This lovely video by r beny is a single musical object put to subtle use. The ambient track, bearing one of beny’s trademark naturalist titles, “Western Sycamore,” moves from slowly undulating formless pads to gentle streams of soft percussive tones. The latter are loops of notes rotating through with the momentum of a slow awakening. The note patterns don’t just lend contrast to the track’s longer tones. They give them shape, revealing the pads as akin to a string section that goes at its own pace. Throughout we see, on occasion, sometimes more than others, beny’s hand enter the frame to turn a knob or hit a button, not so much playing an instrument, in the broadly understood sense of the term, as coaxing something along.
When first pulled up on its YouTube page, this video from musician r beny invokes a bit of cartographic misdirection. In the center of the frame is a single black box. The box is packed with knobs and buttons as well as a small, bright screen, which is itself packed with little icons. To the right of the box, in view when beny’s left hand isn’t, is a piece of paper with two columns of information. The circles and triangles on the paper bear more than a small resemblance to what is cycling through on the screen.
It’s not uncommon for musicians, beny included, to post videos of their early experiments with new (or at least new-to-them) equipment, so it would be entirely rational to interpret this piece of paper as a page from the device’s instruction manual, a reference as beny lets the lovely music unfold. The track, titled “Fall Creek Unit,” begins with a little melody against a backdrop of white noise. That melody in turn doubles and triples, notes falling into each other and out of pace until, as the piece nears its end after seven and a half minutes, those individual instances have been almost fully subsumed into a gentle cloud of soft tonality.
And if, at some point, you pull the video into full-screen mode, those two columns of icons are revealed to be not the instructions for the electronic music device on which the tune is being performed, but instead the legend for a larger map on which the device has been placed.
This brief Instagram clip from Betty Hammer — aka Liesl Hazelton — shows her performing electric guitar, in the background, through an array of synthesizer modules, in the foreground. That depth of field serves as well to describe the music. You can see her hands playing the guitar, but by the time it reachers your ear those modules have done a lot to the source audio, pushing it from a simple plucked string to something more like a Caribbean steel drum played at the very far end of a long metal corridor. Meanwhile the synth is deploying its own snare beat, the pace evident in the soft red light that is as large as Hammer’s hand.
Tape cassette tapes play an outsize role in contemporary electronic music. They’re an affordable means of distribution in the age of streaming, and they’re a means of production as well. Tape loops provide both an inexpensive, hand-made, old-school approach to what is as easy as a click of a button in modern software, and a textural quality (or lack of quality, in the audiophile sense) as well. In this short video by Nom Nom Chomsky (aka Martin Yam Møller, who is based in Copenhagen, Denmark), a short story told in disparate single words flashed on the screen is accompanied by an improvised ambient score. Chomsky swaps tapes as the piece proceeds, using various effects pedals to distort, expand, and layer the original audio. The familiar warping sound of half-mangled tape is exaggerated as Chomsky takes a finger to one of the spindles, affecting the slack of the tape, and the timbre of the audio. It’s a masterful little performance for a desktop arrangement of tools put to use in ways that were not intended by the makers of those tools.
The myriad peculiar names might be dismissed as goofy gimmicks, but applied neologisms certainly do simplify the act of tracking synthesizer culture. Listening in on what musicians, during our search-enabled era, are making with something called the Bitbox, or the ER301, or, yes, the Morgasmatron, is pretty straightforward, compared to keeping pace with LFOs, VCOs, and VCAs, to list a few of the generic building blocks of a modular synthesizer.
This video is a short Instagram piece by Scott Campbell. Its accompanying hashtags (click through to see) note some of the utilized modules and their manufacturers. This lush sequence of melty xylophone-like tones, atop a foundation of chordal haze, brings to mind a lost Julee Cruise backing track or the loudspeaker music at a particularly well-curated holiday ice-skating park. (Campbell knows something about synth nomenclature himself, having developed the Ondes Magnétique cassette-tape manipulation machine, which I wrote about a couple years ago.)
To click on a hashtag such as #squarppyramid or #morphagene is to enter audio-visual corridors where you can check out what other musicians are doing with same tools as Campbell. And while Instagram’s algorithm leaves much to be desired, the recently introduced ability to track favorite hastags means the tools you’re intrigued by will populate your feed with work by musicians of whom you might not previously been aware.
• January 2, 2018: This day marks the 6th anniversary of the Disquiet Junto.
• February 7, 2018: Start of the semester for the course I teach on the role of sound in the media landscape at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.
• December 13, 2018: This day marked the 22nd anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• Ongoing: 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.
• My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury, is now in its second printing. It can be purchased at amazon.com, among other places.
The Disquiet Junto is an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making space in which restraints are used as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto. There is an FAQ. ... These are the 5 most recent weekly projects: