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.

tag: gadget

Red Noise

Tuning the domestic environment in light of the environment environment

There is an industrial-strength air purifier running in the back of the house. The machine fills the room and the adjacent spaces with a ceaseless stage whisper. This is not the harsh, bristling whir of white noise, but the more rooted whoosh of its feminized alternate, pink noise. It is noise, nonetheless.

This purifier has sat there for years, retained for the occasional days or even weeks when the neighborhood’s plant allergens are particularly heavy in the air. These days, the air itself is heavy and the purifier is running far more often than usual — once all night by mistake, an industrial-music lullaby on repeat. The air is heavy with particulate fallout from the fires that raged some 175 miles to the northeast of where I live.

Today the particulate level — the environmental DEFCON — is registering as red, having nudged up from orange. The color red signifies merely “unhealthy.” Across the bay it has been “very unhealthy,” signified on maps and in advisory alerts by a deep purple. (Cue “Smoke on the Water.”) One level higher is some sort of maroon, meaning “hazardous.” It was deep purple here a few days ago, causing the schools to close, public transportation to be free, and museums to forgo admission fees. If TV is the opiate of the masses, apparently fine art is its vaccine.

Home for me is in San Francisco, not far from the ocean and quite close to the park. The fires were in the town of Paradise, California — the sort of geographic marker that would induce groans in a fictional film of our current narrative, and yet one that triggers as surreal in, well, what appears, through the smog, to be real life.

. . .

There is a second air purifier, borrowed, at the front of the house in the living room, where the windows are of a more recent vintage, but the smell and taste of smoke lingers still. Those pathogens are of external origin. The low-level noise pollution, by contrast, is self-induced.

The house is empty at the moment except for me — me and the twin air purifiers. An album of ambient music, recently released, is playing in the kitchen on a small counter-top speaker. It is a newly purchased “dumb” speaker, which is to say it lacks any AI functionality. This speaker connects in the simplest ways to the internet, and it is not part of the so-called internet of things. It does not reply when I speak. It does not ask questions. It merely channels audio from various devices.

This is today: We process our air, and we seek out products that lack intelligence, the way we want foods lacking in nitrates, un-tinged by antibiotic overflow, their genetic makeup non-modified — unprocessed, in other words.

. . .

I was in a bookstore across town, a rare venture out during the worst of our current health crisis, and having finished drinking a bottle of water, I crumpled up the bottle, folding it into itself like one would roll up a tube of toothpaste, and then capping it, so the re-sealed vacuum would keep it compacted. One of the store’s clerks rushed around the corner of shelves. She looked at me, and then at my hands, and then at me. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought I heard the crackling of fire.”

I was at the bookstore to attend a mid-day concert by a pair of local electronic musicians whose quiet, abstract work often hovered in the realm of white noise. I wondered later if their music had so settled our ears on a subtle palette, that we became, unintentionally, all the more sensitive to intruding noises.

. . .

The house is full of pink noise, byproduct of air purification. For a moment, I forget music is even playing. This is ambient music, music intended — in Brian Eno’s orienting definition — to be of use both in the background and as the subject of focused attention. The current background, however, is challenging the music’s subtleties — swamping them, frankly.

I turn up the volume on the kitchen speaker. I then move to another room. I go back to the kitchen, and turn the speaker up higher, and the music ceases to be the first category of ambient (i.e., background) and does its best to satisfy the demands of the second category (i.e., subject of attention).

The kitchen speaker at this volume reveals sharp pitches amid the album’s seemingly placid tones, or perhaps the music’s sharp pitches reveal the speaker’s shortcomings. The device is new, keeping opportunity for comparison is limited. This whole scenario is new, by which I mean the broader environmental issues.

Either way, an arms race is underway: the pink noise of domestic infrastructure against the sound design of contemporary popular music.

We’ll need new genres of music in our climate-punk future, genres that can conjoin or deflect the presence of the machines that we’ll employ to save us from what our machines have wrought.

The sad fact is that the pink noise seems like it should signify quiet on its own, and yet a pummeling inner momentum has risen to to the noise’s surface. There is an evident, anxious churn to the pink noise that is in contrast with the two devices’ purr-like quality. Perhaps the emotional tension is more contextually based: the presence of the noise having brought to mind the need for the device in the first place. The pink noise is a byproduct of a device to clean the air of the byproducts of fire. Distant fires are made more proximate by our need to adjust to their impact.

If there is a momentum to the purifiers’ noise, could something offset them? Pink noise, like white noise, serves as a mask for sound. The constant randomness of its myriad scatter-shot audible content — sonic particulate, a parallel to the atmospheric particulate the machines are to cancel out — can reduce the sensed presence of other noises. The churn inherent in the noise has no set tempo, but still implies one. Could something grasp that fungible tempo and render it slower? Could something cancel out further the higher register of the noise, much as pink noise reduces the harsh upper level of white noise? Could something carve music from the pink noise itself?

This cultural question is a tiny vestige of a larger discussion underway, a discussion addressing the caustic cycle: industrialization yields environmental consequences, and adjustments are made to counteract or sublimate those consequences, yielding further consequences. The question, of course, is how far one tunes one’s personal environment in light of the environment — the environment environment? — before one has, in effect, tuned out the environment.

Tag: / Leave a comment ]

Truly Experimental Music

In a live performance video from Scanner

It’s called experimental music, so of course when the musician is truly just experimenting, some of their best sounds might come out — truly experimenting, in that they are fiddling about with newly acquired equipment: pairing devices, exploring signal flows, turning knobs and touching buttons to see what they might hear. That’s the case with Scanner, aka Robin Rimbaud, who today uploaded to his YouTube channel a case study of two gadgets employed in tandem. What those little things, each barely the size of a human hand, emit in concert with each other is dense clouds of atmospheric intensity.

The main device is a Tetrax from Ciat-Lonbarde, created by the ingenious instrument designer Peter Blasser. It’s being heard through an effects pedal called the Eventide H9. In the comments accompanying the video, Scanner engages with his listeners and talks about coming up to speed on the Tetrax, and mentions that he’s working on a soundtrack.

This is the latest video I’ve added to my YouTube playlist of recommended live performances of ambient music. Video originally posted at YouTube.com. More from Scanner, who is based in London, at scannerdot.com.

Also tagged , , / / Leave a comment ]

What Sound Looks Like

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt

I pushed this button. Nothing happened. I wondered what I did wrong.

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt.

Also tagged , / / Leave a comment ]

Introductory Loop-Making

Another weekend experiment

Another little weekend project straight out of any Electronic Music 101 textbook: make a tape loop with an old cassette. I’d never done this before. The cassette tape is from an old batch of unused 90-minute Maxells I have on hand. The loop was recorded on a Panasonic Standard Cassette Transcriber RR-830, a relic of when I’d record interviews on physical cassette and then transcribe from those cassettes. That Panasonic device has a foot pedal, which used to make the start/stop process of transcription a tiny bit more bearable, especially because it can micro-rewind an adjustable amount with each pause.

The audio of my first tape loop came out OK on the first try — I recorded a short strum on an acoustic guitar — but there was an issue with playback on the RR-830: After two or three cycles through the loop, it would come to a stop. I had high hopes of using the RR-830 in a performance setting, given the potential for that foot pedal, along with other attributes of the device, like control over tone and playback speed. (Another issue: there was a not so little gap in the audio, and it was suggested to me to record the audio first on a longer stretch of tape, and to then make the loop from a subset of that tape. I’ll try this approach next time.)

At first I thought the issue with the playback ending on the Panasonic had to do with a poor job on my part constructing the cassette. So, I took it apart and made it more taut by trimming the length of the tape a bit, as well as reinserting the second plastic reel. Still, the Panasonic ceased playing after two or three cycles. To test the newly refined tape loop, I put the cassette in the old, bright yellow Sony “Sports” Walkman, and it played well, over and over and over. Perhaps there’s a setting on the RR-830 that will make it less sensitive, and therefore capable of playing the loop on repeat dependably.

Making the loop was more painstaking a process than I’d expected, even after advance warnings from various experienced people. The standard cassette tape has loose parts, held in only thanks to the tension supplied by five tiny screws. In addition, getting the tape to the correct length, and connecting it into one continuous piece, requires a level of dexterity almost — but, fortunately, not quite — beyond my manual dexterity. I got it to work, which was a lot of fun in the end. The sound quality is excellent, which is to say it is rich with texture, not high-fidelity.

And if you want to try it out, the tape-oriented musician who goes by the name Amulets has a helpful video on YouTube. There’s also a good tutorial at instructables.com.

Also tagged / / Comments: 2 ]

Snakes & Oscillators

A glimpse at a video-game music interface by Jon Davies

A post shared by Jon Davies (@jonpauldavies) on

Just to follow up yesterday’s post of an Instagram video depicting a tiny robot band playing artfully arranged instrumental music, here’s another solid example of the miniature musical-technological (a slightly more humane appellation than “music-technology”) wonders found on the social network.

As you listen to the clip, a brief synthesized melody is being modulated in real time, the sound warping at the whim of a controller. The familiar shape of the x/y control pad is viewable in the lower right hand corner of the illuminated grid device. What it controls is this snake, familiar from video games like Centipede, the early-1980s classic. The snake can be aimed at a little stationary reward, whose consumption by the snake ushers in a new phase of the melody, which appears to move up the register a step at a time, or something along those lines.

The rules of this game-composition aren’t entirely clear, but it does appear that while you can aim the snake to hit that reward light right on the schedule that the rhythm suggests, you can also delay doing so, letting the standing melody extend for awhile. It’s nice to imagine how an audience in a live setting would get engaged in such a performance, becoming aware of the process and enjoying the occasions of delayed gratification as the snake takes its time to consume its prey. It’s also interesting to think how the scenario can train a player to keep time, or adeptly veer from it, along the lines of Guitar Hero and other so-called rhythm games.

Video found via a post by Scanner Darkly on the llllllll.co boards. Software by Jon Davies, on whose Instagram account the clip was published. The device is the open-source Monome Grid controller (more at monome.org). Davies says the code will soon be shared publicly, for those who want to play along at home.

Also tagged , , / / Leave a comment ]