In this sweet little video demonstration, Shawn James Seymour (half of the husband-wife duo Lullatone, along with Yoshimi Yomida) shows how he used the TikTok video social-media app — in particular it’s feature-not-a-bug looping mode — to make a simple ambient track out of piano loops. He set all the loops, four total, to different lengths, and then let them play out on repeat, so that the notes overlap in different combinations. This “criss-cross” is, as he notes in one of a sequence of cards he displays by hand during the video (those hands colliding elegantly with the ones visible in all four of the devices laid out across the table), along the lines of how Brian Eno composed Music for Airports.
Last year, the influential and crafty artist Christian Marclay teamed with Snapchat, another social-media network, for an exhibit that mined user data to create all manner of sound art projects (see: latimes.com). The scale and scope of what Seymour is up to is, of course, quite more modest in comparison, but it also uses the app itself to achieve its goals. As Seymour says (well, displays on a card), inspirationally, in the video: “twisting technology to make something new is usually more fun than just browsing on it.”
You needn’t know anything about the intricacies of synthesizer design to appreciate the performance that Star Azure ekes out of this compact setup. The small assortment of devices yields a spacious and constantly shifting range of sounds, and the constant presence of the musician’s hands adjusting settings makes the scale clear. The track’s title, “Fermi’s Paradox,” relates to the search for extraterrestrial life, which here can be said to map to the subtle contrast between the deep droning backing music, and the patterns of more singular bleeps and beeps that are charted across it.
There are several key factors in the ongoing playlist I maintain on YouTube of fine live performances of ambient music. There are three, in fact, and the very first is: “I’m only including recordings I’d listen to without video.” As something like test evidence, I came upon this piece, “Peat Moss” by Sine Rider, today on SoundCloud, and it turns out it’s the audio from one of his performance videos. It’s a warbly drone, like someone left the melody out to dry over night and hadn’t considered the damage that the morning dew might do. Except it didn’t do damage. It rendered the melody ever more fragile, and ever more beautiful for that fragility. And here’s the original video:
Tread lightly. Today’s self-aware hi-jinks are tomorrow’s tragedies. Still, as musicians, like most everyone else in the world, do their best to settle into far more residential life than they may be accustomed to, they make the best of what’s still around. In the case of Amulets, that involves using a toilet paper roll as a means to extend the length of a tape loop, as heard in this video posted today.
Amulets is the Portland, Oregon, musician Randall Taylor, who does marvelous things with, among other second-hand tools, old audio tape cassettes — same tape he’s had for years. Here the rotting texture of the loop, exaggerated by a delay pedal, takes sequences from his portable synth and renders from them subsistence ambient, just loud enough to make an impression, but not so much as to squander available resources.
Early on in this hour-long performance video, the Poland-based musician Grzegorz Bojanek holds up a piece of paper to the camera. On the paper is written a terse note in Polish and English imploring people to stay at home. There is no self-interest. He’d most certainly rather not be at home himself. But while he is, like many of us, stuck at home, he wants to help out.
His live video — along with those from numerous musicians around the world seeking to connect during a time virtually devoid of live in-person concert performances — seeks to entertain and, perhaps, even to console. And certainly to commiserate. For an hour he sits on the couch and plays. The work moves from dense ambient to a gently pulsing figment and back again. The music is welcome, but even more so is the presence that Bojanek projects. He is modelling behavior, not just by staying home, not just by keeping busy, not just by sharing, but by remaining visibly focused, even calm. We couldn’t ask more of ourselves.
There are countless more performances like this being broadcast, recorded, and archived around the world, all accessible within your browser. Seek them out, support the musicians who produce them, and share the ones you recommend.
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
• February 5, 2020: The first session of the 15-week course I teach at the Academy of Art about the role of sound in the media landscape.
• April 15, 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. (Details at oup.com.)
• December 13, 2020: This day marks the 24th anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• January 7, 2021: This day marks the 9th anniversary of the start of the Disquiet Junto music community.
• 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. Ethan Hein wrote one, and I did, too.
• At least two live group concerts by Disquiet Junto members in the San Francisco Bay Area are in the works for 2020.
• I have liner notes for a musician's solo album and an essay in a book about an art event due out. I'll announce as the release dates come into focus.
• 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.
• 0449 / Page Machine / The Assignment: Read a page of text from a book as if it were a musical score.
• 0448 / Seamless Bridge / The Assignment: Create a 20-second piece of music to connect two preexisting 20-second pieces of music.
• 0447 / Listen Ahead / The Assignment: Make some music for the near future.
• 0446 / WWWLDD / The Assignment: Celebrate World Listening Day for the whole weekend.
• 0445 / Aare Tribute / The Assignment: Read maps of a river as a graphic score.