This is the third Weekly Beats of 2018 — the third week of the biennial series wherein people upload tracks they’ve recorded as part of a communal challenge. It’s a bit like one of those largely non-competitive marathons where the majority of the people are just there to run alongside each other, and the only person anyone is gauging their performance against is themselves. (Which is to say, it’s like the Disquiet Junto to some degree.) For this week, I continued my efforts to combine electric guitar and modular, to run my guitar through my modular synthesizer in a manner that is, in essence, a very large effects pedal. My main goal this week was to incorporate a third element into the guitar + modular combination. The third element is piece of software called Rack, available for free from vcvrack.com. It’s a virtual modular, for which at this stage well over a hundred different modules have been created, most of the available, like the software itself, for free download. I have a physical module in my rig that lets me send and receive both audio and CV (control voltage) signals, and so I hooked that up to Rack and used Rack-based modules to augment the sounds being processed by my physical modular synth. Last week I ran the full guitar line through a looper, whereas this week I experimented with just sending two bands of the audio spectrum. It’s still very much a test case, but I thought it more important to get something up this week, to maintain the Weekly Beats cadence, than to skip a week out of self-editing. There’s some overdub toward the end, where I layered in material from an alternate take. That latter material involves no live playing. It’s all the circuit afterglow of the recording, where the guitar fragments caught in the system cycle through, morphing a tiny bit as they go. I didn’t upload this piece to SoundCloud, but you can give it a listen on the Weekly Beats website at weeklybeats.com/disquiet.
This is what the virtual modular setup looked like:
And this is what my modular synthesizer looked like:
If you follow Ann Annie’s music, then you may recognize the little tape cassette to the left of the deck in the new performance video “Blossom.” Just over a week ago, a couple dismembered Maxell tape cassettes — also pink in accent color — were visible in one of Annie’s Instagram photos, with a “feelin loopy” caption. Today the music that resulted has appeared.
The product of that whimsy is now evident in this footage, almost seven minutes of exceptional sonic transformation, as the tape loop is mixed with dense oscillations, all of which is shifted, looped, glitched, and warped. There are terse bell tones and effluent white noise, lens-flare grace notes and ecstatic birdsong to “Blossom,” which true to its name expands as it proceeds — what starts as loose and gentle gets more chaotic and rambunctious as time passes. The beauty of the video isn’t merely the color and framing, but how active Annie’s left hand is, adjusting settings on various synthesizer modules, tweaking the balance of the tape deck, and lending a conductor-like visual narration to the piece.
This short droning synthesizer piece from Andreas Tilliander, aka Repeatle, is largely autonomous, much like the video I shared a few days ago. Early on in it, you see a hand come into sight and click a couple switches on the Buchla synthesizer interface, but after that it’s entirely the Buchla’s show, up until the very end when the hand returns. We have a knob’s eye view for the length of the composition, all rows of faders, banks of switches, and distant cables.
The thing about synthesizer autonomy is that all the activity is happening underneath the hood, as oscillators and filters and other facets of the collective instrument collectively make the drones and pulses, textures and tones, come to life. The primary external signal comes in the form of a few colored lights, in different colors, which align with aspects of the patch as the piece unfolds. On first listen, you might just take in the shuddering noise machinations, but upon repeat it’s worth keeping an eye on those lights and sensing how their pace and strength, how that coordination or lack thereof, can be mapped to shifts in the overarching sound.
For the second week in a row, I’ve participated in Weekly Beats. Whether I make it the remaining 50 is yet to be seen, but I’ve enjoyed it so far. Unlike the Disquiet Junto, the weekly music composition prompt series I’ve moderated since 2012, there is no set theme in Weekly Beats. There are optional themes, but the main idea is simply to encourage making music as a way to learn to make music, along with the support that comes from other people doing so at the same time, and commenting on each other’s work. (I also submitted it to the Disquiet Junto for this week’s project, which is to produce something that will become part of a trio co-composed asynchronously by other participants.)
My second Weekly Beats track is, like the first, an attempt to combine electric guitar and modular synthesizer. The glitchy under beat is a bit of trigger sequencer, along with the byproduct glitches inherent in the looper. The main guitar line is heard with various aspects of the audio spectrum being modulated by medium-paced LFOs, and being sent through the looper for additional effects, all echoes and stutter. And then at the end a snippet of a chord is sent through a different looper, providing a simulated tape-loop fade-out. There’s more going on, like the primary guitar line being put through a filter, but that’s the gist of it.
And here is a photo of the synthesizer patch employed in this piece:
The picture might seem to be a still image, but if you look to the center right you’ll see the ever so slow comings and goings of soft little red lights — proof of life, as it were — on the module marked A-143-1 Complex Envelope Generator. This stylishly framed video of a modular synth in action first appeared as part of Weekly Beats (weeklybeats.com), a biannual — that is, every other year — series of community challenges to music-makers. The Weekly Beats of 2018 is now in its second week, and this track appeared during the first week, one of a handful of modular outings (I was also among the participants, and hope to keep at it). The piece is by littlescale, who is based in Australia. It’s a remarkable achievement, a slow-paced sequence of drones that warp and throb, shift and develop, as they proceed, all without a single instance of human intervention for the full length of its nearly three-minute duration. Not once does a littlescale hand come into view to coax a knob or switch a setting.
This is the latest video I’ve added to my YouTube playlist of recommended live performances of ambient music. The point of the playlist is to collect documents of people playing very quiet music in real time, in particular ambient music. The playlist serves several purposes, among them to make note of techniques and draw attention to what amounts to a particularly tiny niche in the vast database of online music videos. Another purpose is to explore the tension between ambient music, which generally aspires to a state of stillness or at least an affect of stillness, and performance, which by definition requires some sort of action. In this case the action is all internal, all within the mass of cables and modules. The little red lights are the only evidence of activity, and among the only hints at a correlation between system and sound.
• 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: