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.
Released at the tail end of 2017, three quarters of the way through December, long after most best-of lists had been filed, published, and amended online with reader comments, the New York-based musician Emily A. Sprague released Water Memory, a cassette/digital release of original synthesizer pieces. At the bottom of the album’s Bandcamp page she lists the technology with which it was composed and performed, but knowledge of the boutique manufacturers — Monome, Mannequins, and Xaoc among them — isn’t necessary for an appreciation of the seesawing, nature-infused, artfully somber music the album contains.
From the morphing glisten of “A Lake” to the muted glitches of “Your Pond,” the album’s five tracks share a form that is genteel and economical and, yet, richly emotional. The album’s title is appropriate. There is something seemingly humid about the music, in the way the various elements congeal and amass, how the separations between parts get foggy, how the whole thing unfolds in a manner that suggests the presence of an environment: not just organic — the term employed frequently to suggest machines losing their machine-ness — but prone to the consequences of organic: irreversible decay and unforeseen growth.
A little after-hours experiment, running my electric guitar through my modular synthesizer. There is small looper picking up elements of what’s being played live on the guitar and then replaying them, warping the tune a bit as it goes. The percussion is simply a side effect of all the signals being sent to the looper. There’s also some high end and low end being cut off, thanks to a filter bank, and somewhere in the middle of the audio spectrum a slow triangle wave is manipulating a narrow frequency band.
Monorail, the solo musician not the retro-futuristic vision of transportation utopia, has a running series of live synthesizer jams on his YouTube channel. The styles and tools vary from jam to jam, though there is usually a modular synth at the core. Some might argue that the contemporary rise of the modular synth is itself a form of retro-futurism. If you scroll through his video archive you can chart, in the thumbnail images, the steady progression of his studio:
Sometimes a fellow musician, like a drummer, joins in, but generally speaking these are solo outings. The most recent, as of this writing, is jam number 114, a textural ambient piece, starting off with piercing tones and found snatches of dialog, and then proceeding into something denser and more amorphous, with segments of smashed white noise and soft, low-lying drones. Admirably, the video has the full synthesizer in clear view, so you can patch along at home following his example if you elect to. Occasionally Monorail’s arm enters the picture to adjust an oscillator or tweak some other setting, though for much of the piece the music is left to its own looping, slowly evolving devices. Present in the video is a little Lego figure of a Star Wars stormtrooper who appears — like Where’s Waldo from a galaxy far, far away — in many if not all of Monorail’s recorded jams.
• 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: