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.

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What Sound Looks Like

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


A doorbell button sends a variety of signals. It’s an instruction, an invitation, a place-marker. When lit at night, it can suggest habitation, even when no one is home. Often, especially in dense urban settings, the doorbell’s inherent messages aren’t sufficient to the task, however. There may be numbers and letters to clarify the association of address and interface. There may be arrows directing the visitor’s eye and finger. There may be redirects for postal services. There may be cameras that, intentionally or not, create an interactional moat, a digitally mediated divide between visitor and host — the host in such circumstances has an access to, a vantage on, a control over the visitor before the visitor has ever stepped foot inside. There’s lore of the vampire, who in some tellings must have permission before crossing such a threshold; digital vampires of the opposite persuasion — the ones on the recording end of the camera — have no significant restraints on their ability to capture, to collect and collate. They need not even cross the divide to have a presence.

Sometimes the additional message is simply a bit of text, like here, where the instruction to “push hard” is neatly appended below the button. This modest device has no internet-era or even multi-functional connectivity, but it does speak messages, even beyond its literal one. For context, understand that there is also an array of buttons hung on that perpendicular metal gate. This button is an add-on, perhaps a replacement for one of the earlier ones. There is personality to the writing, in particular the swirl in the numeral 2 and the playful vitality of that “a” in “hard,” its schoolbook charm somehow both youthful and old-fashioned. This writing wasn’t done quickly, or haphazardly, or out of anger. It doesn’t appear to contain a subtext of antipathy toward a landlord, or toward technology for that matter. The writing is welcoming, reducing any emotional strain that such an instruction might have introduced in other circumstances.

Still, the button itself shows little wear, which can be read generously as the resilience of something well-constructed, or more likely as evidence of it having been pushed with limited frequency over the years. The genteel stroke of the pen, upon reflection, takes on a kind of neediness, the entreating smile of an urban entity that knows the loneliness of the crowd all too well.

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt.
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What Sound Looks Like

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

A post shared by Marc Weidenbaum (@dsqt) on

This week I visited a friend at a location where the front entrance features a battery-powered, Internet-connected doorbell. I rang it once at five minutes of the hour, when we were due to meet, and then again right on the hour, also to no avail. I then texted my friend to confirm the time and location of our appointment. When my friend texted back to verify I had my calendar correct, I mentioned I was out front.

The short version: “This thing works great, except you have to replace the batteries pretty often.” Slightly longer version: between my two clicks of the doorbell, and extended up until my friend confirmed my understanding of the calendar and retrieved me, I sensed myself becoming increasingly self-conscious that the doorbell’s camera was capturing me in all my Neo-Luddism. At best, I was expressing the impatience of someone still not fully accustomed to new-fangled doorbells. At worst I was using one inappropriately — or had messed up the calendar, another digital faux pas. As it turned out, it was the doorbell that was coming up short. If I was being inappropriate, it was the way an adult might be with a child: This nascent technology may deserve some coddling until it comes of age. (Whether its designers do is another story.)

There are many things to be sorted out between now and the potentially inevitable fairly-informed-if-not-truly-smart home, and one of them is the way these devices make us feel. An old-fashioned doorbell, for all its shortcomings, confirms you have pressed it. A doorbell that depends on battery power loses this ability the second the battery is dead. Digital devices aspire to excel at functions and features, but they often fall short in terms of affordances, at the broader, contextual, environmental range of interactions.

The traditional, “analog” doorbell isn’t great, by any means. And yet it has survived potential replacements for nearly a century — and it may very well survive the Internet of Things because it has turned out to have taken into account aspects of the interaction that potential replacements, such as the battery-operated doorbell, have quite utterly failed to.

Still, things at my friend’s place could have been worse. There could have been a doorbell that does what the one pictured here is doing, which is going utterly haywire. The camera doesn’t do justice to the hyperactivity — the tantrum — of its malfunction. I’ve taken a lot of doorbell pictures, most of them emphasizing decay, and when doing so I have taken a bit of time to frame the image, to adjust for light and geometry. This one I shot quickly, because it felt rude after dark to intrude on a residential doorstep in a way it doesn’t during the day. This is, however, a picture of decay, just of rapid decay, digital decay. The elements didn’t have time to have their way with this doorbell. It did itself in.

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

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What Sound Looks Like

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

The Goodwill thrift store seemed like a good place to find old cassettes. I wanted to purchase a few in order for them to be unspooled and employed as test subjects in the production of tape loops. There were plenty of dead media items present, lots of LPs, and CDs, and DVDs, and Blu-rays, not to mention books both hard- and paperback, as well as a variety of videogame formats, some behind glass to signify if not necessarily bestow value. What there was not was a tape cassette. Not a single one to be found. As for the LPs, they were beyond well-worn. Most of them had been very old decades back when I first started purchasing records, and they looked to have been bought and sold several times over in the intervening years. Above them was this sign listing the price: $2.99. The sign looked like it was simply yet another item for sale, so out of whack did the dollar amount seem in relation to the LPs themselves.

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

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What Sounds Looks Like

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

If the uniform makes the man, then what does a haphazard wall say about an organization? Nothing sure signals vigilant security like worn, off-kilter advisory signage, especially when it is accompanied by a pair of unlabeled doorbells. The former bears witness to one or more previous generations of slapdash paint jobs. The latter seem perfunctory, forgotten, vestigial. Perhaps the painting on the sign was intended as a makeshift right arrow, acknowledging after the fact that this isn’t a restricted area; the no-go zone is over there, somewhere. As for the doorbells, they offer even less in the manner of directions. Presumably you push the top one first, and if no one from the subterranean secret society answers, you push the bottom one.

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

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What Sound Looks Like

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

Toward the end of its run as a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz introduced radio to its prison cells. The 5’x9′ rooms had a small wired metal box. The metal box had two jacks, one for each of a pair of broadcast options available to prisoners, excepting those in solitary confinement. There was a jack for sports and there was a jack for music, our chipper park ranger tour guide explained to us today. Prisoners had headphones that they could plug into either channel. A guard at a central control room monitored the stations and would censor any news deemed too sensitive by simply muting the given signal. Prison life is all about a heavily mediated experience, being cut off from the world. Inmates at Alcatraz also required a cord to communicate with visitors, who spoke via those familiar phone-like connections; the interlocutors saw each other only through small and exceptionally thick windows. The one variable beyond the prison system’s powers was the sonic makeup of the environment, of the bowl that is the San Francisco Bay. From the island of Alcatraz, prisoners could apparently hear the frivolity of Fisherman’s Wharf and other coastal pleasure zones, a mile and a life sentence away.

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

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