Repetition may be, as Brian Eno famously put it, a form of change, but so too is slow deterioration as a result of sharp edges and rough surfaces. The latter is the process employed by the musician Hainbach in “Three Tape Loops Destructing Over Three Hours.” (It’s actually close to three and a half hours.) The source audio is piano that Hainbach recorded himself. In the extended video, the resulting tape recordings are seen and heard to slowly come apart as they are exposed to various knife blades and sandpaper. Soft tones give way to serrated noise. The ear hears continuity amid the destruction, as the abbrasive texture itself becomes a sonic element in the mix.
It’s worth noting that the project began as a challenge from Simon the Magpie, whose curse-laden, manic proposal is about as distinct from Hainbach’s sedate, reflective pace as could be imagined.
The machine does most of the work. It chugs along, lights blinking a telegraph of the underlying rhythm, knobs erect and at precise angles, tones rendered as held bits atmosphere, fraying as they go, the full effect a sort of aged glisten. Occasionally a hand comes into view, introducing a new note, altering the way a present sound is filtered, making other adjustments that may not be immediately evident to the listener — perhaps just to retain the work’s status quo. Sometimes when you’re the caretaker of a modular synthesizer, your job is not so much to play an instrument as it is to keep steady something that’s already moving on track, on target, in key. This video is Alex Roldan at play with his modular synthesizer, and it dates from late November of last year (earlier videos from him include drum covers of songs by Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin). Since then there have been another four modular ones from Roldan. Subscribe to his channel to encourage further endeavors.
If you really love a piece of music, you don’t just remember it in sequence. You remember it in slices, bits that your brain plays on repeat, often without effort. You remember it in different keys. You remember it slower, faster, in a different time signature altogether. You remember segments played out of the original order, layered, yoked together through a compulsion for a different whole, or more to the point: in a new arrangement that prioritizes your ideal comprehension of the song, a jigsaw of desire.
To hear Alice Coltrane’s “Om Shanti” re-worked (the hyphen added to emphasize the newness, the apartness-from-the-original) by
Peter Speer on the sparest of a modular synthesizer setup — just two pieces: a sampler and a tool to control the sampler — is to hear such a mental remapping, albeit here performed in realtime. It’s Speer’s consciousness manifesting in the physical world of dials and cables. Coltrane’s alternately sultry and mournful tonalities are stretched and echoed, turned into nano-washboard rhythms and deep cavernous spaces, all in fitting tribute to her otherworldly oeuvre. Grounding the effort are the modest, even mundane, maneuvers that Speer must enact over the course of the video to accomplish his goals.
Just this past Saturday night I participated in the annual caroling event known as Unsilent Night. Created by composer Phil Kline for a downtown Manhattan performance back in 1992, the work now occurs in numerous cities all around the globe. More than 40 Unsilent Nights are scheduled this year, according to the list at unsilentnight.com. Here in San Francisco, it’s been running annually since 2002 (one year prior to my moving back after four years in New Orleans).
How Unsilent Night functions is as follows. Kline created four complementary ambient-chamber compositions, which collectively comprise the work. Everyone who showed up for Unsilent Night with a boombox used to be handed a cassette tape with a random one of the four parts. At the appointed moment, everyone would hit play, and the various tracks, all slightly out of sync, and resounding from devices of varying sound quality, would produce a kind of robot choir.
Now, in the age of ubiquitous audio equipment, people can use cassettes, but more likely they’ve download one of the tracks to their phones. The underlying concept of Unsilent Night remains the same. If anything has changed in the decades since Unsilent Night began it is (1) the fidelity of the recordings has increased and (2) the procession begins and ends with the ceremonious sound of Bluetooth speakers engaging and disengaging.
All of which came to mind when the excellent Burbank, California, music equipment shop Perfect Circuit posted a video yesterday of the seasonal audio installation currently running in its showroom. What it is is a bunch of boomboxes with droning, glistening loops of varying lengths. The video runs for 15 minutes, occasionally focusing in on a bit of motion, like a reel spinning slowly, or a counter ticking up one digit after another. If it weren’t for the company’s sonic logo at the video’s opening, it would be eminently loopable, an ambient Yule log.
No music journalist covers the expanded guitar quite like Michael Ross, who writes regularly at his guitarmoderne.com website about performers currently pushing the six-string (and twelve- and eight- …) beyond its traditional territories. A mutual favorite of Ross’ and mine is the Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset, who is perhaps best known for his work alongside trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, though Aarset is long into his own deserved recognition for work as a leader, collaborator, and soloist.
About a month ago, Ross singled out video of a trio date Aarset had played in Prague, which led me, as usual, down a rabbit hole orchestrated by the guitarist’s penchant for highly reverberant spaciousness.
One highlight was a trio of live solo performances recorded in Istanbul, Turkey, back in February of 2015. Part one includes some discussion of his techniques, and part two is a song-like treat, packed with sharp contrasts, and rich with held tones reminiscent of Robert Fripp’s soloing. The highlight is part three (embedded up above), in which Aarset slowly layers a rhythm, and noise of his scraped and plucked strings, before venturing into deep explorations of various modes, his lush chords lingering like smoke.
• February 6, 2019: First day of the new semester of the 15-week "Sounds of Brands" course I teach once a year at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.
• March 22, 2019: I'm giving a talk at the Algorithmic Art Assembly, two days of events in San Francisco: aaassembly.org.
• 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.
• Ongoing: 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.
• My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury, is now in its second printing. It has been translated into Spanish, and is due out soon in Japanese, as well. It can be purchased at amazon.com, among other places.
The Disquiet Junto is an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making space in which restraints are used as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto. There is an FAQ. ... These are the 5 most recent weekly projects: