New Disquietude podcast episode: music by Lesley Flanigan, Dave Seidel, KMRU, Celia Hollander, and John Hooper; interview with Flanigan; commentary; short essay on reading waveforms. • Disquiet.com F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #field-recording, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

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Some Memories of Media

From LPs through the arrival of the CD

I heard a song on the radio, turned off the radio, walked downstairs, put on my sneakers, and walked to town, a little over half a mile. The record store didn’t have the record. The owner of the store had never heard of the record even though I’d just heard it on the radio. Then I walked home.

I heard a record had come out. I walked to the bus, and then got on the bus, and three and a half miles later got off the bus, and went through the mall to find the record store, and then found the record. I brought the record home, pulled off the thin cellophane wrapper, pulled the sleeve out, cupped the vinyl’s edge in my hand, tipped the LP onto the record player, lowered the needle, and turned up the volume. Other than the single, which wasn’t particularly good, it wasn’t good at all. In another week or two I could afford another record.

My parents dropped me off at the train station, where my friend was waiting. It was the weekend, and we took the train into the city, the two of us, and then walked a mile and a half or so downtown and wandered amid the shops, looking for record stores whose addresses we half remembered. With no small amount of anxiety, we went into the stores, braving the withering indifference of the clerks, and flipped through bins looking not so much for something to buy as for the one or two things we’d choose to buy out of all the things that were of interest. We’d then carry those LPs with us for the remainder of the day, cushioning them while eating falafel or hot dogs, stowing them carefully on the train ride home, and the next day actually getting to listen to them. I’d keep the receipts for the totems they were.

Sometimes I would tape a record for a friend, and vice versa. One friend taped over something else, and I fretted, perhaps too aggressively, about the reduction in quality due to reuse. Tapes weren’t cheap, but they were cheaper than LPs. It felt odd to have a collection split among two media, but that’s the way it was. One band in particular sounded much better on dubbed tapes than when I finally bought the vinyl. I realized it was because my friend’s tape deck taped a little fast. I’ve always preferred the quicker take, and have tried to emulate it with MP3s and other digital recordings.

College arrived, and there were two record stores very close to my dorm for two out of the four years. One, on the second floor, had new arrivals of used records seemingly every day. Someone without much taste or sense was receiving remarkable records from record companies and immediately selling them to the store. I would buy many of these records. I wondered if this person was one of my professors. Eventually I, too, would trade in records in exchange for other records, but for the time being this was one-way transaction. The idea that records were (in addition to being a repository of sound) a form of currency, or perhaps even an asset, was still new to me. I’d never become a collector, in the sense I understood the word, but the records certainly accumulated.

CDs arrived and were, immediately, in a different league, and time passed before many were available used. These cost real money. They came inside plastic boxes that were, for a time, put inside long cardboard boxes, called longboxes, that were when put side by side the width, essentially, of an LP. The geometry facilitated slotting them into bins in record stores. Over time the amount of space for LPs shrunk, and CDs filled their place. But that took several years. CDs were both more reliable (they didn’t scratch or decay through regular usage like LPs and cassettes did) and yet more precious (due to their price, their shiny materials, and the way their cases had a tendency to break).

At first, I bought a new CD like it was a piece of jewelry or furniture, even though I didn’t own any jewelry or furniture. A few CDs sat side by side on the shelf above my desk. Their plastic spines caught the reflection of the sun at certain times of the day. When I bought my first CD, I didn’t even own a CD player. I had to go to the room of someone I didn’t even know very well and listen to it there. Eventually I got a CD player at a ridiculously low price (crazy, you might say) at a store that liked to have what it called “Christmas in August” sales. The owner would eventually serve time for financial crimes. With the exception of that first CD I bought, which was available only on CD, all the others I initially purchased were of records I already owned on LP or tape. They had qualities that made me want to hear them in the pristine vacuum of digital sound. I was not disappointed.

We lived in the city now. College had come and gone. We knew where the record stores were, every one of them. Halfway down this block, around the corner from that train stop, up above that shop. We would flip through the bins and buy records other people had discarded. We bought used records. New records were another tax bracket entirely. There was a filter on our available purchases: We bought what others no longer wanted. Some of these records were stamped with little bits of legalese claiming the record label could, at any point, come take the album back. Many had little slits in the covers that reduced their value, though for whom I did not know, because the slits meant nothing to me. Some actually were used, rather than promotional copies someone had exchanged. The worn ones had to be inspected carefully. Some were past their sell-by date. I learned to ascertain with a glance what was and wasn’t playable. Sometimes I messed up, but the records were pretty cheap used, so it rarely mattered. Again, I wasn’t collecting records; I was accessing music. Those actions weren’t unrelated, but they weren’t the same thing, either.

The first holiday season after college ended, my bosses at my first job, a graphic design company, gave me a tiny little cassette player as a year-end bonus even though I’d only worked there for a few months. It was barely larger than the case in which a cassette came, excepting the slot reserved for battery power. It was made of metal. It wasn’t the most expensive thing I owned at the time, but it was the most expensive thing I owned pound for pound. I carried it everywhere, and treated it carefully. For the first time, I had reason to tape my own records for myself, rather than to exchange with someone else. The change in size of the cassette player that rendered it portable thus utterly altered my sense of what a cassette tape was, what it was for. Now it was for me in a more personal way. The portable player, which some friends had had versions of for years, was no longer theoretical to me; it transformed music (almost certainly triggering my interest, ever since, in what many would term background music) by transforming the utility of the tape cassette. I would record a record I liked a lot, and then listen to it while wandering the city, while waiting for the train, while concentrating at work. The metal was cool to the touch, its edges were sharp, and I’d feel the tape rotating as it played, the gears and other parts vibrating, emanating a rhythm entirely apart from that of the music.

Note: This was published on October 25, but some edits were implemented early on October 26.

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The Radio as Musical Instrument

An article I wrote for a special 2021 issue of The Wire


The OP-1 from Teenage Engineering

In 2011, six decades to the year after John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No 4 instructed two dozen performers at Columbia University to use radios as instruments, a small Swedish company named Teenage Engineering released a portable music-making device. With the OP-1, radio went from being used as an instrument to being part of an instrument. An FM receiver was among the OP-1’s feature set, alongside a keyboard, synthesizer engines, sequencers and a digital record mode that borrowed its user interface from old-school cassette tapes. (Which wasn’t entirely unprecedented. In the 1980s, Casio released a piece of Frankengear called the CK-500, which combined two cassette decks and a radio with a four-octave keyboard. It went precisely nowhere.)

The design of the tidily integrated OP-1 earned a spot in the permanent holdings of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, meaning it’s in the same collection as various Cage drawings, including the graphic notation Score Without Parts (40 Drawings By Thoreau). “It felt natural,” says Teenage Engineering co-founder Jens Rudberg via Zoom. “Because to make music it helps to have inspiration, so you can sample from the OP-1’s microphone, or what you’re playing, or you can tune into whatever radio stations are around you.”


The ADDAC102

Something must have been in the air in 2011. Two other notable instruments with radios debuted that same year. San Francisco Bay Area synth legend Don Buchla debuted the 272e Polyphonic Tuner in 2011 at NAMM, the massive Southern California trade fair. The 272e module, released commercially the following year, includes four separately tunable FM receivers. Also in 2011, ADDAC Systems, based in Lisbon, Portugal, launched the ADDAC102 module, which, like Buchla’s, provided the ability to alter FM tuning via control voltage, the electrical impulses by which synthesizers send and receive instructions for things like volume, pitch and pace.

Joel Davel, who worked on the 272e with Buchla, says the device took half a decade to complete: “In particular, Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No 4 was motivation to have at least a quad radio module.” Davel himself uses the module: “It was while playing with Don in 2011 in Mexico City that I learned of Steve Jobs’s death over Mexican radio through the 272e.”

Among 272e enthusiasts is San Francisco electronic musician Thomas Dimuzio, who tells a funny story about radio’s adoption by synthesizer designers. In spring 2007, two years after Bob Moog’s death, his namesake company announced the MoogerFooger MF/FM. Its advertising read: “Actually captures radio signals, routes them through electronic wizardry.” Dimuzio and a friend excitedly called the Moog offices, only for the receptionist to reminded them it was April Fool’s Day.


The radio function on the Tracker from Polyend

Four years later, come 2011, a radio instrument was no longer a joke. And a decade on, there are still more gadgets purpose-built for adding radio to musicians’ kits. Even as conventional broadcast radio is on the decline with the rise of streaming services, it is experiencing unprecedented utility as a tool for making music, rekindling a legacy of radio experimentation that runs through Cage, Keith Rowe, Holger Czukay, Christina Kubisch, John Duncan and many others. Polyend’s Tracker instrument, a grid device with a generous screen, includes an FM radio, which company founder Piotr Raczyński used in late 2019 on vacation: “I went to Egypt with my preproduction unit, and I grabbed samples from religious radio. I love those samples. They opened a totally new window for my music.”


A view of the Tracker from Polyend

Teenage Engineering’s co-founder Rudberg agrees: “When you’re somewhere else, it’s easy to find something to sample because it’s different. It’s easier to do something new.”

Several recent radio devices are, like ADDAC’s, in the Eurorack format. These include the ST Modular Radio and the Tesseract Modular’s Low Coast, the latter of which looks like it was yanked from a car dashboard. Another, the KOMA Field Kit – Electro Acoustic Workstation, was initially funded on Kickstarter by nearly a third of a million euros in 2017, and includes not just FM but AM and the enduringly popular zone of shortwave, too. KOMA was founded in 2011 (there’s that year again) by Christian Zollner and Wouter Jaspers. Speaking from its Berlin office, Zollner talks about the personal influence of the annual event Klangwolke, which translates as Sound Cloud, in his native Linz, Austria: “Ever since I was a kid, every civilian is supposed to put their radio in their window. Pieces play, and as you go around the city, you go through this sound cloud.”

Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner is synonymous with radio music thanks to his sampling efforts in the early 1990s, and credits the tool with maintaining tension in his performances. As part of a lengthy email correspondence, he writes: “I enjoy letting these sources take me in a direction I might never expect, using indiscriminate signals that I just pull down in real time and improvise around.” Rimbaud’s sense of chance aligns with the indeterminacy Cage sought in composition, much as the employment of control voltages connects with the role of process in his work.


The Field Kit – Electro Acoustic Workstation from KOMA

American musician King Britt in turn credits Scanner with having opened his ears to the textural qualities of radio. Britt identifies the KOMA as his instrument of choice. Speaking after teaching a UC San Diego course, he tells me about recording his 2005 album Sister Gertrude Morgan. “Tim Motzer and I were in the studio. His guitar was super loud and his amp started picking up radio signals, including this organ part that was in the same key we were playing in. I immediately hit record, and we worked it into the song.”

The lesson being: you don’t even need a radio in your instrument for radio to get in your instrument.


The 272e from Buchla


The fictional MoogerFooger MF/FM

There are widely available videos of most if not all of these devices in action, including the Arradio, ST Modular, OP-1, Buchla 272e, and ADDAC102. When this article first came out, I wrote a bit about a Scanner (Robin Rimbaud) performance using radio.

This article I wrote originally appeared in the July 2021 issue (number 449) of The Wire. It was titled “Received Wisdom” and had the subhead “The mercurial sound of the radio dial has led a new generation of instrument makers to tap into the airwaves.”

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Caprices of the Atmosphere

My June 2021 review for The Wire of Jennifer Lucy Allan's book on foghorns

The Foghorn’s Lament: The Disappearing Music of the Coast
Jennifer Lucy Allan
White Rabbit 304pp

It seems appropriate that the daughter of the man who is said to have invented the foghorn was christened Euphemia, and that her mother died shortly after giving birth. The name means “well-spoken” (or “well-spoken of”) in a dead language, and the story is tinged with grief right from the start.

That combination pretty much sums up the foghorn: a device both famed for its emotionally resonant seaside dirges and synonymous with a certain breed of foreboding moodiness. Jennifer Lucy Allan shines light into the mist, and the mist of history alike, in a new book that traces the roughly 170 year arc of the foghorn’s existence: from innovative safety measure to ambivalently received coastal sentinel to what it is today, a fading cultural heirloom.

We learn about the tragic and frequent shipwrecks that led to the device’s invention, about the modern conservationists battling in recent years to save the foghorns themselves from destruction, and about the numerous inventors who contributed to its varied forms. Singular as the foghorn’s sound may appear to be, there is no single foghorn. There are sirens, and reed horns, and diaphones, the latter distinguished by, as Allan puts it (her always fine descriptions benefiting from years of experience writing about popular and esoteric music), the “meaty grunt” with which it “ends its honk.” We learn, as well, of the guns, bells, and explosions that played similar roles as coastal alarms — rivals that, quite obviously, never plucked at the same film noir heartstrings as the deep, bellowing moan of a voluminous, unseen horn.

As for those inventors, there is Michael Faraday, who in his seventies participated in a solution following a sea disaster near Newfoundland (he is better remembered for enclosed spaces: the cage that bears his name), and his more determined protégé, John Tyndall, who brought precision and a poetic ear to the effort. Allan writes admiringly of the latter’s descriptive prose, phrases like “acoustic clouds,” “undulating sea,” and “caprices of the atmosphere.” And, among others, there is Euphemia’s father, Robert Foulis, who may or may not in the mid-1800s have been inspired by hearing the lower notes of his daughter’s piano pierce the Nova Scotia fog.

The book draws from work Allan did toward her recent PhD on the foghorn at CRiSAP, University of the Arts London. One main difference, no doubt, is that in this book we also learn a lot about Allan herself. This is very much a first-person story. The title is The Foghorn’s Lament, but it is demonstratively Jennifer Lucy Allan’s The Foghorn’s Lament. Barely a page goes by without her own participation present. We travel the British coast with her, and fly to San Francisco, which she singles out for its association with her subject. We spend nights with her in hostels, and share her disappointment when a lengthy quest ends at a generic computer on a table in a windowless room.

This first-person material might seem a distraction. Do we need to know that Allan travels with bread and Marmite, or spent her 30th birthday in Tokyo doing karaoke, or fell for the Delta blues as a teenager? The answer is yes. Because the point of this book is that sound, even a sound as otherworldly as the foghorn’s — beloved by such fantasists as Bram Stoker, Nigel Kneale, and John Carpenter, and transformed by such composers as Bill Fontana, Ingram Marshall, and Hildegard Westerkamp — is best understood in real-world context, real-life context. Its sound means more when it maps the location in which it occurs, when it has “picked up those contours of the landscape that soften and shape its resonances.” Research into its fragile and, yes, cloudy history becomes tangible when we recognize the remnant documents exist “only because someone in a previous century also had an interest, or maybe an obsession, with ephemera like this.” The foghorn has been Allan’s obsession for nearly a decade, and the mist from which it truly emerges in this book is that of her own powerful curiosity.

This article I wrote originally appeared in the June 2021 issue (number 448) of The Wire. It had the following header: “A historical exploration of foghorns sounding warnings to ships approaching the shore in a storm reflects on their sonic and cultural legacy.”

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Saturday Night

With the Expression Knob

This little Expression Knob from the company El Garatge (elgaratge.com), based in Barcelona, Spain, lets you adjust a guitar pedal by hand. Last night I tried it out for the first time. It stands in, so to speak, for an expression pedal. And it’s pretty great.

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Soundbites: Deaf Bell, Social Sound, Venue-less Gigs

Recent reads (etc.) on sound

A lightly annotated sound-studies clipping service, collected in advance of the next issue of my This Week in Sound email newsletter (tinyletter.com/disquiet):

The mother of the father of the telephone was deaf. Alexander Graham Bell’s own father developed a system called Visible Speech to facilitate communication. Bell eventually himself married a woman who had lost her hearing in childhood. And now, Katie Booth, in her new book, The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness, traces this throughline in Bell’s life and work: “his creative genius and his misguided efforts to eradicate Deaf culture,” as Valerie Thompson puts it in a review. Here’s a particularly damning statement from Bell’s wife: “You are tender and gentle to deaf children, but their interest to you lies in their being deaf, not in their humanity.”
https://blogs.sciencemag.org/books/2021/04/06/the-invention-of-miracles/

LinkedIn is reportedly looking to add an audio chatroom feature, which makes sense, given how much of Clubhouse, the “audio social network,” has been professional conversations. This feature expansion would be part of a broader range of changes LinkedIn is making to flesh out its social capabilities.
https://www.firstpost.com/tech/news-analysis/linkedin-confirms-that-it-is-working-on-a-clubhouse-like-audio-chatroom-feature-9483741.html

Miss live music? Then I recommend this Gabriele de Seta essay on Hong Kong’s “no-venue underground” (a term credited to Rob Hayler), drawing from personal experience (2012-2016) playing in a city with few places to perform experimental music in the first place: “It is somehow ironically appropriate that, in this city without ground, experimental musicians find themselves relegated to a precarious underground actively carved out of fleeting spaces strewn across the upper floors of post-industrial peripheries. These precarious venues appear and disappear following the inexorable inflation of property prices and the investment decisions of landlords, leaving local show organizers to work in the present tense with whatever space is available at the moment.” It’s a timely, applicable piece during our moment of place-less livestreams. The essay is from the new book Fractured Scenes: Underground Music-Making in Hong Kong and East Asia, edited by Damien Charrieras and François Mouillot, both professors at universities in Hong Kong.
https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-15-5913-6_7

Erik Davis, author of Techgnosis and a friend of mine since college, writes about taking guitar lessons for the first time since high school. I myself started taking weekly lessons a few years ago, and can relate to this distinction he draws: “Rather than playing guitar, I am practicing with it. I don’t mean rote exercises — though I do some of those — but something more like meditation practice: a daily commitment to disciplined method and unpredictable encounter, to emotional exploration and deconstruction, to attention and listening as much as to performance or ‘doing.’” Likewise, he talks about trying to reconsider the role of recording in his efforts: “I want the recording device to become part of practice rather than ambition, no longer a staff sergeant of the Productivity Regime but a challenging feedback friend, breaking the spell to deepen it.”
https://www.burningshore.com/p/open-tunings

News of Google’s Project Wolverine goes back a month, but I don’t want to lose track of it. It’s reportedly a supercharged earbud. According to a summary by Ashley Carman, “[T]hey’re currently trying to figure out how to isolate people’s voices in a crowded room or make it easier to focus on one person when overlapping conversations are happening around you.” Carman compares this with Whisper (whisper.ai), and others to the lamented, defunct Doppler Labs. As David Pierce put it in his overview of Doppler’s fall back in 2017, it “had the bad luck of being a hardware company at a time when the biggest players in tech — Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook — are all pouring billions into developing their own gadgets.” Now Google appears to be pursuing the endeavor.
https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/4/22313421/alphabet-project-x-wolverine-hearing-aid-project
https://www.businessinsider.com/google-x-alphabet-hearing-project-wolverine-codename-augmented-reality-2021-3

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