It will not be surprising that sometimes the most enticing ambient music is made with the most minimal elements. No phalanx of gear and patch cables, no state-of-the-art computer running multiple programs in unison, no battery of controllers offering gestural interfaces to the musician. Just a combination of tape loop and a small number of effects — that is all it takes for Fahmi Mursyid, of Bandung, Indonesia, to usher the listener into a lush, artfully circumspect zone of sonic density.
“I discovered that the most interesting music of all was made by simply lining the loops in unison, and letting them slowly shift out of phase with other” — that quote from the minimalist composer Steve Reich introduces the video on YouTube, where Mursyid has posted a live recording of the track’s performance, simply titled “Ambient / Drone : Tape Loops Experiment.” In it, a looper allows Mursyid to layer segments of the tape, though never so much that the desolate quietude of its opening instance is ever fully lost.
A hand comes into view, the nape of a neck, a shoulder, a tattoo, then another. The camera moves continuously, seemingly the musician’s own viewpoint, until it isn’t. The perspective switches back and forth for the video’s nearly six-minute runtime, but its focus does not. The focus is always on a nest of synthesizers, patch cords going in every direction, lights signifying whether they are in or out of sync with the beat. The beat is everything in this performance by Jessica Kert. The beat is heavy and insistent, but also nudged, slightly off the initial cadence, an act of industrial dub.
This video is the precise opposite of the live performance synthesizer video I wrote about yesterday. Where yesterday Alan Dear left his modules to all the work, here Kert is ever coaxing, adjusting. There is a consonance between action and sound. Motion suggests intent and intent is mapped to how the sound alters, how it is altered. The result is formidable.
Don’t take Alan Dear’s working title for this live performance as a requirement for expert ears, or for music-technology expertise, for that matter. The piece may be titled (“reuma – ambient eurorack w/mutable instruments rings, morphagene and Bastl microgranny”) primarily after the technology employed to make it, but the deluge of that information has no parallel to the sheer, evocative simplicity of what transpires in the track’s duration. It measures just under six minutes, but the time is also meaningless, because you’re almost certainly going to want to set it on loop.
What transpires is sonic dust, frayed bits of noise, all petal crunches and mote sways. It’s expressly gentle, a choreography for shadows and silhouettes. The video itself is a document of automation. What happens is the result of communication between devices. Toward the end, the camera cuts in close to focus the eye, but there is no human present, except behind the lens, and in advance of the performance. Someone set these sounds in motion. Someone — Alan Dear, of course — set the clocks for the filters and effects. Someone foresaw the interaction between elements. But at some point, that someone let go, and let the machines do their thing.
This 30-minute segment of Nicklas Lundberg shows the musician milking noise from a sizable, jam-packed metal suitcase, opened like the maw of a giant mechanical fish and filled to both its mirror-twin brims with all manner of CD players, keyboards, cellphones, controllers, and countless other gadgets, many of which aren’t immediately associated – and this is sort of the point — with the production of sound. The music those things are summoned to produce is a rolling churn of glittering murk, of vibrating flotsam, random tools recycled into a semi-portable one-person orchestra. It’s a bit like a sonic equivalent to the dappled video projection that washes over Lundberg for the majority of the performance, except at several times the speed. Where the visual dappling is placid, serene, the sonic dappling is madcap, a chaotic flux that has no core pattern and yet provides a sense of continuity in its constant motion.
“You broke my heart into a million pieces,” sing-says the voice. The voice is itself divided into many pieces, if not a million then certainly hundreds, perhaps approaching thousands. At a macro level it is a fifty-fifty split between sung and spoken. The phrase, however, is splintered further, courtesy of a musician seen seated in this video with her laptop perched on a folding table. The location and date, plus her name, provide the context in the form of the video’s title. It’s Erika Nesse at Firehouse (firehouseworcester.com) in Worcester, Massachusetts, on January 1, 2018, New Year’s Day. (The YouTube channel is that of Samual Hadge, who recently uploaded a slew of live sets from Firehouse, as well as from venues in Georgia, Florida, and elsewhere). Judging by the winter date and the puffy outerwear of the members of the audience, it is also very cold. Nesse is a poet of sonic fractals, of not just splintering sound into little piece but having those piece play out in patterns, systems, and processes, all of which entice the ear’s imagination. If we’re used to pop songs where the chorus takes on new meaning as it is repeated, one verse after another, here the phrase — “You broke my heart into a million pieces” — becomes its own meaning: the more the voice is disturbed by Nesse’s digital intrusions, the closer the listener comes to experiencing its truth.
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
• I pondered the word "orchestral" in my liner notes for the excellent new album Uprooted from Rotterdam-based Michel Banabila, released April 9, 2019.
• I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by Darwin Grosse for his excellent, longrunning podcast, Art + Music + Technology, and the episode went live on April 7, 2019: artmusictech.libsyn.com.
• I gave the opening talk on March 22, 2019, at the inaugural Algorithmic Art Assembly in San Francisco. I'll post a summary here soon, but for the time being, there's a great overview of the event at the website of cycling74.com, written by Tom Hall.
• I was on Vivian Host's Peak Time show (on Red Bull Radio) on March 11 to extol the timeless virtues of Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, and related works. You can listen to a recording here: redbullradio.com.
• May 7, 2019: This day sees the release of Rob Walker's book The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday (Knopf), which has entries about the Disquiet Junto.
• May 22, 2019: Final day of the semester of the 15-week "Sounds of Brands" course I teach once a year at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I post occasional updates here. Follow the tag #sounds-of-brands.
• 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.
• 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.
• 0381 / Shared System / The Assignment: make music using a free software synth assembled by Scanner.
• 0380 / Ears Only / The Assignment: Record a piece of music for an audience of one.
• 0379 / Open Studios / The Assignment: Share a track, get feedback, and give feedback.
• 0378 / Blue(tooth) Haze / The Assignment: Experiment with the sonic qualities of a failing signal.
• 0377 / Algorithms Assemble / The Assignment: Have fun with rules applied to scales, in coordination with the Algorithmic Art Assembly.