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

Technology and Its Discontents

The whine of my hard drives

SoundCloud: Why isn’t there an [account]/stream page that can ignore all the reposts? Reposts are great, but some people repost so much it buries everyone’s original posts, including their own.

Also SoundCloud: The maximum number of accounts one can follow has been stuck at 2,000 for years. The number of SoundCloud accounts has gone up. The follow limit should follow suit.

Windows: My laptop often disconnects from my USB audio interface when it comes back from sleep. What’s up with that?

Android: These phones are powerful. I should be able to play music and listen to an audiobook at the same time. My phone can play an audiobook while I receive audio directions from a map app, so clearly simultaneous audio sources does work.

This is lightly adapted from an edition first published in the August 4, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound.

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Listening to and in the Mars Trilogy

How technology mediates discourse

I’ve begun re-reading the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve been listening rather than reading: revisiting by having a story I already know read to me. This following chunk of a paragraph stood out, and I hit pause on the audiobook so I could locate the exact words. It’s an insightful depiction of the interaction of two individuals in space-suits (Mars-suits?) as they travel across the planet’s surface:

Michel drove the jeep and listened to Maya talk. Did conversation change when voices were divorced from bodies, planted right in the ears of the listeners by helmet mikes? It was as if one were always on the phone, even when sitting next to the person you were talking to. Or — was this better or worse — as if you were engaged in telepathy.

In case you haven’t read the series, it might help to know that Michel is the lonely French psychologist assigned to the 100-person crew setting up camp on Mars at the start of the first book, and that Maya is a captivating and highly driven Russian member of the international assortment of captivating and highly driven characters who populate the novel and the planet.

A few paragraphs earlier, the narrator set the stage for this depiction — two people next to each other, and also quite isolated from each other — as follows:

Michel asked the questions that a shrink program would have asked, Maya answered in a way that a Maya program would have answered. Their voices right in each other’s ears, the intimacy of an intercom.

The way the technologically mediated conversation assists in dehumanizing the characters, turning each into a “program,” is further emphasized by that verb-less standalone clause that comes immediately after. The impact of the observation is further heightened because just two pages earlier still we were told:

intimacy consisted of talking for hours about what was most important in one’s life.

Robinson (or Stan, as he likes to be called, as I learned when I interviewed him over the course of several conversations a few years ago: “The Man Who Fell for Earth”) always gets deserved credit for the scientific knowledge and imagination he brings to his depiction of how Mars might be terraformed, how it might be made habitable by humans. What makes the novels really work, though, is his awareness of technology at not just an industrial or societal level, but at an interpersonal one as well: how technological change impacts the individuals as much as it does the planet. To remake Mars is to remake ourselves.

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Ain’t That Grand

An ongoing series cross-posted from

Bionic piano
Augmented piano
Cyborg piano
Extended piano

What Sound Looks Like: An ongoing series cross-posted from

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Portnoy’s Cassette

Stereo system provenance

Items from the estate of the late novelist Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral) are now up for auction. Among the household possessions: Roth’s stereo system, a fairly mundane assortment of aged components, pictured above.

Look closely at the image. I do wonder what the three apparent cassette players, a single deck on the left and a dual on the right, were for. A friend pointed them out when I shared the image elsewhere. I imagine Roth recorded himself telling his stories, and then used the system to dub copies for the transcription process. (I also like to imagine he was making generative tape loop compositions with Mia Farrow for the score to a Rosemary’s Baby sequel. A reader can dream.)

I found the Roth item via a brief rant in the Guardian that focused on its author’s deeply felt antipathy for “literary fetishists,” antipathy that didn’t manage to muster 300 words. I get the concern. I’ve killed my heroes several times over, but I also imagine that if Roth’s stereo were later found in a thrift store or garbage heap, there would have been 1,000 words to the contrary. I’m not sure what the best option is, but waiting over a year and then holding an online auction seems OK. Starting bid: $150.

This is lightly adapted from the July 14, 2019, issue of the free weekly email newsletter This Week in Sound.

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The Conference Call v. Acoustic Literacy

An interview I did with the Article Group

It was a pleasure to have been interviewed for an article about the contentious and ubiquitous sound technology known as the conference call, especially because the article’s author, Rae Paoletta, sets the correct tone right from the start. The article begins: “The conference call is a gangrenous finger on the clammy hand of human achievement.”

After speaking with Paoletta on the phone (not a conference call, just two humans on a shared line, very old-fashioned and convivial), I was a bit concerned with how harsh I was about conference calls, specifically the often non-technological reasons for why they so often fall short of their purpose. How I put it is: “In a broad sense, people are ultimately kind of lazy,” but even before the article gets to my concerns about what I refer to as a societal lack of “acoustic literacy,” someone else says it more directly: “generally people are selfish dickbags and this translates to terrible conference calls.”

In advance of speaking with Paoletta, I sketched out a list of conference-call grievances, key aspects of the conference call, both as a technology and a site of human interaction, that are susceptible to failure. It played out like this:

  • voice quality
  • background noise
  • voice menu commands
  • hold music
    • signature brand sound
    • signature cues
    • signature hold music
    • option for no music
    • options for music
    • misreading digital silence
  • spatial orientation
  • visual orientation (cues on screen)
  • politics of being on hold pre-call

Paoletta’s piece, which also quotes Dr. Julie Gurner, is available at

Not so much ironically as inevitably, I has several conference calls in the wake of speaking with Paoletta, including on the morning the article came out. I imagined this was a jinx, and the call would utterly fail. It didn’t, fortunately. My main observations of the call, in my heightened state of awareness due to the Paoletta conversation:

  • sonic moire/cutouts (from cross-talk)
  • squelchy feedback
  • uneven volume levels
  • Max Headroom vocal glitch
  • cicada-like atmospheric noise
  • background construction noise

I posted that list to Twitter. A friend joked in reply, “The way you describe it, I’m like, where can I find that track on Bandcamp?” This made me realize something: The exact same sonic issues that I abhor in conference calls I seek out in electronic music.

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