Rain is something that can be thought of almost as an echo of itself. Like an extrovert who only exists when there is an audience to perform for, rain is not heard so much as it is heard in reaction to something: an umbrella, the ground, a window, or generally some other surface that it strikes. There is also the way rain combines with the sound of wind, and how cloud cover and other related factors can utterly alter the broader sonic environment: dulling edges, nurturing a sense of closed space, walling off further distant noises.
That’s a case made clear in this video from the always on the move Nomadic Ambience (834,000 subscribers on YouTube as of this writing), who wandered around Chicago on a rainy day and captured not just the rain as heard against the protective gear that keeps the camera lens dry, but also as it bounces off the sidewalk, and creates slick streets and shallow puddles that cars turn into sound sources as they pass by.
The video captures some thunderstorm noise, and various urban sounds, one highlight being a tour guide aboard a boat that passes under a bridge just as we, the viewer experiencing this all YouTube-vicariously, cross midway: “It’s a very well-designed building” goes the narration, before trailing off, absorbed by the whir of the rain.
Listen through the shimmer. Listen through the held tones, and the bell tones, and the swelling notes. Listen past the asynchronous patterning and the resulting chance chordal play. Listen instead for the frictives, the less sinuous textural elements, the way vinyl surface noise (or its approximate) moves across the stereo field. Listen for the clatter, and how it lends a sense of scale to the sonic space. Then listen to the more tonal material, and how the presence of the less inherently sedative elements bring out textures in the seemingly texture-less.
I don’t think I’ve re-upped a recording in a while, but I just love this piece, so having written about it back in April, I wanted to mention it again. This video is part of my ongoing YouTube playlist of fine live ambient performances. Video originally posted to YouTube by the talented Jae Ryan.
Chiho Oka + Kindohm + AFALFL
No Bounds Festival, Sheffield UK/YouTube
Kindohm is typing in a room different from the one I am in now. His screen is superimposed on my screen. Video of him typing is superimposed on what he himself types: lines of computer code in nested columns. These dual layered images he projects are color-reversed, leaving his skin dark, with a sickly blue tint. His beard, a resulting white fuzz, gives the illusion that he’s twice his actual age.
The music is euphorically broken. Kindohm’s beats — and this is almost entirely beats, not so much absent a vocalist as manifestly dissenting from such decoration — stagger and strut, rev up and evaporate, pounce and recoil. They promise a downbeat, then slyly renege on the fundamental club music social contract.
Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Kindohm (government name: Mike Hodnick) is participating in a mid-February 2021 livecoding livestream, under the Alpaca Sessions banner, part of the week-long No Bounds Festival, out of Sheffield, England. A trio of algorave performances constitute today’s 90 minute show. It’s hosted by Alex McLean, who helped coin the term algorave and created one of its leading languages, TidalCycles. We’re all used to musicians using laptops on stage but what’s different in algorave is those musicians aren’t running programs; they’re programming the music in real-time. Like Kindohm, they might employ external gear for support (today he expends more effort on his Midi Fighter Twister than on his laptop), but the code is the thing.
This No Bounds event also features both Chiho Oka (Tokyo, Japan) and AFALFL (Paris, France). Due to the pandemic, we’re all — audience, performers, and host alike — in our disparate locations. (Olivia Jack, who created the Hydra visual coding platform, even pops up in the chat window.) Yes, livestreams became widely familiar in 2020, but there’s something quite digitally native about a livecoding stream. Had algorave not already existed, Covid-19 would certainly have engendered this cultural variant.
Up first comes Oka, who is from the future, literally. While it’s still 13 February in Sheffield, the file name on her screen reveals it’s already Valentine’s Day where she is. Of the event’s three sets, Oka’s proves the most choreographed. Kindohm might adjust code and tweak equipment settings, but Oka presents something that’s deeply Rhizome-atic: a carefully honed breed of digital performance art. She jams at one point on nothing but her MacBook’s alert presets. At another, folders move under the guidance of a massive cursor, producing a sound-effects medley. And all along she’s present: a tiny figure in a red hoodie, as if her own mascot.
Closing the event is AFALFL (born Mamady Diarra), the one performer today hiding entirely from view. As white noise surfs left and right and back, he adjusts scripts onscreen in the “dark mode” color scheme familiar to software engineers around the globe. For AFALFL, however, dark mode is a full-on sonic aesthetic. The music is murky and chaotic, not just how it noisily veers, but how its components vary and jar, the sole constants being a kick drum and error beep.
Language within AFALFL’s code lends context: both obvious terms, like legato and speed, and seemingly project-specific ones, like 808bd, striate, and superimpose. It’s all there, naked for the audience to see, but true to the word “code,” what’s unfolding isn’t necessarily self-explanatory.
This article I wrote originally appeared in the June 2021 issue (number 448) of The Wire. It had the following header: “A historical exploration of foghorns sounding warnings to ships approaching the shore in a storm reflects on their sonic and cultural legacy.”
This article I wrote originally appeared in the April 2021 issue (number 446) of The Wire, which included the above graphic. Director’s cut alert: I reinserted a clause that had been deleted for space from the printed version. The concert is archived on YouTube:
Perhaps you’ve heard the news about the how the Golden Gate Bridge here in San Francisco, where I live, has taken to singing. Repairs to the bridge led to a unique teachable moment about the physics of sound: high winds cause it to drone mellifluously (or annoyingly, according to some locals, though not me) all around the city. The drone is hard to capture because, by definition, it happens when the winds are themselves making noise. The bridge also sounds different depending on where you are. I’ve posted footage from my backyard, not that my cellphone captured anything remotely like what it is like to stand there. It is truly alien, the thermin of the gods.
Much as nature abhors a vacuum, alien music abhors isolation. And thus the Golden Gate Bridge has drawn to it some local musicians. This isn’t the first track I’ve heard in which someone tries to play along with the bridge, but it’s certainly among the most beautiful. Nate Mercereau, as I learned in a news story in yesterday’s issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, has recorded a four-song EP, Duets, on which he plays live along with the bridge. There’s also a video, shown up above, in which he sits perched in the Marin Headlands with the bridge in the background. As Mercereau told the Chronicle’s Aidin Vaziri, “It’s the largest wind instrument in the world right now.”
The video opens with an extended sequence of the bridge on its own. Nearly a minute passes before Mercereau, eventually seated on a stool behind a battery of pedals, begins to intone slow, aching tones that meld beautifully with the bridge itself. He is careful to keep the playing subtle, quiet. It never threatens to overcome the bridge. Instead, it flows in and out of the underlying hum.
The playing on the Duets EP pushes a little further. On “Duet 1,” the guitar sounds at times almost like a flute. On “Duet 2,” a more full-bodied part suggests some hybrid of violin and saxophone. On “Duet 4,” Mercereau posits drones that sit in contrast with the main source audio. Throughout, the bridge just sings on. Perhaps when Mercereau is done, another musician will take his seat on that stool.
Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media
• December 13, 2021: This day marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Disquiet.com.
• December 28, 2021: This day marks the 10th anniversary of the Instagr/am/bient compilation.
• January 6, 2021: This day marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the Disquiet Junto music community.
• July 28, 2021: This day marked the 500th consecutive weekly project in the Disquiet Junto music community.
• There are entries on the Disquiet Junto in the book The Music Production Cookbook: Ready-made Recipes for the Classroom (Oxford University Press), edited by Adam Patrick Bell. Ethan Hein wrote one, and I did, too.
• A chapter on the Disquiet Junto ("The Disquiet Junto as an Online Community of Practice," by Ethan Hein) appears in the book The Oxford Handbook of Social Media and Music Learning (Oxford University Press), edited by Stephanie Horsley, Janice Waldron, and Kari Veblen. (Details at oup.com.)
• The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: disquiet.com/junto.
Since January 2012, the Disquiet Junto has been an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making community that employs creative constraints as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list (each Thursday), listen to tracks by participants from around the world, read the FAQ, and join in.
• 0507 / In DD’s Key of C / The Assignment: Make music with 10 acoustic instrument samples all in a shared key.
• 0506 / Wipe Out / The Assignment: Take something whole and erase half of it.
• 0505 / Line Out / The Assignment: Share a track, get feedback, and give feedback.
• 0504 / Transform Formula / The Assignment: Take a sound, change it, and contrast that with the original.
• 0503 / Sing Song / The Assignment: Record a song using only your voice transformed beyond recognition.