Mystery Train

A field recording as readymade score

While working, I often have something playing on a secondary computer screen just for ambient visuals, like a live airfield webcam in Chicago (which is silent) or a live watering hole in a Kenyan national park (which pipes in the wind and bird calls, plus occasional mammalian utterances), or the great Listen to Wikipedia, which both visualizes and sonifies (“sonificates”? — nah) occurrences, in real time, from the highly used communal encyclopedia.

Increasingly over the past three or four years, my secondary-screen peripheral viewing has consisted of videos from the burgeoning assortment of YouTube channels run by people who wander around cities (my preference), as well as nature, recording as they go. Unlike the webcams and live data sonification mentioned above, these YouTube channels don’t contain “live” videos. That is, they record live, but they don’t stream live (i.e., in real time). There’s something quite pleasing about having Seoul (on a sunny day) or London (during heavy rain) or the Black Forest (crunchy leaves underfoot, and planes overhead just as Gordon Hempton warned us) pass by as you sit in your chair attending to your computer-fixated duties.

These videos can be comforting in unexpected ways. This past year I’ve had to travel more than I expected, for family reasons, and sometimes sitting with the same familiar footage of Madrid at night by my side served as a digital mutation of Ray Oldenburg’s concept of a Third Place: it was neither my home or work, nor where I was presently, but another location I could virtually transport to easily from either. (And I’m fully aware that my bastardization of Oldenburg’s richer observation proposes a solitary venture rather than the intended social one. Forgive me. I’m just thinking out loud.)

At a low volume level, the sounds from these YouTube flâneur/voyeur videos become truly ambient: neither focus nor absent. Your ear may prick up to an unfamiliar emergency siren from a faraway land or to some pedestrians kibitzing while waiting for the traffic light to favor them, but by and large the sounds, like the visuals, are pleasingly secondary.

Sometimes, though, there is a true surprise, and a delightful one.

For example, something magical happens at the 58:16 mark (that is, just shy of an hour) in a newly posted video by Rambalac titled “Japan – Wandering in countryside Iruma, Saitama.” Rambalac is the name of a prolific (one of the channel’s playlists has nearly 600 videos) and popular (584,000 followers to date) exponent of this YouTube flâneur category. In the Iruma video (named for the city in which it was shot), Rambalac, as always out of view, wanders around slowly, capturing the local environment with a keen eye (and ear), here for back alleys and urban parks. We never see Rambalac, though sometimes we catch a shadow, complete with film equipment (timecode: 14:17), or a hand playfully holding up a bottle of newly purchased tea (54:12).

It may very well have been the sounds from that vending machine transaction that woke me from my work trance. This beverage stop occurs very close to the end of the video. Ramblac then begins heading back to the train station. At almost exactly 58:00, someone with a backpack comes into view after running across the narrow street ahead, and this person’s presence — at the risk of getting all film theory about it — seems to relocate the video’s point of view, briefly becoming a sort of stand-in for Ramblac. They’re walking down the same street, their paces evenly matched.

We hear footsteps and chatter, and then at 58:16, a repetitive tone emerges. It sounds like nothing so much as if the minimalist composer Philip Glass had been hired to score the closing scene for a willfully quotidian spinoff of Koyaanisqatsi. What it is (and I confirmed this with Rambalac via the video channel’s Discord, and with a friend who lives in Japan) is the sound of the train crossing signal. It gets considerably louder as Rambalac (along with the person in view) approaches the station, and then it gets almost entirely subsumed by rail noise and conversation.

I realized, when I went back to watch the video again, that this same sound occurs, briefly and more quietly, at the very opening — by all appearances when Rambalac first arrives in Iruma. As we learn from watching such videos — and considering field recordings as compositions unto themselves — the two appearances of the signal/Glass sound are quite distinct. At the opening, it’s happenstance, but at the end, it takes on a narrative quality. The whole video is recommended, but if you just want to witness (and appreciate) the music’s arrival, start a little earlier, at around 57:42. Doing so sets the room tone, as it were, for the city, before what might be thought of as the readymade score appears. I never actually thought this was music, but I did — and do — think that in the context of the video, it has been meaningfully transformed into something more than merely overheard locomotive-operation detritus. Which is to say: it’s quite beautiful.

From Soundscape to Score in Andor

And "the bell guy"

I was really struck, so to speak, by the anvil carillon atop a tower toward the start of the second episode of Andor, playing now on Disney+. So too, apparently, was James Whitbrook, deputy editor at i09, who wrote a lengthy appreciation of “the Andor Bell Guy” the day after the show’s first three episodes debuted. “There’s people here and there,” he writes, “lurking out there in the early dawn, but it’s when the bell guy that’s not really a bell guy — he’s the bell, I guess, spiritually speaking — rings his hammers that life starts on Ferrix, the bustle of the town below beginning to blossom as his hammers ring out, over and over. The sound fades, the day begins, and bell guy presumably goes on with his life, his job done until the morrow.” Pretty much the only thing I’d add is that the sound doesn’t entirely fade. As I hear it, the bells fade, but they are then not just subsumed but emulated by the score (composed by Nicholas Britell, best known for his work on Succession). This series has some of the most memorable music in any of the Star Wars TV series so far, in part because it doesn’t sound particularly like the John Williams music that has long defined the Star Wars universe. ➔

Originally published in a special, experimental September 23, 2022, “TWiS x 3” edition of the This Week in Sound email newsletter. Get it in your inbox via

Disquiet Junto Project 0558: Chore Progressions

The Assignment: Use a routine activity as the map of a composition.

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 the end of the day Monday, September 12, 2022, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted on Thursday, September 8, 2022.

Tracks are added to the SoundCloud playlist for the duration of the project. Additional (non-SoundCloud) tracks appear in the discussion thread.

These are the instructions that went out to the group’s email list (at

Disquiet Junto Project 0558: Chore Progressions
The Assignment: Use a routine activity as the map of a composition.

Step 1: Think of a routine chore that you do frequently.

Step 2: Think through the process of the chore, and break it down into a handful or so of phases.

Step 3: Reenact the chore, and record a representative bit of audio at each of the phases determined in Step 2.

Step 4: Produce a musical composition that occurs in a sequence of phases, following the sequence determined in Step 2. During each phase of the composition, employ sound recorded during the corresponding phase of the chore.

Eight Important Steps When Your Track Is Done:

Step 1: Include “disquiet0558” (no spaces or quotation marks) in the name of your tracks.

Step 2: If your audio-hosting platform allows for tags, be sure to also include the project tag “disquiet0558” (no spaces or quotation marks). If you’re posting on SoundCloud in particular, this is essential to subsequent location of tracks for the creation of a project playlist.

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

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

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.

Step 8: Also join in the discussion on the Disquiet Junto Slack. Send your email address to [email protected] for Slack inclusion.

Note: Please post one track for this weekly Junto project. If you choose to post more than one, and do so on SoundCloud, please let me know which you’d like added to the playlist. Thanks.

Additional Details:

Deadline: This project’s deadline is the end of the day Monday, September 12, 2022, at 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are. It was posted on Thursday, September 8, 2022.

Length: The length is up to you. Using the length of the chore may or may not make sense when determining the length of your piece.

Title/Tag: When posting your tracks, please include “disquiet0558” in the title of the tracks, and where applicable (on SoundCloud, for example) as a tag.

Upload: When participating in this project, 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: It is always best 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 558th weekly Disquiet Junto project — Chore Progressions (The Assignment: Use a routine activity as the map of a composition) — at:

More on the Disquiet Junto at:

Subscribe to project announcements here:

Project discussion takes place on

Silence Amid the Goon Squad

Listening to fiction

This is from the very end of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and it both gives nothing away and is a great entry point to the sort of reading a newcomer to it should look forward to. This sure is a heck of a book, as so many people have told me over the years. Finally read it. An amazing Akutagawa Borges Gibson Nabokov chimera of time travel minus the time travel — about connections, perceptions, and perspective. My favorite novel out of the 17 I’ve finished reading so far in 2022.

So Many Cupboard Doors

After a visit back on Long Island

Contrasting birdsong, different voices dominant depending on the time of the day and the state of the weather and the time of the year. The clack of the latch of the window in the bedroom — and the way the upper window rattles as it makes its peace with the lower one. The spiny clatter of the wire grate, when you rub your fingertips across it — the one in front of the small, wall-hung wine rack in the dining room. The drone of the HVAC, an upgrade from after I left. The strong, spring-loaded lock you push shut with a foot for the glass kitchen doors to the backyard. The immediate, pulse-raising alert when the front door’s alarm is triggered — and always the thought: can’t this thing give the owner 10 seconds to turn it off? The rapid tap-tap-tap of the light timer in the room, and how I only hear it when I’m down on the ground doing some stretches before breakfast. The slow, mechanical whir of the sole skylight, another upgrade that came after I left for — maybe even had graduated from? — college. The sheer bravado of the downstairs bathroom fan, which seems like it’s intended for a much larger space. The unique sounds of so many cupboard doors, each of which I could identify from memory with ease. The slight tick of the one ceiling fan that has a wall knob to adjust its speed, whereas the others have battery-operated remotes. The fierce metallic affirmation when the garage door’s horizontal bar is rotated into place.

Got home to San Francisco late last night after 17 days on Long Island. I imagine I’ll visit my childhood home at least one more time, but I wanted to register these from memory — see how many I could summon up in one sitting.