New Disquietude podcast episode: music by Lesley Flanigan, Dave Seidel, KMRU, Celia Hollander, and John Hooper; interview with Flanigan; commentary; short essay on reading waveforms. • Disquiet.com F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #field-recording, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

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

tag: software

twitter.com/disquiet: Morning Sounds, Drone Choir

From the past week

I do this manually each Saturday, usually in the morning over coffee: collating most of the tweets I made the past week at twitter.com/disquiet, which I think of as my public notebook. Some tweets pop up sooner in expanded form or otherwise on Disquiet.com. I’ve found it personally informative to revisit the previous week of thinking out loud. This isn’t a full accounting. Often there are, for example, conversations on Twitter that don’t really make as much sense out of the context of Twitter itself. And sometimes I tweak them a bit, given the additional space. And sometimes I re-order them just a bit.

▰ Morning sounds, 9:44am EDT: chatter several rooms away, an intense drone of nearby construction activity, creaking of an old house as the summer sun consumes the neighborhood, passing traffic, ears ringing from allergies

▰ Ain’t no drone choir like a multiple simultaneous suburban lawn mowers drone choir.

▰ Correction: There is a meaningful addition to the lawnmower drones when the HVAC kicks in as the day’s temperature works toward the currently expected 86º Fahrenheit. (On a positive note, that’s down from the previously expected 87º.)

▰ How it started: airborne toxic event

How it’s going: a lot of kids’ pee on plastic balls

This DALL-E is by twitter.com/byron_queen.

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Unofficial Channels: Data Sonification Archive

Article I wrote for The Wire about the website sonification.design

A merging of distant galaxies that hits the ear like the Doppler effect on an urban highway. El Niño weather patterns as expressed by an instrumental ensemble. Covid-19 statistics that transform into an increasingly complex drone. These are not gestures conceived by modern classical composers. This is scientific research, examples of data sonification, a word still underlined in red by word processors despite its high profile exploration at NASA, the United Nations, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Data sonification is an umbrella term for a growing variety of techniques by which information — from stock market fluctuations to DNA sequences to air pollution trends — gets represented through sound. Sonification is often compared with data visualization, an iffy correlation that perhaps fueled unrealistic expectations for its widespread utility.

Still, engaging work happens regularly. In the first example above, the creators fast-forwarded through billions of years of planetary activity to orient the listener: “the surround sound enables them to hear the galaxies approach from each side and orbit around each other before finally merging together,” write the collaborators, from two observatories and the engineering firm Arup, in accompanying documentation.

The weather one is by Benjamin Renard, a hydrologist doing statistical analysis of climatic datasets. The pandemic one is by Chelidon Frame, extrapolating open data from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. These works are among the nearly 400 examples of sonification that constitute the ever-growing collection indexed at the website sonification.design. The online resource is maintained by Sara Lenzi and Paolo Ciuccarelli, both from the Center for Design at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.

Asked on a Zoom call if she has identified best practices of what works in sonification, Lenzi, who researched the topic for her PhD at the Polytechnic University of Milan, helpfully reframed the inquiry: “The main research question was,” she says, “does sonification work or not? Is it going somewhere or not?” Sonification doesn’t “replace” data visualization, she argues. “It never really came out of its niche.” But a diminishing sonic purism is allowing a new wave of intriguing work, according to Lenzi: “People started using different strategies, like combining it with other sensory modalities,” among them data visualization. In the Covid-19 example cited above, a user interface (you adjust how quickly time passes) and fluid diagrams align with the drone to make a deeper impression on the user than sound or image alone would have.

Lenzi is currently working on a report summarizing the first year of sonification.design, which launched in January 2021. “We curate the collection,” she explains. “We don’t accept automatically what is sent to us by the submission form. We analyze each case.” And since the field remains new, the website’s categorization, Lenzi says, “keeps changing.”

The above is slightly expanded from the version that appeared in the Unofficial Channels column in the May 2022 issue of The Wire.

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How I Got from Mastodon’t to Mastodon

Getting started is a hassle, but it's a darn interesting realm of social media

I finally wrapped my head around Mastodon, a social media platform, this past week. On Monday, April 25, I was beyond annoyed by how confusing I found Mastodon to be — and a similar exasperation was expressed by numerous friends of mine. For a while, I embraced this camaraderie of disinclination. But the more I worked to understand Mastodon, the more my perception changed, and my attitude along with it.

Tuesday was still more of the same. By Wednesday afternoon, however, I was quite active on Mastodon, and I began to run into some of those same friends, as well as familiar avatars from other social media platforms. I also met, in internet terms, new folks — and new-ish folks (one introduced themselves as the person who wrote a bot I interact with on another social media platform). That bot-to-human incident is just one anecdote, but anecdotes can be orienting, even if only as stories. The story here was that I’d traversed from a highly public social network to a relatively more circumspect one, and upon arrival I met not a bot but the person behind the bot.

By Friday, April 28, I had emerged as something resembling a Mastodonian. I’d moved through the three common stages of digital adoption: from annoyed through engaged to engrossed. That evening, when a friend casually asked, via a group email thread, if Mastodon was worth paying attention to, I began to reply — and I only finished after unexpectedly writing a roughly 2,000-word explanation to help my friend, along with the other participants in the thread, understand how Mastodon functions. Or more to the point, how I understand Mastodon to function, and why I think Mastodon might matter.

Grains of Salt
To begin with, I can’t say with assuredness that I’ll be sticking around on Mastodon. My general rule of thumb with online tools is to simply sign up and see if it sticks. I’ve tried so many social media tools, and very few have stuck. I quickly ditched Mastodon twice in the past, but it certainly makes more sense to me now than it did then. And since I found Mastodon difficult to make sense of, I wanted to share here my sense of what Mastodon is, why it can be hard to initially comprehend, and how one might go about both comprehending and engaging with it.

Yes, I know the complaint: if a social media platform requires a 2,000-word explanation (more like 4,500 words, as of this essay, which expands upon my original email), it is doomed to fail. I’m not here to say Mastodon is the future. I’m just here to say Mastodon is very interesting — and that while a lot of the perceived bugs may be bugs, and a lot of the conundrums are just subpar design and inefficient communication, some of those seeming bugs are features (or the residue of features), and much of that subpar communication is because of just how different Mastodon is from the current dominant forms of social media. In other words: Don’t miss the paradigm forest due to the bug trees.

If Mastodon succeeds (define success as you wish), it won’t simply be because the service became popular. It won’t even be because a significant number of people got over the same conceptual hump I did in order to understand Mastodon. It will be because an even more significant number of people won’t ever recognize the conceptual hump, because what right now, at the start of May 2022, seems downright odd about Mastodon actually will have become the new normal. That potential outcome is quite interesting.

And if you want to experience Mastodon before reading my attempt at an explanation, check it out at joinmastodon.org.

Reminiscing About the Early Pliocene Era of Computer Communication
Some personal context might help. And you can skip this section entirely. It’s just background on who wrote this thing you’re reading.

I’ve been on enough social media platforms that it feels as if their combined logos could fill a yearbook. My first experience online, broadly defined, was a nascent form of social media: a dial-up BBS, or bulletin board system. This would have been roughly around the time The Empire Strikes Back was released. Back then, I didn’t think much about the “self-enclosed-ness” of the BBS. The notion of dialing into a system and then communicating directly with people on the other end, and only those who had likewise dialed in, mapped easily to the idea of a phone call, even if we were communicating by typing rather than speaking.

The mental mapping from BBS to phone call was all the more easy to comprehend because an actual phone line was required to hook the computer — a RadioShack TRS-80, in my case — up to the world outside one’s home. (This wasn’t my home. This was a friend’s. An extra phone line cost real money, as did the phone call itself. Such expenses were beyond my childhood home’s norms for decision-making. My parents were not entirely clear on this BBS concept at first, but they did tell me about the emergence of phones in their own youth. The idea of a “party line” — or “party wire,” vis-à-vis the Normal Rockwell illustration of that name — helped all of us understand the BBS more than we might have otherwise.)

Then high school and college happened, and I didn’t log on again until the early 1990s (not counting the limited school network, which was just for programming, when I was an undergraduate flirting with being — and then being flummoxed by the demands of — a computer science major). If I had to put a date on it, I imagine I logged on for the first time in April or May of 1993 — so almost exactly 29 years ago. This would have been the direct result of the debut issue of Wired magazine. If archaic phone systems helped me understand social media, then it was paper that helped me go digital.

Two Steps to Understanding Mastodon
As I said at the opening, I had already tried Mastodon previously, since it launched in 2016. Back then, though, I wasn’t frustrated by it. I was simply unenthusiastic. Mastodon’s interface felt as if a long-running food co-op tried to recreate Twitter or Facebook: it all sorta worked, but was utilitarian at best, and mired in complex systems at worst. You could almost smell the carob brownies. The benefits of Mastodon were unclear to me. At that early phase of my adoption, Mastodon reminded me of so many wannabe SoundCloud replacements whose sole apparent purpose was to replace SoundCloud. “SoundCloud done right” is a self-denuding rallying cry. They brought nothing new to the party, and few if any of them gained steam. Read more »

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post.lurk.org/@disquiet

Trying out a new social media hub — new to me, that is

7:34am: I somehow have three different Mastodon accounts. Nothing works.

12:38pm: I’m down to one account. This interface is more opaque than it needs to be but I’m OK with it.

3:32pm: It’s still a bit confusing but I haven’t been confused online in a while so let’s go with it.

4:30pm: You know, a Disquiet Junto Mastodon instance wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea.

Mastodon is an interesting choice of name for an online community platform. To begin with, the ancient animal is extinct. In addition, the beast looms in the imagination as potentially slow, perhaps even cumbersome — if, yes, fierce and proud. Also: powerful. So it’s got that.

In any case, I’m still at twitter.com/disquiet, posting regularly about the occasional bit of writing, as well as stray sounds that float by my desk, plus screenshots (pageshots?) from what I’m reading. I’ve tried many social networks over the years, and in fact when I logged onto Mastodon this week, I quickly realized I’d been there before. Perhaps twice, even. Soon enough, I accidentally (because Mastodon is many things, none of which are straightforward) had three simultaneous accounts in different communities of Mastodon, two of which had unhelpfully similar names.

I’ve finally settled on a community called lurk.org. The name is a bit concerning, but friends tell me it’s a good crew, and contrary to impressions reinforced by Mastodon’s overly complicated onboarding process, you can see and participate in other communities, whatever your community may be — I type that sentence with caution, as I imagine there are communities that function more as walled gardens. I truly don’t know.

There is a lot of documentation to take in, including flowcharts (which as a friend pointed out, can truly resemble something out of Primer; like, if you make a post it only appears in other timelines — I mean communities — if someone there reposts it or comments on it, but maybe replies still aren’t visible?), and there is advice, both solicited and the other sort. Suffice to say, if anyone asks in a seeming rhetorical manner, “Why aren’t you just on Mastodon?” — well, there are plenty of reasons. Getting aboard is not straightforward. But about a day in, I found it began to click.

All of which is to say, if you’ve added Mastodon to your social media stack, then I am at https://post.lurk.org/@disquiet. For how long, I don’t know.

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Fell / Treanor / Bradbury Interview

Which I moderated last month

Mark Fell, Rian Treanor, and James Bradbury beamed in on the big screen at Gray Area in the Mission last month, on March 11, so I could interview them in front of a live audience. The setting was the second-ever Algorithmic Art Assembly conference-cum-festival.

There was a meta quality to the hybrid live/Zoom scenario, in that the topic of discussion — the trio’s excellent web audio project at intersymmetric.xyz — was the way they created virtual environments for individuals to make music collaboratively from a long distance. They discussed how it arose out of the constraints of pandemic performance, how unsatisfying they found live-streaming of traditional concerts, and how they did test runs of the software with children, among other aspects of the project. (Speaking of meta, I kind of love how in the video you see my gesticulations and facial expressions repeated behind me on the video screen, and how they’re delayed ever so slightly, like a split second. It’s latency in action.)

This is the interface of their first intersymmetric.xyz project, commissioned for the No Bounds festival in 2021:

This is the interface of their second intersymmetric.xyz project, commissioned for Algorithmic Art Assembly 2022:

And here’s footage of a live performance by Fell and Treanor on the AAA version of intersymmetric.xyz, introduced by AAA founder Thorsten Sideb0ard:

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  • about

  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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    • December 13, 2022: This day marks the 26th anniversary of the founding of Disquiet.com.
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    • April 16, 2022: I participated in an online "talk show" by The Big Conversation Space (Niki Korth and Clémence de Montgolfier).
    • March 11, 2022: I hosted a panel discussion between Mark Fell, Rian Treanor and James Bradbury in San Francisco as part of the Algorithmic Art Assembly (aaassembly.org) at Gray Area (grayarea.org).
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    • There are entries on the Disquiet Junto in the book The Music Production Cookbook: Ready-made Recipes for the Classroom (Oxford University Press), edited by Adam Patrick Bell. Ethan Hein wrote one, and I did, too.
    • A chapter on the Disquiet Junto ("The Disquiet Junto as an Online Community of Practice," by Ethan Hein) appears in the book The Oxford Handbook of Social Media and Music Learning (Oxford University Press), edited by Stephanie Horsley, Janice Waldron, and Kari Veblen. (Details at oup.com.)

  • My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, was published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury. It has been translated into Japanese (2019) and Spanish (2018).

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    Since January 2012, the Disquiet Junto has been an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making community that employs creative constraints as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list (each Thursday), listen to tracks by participants from around the world, read the FAQ, and join in.

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