Post-classical ambient minimalism for crepuscular airports

Junto Project 290: Text-to-Beat [repost]

Someone suggested that Suss Müsik repost our contributions to the weekly Disquiet Junto projects, because they enjoy reading the explanations of the tracks. While you’re reading the original post, make sure you check out the other contributors’ works as well.

“Someone who doesn’t speak for a day has no idea what it’s like to not speak at all,” wrote the late film critic Roger Ebert, who spent the last seven years of his life speaking through a computer after thyroid cancer necessitated the removal of his lower jaw. He communicated verbally using Alex, the same text-to-speech (TTS) voice system that powers Apple’s VoiceOver engine for people who cannot see.

Mr Ebert bemoaned the lack of realism of computer-synthesized voices, describing how the comparisons between human speech and TTS were “relative, not absolute.” Communication isn’t simply about words, he explained; we also derive meaning from inflection, delivery, timing and tone.

For this short piece, Suss Müsik explored the relative (but not absolute) musical parameters of Apple VoiceOver. We recorded four quotes and identified one rhythmic phrase from each, which were then assembled to create a new sentence. The foundation of the piece is the combination of breaths, hiccups and nonverbal noises that accompany everyday human speech. Treated piano and metallic percussion were overdubbed.

The piece is titled Singularity in homage of Ray Kurzweil, who among other achievements is credited with inventing the first TTS synthesizer. The image is the Braille alphabet.

The quotes used in the piece are as follows:

“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.” ~ Groucho Marx

“Life is too short to work on inconsequential problems.” ~ C.K. Prahalad

“Somebody asked me, ‘If you had to give advice to a young actor, what would it be?’ I never even knew I was thinking this, but I said, ‘Always, even in a limo, wear your seat belt.’ To me, that’s good advice.” ~ Christopher Walken

“I’m seven people away from myself at the moment, but getting closer all the time.” ~ Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart

Junto Project 0289: Ancient Artifacts [repost]

Someone suggested that Suss Müsik repost our contributions to the weekly Disquiet Junto projects, because they enjoy reading the explanations of the tracks. While you’re reading the original post, make sure you check out the other contributors’ works as well.

The metanoiaphone is a reed instrument constructed out of leather, wood, and sometimes bone. It resembles the tusk of a rhinoceros with two horizontal pull levers jutting out each side. Its name comes from the root word μετάνοια, which means “to have a shift in one’s mind.”

The metano (as it’s commonly called) originated in the mountainous Prespa Lakes region of West Macedonia, one of the most remote parts of Greece. A single road takes visitors over the Haliacmon River just south of Polyfytos, the hilltop village where the first metano is believed to have been made.

To play a metano, one blows into the mouthpiece while grasping a lever on each hand, slowly alternating push-pull motions on either side — something like pedaling a bicycle, only using arms instead of legs. Different notes are the result of shifts in lever position, hence the name.

The sound of a metano is rich and throaty, often mistaken for a ram’s bleat when heard from a distance. With proper breath control, it’s possible to extend a note indefinitely by slowly rotating the arms to draw out a smooth, even tone.

By the 1950’s, owning a metano had become a symbol of status among the musical elite in Germany and Great Britain. Legend has it that any instruments that made their way north were likely stolen from villages during the Balkan Campaign of World War II.

Very few recordings of the metano exist today, and Suss Müsik owns one of them. It was purchased by chance in 1988 from a tiny Thessaloniki record shop that smelled of mothballs and grilled meat. Just below a Tuxedomoon poster was this filthy cardboard box full of cassette tapes. We bought the entire box for 500 drachmas, the equivalent of about three US dollars.

The except you hear is from a piece written by the obscure Greek composer Den Katalaveno. It’s titled Κομμάτι για μετάνοιαφωνο και την ορχήστρα του δωματίου (Piece for Metanoiaphone and Chamber Orchestra). The rest of the tape has unfortunately deteriorated with age and is unplayable.

Junto Project 0286: Found in Translation [repost]

Someone suggested that Suss Müsik repost our contributions to the weekly Disquiet Junto projects, because they enjoy reading the explanations of the tracks. While you’re reading the original post, make sure you check out the other contributors’ works as well.

Transliteration is the process of writing a word using the letters of another alphabet. This is done by identifying characters between two languages that sound the same, even if their visual appearance is completely different.

A good example of transliteration is when an Arabic phrase like القلم على الطاولة is spoken as “Al-qualam ‘alas at-taawila” in English. The phonetic clues help speakers of both languages know that the pen is on the table. In the art of global communications, it’s important to build bridges where and how we can.

To explore the musical equivalent of transliteration, one might ask what it means to consider the language of music as being derived from multiple alphabets. Is it possible to create a piece that isn’t really musical, yet retains the phonetic properties of sound from which music is made? Can a new language be assembled from components that have no basis in structure? How might we cultivate a musical phrase from non-musical origins?

(We at Suss Müsik ask a lot of questions. We are highly curious).

For this insane piece, Suss Müsik created an alphabet of noises using a prepared electric guitar played with homemade mallets, wooden blocks and a hollow metal tube. A rhythm began to emerge to create the first phrase. We then destroyed the rhythm through a process of declension, creating a sort of consonantal cluster before the original rhythm returns.

The result is something like hearing a Captain Beefheart riff crossed with Fred Frith’s guitar experiments after a visit with the dentist. It’s messy, chaotic, amateurish and probably awful, but we had fun doing it.

The piece is titled Metamorphoo, which is a transliteration of the Greek word μεταμόρφωση meaning “transformation.” The image is an old sheet of acrylic Letraset.

Junto Project 0285: Live Barcoding [repost]

Someone suggested that Suss Müsik repost our contributions to the weekly Disquiet Junto projects, because they enjoy reading the explanations of the tracks. While you’re reading the original post, make sure you check out the other contributors’ works as well.

The first barcode was a graphical extension of Morse code. That’s how Norman Joseph Woodland arrived at his barcode prototype in the 1940’s while living in his father’s beachfront apartment. One imagines Woodland drawing with a wooden stick in the soft Florida sands, extending a series of dots and dashes into the cryptic patterns we all recognize today.

Morse code is commonly thought to be a mechanism of distress. Everyone knows the code signifying “SOS,” for example. The lyrics of “Dot Dash,” a song by punk legends Wire, appear to reference a more neutral approach to crisis. The narrator’s indifference to an upcoming automobile accident is oddly casual, almost clinically observant: “Progressive acceleration / Skidding, but the expression / Remains pan.”

It’s interesting how, decades after Woodland revolutionized the transactional landscape, our emotional response to barcodes is one of lax familiarity. We get bored with innovation when we’re constantly exposed to it. Using a self-checkout scanner at the local grocer has all the excitement of waiting for a traffic light to change. We simply go through the motions: beep, navel oranges, two for a dollar. Beep, bag of crisps for one seventy-nine. Whatever.

For this piece, Suss Müsik created a nine-part sequence based on three barcodes. Each “hit” was played using pieces of wood and overlapped according to variances in line thickness. As the rotation became more dense, a bit of reverb and panning was used to separate the layers and compress the more piercing frequencies.

Noting that one of the barcodes resembled an elongated set of piano keys, Suss Müsik identified individual notes and arrived at a somewhat accidental chord sequence that deadens the senses after two measures. Perhaps that’s what Wire was getting at with “Dot Dash” and the lesson of Woodland’s invention: random discoveries and events are unavoidably circumstantial, and the emotional responses they elicit can be surprisingly mundane.

The piece is titled Philco, named after the company who purchased Woodland’s patent in 1962 after IBM declined to pay his asking price.

Postscript: the wood percussion by itself is actually quite interesting, if a bit dry. If there is interest among Junto participants in hearing this part as an isolated track, let Suss Müsik know via comment and we’ll post it.

Junto Project 0284: Creative Commonfield [repost]

Someone suggested that Suss Müsik repost our contributions to the weekly Disquiet Junto projects, because they enjoy reading the explanations of the tracks. While you’re reading the original post, make sure you check out the other contributors’ works as well.

“Music exists in time and space; it has a history and was made by work. Commodities, as we have seen, always conceal and render invisible the work that went into their creation — they dehumanize.”

That’s a quote by former Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler. It appears in Plunderphonics, Pataphysics & Pop Mechanics, a book written in 1995 by Andrew Jones. It could be argued that the triumph of Chris Kallmyer’s work — which uses everyday objects in reference to how and where people live — is the way it restores humanization in music, something like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs rendered as sound.

The rise and fall of north St. Louis’ brick buildings stretches back nearly 200 years. The surrounding land was rich with clay and a natural site for brickyards, who churned out more than 20 million bricks per year by the mid-1800’s. Those traveling the southeast US will see evidence of this migration on buildings from Kentucky to Louisiana to Texas.

By the late 1960’s, urban flight left large areas of the North Side as depleted zones. The demographic shifted. Plans were proposed and abandoned; investments were promised and rescinded. Today, brick thieves contribute to the blight by dismantling structures and harvesting the bricks for resale. Much of the area looks and feels like a ghost town, large chunks of once-beautiful homes missing bricks in their structures.

For this short piece, Suss Müsik sought to reconstruct Kallmyer’s sound piece as a “brick-by-brick” process. Two individual tones were sampled and twinned with a generous heap of rotary reverb. Nine individual ceramic “hits” were sequenced and looped in various combinations (1 and 4, 2 and 5, 3 and 6, etc.) until the beginnings of a rhythm began to emerge.

The piece decays into a solitary note, perhaps signifying how illegal commoditization of even one brick degrades the honest, historical work that made North St. Louis what it was. May it rise again.

The piece is titled Reconstruire, named after the French word for “rebuild.”

Junto Project 0283: Rooms Within Rooms [repost]

Someone suggested that Suss Müsik repost our contributions to the weekly Disquiet Junto projects, because they enjoy reading the explanations of the tracks. While you’re reading the original post, make sure you check out the other contributors’ works as well.

One of the most famous quotes by the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre is “Hell is other people.” That sentence concludes his play Huis Clos, written in 1943, in which three characters arrive in a room they believe to be Hell. The paradox is that in order to prove one’s existence, each character must transform the others into objects.

Rooms often take on the ambience of those who inhabit them. Sartre describes shame as an acknowledgement that we see ourselves as the objects that other people imagine us to be. “My original sin is the existence of the other,” he wrote. Rooms contain objects that dampen or accentuate sound, but then again people can serve the same auditory function. Screaming in a crowded room is a very different sonic experience than, say, screaming at the bathroom mirror by yourself. You’ll have to trust that Suss Müsik has deep knowledge of both these conditions.

For this piece, Suss Müsik recorded the following: (A) an empty room in the Northeast US; (B) a large hall in Canada where people came in and out; and (C) a very crowded lobby in Texas. Each room had various sonic properties that dictated their ambience, both human and machine. The pieces were sliced and arranged with no manipulation, other than a bit of EQ and panning to push the dynamic range a bit.

The piece is titled Koinoniphobia, named after the fear of rooms full of people. The image was taken at the Antoni Gaudí House in Barcelona.

Junto Project 0282: Berio’s Bach [repost]

Someone suggested that Suss Müsik repost our contributions to the weekly Disquiet Junto projects, because they enjoy reading the explanations of the tracks. While you’re reading the original post, make sure you check out the other contributors’ works as well.

Humans have long been fascinated by destruction. It could be argued, in fact, that the desire to break things is a fundamental requirement for survival. The first tools invented by humans 2.6 million years ago comprised the earliest known stage of technological innovation. Thus did human capability advance through a process of fracture, limiting the lifespan of the tools we created by making them susceptible to damage through repeated use.

Rock-breakers 2.6 million years ago understood that the way materials broke apart defined their use. We build structures out of wood and steel because of their strength. We also use wood and steel to create such artistic objects as jewelry, furniture and sculpture. One could argue that buildings represent that which is “structurally significant” and art exists purely for “decoration.” It is in the humanities, however, from which we derive understanding on what it means to be alive. Judging by those who participate in the Junto every week, we can all agree that cultural pursuits are of critical significance.

For this piece, Suss Müsik sought to blur the line between percussion-as-spine and percussion-as-filler. A simple rhythm is played on wood blocks as random pieces of wood and metal are struck at varying intervals. Reed instruments contribute to the slowly evolving din, along with a circular piano phrase that attempts to keep along with the base tempo. Just as things seem to line up, the opening rhythm retreats and abandons the piano, who must now fend for itself. The function of wood and metal evolves from “structure” to “decoration” in turn, despite there being no change in tempo, sequence or notation.

The piece is titled Conchoidal, named after the type of sharpening or break that results in a smooth, rounded surface.

Junto Project 0281: Pattern Interruption [repost]

Someone suggested that Suss Müsik repost our contributions to the weekly Disquiet Junto projects, because they enjoy reading the explanations of the tracks. While you’re reading the original post, make sure you check out the other contributors’ works as well.

The first tomatoes harvested for food were considered fatal to wealthy diners but harmless to the poor. This had everything to do with chemistry, not economics. During the 1500’s, the tomato’s acidity would interact with pewter flatware commonly used by the rich, who upon ingesting would soon die of lead poisoning. Poor people ate off plates made of wood and thus had no problems.

Today’s tomatoes are the result of thousands of years of genetic sculpting. In the 1950’s, researchers discovered a wild strain of plant where the tomato stayed longer on the vine due to a thicker “joint” holding the fruit to the stem. When crossed into existing breeds, however, the outcomes were disastrous: too many flowers, not enough fruit.

After screening 4,193 varieties of tomato plants, a team of genetic researchers led by Zachary Lippman have recently discovered how to engineer more productive crops through CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing. By minimizing the gene that bears flowers and strengthening a modified joint that can hold heavier fruit, it is hoped that tomato farmers will soon have better and more predictable yields.

This is the method by which Suss Müsik created this piece for three pianos. It opens with a seven-note palindromic sequence, interspersed by two patterns of chords played with two separate “joints” — one “thick” and one “thin” to reflect changes in meter. (It made sense at the time). The opening loop is interrupted by another palindrome about halfway through, slowly dropping notes the way a tomato falls off the vine. A lightly bowed electric guitar adds a bit of color.

Suss Müsik admits to being inspired (and a bit intimidated) by the wonderful red ips spider by earthborn visions, a lovely composition in which loops seem to organically flow into each other. A real gem.

The piece is titled Inflorescences, named after the process by which flowers form on branches.

Junto Project 0278: MacConnel’s Jingle [repost]

Someone suggested that Suss Müsik repost our contributions to the weekly Disquiet Junto projects, because they enjoy reading the explanations of the tracks. While you’re reading the original post, make sure you check out the other contributors’ works as well.

Kim MacConnel is considered to be part of an art movement known informally as Pattern and Decoration. A retrospective ArtNet piece describes how “P&D artists took both high and low images from global cultures … African and Indian fabrics, fur, feathers, sequins, Orientalist arabesques and floral patterns … and made a special point of incorporating into their work traditionally feminine materials and techniques.”

MacConnel’s work is like a visual quilt of cultural references, overlaid with kitsch imagery and bold chromatic selections. During the 1970’s, MacConnell’s work wasn’t taken seriously as art or even a style of painting. Although he would have likely resisted such comparisons, MacConnel does share some affinity with the Minimalist movement of the time. If there is such a genre as Post-Decorative Minimalism, this particular image is a prime example of it.

For this weird piece, Suss Müsic sought to invent post-decorative minimalist music. We transcribed the five panels of MacConnel’s painting into five “movements” of roughly equal length, inspired by the visual motifs presented in each section.

  • Movement 1 = electronic tones and static rendered as angular sine waves, with three synth phrases overlapped to create two composite chords.
  • Movement 2 = an attempt to compose a “classical” post-modern string piece, while envisioning Venus de Milo on the African Veldt.
  • Movement 3 = the result of pushing a cheesy CR-78 drum pattern through a delayed fuzzbox, with Native American ceramic flute and synth pattern overlaid on top.
  • Movement 4 = two polyrhythms for piano, wood blocks and organ played with binaural processing to match the pattern of a telephone cord.
  • Movement 5 = a softly muted faux-African rhythm on marimba, accompanied by ghostly vocals and a brief blast of organ.

The piece is titled Appliqué in honor of MacConnel’s first solo exhibition, Collection Applied Design.

Junto Project 0277: Chew Some Concrète Sounds [repost]

Someone suggested that Suss Müsik repost our contributions to the weekly Disquiet Junto projects, because they enjoy reading the explanations of the tracks. While you’re reading the original post, make sure you check out the other contributors’ works as well.

There is a lovely moment beginning around the six-minute mark of “Chew Cinders 1” by C. Reider. What appears to be randomized white noise degrades softly into retreating tones, followed by the rumbling of a deep bass presence that explodes into blankets of industrial haze. The effect is both unsettling and restful, reminiscent of classic Zoviet France (for those unfamiliar, their album Shouting at the Ground is a good starting point and well worth your investigation).

“I believe in the future resolution of two states,” wrote the Surrealist André Breton. “Life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease[ing] to be perceived as contradiction.” Composers who work in such contexts remove sounds from their original source material, thus creating a dichotomy in which even the most experimental music can reside within the realm of familiarity.

For this weird piece, Suss Müsik adhered to a philosophy of “sharp attack, gentle decay” — an unfaithful reproduction of casually played instruments. You’ll hear washes of synth, glitchy electronics, the tinkle of a piano, the heavy drop of a microphone. Deeper listens may reveal the distorted whine of a saxophone, or perhaps the rumble that occurs when a Boss RV-3 pedal is pushed to capacity. A chopstick is tapped on a piece of paper to replicate a snappy drum snare; somehow the hum of a dehumidifier sounds like a choir. Plus there’s a guy talking. Instant dada.

The piece is titled Creideamh, a derivative of the Old irish word creitem meaning “to believe.” The image is a red baseball, torn in half, with a picture of Salvador Dali on its surface.