All These Wires employs just a few in this video, a purposeful few. Daniel McGinn, the musician behind the All These Wires channel on YouTube, is seen, and heard, enhancing his guitar via a modular synthesizer. Half the sound is the guitar itself, and half is the guitar processed, not once but twice, in succession, by a pair of granular synthesizer modules. The modules echo and smudge the input. Watch McGinn’s hands, and you can trace the cause and effect, the pacing and impact. As has become a performance custom, his synthesizer is tipped forward, so the audience can see what he’s up to. Watch carefully enough, and you might find lights whose on and off align with the music’s internal metronome.
Even the most talented musicians can be self-conscious about something. In the case of r beny, the focus of his doubt is, apparently, his voice. Here, for the track “A Path Opens in the Bloom,” he takes a sample of himself vocalizing (“trying to hold a C, I cannot sing”), and then processing it through granular synthesis. What this means is he is taking tiny slivers of the voice and holding them for an extended period, essentially turning a little thing into a whole. Further, he is layering the same sample played at different note values, creating a chorus of one. Without getting too technical, if you’re wondering where that raspy texture comes from, beny is running the audio through the cassette deck seen in the upper left. The deck isn’t merely recording the audio; it is also immediately outputting what it records, so we’re hearing the result of the degradation that the tape impresses upon the source material. Beny writes in more detail about the track’s impetus and his process at his YouTube page. He’s great about not only notating what he does in the text accompanying his videos, but also replying to the comments.
Between glistening notes and processed field recordings, Patricia Wolf’s voice appears as a series of echoing phrases. The live recording was made at the Holocene in Portland, Oregon, on June 19 of last year. Wolf just added it to her SoundCloud page late last month. While she could easily spend more than the piece’s nearly quarter hour exploring these lush, ethereal spaces, Wolf has more in mind for her listeners. In time, surprisingly abrasive tones appear, rubbery and textured and chaotic, and a thorough contrast to what came before. Amid them, Wolf’s voice persists, no longer an element of comforting ease, and instead a durable, yet no less elegant, opposition to the rising forces.
Edging between background ambience and melodic progression, this short, live performance by Alex Roldan is exactly the sort of video that led me to start my ongoing YouTube playlist of live performances of ambient music. In it, in full view, we watch as Roldan plays a collection of instruments: a controller in the form of that grid, and a trio of sound sources and manipulators. The correlations between audio and physical actions are self-evident, taking a bit of the mystery out of the music, and the processes and tools that enabled its real-time production.
I spent two hours in the dark on Friday night listening to records with a hundred or so strangers. It was the first night of the 2020 installment of the San Francisco Tape Music Festival, held in the Victoria Theater in the Mission District. These weren’t records in the traditional sense of the word. They were multi-channel works (“fixed media,” in the curatorial parlance) taking advantage of the 24-speaker sound system installed for the series’ three evenings. And while the recordings were fixed, they weren’t entirely predetermined. For each, either its composer or a festival staff member handled the mixing board, and some of the installments involved more manipulation than others.
Highlights included Maggi Payne’s “Heat Shield” (white noise pushed to the breaking point in the pursuit of interstellar sounds), which she had performed live at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival at the end of last year, as well as Matthew Barnard’s “Wache,” built from field recordings made around London.
Not all the works were contemporary. Reaching back to the origins of the consideration of the recording studio as an instrument unto itself, we heard Pierre Schaeffer’s “Étude aux casseroles [Pathétique],” composed on turntables back in 1948, and “Poem of Change” (1992) by Pauline Oliveros. Oliveros, active in the city’s experimental music scene starting in the late 1950s, co-founded the original San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1962. She died a little over three years ago, and it was quite moving to hear her voice, always larger than life, and all the more so after death, fill the hall.
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
• Autumn, 2019: I'll have a new piece in The Wire.
• December 13, 2019: This day marks the 23rd anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• January 7, 2020: This day marks the 8th anniversary of the Disquiet Junto.
• March 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 0421 / Marquee Ghosts / The Assignment: What sounds haunt a discarded movie theater in the middle of the night?
• 0420 / Luna Tick / The Assignment: Make music that proceeds according to the phases of the moon, in celebration of Lunar New Year.
• 0419 / Dischoir / The Assignment: Make music from 100+ vocal samples of held syllables by members of the Disquiet Junto.
• 0418 / Ice-Nine / The Assignment: Record the sound of ice in a glass and make something of it.
• 0417 / Changes Tracker / The Assignment: Create a sonic diary of the past year with a dozen (or more) super-brief segments.