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: TV

Diegetic-Like

More on the subtle musicality of Issa Rae's great HBO series

The musicality of the HBO series Insecure took a bit of a hit when the character Daniel exited stage left earlier this season, the series’ third. A love interest for Issa, Insecure‘s main protagonist, the aspiring music producer Daniel helped, simply through his presence, to transform the show’s wall-to-wall backing tracks into plot points, whether he was busy at work, or arguing with another musician about the arrangement of a new composition, or seducing Issa from behind his production desk.

With Daniel now gone, we still have composer Raphael Saadiq’s score and Kier Lehman’s music supervision to artfully thread the needle between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, between what’s happening on-screen and what Insecure‘s writers want us to think and feel at any given moment. But this past week’s episode, “Obsessed-Like,” the season’s penultimate, leveled things up during one brief, spectacular moment.

Insecure has always played with Issa’s inner monologues, which often occur when she’s alone in the bathroom. Those moments are tender not just because they are private, but because they show a more forthright and secure Issa than she generally acts in public. They often come in the form of short bursts of fledgling rap lyrics, part poetry slam, part self-aware stand-up comedy. They hint at where Issa the character may be headed. Perhaps — as with the Jerry of Seinfeld — the character Issa will become more like the actress Issa who portrays her.

In the episode “Obsessed-Like,” as its title suggests, Issa is anything but secure. She’s reeling from another recent relationship, with a guy named Nathan, one she didn’t herself choose to conclude. Much of the episode is a battle between her somewhat deranged inner thoughts and what’s happening around her. Many of the scenes are filmed as if through her eyes, to emphasize that she isn’t seeing things clearly. (It’s the first episode of the season written by Insecure showrunner Prentice Penny, who perhaps has the most freedom to push beyond the show’s narrative toolbox.)

At one climactic point we see Issa in Nathan’s bedroom, where she is frantically trying to guess his laptop’s password. Her best friend, Molly, walks in on her, and to signal the way this moment presents an emotional rock bottom, Issa’s inner and public voices finally converge in an expression of utter shame — the “uh” of her internal monologue and the “uh” of her verbal response to a question from Molly harmonize with each other. They’re seen here in captions, the italics having, throughout the episode, signaled when Issa is talking to herself inside her head. Issa hasn’t recovered fully, but the delusions with which the episode opened seem to have been reconciled with — come into harmony with — reality.

This evening, HBO will air the final episode of the third season of Insecure (which has already been renewed for a fourth). It is directed by Regina King, who played a lead character in the series Southland, the rare hour-long TV drama to air, for its full five-season run, without any background score. I wrote previously about the character Daniel’s presence on Insecure as a nuanced secondary figure we see making music.

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“Unknown SoundCloud Producer Dead”

The rich ambiguity of music on Insecure

If you watch Insecure, Issa Rae’s excellent HBO series, you know the music of Raphael Saadiq, who has scored it since it debuted two seasons back. Part of the impact of Saadiq’s work on Insecure is how the back beat of the show works seamlessly with whatever the characters might themselves be listening to. The latter is the craft of music supervisor Kier Lehman. Sometimes the distinction is entirely unclear, much to both Saadiq and Lehman’s credit. And this season of Insecure, its third, music production is becoming a narrative tool of interpersonal ambiguity.

Part of what makes the character Daniel — whose role has expanded significantly of late — so important to Insecure is that while music was already important to the show from the start, now there’s this nuanced secondary figure we see making music, and stressing about making music, and building a career in music — and, this past Sunday night, fearing his own eventual obituary’s headline if he doesn’t get his act together: “Unknown SoundCloud producer dead.”

Just moments earlier, Daniel had beatboxed into the ear of Issa’s character at a nightclub. His stated intent was to layer his sense of what would enrich the music of the performer they were witnessing at that moment, were they to every collaborate. However, in order to be heard over the club, Daniel had to lean extra close to Issa to do his beatbox impression. It’s a rare feat for beatboxing to signify subconscious intimacy and compositional refinement, even more so for those to occur simultaneously.

An especially artful moment came at the close of the episode (“Familiar-Like,” the new season’s second). Daniel is at his production desk. Issa walks to him from the living room while music plays. It’s the music Daniel’s making, but it’s also the moment’s music: relaxed, sophisticated. The ambiguity is rich. Is he doing work or sending a message? Is she helping or replying? The show doesn’t tell us directly, because the characters don’t know either, and that’s the point. Music in filmed entertainment all too often tells the audience precisely what to feel. Here it’s accomplishing something much more complicated.

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Law & Order’s “Chung Chung” Turns 25

And stretched to as many minutes by John Kannenberg

Every pop-culture sound-design element gets its 15 minutes of fame, and sometimes even more. On the 25th anniversary of the Law & Order TV series, the show’s famous “clang,” or “chung chung,” has been stretched to 25 minutes by sound artist John Kannenberg. Kannenberg is pursuing a PhD focusing on the role of sound in the museum, but he’s clearly aware the that the court is just as fertile a bed for audio research as the art gallery. To listen to this stretched to such a length is to go inside the sound and peruse its details. The shimmery lattice of sound is akin to The Matrix‘s bullet time crossed with an electron microscope. You get a sensory experience of every tiny undulation.

The original is archived at Wikipedia.

Here as a bonus is a 20-minute talk Kannenberg gave recently on “Why Listen to Museums?”

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/johnkannenberg. More from Kannenberg, who also runs the fine Stasisfield label, at johnkannenberg.com.

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SOUND RESEARCH LOG: Is Voice the Uncanny Valley?

There may have been no better place than io9.com to keep track of Comic-Con, and this popped up in a summary of the Person of Interest panel. That’s the CBS series with an admirably long-game approach to narrative. It’s about an AI coming into sentience. That AI has become more of a character, and as the series enters season four it now is up against a competitive AI:

“Pressed for an answer about whether or not the AIs would get voices, Jonathan Nolan responded, ‘We’re working on the voice thing. But you may not like where it goes.’”

Full coverage at io9.com. It’s rarely advisable to read comments, but there are some strongly worded concerns in the resulting thread about lending voices to the AI, worth checking out if only as an expression of a point of view.

This entry cross-posted from the Disquiet linkblog project sound.tumblr.com.

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disquiet.gizmodo.com

On Disquiet.com now participating in the Gizmodo ecosystem

These are two things that I think Geoff Manaugh, editor-in-chief of the technology and design blog Gizmodo.com, didn’t know about me when he asked if I’d consider bringing Disquiet.com beneath his website’s expanding umbrella.

1: My “to re-blog” bookmark file has been packed in recent months with scores of items from pretty much all of the Gizmodo-affiliated sites — not just Gizmodo, but io9.com, Lifehacker, Jalopnik, Gawker, and Kotaku. Probably Jezebel and Deadspin, too, but the file is too thick for me to tell.

2: Pretty much the first thing that I read every morning with my coffee — well, every weekday morning — is the “Morning Spoilers” at io9.com, the great science fiction website that is part of the Gawker network that also contains Gizmodo.

I knew Manaugh’s work from BLDGBLOG and, before that, Dwell Magazine. He’d previously invited me to involve the weekly experimental music/sound project series that I run, the Disquiet Junto, in the course on the architecture of the San Andreas Fault that he taught in spring 2013 at Columbia University’s graduate school of architecture. And I am excited to work with him again.

And so, there is now a cozy disquiet.gizmodo.com subdomain URL where I’ll be syndicating — simulposting — material from Disquiet.com, as well as doing original straight-to-Gizmodo writing. I’m hopeful that members of the Gizmodo readership might further expand the already sizable ranks of the Disquiet Junto music projects (we just completed one based on a post from Kotaku), and I’ll be posting notes from the course I teach on “sound in the media landscape” at the Academy of Art here in San Francisco.

For new readers of Disquiet, the site’s purview is as follows:

* Listening to Art.

* Playing with Audio.

* Sounding Out Technology.

* Composing in Code.

I’ll take a moment to break that down:

Listening to Art: Attention to sound art has expanded significantly this year, thanks in no small part to the exhibit Soundings: A Contemporary Score at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. That exhibit, which ran from August 10 through November 3, featured work by such key figures as Susan Philipsz (whose winning of the Turner Prize inspired an early music compilation I put together), Carsten Nicolai (whom I profiled in the new Red Bull Music Academy book For the Record), and Stephen Vitiello (whom I’ve interviewed about 911 and architectural acoustics, and who has participated in the Disquiet Junto). But if “sound art” is art for which music is both raw material and subject matter, my attention is just as much focused on what might better be described as the role of “sound in art,” of the depictions of audio in various media (the sound effects in manga, for example) and the unintended sonic components of art beyond sound art, like the click and hum of a slide carousel or the overall sonic environment of a museum. Here’s video of Tristan Perich’s “Microtonal Wall” from the MoMA exhibit:

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Playing with Audio: If everything is, indeed, a remix, that is a case most clearly made in music and experimental sound. From the field recordings that infuse much ambient music to the sampling of hip-hop to the rapturous creative reuse that proliferates on YouTube and elsewhere, music as raw material is one of the most exciting developments of our time. Terms like “remix” and “mashup” and “mixtape” can been seen to have originated or otherwise gained cachet in music, and as they expand into other media, we learn more about them, about the role such activities play in culture. And through the rise of audio-game apps, especially in iOS, such “playing with sound” has become all the more common — not just the work of musicians but of audiences, creating a kind of “active listening.” This notion of reuse, of learning about music and sound by how it is employed after the fact, plays a big role in my forthcoming book for the 33 1/3 series. My book is about Aphex Twin’s album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, and it will be published on February 13, 2014, just weeks ahead of the record’s 20th anniversary. As part of my research for the book, I spoke with many individuals who had come to appreciate the Aphex Twin album by engaging with it in their own work, from composers who had transcribed it for more “traditional” instruments (such as chamber ensembles and solo guitar), to choreographers and sound designers, to film directors.

Sounding Out Technology: A briefer version of the Disquiet.com approach is to look at “the intersection of sound, art, and technology.” The term “technology” is essential to that trio, because it was only when I learned to step back from my fascination with electronically produced music and to appreciate “electronic” as a subset of the vastly longer continuum of “technology” that connections became more clear to me — say, between the sonics of raves and the nascent polyphony of early church music, or between creative audio apps like Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers’ Bloom and what is arguably the generative ur-instrument: the aeolian harp. With both Bloom and the aeolian harp, along with its close relative the wind chime, music is less a fixed composition than a system that is enacted. As technology mediates our lives more and more, the role that sound plays in daily life becomes a richer and richer subject — from voice-enabled devices, to the sounds of consumer product design, to the scores created for electric cars:

Composing in Code: Of all the technologies to come to the fore in the past two decades, perhaps none has had an impact greater than computer code. This is no less true in music and sound than it is in publishing, film, politics, health, or myriad other fields. While the connections between mathematics and music have been celebrated for millennia, there is something special to how, now, those fields are combining, notably in graphic systems such as Max/MSP (and Max for Live, in Ableton) and Puredata (aka Pd), just to name two circumstances. Here, for reference, is a live video of the Dutch musician and sound artist Edo Paulus’ computer screen as he constructs and then performs a patch in Max/MSP. Where the construction ends and the performance begins provides a delightful koan:

All of which said, I’m not 100-percent clear what form my disquiet.gizmodo.com activity will take. I’m looking forward to experimenting in the space. I’ll certainly be co-posting material from Disquiet.com, but I’m also planning on engaging with Gizmodo itself, and with its broader network of sites. I’ve already, in advance of this post, begun re-blogging material from Gizmodo and from Gizmodo-affiliated sites: not just “sharing” (in the UI terminology of the Kinja CMS that powers the network) but adding some contextual information, thoughts, tangents, details. I’m enthusiastic about Kinja, in particular how it blurs the lines between author and reader. I like that a reply I make to a post about a newly recreated instrument by Leonardo Da Vinci can then appear in my own feed, leading readers back to the original site, where they themselves might join in the conversation. Kinja seems uniquely focused on multimedia as a form of commentary — like many CMS systems, it allows animated GIFs and short videos to serve as blog comments unto themselves, but it goes the step further of allowing users to delineate rectangular sub-sections of previously posted images and comment on those. I’m intrigued to see how sound can fit into that approach. (It’s no surprise to me that Kinja is innovative in this regard — it’s on Lifehacker that I first learned about the syntax known as “markdown.”) I think that all, cumulatively, makes for a fascinating media apparatus, and I want to explore it.

While I typed this post, it was Tuesday in San Francisco. I live in the Outer Richmond District, just north of Golden Gate Park and a little over a mile from the Pacific Ocean. The season’s first torrential rain has passed, and so the city sounds considerably more quiet than it did just a few days ago. No longer is the noise of passing automobiles amplified and augmented by the rush of water, and the roof above my desk is no longer being pummeled. But where there is the seeming peace of this relative quiet, there is also an increased diversity of listening material. The ear can hear further, as it were — not just to conversations in the street and to passing cars, but to construction blocks away, to leaf blowers, to a seaplane overhead, to the sound of a truck backing up at some considerable distance, and to the many birds that (unlike what I was accustomed to, growing up on the north shore of New York’s Long Island) do not all vacate the area come winter. It is shortly past noon as I hit the button to make this post go live. Church bells have sung a duet with the gurgling in my belly to remind me it is time for lunch. And because it is Tuesday, the city’s civic warning system has rung out. 

Dim sum, anyone?

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