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

Stems: Listening to Carruth, Mansell, and The New Republic

Plus: Matmos' toolset, sound design tips, the culture of rhythm, Sherlock's scanner ...

¶ Primer Directive: The complete score of Shane Carruth’s film Upstream Color is streaming for free, 15 tracks in total. Extended stretches of the film are devoid of dialog, and the natural sound and music, along with the visuals, are left to do the storytelling. As Jascha Hoffman tweeted shortly after seeing the film at its Sundance debut, “Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color : plot // William Basinski’s tape loops : song form.”

¶ Stoked About Stoker: “At the beginning of Stoker, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) tells us she can hear things more clearly than most people, a talent that is quickly apparent seeing as every noise and sound in India’s life is amplified.” That’s from the opening of Allison Loring’s appreciation of the sound design and score of the new Park Chan-Wook film, with music by Clint Mansell as well as a song from Emily Wells and a new piano piece by Philip Glass — at filmschoolrejects.com.

¶ URL Earmarks: This is pretty intriguing. The recent redesign of the website of The New Republic (newrepublic.com) includes a button that will read out loud the text on the page. Like buttons for Twitter and Facebook, for email and “save to PDF,” this is almost certainly going to be a UI/UX norm. So far, however, per this screenshot, it seems largely to be “coming soon”:

201302-newrepub

¶ In Brief: “Lost within the act of listening, I give attention to that which is often ignored: the high-pitched silence of a winter day; the whir of a movie projector displaying a silent film; the cavernous echo inside a museum. ” That’s from the latest post at the blog Phonomnesis, by John Kannenberg, sound artist and founder of the Stasisfield netlabel. ¶ Ethan Hein has posted a six-slide presentation about the extent to which rhythm is a cultural construct. That he is a new father is clearly an impetus for his exploration: slideshare.net. ¶ “Too loud? Sorry. I went downstairs to get some cereal. Didn’t want to miss anything. The city has excellent scanner apps but, um, there’s nothing like the tactility of the original devices, all those dials and buttons.” That’s Sherlock Holmes, as played by Jonny Lee Miller, in episode six (“Flight Risk”) of the first season of Elementary. The scene is on youtube.com:

20130224-sholmeselementary

¶ Many thanks to Peggy Nelson of hilobrow.com for having highlighted the Disquiet Junto’s end-of-2012 audio journal project. ¶ A tour of Matmos’ studio at xlr8r.com. ¶ List (at indiewire.com) of tips from top-rank sound designers has broad applications. Among the tips: “Decide if sound or music should do the heavy lifting in every scene” and “Too many sonic elements can be confusing.”

Also tagged , , , , , / / Leave a comment ]

Stems: Eno Studies, Aural Antagonism, Sonic Diptychs, …

Plus: update on my recent film project, TV sound, politics, more

â—¼ Imminent Audio: Saying “Tuesday at midnight” or “Wednesday at midnight” can mean different things to different people, so to be clear: On the midnight when Tuesday, November 20, meets Wednesday, November 21, I will be guest DJing for two hours on the web-streamed radio show “The World of Wonder” on KUSF in Exile. Thanks to drum machine innovator Matt Davignon for inviting me to handle the duties. It will stream at savekusf.org. The show will emphasize various aspects of minimalist sound: quietude, rhythmic simplicity, texture, and more. And that’s Pacific Time. And it will be archived within a day of the broadcast, and I’ll post that here when it’s available. The show includes music from, among others, Dance Robot Dance, Emma Hendrix, Garth Knox, Kate Carr, Anton Lukoszevieze, Scanner, all n4tural, Natalia Kamia, and jmmy kpple.

â—¼ Two Disquiet Concerts: More on these very soon, but if you’re in Manhattan or San Francisco, please note that Disquiet Junto concerts are coming your way, soon. The Manhattan show will be at the gallery apexart on November 27, a Tuesday, at 6:30pm. The lineup: Brian Biggs (aka Dance Robot Dance), Ethan Hein, Shawn Kelly (aka Whyarcka), Kenneth Kirschner, Tom Moody, and Roddy Schrock (with Joon Oluchi Lee). The theme will be mechanized music made from field recordings of retail spaces, as part of the “As Real As It Gets” exhibit, organized by Rob Walker. â—¼ The San Francisco show will be at the gallery the Luggage Store on December 6, a Thursday, at 8:00pm. The lineup: Cullen Miller, Clarke Robinson, Jared Smith, Subnaught, and Andrew Weathers (see facebook.com). The theme is yet to be announced.

â—¼ Site Maintenance: A minor note, but this section of occasional tidbits and observations has long been called “Tangents,” and will no longer be. Now it’s going to be called “Stems.” The old term, “tangents,” suggested something that dissipated over time. The term “stems” comes from music production; it refers to a subset of material that’s been mixed down (collated, reduced) to aid in the subsequent production process. It’s a mid-stage, and thus it’s closer to the “outboard brain” (I think that’s a Cory Doctorow coinage) approach the “Tangents” postings have long served. (And if I appear to be doing these more often than I had in awhile, it’s true. I credit much of this activity to my adoption of the markdown “text-to-HTML conversion” approach, which speeds up things considerably. Seriously considerably.)

â—¼ Eno-ology: One of the great things about a great new Brian Eno album — in this case, Lux — is the inevitable flood: a lot of writing about Eno. Geeta Dayal, in what I think is her first slate.com piece, notes that falling asleep to an Eno album is a compliment, not a criticism. â—¼ Of course, Eno is ubiquitous, meaning that sometimes coverage of his work simply happens to coincide with him being in the news for a particular reason; in his plos.one blog, NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman queries 10 authors on the music they work to, among them David Dobbs, who notes not only Eno’s fixed recordings but his software:

… I rely on two staples:

First, a shuffled play of Brian Eno’s ambient albums, such as Music for Airports; second, an ingenious iPod app Eno made called Trope. You tap and rub the screen for a moment, fingerpaint-style, to set the texture for a Music for Airports-like ambient soundscape that will play indefinitely. I’ve done some great planning and some of my better writing lately with that going. The one danger is that the fine ambience and healthy relaxed Zenlike state it produces can convince you you’re getting good work done when it turns out … well, you’re not. A couple times I fell asleep.

When that happens, I get up, turn the volume up to 11, and put on some Led Zeppelin…

â—¼ Sonic Weapons: I tend to disagree that the world is louder than it used to be. I think noise pollution is often a matter of individual perspective, of mood, of context. To be clear: I am not denying that humankind is leaving more of a prominent mark in places, zones, territories, it once left sacrosanct, or simply neglected — I’m speaking specifically of the built environment, of places (towns, cities, public spaces, workplaces) that are by definition humankind’s territory. In a New York Times essay (“The Quiet Ones”), Tim Kreider, a frequent flyer in the Quiet Car on Amtrak, describes how despite his concern for what he perceives as an annoyingly louder-than-ever world, he found himself “on the wrong side of the fight”:

I was sitting in my seat, listening to music at a moderate volume on headphones and writing on my laptop, when the man across the aisle — the kind you’d peg as an archivist or musicologist — signaled to me.

“Pardon me, sir,”he said. “Maybe you’re not aware of it, but your typing is disturbing people around you. This is the Quiet Car, where we come to be free from people’s electronic bleeps and blatts.”He really said “bleeps and blatts.”

“I am a devotee of the Quiet Car,”I protested. And yes, I said “devotee.”We really talk like this in the Quiet Car; we’re readers. “I don’t talk on my cellphone or have loud conversations — ”

“I’m not talking about cellphone conversations,”he said, “I’m talking about your typing, which really is very loud and disruptive.”

After each reproach they would lower their voices for a while, but like a grade-school cafeteria after the lunch monitor has yelled for silence, the volume crept inexorably up again. It was soft but incessant, and against the background silence, as maddening as a dripping faucet at 3 a.m.

For the record, as I’ve said in the past, I think perceiving this matter of “noise versus silence” as a fight is part of the problem. Noise is metaphor as much as it is a visceral experience. Noise is, in many ways, antagonism — and a fight is often a matter of antagonism, whichever “side” you’re on.

â—¼ Hearing Aid: Light may travel more significantly more speedily than does sound, but Seth S. Horowitz argues that what’s heard is experienced more quickly than what’s seen:

Studies have shown that conscious thought takes place at about the same rate as visual recognition, requiring a significant fraction of a second per event. But hearing is a quantitatively faster sense.

That’s from his recent (and widely circulated) essay “The Science and Art of Listening” from the New York Times. Horowitz is the author of the excellent book The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind.

Like Kreider above, Horowitz is concerned about the pressures of modernization on the senses (“Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload”), but he is more attuned to the role context and consciousness plays: “your brain works like a set of noise-suppressing headphones,” he says. He argues in part for listening as a skill an individual can acquire, in contrast with the more systemic approach that Quiet Car devotee Kreider seems to be aiming for.

â—¼ Curses, Foiled: Speaking of noise as metaphor, the website wtflevel.com provides “Real-time updates on twitter swearing.” Since I tend to curse more out of enthusiasm than anger, I am intrigued by how the service adjusts for this. In any case, the website is pretty f’ing awesome. Sample data output here:

I think the waveform could be of use in a future Disquiet Junto project — read it as a graphically notated score, like we did the polling data from the recent U.S. presidential election.

â—¼ Moon Unit: Quick little interview at greyshading.com with Moon Zero, whose “Budapest” drone was noted here fondly recently. Turns out the city played a role in his sonic development:

I want the audio to take on a life of its own, to be constantly pulsing and shifting. I love contrasts as well, beautiful sounds hidden by noise, things like that.

I’m at a strange place at the moment because my sound seems to be more and more influenced by religion, which is funny as I consider myself an atheist. I think its their sense of “epic”that inspires me. Big spaces and big bombast. It started when I was staying at a friends house in Budapest a couple of months ago. On Sunday morning this huge sound woke me up. His flat was next to St Peters Basilica and the sound was the bells tolling. It was so intense, but beautiful at the same time. I’ve recorded in churches in the past and this is something I’d like to do more of, although sadly it’s not easy finding one that’s sympathetic to ambient music.

â—¼ Tech-nique: Mark Rushton continues to report on his use of Google Hangouts, and in this case on his employment of a newly popular iOS app, Samplr.

â—¼ Math Tip: If you’re trying to add lengths of various tracks (e.g., combine the length of a handful of songs when estimating the length of a planned podcast), this is a handy tool: dollartimes.com.

â—¼ Surreal Politik: Old news, but nonetheless: the irony when a political campaign doesn’t fully comprehend the provenance of its source music extends beyond the opposition by pop stars to staples of the American classical repertoire: theatlanticwire.com.

â—¼ Sonic Diptychs: The great youtubemultiplier.com site was introduced to me by the talented and insightful Samuel Landry, and since his initial mention I’ve seen and received many others. The service lets you easily play two or more (up to eight) YouTube videos side by side, simultaneously. The previous link goes to a Landry (aka @le_berger on Twitter) cocktail of Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, and Stephan Mathieu. The service is wonderful if only for letting me now, whenever I want, play one of my favorite sonic diptychs: Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon + DJ Krush’s Kakusei.

â—¼ Doc Update: The documentary film The Children Next Door, for which I handled music supervision and share sound-design credit with the talented Taylor Deupree, won a special jury prize at the DOC NYC last Thursday. Trailer here:

It shares the award with the film Julian. DOC NYC said of the pair: “two powerful and intimate short films that capture the struggles of a pair of families as they battle through emotional confusion following devastating and violent tragedies” (docnyc.net). More at thechildrennextdoor.com. The movie was directed by Doug Block and produced by Lynda Hansen. So far it has shown at three film festivals: the Hamptons, Denver, and DOC NYC. Major thanks to the DOC NYC Shorts Competition category’s jurors: Natalie Difford (Cinereach), Vikram Gandhi (Kumaré), and Dan Nuxoll (Rooftop Films). And there’s a wonderful review of the film at sundancenow.com by Anthony Kaufman: “Though only 36 minutes, The Children Next Door attains a level of pathos as deep as any feature-length documentary.”

â—¼ Listening to TV: (1) The Good Wife, in the episode a week and a day ago (“Anatomy of a Joke”), did a solid, humorous job of handling matters of censorship. As “ripped from the headlines” TV goes — there’s been increasing talk of late of networks easing their standards regarding adult material — it managed to be both outlandish and subtle. In the opening sequence, a character played by Christina Ricci is on the stand, under oath, being prosecuted for exposing her breasts on national television. When the opposing attorney interrogates her, she asks him what words he finds offensive (“What do you mean ‘vulgar’?”) and he can only muster, “It rhymes with ‘bits.'” She asks if we’re eight-year-olds here, and proceeds to say the offending word out loud (four letters, but only in the plural form), and not only does traffic noise obscure the verbalization, but the camera passes so that her face is momentarily covered by the attorney’s back, just at the moment she would be mouthing the word. The room’s guards are seen, as if in a Laurel and Hardy film, repeatedly trying to close a window to keep traffic noise from interfering. â—¼ (2) Last week’s episode of NCIS: Los Angeles (“Rude Awakenings”) was the second part of a two-part sequence, focused on previously undisclosed personal matters involving the character of an agent played by LL Cool J. The show has more to its credit than it gets credit for, though its primary pleasure is likely the fact that on weekly basis the most unlikely pairing of LL Cool (“Mama Said Knock You Out”) and Linda Hunt (The Killing Fields) can be seen sparring or scheming, sometimes both at the same time. In any case, pretty much every episode of NCIS: Los Angeles ends with a little voiceover by Hunt’s characer, Hetty, after the screen goes dark. In a telling bit of tension-building, this time around, the credits were silent. It’s a small thing, but sometimes in sound design, the small things are the biggest things, especially when they’re silent, especially when that silent is a nod to, an acknowledgement of, the audience’s attention. In addition, there was a nice little bit at the start of the episode when a character previously disguised as a delivery person approached a home, presumed to be owned by a sleeper Soviet (yes, Soviet — not modern Russia) agent, and the pace of the music exactly matched her footsteps. Again, a small moment, but given how much TV music can sound like it was selected from a catalog with all the nuance of a Google image search, a good moment — especially when paired with the employment of Heddy’s silence at the episode’s end. â—¼ (3) Finally, as @solidsignal noted on Twitter, Fringe did it again:

Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , / / Leave a comment ]

Resolving the Sonic Themes on Fringe

The final season starts off with a musical statement of purpose.

When the final season of the TV series Fringe debuted this past Friday, September 28, there were many pressing questions: Would all our heroes emerge from amber in distant 2036? Would this dystopia look different in any considerable way from all the other recent Hollywood dystopias? Would Dr. Walter Bishop finally remember Astrid’s name? Would the Observers let slip their deep, dark secret — that Rogaine is people!?

One thing I was particularly focused on was the show’s employment of music — whether the inventive use of sound in the series would in some way play a substantial role as Dr. Bishop and his family/colleagues did their best to save the future in 13 episodes or less. Sound has been a central part of Fringe science and storytelling, from instants caught like record grooves in the plate glass of a crime scene, to the regular presence of pop music as a symbol of memory (often abetted by the appearance of a phonograph), to murderers incited by a Conet-style numbers station, to the chiptune version of the opening credits music in a flashback episode. And more broadly, attention to the creative employment of sound has been a hallmark of producer JJ Abrams’ production company’s work, notably in the ways various cues from Lost later surfaced in the ill-fated Alcatraz.

And then, shortly into the first episode (with the delightfully unwieldy title “Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11”) of this final season, Dr. Bishop was taken hostage — and into his holding cell walked the Observer known as Windmark. And out of their mouths came as close as an Abrams production has ventured toward providing a conspicuous description of the role sound plays in his work. In the scene transcribed here, Windmark can listen in on Bishop’s thoughts, and he hears some music Bishop is attempting to summon up.

Windmark: I don’t know why you’re alive. … Oh, you’re trying to think of music. You … miss … music.

Bishop: There’s not a lot of it here.

Windmark: We tolerate it, but it’s merely tones, rhythms, harmonic vibrations. I don’t understand …

Bishop: Mostly it amazes me. Music helps you shift perspective, to see things differently if you need to.

Windmark: See things … like “hope.”

Bishop: Yes, very much like that.

Windmark: But there is no hope for you. Nothing grows from scorched earth.

Later in the episode, Bishop is saved from captivity. He wakes next to his patient assistant, the agent Astrid, and the first thing he says to her, after inevitably mangling her name (“Afro?”) is, “Do you have any music?” Later, after some more rest, Bishop’s spirits rise, in part because of colorful lights that dance on his face. These turn out to be the reflection of some broken CDs hanging in a makeshift mobile in the street outside the building where he’s resting. He wanders into the street, finds a CD hand-labeled “Trip Mix 6,” wipes it off, and pops it into a CD player (in an abandoned car that still happens to have battery power). Out comes Yaz’s “Only You,” and Bishop smiles. Through the windshield he spies something flowering in the dirt — so much for things not growing in scorched earth.

Given how distressed Bishop was earlier, it’s particularly comforting to see him not only at peace but pleased. And given how often the phonograph has been used to signify how out of touch he is with the modern world (echoing similar usage in Lost), it’s interesting that it’s not a vinyl record but a CD that plays a role in reviving him. That flower isn’t the only thing that’s maturing.

Update (2012.10.07): A friend pointed out to me at lunch today that the music in Walter’s head during the interrogation is “Song for the Unification of Europe”by composer Zbigniew Preisner, from the movie Blue (1993), directed by Krzysztof KieÅ›lowski. The musical theme is not just a presence in Blue but its subject, the work of the late husband of the character played by Juliette Binoche, in whose head the music repeatedly appears during the course of the film:

A quick search showed that this correlation between Fringe and Blue was also picked up by at aldeburgh.tumblr.com, where the above video was posted.

Also tagged / / Comment: 1 ]

“It’s the Hum”: The Sound Design of ‘Nikita’

In which the title character pauses to note the room tone

For reasons beyond my comprehension, the time during which I am writing this has become transfixed by the concept of spoilers, which have become something akin to a moral panic in recent years. It’s not unforeseeable that down the road the word will likely have asterisks permanently affixed to it. As I note when necessary over on goodreads.com: I promise that below I don’t “spoil” anything that would have bothered me had I known about it in advance. That said, I cannot think of anything I have read or watched that would have been spoiled had I known the plot-advancing facts beforehand. (Not that it applies here specifically, but my firm belief is that the only real way to “spoil” something is to detail any serious flaws in logic, to the extent that you then can’t get them out of your head as you consume the work.)

The CW series Nikita is at its heart science fiction. Nikita doesn’t have aliens, or sentient computers, or superpowered characters, but it takes place just enough technological moments ahead in the future that it exists apart from the everyday reality of its viewers. And like much science fiction, Nikita has at its heart a spaceship. The key difference is that its spaceship is underground. The spaceship is called Division. It’s an off-the-books government agency that has gone rogue; that rogue status is unbeknownst to most of its members. Division isn’t a spaceship, of course. It’s a paramilitary compound built of concrete, glass, and steel — and decorated with the Design Within Reach catalog.

Like many basic-cable television series, Nikita has a limited budget. And like the more inventive of these series, Nikita makes the most of what it has, especially in terms of its sets. As far as locales are concerned, the show for much of its initial two seasons maintained opposing poles: the desolate if stylish loft where the title character (played by Maggie Q) hid out, and this subterranean organization called Division that is the focus of her vengeful ire. As season two progressed, Nikita’s hideout was abandoned, and as the season came to an end, as it did a week ago, it looked like Division would soon follow.

Having long ago escaped Division and sought to destroy it from outside, Nikita ventures, during the show’s two-part season finale, back into the mothership (the season-ending episode was titled “Homecoming,” with a lack of subtlety that is a trademark of the series). The Nikita viewer has spent much of the show deep inside Division, following the camera’s gaze as it wandered down concrete hallways, hovered over computer banks, and lingered in the offices of the enjoyably malevolent senior management. But Nikita, we come to recognize, hasn’t herself been in Division in a very long time. Brief flashbacks taunt her as she finally re-enters the complex and makes her way toward her target: the scenery-chewing sociopath, played with relish by Xander Berkeley, who runs the place.

Midway through the episode, Nikita pauses while descending an air shaft (pictured above) and says,

“I finally realized what I hate about this place. It’s the hum.”
The hum, clearly, isn’t what she hates about Division. She hates that it carries off routine assassinations, that it puts kill chips in its employees, that it has hijacked American democracy, and that it has stolen the youth of its recruits, herself included. Her comment about the hum is a deadpan joke before a storm of gunfire. And it brings to mind the YouTube videos of another, actual science-fiction starship: the ones showing nothing but the low-level rumble of various generations of the Star Trek Enterprise (see below). These hums are the room tones of fictional places. They are the breath that brings sets to life, that makes the set decorator’s faux concrete seem to reflect sounds like concrete, that makes an ordinary studio feel like it is situated deep below ground.

The look on Nikita’s face at this moment is perfect because it interrupts the illusion cast by the sound design’s hum. She hasn’t just infiltrated the heavily protected edifice; she’s broken the fourth wall as well.

Tag: / Comments: 4 ]

Tangents: defining electronica, jamming speech, updating apps, …

News, quick links, good reads

Jargon Watch: Last week I happened to watch an episode of CSI (the “original” series). Titled “Trends with Benefits” it was a foray into the interpersonal impact of surveillance culture, and into the perceived — perhaps the best word is “purported” — generational technological gaps. The key episode-specific character, the dead body around which the narrative circles, was a precocious Las Vegas college student who aspired to the gossip profession (the TMZ enterprise was name-checked). His dorm room was found to be loaded with prosumer technology, including cameras and various other recording devices. One of the CSI staff (the character named Greg Sanders, shown above) observed the collected digital equipment and said of it, “The kid had all kind of electronica.” It’s worth noting that this Sanders character is on the young end of the CSI staff, and was displayed in stark counterpoint to the character played by Ted Danson; Danson’s character isn’t quite sure what “trending” meant in regard to social networks, and he sometimes holds a smartphone like it’s the first time he’s ever been handed a pair of chopsticks. This usage, by Sanders, of the term “electronica” in this manner is interesting, and promising. (The episode’s script is credited to Jack Gutowitz, who according to IMDB.com spent a lot of time on Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.) It employs it to describe not a specific and dated subset of popular electronically produced music, but the broader flotsam of general digital-era activity. That is along the lines of the sense in which I use the term, and why I have resisted the urge, over the years, to remove it from this site’s logo.

Speech Jam: Geeta Dayal, author of the 33 1/3 book on Brian Eno’s Another Green World, has taken residence at Wired’s website, which is good news. In one of her first wired.com posts, she covered the “Japanese speech-jamming gun” and smartly highlights precedents ranging from J.G. Ballard to Karlheinz Stockhausen. (Additional coverage at technologyreview.com and io9.com.)

App Updates: These are all iOS, though some if not all also apply to their Android versions. Thicket has added three new modes. NodeBeat has added MIDI support, and expanded the number of savable recordings. Ambiance has added the ability to record sounds and to play sounds in “background” mode, among other things. The eDrops app has added new sounds and the ability to load and save patterns. Audioboo seems to have mostly focused on infrastructure for its latest update. Air has added AirPlay support. Reactable has added access to the community area, “save and view” performances, and more.

Social Bullet: I wrote the following to someone asking for how to “use” “social media” to “promote” their music: “The whole social media thing is complicated. There is no generally applicable answer. I would say the following, broadly: make sure you participate. For example, the Junto project had rules, and to have posted on it without reading the Info page was a matter of not really participating. Make sure if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and SoundCloud that you actively participate: post, reply to other people’s posts, comment on their music. This will, in time, lead to a stronger sense of community. You’re find musicians with whom you have things in common, and you’ll support each other in your pursuits.” (The context was correspondence with someone who had posted a track to the Disquiet Junto project on Soundcloud.com that didn’t have anything to do with the current project.)

Also tagged , , , , , , / / Leave a comment ]