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.
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.
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 short video is of two simple loopers that are ever so slightly out of sync. By the point at which the video begins, both of the loopers had accrued several layers of audio, all of it culled from an electric guitar. Some of the audio is shared between the two loopers, and some is unique to each separately. The starting point of each of the two loops is signaled when the given looper’s light briefly blinks. Shortly after the midpoint of this recording, the two loops can be seen to come into sync, and to then proceed to drift apart — to shift, to phase — again.
The looper used here is the original Ditto from TC Electronic (due to its popularity, several variations on the Ditto followed). I bought my first one used a few years ago, and have always enjoyed how simple yet effective its controls are. Despite having just one button and one knob, the Ditto comes with a manual that is nearly a dozen pages long, because different combinations of button clicks cause different processes. When I found another inexpensive secondhand Ditto, I picked it up just this afternoon with the express purpose of exploring asynchronous loops such as this one.
A new glimpse of an installation piece by the artist Zimoun is always a cause for attention. His work often achieves a mix — a contrast, more to the point — of sizable dimensions and aesthetic intimacy. This balance is thanks to his frequent combination of inexpensive materials and the lulling repetition of speedy mechanical activities. The effect, as witnessed here, is a robot lullaby at an industrial scale.
This work, a video document of which appeared in the past week, consists of “99 prepared dc-motors, felt balls, 297 m steel wire, 2018” (such is, in effect, the title of the work — a plainness that matches the materials). The result is a mix of fierce geometry and sympathetic droning, of rapid motion amid an otherwise static field.
The vertical lines are like grid-minded painter Agnes Martin paying tribute to Richard Lippold’s wire sculptures. The base is like the structure of one of Bruce Nauman’s fluorescent bulbs — which emit their own drone byproduct — repurposed as a support mechanism. The video lasts just 46 seconds, seen from various angles. It’s intriguing to consider whether the audio perfectly matches the image, or if it even matters, given the mechanical nature of the proceedings and the extremely narrow — imperceptible, likely — range of variation therein. And then you hit repeat.
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
• Autumn, 2019: I'll have a new piece in The Wire.
• December 13, 2019: This day marks the 23rd anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• January 7, 2020: This day marks the 8th anniversary of the Disquiet Junto.
• March 2020: A chapter on the Disquiet Junto ("The Disquiet Junto as an Online Community of Practice," by Ethan Hein) appears in the forthcoming book The Oxford Handbook of Social Media and Music Learning (Oxford University Press), edited by Stephanie Horsley, Janice Waldron, and Kari Veblen.
• 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.
• 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.
• 0406 / Phoneme Home / The Assignment: After a visit to Yellowstone National Park, you send a sonic report back to your planet of origin.
• 0405 / Trustable (C. Remix) / The Assignment: Remix music from C. Reider's album ... a trustable cloud.
• 0404 / Seven (St)ages / Record a piece of music that follows the arc of Jacques' "All the world's a stage" speech from Shakespeare's play As You Like It.
• 0403 / Filter Box / The Assignment: Record music a piece of music in which a sequence of sounds is treated by the same filter or process.
• 0402 / Music for Tasks / The Assignment: Record music intended as the backdrop/soundtrack to a chore.