March 2, 2012
HiLobrow has a long-running fascination with secret societies, remix culture, and fomenting creativity via new technologies and media — to say nothing of ad hoc homework assignments — and has been following the Disquiet Junto juggernaut with eager ears. Disquiet Junto is a weekly homework assignment in music, in which participants are asked to compose and remix within different limits. Membership is open, participation is free. In this #longreads interview, we pitched some questions at organizer Marc Weidenbaum, whose previous crowdsourced collaboration, Instagr/am/bient, was profiled here last month. And he has a more recent project, LX(RMX), in which 8 musicians under 16 names remixed field recordings from Lisbon, in tribute to the futurist poet Fernando Pessoa.
Wine Growler [disquiet0003-glass] by Another Neglected Hobby
Describe what people are creating for the Juntos. Some tracks are independently created, and in others you ask them to bounce off each other, right? What numbers did you start with, and how many participants are there now? Is there a maximum after which you’d be overwhelmed, or does it kind of run itself and so is scalable?
Each weekly project sets forth specific restraints in the form of a compositional assignment. Some of the projects so far have involved everyone working from a shared set of samples — like remixing a track off of a recent album, or combining a sample of a fog horn and a steam whistle, or combining elements from three archival Edison cylinders. Other projects have required the participants to themselves produce the underlying source recording for their piece; for example, the very first assignment asked them to record the sound of ice in a glass and make something from it — it was a willfully Fluxus-influenced assignment, even if the sound in my head was from a rap song, Hip Hop Drunkies by the Alkaholiks. One of the projects required the musicians to tape a live performance, and clearly that was something not everyone was comfortable doing, but a lot of people pushed themselves to make it happen, which was a wonderful thing.
After dinner I checked, and there were almost as many musicians who had posted in Junto as hours had passed in the two days since the seventh project was announced: 45 in 48 hours.
Right off the bat we had just under 60 participants, in the very first Junto project. This astounded me. I remember filling out the documentation required to create the group — I was sitting in a cafe on Valencia Street in San Francisco — and wondering if anyone at all would participate. For the seventh Junto, we had 70 different participants in four days. As of the eighth weekly Junto project, a total of 135 different musicians have contributed a total of 419 tracks, there are nearly 170 comments in the Discussion tab, and as for the combined number of plays and in-track comments, that is beyond my powers of Excel.
I See E : [disquiet0001-ice] by Open Heart Sound
The goal of the Junto is to give musicians a helpful nudge by providing them with what creative people tend to respond well to: a succinctly defined assignment, an unwavering deadline, and a supportive environment. If Junto participation went quickly from 60 participants a week to 300 participants a week, that wouldn’t in any way affect the assignments or the deadline. It would only change the nature of the environment. And even then, only on the Junto group page itself. The beauty of the SoundCloud interface is that people’s tracks also show up on their own member account pages, and in the feeds of people who follow them. If we went from 60 to 300, not everyone could listen to everyone, but there would be more people involved to potentially listen.
One musician put it well in a recent interview: he told the interviewer that the camaraderie of the Junto gave him comfort to make public work he wasn’t 100 percent proud of. That’s important, to be able to share your work, warts and all, for feedback from peers.
People regularly send me emails and tweets to apologize that they can’t make it in a given week, and I tell them not to worry, because that isn’t the goal — the goal is to have a dependable weekly event, so they can drop in when they have the time. One musician said on Twitter he had learned so much in the first month, he needed to take a break and focus on what he’d experienced, which I thought was great.
Also, to be clear, this isn’t a one-person operation. People step up, and if you want to discuss scale and figures, I’d say that is the true measure of a project. One member volunteered to maintain a list of all the Twitter accounts of participants. Several multilingual members have volunteered to translate the weekly assignments when I suggested I might want to do that — we have volunteers for French and Spanish, and I’d really like to also get Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian, among other languages. Participants have volunteered to assist on the archival end, should we start collating the assignments into album-like collections, though I have confidence that the SoundCloud service will iterate to provide something semi-automated along those lines.
Is the work produced very wide-ranging, or is it tending to converge on a type, like ambient or noise?
There are factions, micro-communities, with various aspects of overlap. There is a lot of drone, in which rich tonality and narrative are the twin aspirations, a lot of what might broadly be described as glitch, in which errors are greeted enthusiastically, a lot of expanded phonography, in which field recordings are transformed, and a slowly growing amount of beat-oriented and pop-minded work.
Nearly There (Disquiet0004-mfischer widesky lamplight Remix) by widesky
Nearly There (Disquiet0004-mfischer Jimmy Kipple Sound Remix) by jmmy kpple
How are the rights set up? Creative Commons, open source, percentages, &c?
Every musician can post his or her track with whatever license they choose, on a track-by-track, project-by-project basis. The only exceptions are instances when the source material entails a particular approach, because of the rights of that source material — the most common example is “share alike,” in which by working with the original material you agree to make your work just as available for reworking. I ask that they elect a downloadable, mutable option, for two main reasons: first, I’d like the tracks themselves to become fodder, over time, for future Junto projects; second, I’d like some comfort porting the music from one online service to another for archival or other presentation purposes. So, the vast majority of the tracks appear to be in the non-commercial Creative Commons mode, in which sharing and remixing is allowed, as long as attribution is provided. I love that zone, though I am beginning to feel some itching, some binding, in the commercial part of it — that’s something I’m just starting to think about.
How are you using Twitter, and does it have a relation to any of these projects? Is it just a way to spread the word, or is it serving some more interesting function?
Twitter is the first platform for a social network that I have taken to. I’ve been on all the major ones, starting with the BBS systems when I was in junior high, and then of course message boards, and mailing lists, and then when they got codified as Friendster, and everything that has existed in Friendster’s wake. I just love Twitter. In terms of social spheres, I feel like Facebook is about learning how different your interests are from those of your friends, which can be exciting in its own way, while Twitter is about sharing your interests with people who self-select as a result of those interests.
Instagr/am/bient happened because of Twitter. It was on Twitter I expressed my hater-like disdain for the Instagram service’s embodiment of instant nostalgia, and it was on Twitter where I was challenged to question my response to Instagram. It was on Twitter that I one day quarter-joked that I had come to wonder what the music would sound like if a given Instagram image were, in fact, a record cover, and it was on Twitter that various future participants encouraged me to make good on that idea and turn it into one of my projects. (See also Instagr/am/bient on HiLobrow.)
To some extent, social networks are like barbershops: there are lots of good ones, but once you find one, you don’t really need to visit any other ones all that often.
There’s a big overlap between Junto and Twitter, and so Twitter has, even more than the Discussion tab on SoundCloud, been a great way to keep the conversation going during and between projects. I might likely be using Google+, but I was already deep in Twitter when Google+ came along. To some extent, social networks are like barbershops: there are lots of good ones, but once you find one, you don’t really need to visit any other ones all that often. That said, I do need to stop by Google+ more often than I have been.
[disquiet0002-duet] The Fog of Information by Schrödinger’s Dog
Do you pursue community-based artistic endeavors IRL, or is this more an internet thing?
I don’t make much of a distinction between physical life and web life, but maybe that’s just me lying to myself about how such a significant percentage of my productivity is based online. So, no, I haven’t really done much in the physical world, especially not in a physical world in which physical proximity is a ruling factor in the selection of the participants. That said, the Junto has already led to discussion about putting on some concerts. A venue in San Francisco is supportive, and one in Chicago, and I am talking with folks in other cities where Junto activity has been particularly active. When I lived in New Orleans, I was part of a cadre of comics artists, though I just hung out with them, because I edited comics — I didn’t draw, which everyone else in the group did. And for the past year or so in San Francisco I have been assisting in an editorial capacity some really amazing people on some artistic projects, these fascinating “meals as works of art,” including one that was developed for the Warhol Foundation, and another that complemented an exhibit at a gallery here, Frey Norris, of work by the tremendous Spanish-Mexican surrealist Remedios Varo.
What inspired you to start the first of these “assignment” projects?
The very first of these commissioned music projects occurred in September 2006. That year was 25th anniversary of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and they did what then was still somewhat unusual, and today is pretty cookie-cutter: they posted the constituent parts of some of their songs off the album and let people remix them. I was very excited — until I listened to the music. After listening to a couple hours of these user-generated remixes, all I could think was, “It’s too bad so and so didn’t do one.” And then it occurred to me to do just that, to invite people who I thought would do a good job, and that yielded the first Disquiet.com remix project: Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet.
All I could think was, “It’s too bad so and so didn’t do one.” And then it occurred to me to do just that, to invite people who I thought would do a good job, and that yielded the first Disquiet.com remix project: Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet. Brian Eno sent me an email to say thanks for the “gift.”
The subsequent projects have all been similar in that they’ve been responses, “answer albums” — either to an instance in culture, or to a pervasive cultural force. All the projects are efforts in using music as a form of non-verbal communication, in which music participates in the cultural dialog as music, rather than someone writing an explanation from a musical-critical perspective. That is, they are “albums of ideas” instead of op-eds describing those ideas.
One “answer album” was to an especially ill-informed article by Megan McArdle about the state of the music industry. That one is called Despite the Downturn, after a lame bit of rhetorical mumbo jumbo in her article; I had a number of musicians interpret the editorial illustration that accompanied her article as if it were what the avant-garde tradition has termed a “graphic score.”
[Lowlands, excerpt, by Susan Philipsz, 2010]
And when Susan Philipsz won the Turner Prize in 2010, a nasty article by Richard Dorment that verged on an ad hominem attack appeared in the Telegraph, and I gathered a bunch of musicians to defend her selection; that yielded Lowlands: A Sigh Collective, the title of which plays on the Telegraph critic’s obnoxious suggestion that a “collective sigh” was the response to what he viewed as the self-evident absurdity of Philipsz winning the award. All the pieces of music on our collection employ the human sigh as their source material. I loved working on that project, especially debating with one of the contributors where a “sigh” ends and a “moan” begins.
All the projects are efforts in using music as a form of non-verbal communication, in which music participates in the cultural dialog as music, rather than someone writing an explanation from a musical-critical perspective.
What is your background, how would you describe your work (independently of/before this project, and also in relation to this project)?
I’d long heard you’re a writer if you have to write. Several years ago I realized there are, for me, two types of days: days when I write and days when I don’t, and on the latter days you don’t want to be around me. If that means I “have to write,” then I guess I understand. Still, the word “writer” makes me feel self-conscious. I’m comfortable calling myself an editor, or an editor/writer.
Most of all, I’m comfortable calling myself a “manager.” I enjoy managing the efforts of creative people — that’s true in the workplace, and it’s clearly true in the sound and music and art works that I pursue. The term may be “creative director,” but that seems at odds with the extent to which I prize collaboration. And I may be underestimating that term’s flexibility.
I’ve spent a lot of my years writing music criticism. I edited comics for many of them, too. I was the first person to give Adrian Tomine paid work, when he was still in high school, and comics I’ve edited appear in books by Jessica Abel, Justin Green, and Carol Swain, among others. I can’t draw, and I don’t really make music. I think my work with those comics artists prepared me to serve the kind of editorial/conceptual role I do in the Junto, and my other sound projects.
Layering Reality [disquiet0005-layer] by Ted James
What inspired you to start the Junto? What does Ben Franklin mean to you?
The Junto came about as follows. My Pessoa project, LX(RMX), took two years to complete, mostly because of the birth of my first child, in August 2010, but also because it had a lot of moving parts. I promised myself I wouldn’t launch another project until the Pessoa one was done, but at the end of both 2010 and 2011, something pushed me to briefly break that promise: first Susan Philipsz winning the Turner, and then the Instagr/am/bient project. The Instagr/am/bient project was the most loosely-assembled such project I had done. And when it was successful, I was excited, but I also was intrigued about the roots of its success. I kind of felt like I wanted to defend its honor, lest someone think we were just getting extra attention thanks to our association with Instagram. I thought about what else might be at the heart of Instagr/am/bient’s popularity, and I came to wonder about the way the project served as a kind of matchmaker, as one of its contributors put it, between the various participating musicians.
I wondered if that group activity, a sense of a group of musicians working somehow together even though separately, was different in a meaningful way from the more traditional approach of the earlier projects of mine, which were more top-down, discretely assembled productions. I knew SoundCloud had these groups where musicians would post tracks, as you might add images to a Flickr pool. And so I determined to set up an assignment and see what came of it.
My inspirations for the Junto were various. There are the weekly Beat Battles associated with the Stones Throw record label, which also are hosted on Soundcloud. There’s the Iron Chef of Music series of competitions, formerly hosted by the kracfive.com collective. And there is the Oulipo movement, which I am most familiar with to thanks to the associated movement Oubapo, which applies the constraint systems of Oulipo to the creation of comics. What we do in the Junto is Oumupo, the music fork of that tradition.
As for Franklin, he created organizations like most of us make lunch plans.
As for Benjamin Franklin, he was one of the first Americans, not an exiled European, not a profiteer, not a lost boy — but an American. Don DeLillo’s vision of America — the idea of American as a language as much as a national identity — provided validation to me for much of what I felt in my 20s, and I think it has its roots in the feverish mix of practicality and curiosity that comprised Franklin’s imagination. The idea of Thomas Edison’s laboratory having been his truly greatest invention is a commonly repeated observation. As for Franklin, he created organizations like most of us make lunch plans. In many ways, the United States is just one of the numerous societies he helped create, from fire departments to militia to libraries to schools.
thy right senses [disquiet0008-voice] by jmmy kpple
Anyhow, I happened to be reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin while I was pondering the nature of collegiality that I felt fueled Instagr/am/bient’s energy. My imagination was in the perfect state to be gripped by Franklin’s interest in creating organizations where like-minded people could gather for mutual improvement. I had just finished reading Isaacson’s biography of Einstein, which I’d read because I’d reviewed for Nature a graphic novel about Richard Feynman, and was on a physics high. I’d also just watched a documentary, titled Captured Ghosts, about Warren Ellis, a writer, mostly of graphic novels, whose imagination means a lot to me, and the documentary made a strong case for the role Ellis’ online efforts have played in the efforts of many people who make comics. Anyhow, all of this played a part in the Junto’s initial development.
What is some of your other work? Talk a bit about the Fernando Pessoa project, and anything else you’d like to mention.
Well, the main hub of it is Disquiet.com, which I founded in 1996. Since I started the site several years before the word “blog” existed, I like to think I get a grandfather clause that lets me linger in a categorical grey zone. The site sits at the intersection of sound, art, and technology. The readership it’s developed means a lot to me. I can write a story for The Atlantic’s website about how to make your Macintosh laptop more quiet, and the readership I have accrued understands it’s as much an article about ambient environmental sound as it is about industrial design, let alone practical “news you can use.”
Since I started the site several years before the word “blog” existed, I like to think I get a grandfather clause that lets me linger in a categorical grey zone.
My most recent two projects, aside from Junto, are this tribute to Fernando Pessoa and this exploration of the aesthetics of Instagram. Pessoa was a great Portuguese poet who invented a bunch of alter-egos, which he termed “heteronyms.” It was his masterwork, The Book of Disquiet, from which I borrowed for the name of my site when I bought the URL Disquiet.com in the winter of 1996.
LX(RMX) Lisbon Remixed by disquiet
For the Pessoa project, which is titled LX(RMX): Lisbon Remixed, I gave eight musicians the same track of field recordings of sounds of urban Lisbon and asked them to remix them. I asked them to do two versions: one under their own name, and one under an assumed name. This matter of names explores the notions of artistic identity that Pessoa explored with his heteronyms. A musician must face the question: if I do tracks under two names, how much do they differ from each other, and which is “me”? Is “me” the one with my name on it, or is “me” the one I do under another name so I can have the freedom, the privacy, to truly be “me”?
Is “me” the one with my name on it, or is “me” the one I do under another name so I can have the freedom, the privacy, to truly be “me”?
The exploration in LX(RMX) of ambient noise is also a consideration of sonic geography: each of the tracks is the sound of a unique fictional city, some more rhythmic than others. The project had a lot of moving parts, and involved some of the most accomplished collaborators I’ve worked with so far in my music projects: Steve Roden and Scanner are among the musicians, and the central focus was a photography exhibit by the artist Jorge Colombo, best known as “the guy who draws those New Yorker covers on his iPhone,” though he is far more than that. The field recordings we used initially served as the score to an installation of Jorge’s photos of urban Lisbon, which he accomplished by approaching the city, his hometown, as might one of Pessoa’s heteronyms: the futurist Álvaro de Campos.
For Instagr/am/bient, I got 25 musicians to each send me an Instagram photo they’d taken. Then I re-distributed those images, and asked each musician to record a piece of music in response to the image that I assigned to them — that project has done oddly well, about 30,000 streams in the two months or so since its release, in addition to what is nearing 10,000 downloads. The origins of the project were complex, but the essence of it is that I didn’t appreciate Instagram when I first encountered it, quite the contrary. But much as I like to kill my heroes, I also like to prod my negative biases, especially the more knee-jerk ones. I came to recognize that the visual filters in Instagram aren’t that different from the sonic filters with which many ambient musicians manipulate field recordings. So, if I enjoy an ambient track that takes the sounds of a city and turns them into a hazy MP3, why was I such a hater when images of that same city were turned into a hazy photograph by Instagram? The project was an attempt to reconcile that discrepancy.
If I enjoy an ambient track that takes the sounds of a city and turns them into a hazy MP3, why was I such a hater when images of that same city were turned into a hazy photograph by Instagram? The project was an attempt to reconcile that discrepancy.
Can you name some of your influences? Whose work inspires you?
That’s a tough one. My influences. Man. I used to be very inspired by fiction, especially by Don DeLillo, up until Underworld; David Foster Wallace, mostly the short pieces; Jonathan Lethem; Joanna Scott; Nicholson Baker, until he was distracted by newspaper preservation; Paul Auster, until he wrote that book about a dog, and then again more recently; Michael Brodsky, whose novels have rewired my brain on numerous occasions — but I don’t find myself as absorbed by fiction as I once was, maybe because I’m writing more of it myself these days. I don’t know. I was addicted to Dennis Potter and Kobo Abe, truly addicted, though no longer.
In music, I have my heroes: the more experimental parts of Brian Eno’s work; electric-era Miles Davis, until around the time he moved to Warner Bros.; John Zorn, especially where his work as a label owner overlaps with his work as a composer; Kronos Quartet, especially its commissioning efforts; Pauline Oliveros, for tuning ears to Deep Listening; Hal Willner, for his big-eared approach to genre, musical history, and concept albums — there’s way too much music for me to name, so I am emphasizing several much earlier generations, the work that I experienced the earliest, and that therefore has been with me the longest. More recently, I don’t travel without a DJ Krush album and a Boxhead Ensemble album. More recently still, I’ve been deep in the netlabel world for several years, and think it is one of the great underreported cultural forces of our time — there are some 500 of these labels around the world, producing music expressly for free download. And, of course, generative music, especially in the form of browser-based and mobile apps.
I don’t really believe in works. I believe in authors, and in the flow from one work to another.
Your question is well-worded, because it’s about “whose work.” That’s good, because I don’t really believe in works. I believe in authors, and in the flow from one work to another. And that sense of flow is no doubt related to the vision I have expressed about the more fluid “future” of music. I like reading all of William Gibson as one book, not just as a bunch of trilogies, let alone a bunch of novels — the brand-dropping in his recent books makes a lot more sense when you remember he mentions a BMW in the second sentence of Count Zero. I really like Warren Ellis’ work, and I especially enjoy following themes that flow in and out of various bits of it, and how those same themes surface in the more fluid work he does simply on his blog and on Twitter, among other places.
They sent a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT. He didn’t see it coming.”
— William Gibson, Count Zero
And I watch a good amount of television. I’m fascinated by the wonder that is long-form, long-running television drama, how characters change as they gain more cultural capital from the audience’s affection, and how the audience’s feedback alters the shape of the show. I think the Internet is my biggest “influence.” I have been online full time since around 1992 or 1993, about two decades. And I don’t think a day has gone by where I didn’t say to myself, if not out loud, “I really love the Internet, and even if the technology never got better than it is right now, we could do so much more with it.”
If I am asked the same influence question in a month, I will likely have a different set of answers.
Loud and Clear [disquiet0008-voice] by bulldozia
What’s your view of music in the 21st century? Where’s it going, where should it go?
Man, how many pages do you have for me to fill? I’ll be brief with this one, or try to be. I think talking about the future is a fool’s game, and even though I’m as foolish as the next person, I’m going to talk about the present instead.
I think we’re in a resplendently transitional moment, and while I have no idea what kind of unforeseen form might become normalized, I do like to think we can do a lot to make more of our present cultural circumstances. I think there is something between RSS and API that could make music more exhilarating, and that’s kind of what Junto is for me. RSS can be seen as the steady flow of information in a linear fashion that allows for its wide, unintended dispersal. API can be described as the means by which a code-based system allows itself to interact with other code-based systems.
There is a reason why political blogs are exciting even if the individual posts are just ever-shifting bits of tea-reading and barometer-checking, because watching politics unfold in real time is fascinating, and watching a good blogger’s mind change in real time is intoxicating, like the best serial television can be. I think music has an opportunity to unfold in a more blog-like mode. Meanwhile, most of the major online commercial music apparatuses are just trying to make virtual record stores, and I think that’s a strategic error so sizable that “strategic” is an understatement; I just don’t know what is to “strategic” the way “strategic” is to “tactical.” Maybe I should just get comfortable with that hackneyed term, “paradigm.”
Anyhow, the future — OK, here I go, fool that I am — isn’t an online record store. It could be something else, something more fluid and ephemeral, with a sense of narrative underlying it. I think music in the not too distant future might relate to the concept of a record store like telephones related to the concept of a “visiting card” and automobiles related to the concept of a train schedule.
I think music in the not too distant future will relate to the concept of a record store like telephones related to the concept of a “visiting card” and automobiles related to the concept of a train schedule.
Ebb (disquiet0006-cylinder) by seams
The next Disquiet Junto assignment can be found here.
Disquiet Junto on Disquiet.com
Disquiet Junto on Soundcloud.
Listen to a podcast interview about the Disquiet Junto on Soundcloud.