Eno & Co. Improvising Electronic Music

Ambient music guru Brian Eno recently released a recording called Small Craft On a Milk Sea (2010 Opal Ltd.).  Perhaps as part of a promotional strategy for the new release (?), Eno is making a series of seven videos called “Seven Sessions On a Milk Sea” documenting improvised performances with two other musicians (Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams) in his home studio.  The first video can be viewed at the New York Times here.  The music in this video is largely a pulsating drone overlaid with arpeggios of shifting lengths.  Given all the gear involved–Eno’s keyboard and laptop, Hopkins’ keyboard, and Abrahams’ processed guitar–it’s hard to tell exactly who is doing what or where the individual sounds are coming from.  But it’s still nice to see musicians improvising electronic sound together in real-time, reminding us that the idiom is more than the solo DJ spinning MP3s or a lone laptop musician playing back sound files.  It’s people playing and listening together, making a collective din.

Acoustic Territories

A recent addition to the growing literature on the field of sound studies is Brandon LaBelle’s Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (Continuum 2010).  LaBelle is a sound artist, writer, and editor of Errant Bodies Press (which brought us the book African Feedback).  Acoustic Territories offers an acoustic politics of space, or what the author calls an “auditory topography of the urban milieu”, from the underground world of subway musicians, to the home, the sidewalk, the street, the shopping mall, and finally, up to the invisible airwaves in the sky.   Exploring these spaces and places allows LaBelle to show how “sonic materiality operates as ‘micro-epistemologies,’ with the echo, the vibration, the rhythmic, for instance, opening up to specific ways of knowing the world.”

For LaBelle, sound is a key to understanding contemporary social life as it is experienced everyday.  And a key to understanding where LaBelle is coming from lies in two ideas.  The first idea is that sound is fluid and moves about freely, creating spaces and environments in which social life unfolds: “Sound is promiscuous.  It exists as a network that teaches us how to belong, to find place, as well as how not to belong, to drift.”  The second idea is that understanding sound constitutes a special kind of knowing (or “micro-epistemology”) that helps us locate us: “Auditory knowledge is a radical epistemological thrust that unfolds as a spatio-temporal event: sound opens up a field of interaction, to become a channel, a fluid, a flux of voice and urgency, of play and drama, of mutuality and sharing, to ultimately carve out a micr0-geography of the moment, while always already disappearing, as a distributive and sensitive propagation.”

Drawing on empirical experience, philosophical speculation, historical studies, as well as an array of cultural theory, LaBelle interrogates a wide swath of contemporary experience, acting as a careful guide to exploring the many worlds inhabited by sound.  In fact reading the text is a little like walking through a museum with one of those audio guide speaking to you on headphones–a voice pointing out little details and how those details connect to broader understandings.  Among the many topics LaBelle explores are the experience of iPod listening, the phenomenology of booming car stereo culture, the acoustic politics of sonic deterrents, noise pollution, and the poetics of domestic soundscapes.  He also weaves into the narrative descriptions of sound art works that touch on the book’s themes.  For instance, in a discussion of the “acoustic horizons” of the home, LaBelle cites Vito Acconci’s sound art project Talking House (1996), which places microphones inside of a house to broadcast its sonic contents to passersby.

What makes Acoustic Territories such a compelling read is that LaBelle has written a rigorous book that never loses touch with an artistic vision that only a sonic practitioner could bring to such a writing project.  Thus, the book not only documents acoustic territories and engages with theory to help explain them.  It is also engaging object in its own right, a textual presence resonating in sympathy with its liquid subject matter.

Making Musical Systems Public

Over the years, a lot of electronic musicians have shrouded their work in a veil of mystery: they tell us very little about how they make their music–the tools the use, their working methods, and so forth.  We are reminded of vinyl DJs back in the day who would cover up the labels on their records so no one could see the sources of their tracks.  Non-DJ electronic musicians have a lot of equipment potentially at their disposal and so invest time and energy devising their own musical systems through which they channel their ideas.  It’s always interesting to hear what they have to say on this front because they help answer our questions: What software and MIDI controllers do you use?  What is your set-up for rendering your material in live performance?  These are the kinds of things that electronic musicians have to think about because being a one person band is never a natural or a simple thing to pull off. In essence, you’re trying to approximate a larger sound, using technology to multiply your musical capabilities and extend your senses.  And one’s musical system is never written in stone either. For instance, it’s not uncommon for musicians to rebuild their systems from scratch from time to time, just to see what happens.

Occasionally, musicians cut to the chase and share with us information about their musical systems, and it’s a thrill when they do.  Case in point: San Francisco-based ambient musician Christopher Willits collaborated with electronic music magazine and website XLR8R to produce a series of videos on his performance set up and techniques.  I saw Willits play live a few months ago and was impressed by the fluidity of his music making.  Sitting cross-legged on stage, he used an electronic guitar as a controller, while a laptop computer running Ableton Live software handled the sound processing.

In a series of videos posted on YouTube, Willits walks the viewer through this musical set up and explains how he uses it.  The set up includes not just his guitar, but also software programmed with Max For Live (a version of Cycling ’74’s Max/MSP that is integrated into Ableton Live) and a MIDI controller called the Block.  Willits walks the viewer through his software and hardware set up, paying particular attention to how he uses his Max For Live step sequencer.

As the music gets cranking about 9 minutes into one of the videos, you can hear some similarities to American minimalist music, especially the music of Steve Reich.  Of course, minimalist music was once known as “process” music (and indeed Reich himself once characterized his interest in music that was, literally, a process, or an unfolding in front of your ears where nothing is hidden).  The process in Willits’ music is a gradually unfolding series of permutations: Willits plays guitar notes into the step sequencer that records them, chews them up, multiplies them, and sets up a looping and ever-shifting melo-harmonic-rhythmic texture.

You can watch the video here.

The Music of Arvo Pärt

Arvo Part‘s music moves me.  It could be the scales he uses, his sense of silence and space, the dissonances and unresolved tensions–all that musical stuff–but I suspect that it’s also something more.  Born in Estonia in 1935, Part is considered one of the most important living composers of sacred concert music.  His music has an old-fashioned sound it–as in Gregorian chant old–and is generally scored for a cappella voices and acoustic instruments.  In the 1970s, Part developed a unique compositional voice that grew out of his study of sacred chant music and early medieval polyphony.  Part calls this compositional style “Tintinnabuli” (from the Latin tintinnabulum, or bell) and it revolves around the idea of two musical voices that explore the expressive possibilities of the triad (or “do, mi, so”) in European music.  Simple, at least in terms of the technical explanation.  The sacred twist is that Part admits to have had ecstatic experiences with the early music that changed his perspective on the purpose of music for him.  Perhaps this is audible in the sounds or not.  You’ll have to decide.  Part’s Tintinnabuli style has been called minimalist which I suppose is accurate.

Part’s piece “Fratres” (1977) is a good place to start listening.  Fratres has been scored for various combinations of strings, percussion and piano, but perhaps the simplest version is one scored for violin and piano.  The piece is deceptively simple in the sense that there isn’t that much “material”–not much there, there.  You can get a sense of what I mean by looking at this video of a score for one version of Fratres.  As the music plays, different parts of the score are highlighted.  Fratres is incredibly elegant in its simplicity, gathering maximum power from minimal means. You can view the score here.

You can also watch a compelling live performance of Fratres for violin and piano (by Vladim Repin and Nikokai Lugansky in Tokyo in 2004) here:


Part has said relatively little about his work.  However, in 2008 the Icelandic singer Bjork interviewed him and Part opened up.  Bjork loves Part’s music, gushing that every one of the composer’s notes are “rational” and “full of sense.”  Then Part starts to talk:

“I think sound is a very interesting phenomenon.  Why people like are so influenced by music: they didn’t know how strong the music influences us for good or for bad.  You can kill people with sound.  And if you can kill, maybe there is also sound that is the opposite of killing.  And the distance between the two points is very big.  And you are free–you can choose.  In art everything is possible.  But everything that is made is not necessary.”

Bjork then interjects with a story about how Part’s Tintinnabuli style conjures for her an image of two sides in dialogue.  Part is happy that she can hear it in the music:

“This new style consists of two sides: so that one line is my sins, and another line is forgiveness for these sins.  Mostly the music has two voices: one is more complicated and subjective.  But another is very simple, clear and objective.”

Here’s the interview:

Here’s another Part piece, “Mein Weg”:

C.Wright Mills: On Intellectual Craftsmanship


Thinking is a struggle for order and at the same time for comprehensiveness.”
– C. Wright Mills

Charles Wright Mills (1916-1962) was an American sociologist best remembered for his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination (which is still in print). For me, one remarkable aspect of the book is its Appendix, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” Here Mills does something I have never really seen other social scientists do: discuss the nature of the research craft, particularly the creative process of linking intuition with idea generation. This is important because, after all, generating ideas is what scholars do.

Mills begins with the suggestion that one set up a file or journal in which to record ideas–ideas about stuff, about the world, about what you’re reading, about what excites you, and about that which stimulates your curiosity. This lays the groundwork for what he calls “systematic reflection.” The file or journal is a space you can unite “what you are doing professionally and what you are experiencing as a person.” Or put another way: your personal interests are in fact linked to your professional research interests. The journal is also a place to capture “fringe thoughts”–bits of information such as overheard conversations, something you read, or even a feeling revealed to you in a dream. Very cool stuff to read in an Appendix, right? Keeping a journal keeps your inner life awake and allows you to develop powers of expression and the discipline of “controlled expression” by which I think Mills simply means the process of capturing those aspects of your inner life in order to study and consider them. Once the journal is up and running, its individual entries can be periodically re-arranged, cross-referenced, and so forth. All of this serves to loosen your imagination by revealing to you connections and larger themes. The most important point to remember about the journal is this: “The maintenance of such a file is intellectual production.”

Later on the Appendix. Mills suggests ways to stimulate one’s imagination, and many of these suggestions revolve around a sense of play. Playing with words, phrases, concepts and definitions is one way to start. Or you can pursue insight by considering extremes such as “thinking of the opposite of that with which you are directly concerned.” In suggesting forms of intellectual play, Mills advocates for a constant shifting of one’s attention from one level to another–kind of like playing with the zoom function on a camera. To use a musical analogy, Mills almost seems to be describing what could be called composing with ideas.

The Appendix ends with a set of suggestions for good craftsmanship. These include the importance of writing simply and clearly, the importance of grounding your writing in clear examples, and the importance of thinking broadly about the relevance of your work to your time, or in Mills’ words: “orient [your work] to the central and continuing task of understanding the structure and the drift, the shape and the meanings, of your own period . . . ” Finally, and perhaps most incisively, Mills suggests that we maintain our autonomy as scholars when it comes to deciding the kinds of projects we take on and which ideas are in fact important to us:

“Do not allow public issues as they are officially formulated, or troubles as they are privately felt, to determine the problems that you take up for study. Above all, do not give up your moral and political autonomy by accepting in someone else’s terms the illiberal practicality of the bureaucratic ethos or the liberal practicality of the moral scatter.”

You can read the Appendix here.


In a post on the Freesounds website a few days ago I noted how easy it is for sounds to go free: how anyone can upload or download sound samples to and from this website and use them in their work.  But while sounds may go free, in many parts of the world the people who make these sounds are considerably less free to express themselves (freely) through music and sound.  This is not something that usually crosses your mind much when you’re in a position to do whatever you want artistically, but music censorship is alive and well.

Freemuse–the World Forum on Music and Censorship–is a Denmark-based independent organization that “advocates freedom of expression for musicians and composers worldwide.”  According to their website, Freemuse is guided by “the principles outlined in the United Nations Declaration of Human rights as they apply specifically to musicians and composers.”

You can search the Freemuse website by country/region, artist name, and even subject/theme.  Freemuse also offers an array of links to books, articles, films, speeches, radio broadcasts, and recordings pertaining to music censorship.

Visit Freemuse here.

The Hang Drum: Real and Virtual

Do you like the sounds of steel pans and gamelans?  Then you might really be intrigued by the sound of the Hang, a percussion instrument created and hand-built by the Swiss company PANart (Felix Rohner and Sabina Scharer) since 2000.  The Hang consists of two steel sheets welded together to make a convex shape, a little like a UFO.  The top sheet has a main pitch hammered into its middle, along with 7 additional pitches located as indentations around its perimeter. The instrument almost looks like the concave steel pan turned inside out.  To play the Hang you place it on your lap and tap it with your hands and fingers, which brings out the instrument’s many overtones.  Due to some YouTube videos that show the Hang in action, demand for the instrument has skyrocketed in recent years.  Yet there is very little information on how to obtain a Hang, besides buying a used on eBay for thousands of dollars. Moreover, PANart has no website with information on how obtain one.  I have a percussionist friend who has one or two, but I’m a little afraid to ask how he obtained them (!)  It’s all a little pleasantly mysterious in a time when just about everything is one click away on Amazon.com.

As with so many audio-video things, YouTube is a good place to check out the Hang in action.  Here’s a clip of the most-watched Hang video (over two million views so far): an original piece by the Austrian percussionist Manu Delago.  The piece is a moody and catchy one, showcasing the Hang’s tuning and dynamic range,  along with Delago’s groovy percussionist’s rhythmic flow.  You can watch his performance here.

If you want to get your hands on the Hang’s sound but like many of us have no access to obtaining the actual instrument itself, you might want to consider downloading a sampled version.  The company Soniccouture sells a virtual instrument called “Pan Drum” which is a meticulously sampled Hang drum that has earned rave reviews.


Soniccouture specializes in reproductions of instruments from around the world, including the Chinese gu-qin, the khim Thai dulcimer, the Balinese gamelan, and a version of the mbira from Zimbabwe.  For US $79.00 you can own Soniccouture’s Hang samples and play them from your MIDI keyboard, add effects, and mutate them to your liking. Soniccouture’s website describes its Hang software as “a unique and evocative instrument that will bring indefinable atmosphere to all kinds of musical production …”

Unique and evocative?  Indefinable atmosphere?  All of this talk about musical mood leads us back to timbre, or sound “quality” in music.  Timbre isn’t everything, of course, but it’s a whole lot of what makes one music sound different from another.  Think of the crunchy distorted electric guitar timbres in rock and metal musics, or the liquid metallic shimmer of steel bands, gamelans, and now, the Hang.  Timbre is a big part of why we are attracted to or repelled by a music.  Companies such as Soniccouture recognize our love of timbre and the simple fact that different timbres make us feel different things; they may even mean different things.  And so we continue searching for new sounds for making our music.

Sounds Want To Be Free: Freesound

Freesound (www.freesound.org) is a collaborative database of Creative Commons Sampling Plus-licensed sounds.  At freesound, anyone can upload or download sounds.  What kinds of sounds are here?  You name it: environmental sound field recordings (wind, rain, ice cracking), industrial and mechanical sounds, human voices, sound effects, digitally processed sounds, drones . . . All of the sounds on the website can be copied, sampled and transformed, and even used in new works, as long as authors of the original sounds are credited in the derivative work.  Users can even upload sounds into “sample packs” or collections of related sounds.  Thus, you can find a collection that features the sounds of someone walking over ice and use this sample pack as the basis for a new kind of drum kit.  The range of sonic material here is staggering: browsing freesound is a little like getting a glimpse of the human DNA code.  To continue the genetic analogy, if you are an electronic musician interested in tweaking sounds, this is a great place to find sounds (besides recording your own of course).

I have two thoughts on freesound.  First, it reminds me of something John Perry Barlow talked about his 1993 Wired article “The Economy Of Ideas.” One of Barlow’s main points is that information “wants to be free”–free, that is, of the “containers” in which it has been packaged for so long. Barlow could have been talking about sound too, as what has happened to music over the past 15 years nicely illustrates his point.  During this time, it has become very easy to free sounds–remixing them, mashing them up, re-sampling and transforming them.  In this regard, f seems to me to be just an inevitable kind of collective freeing sound project.  Interestingly, there are no songs on the freesound website.  But this doesn’t mean that there still aren’t sounds that perhaps shouldn’t be there.  For instance, type in “overtone singing” and you’ll find 60 sound samples, including Tibetan chanting, Tuvan khoomei, and all kinds of processed variants of these.  After a few seconds of hearing the first sample (chant from Tibet), the ethnomusicologist wants to know: Where was this recorded?  Who is chanting?  And was the recordist given permission to record?  After a little digging around, we learn that a freesound member named djgriffin is not only the recordist, but also the singer on many, but not all, of his samples.  There are field recordings buried in there as well.  One of djgriffin’s samples features gelug nuns chanting at a 2010 world peace festival in India.  This recording is now part of djgriffin’s “tibetan buddhism” sample pack that contains fifteen sounds.

The second point to note about freesound is how freely its sounds have travelled to other sound outlets.  Case in point: I was recently enjoying listening to an iPhone app called Ambiance.  Made by the company Urban Apps., Ambience is described as a sonic “environment enhancer” that lets users download from a collection of 1000 free sounds and mix them together to make custom soundscapes for listening.  (I have put together quite a nice mix of low-pitched wind chimes and ocean waves . . . )  Interestingly, all of the sounds that I have so far auditioned are attributed to the freesound website.  This is yet another example of what the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer calls schizophonia, or the splitting of a sound from its origin through electroacoustic reproduction.