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: video

The Actions Within

An ambient performance video by r beny

I grew interested in live performance videos of ambient music based on an idea, and perhaps inevitably what came to be of interest to me was in marked contrast with where I started out.

What interested me at the start was the tension between inaction and inaction, between the perceived stasis of much if not most ambient music, and the simple fact that, in live performance, action is taking place. In other words, if ambient music is a balloon floating in air, then performance — that is, live production — is the hands that keep the balloon afloat.

There were other things afoot, too. As someone who writes about technologically mediated sound and to that end fiddles with the technology involved in mediating sound, I was always looking for videos in which the technology was put to use in a manner that was informative. Sometimes this meant tutorials, but often it just meant observing an instrument — a synthesizer module, a foot pedal, the construction of a tape loop — in practice. Problem was, the vast majority of videos employing this equipment usually had music I had no interest in listening to.

So, I started a YouTube playlist, now 79 videos long and growing, by collecting videos of live ambient performance. A regular presence in this playlist is r beny, whose music is richly ambient, and whose videos do nothing to disguise his techniques. Quite the contrary, they are studies in the connection between the action and inaction I was initially interested in. But as time has passed, one of the things I’ve noticed about r beny’s videos in particular, and many other live ambient performances in general, is how much the music comes alive when you pay attention to what’s happening on screen.

On its own, the audio of this video, “The Magnetic Sea,” is a lush conglomeration of sun-dabbled synthesis and warped, sun-damaged tonalities. But when watched live, when attention is paid to what r beny is up to, the interior moments of the piece gain a sense of distinction that was previously hidden beneath the sublime surface (which, if you studied literature in college, is sort of a redundant comment, but more on that another time). You needn’t know what r beny is using in this set, or what the individual controls necessarily do. Much as the lights on the devices give you a sense of interior tempo, his hand actions are synced to shifts and changes within the greater work. “The Magnetic Sea” is a beautiful piece of music to do other things to (read, write, think, sleep), and an all the more beautiful piece to pay utmost attention to — a duality that is at the heart of the definition of ambient music in the first place.

Video originally posted to r beny’s YouTube page. The musician r beny is Austin Cairns, who is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. More from beny/Cairns at soundcloud.com/rbeny and rbeny.bandcamp.com.

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The Moments After Unboxing

Early uses of new equipment distinguish YouTube

YouTube may have its own longstanding audience for full-length recordings, and that ever-expanding catalog may align well with owner Google’s Play Music service, but among YouTube’s great distinguishing strengths is, as with SoundCloud, a facility for casual, of-the-moment works.

Forget those fetishistic unboxing videos, in which newly purchased equipment is unwrapped with the chilly fervor of a robot stripper. Where musical equipment is concerned, YouTube is arguably at its best shortly after unboxing, when new tools are first put to use.

Take SineRider’s “Floating:Drifting” (the full title is “Floating:Drifting (4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator)” — in electronic music, as in classical, the titles often resort to the equipment employed. It’s a single-take video that focuses on a single module that is part of a larger, off-screen synthesizer rig. We listen as waves of cloudy loveliness tease at key signatures and overlap to form gossamer moiré patterns.

Occasionally a hand drops into view to turn a knob or adjust a setting. The correlation between action and sound, between cause and effect, is less clear here than in the videos I include in my video playlist of live ambient performances, but then again, this is early on in this musician’s employment of the tool in question. The alignment of cause and effect may be just as much an enigma to SineRider as it is to us.

Track originally posted to SineRider’s YouTube channel. More from SineRider, aka Devin Powers, at sinerider.bandcamp.com and twitter.com/SineRider.

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Snakes & Oscillators

A glimpse at a video-game music interface by Jon Davies

A post shared by Jon Davies (@jonpauldavies) on

Just to follow up yesterday’s post of an Instagram video depicting a tiny robot band playing artfully arranged instrumental music, here’s another solid example of the miniature musical-technological (a slightly more humane appellation than “music-technology”) wonders found on the social network.

As you listen to the clip, a brief synthesized melody is being modulated in real time, the sound warping at the whim of a controller. The familiar shape of the x/y control pad is viewable in the lower right hand corner of the illuminated grid device. What it controls is this snake, familiar from video games like Centipede, the early-1980s classic. The snake can be aimed at a little stationary reward, whose consumption by the snake ushers in a new phase of the melody, which appears to move up the register a step at a time, or something along those lines.

The rules of this game-composition aren’t entirely clear, but it does appear that while you can aim the snake to hit that reward light right on the schedule that the rhythm suggests, you can also delay doing so, letting the standing melody extend for awhile. It’s nice to imagine how an audience in a live setting would get engaged in such a performance, becoming aware of the process and enjoying the occasions of delayed gratification as the snake takes its time to consume its prey. It’s also interesting to think how the scenario can train a player to keep time, or adeptly veer from it, along the lines of Guitar Hero and other so-called rhythm games.

Video found via a post by Scanner Darkly on the llllllll.co boards. Software by Jon Davies, on whose Instagram account the clip was published. The device is the open-source Monome Grid controller (more at monome.org). Davies says the code will soon be shared publicly, for those who want to play along at home.

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Let’s Get Physical

A new device, a new human-machine connection, new music from Marcus Fischer

A post shared by marcus fischer (@marcusfischer) on

The notions of YouTube celebrities and Instagram influencers are indisputably up for debate. What isn’t is that both sites, along with other social media platforms, are rich with bits of sound and music, art and culture, design ingenuity and technological innovation, that exist primarily on those platforms and that are, for all intents and purposes, in existence because of those platforms. It’s an article for another time that YouTube and SoundCloud and Instagram, among other spots, are where I get the sense that I once upon a time got from crate digging — that’s before I even knew it was called crate digging and I was just a kid in a record store buying specific records because I recognized one name in the liner notes from another record I liked — and then listened to that new (to me) record, listening through it for some element I might find tantalizing, and then following that element to other recorded destinations on my next trip to the record store. That act of tracking took days or weeks to complete a cycle in the pre-internet era, and has long since come to happen so often — so fluidly, so subconsciously — within a few minutes that we don’t even remember what we clicked on that got us eventually to the bit of sound/music/art that has now enraptured us.

Now, that’s all back story, because I know what got me to Marcus Fischer’s test video of a new music-making device. I’ve followed his work for a long time, and gotten to know him, and even worked with him a bit, and I marvel at the subtlety and emotion of his music, and at the visual acuity he brings to how it is presented. This Instagram video is a short segment in which he employs a new device called the Automat, from the company Dadamachines, that allows someone to impact physical objects with the same sort of MIDI data that was designed to sort of go in the opposite direction — MIDI was what let keyboards and other gadgets communicate their instructions (which note, what velocity, how hard, what sequence) to a digital device, as well as for those digital devices to communicate with each other. Here, information on a computer uses MIDI to send instructions via Automat to bang on a drum, or shake a rattle, or wallop a xylophone.

In Fischer’s hands, this isn’t merely a proof of concept. It’s an lovely micro-composition that explores how different devices will respond to the mechanical instructions, and that pushes at the intention of the tools, seeing how rapid-fire triggers will cause elegant chaos. There’s a balance in the finished work that is best exemplified by the way that final bell tone is let to ring out and decay, how this is physical music being played out in human time in the physical world. I’m avoiding the word “real” throughout that previous sentence so as not to get sidetracked by ponderings about hierarchies of experience or expression. What I want to do is draw attention to, and express admiration for, the way this little video presents an artistic pursuit in such an enjoyable, memorable, and artfully encapsulated manner.

Video originally posted at instagram.com More from Marcus Fischer at mapmap.ch. His latest solo album is Loss, which came out on the 12k label last year. He also contributed, in his words, “granular processing + modular synth drones” to a song, “Dream on Mount Tam,” on the deluxe edition of Calexico’s most recent album, The Thread That Keeps Us. More on the Dadamachines Automat at dadamachines.com and at the kickstarter.com page where it was funded.

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Tension in the Mist

A device-duet in layers by Joseph Branciforte

This short test run by a composer based in Brooklyn by the name of Joseph Branciforte combines two devices toward layered, fragile effect. One is a synthesizer that provides for patching by cables to produce various sounds, patterns, and textures. The other, into which the synthesizer’s signals flow, is a delay pedal, which lends a sense of spaciousness that is in direct contrast to the tiny footprint of the actual boxes.

The pedal isn’t the sole source of the airy quality inherent in the track’s tonal material. Branciforte explained to me in an email that while this piece — which bears no title aside from what is little more than a list of the equipment with which it was made (“makenoise 0-coast / ambient loops with earthquaker space spiral”) — is a layering of eight elements. The first seven had already been completed when he hit record on his camera. What we’re witnessing here, in the video, is the eighth and final layer being added to the whole.

The overall effect is cloudy and drowsy, but there is tension in the mist, like the way the stereo play introduces a singsong quality, and how occasional tiny percussive blips suggest a signal beeping in an unattended NASA mission control center. At a minute and a half in length, the piece is best played on loop, which is especially appropriate since it is itself an accumulation of loops.

This is the latest video I’ve added to my YouTube playlist of recommended live performances of ambient music. Video originally published to Branciforte’s YouTube channel. More from Branciforte at josephbranciforte.com, instagram.com/josephbranciforte, and twitter.com/josbranciforte. Branciforte did me the honor recently of adding to a track I’d recorded as part of a Disquiet Junto project.

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