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: science-fiction

Simulacrum PSA

Red pill alert

During the filming of the series’ fourth film, we San Franciscans find ourselves living in The Matrix more literally than even is usually the case:

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“The Time Traveler’s Karaoke”

One night in San Francisco

It is unclear how a piece of paper this old could have the word “Beyonce” printed on it. The page is yellowed and crumpled, bent and faded. The top edge looks burnt. It is something that has seen constant use for more decades than the singer has been alive, let alone performed professionally, or, in the case of this piece of paper, recorded music. The page is a register, a ledger, a list of songs from a tidy little karaoke bar across town.

We had wandered in after dinner. One of my friends apparently knows the host, who has worked here for three dozen years — roughly, I note, since just a few years after Beyonce was born. This timing later occurs to me as curious.

The page is one of many in a narrow, black binder. Each sheet is held in a thin plastic sleeve. We commence looking for a song. None of us intend to sing, but the binder is a compulsory magnet, like a TV playing sports headlines on a restaurant wall, or a couple arguing in a convenience store, or a fender bender on the side of the road: You can’t look away. You, in fact, slow down to observe. You can’t break away. You’re absorbed.

Looking for the song in question — which song doesn’t matter — makes us realize that our brains have begun to hurt. Spending time with these documents has initiated some sort of painful demagnetization. To look for the song is to suppose some organization on the page. The documents imply alphabetization, and when that strategy seems to fail us, we assume the pages are out of order. But that’s not it, either. Within each page, the amassed listings reveal a mishmash of small groups, groups that make sense until a sudden shift occurs with the appearance of a stray song.

The documents look like an Excel spreadsheet, and this produces an additional sense of frustration: If only I could tap at the top of one of these columns and reorganize the way the data is presented. If I could do that, maybe order would be restored. One of my friends takes a more analog approach, asking the proprietor if there is another binder, organized by artist. For the first and only time this evening, we are looked at with something other than a friendly smile. “No,” we are told, and that is all. We have tread on a sore subject.

We return to the page, half expecting it to have changed while we had looked away. Upon closer inspection, the list of songs unravels further, and our brains along with it. Peter Cetera, best known as the singer of the pop band Chicago, didn’t do a version of “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” no matter what this document says. It was a Dead or Alive hit.

That’s right, right? We resort to our phones — we check, half expecting to have no reception inside the bar — to reconcile our pop-culture memories with some third-party source of truth. I’m stuck on the way the song appears on the page, where you can read straight across the line: “You Spin Me Round (Like Peter Cetera.” The lack of a close parenthesis fills me with sudden, palpable, and utterly unfamiliar fear. What if this experience never ends. We have been turned around. What if, like Peter Cetera, we have stumbled into another realm.

The bar’s one television has been quietly but not silently running uniformly wan karaoke videos all evening. At some point the opposite of karaoke music streams from the TV: all vocal, no backing track, and yet equally bland as the soft-focus nature footage and crying young women who populated the previous videos. What is the point of this particular track? Who sings karaoke along with a prerecorded singer?

I then briefly wonder: What if all karaoke-bar music is streaming from an alternate universe, a universe where compressed, largely vocal-free, synthesizer-driven versions are the original hits. What if karaoke bars are crosstime saloons where our respective, independent universes touch. What if the factual and alphabetical fissures in the spreadsheet aren’t errors so much as rifts, rifts initiated when time travelers have unintentionally triggered forks in the very fabric of reality?

We’re asked if we want another round of drinks. We politely decline. The steady flow of free peanuts and pistachios begins to dry up. We take the hint. We pay up and head out into the night, back into our reality. We glance simultaneously at our phones, as if they would register, right alongside the date and time, that we’ve returned to our sliver of the multiverse: 9:34pm, February 7, Earth Prime. We sniff the air and look around. The music of the bar’s TV is inaudible from the street.

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A Drone Nightmare

Apparently the wrong way to go back to sleep

I don’t usually write down my dreams in any great detail, but this one was something. If I have trouble sleeping in the middle of the night, I might put on a pair of headphones and listen to a recording to block out the world, and to make my immediate world more insular. I don’t generally experience a lot of trouble sleeping, and so it’s something I’m not particularly adjusted to. People I speak with for whom insomnia is a fact of nightly life have accumulated mechanisms by which they cope, and they’re often eager to share. There’s a whole industry of tools, including audio of people gently speaking you to sleep — somnacasts, as it were. There are also enough apps for white noise and environmental sound to fill your playlist until the heat death of the universe. One friend of mine listens, he tells me, to histories of ancient Rome at a low volume. He swears by it.

A couple nights ago, when sleep suddenly failed me, I tried to listen to some music, specifically a favorite recording that seemed suited for the task, the album Trilogie de la Mort by Eliane Radigue. It’s drone music in the nearly purest sense: thick bands of the sonic equivalent of wool, and one of my favorite ambient albums of all time. To the extent that Radigue’s recording here has a melodic component, it’s your mind’s ear picking out patterns amid what is more likely moiré interference than notated song. The good news is listening to Radigue’s music worked. I did fall asleep. The less good news is the nightmare that ensued.

I’m in a large room, a story and a half in height, packed with people. Tall windows, covered with thin scrims, make up two of the room’s four walls. It’s bright in here, the midday sun softened but by no means weakened by the cream-colored curtains. There’s an event going on, some sort of cultural happening, maybe a concert, or a talk, or an exhibit, or a combination thereof. The specifics are uncertain. (This is a dream.) I’m not sure if I’m participating or just taking it in. The key thing is that I’m wearing a large pair of headphones, bulky black things with hard angles, like castoffs from a Sony production line for the military (I had been reading the latest Lazarus graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark just before bed). As the event unfolds, I notice a deep hum. At first I think it’s the event itself, but that’s not the case. Several people have to stare at me at once for me to realize I am the source of the hum. I edge my way to a wall, pat myself down, and go through my backpack. In classic “last place you look” manner, I realize my headphones are emitting the noise. (You probably saw this coming. You weren’t in the dream.)

Now, for whatever it’s worth, my headphones aren’t on (whatever that means in the dream). They’re not plugged into anything, and to whatever degree they require a battery to function, they are powered down. I hold them in my hands and rotate them, eventually realizing that the people around me are annoyed. I am, too; unlike everyone else, I am also experiencing embarrassment. The drone has gotten louder and more troubling. I step outside the gallery. The light is exceedingly bright. I fiddle with the hard-edged blackness that is my pair of headphones. I no longer hear the droning, and write off the whole incident as a matter of interference, some unfortunate tension between technologies, between what I had on me and what was going on inside the event.

I’m in a house. Clearly I’ve made my way here from the event, but I have no memory of how I traveled. (In the dream this lack of awareness is of no concern. I’ve moved from one scene to the next. It’s a dream, which is to say it functions like a movie.) The house is a suburban residence, and a party is going on. I see some friends, and some people I don’t know. It’s fairly quiet. I feel like the height of the party is over by at least an hour, and the stragglers are enjoying each others’ company. The sun is still high in the sky. And then I hear the drone, quieter but no less insistent.

I sit in the living room and slowly take apart my headphones, at first mechanically, unplugging this and detaching that, but the effort isn’t sufficient to the task. The drone persists. I don’t experience the glances of annoyance from people here like I had at the event, but I feel like I need to sort this out. I need to solve this problem. If the droning hum had gotten to me earlier, now the mysterious cause of the sound is what really bothers me.

I go into the kitchen to borrow some scissors and start cutting the remaining cables off the headphone. I grab a used plastic bag from the counter bearing the red logo of a local supermarket. Eventually the droning stops, and though my headphones have been reduced to a collection of broken parts, I feel relieved. I take some deep breaths, now that this weird phenomena is finally behind me. I stuff the bag with the pieces.

Someone from the party sits next to me on the floor of the kitchen. I try to describe what had happened. As I talk back through the sequence of events, I do my best to explain what the drone sounded like. And as my description comes together, I hear it again. At first I think it’s my memory, but no, it’s the drone. I peer into the plastic bag of broken headphone parts, but there is no sign of life. From the floor, where I’m seated, I can see under the kitchen counter, and there are some wicker baskets on a low shelf, one conspicuously packed with goods, covered with the sort of red and white cloth you’d put on a picnic table. For some reason, I am drawn to it. I lift the cloth, and underneath is an audio recorder. Like the headphones I had been wearing earlier, it’s a bulky thing, with more buttons and functions than I’ve ever seen on consumer products. Most importantly, in this moment, the recorder has one tiny bright red light on. This is more than a light. It is a probing, threatening, sentient presence.

I am frightened, in part because of the insectoid threat of the red light, and in part because this device is emitting the exact same drone my headphones had been making earlier. If the original drone was an inchoate thing, this feels different, somehow. If the original drone felt like a phenomena, this one feels like a purposeful presence. If the original sounded like something happening in real time, this sounds like a recording. Someone has placed this here, and while I don’t know why, I feel like I am its intended audience, its intended victim. My brief relief has been quickly replaced by mounting anxiety. I reach for the device, and as I do so, the shadows of two people appear behind me. They say something to each other, the blasé chatter of people who have been doing whatever their job is for a long time. I don’t understand a word of it, but I understand their intent. They are here for me. This device, with its fierce little red light, has fulfilled its purpose. And as one of the people pulls black fabric over my head, I wake up.

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Rita Indiana’s Doorbell

The opening of Tentacle

Spot a newly arrived novel at the library, Tentacle by Rita Indiana (originally La mucama de Omicunlé). Read the back cover. Kind words from The Observer and The Guardian, one comparing the author to Kathy Acker (“with a tighter narrative grip”). Maybe I’ll dig this. Read the first sentence. Off to a good start, to say the least.

Translated by Achy Obejas.

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[investigatory synth music]

The joy of non-diegetic subtitles

This is a screenshot from the third episode of the fourth and current season of The Expanse. That’s Amos, one of the series’ main characters, with his back to the screen, surveying the wreckage of a spacecraft that came hurtling down to this questionably habitable planet at the opening of episode one. We already know something is amiss, and if you’ve read Cibola Burn, the book on which this season is largely based, you know the anger and heartbreak yet to come.

As is often the case, mere note symbols aren’t used in the subtitles to signal what the score, by Clinton Shorter (District 9, Colony), is offering up in terms of emotion and narrative. Here, even the standard “[moody music]” apparently wouldn’t do. At some point along the production Gantt chart, someone wrote and presumably someone else approved a description, “[investigatory synth music],” that is so literal (the characters are, indeed, investigating, and the music is, indeed, quite evidently performed on synthesizers) that it transcends its own literalness and suggests a whole new genre. (One that would retroactively include, for example, the entire run of The X-Files.)

The moment also reminded me of a comment by one of the two writers who, under the shared pseudonym James S.A. Corey, write the Expanse books and collaborate on their translation from page to screen. This is Ty Franck speaking, and the Daniel is Daniel Abraham, Franck’s co-author: “I know Daniel had a real epiphany when he realized that all the prose tricks to convey the emotional state of a scene could be replaced with a good musical score. And I love finding ways to lay a scene out for the camera instead of a reader. Cameras are very literal. It’s a completely different way to think of story.”

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