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: sound-art

Jasmine Guffond Gets the Drop on the Mic

For a new Editions Mego album

Both the album title, Microphone Permission, and the title of its lead track, “Forever Listening,” get at Jasmine Guffond’s interest in surveillance culture. The former is something we grant devices and apps without giving the decision, such as it is, much thought. The latter describes the state of tools, such as smart speakers, we allow so that they can seem to anticipate our needs. These concepts feed, in “Forever Listening,” a droning piece lace with muffled voices and occasionally riddled with something like a shot from a video game.

An accompanying video, by Ilan Katin, uses what appears to be dated footage from a security camera from a store to make its point: we’re being watched at the most mundane moments. If this tense area of study suggests a sense of alarm, Guffond meets that with the sound of one just before the track comes to a quietly vibrating close.

Get the full album at jasmineguffond.bandcamp.com. Video originally posted a the YouTube channel of Ilan Katin. More from Guffond, an Australian based in Berlin, Germany, at jasmineguffond.com.

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Taxonomy of Speakers at MoMA

At least four categories

Tasty as the sausages may be, sometimes paying attention to how they’re made can be just as enticing, maybe even more.

I spent the afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan before heading back home to San Francisco, the close of a somewhat sudden and quick trip to the city. The range of audio speakers throughout the newly redesigned MoMA, their placement and purpose, provided hints at the role sound was intended to play in the varied exhibits.

The museum today is less than ever a staid assembly of neutral zones. Since reopening in late 2019, MoMA is more a refined theme park, the design of adjacent rooms clashing, purposefully, with their neighbors. The paths are circuitous, disorienting, exploratory. The transitions between zones make each successive exhibit you wander through feel less like an autonomous space, and more like it’s in conversation with the places you’ve been through and are headed to.

When you enter a given space, you may hear something, but excepting rooms dedicated to individual works, it can be unclear which piece correlates with the sound. Speakers are everywhere. Room after room you enter has audio; the question becomes: From which of these many pieces in front of me is it emanating? This isn’t a puzzle. It never takes long to sort out. But in the process of untangling several such circumstances, patterns begin to form and cluster, and in turn a taxonomy of the speakers comes into shape.

There are speakers placed within the art in a compelling way. These speakers are visually, structurally, compositionally part of a whole:

There are speakers off to the side or up in a corner, participating but not acknowledged. Their role is, in effect, un-credited. They are infrastructure, not art:

There are invitations to listen — some traditional headphones, others ingenious single-ear devices. The traditional headphones suggest you sit and stay, the single-ear ones that you might dip in and get a sense of the piece:

There is plenty of video that has no sound at all. Some of those pieces, for no readily apparent reason, make the effort, in the accompanying curatorial text, to inform the audience the works are, in fact, silent. One example is this 1985 piece, “Reabracadabra” by the artist Eduardo Kac. It runs on an old Philips Minitel terminal:

And then, after witnessing all these MoMA speakers, there are the pieces with no sound, no electronics at all, but that come to look like speakers, such as this untitled 1957 piece by Hélio Oiticica:

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Join a Cellular Chorus

At the invitation of Patricia Wolf

Chances are you have more than one internet-accessible device in your home. Gather them together, and pull up the following webpage on each: cellularchorus.com.

Every time you invoke the Cellular Chorus page, a random audio file will be set as the browser’s default. (There are currently 64 different audio files in all.) Then let them play, all of them at once. Move the devices around the room. Don’t let any single device take prominence. Adjust the volume accordingly. Use the pulldown menu or the forward/back buttons to alternate between tracks. Note how the same file will sound different on your rattly old tablet than it does on your brand new laptop, how your humble kitchen speaker can’t hold a candle to your bleeding-edge smartphone.

Now dim the lights. Each instance of sound comes with its own shade of gradated color, like a little handheld Olafur Eliasson installation. Let them illuminate the room. Also note how the sounds work together. This is due to the planning and intent of Patricia Wolf, the Portland, Oregon-based musician who came up with Cellular Chorus, which she describes as “a work of spatialized aleatoric music using smartphones to bring people physically closer to have an interactive and collective experience with light and sound.” (The website was designed and developed by Jaron Heard.)

“The sounds I made are meant to harmonize,” she notes on the site’s info page. “There is no right or wrong way to play them.” Many of the tracks are drones, some electronic in origin (like number 5), others employing the human voice (12). Some (like number 9 and 34) are percussive.

In an email to me, Wolf explained a bit more about the project’s origin, about how the cold Northwest winter inspired her to employ a tool of online social activity, the smartphone (hence the name of the piece), to bring people together in person.

So now use one of your devices to get in touch with some friends. Have them over, and get them all to use cellularchorus.com at once, together.

More from Patricia Wolf at instagram.com/patriciawolf_music, where recent videos have highlighted footage of the Cellular Chorus in action, and at soundcloud.com/patriciawolf_music. More from Jaron Heard at jaronheard.com.

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The Most Rudimentary Conception of a Marionette

A new museum installation from Zimoun

It’s been almost exactly a year since I posted one of the brief videos of the artist Zimoun’s tactile, economical, kinetic sculptures, sculptures whose impact — humorous, touching, majestic — is so out of proportion with the modest material from which they are constructed. Here’s a new one, posted today. A short video such as this is how Zimoun announces a newly installed work. Its title, as is generally the case for Zimoun, is little more than a list of the components, here “51 prepared dc-motors, 189 m rope, cardboard sticks 30 cm,” followed by the year of production: “2019.” The footage is a view from the Museum of Contemporary Art MAC, Santiago de Chile. And it’s not even 40 seconds long.

Vimeo, unlike YouTube, doesn’t have an easy way to allow for looped, repeated viewing, but you’ll be drawn in and hitting repeat almost for certain. Watch as the tiny cardboard sticks dance around in circles, suspended like the most rudimentary conception of a marionette. Their balletic footsteps suggest Amazonian rainfall: cardboard drops on a cold concrete floor.

Part of the beauty of Zimoun’s videos is how the sound is and isn’t in sync with what we see. The video cuts from one view to another: a closeup, giving us a sense of the mechanisms, a fuller one to give a sense of scale, a room view for sense of scope. Throughout the cardboard raindrops fall.

Video originally posted at vimeo.com. More from Zimoun, who is based in Bern, Switzerland, at zimoun.net.

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Speaker Cone and Seed Pod

Documenting Marcus Fischer's "Multiples" installation

Awhile back I began collating a YouTube playlist of live ambient performances. The assortment, now numbering well over 100, quickly took shape as a collection of videos in which the techniques of the performer were evident to the viewer. The idea was to locate and celebrate instances of the action required by the performer to accomplish the seeming inaction — the stasis, the aesthetic limbo, the attenuated sonic pause — that so much ambient music telegraphs.

In time, the definition of “performance” expanded — well, it didn’t so much “expand” as that the word’s interior features became more detailed. Nothing as the playlist of included videos proceeded contradicted earlier interpretations of “live performance.”

This video, from an installation by Marcus Fischer, pushes the definition further, while staying true to the initial curatorial impulse. The audio is one take, while the video is a collation of elements. In other circumstances, that disconnect might be an issue, but here it makes perfect sense. The installation, titled “Multiples,” was set up at Variform in Portland, Oregon, last month, in a show curated by Patricia Wolf. The core of it is an array of naked speaker cones, each containing fragile little seed pods. The speakers both emanate sound and, as a result of the vibrations resulting from that sound, rattle the seed pods, each a tiny, nature-made maraca. We hear both the melty drone of the music and the waves of percussion that accompany it, and we experience the correlation between the two.

The causality between visual and sonic instance is less necessary here than in other sorts of live performance, because what we’re witnessing is more a system at work than a performance. If you watch a video of a train and hear audio of a train, even if the two weren’t sourced at the same time, you get that they are both simply moments in a much larger system, something that couldn’t be documented in full. Likewise, here we get the high-fidelity rendering of the audio, and the glimpses of the various facets that make it run.

As the video shows, there is still more at work than those speakers, including the reel-to-reel machine on which the audio is unspooling, and at least one additional seedpod hanging midair, still affixed to a branch, not to mention the full geometry of the work, which sets a visual stage for the sounds we are hearing. Above the speaker array is a series of parallel fluorescent bulbs, a grow-room aesthetic suggesting artificial light for artificial life.

This is the latest video I’ve added to my YouTube playlist of recommended live performances of ambient music. Video originally posted at Fischer’s YouTube channel. More from him at mapmap.ch. I’m proud to have worked with Fischer on the sound design and score to the science fiction short Youth. He will be exhibiting in the Whitney Biennial this year, from May 17 through Sept 22.

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