Lewis with quite the contrary: the album Sour Mash has a singularly challenging quality. It’s an incredible mix of improvised sounds that treat texture like a force of nature. The vinyl version features music by one musician on one side, and the other on the flip: buy two copies and pair them. The CD (and digital — it’s on iTunes) has those four tracks, plus two fixed pairings of the standalone sides. Instrumentation includes turntables and computer software.

4. Machinefabriek Daas (Cold Spring) A highly valuable reminder from Netherlands-based Rutger Zuyderveldt that so-called industrial music (or what I’ve increasingly come to think of as industrial industrial music, as a means to distinguish it from mechanical rock music that flirts coyly with fascism) needn’t be loud or aggressive or metronomic or anything else that is taken for granted about it.

5. BJ Nilsen & Stilluppsteypa Space Finale (Editions Mego) The once-again pairing of the Swedish Nilsen and the Icelandic duo of Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson and Helgi Thorsson (aka stilluppsteypa). Masses of playfully manipulated tape recordings (emphasis on the word tape, with all its woeful weaknesses, here exploited to the maximum). It serves as a sequel to last year’s Man from Deep River.

6. Oval O (Thrill Jockey) The musician most closely associated with glitch, Markus Popp, aka Oval, with the sound of failing mechanisms, returns after nearly a decade absence from commercial recording with this most unlikely of documents. Unlikely because musicians so defined by a particular sound are often hard put to redefine listeners’ expectations, which Popp does masterfully here. And unlikely because the last thing one might expect from Oval is an album that treats the guitar as its source material, and that often aspires to the status of a band, even if it’s just one person playing all the parts. Not only has Popp moved beyond glitch, he appears to have resuscitated post-rock.

7. Akira Rabelais Caduceus (Samadhisound) Rabelais’ second album for Samadhisound, the label founded by David Sylvian, is a fuzzed-out affair, verging on the maudlin, but never venturing into self-pity. It sounds as if the outtakes to some 1970s folk rock album had been discovered mouldering, and were tidied up for release nonetheless. And, yes, that’s a high compliment.

8. Scott Tuma Dandelion (Digitalis) I wrote the following when the album was first released: When they remake the film Deliverance — and they will, because everything gets remade, whether directly or indirectly — Scott Tuma (long ago guitarist with Souled American) will be hired to do the score. There will be no dueling banjos this time around. There will only be the creaky, meandering, semi-melodic noodling of old coots on a porch, a porch swamped by kudzu and collapsing under its own weight, what weight there is left in those old boards, eaten through as they have been by termites. The old coots’s half-remembered songs will break apart like the distracted thoughts they are, and they’ll be heard, in the film’s score, as mere fragments, muddied by audio effects that simulate the dank environs. That score may exist already in the form of Dandelion. … There’s “Free Dirt,” which sounds like broken folk music played with equipment purloined from a Superfund industrial site, bent metal, shattered cymbals, and slowly stoked chords making their plaintive case. There’s “Hope Jones (Jason’s Song),” which opens with the rough fire of a field recording before moving in and out of sour melodic figures, a voice appearing occasionally, straining to be heard. And then there’s “Red Roses for Me,” which at times has the maudlin flavor of a great Pogues song, but works more as a series of self-contained aural segments, including snatches of birdsong

9. Keith Fullerton Whitman Generator (Root Strata) If you love polka dots and synthesizers, then you will love Keith Fullerton Whitman’s Generator. It’s his modular-synth approach to automated music, and the result is like watching all the street lights of some massive city blink according to some discernible yet unidentifiable pattern. It was released as a cassette tape in an edition of 200, but is also available for download.

10. Yellow Swans Going Places (Type) Belated final album from drone rock duo Yellow Swans, aka Pete Swanson and Gabriel Mindel Saloman. The idea that these two wouldn’t want to continue to experience making this music is hard to reconcile with just how vibrant and individual the churning washes of sound can be. And if the cover image suggest the Close Encounters mothership, so be it.

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Crosstown Static: Listening to Don DeLillo’s ‘Cosmopolis’

The following essay I wrote, “Crosstown Static,” was published this month in Shadows Have Shadows, a fun little physical newsprint project that resulted from a web-based mailing list in which I participate; the printing was facilitated by the neat newspaperclub.co.uk service. The full issue is also available online for free at shadows-have-shadows.com.

As the introduction to Shadows Have Shadows states, we “needed a focal point” once we determined to channel our online discussions into something physical, set, determined:

“This was easy: the city. It turned out that we were fascinated by certain aspects of urban places: street-level urbanism, cinematic visions of the city, impressionistic analysis and psychogeography, flaneurie, technology, cybercities and the production of everyday life.”

Among the varied contributions that make up Shadows Have Shadows are a narrated walk “from Aldwych to Millenium Bridge via St Paul’s” by Paul O’Kane; glimpses of Caracas, Venezuela, by Jeanne Bonnefoi; a comic by Thorsten Sideb0ard; a photo essay (“The Secret Life of Shepperton”) about the town where J.G. Ballard lived for over half a century; and an interview (by Steven Bode) with Suki Chan about her two-channel video installation “Sleep Walk Sleep Talk.” It’s a great collection, and I’m gratified to have been able to take part in it.



This is how the book opens, the final sentence of its first paragraph, characteristically taut: “It was a matter of silence, not words.” This is how the book ends, its last sentence, no less declarative, yet elliptical to a fault: “He is dead inside the crystal of his watch but still alive in original space, waiting for the shot to sound.”

The book is Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo, poet laureate of American English. It was published in 2003, the second of what is now a series of four short novels, novellas really. This series follows DeLillo’s doorstop, the oversize Underworld (1997), and it’s not difficult to read these four slim volumes as placeholders, deadpan divertimento, side trips on his way to his Next Big Novel. They are, in order of arrival, The Body Artist (2001), which preceded Cosmopolis, then Falling Man (2007), and, published earlier this year, Project Omega. Were DeLillo to continue at this rate, the collected novellas could cumulatively outweigh Underworld.

And whereas the four books are not directly related — no central characters, no shared setting — they are not unrelated. All four are readable together as the work of a man wrestling with his profession, his calling. Each book cautiously and categorically observes a different form that might supplant the written word as a mode, as perhaps the preeminent mode, of human communication. Thus, The Body Artist is about performance art. Falling Man is about photography. Project Omega is about film.

And as for Cosmopolis, it is about sound. Cosmopolis tells the tale of a very wealthy Manhattan entrepreneur making his way across the city in a bright white limousine, and the book is less a novel than it is a road story. Road stories are catalogs of incident, and while this book is not short on incidents, it accumulates a much larger catalog of sound, the sounds that occur during that trip, a glossary of urban ambient noise and of not-incidental plot-related audio, from that opening silence to the final, resounding “sound” (the final word of the book, and not without authorial intention).

DeLillo has stated in the past that “lists are a form of cultural hysteria,” and so here is an initial list, just a handful or two of the numerous incidents in Cosmopolis in which communication is subsumed by, or accomplished wordlessly with, sound. “A cab squeezed in alongside, the driver pressing his horn. This set off a hundred other horns.” “He was having trouble speaking. The words exploded from his face, not loud so much as impulsive, blurted under stress.” “The two men made little snuffling sounds, insipid nasal laughter.” “The atrium had the tension and suspense of a towering space that requires pious silence in order to be seen.” Characters are “weaving down the avenues, speakers pumping heavy sound.” There is the “electric knell of emergency vehicles.” A murder victim is tangled in the cord of a microphone. One woman’s words, her meaning, is telegraphed ahead of time “in the nasal airstream of her vernacular.”

That is the cultural hysteria of Cosmopolis. The novel, in DeLillo’s depiction, isn’t dead; it’s moaning — and the moaning may be a sign of death, or it may be a purer form of communication, or it may be a purer form of communication that signals death: “But the word itself was lost in the blowing mist.”

Often here sound is significantly more important than is spoken language, so much so that sounds within sounds take on special importance: “He heard the static in her laugh.” And these are not merely matters of micro-interaction between individuals. There is one anecdote in which a high-ranking individual making a public statement stops ever so slightly before proceeding, which leads to endless pondering not of what he said, and not of what he didn’t say, but of what the brief, silent moment, the break in language, meant: “They are trying to construe the meaning of the pause. It could be deeper, even, than grammar.” We are warned: “A person rises on a word and falls on a syllable.”

This is a novel in which sound is imprinted on place and on object. The story’s main character, its wealthy financial-market figure, has not one but two elevators to his private apartment, each with its own specific soundtrack. “I have two private elevators now,” he explains. “One is programmed to play Satie’s piano pieces and to move at one-quarter normal speed. This is right for Satie and this is the elevator I take when I’m in a certain, let’s say, unsettled mood. Calms me, makes me whole.” The elevator’s pace matches that of the trip across the city, which is why the novel is as unsettling as it is; the novel slows our pace so we pay attention, and when we pay attention, we listen:

Then there is the gun that plays a fulcrum-like role in the story — a gun that requires a voice imprint to function properly. And as if there were any doubt, this is the novel that has as a central set piece a visit to “the last techno-rave,” which is written out in all caps in the book, marking its centrality. This is DeLillo on how sound at the rave subsumes music much in the manner that outside the rave sound subsumes language: “Music devoured the air around them.”

As for those rhetorical koans for which DeLillo is famous, they do appear in Cosmopolis — early on: “The yen rose overnight against expectations” — though with far less frequency than in the novels that preceded it. Mostly, such verbal clarity fails in the face of sound. This is a book about that failure, about sound, the pressure of sound on the novelist, the suffocating sound, the claustrophobic sound, the sound that blanks out language: the sound that communicates more directly than language and that yet can’t be explained with language, not even the language of someone as accomplished as, say, Don DeLillo. Words are questioned in Cosmopolis directly, words as common as “phone,” and “computer,” and “ambulance.” (DeLillo is happy to propose the occasional word, too, as when someone “prousts” the lining of an automobile, which is to say cork it for silence, which is to say remind us of the cork-lined room in which Marcel Proust wrote, attempting to protect himself, his writing, from the noise of the world.)

“It was the tone of some fundamental ache,” DeLillo writes, describing the sound and effect of traffic. “Buses rumbled up the avenue in pairs, hacking and panting.” If our human meaning is, truly, in our sounds, then these buses aren’t merely being anthropomorphized — DeLillo’s is a kind of urban animism, one in which everything resounds, everything communicates.

So this is Cosmopolis, a novel that sprawls across a city, crawls across the city, a novel that spends more time listening to that city than observing it through any other of our five (or six) senses. It’s a novel that shortly after opening has a man staring at a blank page, unable to read (“Nothing existed around him. There was only the noise in his head, the mind in time”), and it ends with a gunshot that is heard more than it is felt. It’s arguably also a book about the financial markets, but that information repeatedly is served up as data, a natural force that is barely comprehensible, certainly not as an economic barometer, only as a power unto itself (“In fact data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process”), another animistic spirit.

At one point, the man stalking the novel’s protagonist says of another person he had murdered, “There was a brief sound in his throat that I could spend weeks trying to describe. But how can you make words out of sounds? These are two separate systems that we miserably try to link.” When a writer of DeLillo’s stature commits to the page that sort of concern about the limits of language, we must take him at his word.

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Best of 2009: 10 Commercial Ambient/Electronic Albums

Each year, around this time, I post a look back at the music released in the previous 12 months. And each year, I go on in some way about the absurdity and futility of such an effort, but it’s still something I continue to do, so rather than open with a sense of false disparagement, I’m just going to dive right into the lists.

Part 1/3: These are, to my ears, the 10 best commercial full-length recordings of 2009. They appear here in alphabetical order, as an iPod might list them.

I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that so many of the albums listed this year have chamber-music instrumentation at their heart (Ensemble Modern having submitted to the collective will of Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto, not to mention albums focused on the violin of Darwinsbitch and cello of Hildur Gudnadóttir), as well as other examples of formal traditional conceptions of musicianship (Jon Hassell’s trumpet, the alt-country kits of Scott Tuma and Mike Weis, the occasional guitar in Chihei Hatakeyama’s work). In fact, of the 10 albums singled out here, only 4 are electronic in the purist’s sense: the ambient techno of Tim Hecker, the longform sound oddity that is the Village Orchestra’s Highpoint Lowlife release, the disintegrating tonal structures of William Basinski, and Hatakeyama’s melody-teasing ambience. Sitting halfway between those two groups is Oh No’s album, Dr. No’s Ethiopium, which was built on traditional instruments, albeit as samples (the studio from materials recorded by pop and rock bands in Ethiopia in the 1960s and 1970s).

1. Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto
UTP
(Raster-Noton)
To hear Alva Noto (aka Carsten Nicolai, alvanoto.com) and Ryuichi Sakamoto (sitesakamoto.com) collaborate is to hear two extreme temperaments tempered: Noto’s mechanical precision given warmth, Sakamoto’s often lush romanticism reduced to its blueprint. Noto is an ultra-minimalist member of the Raster-Noton record label’s roster; he’s a musician with a penchant for white noise and stark, even whiter spaces. Sakamoto is the Japanese electronica legend, veteran of Yellow Magic Orchestra and composer of the scores to numerous films, among them Tony Takitani and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Together they went to work on the sounds of the classical group Ensemble Modern, an effort captured on UTP
, which combines CD and longform DVD.

2. Chihei Hatakeyama
Saunter
(Room40)
Chihei Hatakeyama (chihei.org) makes what at some point might be called classical electronica — music made from wisps of sound, occasionally including richly emotive if compositionally elegant melodic materials, sometimes filtering those materials with an ear toward the way simple glitches can reveal hidden sounds in familiar sources — and then, sometimes, he just revels in drones for their own sake, in these deep tones that emerge like organic creatures slowly stirring to life.

3. Darwinsbitch
Ore
(Digitalis)
Darwinsbitch is Marielle V. Jakobsons (myspace.com/darwinsbitch, mariplasma.com): violinist and sound-mangler. As heard on Ore, this means slow, drawn-out drones that over time give way to folk-like plucking; and ever so mournful sawing through soft fields of tone; as well as ever-thickening loops that never show their seams; and, to top it all off, dirges that achieve an almost monastic gravitas.

4. Hildur Gudnadóttir
Without Sinking
(Touch)
More often heard in collaboration (with Múm, Throbbing Gristle, and Pan Sonic, among others), cellist Hildur Gudnadóttir (hildurness.com) here oversees 10 interrelated chamber compositions — all in a funereal mode, the layering and sonic processing never overshadowing the conventional timbres of the instrumentation. Participants include Skúli Sverrisson (bass, processors), Jóhann Jóhannsson (organs,processors), and Guðni Franzson (clarinet, bass clarinet).

5. Jon Hassell
ECM
(2062)
The electronically mediated trumpeter Jon Hassell (jonhassell.com), who long ago foresaw the melding of third-world source material and next-world technology, returns with his best album in years — on first listen, the depth of the ensemble playing is entrancing to the point of distraction, but in time the forest gives way to the trees, to the little fissure-like moments, a fairly sizable array of grace notes, that decorate the album, little computer glitches, sprightly sparks, and momentary dubby echoes that decorate the groove-less grooves.

6. Oh No
Dr. No’s Ethiopium
(Stones Throw)
There was a lot of talk this year about whether or not rap is dead. Rap may be, but hip-hop sure isn’t — there’s more great beatmaking than ever, and more of it than ever is seeping into the avant-garde. Oh No (aka Californian native Michael Jackson, brother of producer Madlib myspace.com/ohnodisrupt) has, for Dr. No’s Ethiopoum, used hip-hop as the blender into which he’s thrown numerous samples of Ethiopian pop music from the 1960s and 1970s. Hip-hop is the foundation here for sometimes giddily slapdash and sometimes chin-strokingly detail-minded investigations of the grooves of an earlier generation. The album was also the source of an unexpected and pleasant surprise this year: it was made available as a digital download in advance of the CD’s release, and when the CD was finally put out, the album had mysteriously doubled in size, to 36 tracks from an initial 18.

7. Scott Tuma and Mike Weis
Taradiddle
(Digitalis)
There’s an alternate universe, somewhere — one in which the proto-alt-country band Souled American was Nirvana, and Scott Tuma (mindspring.com), one of the group’s guitarists, its equivalent of Dave Grohl, the figure who eventually went his own musical way and struck gold over and over and over. In our universe, Souled American pops up occasionally as a name-check by Jonathan Lethem (as in Chronic City, his recent novel about alternate cultural universes), and Tuma creates small, fragile works of abstracted Americana, sometimes under his own name, sometimes as a member of the Boxhead Ensemble. Taradiddle, recorded in collaboration with Mike Weis (of the group Zelienople, myspace.com/zelienople), was initially released as limited edition vinyl, but is now available as a download from various services, including boomkat.com.

8. Tim Hecker
An Imaginary Country
(Kranky)
Even as field recordings, copyleft sampling, classical instrumentation, and handcrafted instrumentation come to comprise much of electronic music, there’s still plenty of raw synthesis put to the use of pop-minded producers out there. Case in point the almost absurdly beautiful An Imaginary Country by Tim Hecker (sunblind.net). Its lush ambience strives for rave-like proportions. Not everything here is maximalist static; there’s also plenty of squelchy downtempo (“Pond Life”) and bereft 21st-centry choral music (“Utropics”).

9. The Village Orchestra
I Can Hear the Sirens Singing Again
(Highpoint Lowlife)
Between Jim O’Rourke’s nearly 40-minute The Visitor (a pop melange that may be the best album Jon Brion never recorded) and this album by the Village Orchestra (aka Ruaridh Law, myspace.com/thevillageorchestra), clocking in at nearly an hour, it’s quite likely that the single-track album is the next rich territory due for musical development — perhaps the next stage of the maturation of the concept album: a collection of scenes (here ranging from zygote dubstep, to arcade techno, to nanoscale field recordings), all sewn into one journey-like whole. If anything’s going to do battle with the attention-deficit-disorder inherent in an MP3 world, it’s unbroken full-length recordings that entice (rather than challenge) you to listen straight through.

10. William Basinksi
92982
(2062)
Slow, lulling ambient pieces by William Basinski (myspace.com/williambasinski), music with the elegant curve of a simple sine wave, the patience of a saint, and the sonic depth of an orchestral arrangement. Ever since the emergence of his Disintegration Loops, he’s become something akin to the Gerhard Richter of contemporary music — creating works that are just out-of-focus enough to compel you to focus on them all the more.

 

The Disquiet.com “Best of 2009” was published as three separate lists. The other two parts are:

Part 2/3: Best of 2009: Free “Netreleases”

Part 3/3: Best of 2009: iPhone/iPod Touch Music/Sound Apps

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