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: software

Live Coding the 100th Ambient Performances Video

A hand-typed drone sequence from musician Charlie Kramer

This video, a five-plus-minute exploration of pinging drones by musician Charlie Kramer, marks the 100th video in the ongoing playlist I’ve been maintaining of live performances of ambient music. The entry marks a milestone, and also a deviation, more about which in a moment.

First, a bit about the playlist itself. It began in April of 2016 “A YouTube Playlist of Ambient Performances,” front-loaded with a handful of pieces by such musicians as Andreas Tilliander, Christina Vantzou, Ryuicki Sakamoto, Nils Frahm (as a member of Nonkeen), and Jon Hassell. At the time I started it, I listed the following rules for its existence:

This “Ambient Performances” set is a playlist-in-progress of live performance videos on YouTube of ambient music by a wide variety of musicians using a wide variety of equipment.

Rule #1: I’m only including recordings I’d listen to without video.

Rule #2: I’m only including recordings where the video gives some sense of a correlation between what the musician is doing and what the listener is hearing.

Rule #3: By and large, the new additions to the playlist will simply be, reverse-chronologically, the most recent tracks added, but I’ll be careful to front-load a few choice items at the beginning.

Those rules summarized the filters that lead to video selection, but they don’t touch on the reasoning behind the playlist, nor did the initial post announcing the playlist’s existence. The underlying reasons included, certainly, curiosity on my part about how such music was made, and in particular about the creative tension at work in which effort was required to make music that seemed, by its categorical nature, to eschew the notion of effort — ambient music, that is.

But there was another reason, which was simply that the majority of videos featuring technology I found interesting (tutorials, live sets, peeks inside people’s studios, behind-the-scenes footage) had music I couldn’t stand listening to. This playlist of mine was an attempt to focus on the rare material that satisfied my ears, my eyes, and my imagination.

One hundred videos later, something had been surfacing in my thoughts, which was that while the videos all adhered to the initial rules, they had also come to focus often on mechanisms, along with video production, that was as beautiful as the music itself — synthesizers on fields and beaches, keyboards amid flowers and carefully placed objects. It’s no surprise that musicians who can achieve a certain aesthetic in the sonic realm might also be capable of carrying it over to the visual realm. However, I had come to wonder if I’d fallen for beauty, and if visual beauty had become something of a magnet rather than a mere byproduct of what I was after.

In any case, it was with that in mind that I began to actively pursue less visually compelling videos that still satisfied the rules that launched the playlist, and in the process I came to narrow and lightly edit the rules, since the third one only really applied at launch, yielding this amended list, which still applies to all the videos added to date:

This “Ambient Performances” set is an ongoing playlist-in-progress of live performance videos on YouTube of ambient music by a wide variety of musicians using a wide variety of equipment. There are two rules for it:

Rule #1: I’m only including recordings I’d listen to without video.

Rule #2: I’m only including recordings where the video gives some meaningful sense of a correlation between what the musician is doing and what the listener is hearing.

Note: The list appears in reverse-chronological order, which means that the video listed as #1 is the most recent. When a new video is added, the current #1 becomes #2.

Which brings us to Charlie Kramer’s piece. While all previous videos in this playlist involved physical equipment, with an emphasis on modular synthesizer, Kramer’s recording is a document of live coding — of computer programming as performance practice. The only instrument is his computer, seen here in footage of his screen. What he is doing throughout the piece is manipulating computer code in real time. As with the previous videos in this playlist, there is a direct, informative correlation between what Kramer is doing on screen — we don’t see his hands, but we see keystrokes being entered, and a mouse moving around — and what our ears are taking in. When he fixes some indents, as he does around 1:03 in the video, there is no commensurate change in sound. However, when, later, some integers are changed, we hear variations on what was sounding out previously.

As Kramer explains in the accompanying note, this piece is composed — is coded — in the language Chuck. Each time he hits the Add Shred button at the top of the window in which the Chuck code appears, the current instance of that code begins to be executed: new variables and new commands bringing to life new musical directions. When Kramer does so, a giant green plus sign appears briefly on the screen. That giant green plus a perfect depiction of the connection between precise action and subtle sound that this playlist was intended to explore.

Kramer’s track was recorded as part of the most recent weekly music compositional prompt project in the ongoing Disquiet Junto series. Kramer, who also goes by NorthWoods, posted the video and the code, along with some background on the piece, to the llllllll.co message board, where it’s still available for perusal.

The video is hosted at Kramer’s YouTube channel.

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RIYL Streaming

Introducing a new Disquiet.com ambient music playlist on Spotify: Stasis Report

What would make a useful streaming ambient-music playlist format?

I’ve tried in the past on various services, including Spotify, Google Play Music, and Apple’s, and I’ve never felt like I got to something useful. So then I’d stop. By way of contrast, I have in mind the YouTube playlist I maintain of fine live ambient music performances in which the music technology employed is in plain view. That playlist came out of a need and served a purpose. The need was that most of the music technology videos I watched involved music I couldn’t stand, and the purpose was to explore the tension between the near stasis of ambient music and the activity employed to produce it.

With a Spotify/etc. playlist. the main need and purpose are less clear, in that they’re no doubt satisfactorily fulfilled already — by humans, and by algorithms, and by the hybrid thereof. The need and purpose are the same: a collection of regularly updated, recommended ambient music to listen to, presumably while doing something else. Between readily available full-length recordings and algorithmic dispensing of RIYL “discovery,” there’s plenty background music to listen to and to pay attention to if you want to. (I’ll continue to put quotes around music “discovery” until the quotes’ presence is widely presumed.) Which makes me wonder what would make an ambient playlist distinct — because, furthermore, the very nature of streaming services arguably turns all music into, if not ambient music, then certainly background music. Perhaps the answer of the purpose question is largely related to the selection, but it feels like the context of the selection is also part of the purpose, part of the process. It’s not just about a set of items; it’s about their context in the reader’s life, in the music’s life.

I posted a rough draft this thinking on Twitter today to get the thoughts out, to see if anyone had input (which they did). I figure there would be two playlists, not one. There would be a main playlist, defined perhaps by length: 90 minutes or so of peace, for lack of a better word. The main ambient playlist would be time-sensitive — a somewhat ironic concept for music that aims for a genre-defining sense of timelessness. In any case, the main playlist would be recent releases, and music timed to events (birthdays, deaths, milestones, news, anniversaries). The second playlist is where tracks go after they’re no longer timely.

Part of the complexity I’ve faced in doing a Spotify playlist is that I don’t listen to many playlists. I like knowing what I’m listening to, and most playlist functionality is defined by its active dearth of context. (Now, Active Dearth would make an excellent playlist name.) And when I say Spotify, I mean any of the streaming services, more or less, since each has its own plusses and minuses.

Anyhow, yeah, a big part of what led to my development of my YouTube ambient-performances playlist was my having gotten into active — systematic, enjoyable, anticipatory — viewing on YouTube. Rather than YouTube being a thing I ended up on on occasion, I started subscribing to channels and checking my subscription items each morning. In contrast I still use music streaming services mostly as a way to catch up or to fill in a mental blank. Each week I get more music (because I write about music) and buy more music (perhaps merely m-m-my generation’s habits) than I could hear in a week. Streaming, in contrast, has been, for me, a supplement.

Backing up to the “why” of this hypothetical playlist, the answer is fairly simple. Once upon a time as a music critic, you wrote about music and you reached an audience who read it. Today, as a music critic, you can (also) make a playlist and reach people who might never have read what you would have written. That’s why I always liked DJing — in college on WYBC, later on KDVS when I moved to California. (And, yeah, I did a couple podcast episodes and plan to get back to it, but that’s really a separate story from playlist production.) Anyhow, this is what’s on my mind, and thinking it out in public can be productive. If you have thoughts about what would constitute an ambient playlist, it’d be appreciated.

For the time being, the playlist is called the Stasis Report. It launched today with music from Brian Eno and Marcus Fischer, Madeleine Cocolas and r beny, Lisa Gerrard and William Basinski, Emily A. Sprague and Grouper, among others. There is a secondary playlist, to which tracks are moved after they’re out of circulation on the Stasis Report. That playlist is called the Stasis Archives.

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Snakes & Oscillators

A glimpse at a video-game music interface by Jon Davies

A post shared by Jon Davies (@jonpauldavies) on

Just to follow up yesterday’s post of an Instagram video depicting a tiny robot band playing artfully arranged instrumental music, here’s another solid example of the miniature musical-technological (a slightly more humane appellation than “music-technology”) wonders found on the social network.

As you listen to the clip, a brief synthesized melody is being modulated in real time, the sound warping at the whim of a controller. The familiar shape of the x/y control pad is viewable in the lower right hand corner of the illuminated grid device. What it controls is this snake, familiar from video games like Centipede, the early-1980s classic. The snake can be aimed at a little stationary reward, whose consumption by the snake ushers in a new phase of the melody, which appears to move up the register a step at a time, or something along those lines.

The rules of this game-composition aren’t entirely clear, but it does appear that while you can aim the snake to hit that reward light right on the schedule that the rhythm suggests, you can also delay doing so, letting the standing melody extend for awhile. It’s nice to imagine how an audience in a live setting would get engaged in such a performance, becoming aware of the process and enjoying the occasions of delayed gratification as the snake takes its time to consume its prey. It’s also interesting to think how the scenario can train a player to keep time, or adeptly veer from it, along the lines of Guitar Hero and other so-called rhythm games.

Video found via a post by Scanner Darkly on the llllllll.co boards. Software by Jon Davies, on whose Instagram account the clip was published. The device is the open-source Monome Grid controller (more at monome.org). Davies says the code will soon be shared publicly, for those who want to play along at home.

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A Free Album Made with a Free Virtual Modular Synthesizer

It's the Klirrfaktor's Lost Identity, made on VCV Rack

Rudimentary sources are a thing this week. Over at pitchfork.com, Philip Sherburne surveyed albums recorded on a single synthesizer, among them three Korgs, a Clavia, and a Casio. Meanwhile on Twitter, there were endless variations on the theme of “This is where I recorded and mixed the album and all the gear I used.” The resulting memes ranged from Tron to Teletubbies. Some, like Four Tet’s tiny studio with a view, were even believable. (My own contribution was a nested loop, beginning here.)

And then, over on Bandcamp, the Klirrfaktor uploaded a nine-track album, Lost Identity, completely recorded on a single piece of software, one that is still deep in beta. Named VCV Rack, the software is a virtual modular synthesizer developed by Andrew Belt and contributed to by a growing number of module creators. You could argue that with numerous modules, VCV Rack isn’t exactly a single instrument, but Klirrfaktor gets points for putting it to substantial use so quickly — and for eschewing rote 4/4 rhythm tracks in favor of dank industrial spaces and ominous sound design.

Currently in version 0.4, VCV Rack (shown above) offers a variety of true basics, like oscillators and mixers, as well as adaptations of more specialized gear, like granular synthesizers and matrix sequencers. Both VCV Rack and the Klirrfaktor album are also entirely free. You can download VCV Rack at vcvrack.com. And if you make something you’re happy with, there’s a compilation due out that you can contribute to, details at switchedonrack.com.

Album originally posted at theklirrfaktor.bandcamp.com. More from the Klirrfaktor at twitter.com/TheKlirrfaktor and youtube.com/TheKlirrfaktor.

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Dead Radio

Lost signals, social media, and finding wave lengths

I started reading Nadine Gordimer’s novel July’s People this week simply because I’d never read her, and many friends had recommended her. In terms of the stack of books sitting here waiting to be read, reading about end of apartheid seemed like a useful filter on the world. To read meant to look away from work (which was easy, as I was on vacation), but also to look away from media, especially social media. Gordimer’s writing demands attention. She’s like if John le Carré wrote about interpersonal relations — and if he did so at a tenth the speed and several times the level of detail. Both are writers of, simultaneously, micro and macro politics, of the personal and the global. Both explore nuance and codes within communication. But she does so across impenetrable emotional voids and with zero interest in titillation.

In turning away from Twitter, I entered the deep emotional grasses of her book, and found amid the narrative strains two parents. They’re lost in many ways, foremost without a working radio. They fight over the device, searching for stations, checking “wave lengths.” More to the point, the radio works, but the stations don’t. There are no signals to be received. This is both fact and metaphor. All along, during my reading, my social media is out of control. I take breaks from it to read about the dead radio. Then I take breaks from the dead radio of Gordimer’s book to take in the fire hose of our current moment. I alternate. I think about taking a social media break, which I’ve done on occasion, but this seems like a time to be aware, to be aware of being aware. I’m intrigued by mediated awareness, I suppose.

The most quoted tweet I had was years ago, in the Arab Spring. At the time, Twitter was more about consumer goods and personal expression. I’d mentioned how “I used to look at Twitter to see what tech gadget has been released, and now it’s to see what country is on fire.” Or something along those lines. Anyhow, it’s pretty clear which country is on fire now. I might turn off Twitter, but of course when I choose to turn it, or the radio, on both would function. If the dead radio in July’s People suggests one form of broken interpersonal communication, what is the hyperactive Twitter a metaphor for? More to the point, the radio in July’s People seems dead because there are no signals. Social media seems to work because there are signals. The main thing I’ve come to appreciate is that something can function and still be broken.

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