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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: video

Dave Seidel’s “Black Star Study”

Bleak intensity, plus sewing machine

“Black Star Study” is a dense, lengthy, tumultuous drone, one occasionally fleshed out with jittery synthesizer fluctuations and the stuttered grunts of something more akin to an unloved catalytic converter. Which is to say, in drone/noise terms, it is fantastic. Dave Seidel perpetrates the live performance in full view, his synthesizers narrowing into the distance on his desk, the bleak intensity of the music only slightly undermined by the sewing machine seen toward the rear of the room. As you listen, pay attention to the layers of grit, the mesh of crunchy distortions that makes your speakers vibrate and your imagination soar.

Video originally posted at Seidel’s YouTube channel. More from Seidel, who is based in New Hampshire, at mysterybear.net and mysterybear.bandcamp.com.

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The Chernobyl Effect

Scores that draw sonic material from the environments in which they're set

The first few years I taught my sound course, I found it interesting to observe which topics each new semester were natural to fold into the syllabus of the previous semester: a fresh employment of sound in product design, a further development of domestic surveillance amid the Internet of Things, a new advertising campaign aimed at pricking up consumers’ ears. Hildur Guonadottir’s excellent score to HBO’s Chernobyl mini-series provides a very different source of pedagogical intrigue: which once-abstract topics have, along the way, become normalized.

This is because as time has gone on, it’s become even more interesting (to me, that is) to observe which once-new (“new” to students, that is) topics have become familiar, even commonplace. And then, in turn, to probe how such familiarity alters the subjects at hand.

Each semester in my sound course I have taught, side by side, the scores to two very different thrillers, both of them set on submarines: Jeff Rona’s for the movie Phantom and Robert Duncan’s for the TV series Last Resort. Both scores draw from submarine field recordings as source audio for the music. The composers recorded sounds of the antiquated environments, capturing claustrophobic room tones and banging on equipment, and then tuned those tracks and turned the resulting sounds into digital instruments.

The similarities and differences between the Phantom and Last Resort approaches to submarine source audio are highly teachable, surfacing (pun!) various matters, such as how they extract sound, as well as the inherent musicality of everyday listening.

Of particular value during class discussion is the manner in which this approach manages to blur the distinctions between the diegetic (i.e., sounds with an on-screen source, like machinery and conversation) and the non-diegetic (i.e., sounds external to the action, such as score and voice-overs). And better yet: how the end results differ between films, despite the shared approach.

That last bit is important, because if the end results were the same, if Phantom and Last Resort sounded the same, the aesthetics would be reduced to something causal, and the technique to a matter of mechanics.

The films, however, do not sound similar at all. Duncan’s Last Resort is very much a classic, epic, retro-orchestral vibe, whereas Rona’s Phantom is more ethereal, bearing a Fourth World influence, perhaps from his time as a collaborator with Jon Hassell. Even more interestingly, the old-school music of Last Resort serves a story set in the present, whereas the highly contemporary, even futuristic, music of Phantom serves a story set way back in Cold War. As a result, in class discussion we can talk about how the approach of sampling the environment serves varied narrative needs, about expectations of genre norms, and about how the composers’ (and directors’) proclivities come into play.

There are mini-documentaries on both Phantom and Last Resort, and they’re worth watching for the parallels and divergences. Here’s the Rona/Phantom:

And here’s the Duncan/Last Resort:

They’re valuable to watch in tandem, great in the classroom as concise encapsulations of the technique.

Now, however, thanks to the well-deserved acclaim for Guonadottir’s work on Chernobyl, by the time next semester of my sound course begins, come February 2020, the students will be all “Oh, like Chernobyl,” when the subject arises of using place as source audio for the creation of music and atmosphere. Of course, I won’t know until class begins where students’ thoughts are, what they’ve collectively and individually taken as the new normal, versus what they see as “gimmick” (skepticism is a common response, and can be a healthy one), versus what they are, in fact, not familiar with. No doubt, though, I’ll show or assign in class something like this interview with Guonadottir, where she talks about working with Chris Watson to capture the sounds of one nuclear reactor in order to tell the story of another, much as Rona and Duncan did with submarines:

At a structural level, this “score” segment of my course usually occurs during the third week, toward the end of the sequence on “Learning to Listen” (it’s a three-part course: weeks four through 10 are “Sounds of Brands,” which is also the title of the course, and weeks 11 through 15 are “Brands of Sounds”). Perhaps I’ll move this part earlier, or perhaps it’ll make sense to move it later. I don’t know yet. Certainly, though, the praise for Guonadottir’s Chernobyl score will encourage other composers to adopt the process, and alert non-specialist newspapers, magazines, and blogs to composers also doing such things. Which is to say, there will almost certainly be even more material (call it the Chernobyl effect) to slot into discussion by next year. It’s a long eight months between now and the next semester. I have time to plan, and to listen.

Just as a side note, because Twitter can be an excellent place if you tweet the Twitter you want and work to avoid the rest, when I first explored these topics on Twitter, I ended up in conversation with Rona himself. Among other things, he described the compositional process as exploratory: “I think with my score, and I’d like to think it’s similarly true with the others, is that the genesis of it is a ‘what if’ process. I had no idea what it would sound like to sample a submarine and use it as the primary ‘instrument’ of a score. And as it happened it worked. That’s not always the case. I took it as a challenge to my process to use the various sounds I could get and somehow come up with a way to make them not only musical, but cover a fairly broad range of emotions.”

Asked if he’s explored approaches that haven’t panned out, he replied, “Literally every score I’ve done begins with an experimental phase with several casualties prior to the one path chosen.” He also drew an interesting connection between the mechanical source audio of Phantom and one of his solo albums: “Certainly the project that showed me a different way to find that musical path on any given project. My solo album Projector is done very similarly to Phantom in that it relies heavily on manipulation of organic sounds – in this case field recordings of the upper Amazon river.”

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A Furious Stasis

The tension between action and inaction

If yesterday’s video in this series was an exercise is extreme stasis, today’s marks a contrast. In yesterday’s, a hand occasionally appeared from the bottom of the screen to ever so slightly adjust the relative volume of four inbound cassette tapes, all in the pursuit of an ambient drone whose ethereal qualities occasionally betrayed a more complex, a rougher, texture than at first made itself apparent.

In today’s, the musician Dustmotes works furiously to nudge and transition a hovering tone, occasionally inserting new swells and the rare percussive element. Overall the music is no less subtle than yesterday’s, but this toolkit requires numerous controls to be tweaked and attended to in order to achieve Dustmotes’ goal. (Interestingly, for comparison’s sake, the musical instrument used here, the Elektron Digitone, is the same as was used to produce the audio on the cassette tapes in yesterday’s piece.) This tension between that activity and simplicity, between action and inaction, is exactly the sort of thing that my YouTube playlist of recommended live performances of ambient music was created to document and explore.

Video originally published at YouTube.

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Tapes in Concert

A live performance that is largely hands-off

It begins, as do all worthwhile cassette tape experiences, with a click, and a hard one at that. This video captures the recording of an ambient performance that consists of multiple tapes being layered in real time, their relative volumes adjusted each occasion that a hand briefly enters the screen from below. The sounds are frayed and angelic, weary and ethereal, testing the ear’s alertness to fissures in the mist. There are four different audio sources, lending different elements to the overall ensemble.

When I first started compiling such examples of recommended live performances of ambient music found on YouTube, the intention was (and remains) to share examples of the tools and skills required, and to investigate the tension between action (the musician’s effort) and inaction (the sonic stasis to which so much ambient music aspires). Needless to say, the light touch in this piece by the Glasgow-based musician who goes by Blicero represents an extreme in terms of inactivity on the part of the performer. Then again, missing is the effort that went into recording the original loops, testing the balances in advance, and doing post-production.

This is the latest video I’ve added to my YouTube playlist of recommended live performances of ambient music. Video originally published at YouTube.

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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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