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20 Sonic Milestones from 2016

From CGI sound to noise pollution to the vacuum of space

Music is just a subset of the sound of our lives. As I was thinking, at year’s end, about 2016 and compiling lists of favorite recordings, and movie/TV scores, and mobile apps, I found myself focusing as well on the various sonic milestones that had occurred in the preceding 12 months. The role of sound in daily life is the subject of my weekly(ish) This Week in Sound email newsletter, and I worked up this list of 20 milestones from 2016, ranging from outer space to the public domain, from religious loudspeakers to kitchen-table artificial intelligence, and from sound art to sky fracking:

(1) Introducing the CGI of Sound
For the time being, the computer-generated presentation of humans remains largely a visual situation. The reception of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story shows that the Uncanny Valley between flesh-human and digital-human has yet to be reconciled. Meanwhile, a far deeper divide exists between the verbal sounds emitted by people and machines. There’s a reason that cartoons, computer-generated and otherwise, use voice actors: it’s hard to make a computer mellifluous. However, the underlying technology is improving. Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) this year announced that algorithms are paving the way for audio that passes the “Turing Test for sound.”Meanwhile, WaveNet (“a deep generative model of raw audio waveforms”) has shown how neural networks are rapidly improving test-to-speech (TTS) technology.
Read: mit.edu, deepmind.com.

(2) Debunking the Silence of Space
Space is no longer synonymous with endless silence. Every few months a space probe or monitoring system seems to adjust our understanding of the sonic properties and potential of the vacuum that is our universe. And it isn’t just contemporary research recordings that are informing our sense of space. Earlier this year NASA released audio recorded by the Apollo 10 crew back in 1969 (cnn.com). Looking ahead, in 2020 NASA will include microphones on the next Mars lander (jpl.nasa.gov).
Read: theconversation.com.

(3) Steve Reich Turned 80
Mavericks sometimes have the opportunity to age into a world that resembles the one they had once inhabited alone. There may be no living composer of his generation with more reason to feel at home in the current creative climate — looped-based, pattern-oriented, technologically enabled, immersively audio-visual — than Steve Reich, the minimalist, who celebrated his 80th birthday in 2016. 2017 will, in an appropriately repetitive way, note the 80th of another major minimalist, Philip Glass. (Terry Riley turned 80 the year before Reich, and the year before that was Michael Nyman’s 70th.) Glass’ year kicks off with his collaboration with the team behind the Buddha Machine, who’ve made a small device containing loops of Glass’ music. Somewhere an industrious cultural institution is already planning a heap of centennials.
Read: npr.org, nytimes.com.

(4) “Happy Birthday” Entered the Public Domain
In a long and drawn out series of legal actions suitable to a Charles Dickens novel, the ubiquitous song of calendrical celebration finally entered the public domain, which among other things means that chain restaurants no longer need to devise their own in-house songs in order to avoid paying royalties. The song “Happy Birthday” didn’t transfer easily from the hands of Warner/Chappell Music; the publishing company had to pay a $14 million settlement. And the public domain party doesn’t end with “Happy Birthday.” Songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Your Land” are now being probed for similar treatment.
Read: arstechnica.com, fortune.com, billboard.com.

(5) The U.S. Regulated Sound in Electric Cars
In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ruled that electric cars must, like their internal-combustion predecessors, make noise sufficient for the safety of pedestrians. Sonic skeuomorphs such as the simulated SLR shutter sound of digital cameras are often dismissed as nostalgic cues, but sounds, especially sounds rooted deep in habit and culture, often have a utility, even if it wasn’t the initial purpose of a given object’s engineering or design. In the case of electric cars, the presence of sound isn’t about cultural legacy; it’s about safety.
Read: cnet.com, nhtsa.gov.

(6) Peak Noise Pollution in India
This list is self-admittedly largely western, and I’m always working to expand my sense of the role of sound in the world as a whole, both at a micro-cultural level (do read Gus Stadler’s piece at soundstudiesblog.com on cultural and racial assumptions in sound studies) and a global one. The main thing that I’ve found this year is that there may be no industrialized country with a greater concern about noise pollution than India (at least among countries with an active English-language news media).
Read: indiatimes.com, newindianexpress.com, dnaindia.com.
(Just a side note, the India Times’ Mumbai Mirror had an interesting story about ham radio operators — why are they always “buffs”? — noting “mystery signal transmissions”: indiatimes.com.)

(7) Muezzins’ Loudspeakers Faced Regulation
Technology provided a spiritual culture clash around the world. Governments in India, Indonesia, Israel, and Nigeria, among other countries, sought to study and curtail the use of loudspeakers by mosques to broadcast the daily Muslim calls to prayer.
Read: nytimes.com, independent.co.uk, theguardian.com, indiatimes.com, bbc.com.
(Side notes: In the small Spanish town of Mostoles, a church faced a potential fine due to noisy bells: catholicherald.co.uk. And in England, the technological mediation of religion played out as St George the Martyr in Borough High Street had a technical issue that led to its bells running continuous through the night: standard.co.uk.)

(8) Amazon’s Alexa Altered the Meaning of “Home Audio”
The question of what the term “home audio” means is going through a major shift. Historically it has referred to sound systems, such as living-room stereos, that allow for music playback. The arrival of always-listening technology — such as Amazon’s Echo and Alexa, which receive voice commands and reply in kind — suggest that the wired home will, perhaps, have microphones as well as speakers. Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, and other technologies are rising to the challenge. In short time, we may very well think of a home with high-quality audio as one where commands can be uttered anywhere, not just at the kitchen counter. The ramifications of such technology are coming rapildy into focus. At the very end of 2016, Arkansas police petitioned Amazon to release Echo data to help solve a murder case. The smarthomeâ„¢ doesn’t just have ears. It has a memory.
Read: engadget.com, cio.com.

(9) Los Angeles’ Transportation Department Employed Sound Artist
Los Angeles is one of the automobile-intensive cities on the planet, and what the local government does to regulate that traffic can set models for other municipalities. If the hiring of sound artist Alan Nakagawa helps with L.A.’s citywide “Vision Zero” safety initiative, then we can expect sound experts to be of increased perceived utility. While transportation agencies often have artists in residence, the L.A. scenario isn’t just about exhibits and installations; it’s about the agency’s core mission.
Read: lacity.org, scpr.org, outsideonline.com.

(10) Sonic Boom = Sky Fracking
Triborough residents thought there was an earthquake. It turned out to be the result of a sonic boom, so loud that it wasn’t just heard but was registered by the US Geological Survey. The source was a Navy test of a F-35C stealth fighter. Perhaps “stealth” means disguised as a seismic event. In semi-related news, DARPA cancelled development of robot military dogs because the loud mechanisms were giving away positions.
Read: gizmodo.com, nytimes.com, earthquake.usgs.gov, cnet.com, military.com.

An Additional 10 Sonic 2016 Milestones

(11) Earthquake researchers employ audio for advance notice (uaf.edu). ”¢ (12) Video game players dream sound effects (ntu.ac.uk). ”¢ (13) Caption studies got its own academic conference (wou.edu). ”¢ (14) Apple hardware began to ditch the audio jack (theglobeandmail.com). ”¢ (15) Apple ditched the laptop startup sound (theverge.com). ”¢ (16) Electric cars began to ditch AM radio (vice.com, bmwblog.com). ”¢ (17) A “fire suppression system”intended safekeep a Romanian bank’s data led to its destruction when the loud sound of gas canisters letting loose caused enough vibration to reportedly damage the bank’s hard drives (vice.com). ”¢ (18) The “hum” was debated (newrepublic.com, theguardian.com, bbc.com). ”¢ (19) Sonification went mainstream (google.com, economist.com). ”¢ (20) The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its first “strategy roadmap” for dealing with ocean noise (cetsound.noaa.gov, washingtonpost.com).

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 3, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound”email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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10 Great 2016 iOS + Android Music/Sound Apps

From developers small and large

The list of the main iOS music-making apps I used heavily and followed closely in their development this past year is somewhat boring, in that it largely consists of backend software. A whole suite of third-party tools has come to the fore in recent years in order to provide an ad hoc infrastructure for sharing sounds and computer instructions between apps, and between the iPad and other equipment.

Of these following four only Aum was new in 2016, while the others saw various updates and upgrades. I’ve put Aum first because it’s new, and the remaining three are in alphabetical order.

(1) Aum: As with all the apps in this sub-category, Aum seems like the sort of thing Apple should simply purchase and make part of the iOS backend. The company responsible for it describes it as “a flexible audio mixer, recorder, and connection hub,” but that really doesn’t do justice to how it will immediately become the home base for all your music making on an iPad once you start using it (kymatica.com, itunes.apple.com). Pictured above.

(2) Audiobus: There may not be another piece of software that is more requested for developers of music apps to include as part of their own releases. Audiobus is the de facto sound router for iOS, allowing for an enormous (and growing) library of apps to send sound back and forth (audiob.us, itunes.apple.com).

(3) AudioShare: By the makers of Aum, this is a simple, elegant, and highly effective means to store and share audio files (and MIDI files) between apps. It’s been around since 2012, and its last major upgrade was in late 2015, though in early 2016 slide over and split screen support were added, which is especially helpful with infrastructure apps (kymatica.com, itunes.apple.com).

(4) SilQ: Excellent, narrow-focus (32-band) equalizer that works via Audiobus (see above). I’m especially hopeful for MIDI implementation (tonapp.no, itunes.apple.com).

And these six (well, #10 is sort of a list-making cheat) are performance-oriented iOS apps, the first five listed in alphabetical order, the last a grab bag:

(5) Blocs Wave: Novation already had a success on its hands with its Launchpad app when it launched this fluid, efficient, and pleasurable approach to sample-based sound production (blocs.cc, itunes.apple.com).

(6) FieldScaper: This experimental sound manipulation tool by Igor Vasiliev is far from anything I’ve come close to mastering, but I find myself going back to it again and again to morph sounds and gain competency with its intricate toolset. The app debuted in late 2015, and this year it got even better with the addition of recording and editing features (motion-soundscape.blogspot.com, itunes.apple.com). Pictured above.

(7) H–r: This app is a creative resuscitation and refashioning of one of my favorite apps of all time, the RJDJ app from Reality Jockey. Alone among the apps I’m highlighting this year, H–r is where I always thought apps were headed, which is to say it provides a platform for the casual reimagining of sounds and environments. In fact, most music and sound apps these days have music producers, professional or not, in mind, rather than everyday consumers, but H–r (it’s had some issues with its name since launch) provides hope that audio-games and audio-toys still have a future. (hearapp.io, itunes.apple.com).

(8) Korg Gadget: Korg has virtually reimagined itself as a software company, so rapid fire is its release schedule of iOS apps. This is a massive one, loaded with a variety of, per the name, audio gadgets, and it appears Korg has no plans to slow down its expansion. (korg.com, itunes.apple.com).

(9) LoopyHD: This is arguably the most user-friendly audio looper available. It appealed to me initially because it allowed for easy desynchronization of loops. Many loopers, software and hardware alike, seem to assume the user wants a steady beat, but while Loopy is great for building songs in realtime, it also allows for layering of asynchronous sounds. I use it just as often with outboard sound sources, like Buddha Machines and the squelchy feedback of a no-input mixer, as I do with intra-app audio (loopyapp.com, itunes.apple.com).

(10) Various: When something like Korg Gadget costs upwards of $40, and is supported by a major music-technology company that’s been around for over half a century, it can be unfair to put it up against the wide range of inexpensive little apps out there, so I wanted to reserve space to note things like the free MIDI Wrench, which monitors MIDI communication and can be useful during troubleshooting (itunes.apple.com); the $0.99 Lofionic Duplicat, which simulates tape delay (itunes.apple.com); the whole suite of Timothy Barraclough’s $0.99 mini-apps (especially Dahlia Delay, Saffron Saturator, and Buttercup Bitcrush — more at timothy-j.com); and the free Hexaglyphics noise generator (itunes.apple.com).

Listing 10 (or so) iOS apps here is just the tip of the iOSberg. The high priority assigned to Aum and Audiobus is that I use them to connect so many other apps, including delays and noise sources, effects and sequencers, too many to list here. For solid retrospective insights on iOS music-making, I recommend the year-end articles on two great dedicated music-app sites: musicappblog.com, from John Walden, and palmsounds.net, from Ashley Elsdon.

And 10 Notable Android Music/Sound Apps:

In addition to my iPad Mini 2 (which I expect to upgrade in the coming year, as the old CPU is getting laggy, and I’d like something larger, especially for the modular-synth apps I’ve been fiddling with — and because I need more memory; Korg Gadget alone is over 600MB in size), I have an Android phone, currently the Nexus 5X. While Android is quite behind iOS in music-making software, there is a growing library of useful tools. This year I’ve made a lot of use of these 10 in particular, none of them necessarily new (though Caustic 3 got some great upgrades this year), mostly on the bus and while waiting for movies to begin, and as short-notice inputs for my modular synthesizer and looper. These are listed in alphabetical order.

(1) Caustic 3: A powerful and ubiquitous cross-platform music construction kit, packed with synthesizers, drum machines, a sequencer, and effects (play.google.com singlecellsoftware.com).

(2) Circle Synth: A simple sound generator from Two Big Ears, which earlier this year joined Facebook’s VR and AR development group. This appears to be unique to Android (play.google.com).

(3) Common FM: A simple synthesizer employing frequency modulation, and it comes packed with presets. This appears to be unique to Android (play.google.com).

(4) DRC: A polyphonic synthesizer with a great user interface. Admirably, it’s also available for Windows, iOS, and Mac OSX. I use more powerful tools on my iPad, but on a phone-size screen it’s perfect (play.google.com imaginando.pt).

(5) Function Generator: From the prolific keuwl.com app foundry, this is a nifty stereo waveform generator. This is unique to Android (play.google.com keuwl.com). Pictured above.

(6) MikroWave: A colorful little groovebox. This appears to be unique to Android (play.google.com, igorski.nl). (They also make Kosm, a visual sequencer, which I’ve yet to spend much time with.)

(7) Noise Maschine: An excellent noise generator. This appears to be unique to Android (play.google.com). Pictured above.

(8) Saucillator: A loop-oriented tactile synth by Matt Feury. This appears to be unique to Android (play.google.com).

(9) S.A.M.M.I.: A great little sound-experimentation app with a sequencer, drone machine, and theremin. Also available on iOS (play.google.com, futronica.com).

(10) SphereTones: A touch instrument with excellent random/counterpoint opportunities. Also available on iOS (play.google.com, binaura.net).

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10 Great 2016 Film and TV Scores

And 10 additional notables

With the rise of underscoring, key big-screen composers such as Cliff Martinez, Clint Mansell, and Lisa Gerrard, among others, have managed to save the Hollywood score by diminishing its presence — and, in turn, they have raised its profile. With underscoring, an attention to room tone, background noise, and overall sound design plays as much a role as once did the grand-entrance character themes of times past. Nowadays underscoring has extended its influence to television, though the rapid pace of serial productions yields different outcomes, such as looped and repeated cues. (Sadly, TV scores are still far less likely than movie scores to be released for off-screen listening.) While scores ultimately serve the narratives for which they’re commissioned, they also serve a larger aesthetic purpose: a deeper, still emerging collective sense of where non-diegetic and diegetic sounds converge, how sound frames and participates in visual storytelling. And these days there is no better place than film (and on occasion TV) scores to hear music that revels at the intersection of ambient, techno, minimalism, and neo-classical, not to mention (where available) three-dimensional spatialization.

(1) Nick Cave and Warren Ellis — Hell or High Water (Milan)
Who better than two Australians to provide mirror-refracted atmosphere to this modern Texas western? Their chamber-folk approach has the violin veering between classical composure and porch-fiddle intimacy.

(2) Shane Carruth — The Girlfriend Experience (no commercial release yet)
Shane Carruth (writer, director, producer, composer, and co-star of Primer and Upstream Color) takes time out from his own filmmaking (the forthcoming The Modern Ocean) to lend an elevator-drone, glass-tower sheen to this TV-serial spinoff of the Steven Soderbergh film. It is as chilly and elegant, as anxious and zoned, out as are its cast of characters.

(3) Anne Dudley — Elle (Sony Classical)
The former Art of Noise member renders concise cues that balance a minimalist’s attention to patterning with a classic silver-screen sense of drama, at times evidencing echoes John Barry and Bernard Herrmann.

(4) Max Richter — Miss Sloane (EuropaCorp)
If only for the highly detailed ambient techno, all pitter-patter sound design, this would be a significant accomplishment, but Max Richter has such a range of skills at his disposal, he goes on to fold in orchestrations both intimate and broad.

(5) A Winged Victory for the Sullen — Iris (Erased Tapes)
A Winged Victory for the Sullen is Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran, and they infuse this erotic thriller with heart pulses and train rumbles, deeply emotional string sections, choruses that seem to fill football stadiums, and a lush, dreamy resonance.

(6) Jóhann Jóhannsson — Arrival (Deutsche Grammophon)
When Denis Villeneuve was announced as the director of the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, a certain subset of music fans sighed with relief. This was because of the seeming inevitability that Villeneuve’s frequent creative partner, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (their work together include 2013’s Prisoners and 2015’s Sicario), would join him on Ridley Scott’s home turf, and thus make good on the classic Vangelis score of the original film. Arrival provided the duo with a science-fiction test run, and it’s a sprawling accomplishment, both earthy and otherworldly. (Contributing to the score as well: Theatre of Voices, conducted by Paul Hillier; synthesizer player Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe; cellist Hildur Guonadottir; and a sample of vocalist Joan La Barbara.)

(7) Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammed — Luke Cage (Hollywood)
It’s a nice touch that each episode of the first season of this Harlem-set superhero drama takes a Gangs Starr song for its title. And that the club central to much of the story features live performances by the likes of Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, and Charles Bradley, among others. But what really gives the show its cultural swagger is the instrumental hip-hop score by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammed (the latter of A Tribe Called Quest), thick with terse beats and string samples.

(8) Abel Korzeniowski — Nocturnal Animals (Silva Screen)
You can depend on director Tom Ford to employ only the finest fabrics, and Abel Korzeniowski makes good on such expectations with an orchestral score that yields hyper-minimalist pleasures, like the string marathon that is “Crossroads,” and old-school romanticism, like the luxuriously syrupy “City Lights.” Not all film composers do their own orchestrations, and when they do you can often tell by the attention to detail, as is the case here.

(9) Scott Walker — The Childhood of a Leader (4AD)
It’s hard to make a case that Scott Walker’s feverish score for The Childhood of a Leader is anything close to underscoring, since the music is so in your face (well, in your ear), the orchestra being such a pounding, soaring figure throughout. Even when it’s quiet, such as briefly in the opening to “Up the Stairs,” it veers around the stereo spectrum in a fly-like manner that announces its unpredictable presence. But what it is is thoroughly composed, as if Walker felt that he’d never again have a full orchestra at his command, so he best make the most of the opportunity.

(10) Trent Reznor + Atticus Ross, Mogwai, Gustavo Santaolala — Before the Flood (Lakeshore)
Neither the Social Network team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross nor the seasoned veteran Gustavo Santaolala scored a major work of film fiction in 2016, but they did team up with Mogwai for this documentary about the impact of climate change, delivering characteristically meticulous instrumental gems.

And 10 More Notable 2016 Film and TV Scores
In alphabetical order by artist: The clandestine auras of (11) Keefus Ciancia + David Holmes’ London Spy (no commercial release yet) ”¢ The artful claustrophobia of (12) Keefus Ciancia + David Holmes’ The Fall (no commercial release yet) ”¢ The impeccable eeriness of (13) Mark Korven’s The Witch (Milan) ”¢ The cold grace of (14) Mica Levi’s Jackie (Milan) ”¢ The hinting at familiar themes of (15) Michael Giacchino’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Walt Disney) ”¢ The high-stakes trepidation of (16) Andy Gray’s Hunters (no commercial release yet) ”¢ The muted orchestral gravitas of (17) Rupert Gregson-WilliamsHacksaw Ridge (Varèse Sarabande) ”¢ The metric anticipation of (18) Dominic LewisMoney Monster (Sony Classical) ”¢ The louche tension of (19) Clint Mansell’s High Rise (Silva Screen) ”¢ The high-style electronica of (20) Cliff Martinez’s The Neon Demon (Milan).

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10 Great 2016 Ambient/Electronic Albums

And 10 additional notables

I haven’t done one of these lists in several years. But I’ve come to realize that while the whole idea of top 10 lists is absurd — especially in a realm, like electronic music, that is such an embarrassment of riches these days — it can be a healthy exercise to take stock of the year before moving on to the next one. I think the recent 20th anniversary of Disquiet.com is especially on my mind, how an archive can be of use as time passes. Here in alphabetical order by artist are 10 especially great albums from 2016, and an additional 10 as well. For this list “ambient/electronic” is a broad field, from drones to broken beats to neo-classical, all works that emphasize texture as a form of composition, and that evidence a fully intentional approach to their instrumentation.

(1) Autechre — elseq 1-5 (Warp)
The IDM godfathers return with a massive, stately, sprawling collection, five LPs’ worth of broken beats, industrialized entropy, and conspiratorial static. Each piece has a rhythmic singularity, an organizing principle of beat, that then unfolds through alternately subtle and chaotic states of generative complexity.

(2) Madeleine Cocolas — Cascadia (Futuresequence)
Piano-based compositions merge in myriad ways with electronics, found sounds, and voice. And yet, for all the variety, all the depth of sonic field, under Madeleine Cocolas’ meticulous direction they never break the jewel-box self-confinement of modern classical minimalism.

(3) Sarah Davachi — Dominions (Jaz)
A second solo full-length from Sarah Davachi goes even more introspective than did its predecessor. The five tracks here, all made from synthesizer and violin, offer nuanced variations in sonic fabric, shifting minor bits of thread count, color, and patterning as they proceed.

(4) Masayoshi Fujita + Jan Jelinek — Schaum (Faitiche)
The latest collaboration between the Japanese prepared-vibraphone player Masayoshi Fujita and German electronics maven Jan Jelinek takes its title from the German word for foam. Gentle textures belie the rich source material and generous interplay.

(5) Daniel Lanois — Goodbye to Language (Anti-)
In many ways Daniel Lanois finally this year released the album his most ardent fans longed for, in which production techniques he’s provided to Bob Dylan, U2, and so many others are finally given their own space to stretch out. He brings his textural focus to his and Rocco Deluca’s guitars for a moody, glitchy achievement.

(6) Loscil — Monument Builders (Kranky)
The prolific Scott Morgan, who performs and records as Loscil, unfolds one forbidding techno-schooled, minimalism-informed soundscape after another, sometimes shot through with an urgent momentum, often left to their own artfully bleak devices. Sharing credit are Nick Anderson on occasional French horn (bringing to mind Ingram Marshall’s stately “Fog Tropes”), synthesizer player Joshua Stevenson, and a vocal sample of Ashley Pitre.

(7) Machinefabriek + Gareth Davis — Shroud Lines (White Paddy Mountain)
An extended excursion into live improvisatory collaboration, with the gregarious and prolific Machinefabriek on drone- and noise-oriented synthesizers and Gareth Davis on bottom-rumbling bass clarinet.

(8) Matmos — Ultimate Care II (Thrill Jockey)
The duo Matmos (Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt) team up with a washing machine and a host of guest stars for an album of glistening, churning, pop-inflected noise, all charming beats and anxious atmospheres. The guests include Dan Deacon, Max Eilbacher (Horse Lords), Sam Haberman (Horse Lords), Jason Willett (Half Japanese), and Duncan Moore (Needle Gun).

(9) Nonkeen — The Gamble (R&S)
Nils Frahm steps out from his solo-piano realm to produce, with fellow Nonkeen members Frederic Gmeiner and Sepp Singwald, this strong collection of sedate fusion grooves. Think early Miles Davis electric filtered by way of a hybrid Erased Tapes / Stones Throw aesthetic, all downtempo funky ether. There’s one track on this, “The Saddest Continent on Earth,” that I listened to more than just about any other piece of music this year. (Andrea Belfi is credited with percussion on just over half the track.)

(10) Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith — Ears (Western Vinyl)
The ace synthesizer player shares eight stereoscopic fields of sonic play, each a fully inhabited aural world of instants and melodies, riffs and figments. There’s a whirligig festiveness to each undertaking, chamber pop snapshots of an incredibly vibrant imagination at work.

And 10 More Notable 2016 Ambient/Electronic Albums
In alphabetical order by artist: The abstract hip-hop of (11) Arckatron’s Subtle Busyness (Twin Springs) ”¢ The electronically mediated vocalese of (12) Julianna Barwick’s Will (Dead Oceans) ”¢ The austere, sedate drone confections of (13) Donnacha Costello’s Mono No Aware (self-released) ”¢ The field-recording-inflected microsound of (14) Federico Durand’s A Través Del Espejo (12k) ”¢ The dramatic vocal/feedback explorations of (15) Lesley Flanigan’s Hedera (Physical Editions) ”¢ The whirring synth+ (voice, violin, more) of (16) Marielle V JakobsonsStar Core (Thrill Jockey) ”¢ The outworld dub of (17) Toshinori Kondo + Barton Rage’s Realm 2 Parallax (Toshinori Kondo Recordings) ”¢ The electronica collages of (18) Funki Porcini’s Conservative Apocalypse (self-released) ”¢ The inchoate data pop of (19) Tristan Perich’s Noise Patterns (Physical Editions) ”¢ The remixed neo-classical of (20) Christina Vantzou’s 3.5 (self-released).

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Best of 2011: The 10 Best Free/Netlabel/Creative Commons Releases

For several years now, the heart of this site has been its Downstream department, which celebrates specific instances, on an almost daily basis, of freely and legally downloabable music — most of which are in the MP3 format, and many of which originate on netlabels. What follows are my 10 favorites of 2011.

To constrain the field, to make it knowable, this list is limited to recordings that are “of the web.”The following were not considered for inclusion: individual promotional tracks (and excerpts) posted from existing or forthcoming commercial albums (special “mixes”were considered for inclusion, as were situations in which entire commercial albums were made available for free download, as in “choose your price” scenarios in which zero is an accepted amount), downloads that were placed online for a stated limited period of time, audio that is streaming-only, and dated archival material (work that would be considered a “reissue” in the commercial world, such as the majority of what is housed at ubu.com). Also not considered for inclusion were tracks whose links have subsequently gone offline. (An intelligent case has been made that there is no such thing as “streaming” — that all audio is downloaded, in that it is at some point resident on your computer. However, for the purposes of this list, the focus is music that is fully intended to be downloaded.)

All of which is to say, everything on this list is of recent vintage and is available to download, for free, right now.

These 10 are listed here in the chronological order in which they appeared on Disquiet.com. Given the fluid nature of publication, attribution, and collation on the Internet, I cannot be certain that these audio files first appeared online in 2011, but many of them did. And if some of them are older than that, at least this mention might gain them a new audience. Click through to each original Downstream entry for more information, and to the release’s source to get the tracks.

Duet for Viola and Sculpture: Consider this a love letter to a love letter. I’m increasingly certain that my favorite single track of recorded music from 2010 was “Homage to Jack Vanarsky” by Garth Knox, off his album on the netlabel SHSK’H (shskh.com), Solo Viola d’Amore. Despite the album’s title, this particular track is, technically, not a solo viola work. It’s a duet for Knox’s viola and a small mechanical device. The device was created by artist Vanarksy, a sculptor who was Knox’s late father-in-law. It makes a distinct creaking sound, like metal coming occasionally into contact with wood. As the device makes this sound, for close to eight minutes straight, Knox’s viola glides in and out.

An Ambient Collaboration: Unlike a lot of collaborations by ambient musicians, the dual effort by Devin Underwood and Marcus Fischer, Correspond, sounds, in fact, like more than one person is doing the work. In general, ambient music is about the sublime: maximum effort for minimum impact, a surface of almost ignorable refinement masking all manner of activity buried deep below. Individual ambient musicians strive to make something that is both worthy of attention and capable of being relegated to the backdrop. Two musicians working together in an ambient mode need to find a balance without so forsaking their individual voices that the fact of the collaboration becomes almost a distraction from the singularity of the finished work.

Country Songs Minus the Songs: Like the work of Scott Tuma and the Boxhead Ensemble, the four tracks that make up Widesky‘s EP Floating in Being sound like country songs minus the songs. It’s as if a crack Nashville session band had found themselves, while tuning up, so enamored of the sounds they were emitting, they they just stuck with tuning up, with hearing how the lightest touch of a guitar, and the mere movement of percussion instruments, would yield a thing of such beauty that they needn’t concern themselves with lyrics about broken down pick-ups and love gone bad. On perhaps the strongest track on Floating in Being, which would be “A Torpid Memoir,” the voices of children open and close the piece (they also provide transitions elsewhere on the recording). The effect is to frame the associative dreamstate of the rest of the work with literal calls back to reality, even if the reality is itself a thing of playfulness.

The Wild West: They rattle like the wheels on an old covered wagon. What we’re hearing, though, is not wheels but what the wheels might have trampelled, the brittle foliage of the west. There is in the track, according to its brief descriptive note, “wild fennel, pine trees and thistle,” the latter of which provides the track’s name. The result is a survey of rough scratching, tactile noises that edge toward erasing the ephemeral nature of digital recording. And while wagon wheels play no role in “Thistle,” which was created by Oakland, California, musician Jen Boyd, a record player (as pictured above) does.

If It’s Broken Beats Don’t Fix It: If ever there were art music disguised as downtempo broken beats, it is Paul Crocker‘s Equilibria, recorded under his Dustmotes moniker and released for free download by the estimable dustedwax.org netlabel. On “Inner Tuning,” a mix of plaintive violin, post-rock exotica percussion, and a soundbite recording of a crime report all collide into a dramatization that’s less about narrative and more about frozen time. Early on, a slowed-down siren makes its way from one ear to another. At first, it’s just an effect rendered for its sonorous musicality, but then it reveals itself to have been a premonition of ill deeds. It’s the siren you hear as an everyday soundmark of urban life, only to be confronted later by the specific stark reality of that siren’s meaning — noise revealed as signal — when you flip on TV after dinner.

Remote in the Reeds: The netlabel Stasisfield, at stasisfield.com, run by John Kannenberg, has ventured deep into rarefied sonic territory in the past, but its current release may be its most sonically remote yet. Recorded by Coppice, a duo from Chicago, it is an extended survey of small tones. Coppice is Noé Cuéllar and Joseph Kramer, and they based the work, titled Vinculum (Courses), on what is described as “bellows and processed reeds” (the full materials were, apparently, an “8-channel installation with shruti box, free reeds, accordion, acoustic filters, and electronics”). As those materials might suggest, the sounds are delicate, venturing into the realm of pure tone, one after another, starting so quiet as to be mistaken for dog whistles, and slowly growing in intensity.

Streampunk Ambient: Stephen Vitiello (interview: “In the Echo of No Towers”) has a long-term installation he recently unveiled at MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Massachusetts. The work, titled All Those Vanished Engines, is a collaboration between Vitiello and the novelist Paul Park, who wrote a narrative that Vitiello then set to sound. This edit removes the spoken vocal, to reveal the underlying current of pneumatic activity, a kind of steampunk ambient music.

The Bees of War / The War of Bees: Apostolos Loufopoulos‘s “Bee” has been recognized with an Award of Distinction by this year’s Ars Electronica. It is a thrilling feat of audio imagery, putting the listener on the wings of its title subject. Much of the experience involves the illusion of motion through a three-dimensional space, but it isn’t all fast-passing objects, virtual wind, and the razor flutter of forewings. There is a martial beat that brings another illusion to the fore, the illusion of anthropomorphism. We don’t just settle onto the bee’s back for this ride. In Loufopoulos’ telling, we appear to swear allegiance to the Queen and proceed quickly into a state of warfare. There is martial drumming that clearly intends to signal active battle. There are rat-a-tat-tat percussives that may be rooted in the rhythms of wings, but they also bring to mind machine-gun fire. There is a tonal hum that could be the kind of rapid action that presents itself as a mirage of stillness, but it also posits a psychological toll. And then there are hints at orchestral scoring, bringing to mind the big screen WWI and WWII dramas of the past. Loufopoulos’ technical mastery is state-of-the-art, but it works precisely because his allusions and entertainment instincts are splendidly old-school.

Pablo Casals and Robert Johnson at the Crossroads: The radiodiaries.org series outdid itself by commemorating the 75th anniversary of November 23, 1936, when two men sat down and had their solo performances documented in audio recordings. These men were Robert Johnson, the legendary blues guitarist and singer, and Pablo Casals, the pathbreaking cellist and master interpreter of Bach. They never met in person, but certainly did meet at the crossroads of antiquity and technology. And to tie it all together, Brendan Baker contributed a “mashup,” combining two of the 1936 recordings, imagining the duo as if playing side by side. The term “mashup” suggests a kind of violence, a yoking together, when in fact the result is fittingly lovely and reflective.

43 Sequences from Today’s Future: The excellent electronica site futuresequence.com compiled the second of its massive, overstuffed collections of alternately ethereal and unnerving sound. Sequence2, as the album is titled, collects some 43 tracks by numerous musicians who will be familiar to readers of this site (among these contributors being Nils Quak, the Oo-ray, Nobuto Suda, Guy Birkin, and Specta Ciera), and there are many more who will provide welcome new experiences. Rhian Sheehan‘s “Liber” (track 2) is one of many dawn-break efforts in widescreen ambience here, and it is distinguished by its pizzicato texturing. Beautiful Bells‘s “Panic Attack 2” (track 10) has the muted future-jazz horn of an early Ben Neill. The sing-song nature of Josh Mason‘s “Freedom Time” (track 37) sounds like Brian Eno’s career in reverse, as if elegant pop experiments were slowly emerging from ambient explorations.

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