Why Do We Listen Like We Used to Listen?

Or: When your phone teases an alternate present

This is a screen shot off my mobile phone. What it displays is the active interface for the Google Play Music app. Visible are the cover images from four full-length record albums, all things I’ve listened to recently: the new one from the great experimental guitarist David Torn (Sun of Goldfinger, the first track of which is phenomenal, by the way), an old compilation from the early jam band Santana (for an excellent live cover of Miles Davis and Teo Macero’s proto-ambient “In a Silent Way” – more tumultuous than the original, yet restrained on its own terms), and for unclear reasons not one but two copies of Route One, released last year by Sigur Rós, the Icelandic ambient-rock group.

If you look closely at the little icons on top of those four album covers, you’ll note two that show little right arrows. That’s the digital sigil we’ve all come to understand instinctively as an instruction to hit play. And you’ll note that both copies of Route One are overlaid with three little vertical bars, suggesting the spectrum analysis of a graphic equalizer.

What isn’t clear in this still image is those little bars are moving up and down – not just suggesting but simulating spectrum analysis, and more importantly telling the listener that the album is playing … or in this case the albums, plural. Except they weren’t. Well, only one was. While I could only hear one copy of the Sigur Rós record, the phone was suggesting I could hear two. Why? I don’t know. I felt it was teasing me – teasing me about why we still listen the way we used to listen, despite all the tools at our disposal.

Now, if any band could have its music heard overlapping, it’s Sigur Rós, since they generally traffic in threadbare sonic atmospherics that feel like what for other acts, such as Radiohead or Holly Herndon or Sonic Youth, might merely be the backdrop. All these musicians have hinted at alternate futures, though in the end what they mostly produce are songs, individual sonic objects that unfold in strictly defined time.

It’s somewhat ironic that Route One is the album my phone mistook as playing two versions simultaneously, since Route One itself originated as an experiment in alternate forms of music-making. It was a generative project the band undertook in 2016, described by the Verge’s Jamieson Cox as follows: “a day-long ‘slow TV’ broadcast that paired a live-streamed journey through the band’s native Iceland with an algorithmically generated remix of their new single ‘Oveour.'” The Route One album I was listening to contains highlights of that overall experience. An alternate version, with the full 24 hours, is on Google Play Music’s rival service, Spotify.

What this odd moment with my phone reminded me was that it’s always disappointing, to me at least, how little we can do – perhaps more to the point, how little we are encouraged and empowered to do – with the music on our phones.

Why don’t our frequent-listening devices, those truly personal computers we have come to call phones, not only track what we listen to but how we listen to it, and then play back on-the-fly medleys built from our favorite moments, alternate versions in collaboration with a machine intelligence?

Why can’t the tools time-stretch and pitch-match and interlace alternate takes of various versions of the same and related songs, so we hear some ersatz-master take of a favorite song, drawn from various sources and quilted to our specifications?

Or why, simply, can’t we listen easily to two things at the same time — add, for example, Brian Eno’s 1985 album Thursday Afternoon, an earlier document of an earlier generative system, to that of Route One? Or just add one copy of Route One to another, as my phone suggested was happening, one in full focus, the other a little hazy and out of sync.

Why aren’t these tools readily available? Why aren’t musicians encouraged to make music with this mode in mind? Why is this not how we listen today? Why do we listen like we used to listen?

Algorithmic Art Assembly

I'll be giving a talk at this two-day event in San Francisco on March 22

My friend Thorsten Sideb0ard is hosting Algorithmic Art Assembly, a new event in San Francisco on March 22nd and 23rd this year, “focused on algorithmic tools and processes.” I’ll be doing a little talk on the 22nd, which is a Friday.

Speakers include: Windy Chien, Jon Leidecker (aka Wobbly), Julia Litman-Cleper, Adam Roberts (Google Magenta), Olivia Jack; Mark Fell (a Q&A), Spacefiller, Elizabeth Wilson, M Eiffler, Adam Florin, Yotam Mann & Sarah Rothberg — and me. Performances include: Kindohm, Algobabez, Renick Bell, Spatial, Digital Selves, Wobbly, Can Ince; Mark Fell, W00dy, TVO, Shatter Pattern, William Fields, Sebastian Camens, Spednar. Here’s a bit more from the website, aaassembly.org:

Algorithmic Art Assembly is a brand new two day conference and music festival, showcasing a diverse range of artists who are using algorithmic tools and processes in their works. From live coding visuals and music at algoraves, to virtual reality, gaming, augmented tooling, generative music composition, or knot tying, this event celebrates artists abusing algorithms for the aesthetics.

Daytime talks will present speakers introducing and demonstrating their art, in an informal and relaxed setting, (very much inspired by Dorkbot).

Each day will feature one workshop in an intimate setting, creating an opportunity for you to learn how to create live coded music using two of the main platforms, SuperCollider and TidalCycles. Workshops are limited in space, with reservation required – details to come.

Evening performances will be heavily based upon the algorave format, in which the dancefloor is accompanied by a look behind the veil, with several artists projecting a livestream of their code on screen. Performers will play energetic sets back to back, with minimal switch-over time.”

It was a new year, so I cleaned up my bio a bit. Here’s how it reads currently:

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 that explore creative constraints. A former editor of Tower Records’ music magazines, Weidenbaum is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, and has written for Nature, Boing Boing, Pitchfork, Downbeat, NewMusicBox, Art Practical, The Atlantic online, and numerous other periodicals. Weidenbaum’s sonic consultancy has ranged from mobile GPS apps to coffee-shop sound design, comics editing for Red Bull Music Academy, and music supervision for two films (the documentary The Children Next Door, scored by Taylor Deupree, and the science fiction short Youth, scored by Marcus Fischer). Weidenbaum has exhibited sound art at galleries in Dubai, Los Angeles, and Manhattan, as well as at the San Jose Museum of Art, and teaches a course on the role of sound in branding at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Weidenbaum has commissioned and curated sound/music projects that have featured original works by Kate Carr, Marielle V Jakobsons, John Kannenberg, Steve Roden, Scanner, Roddy Schrock, Robert Thomas, and Stephen Vitiello, among many others. Raised in New York, Weidenbaum lives in San Francisco.

More on the Algorithmic Art Assembly at aaassembly.org. The event will take place, both days, at Gray Area Foundation for the Arts grayarea.org.

Brian Eno Gives the BBC a Studio Tour

And talks generative art, sculptures, beat making, note taking, and more

“I’m trying to make a version of me in this software,” Brian Eno tells the BBC’s Spencer Kelly in a half-hour video from the broadcaster’s Click show. The ambient godfather is giving Kelly a tour of his studio, displaying how he constructs his light installations, his sculptures made of small speakers, and his software-based music. We see the dark backroom where he’s transitioned from cathode ray tubes to LEDs, and his ceiling-high bookshelves, 65 percent of which he estimates have science as their subject. Kelly, whose BBC reporting focus is technology, pushes Eno to confirm himself as something of a scientist, which Eno agrees to do.

Broadcasting is an odd thing. Kelly needs to ask a generalist’s questions, even though it’s clear he must know quite a bit more than he’s actually acknowledging knowledge of. They get around to “those cards,” which leads to a bit of a history lesson about how Roxy Music’s limited budget inspired Eno to get some best practices in order, which in turn became the Oblique Strategies deck. He also spends an extended bit making generative drum beats, and gives us a flip through old notebooks. Somewhere people with high-definition monitors are making and trading screenshots, no doubt.

There’s also fodder for an incredibly subtle animated GIF around the 18:23 mark, when Eno, his head emerging from a thick, collared overshirt like that of a tortoise, juts back and forth along to a semi-randomized rhythm he’s just implemented.

Found via synthtopia.com.

Autechre elseq 1-5 Listening Diary

It's one thing to review a book, another thing entirely to review a library.


It’s coming up on 20 years since I interviewed Autechre, back in 1997 (“More Songs About Buildings”). Their music was then no less self-assured than it is now, but they were. Told their Chiastic Slide was due to be listed as the number one electronic album of the year in the magazine where I’d recently stopped being an editor, Tower Records’ Pulse!, the duo’s Sean Booth replied “What? That’s fucking ridiculous.”

This reaction had, perhaps, more to do with the venue, Tower Records, than with the music, but decades later the point is moot. The behemoth music retailers are gone, major record labels are struggling, and smaller labels face their own hurdles. However the deck seemed to have been stacked in the mid-1990s, it’s Warp Records — the label where Autechre has long maintained a home with Squarepusher and Aphex Twin, among others — that’s still kicking.

And as the record industry strains to find a path forward, Autechre strains the definition of a recording. Its most recent release is five releases in one, elseq 1″”5: 21 tracks, roughly four hours of music, the individual parts ranging in length from about five minutes to just under thirty. This massive set, released back in May, follows on something larger still: last fall’s AE_LIVE, which consisted of nine hour-long performances. Only in contrast to AE_LIVE can elseq 1″”5 be seen to deserve its lowercase title treatment.

The dimensions suit the subject matter. Autechre’s music can be all-consuming. It often lacks reference points other than the duo’s own fervidly brittle catalog. In the context of their releases, names of actual cities and dates of concerts — “AE_LIVE_KREMS_020515,” “AE_LIVE_DOUR_180715, “AE_LIVE_KATOWICE_210815” — on the live collection read less like places and timestamps and more like the fragmented, coded syllables and numerals that have long served as placeholders for their ecstatically broken beats (Envane and Cichlisuite, “Characi” and “Pen Expers,” “PIOBmx19” and “777”).

AE_LIVE used its oversized scale to announce the arrival of a dedicated Autechre store, autechre.ws, which is really front end for Warp’s venture bleepstores.com, and a window into Bleep Dispatch, a physical distribution organization. Autechre’s music may sound like willfully broken music machines, but it is the harbinger of an aspiringly efficient cultural machine.

Now, elseq 1″”5 may be modest in comparison to the live collection, and a record that’s four hours long and is subdivided twice — into sets and tracks — doesn’t necessarily evade reviewing, but its capacious nature invites alternate approaches. It’s one thing to review a book, another thing entirely to review a library. To that end, what follows are listening notes, references and thoughts as I make my travel through the collection and back again. I hope to update it on occasion, as I find my way. I’ve listened many many times now, and will continue to as long as it continues to hold interest. For now, there’s no sign of the interest fading.

I’ve had the first two entries in this listening diary — on the first track of set 3 and the second track of set 4 — in the can for a while, and I had planned on having a third track written up before first publishing this, but I figure to just set this rolling and see where it goes.

Track: elseq 3 001 “eastre” (22:15)
September 10, 2016: The track is one phrase on repeat, a brief riff — about 12 seconds long, give or take — played over and over, a sequence of dependable modulations tweaked in utterly undependable manners. The theme is dramatic, with a portent not out of place in a Hollywood thriller. It sounds a bit like the duo is offering itself up to score, if not actually provide the theme song to, the next James Bond film. The tweaks are drastic, warping and quavering the riff, despite which the riff itself proceeds unaltered. It’s all about torque, all about the sound being submitted to a sequence of experimental stressors to witness how it responds. The repeated theme is so brief, it brings to mind the experience of playing a video game and being stuck on a level for so long that the music, a brief cue, plays over and over, adorned and filtered only by other on-screen sounds, by your relative position, and by the status of other players’ fates elsewhere in the game. Except here the level is designed for just such an experience. It’s a locked box, and you must settle in for the unsettling 22-minute ride.

Track: elseq 4 002 “foldfree casual” (09:50)
September 10, 2016: Among the earliest places to hear Autechre was the Artificial Intelligence series from Warp Records. Autechre was one of three acts to have two tracks on the first Artificial Intelligence compilation (10 tracks total), back in 1992, and their first proper album, Incunabula, was part of the Artificial Intelligence series a year later. The term “AI” served largely as a touchstone for trippy science-fiction daydreams at the time, but with Autechre’s intricate, digital productions it became an inspiration for generative systems of music making — systems that despite not being alive achieve a lifelike quality. In other words, what sounds “broken” in Autechre’s music isn’t really broken; it’s expertly engineered — it just reflects a metric logic, an internal clock, that has more in common with an organism than with a machine. What makes Autechre’s music thrilling is how that organic quality plays out in machine noises. At first “foldfree casual,” with its opening vapory horn-like yet blithely synthetic intonations, sounds like their bid to score the forthcoming sequel to Blade Runner, another AI touchstone. Those lines give way to this prismatic noise that has a randomness closer to speech than to melody, fragments that suggest a generative process at heart, noises reacting to some interior, software-based narrative, rather than to mere filter processing or traditional compositional intent. They gather heft, and as vocaloid music will do, bring to mind John Williams’ first-contact music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The phrases are increasingly near-verbal as they proceed, and even more so they’re deeply emotive (not exactly a realm Autechre is often associated with). The track “foldfree casual” is akin to witnessing to an artificial intelligence gain sentience in less time than it takes to get a pot of water to boil. With sentience comes an instinct for self-preservation, and more insistent, militantly rhythmic percussion kicks in around the six-minute mark; my mind pictures something struggling in captivity. Whether the next shift is due to external sedation or internal meditation, the urgency gives way to calm in the closing minutes. Eventually it’s back to those opening, hazy chords: The android dreams.

Track: elseq 3 002 “TBM2” (06:45)
September 12, 2016: Toughest tracks to write about are your favorites. I’ve played this one hundreds of times at this point, often for an hour or two at a time. I tend to listen on repeat, usually to focus my imagination, to listen intently and as background. In this case, it’s more addiction than analysis. This is swaggering cybernetic reggae at quarter speed, the strange melodica-like element a frayed thing losing itself in the mix. At six minutes, the track is half the length of the preceding track yet feels twice as long — in a good way. I don’t really want to just write about this track; what I want to do is to figure out how to make a long poster, a visualization, that depicts the subtle shifts in this industrial techno, the elemental phases of these noise metrics, the production tweaks of this cyclopean beat, the countless variations that unfold as it plays. I imagine something sprawling that wraps around the walls of my office. Despite the trenchant, tightly huddled affect of the track, “TBM2” suggests a deeply immersive study. Nothing else amid the vast expanse of elseq has hit me the way this track has.

10 Seconds of Salvation

In the hands of Amulets, repetition is a form of repurposing

Like his earlier reworking of Tony Robbins self-help tapes, Amulets’ New World Translation repurposes a piece of spoken word audio on cassette and transforms it into something that fits into the contemporary world of experimental cassette music — not just music released on cassette, but music in which the cassette is the instrument.

This recording is a 10-second tone set on loop, playing (per his youtube.com video) on a four-track recorder. The loop is a snatch of symphonic white noise, an orchestral drone, like a string section in a deep cistern holding a note until, collectively, they mark the loop’s repeat with a momentary swell.

When Brian Eno wrote that “repetition is a form of change,” part of what he was getting at is how the ear hears new things when subjected to the same sound over and over. In the hands of Amulets’, that change is more practical, but no less evocative. As he write in a note accompanying the video: “the endless tape loop flutters, fluctuates, and slowly degrades over time.”

Here’s the excerpt on YouTube. It’s the latest piece I’ve added to my ongoing YouTube playlist of fine “Ambient Performances.”

And the full 50-minute version:

Video originally posted at Amulets’ youtube.com channel. It’s available for purchase as physical cassette and download at amulets.bandcamp.com. The flipside of each cassette is the unmolested original audio from a series of Jehovah’s Witness Bible tapes. The length of the A-side depends on the length of the individual tape, ranging from 30 to 45 minutes. More from Amulets at amuletsmusic.com. Amulets is Randall Taylor of Austin, Texas.