“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.
This gorgeous, pulsing, lightly fractured, seven-minute video of serrated ambient music performed entirely on an Elektron Digitakt was posted by Tom Hall late last year. In it, rapidly cycling bits of noise turn from sharp slivers to lush texture, from harsh to comforting, and back again. The pace is either anxious or genteel, depending on where you ear focuses. Does it attach to the internal motion of these micro-moments, bits of noise and drone churning past each other, or does it fix itself on the underlying big picture, a peaceful tonal space in which stasis is the ruling structure?
When occurring in the everyday environment, drones have a natural quality to them — natural, that is, much of the time, as expressions of the built environment. They aren’t natural like tree sap. They are natural as occurrences of, consequences of, human-made spaces, of HVAC, of wind tunnels, of electrical appliances, and especially as combinations thereof. They are hums of unclear origin, sounds whose qualities are experienced differently by different people, and that can be influenced by just a slight shift in the position, even a mere tilt of the head, from which you witness them.
Drones are quasi-natural effluences — environmental byproducts, really. In contrast, the conscious production of drones is something else entirely. It takes effort to sound like more than a sine wave. It takes skill to sound like more than a single tone on repeat. It takes nuance to have the sort of qualities that suggest deep fractal complexity. Those talents belong to Dave Seidel, who in this graceful performance (“Marwa in Centaur”) ushers a subtle, sumptuous drone from the displayed equipment. It is epic and modest, glacial and economical, all at the same time.
The human hand is often of secondary importance in the videos I re-post to my ongoing playlist of fine live ambient music performances. Semi-automated machines, so often the foundation of electronic music, are more coaxed than played in many of these performances. The human sets the device or devices in motion, and then the human adjusts things as the device does what was intended, and occasionally stumbles on things that weren’t intended. At times the situation is akin to parental nudges keeping a toddler from wandering into the street; at others it’s like the mostly hands-off administer of a prototype self-driving car keeping the vehicle from hitting said toddler. In some of the most rewarding work, the self-correction surfaces as human-machine simpatico.
In this video, “Love Passes” by the prolific Hainbach, the main instrument is a Plumbutter, the wood-encased synthesizer from Ciat-Lonbarde, developed by Peter Blasser. Here it is processing sounds originating on that little keyboard below it, the OP-1 from Teenage Engineering. At the right of the Plumbutter is a module called the Deerhorn, a theremin-like spatial interface. It’s the gadget that shows exposed circuits on its generic green PCB board, a stark contrast to the rustic quality of the rest of the instrument (or more to the point, a different sort of rustic). Hainbach’s right hand influences the sound based on its relative proximity. It shapes the sounds, lending swells and glitches to the stately note sequence. There is also some irony to the fact that a performance in which the human hand plays an especially prominent role also happens to be a video in which that hand makes no physical contact with the instrument.
There’s nothing like the moment when the disconnect appears between action and effect. It’s a moment that happens with live looping and live processing, when the audience becomes aware that the concept of cause and effect has shifted, sometimes subtly, sometimes aggressively. This uncanny valley of live electronically mediated performance varies by musician, technique, and instrument. In his early work with processed guitar, you could watch Christopher Willits play something you didn’t hear — and then wait for it to surface in the mix. Turntablist-watchers are used to distinguishing between when the DJ is playing and when the DJ is cueing something yet to be played.
This video shows Hatis Noit, the Japanese vocalist, in an excerpt from a longer performance on the music platform NTS. Noit records for Erased Tapes, which earlier this year releaed her recent EP, Illogical Dance, featuring a fantastic Matmos remix. In this video, she starts off elegantly insinuating vowel tones. At 12 seconds you see the sync between lips and sound. Some 20 seconds later, the sync is no longer self-evident. (Later still, a minute and a half in, the camera shows where Noit’s downard-cast gaze has been looking — at a pedal-controlled looper at her feet.) That moment at 20 seconds is the signal of intent. From there the vocals layer further. Noit moves from tone to melody to spoken to something nearly operatic. It all coalesces into a single piece, a performance that is both recorded and live in the same moment. When Noit plays with twin microphones held in her extended, intertwined arms it is a bit like the sleight of hand employed by sidewalk magicians. She is also telling the audience something: “There are several of me present.”
The video itself is edited in a manner that emphasizes the asynchronous matter of her style. The short gives an additional atmospheric, out-of-body nudge because the video opens with shots of her doing things that don’t involve performing at all, just lingering in a window with Erased Tapes founder Robert Raths, though all the while we already hear her voice.
• December 13, 2018: This day marks 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: