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.

Fridman Études

Stephen Vitiello and Taylor Deupree performing live at the start of the year

The Fridman Gallery in Manhattan has recently uploaded a host of videos to Vimeo from its New Ear Festival, which ran in early January of this year. It had a great lineup, including Mary Lucier, Susie Ibarra, a workshop with the New York Theremin Society, and a screening of the documentary Milford Graves Full Mantis, about the accomplished percussionist. One highlight is a duo performance by frequent collaborators Stephen Vitiello and Taylor Deupree. The half-hour set is built around the pair’s modular synthesizers, though it also leaves room at the opening for Vitiello’s electric guitar, a mix of long dreamy lines and anxious, muted plucking. The marvel of the performance is the ambient nature of their effort, which is to say: their collaboration is, in effect, purposefully less than the sum of its parts. The work is focused on nuance, on slight variations of tonality and layering. Gorgeous stuff.

Video originally posted at vimeo.com. More on the Fridman at fridmangallery.com.

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The Non-Balladic Sounds of Buster Scruggs

There's a singing cowboy, sure, but don't forget to listen between the songs.

(Spoilers don’t bother me, but they bother other people, so I’ll say at the outset: Spoilers throughout.) I caught the recent Coen brothers film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, during its its initial theatrical release. The movie — an anthology collecting six short stories — is available right now at home for free, or at least for the cost of a monthly Netflix subscription, but seeing it in a theater had its attractions, including the presence of a pretty good ramen shop around the corner. There were also demerits inherent in a public viewing — for example, the fellow matinee attendee, likely a Watchmen fanboy, who recognized the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley emanating from one character’s mouth and felt the need to not just speak them aloud, but to do so in advance of the character himself.

The key benefit, though: the theater’s speaker system. The Coen brothers craft everything in their films except probably the craft service, and that goes as much for the sound design as it does for the costumes, dialog, and camera angles. My living room’s TV doesn’t hold a foot-candle to a proper theater, and that’s as true of the sound as it is of the picture. Taking the film in in a theater made its sonic aspects all the more audible.

In classic Coens manner, Scruggs is a heavily mannered film, as much an anthology about westerns as it is a collection of westerns. There is no narrative connection between the six Scruggs stories aside from the framing structure of a storybook, which the film returns to between each “chapter.” The plots range from wagon train to stage coach, desperado to prospector, and singing cowboy to a tragic traveling entertainment troupe, if the word “troupe” can be applied to just (barely) two men.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs takes its title from the opening story, a humorous tale of a gunslinger as keen on singing as he is blasé regarding the trail of blood he leaves behind. Later, we’re treated to additional songs, including Tom Waits, at the end of “All Gold Canyon,” singing in his trademark barroom growl (albeit amid nature so beautiful it feels like a Disney film come to life), and in “Meal Ticket,” to Liam Neeson’s minor-league theatrical impresario doing drunken injustice to “The Sash” around a campfire. In addition to which there is, as always, a rich score from the Coens’ regular composer, Carter Burwell.

But there’s as much sonic ingenuity between — and in one key moment, within — the songs of Buster Scruggs as there is charm and narrative heft to the songs themselves. The film’s sonic imagination is exemplified but not restricted to these four key moments:

1. Hollow Sentiment: In the tile story, which opens the film, the singing cowboy, played by Tim Blake Nelson (often resembling Gary Busey from the 1978 The Buddy Holly Story) is treated to increasingly absurd arrangements of his ditties, right up to the posthumous duet that closes the piece. For one instance, early on, we hear and see him from inside his acoustic guitar. The echo is simultaneously deeply artificial — witness the marvel of the sound-hole eye view — and natural, in that it has the muffled echo of a small wooden box. That balance between utter artificiality and naturalness is a hallmark of the Coens’ lengthy filmography, and this is probably its single greatest occurrence in this movie …

2. Audio Book: … but it’s not the only one, not close. Another example: When the camera pulls back at one point from the filmed drama to the interstitial moment of the book that contains each of the film’s stories, we not only see the page turn, but we hear the creaking of the chair in which the reader is seated. Like the acoustic guitar mentioned above, the instance is both artificial and natural: meticulously choreographed, and deeply folksy.

3. Bucket List: When a cowboy played by James Franco comes upon a lonesome bank in the middle of nowhere, in “Near Algodones,” we see and hear a bucket hitting the inside of a stone well. The presence of that thud marks the sheer emptiness of the location — and, as it turns out, sets us up for another stretch of rope later in the film.

4. Fowl Play: In “Meal Ticket,” perhaps the darkest of six often quite dark stories, Liam Neeson plays a traveling theater owner, whose sole actor, played by Harry Melling, is a haunting, indelible image: a man with no arms or legs, and yet the magnetic presence of a romantic poet. Neeson is the man behind the scenes, doing every other thing involved in his mobile theater except performing. He drives the coach that doubles as their stage, he collects tickets, and he feeds his star attraction. He also makes noises to accompany the performances (what came to be known as foley sound in the age of broadcasts and, later, filmed entertainment). We witness him at one point using a sheet of metal to summon up biblical thunder. Later on in the film, Neeson finds that his audience has been tempted away by, of all things, a novelty attraction featuring a “calculating chicken.” One thing we see the chicken do is peck at small bits of metal. In the O. Henry twist of the story, Neeson brutally ditches his young actor in favor of the chicken. In a deft moral touch, the movie forges this connection between Neeson and the chicken both being seen banging on metal to entertain crowds. The association — the way it makes Neeson so small, through the comparison — is almost as brutal to Neeson’s character as he is to his young, limbless actor.

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Guitar Learning: Maybe (A minor on EBow)

A chord in individually held guitar lines

This is the first attempt I’ve made to record something with my newly obtained EBow. It’s also about ten minutes into my first attempt to even use the EBow. The electric bow employs a magnetic field to strum individual strings for you, which explains the gorgeous and limitlessly held tones it is capable of. Here I layered three notes, one by one, from a single chord, an A minor, and then put a separate note on top of that — the device was so new to me, I didn’t even pay attention to what the fourth note was; I just listened for something that sounded complementary. The accrual process isn’t evident in this recording. I didn’t hit record until the chord was accomplished.

I did this all in a Ditto Looper, recording directly from my amplifier into my cellphone. I used Adobe Audition to limit the higher frequencies in the audio, and to introduce a fade-in and a fade-out. The track’s title is “Maybe” (adapted from the first two letters each from “EBow” and “A minor — E, B, A, M — backward).

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/disquiet.

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Sandpaper Is a Form of Change

The sound of tape loops as they slowly fall apart over an extended period of time

Repetition may be, as Brian Eno famously put it, a form of change, but so too is slow deterioration as a result of sharp edges and rough surfaces. The latter is the process employed by the musician Hainbach in “Three Tape Loops Destructing Over Three Hours.” (It’s actually close to three and a half hours.) The source audio is piano that Hainbach recorded himself. In the extended video, the resulting tape recordings are seen and heard to slowly come apart as they are exposed to various knife blades and sandpaper. Soft tones give way to serrated noise. The ear hears continuity amid the destruction, as the abbrasive texture itself becomes a sonic element in the mix.

It’s worth noting that the project began as a challenge from Simon the Magpie, whose curse-laden, manic proposal is about as distinct from Hainbach’s sedate, reflective pace as could be imagined.

This is the latest video I’ve added to my YouTube playlist of recommended live performances of ambient music. Video originally posted at Hainbach’s YouTube channel.

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Disquiet Junto Project 0370: Through Lines

The Assignment: Follow a single strand in the accumulated material resulting from a multi-part, multi-thread collaborative endeavor.

Each Thursday in the Disquiet Junto group, a new compositional challenge is set before the group’s members, who then have just over four days to upload a track in response to the assignment. Membership in the Junto is open: just join and participate. (A SoundCloud account is helpful but not required.) There’s no pressure to do every project. It’s weekly so that you know it’s there, every Thursday through Monday, when you have the time.

Deadline: This project’s deadline is Monday, February 4, 2019, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are on. It was posted in the afternoon, California time, on Thursday, January 31, 2019.

Tracks will be added to the playlist for the duration of the project.

These are the instructions that went out to the group’s email list (at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto):

Disquiet Junto Project 0370: Through Lines
The Assignment: Follow a single strand in the accumulated material resulting from a multi-part, multi-thread collaborative endeavor.

Major thanks to Alan Bland for having reworked the source imagery for this project.

Step 1: This week’s Disquiet Junto project is the fourth in our ongoing trio sequence. (That might seem contradictory, a fourth in a trio.) The plan is for you to record a short piece of music using only material from the previous three projects. In case you are coming upon this effort for the first time, here is some background: the previous three projects enabled the collaborative creation of numerous musical trios, each containing work by three different musicians. In the first project (0367), musicians each recorded a solo line in the left channel. In the second project (0368), musicians selected a solo line from the first project and added another line in the right channel. In the third project (0369), just this past week, a third musician finished the trio. You can locate the three previous projects and there related links here:

Solo: https://disquiet.com/0367/
Duo: https://disquiet.com/0368/
Trio: https://disquiet.com/0369/

Step 2: The next step is to find a “through line” amid the accumulated audio. It can help to work backward from a final trio (project 0369), and to then listen to the duo that led to it, and to see if another trio was created from that same duo — and to then go back further to the left channel’s solo rendering in the first project, and see if any alternate duos were created from it. In other words: locate a single original solo piece of music in however many subsequent pieces as possible.

Step 4: Listen to the various pieces of music that resulted from the search in step 2. There may be as few as three, but there may be more than that.

Step 5: Construct a single piece of music that follows that one “through line” amid its various contexts (solo, duo and possible alternate duos, trio and possible alternate trios). Do not add audio to the source audio tracks at all; filtering and processing is fine.

Seven More Important Steps When Your Track Is Done:

Step 1: Include “disquiet0370” (no spaces or quotation marks) in the name of your track.

Step 2: If your audio-hosting platform allows for tags, be sure to also include the project tag “disquiet0370” (no spaces or quotation marks). If you’re posting on SoundCloud in particular, this is essential to subsequent location of tracks for the creation a project playlist.

Step 3: Upload your track. It is helpful but not essential that you use SoundCloud to host your track.

Step 4: Post your track in the following discussion thread at llllllll.co:

https://llllllll.co/t/disquiet-junto-project-0370-through-lines/

Step 5: Annotate your track with a brief explanation of your approach and process.

Step 6: If posting on social media, please consider using the hashtag #disquietjunto so fellow participants are more likely to locate your communication.

Step 7: Then listen to and comment on tracks uploaded by your fellow Disquiet Junto participants.

Additional Details:

Deadline: This project’s deadline is Monday, February 4, 2019, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are on. It was posted in the afternoon, California time, on Thursday, January 31, 2019.

Length: Your finished track will be roughly the length of the track you chose to add to.

Title/Tag: When posting your track, please include “disquiet0370” in the title of the track, and where applicable (on SoundCloud, for example) as a tag.

Upload: When participating in this project, post one finished track with the project tag, and be sure to include a description of your process in planning, composing, and recording it. This description is an essential element of the communicative process inherent in the Disquiet Junto. Photos, video, and lists of equipment are always appreciated.

Download: Please for this project be sure to set your track as downloadable and allowing for attributed remixing (i.e., a Creative Commons license permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution, allowing for derivatives).

For context, when posting the track online, please be sure to include this following information:

More on this 370th weekly Disquiet Junto project (Through Lines / The Assignment: Follow a single strand in the accumulated material resulting from a multi-part, multi-thread collaborative endeavor) at:

https://disquiet.com/0370/

More on the Disquiet Junto at:

https://disquiet.com/junto/

Subscribe to project announcements here:

http://tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto/

Project discussion takes place on llllllll.co:

https://llllllll.co/t/disquiet-junto-project-0370-through-lines/

There’s also on a Junto Slack. Send your email address to twitter.com/disquiet for Slack inclusion.

Image associated with this project is adapted (edited, color altered, text added) from a photo by Anna J and is used via Flickr thanks to a Creative Commons license. Many thanks to Alan Bland for having done the reworking of this image, based on visual source material from the previous three projects.

https://flic.kr/p/gcojn

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

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