If you’re familiar with the work of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, then the color alone of Dave Seidel’s video is a dead giveaway right from the start. The dreamy magenta is the duo’s signature color, a common theme in their wardrobe and installations alike. Here the magenta is a pale shadow cast on Seidel’s equipment as he unveils ream after ream of raga-like drones. The performance is titled “For LMY and MZ” (note the initials), and he explains in an accompanying text that it draws inspiration from some central works of theirs. This is both deeply beautiful and deep work, the beading, undulating patterns shifting and cycling in slow motion.
Femi Fleming’s is a YouTube channel to keep track of. It’s regularly updated with electronic music that pushes at different areas, some noise, some beat-oriented, a lot of atmospheres. In another era something like this, which falls in the atmosphere zone, might have been titled “Minuet for Cello and Piano,” but the year is 2021 and the available instrumental colors have broadened considerably. So instead, this is “Ambient Live Looping Drone with Eurorack and Elektron Octatrack.” Illuminated by a cathode-ray tube TV set to glitchily stun, the devices do all the work while Fleming remains off camera, having set it up, pressed go, and removed himself from the mise en scène. Dense tones collide like nothing so much as a fantasia of big city traffic, all muted honking and the echo of tall boulevards. It begins and ends suddenly, suggesting both it’s part of a bigger work, and also that the segment is of something automated that Fleming determined showed the overall setup in its best light.
Robin Rimbaud goes by the name Scanner due to his early work, which involved snatching people’s conversations from the ether and lending those often fraught words new emotional meaning by composing accompanying soundtracks. His atmospheric scores deepened the words’ presence, turning domestic squabbles into radio dramas, monologues into manifestos, idle chatter into comedy of the absurd. This work was intimate and abstract, trenchant and seeking. When I think about early Scanner recordings, which I do often, in my imagination they sit alongside the output of other artists whose unique vision connected human speech and composed music, notably the way Dennis Potter’s screenplays gave voice to the inner turmoil and fantasies of his characters by having them lip-sync popular songs, and how the composer Scott Johnson transcribed the ticks and nuances of human utterances and wrote settings that were, in effect, arrangements fleshing those words out to the scale of a chamber ensemble. Potter found the big dreams within small lives. Johnson found the density in the linear. Scanner found the spectacle in the everyday.
And so it was a huge pleasure today when one of Scanner’s old voices appeared in a new piece, albeit a brief one. Today is Fat Tuesday, and perhaps by chance or perhaps by perfect design, the music synthesizer company Mutable Instruments, based in Paris, France, released a new module called Beads (having lived in New Orleans for four years, I found the connection natural, but it was likely coincidence). The module had clearly already been in the hands of many forward-thinking synthesizer musicians for some time, because right on cue YouTube and Instagram (as of this evening, I couldn’t find any on Vimeo) were filled with video demonstrations of this new module’s features. (Full disclosure: the four-panel comics I created last year were done so with illustrator Hannes Pasqualini, who, with his wife, Elizabeth, designs the interfaces at Mutable.)
For one of his Beads pieces, Scanner took a spoken voice that will be recognizable to fans of his 1997 album, Delivery. In the original, titled “Heidi,” the backing music is a moody, melodramatic bed, like some slurry hybrid of Angelo Badalamenti and Bernard Herrmann, while an unnamed man both pleads his case to and verbally assaults the titular woman.
In Scanner’s brand new track, “Heidi Concrète,” the man is back, nearly a quarter century later, as if caught all along in some mythic limbo, ever ruining his own chances at reconciliation. Now, however, in place of the original music is simply the voice as it is transformed in the Mutable Beads module (hence the “concrète” in the title, borrowed from “musique concrète,” or music made from preexisting sounds). The voice in the new “Heidi Concrète” is fractured and looped, battered and frayed, and ultimately utterly dismantled into a pool of splattery assonance. And because it’s a video, the viewer can associate the varied treatments to specific actions: buttons pressed, knobs turned. While many other musicians are exploring the tonal possibilities of the new module, a common mode for such first-patch videos, Scanner dug deep in his personal crate.
Whenever I hear Scanner’s early work, I wonder if the speakers ever recognized themselves in it. Musicians coming to “Heidi Concrète” to witness an accomplished musician’s initial take on the new module will, I hope, recognize new creative possibilities in what Scanner has done.
Video originally posted to Scanner’s YouTube channel. More from Robin Rimbaud, who is based in London, England, at scannerdot.com.
Dustmotes is a musician whose new releases always have me expecting slow broken beats, ones where the particulate from which he takes his name is as much a part of the sound as are elements that would be more commonly experienced as music (that is: “music”). He works at the atmospheric reaches of instrumental hip-hop (check out this live performance from a few years back).
This is different. “Ambient 12022021,” the title taking its name from the recent palindrome date, has a beat, certainly, a slim pulse click that slowly surfaces as the midway point of the four-minute track approaches, but mostly the piece is layers and layers of drones, some deep and husky, and others like shimmery echoes. It’s as if he’s skimmed the aura of his more metrically inclined work. Drift off with this one.
Beautiful five-minute ambient jam by Pat Carroll, student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Wisps of sound fly this way and that, warped in an improvised atmosphere. Sounds turn back on themselves, tones and noises vying for lack of prominence.
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
• July 28, 2021: This day marks the start of the 500th consecutive weekly project in the Disquiet Junto music community.
• December 13, 2021: This day marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Disquiet.com.
• January 6, 2021: This day marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the Disquiet Junto music community.
• There are entries on the Disquiet Junto in the forthcoming 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.