Sonic Infrastructure

A piece I wrote for an April 2012 edition of Art Practical

I’ve learned that the publication Art Practical is no more. I used to read it regularly, but only contributed once, back in April 2012. I’m posting the full text of my piece, “Sonic Infrastructure,” here for archival purposes. The essay was part of an issue devoted to sound. The issue included an introduction by Tess Thackara (who invited me to contribute), an interview with Paul DeMarinis by Renny Pritikin, a discussion between artists Joshua Churchill and Chris Duncan, Matt Sussman on Infrasound, Liz Glass on the Tape Music Center, an interview with Jacqueline Gordon by Ellen Tani, a profile of Ethan Rose by Bean Gilsdorf, a discussion about the Invisible Relics exhibit at Park Life (a gallery in the San Francisco neighborhood I have long called home, the Richmond District), and an essay by Aaron Harbour drawing from his experience as a curator and DJ.

. . .

“Sonic Infrastructure”

So, a sound artist walks into a chamber …

This joke-without-a-punch-line likely brings to mind the archetypal sound-exploration incident in which composer John Cage famously entered the confines of an anechoic chamber in pursuit of pure silence. As the oft-told (and, some have argued, perhaps apocryphal) story goes, Cage did not experience the silence he had led himself to expect. Instead, he heard something—two things, in fact: his heartbeat and his nervous system.

But there’s another chamber worth talking about, one with increasing prominence in the sonic arts: it’s called the ambisonic chamber. In contrast with the sonic exclusion one finds in an anechoic chamber, an ambisonic chamber produces absolute sonic immersion. It employs numerous speakers to reproduce not mere stereo sound or even 5.1-surround sound, but 360-degree sound. For example, a stationary ambisonic recording made in San Francisco’s Union Square at noon on the last shopping day before Christmas would reproduce the fully immersive experience of sound: the distant rattling of the Salvation Army bells, the “ho-ho-ho” of the Macy’s Santa, the multilingual voices of shoppers passing from and in every direction, the whir of news helicopters hovering overhead, and the rumble of skateboards passing underfoot.

Should you have the opportunity to enter an ambisonic chamber and happen to hear your heart pounding, it’s simply the result of an emotional response to the sheer imaginary promise inherent in such an installation. And, perhaps, the momentary desire to install such a thing in your living room.

Global Network of SoundLabs

A fully functioning ambisonic chamber is the heart of the SoundLab at Arup, an engineering consultancy with offices in San Francisco and dozens of other cities around the planet. Arup describes its ambisonic room as “a controlled auralization environment that allows clients to experience and compare the acoustic performance of various design options.” The SoundLab doesn’t merely reproduce ambisonic recordings; it allows for computer systems to manipulate them, adjusting the recordings based on hypothetical physical environments. It is essentially the CAD of sound.

There are such ambisonic labs in more than half a dozen different Arup city offices, including not only San Francisco but also Manhattan, Los Angeles, London, and Hong Kong. The rooms serve consulting acoustic engineers in a wide variety of endeavors, from confirming that a proposed physical sound barrier will limit the noise produced by nearby mass transportation to tweaking the architectural design of retrofitted concert auditoriums.

Such traditional engineering applications are, however, merely the beginning. As with the SoundLabs in its peer cities, the San Francisco Arup SoundLab, located in the company’s offices in the JPMorgan Chase Building on Mission near Second Street, is increasingly a source of sonic infrastructure for the arts. Shane Myrbeck, a musician, sound artist, and Arup employee, recently gave me a tour of the lab and a thorough overview of its implications for the arts. By way of example, he played me a piece of classical music as it would sound in a half dozen different venues from Vienna to Boston; the system flipped seamlessly from one to the next and back again. When I mentioned that the ambisonic chamber is like some sonic version of the Star Trek holodeck, Myrbeck said that an Arup colleague of his routinely refers to the room as such.

Bill Fontana’s Sonic Shadows (2010), installed on the catwalk atop SFMOMA’s atrium, was developed utilizing virtual, computer-design test runs in the Arup lab. The work takes sounds from inside the museum’s physical plant and reproduces them as sound art. The San Francisco office also assisted Arup’s New York office in several projects, including an ambisonic recording of a live 2009 performance by Lou Reed with guest saxophonist John Zorn of Reed’s Metal Machine Music (1975), as well as preparation for a Marina Rosenfeld performance at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan. (They helped her plan how to best make use of the space for a performance of her Teenage Lontano [2008] as part of the 2008 Whitney Biennial.) An Arup office also documented the ill-fated Ai Weiwei installation Sunflower Seeds (2010) at the Tate Modern in London with the intent to have visitors step on the one-hundred-million hand-crafted seeds, but that interactive element was cancelled after concerns arose about noxious porcelain dust.

Bill Fontana. Inside Sonic Shadows (2010). Courtesy of the San Franciso Museum of Modern Art.

The San Francisco Arup office is also working to build connections directly to the local arts community. Arup’s acoustic and lighting departments collaborated with blacksmith Jefferson Mack Metal to create Sent Forth (2011), an imaginary sonic time machine currently on display at Fort Mason. In late 2011, Arup allowed the ambisonic SoundLab to serve as a performance venue for a concert production by the arts organization ME’DI.ATE. The event featured the musician Greg Kowalsky and the duo Myrmyr, among others; Arup’s Myrbeck also performed.

Arup San Francisco’s SoundLab is slowly making its name alongside other long-running local institutions, most notably the music program at Mills and the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) department at Stanford. There’s an interesting distinction, though—San Francisco is expanding from being a sonic-arts center to being a sonic-arts-infrastructure center. Mills and CCRMA routinely produce graduates who carry elsewhere the cultural DNA of the Bay Area’s indigenous sound explorations. Arup joins a growing number of local individuals and organizations that are attracting client artists from around the globe to San Francisco to help them realize their ideas.

The Codification of Glitch

Barry Threw is one such an individual. Speaking over a dinner of Sichuan food in the Richmond District, Threw talked about the work he does at Obscura Digital. From its office in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, Obscura, not unlike Arup, manages the technological realizations of design ideas for an international client base.

Threw also discussed his own development projects, among which are a Bluetooth-enabled “sensor bow” for Berkeley-based Keith McMillen Instruments and sampler software for an orchestral work by the Oakland-based composer Mason Bates. Threw discussed in detail his latest venture: bringing to fruition a long-planned piece of general-use sound software designed by Markus Popp. Popp, who resides in Berlin, is best known as Oval, the electronic musician whose albums, such as 94 Diskont (1995), helped bring the word “glitch” to both media studies departments and the international club scene.

Sent Forth, a collaboration between Arup and Jefferson Mack Metal, sound by Shane Myrbeck

Currently, Berlin has more than its share of programming brainpower. It’s home to both the music production software company Ableton and the data-sharing service SoundCloud—and as a sign of the city’s increasing prominence, the journalist and musician Peter Kirn recently relocated his there from New York. Nonetheless, Popp selected Threw to implement his software idea. The two were introduced by Naut Humon, whose surround-video/sound Recombinant Media Lab employed Threw as an engineer and developer between 2006 and 2008. OvalDNA, the Popp/Threw sound-manipulation software, will be made available online for free in conjunction with a recent Oval album by that name. The tool will allow users to rework thousands of existing audio files, free of copyright restrictions.

Threw agrees that there’s a wealth of digital engineering resources in the Bay Area supporting international artists. He also suggests that one reason local technologists enjoy collaborating with people from elsewhere is the wanting state of the major-league Bay Area arts institutions. For a region that is home to Google, Twitter, Apple, and Facebook, the artistic seasons at the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera, as well as Cal Performances in Berkeley, are decidedly retrograde.

Icelandic iOSphilia

Back in 2008, Threw worked with Scott Snibbe on a media installation for the Beijing Olympics. And thanks to a growing suite of mobile apps and other bespoke innovations, Snibbe has become a key example of a Bay Area technologist who has helped secure the region’s reputation for providing next-generation implementation resources. His Snibbe Interactive, based on Howard Street near Seventh Street in SOMA, counts among its clients science and history museums from Mexico to France to Thailand.

As at Arup and Obscura Digital, much of Snibbe’s work involves providing somewhat behind-the-scenes support to institutions; yet sometimes credit is given where it is due. He has had perhaps his most public success this past year with the release of Björk’s Biopholia. The Icelandic techno-chanteuse engaged Snibbe not only to develop the images projected during her concert tour, but also to code a groundbreaking app for Apple’s iOS platform. The app was no mere interactive advertisement for the full-length recording. It was itself a kind of “full-length app,” as it were, with different mini-apps extrapolating interactive experiences from each of the album’s individual songs. The video-game reviewer for the New York Times called it “among the most creative, innovative and important new projects in popular culture,” and he didn’t even like the music that much.

Arup, Threw, and Snibbe are simply three examples in which San Francisco technology is the engine on which the global sonic arts increasingly run. There is plenty of precedent for the Bay Area providing sonic infrastructure to the world; the region is home to the leading sound technology firms Dolby and THX. Instruments from Don Buchla’s debut analog synthesizer (1963) to the contemporary virtual tools of Cycling 74—most notably Max/MSP—originated here. San Francisco’s current generation of innovators can easily take a drive down memory lane: along Highway 101 in Redwood City is the roadside logo of the legendary audio-storage firm Ampex, founded by Russian immigrant Alexander Michael Poniatoff back in 1944.

This article originally appeared in April 2012 as part of the online publication Art Practical, which is now archived at

More on the Myrbeck at, the Fontana at, and Biophilia at 25th Anniversary Countdown (1 of 13): Pauline Oliveros

An archival ambient advent calendar from December 1st – 13th, 2021

A week from this coming Monday — which is to say, December 13, 2021 — will mark the 25th anniversary of I’ll post one article highlight per day between now and then. The collection will serve as an archival ambient advent calendar. First up: a 1996 interview I did with the great musician, thinker, and teacher Pauline Oliveros:

I interviewed Oliveros several times and we corresponded a bit, as well. Shortly before she died in 2016, the two of us chatted via Facebook Messenger about her proposing a project for the Disquiet Junto music community. Clearly it never got to happen. Nonetheless, many Junto projects evidence her guiding influence: her curiosity, her interest in procedure, her humor, her emphasis on collaboration, and her trademark attention to deep listening.

After the first time I interviewed her, I sent her a gift of ECM CDs recorded by Dino Saluzzi, the Argentinian bandoneon player, with whom she wasn’t yet familiar. She later told me she enjoyed them. I always dreamed of a collaboration between the two musicians. That would have been something.

I’ve initiated this 25th anniversary countdown with the Oliveros piece because she was responsible for rewiring my brain, and because the interview occurred in 1996, the same year I founded this website. The interview was for Tower Records’ Pulse! magazine, where I worked full-time as an editor from 1989 to 1996, and for which I later wrote freelance. I founded the website shortly after leaving Tower employment. Just a few months passed before I realized that I missed having a music publication that I felt was part of who I was. In the absence of one, I created one.

Image of Pauline Oliveros by Canticle via Wikipedia.

The Art of Drones

A document of three Takeyuki Hakozaki installations

What Comes After is the perfect title for a collection of tracks that are, themselves, the sonic byproduct of art installations. The installation was the thing; the audio is a memory. A set of those memories is what came after. Each of the three tracks is a recording of roughly seven minutes taken from one of three different set-ups that artist Takeyuki Hakozaki had at the HAKO Gallery in Chiba, Japan, earlier this year, back in mid-February. (I’ve been to Chiba several times to attend the annual Shonen Jump festival, but I’ve never been to an art gallery in the city, which is outside Tokyo.) One of Hakozaki’s pieces involves several electric guitars resonating thanks to electric fans. Another involves audio tape rubbing against guitar strings. The third use a synthesizer to process tape loops. Each recording takes the form of a drone. Each is marked by different elements, and throughout you can hear voices here and there (if you speak Japanese, which I can’t, you might be able to make out some of what is spoken). “Air” is symphonic in scope, the overtones so rich I’d swear I can hear a choir chanting amid the resonances. Magnetic” is rough and raucous, albeit in slow motion. “Complex” is like a shoegazer track, subtler than “Air,” less frictive than “Magnetic.”

If you scroll back through the gallery’s account, you can find documentation of the first (circulator, “Air”), shown above, second (loops, “Magnetic”), and third (synthesizer, “Complex”) projects.

More on HAKO at More from Takeyuki Hakozaki at and The audio was mastered by Taylor Deupree (of 12k Records).

Reviewed “Seeing Sound” @ Kadist SF

For The Wire

Ah, it’s that font I love to be published in. I have a new article in the latest issue of The Wire. It’s a review of a group show at the Kadist gallery in San Francisco. The show, titled Seeing Sound, featured work by the artists Marina Rosenfeld, Aura Satz, and Samson Young, and was curated by Barbara London. (This is the new issue with Grouper on the cover.) I posted a bit about the exhibit here previously. Cables, Triads, Surrealism

From the past week

I do this manually each Saturday, collating recent tweets I made at, which I think of as my public notebook. Some tweets pop up (in expanded form or otherwise) on sooner. It’s personally informative to revisit the previous week of thinking out loud.

▰ Been re-watching Downton Abbey and thinking about the way it maps the adoption of technology as time passes (electric lights, cars, a blender, a radio), and was about to tweet a quote (“Mrs. Patmore is not what you’d call a futurist”), only to find when I searched Google that I had done so when it first aired. Later: “Why is it called a wireless when there are so many wires?” This is something said by Daisy when a radio is brought into the house for the first time, thanks to the king being due to make a broadcast announcement.

▰ Guitar class update: I haven’t been this into triads since I was addicted to Hong Kong crime movies.

▰ “Your gift is quite destructive but look at the music you can make.” (Been re-watching Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)

▰ I think there is an insect crawling slowly across my phone’s upturned face. It is the reflection a bird hovering outside the window.

▰ The term “Surrealism Tycoon” is certainly my kinda headline clickbait. And this is totally the raw material for a sequel to China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris: “Arturo Schwarz, Refugee Who Became a Surrealism Tycoon, Dies at 97,” via

▰ Guessing this bypassed “United States Sells Unique Wu-Tang Clan Album Forfeited by Convicted Hedge Fund Manager Martin Shkreli”

▰ My favorite pithy summary of the Disquiet Junto music community is Ethan Hein’s. He said in effect that I write record reviews of music that doesn’t exist yet and then internet strangers make it real. I’m not sure I could improve on that. The 500th weekly project begins July 29.

▰ “I blink with fatigue, and my eyelashes make an infinitesimal, inaudible sound against the felt whiteness of the pillows slope.” Been thinking about @espejoacustico‘s suggestion we finally get around to a proper Pessoa-themed Junto project. It is the Disquiet Junto, after all.

▰ I highly recommend the Take5 email from the Japan Times ( a free (English) daily newsletter of five top stories, a glimpse into what’s happening. I wish more newspapers from countries where I don’t read the language did it. Maybe they do. Any recommendations?

▰ There are days when using the browser interface for the New York Times crossword is like pushing back on a ouija board against a particularly strident spirit.

▰ Cool. There’s a new entry, all about the Disquiet Junto, on the ever-growing Music Games Wiki:

▰ Yes, but when do we get the 5-CD expanded box set of George Harrison’s Electric Sound album?

▰ Tinyletter has become a drag, which is part of why I haven’t published a This Week in Sound email in quite a while. I’m looking to switch to Buttondown or an alternative. Trying out some options. So far, Buttondown seems pretty cool.

▰ It was a week:

🗹 buncha work
🗹 longform writing
🗹 cheating on longform writing
🗹 Disquiet daily
🗹 Junto 500
🗹 guitar study
🗹 exercise
🗹 gallery review filed
☐ email catch-up
🗹 home office remedies (standing)
🗹 digital tool revisions (newsletter)
🗹 sign off til Monday