My 33 1/3 book, on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, was the 5th bestselling book in the series in 2014. It's available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: reactive

Tangents: Oscarless Eno, New Autechre, Symphonic Nortec

Been awhile since the most recent Disquiet.com overview of notable stories elsewhere on the web. He’s a quick rundown, to bridge the gap from 2009 to 2010:

● Why Brian Eno‘s score to Peter Jackson‘s The Lovely Bones is reportedly not eligible for an Oscar (thewrap.com, via moviescoremagazine.com).

● Thanks to Google Translate, an interview with composer Cliff Martinez (commeaucinema.com).

● Great list of movie scores to look forward to in 2010, including Howard Shore‘s Edge of Darkness, Daft Punk‘s Tron Legacy (which we’ve been hearing about for so long you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s already come and gone), and Elliot Goldenthal‘s The Tempest (moviescoremagazine.com).

● Promising development for gadget and software hackers: French court “dismissed a lawsuit filed by Nintendo over the use of flash carts on the DS” (engadget.com).

● Software that emulates vintage 1950s music synthesizers (synthtopia.com, via contemplation.archipel.cc).

● Tom Moody continues the discussion about the proliferation of music apps, referencing something I’d noted about user-interface challenges in casual-gaming applications (tommoody.us, re: disquiet.com).

● Instructions on how to bend an existing RjDj scene to your wills (makezine.com), plus a fun video explaining the RjDj iPhone/Touch software, a great bit of propaganda if you want to introduce people to it (the-palm-sound.blogspot.com). Though before you get too excited at the prospect, note that the instructions look like this:

● On February 2, be sure to check out jasonsloan.com/1444, Jason Sloan‘s Cageian, day-long composition.

● William Gurstelle introduces the Atlantic‘s audience to the Arduino, the DIY artist’s “physical computer” of choice (theatlantic.com); also from the Atlantic (same issue), how composer David Dunn and colleagues might fighting insect infestation (theatlantic.com).

● Video footage of the Orchestrion, backing automaton music machine on what is certainly the Pat Metheny album I’ve looked forward to more than any other in (yow) a quarter century — that is, since his 1985 collaboration with Ornette Coleman, Song X (createdigitalmusic.com).

● Sneak peek at the upcoming Autechre album, Oversteps, due out March 22 (package design by Designer Republic). Definitely the most visually striking Autechre album since their Hafler Trio collaboration, æ³o & h³æ (bleep.com).

● Cool little USB hub that looks like a tape cassette (gizmodo.com):

● “How has the Internet changed the way you think?” Among those to offer answers to the World Question 2009: Tony Conrad, Olafur Eliasson, Brian Eno, and Ai Weiei (edge.org).

● Nortec Collective‘s Bostich and Fussible on teaming with an orchestra (latimes.com).

● Keen visual of the “Visual History of Loudness” (mediateletipos.net):

● The magazine Vice reports that dismissing the skill required to DJ brought in more negative comments than just about anything else it’s ever published (viceland.com).

● Growing database of who’s sampled whom: whosampled.com.

● The Significant Objects project (in which mundane items are given meaning and, hence, value through storytelling) focuses its narratives on a music box (significantobjects.com) — speaking of which, really pleased to see two Disquiet Downstream entries made Significant Objects cofounder Rob Walker‘s list of songs he listened to most this year (murketing.com).

● Alan Rich‘s review of Terry Riley‘s In C from March 10, 1969, in New York magazine (books.google.com, via twitter.com/aworks).

● Yuki Suzuki‘s “White Noise Machine,” which calculates “the quantity of street noise and then generate the same amount of white noise” (designboom.com).

● A documentary I want to see badly, Trimpin: The Sound of Invention, by Peter Esmonde: trimpinmovie.com.

● The plusses and minuses of music in galleries and museums: “‘Am I alone in finding the word “soundscape” mildly terrifying?’ asked one critic” (entertainment.timesonline.co.uk).

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Quotes of the Week: Machover, Banalaties, Suspicion

The MIT Media Lab legend and early music-technology figure Tod Machover contributed a rangy essay at nytimes.com this week. After a brief autobiography, he talks about the relative democratization of music technology, and then about an opera he’s been at work on. In the process, he expresses his own concerns about the pace of progress and the potential negative influences of technology:

“Musical technology is so ever-present in our culture, and we are all so very aware of it, that techno-clichés and techno-banalities are never far away and have become ever more difficult to identify and root out. It is deceptively challenging these days to apply technology to music in ways that explode our imaginations, deepen our personal insights, shake us out of boring routine and accepted belief, and pull us ever closer to one another.”

And yet, as is so often the case online, the comments are riddled with enmity. One commenter writes, in full,

“One more marketing guru talking about ‘The Future Of Music’. What’s the name of his iPhone application we must buy to be considered cool hipsters?”

Another:

“This man is obviously desperate for big-figure grants.”

The culture war isn’t an entirely contemporary affair, either; writes a third,

“As far as music technology and pop music is concerned, you can directly trace the collapse of songwriting to the explosion of studio technology in the ’70’s.”

Another commenter goes all ad hominem, attacking not Machover’s ideas or his expression of those ideas, but his

“unbridled egotism and hubris.”

While the comments (55 as of this writing) aren’t necessary reading — nor are all of them negative — they do lend context to Machover’s article. Even for all the populist success of his efforts over recent decades — as he notes, Guitar Hero and Rock Band resulted from ideas explored in classes he has taught — the mesh of music and technology (more broadly, of art and technology) remains a potent source of suspicion.

Full piece at nytimes.com.

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Images of the Week: Music Apps & Interface Lag

Below are “before” and “after” shots of the interfaces of several excellent sound/music apps for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch: apps titled Gliss, DopplerPad, and Bloom. The images of these apps’s various screens evidence what has become a norm, perhaps an accepted one, in casual music-making applications: the application you are learning to use will likely change, perhaps radically. Drastic changes can result in what I have personally experienced as “interface lag,” the subtle confusion that results from dealing with frequent iterative changes to familiar software tools.

For the time being, when music apps are a relatively new phenomenon, and when such iterative changes in apps are generally understood to be upgrades, this isn’t a big deal. But as time goes on, issues will arise — tension will occur between end-users and programmers. In some cases, such tension has already arisen — you just have to scan the app reviews in iTunes to read dialogs about disgruntlement following an upgrade.

This is an especially sensitive situation because app developers aren’t merely managing a user’s response to alterations to their own programs; they’re also managing a major cultural shift. Music apps are on the front line of the rapid dissolution of the distinction between cultural production and cultural consumption.

We’re entering a fourth stage in popular music, from (1) pre-rock pop’s distinction between songwriter and performer (think Elvis, the Brill Building system), to (2) rock’s emphasis on musicians writing their own material, to (3) hip-hop’s re-use of existing sonic material, to (4) the current age of audio-games, in which users experience sound by manipulating it — not just with the iPod, but also with games like Rock Band, DJ Hero, and Guitar Hero, and with the audio tools built into the Nintendo DSi, just to name a few examples. (There are similar factors at work in underground and academic music and art cultures, but the focus for me here is on mobile music-making apps, which are significant because of their popularity, because they have made populist numerous activities and approaches to creativity that were previously considered specialized, abstract, experimental, even avant-garde.)

All three apps shown below have implemented significant improvements as a result of upgrades, and each development team has done a good job of making these alterations to pre-existing interfaces in a way that minimizes confusion for users (the Gliss and DopplerPad upgrades just occurred; the Bloom upgrade dates from last year). These upgrades do, however, beg various questions:

”¢ What happens when an upgrade involves the loss of a feature prized by a user? ”¢ How can app developers best plan for future changes, so that an interface can allow for growth? ”¢ What does it mean to the making of music that an app — in effect, an instrument — is not a fixed tool, but an ever-changing thing? ”¢ Will upgrade development always follow a linear trajectory, or will various offshoots head in different directions? ”¢ How can the iTunes Store better help users to make informed decisions about whether or not to upgrade?

These all come down to a singular question:

Ӣ What is the social contract between app users and app developers in regard to questions of continuity, transparency, and general development support?

Here are three examples of app upgrades — what those upgrades consisted of, how they played out in the app’s interface, and what they suggest about the developer’s goals and intentions:

Adding Multiple Screens in Gliss: Gliss is a relatively new music app, launched in December 2009, but quickly showing promise with its emphasis on the gestural aspects of the iPod’s touch interface. The screens below show version 1.0 (top) and 1.1 (bottom) of the main performance interface. The change is the numeral “2.” (Ignore the scraggly lines on the screen — those are the graphics associated with the way touches result in music being played in Gliss. And also ignore the fact that the fifth icon in from the left along the menu bar differs between the two images — those are simply two states of that particular control in Gliss.)

What the single numeral “2” indicates is the major alteration from version 1.0 to 1.1, in that the program now provides what the developer calls “multiple sheets.” These “sheets” allow the user to produce different individual musical segments within a composition, and to then move between those segments. The implementation isn’t perfect (the gesture to move between sheets can result in inadvertently altering a given sheet’s composition), but the interface change suggests the programmers were planning ahead. Note that the “2” appears in a wide space that was previously empty.

Introducing Effects in DopplerPad: When DopplerPad upgraded recently to version 2.0, it really earned its $9.99 price tag. The upgrade included the introduction of a synth editor, various effects, and the ability to edit those effects. The two shots immediately below show the main interface before (top) and after (bottom) the introduction of effects. Note that the placement of the effect button along the bottom required other buttons to decrease in size. And it threw off the symmetry of the menu bar.

This screen below shows the list of effects in DopplerPad 2.0. The empty spot is a bit inelegant, but in the culture of apps, where change is expected, the emptiness serves a purpose: it suggests a promise of new effects in the future. More immediately and practically, it also provides space for user-edited effects to be added to the interface:

And this screen below shows the DopplerPad “Tools” menu. In the previous version, this only had the “AudioCopy” and “WifiSync” buttons; the “Synths” and “Effects” buttons are new. Needless to say, there’s a lot of room on this screen for additions. One thing app developers need to balance is how much room to leave for future additions, and how much that empty space might inadvertently raise the expectations of users:

Reflecting Generational Change in Bloom: Below are the “about” screens for the two most recent versions of the Bloom app, the more recent one (on the right) quietly announcing the upgrade to 2.0 (and, for trainspotters, newly crediting the app’s icon to menu designer Brett Gilbert):

There are numerous changes not only to the Bloom software as a tool, but also to the way that tool’s interface is designed. On one screen, for example, the prominence of the Listen button, relative the Freeze and Clear buttons, has been eliminated. This isn’t a big deal for most users, but for anyone using Bloom in performance, it might require some unexpected adjustment.

Below is a shot of one big boon to Bloom 2.0: the introduction of three additional sounds (or, in Bloom lingo, “moods”), as shown on the right:

The main screen, below, marks the biggest change to the program. In what I’d argue is a major break from the Zen-like casualness of the original Bloom, version 2.0 opens with a potentially confusing variety of choices. (The in-screen advertising for two other apps, Trope and Air, also diminishes the calm of the original.) There are now three modes: Classic, Infinite, and Freestyle. The explanation for “Classic” is of no use to newcomers to Bloom, in that to understand it you need to have experienced Bloom prior to version 2.0:

The name “Classic” seems premature, given that the software isn’t even a year and a half old. It does, however, hint at the tension inherent in iterative software design for casual users, and suggests that it may become a norm that apps will include within them their previous two or three major iterations. That would reflect a certain transparency, in that it allows for hands-on comparison between versions by users, and also allows for users to transition from one version to the next at their own pace, continuing to use the familiar version while experimenting with the revised version.

Rating Ratings Systems: In the short term, one thing that might help address “interface lag” is for the iTunes Store to implement an interface alteration itself. I’d welcome ratings visualization along the lines of what Yelp.com currently does. Below is, on the left, Yelp’s customer “rating distribution” summary chart, which closely resembles the one in iTunes; iTunes actually goes a step further than Yelp, listing the number of reviews next to each distribution (i.e., DopplerPad has as of this writing 27 5-star reviews overall, out of a total of 61 reviews). On the right below, however, is something iTunes has yet to adapt, something that Yelp terms its “rating trend,” which shows how average ratings for a given business have changed over time:

To be fair, iTunes approximates the Yelp “rating trend” by allowing you to separately view ratings for the most recent version of an application, or the combined ratings of all versions of the application.

The Yelp summary above happens to be for an Indian restaurant near my home in San Francisco, and reflects the restaurant’s struggle to reclaim its once stellar reputation following the exit of its chef. But it could just as likely reflect the struggle by an app developer after an inadequate software upgrade.

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Echoed Guitar via RjDj (MP3)

“RjDj” is the name of a great iPhone (and iPod Touch) application that is, in fact, less an app than it is an environment for apps. At a practical level, what that means is that RjDj hosts various “scenes” that produce sound, the best among them being apps that take audio input and turn it into something new — imagine walking down the street, for example, and hearing the world repeated and stuttered and digitally magnified and transformed. To close out 2009, the crew at RjDj put together a Best of RjDj compilation of 19 choice examples of RjDj in action. Among them is this entry by Nil Jones, in which acoustic guitar is echoed into something deeply psychedelic:

You need to have Flash installed to listen directly on the site. Install Flash or you can download the recording instead

 

There’s more information about the track, along with an MP3-download option, at rjdj.me/user/nilcjones. And there’s more about the EchoChamber scene, which was developed by Georg Bosch and employed by Jones in the production of his track, at rjdj.me. The “cover” image to the EchoChamber scene, shown to the right, displays some of the various ways that touching and tilting and shaking the iPod/Phone enacts various modes of audio manipulation. Get the full Best of RjDj 2009 compilation for free at rjdj.me as a Zip file. Note: the RjDj app is free, but some scenes require a small fee.

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Best of 2009: 10 iPhone/iPod Touch Music/Sound Apps

Part 3/3: These are — to my ears, eyes, and fingers — the 10 best iPhone/iPod Touch apps of 2009 for sound and music manipulation.

This is a new category for Disquiet.com, and likely a short-lived one. Not because the iPod (or, for that matter, the iPhone or iPod Touch, the latter of which is currently my primary MP3 player) is going away any time soon, but because the landscape is likely to get rangier in the very near future — as the Android, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Palm OS, and various Nokia operating systems come into their own, or at least struggle to. In the meanwhile, the iPhone/Touch has by far the best marketplace for music/sound-based applications, and to play with the best such apps on the iPod is to only get a sense of, a glimpse of, what these tools will evolve into in the years to come — especially if all these rumors of an Apple tablet result in something real. (I’ve spent a lot of time playing with music software such as Ableton Live on my small Fujitsu tablet PC running Microsoft Windows 7, and let me tell you it’s a great experience — you entirely forget you have a laptop in your hands, and the screen interface simply “becomes” the device.)

As for this list below, with one exception I left out apps that don’t make innovative or extensive use of the touch interface (or other aspects of the iPod as a gadget), and (again, with the same exception) I left out apps that are, in truth, just ports of software that’s existed on other platforms previously (hence the paucity of beatmakers and synths below).

In the case of all of the entries below that work on pre-existing audio source material (most notably Touch DJ), they would all be significantly improved if Apple’s iPod family of devices allowed for (1) easier drag-and-drop adding of music to the gadgets and (2) easy access by third-party software developers to the music held in the iTunes library.

Here they are in roughly alphabetical order:

Though some of these were first released in 2008, all saw at least one update in 2009:

1. RjDj (version 0.9.4: apple.com, appspot.com): You’ll note that RjDj is out of alphabetic order with the rest of the entries here. That’s because RjDj is far and away the most extraordinary sound application made for the iPod. It’s also a little hard to describe, because it is so new (sort of how RSS feeds and Tivo were once difficult to describe, and yet eventually became new norms of how we process information). RjDj isn’t software so much as an engine for software — numerous “scenes” have been programmed that are then played within RjDj. Those scenes allow the listener to then listen to generative and reactive music, the best of which actually process the sounds around you in real time. For all the dozens of RjDj scenes with which I’ve experimented (some free, some at a minor expense), my favorite remains one of the free ones that comes with RjDj, called Echolon. In Echolon, every sound that your mic picks up is then echoed around you — left, right, top of head, over and over, as it slowly fades in volume. The experience is exhilarating. There are weeks when almost all of my iPod use is simply playing RjDj, and much of that time is spent in Echolon. William Gibson once wrote, “The Walkman changed the way we understand cities”; well, RjDj has literally changed the way that I walk through the city — I walk toward potential sound sources, such as street musicians and construction sites, on a regular basis (and in a manner that is increasingly subconscious).

2. Bebot (version 1.5: apple.com, appspot.com): Bebot is a cute little multi-touch synth that has found use in live performance by numerous laptop-wielding musicians. In its simplicity, it bears a certain resemblance to near-phenomena, such as Leaf Trombone and Ocarina, both of which have introduced casual (casual perhaps to the point of rote) music-making to a broad audience, and is a strong suggestion that super-simple individualized instruments have a future in a music-tool marketplace increasingly defined by feature-packed apps.

3. Bloom (version 2.01: apple.com, appspot.com) and (jumping ahead alphabetically for the moment) 4. Trope (version 1.0.1: apple.com, appspot.com): Bloom and Trope are two apps developed by ambient godfather Brian Eno and his development partner Peter Chilvers. They’re generative apps that emit ambient tones based on some touch input and scene-setting decision-making on the part of the listener. They’re best thought of less as music applications unto themselves than as Brian Eno music albums released in a manner that allows for some user participation.

5. DopplerPad (version 1.6: apple.com, appspot.com): This is a somewhat complex but highly rewarding loop-based music maker that includes the ability to employ in your performances samples recorded with the iPod, and it involves excellent touch controls.

6. Gliss (version 1.0: apple.com, appspot.com): Gliss is a brand new, and very simple, gestural music-maker. It was released on December 23, and I was immediately taken by its use of drawing on the screen (in addition to the tilt function) to manipulate sound.

7. JR Hexatone (version 1.1: apple.com, appspot.com): A highly original implementation of a beat-oriented music-maker, with an interface so packed with iconographic tools and settings that it’s just dying to be ported to tablet form. (This app makes an interesting study in contrast with the two Brian Eno apps listed above. All three were developed by musicians associated with prog rock — JR Hexatone with Jordan Rudess of the band Dream Theater, whose music I have never enjoyed, but this app is engrossing.)

8. SoundGrid (version 2.0: apple.com, appspot.com): There are a lot of grid-based casual music-making tools on iTunes. It’s quite likely that I haven’t tried them all, but of the ones that I have, SoundGrid is the best — the best internal sounds, the best mix of effects, the best use of touch gestures, and the best approach to multiphonic voicing.

9. SunVox (version 1.4.5: apple.com, appspot.com): On the face of it, SunVox shouldn’t really be on this list. It’s a very complex synthesizer that doesn’t make much of the iPod’s touch interface. However, that complexity comes with purpose — SunVox is fully functional (and while I try not to take price into consideration, it’s also a quarter the price of vaguely similar offerings in the iPhone store, and that’s hard to ignore). And the utilitarian interface also has a purpose: the software’s creator is making SunVox available on numerous OSs, including Windows, Linux, Windows Mobile, and PalmOS — and thus it also deserves extra points for not treating the iTunes Music Store as a walled kingdom.

10. Touch DJ (version 1.0: apple.com, appspot.com): Touch DJ is one of many tools for the iPod that emulate the experience of working two sounds together, whether those sounds were sourced on vinyl or on CD or as digital files. What distinguishes it from the iTunes Music Store competition isn’t just that it’s fully functional (a lot of scratch apps on the iPod are little more than vinyl-emulating sound-effects generators, and a lot of the DJ apps are bare-bones implementations with little sign of intended improvement). What distinguishes it is how it uses visual cues as part of the DJing process — spikes in the sound waves of samples signal that a beat is occurring. (A close second in this DJ caterory is Sonorasaurus, which I’m looking forward to watching develop.)

 

The Disquiet.com “Best of 2009” was published as three separate lists. The other two parts are:

Part 1: Best of 2009: Commercial Ambient/Electronic Albums

Part 2: Best of 2009: Free “Netreleases”

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