Often, the most beautiful sounds are all around us. We just have to learn to pay attention to them. Sometimes, however, to access these sounds, we must listen in ways our ears alone can’t accomplish. Case in point, this recording of a transformer station from Robert Cole Rizzi. Rizzi’s three-minute track is an atmospheric tour de force. It combines the inherent buzzing of the transformer with the sound of the structure itself vibrating, plus sonic evidence of the presence of electromagnetic radiation. Writes Rizzi, “You can hear a low rumble I believe is the current running through the wires and fog condensing into drops hitting the thinner zigzag beams of the mast as they fall.”
To access this depth of sonic experience, Rizzi employs the Geofon, or what I described as “the landlubber’s hydrophone in a post earlier this year. The electromagnetic information comes courtesy of another device, called the Priezor. Both are from the company LOM.
This marvelous rusty old object is the most rudimentary — and glorious for it — sort of turntable. It’s like if Louise Bourgeois’ spider sculptures and Pierre Bastien’s sonic constructions had a baby. The gear, all serrated simplicity, goes round and round while the tips of four bent wires make tentative contact. They’re pulled along by the surface tension of the gear, until each gives way with a brittle squeak. The device is called the Quadrophone Gramophone, and it’s from the artist who goes by the VAPE.
The saying goes that it’s only experimental music if there’s a chance it won’t work. A corollary observation would be to point out: Sometimes what sounds like experimental music isn’t experimental music. It’s simply an experiment. And nonetheless, it can be musical. Case in point, this little DIY project by the musician who goes by Suss Müsik. He’s been experimenting with illumination-responsive circuitry, creating a theremin-like apparatus that creates and alters sound abased on the presence of a flashlight. As he notes in a brief accompanying text, “Somehow it created layers of harmonic dissonance in nearly perfectly phased, overlapping sequences.”
If you’ve ever plucked a metal ruler or banged it on the edge of a table, you know the vibrant, heady pulse of its taut rebound. The talented Moscow-based engineer Dmitry Morozov, who goes by ::vtol::, recognized the promise in that boinngggg and automated it. The result, a combination of processing power, two servo motors, and other items, is a programmable drum machine that makes all its sounds with a 20-centimeter metal ruler. This demo video shares some of its sonic and rhythmic potential.
The device is based on the school experience of imitating bass lines at the desk and a fun way to disturb teachers. The instrument can be classified as an automated plucked contrabass monochord. Changing the pitch is done by quickly changing how far the ruler is extended relative to the nut. Movements, plucks and presses of the ruler along the nut are driven by powerful and fast motors, which allows playing pretty fast lines. 2 pressing motors can work simultaneously or selectively, which allows you to choose the register: the range and amplitude of oscillations depends on the place in which the ruler is clamped before the pluck. The sound is picked up by a small piezo element, which is getting hits by a ruler directly (the instrument has no resonator). The instrument is equipped with 12 touch keys, each of which can be reassigned to a specific length of the ruler. A small OLED display is used to select modes, tune notes, and indicate processes and states.
The device is called the RBS-20(cm), which stands for “Ruler bass synth, 20 centimeters.” Video originally posted at vimeo.com. More details at vtol.cc.
This beautiful instrument from Norway feeds back through spring reverb, and then lets the player adjust the audio with a 10-band graphic equalizer. It was created by Kristoffer Gard Osen, who is based in Oslo. The resulting sounds range from ethereal drones to industrial clanging, and the drones have a metallic vibe while the clanging has a rich resonance. Which is to say, this instrument isn’t about either/or; it’s about the varieties of sound in between. The name of the instrument is Fjærlett, which apparently is Norwegian for feather, or feathery. Which is to say, as Osen has noted, “You have to play it as light as a feather.” While this video serves as a product announcement by a small, one-person company, I’m sharing it based on the beauty of the sounds made during the performance. (In a June 30th update, Osen wrote that an audio-input jack will be available as an option.)
Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media
• February 5, 2020: The first session of the 15-week course I teach at the Academy of Art about the role of sound in the media landscape.
• April 15, 2020: A chapter on the Disquiet Junto ("The Disquiet Junto as an Online Community of Practice," by Ethan Hein) appears in the forthcoming book The Oxford Handbook of Social Media and Music Learning (Oxford University Press), edited by Stephanie Horsley, Janice Waldron, and Kari Veblen. (Details at oup.com.)
• December 13, 2020: This day marks the 24th anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• January 7, 2021: This day marks the 9th anniversary of the start of the Disquiet Junto music community.
• There are entries on the Disquiet Junto in the forthcoming book The Music Production Cookbook: Ready-made Recipes for the Classroom (Oxford University Press), edited by Adam Patrick Bell. Ethan Hein wrote one, and I did, too.
• At least two live group concerts by Disquiet Junto members in the San Francisco Bay Area are in the works for 2020.
• I have liner notes for a musician's solo album and an essay in a book about an art event due out. I'll announce as the release dates come into focus.
• The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: disquiet.com/junto.
Since January 2012, the Disquiet Junto has been an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making community that employs creative constraints as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list (each Thursday), listen to tracks by participants from around the world, read the FAQ, and join in.