No music journalist covers the expanded guitar quite like Michael Ross, who writes regularly at his guitarmoderne.com website about performers currently pushing the six-string (and twelve- and eight- …) beyond its traditional territories. A mutual favorite of Ross’ and mine is the Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset, who is perhaps best known for his work alongside trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, though Aarset is long into his own deserved recognition for work as a leader, collaborator, and soloist.
About a month ago, Ross singled out video of a trio date Aarset had played in Prague, which led me, as usual, down a rabbit hole orchestrated by the guitarist’s penchant for highly reverberant spaciousness.
One highlight was a trio of live solo performances recorded in Istanbul, Turkey, back in February of 2015. Part one includes some discussion of his techniques, and part two is a song-like treat, packed with sharp contrasts, and rich with held tones reminiscent of Robert Fripp’s soloing. The highlight is part three (embedded up above), in which Aarset slowly layers a rhythm, and noise of his scraped and plucked strings, before venturing into deep explorations of various modes, his lush chords lingering like smoke.
It’s called experimental music, so of course when the musician is truly just experimenting, some of their best sounds might come out — truly experimenting, in that they are fiddling about with newly acquired equipment: pairing devices, exploring signal flows, turning knobs and touching buttons to see what they might hear. That’s the case with Scanner, aka Robin Rimbaud, who today uploaded to his YouTube channel a case study of two gadgets employed in tandem. What those little things, each barely the size of a human hand, emit in concert with each other is dense clouds of atmospheric intensity.
The main device is a Tetrax from Ciat-Lonbarde, created by the ingenious instrument designer Peter Blasser. It’s being heard through an effects pedal called the Eventide H9. In the comments accompanying the video, Scanner engages with his listeners and talks about coming up to speed on the Tetrax, and mentions that he’s working on a soundtrack.
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.
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.
• June 23, 2019: There's a Disquiet Junto concert this Sunday at 8pm at Cabaret Berlin in Montréal, Quebec.
• 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.
• 0393 / Mix Master / The Assignment: Make a new composition from your favorite parts of three of your previous recordings.
• 0392 / Another Country / The Assignment: Compose the national anthem for a fictional country.
• 0391 / Front Page / The Assignment: Make music that fills in where the news trails off.
• 0390 / Pace Quickens / The Assignment: Take an old song (or field recording), and make it faster, and then add something.
• 0389 / Long Then / The Assignment: Take an old song, and make it (much) slower, and add something.