If experimental music and Europe make you think only of cities like Paris and London, you’re missing a big part of the story. Now you can grab a huge reference on fringe and weird electronic music from the east – and it’s free. (At least that would please Marx.)
Berlin, and Europe in general, have exploded as hubs for experimental sounds. And if you want an answer to why that’s happened lately, look in no small part to the ingenuity, technical and artistic, of central and eastern Europe. These artistic cultures flourished during the Cold War, sometimes with support from Communist states, sometimes very much in the face of adversity and resistance from those same nations. And then in a more connected Europe, brought together by newly open borders and cheap road and air transit, a younger generation continues to advance the state of the art – and the state of the weird.
Old biases die hard, though. Cold War (or simply racist) attitudes often rob central and eastern Europe of deserved credit. And then there’s the simple problem of writing a history that’s fragmented by language and divisions that arose between East and West.
So it’s worth checking out this guide. It’s an amazing atlas covering history and new scenes, and the PDF edition is now available to download for free (if you can’t locate the print version).
SOUND EXCHANGE was a project from 2012-2012, connected to events in seven cities – Kraków, Bratislava, Tallinn, Vilnius, Budapest, Riga and, Prague. That’s Poland, Slovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Latvia, and Czech, respectively. It’s also relevant that we’re seeing these countries produce music tech alongside music – Bastl Instruments in Czech, Polyend in Poland, and Erica Synths in Latvia, just to name three that have lately gotten a lot of attention (and there are others).
There’s 400 pages – in both German and English – with a huge range of stuff. There’s fringe rock music in Germany, radio art from Czech, intermedia and multimedia art from across the region, what Latvia has been up to in experimental music since independence … and the list goes on. Technology and music practice go hand in hand, too, as workshops and music concerts intertwine to spread new ideas – both before and after the fall of communism, via different conduits.
It’s a fitting moment to rediscover this exhibition; CTM Festival here in Berlin has been a showcase for some of the east-meets-west projects including Sound Exchange’s outcomes. And CTM itself is arguably a recipient of a lot of that energy, in the one capital that sits astride east and west – even today, in some ways, minus the wall. The festival is turning 20 this year, and not incidentally, East Berlin-founded label Raster is showcasing its own artists in an exhibition and DJ sets.
Maybe it’s not bedtime reading, but even a skim is a good guide:
“Now that’s one fine and classy, atmospheric, big room tool, son.” Here’s the data when you crawl Berlin electronic music shop Hard Wax for descriptive keywords.
Friend of the site (and one-time CDM Web developer) musician-and-hacker Olle Holmberg has crawled Hard Wax’s website. That’ll be the legendary record purveyor opened by Mark Ernestus back in 1989 in Kreuzberg, Berlin, and still a leading destination for vinyl lovers today.
hardwax.com has accordingly accumulated a lot of words about music on their Internet portal, since each time a release like this Drexciya side project comes out, you get a whole bunch of language, too.
Olle collected the most important words, and he’s shared his data set.
I wrote some Processing code to visualize all of this as a word cloud, and here’s what you get (details on how to do this yourself below):
Since the data is available as a CSV, you could probably refine it more. For instance, one flaw is that singular and plural versions of words aren’t combined, so the rankings are slightly off. “Banger” and “bangers” he’s manually combined so that one gets a solid ranking.
The top 25, with number of appearances in a description:
1. tool (1848)
2. atmospheric (974)
3. fine (941)
4. big room (928)
5. classy (904)
6. deep (872)
7. effective (858)
8. killer (858)
9. heavy (851)
10. leftfield (798)
11. minimalist (744)
12. original (734)
13. excellent (720)
14. crafty (647)
15. trips (598)
16. recommended (594)
17. raw (590)
18. spaced (585)
19. rooted (574)
20. hard (567)
21. dark (526)
22. banger/bangers (520)
23. excursions (516)
24. tripping (508)
25. leaning (506)
“It’s atmospheric, yet also a banging big room tool.”
Next challenges: build a random keyword generator, train some machine learning on this, or … try to make music that fits the most popular words?
Oh, and if you’re interested in the code, I’ve got that, too. I worked with free and open source, multiplatform artist-friendly coding tool Processing. (Other Web-based tools exist, too, but then you miss out on the fun and flexibility of coding things yourself.)
Ah, word clouds – remember when we thought those were the bee’s knees? (To misquote Douglas Adams, it harkens to a headier, more innocent time when we were “so amazingly primitive that we still thought word clouds were a pretty neat data visualization.”
With both code examples, you’ll need to slightly modify the csv file. Open the file in a text editor and add this line to the top:
And remember to add the data file, and the image file (if you use the shape variation), to your Processing sketch (Sketch > Add File).
If you want to check out Berlin’s record shops and you happen to make it to town, here’s a good guide. It’s impressively only a little bit dated in terms of locations – Berlin is a weird haven where record shops mostly survive. Hard Wax is a must. Space Hall has become a huge music venue. And digger heaven The Record Loft has recently reopened next to the Sonnenalle S-Bahn stop.
If Olle’s name is familiar, it’s because he also crawled Berghain’s site, though we were later informed both by resident DJs and the booking office that the data crawled there wasn’t really representative. (Still, it was a fun project – and we did wind up learning more about Berghain booking data in the end. Science!)
As we remember Alan R. Pearlman and the impact his instruments had on music, here’s a survey of the many places ARP sounds appeared in music culture. It’s a reminder of just how profound electronic music tools can be in their influence – and of the unique age in which we live.
Perhaps now is the perfect time for an ARP revival. With modular synthesis reaching ever-wider audiences, the ARP creations – the 2500, 2600, and Odyssey featured here – represent something special. Listen across these tracks, and you’re struck by the unique colors of those ARP creations across a range of genres. It’s also significant that each of these designs in their own way struck a balance between modularity and accessibility, sound design and playability. That includes making instruments that had modular patching capability but also produced useful sounds at each patch point by default – that is, you don’t have to wire things up just to make something happen. That in turn also reduces cable spaghetti, because the patch connections you make represent the particular decisions you made deviating from the defaults. On the 2500, this involves a matrix (think Battleship games, kids), which is also a compelling design in the age of digital instruments and software.
And lest we get lost in sound design, it’s also worth noting how much these things get played. In the era of Eurorack, it’s easy to think music is just about tweaking … but sometimes it’s just as useful to have a simple, fresh sound and then just wail on it. (Hello, Herbie Hancock.)
It’s easy to forget just how fast musical sound has moved in a couple of generations. An instrument like the piano or violin evolved over centuries. Alan R. Pearlman literally worked on some of the first amplifiers to head into space – the Mercury and Gemini programs that first sent Americans into space and orbit, prior to Apollo’s journey to the moon. And then he joined the unique club of engineers who have remade music – a group that now includes a lot of you. (All of you, in fact, once you pick up these instruments.)
So I say go for it. Play a preset in a software emulation. Try KORG’s remake of the Odyssey. Turn a knob or re-patch something. Make your own sound design – and don’t worry about whether it’s ingenious or ground-breaking, but see what happens when you play it. (Many of my, uh, friends and colleagues are in the business of creating paid presets, but I have the luxury of making some for my own nefarious music production purposes that no one else has to use, so I’m with you!)
David Abravanel puts together this playlist for CDM:
Some notes on this music:
You know, we keep talking about Close Encounters, but the actual sound of the ARP 2500 is very limited. The clip I embedded Monday left out the ARP sound, as did the soundtrack release of John Williams’ score. The appearance is maybe more notable for the appearance of ARP co-founder David Friend at the instrument – about as much Hollywood screen time as any synth manufacturer has ever gotten. Oh, and … don’t we all want that console in our studio? But yes, following this bit, Williams takes over with some instrumental orchestration – gorgeous, but sans-ARP.
So maybe a better example of a major Hollywood composer is Jerry Goldsmith. The irony here is, I think you could probably get away with releasing this now. Freaky. Family Guy reused it (at the end). We’ll never defeat The Corporation; it’s true.
It’s also about time to acknowledge that Stevie Wonder combined Moog and ARP instruments, not just Moog. As our industry looks at greater accessibility, it’s also worth noting that Wonder was able to do so without sight.
What about U2? Well, that’s The Edge’s guitar routed through the ARP 2600 for filter distortion and spring reverb. That’s a trick you can steal, of course – especially easily now that Arturia has an emulation of the 2600.
Expect our collective reader knowledge exceeds anything we can contribute so – let us know what other artists using ARP inspired you, and if you have any notes on these selections.
Music can be wallpaper and fashion and groove and all those things – and sometimes those things are grand. But music can also be a torch to help us see out of the dark. The Dimensions Series of curated mixes this year took on those themes of metamorphosis – and how to find ways out of depression and darkness.
Mexico City-based artist and curator Oscar González of the wonderful Static Discos label gathered some significant names for this series. And musically, it’s worth listening top to bottom. But I also appreciate that from the start Oscar opened up about his own personal challenges.
We need a reason to make music. Sometimes, that reason can be survival — finding peace when it threatens to elude us. Oscar tells CDM:
I think I’ve never talked about where the idea of the series was born.
The last five years have been and, in some way continue to be, challenging and shifting. It has been very difficult and there have been some very dark periods, actually. The idea was born right in that chaos; it was like a gift in the middle of depression. But during the last year, there have also been lots of wonderful achievements, new friendships made, lessons learned thanks to my falls and failures that — although they’ve hurt extremely – have helped my convictions and faith to be strengthened.
Some incredibly positive and happy moments also happened. My dad is a miracle, [surviving] several heart attacks. For my part, I got a job that I really love, and I learned to love myself such as I am. I stopped thinking that I was not enough for myself or for others, and I started to believe only what God says I am.
Now brief moments of peace are hitting me…
So, I tried to express some of these experiences and feelings into the series across these years. Each edition is a good representation of those shifting patterns and where my heart was in every moment while curating.
Please, don’t get me wrong – I do not want to be a hypocrite. Just like Luke Hess, I’m just a Christian guy from somewhere in Mexico City trying to spread a little love through music, because for me the music still is the best remedy for the broken heart, to inspire and give us hope where there seems to be none.
However, I feel a deep sadness, since there are many young people that now are going through by the same situation in which I was, mired in depression, with thoughts of suicide and in a deep pain — so if you want to talk, please hit me up, sometimes we just need someone to listen to us.
“Sometimes we just need someone to listen to us.”
I could add here, but I expect I don’t have to – this experience of navigating darkness and hopelessness through music is something that I know can resonate with most or all of you.
What’s been beautiful about the Dimensions Series this year is how each new mix has let the theme of metamorphosis unfold and blossom. And guest artists from a range of backgrounds often touched on these themes from Oscar even without prompting.
Elli. Photographer : Ryuji Sue Hair & Makeup : Tori. Styling : Joe (TOKYODANDY)
Elli Arakawa of Japan has an especially beautiful, artful, moving mix, one that tugs at your heart and lifts you to some transcendent plane.
And she also gets personal:
This year has been a year of transition and realization.
There have been many changes for the good and the bad to make me realize what is important in life and living in this difficult world right now as a woman, an independent and strong woman that I would want to be considered.
This mix is dedicated to my mother.
Who just had a bad accident/operation but still has a positive prospective about life, the overall cause, and effect, karma, everything happens for a reason and from that, we learn.
She has dealt the accident with grace and I could not be more proud. She has not let it affect her life and ever since she has only been moving forward. So I would like to dedicate it to her strength and determination. She is an inspiration to many of us women and continues to be. We need women like her to pull us all together and fight for what we deserve and what we wish for.
My mind was everywhere at the time but I found myself being centered when I was recording this mix.
I hope it triggers some kind of positive effect to every person who gets to hear this mix. Or some kind of realization towards life, to be able to embrace changes and to notice how lucky we are for what we have.
Jenus, artist and curator, has moved from helming Ostgut Ton to Kobosil’s bold R – Label Group. To anyone who says Berlin lacks a sound, here it evolves gradually, from Detroit to Friedrichshain, in a sense of experimentalism that is rooted and timeless.
Perversely, it’s often a lack of history that can hold producers and DJs back from experimentation – like traveling without a compass. What I’ve grown to appreciate about Jenus in the years I’ve known him in Berlin, apart from his deeply intimate sense of dedication to music, is that sense of history. And he has a knack for navigating shadowy sound, taking us deep into the forest.
He lends some theory to this soulful Winterreise that emerges in this series, and – sure enough, talks about how that connection to the past is meaningful to him. Connect this sense of music finding its way and how we personally find our way (including our personal path through music), and I think there’s something potent:
While working on this mix I was thinking about development and structural change. I wanted to reflect on the process of forming, it’s about memory and transformation. The mix combines some tracks that have been with me for a long time – since the early 90’s, through layering them with new sounds they evolve into something new. I need a lot of time to slowly develop a transition and I like a natural ebb and flow, the force of nature. Energy regenerates and then rears up, you can see this again and again everywhere you look. This mix is a little darker maybe and more pensive, you have to take time, in general, this is something that I believe people should do more. Change just happens, it’s inevitable, but positive change benefits from an understanding and contemplation of the past.
These wonderful images are created by designer FAX aka Rubén Alonso – as always for the Static Discos label. And if some of the guests here bared souls, FAX brings you into his home and workplace, with an eclectic soundtrack that reveals how he mixes his daily life and remains creative.
John Osborn is essential listening, too. And he speaks to the notion of traversing emotions, finding narrative. It’s mixing in the most personal and subjective way, far from the functionality required out in public. And it’s lovely (track listing is over on SoundCloud):
It was a long time since I last recorded a ‘home-studio’ mix. My previous mixes/podcasts have all been live recordings, mainly from sets in Japan & Asia. Oddly, it felt new to me to record a mix without a location defining what I play. Without the external defining the direction I found myself asking myself quite a deep, yet simple question; What do I want to communicate? I took a personal report of the past few years of musical experiences to find out where my head is today and in doing so I created this mix. I composed a mix that carries you through a rich narrative, that makes, holds and breaks tension in a gentle sine-wave pattern. I discovered the sound that currently interests me as a DJ is one that will always transport you, on the dance floor or in your headphones, like that magical feeling when you are in transit to a new, never seen before destination. Tension, drive and expression are not defined by BPMs, but emotions.
Oh yeah, and I did the first mix in this series. I thought about transformation and I knew Oscar had been going through a lot – I knew I’d been going through a lot of change, too – and so I felt a lot of the same calling he talks about above.
Oscar and I hadn’t talked about depression and metamorphosis so directly, but I’m looking back on what I wrote when I sent in the mix, and I think intuitively sometimes we speak these things when we share music. Here’s what I had to say:
I hope music is that one space that gets deeper the further we go, that makes us more malleable as we get older instead of more brittle. It’s the language we never stop learning. And when the world around us sometimes gives us pain and loss, I think sound can be the code that helps us find ourselves again. That’s true whether it’s silly, or repetitive, or ridiculous, or noise and grit and distortion. Screams become joyful and pain turns to laughter. Music is the sound our heart makes when it’s unafraid.
I find depression stops you from being able to make music, but I think that’s because depression is immobile and unchanging. But then music can be the way to get yourself out of that hole – to move again, to become yourself again by allowing yourself to become someone new.
I was fascinated by the rhythm of Charles Bukowski’s words, and the idea of beatmatching a poet to music … and then from there I find I’m turning to music from people I’ve gotten to know, strangers I wish I knew, music from labels I admire, finding the through line in all that.
I wish we mixed more, and listened to each other’s mixes more, and less to algorithms or albums we’ve grown tired of or what we think is cool. Isn’t that the stuff that matters?
My track listing:
Charles Bukowski – Hustle [Goldenlane Records]
Red Line – Ao Wu [UnderU]
Koji Itoyama – forest [Fumin]
Dark Sky – Imagine [Monkeytown Records]
Frank Bretschneider – A Soft Throbbing of Time [Raster-Noton]
Murcof – Rostro [The Leaf Label]
Stan Velev – North Island [Detroit Underground]
Library Tapes – Sevilla (from Europe, She Loves soundtrack) [Library Tapes]
Nadia Struiwigh – 010101 [CPU Records]
N1L – ijsv_0gel (Logos Rmx) [Opal Tapes]
Energun – Psychotic Sequence 001 [Wunderblock Records]
H. Takahashi – Water Lily [Slow Editions]
Lucas Bat – A Colony Always Works for the Gyne [Lucas Bat]
Yaporigami – PLMS_IV_B [Yaporigami]
Wilhelm Bras – Possibility of Artificial Suffering [Wilhelm Bras]
Analog Tara – Density and Surface [Tara Rodgers]
[unidentified artist] – Untitled (from Vague compilation [La notte di architetto]
Ten Hyphen Twenty – Hospitality Industry [Genot Centre]
Neel & natural/electronic system. – Sinistra [Tikita]
Gurun Gurun – Tsuki ni te (ft. Cokiyu) [Gurun Gurun]
Musica Sequenza & Buruk Ozedemir – Vieni vieni [Deutsche Harmoni Mundi]
CHAIRCRUSHER – Way station [Cornwarning]
Alessandro Cortini – La Sveglia [Hospital Produtions]
George Macreyannes – Dohena [Canary Records]
And do listen to the rest of the mix series; I’ve enjoyed the lot.
And if you feel pain, yes, do feel free to talk. I think if this site does anything at all, it should help us all to use music in how we live.
The Northern Hemisphere’s darkest days make a good scene for music, whatever your spiritual/religious persuasion. So here we have some gorgeous sounds in this holiday week.
First, this mix sets the mood for your end of December about as well as anything could, I think:
I will write about the ongoing Dimension Series of mixes shortly – it was an honor to make the first episode of that myself, and ever since Oscar Gonzales and Static Discos have delivered a steady flow of some of my favorite musical inspirations of the year, with mix after mix from delightful friends.
This particular mix is the work of Satoshi Aoyagi, aka SO, Tokyo DJ and tastemaker of The Labyrinth.
Electronic music has this connection to the club, but that space can so easily become claustrophobic – literally, as well as aesthetically. It can be limiting, and the music can sound trapped. So it’s wonderful that Satoshi takes us outside of that trap, and rewires techno from industrial cliche to a deep trip into the woods. In his words:
After traveling some music styles, I found some good point in between Techno and House this year.
I had an inspiration from nature for this DJ mix when I was driving in the deep forest. At the time of sunset, it was cloudy and there was a lot of mist that day, which was so mystic, but a few kilometers later… the sky had got slightly clearer and in the end, I could see it full of stars, it was a beautiful moment.
Since I prefer to play outside more than a club, this kind of experience always gives me an inspiration to think about what I play. Usually, I play more melodic stuff but this mix is showing the dark, hard side of the point I found and tried to make one big smooth flow from beginning to the end. In the beginning, I started from atmospheric Dub-Techno and slowly changed to straight clear techno to the later half and got more energy.
I think that this piece could translate the image I had that day through the music. I hope you can enjoy the journey.
I also like what Static Discos’ Oscar has to say about this mix:
So gave us a special christmas labyrinth mix. i think that this one is really beautiful and profound in some way and the kind of recording you want to save and listen to years down the road… Jeez! the last track is soooo epic…
well, i’m really not sure if i can fully convey in mere words how powerful what the labyrinth means for many of us, but without a doubt, it’s a place where nature, sonics, people and artists come together to create something genuinely wonderful. so not much more to add… that’s it. a merry christmas to you all
big thanks to Satoshi Aoyagi for taking the time to produce this beautiful mix. also i just want to thank Russell, Yasuyo, and all the rest of the crew that created labyrinth. keep up the good work.
this mix is dedicated to my dearest friends Daniel, Mike, Joshua, Abby and Li: ¡Gracias por su amistad, amigxs! Also to my pals Hugo, David, Joy, Jenus and Javier.
Have a lovely time in the company of your beloved ones.
Chris Stack of ExperimentalSynth.com has always connected his love of synthesizers to deep-rooted musicianship on those instruments with both keys and strings. (Of course it’s a myth that synth love and instrumental love need to be separate.) So I really quite enjoyed this medley he’s made for his family – perfect if you’re resting off big Christmas dinners or holiday drinks with friends or whatever:
More on the pagan side of things, Chris and the local synth nerds of Asheville North Carolina played this far-out Solstice Jam to “send signals to the moon” – animistic space scientists, go…
“That’s Geary Yelton’s hand on the iPad at the beginning,” Chris tells us, and “there was a Haken ContinuuMini just off camera.”
The black-and-white piano keys, alongside the continuous axis of the Continuum:
Nothing brightens midwinter like music. So the warm glow of nd_baumecker’s mixing is something special. The delayed download is out now from Ostgut Ton, the label associated with Berghain and Panorama Bar.
The musical climate in which we live can too easily be afflicted with conformity, with genres and trends regimented by algorithms and anxious aspirations of bookers, media, artists … the lot. And with Berghain as the elephant in the middle of Berlin’s scene, that conformity can often be associated with the club, with Berlin, with Germany and Europe, even.
So maybe the first important thing to say about Andi’s mix is that it’s a mix. Run down the track listing, and you get all kinds of corners of Andi’s taste. I know he sweated putting this together, but as it is with experienced DJs, that stress comes off as effortless.
nd_baumecker has statistically played more times in the various floors of the Berghain environs than any other human. I know this, partly because we get informed that the fascinating numbers scraped from Berghain’s website weren’t right. Oops. Andi so dominates the list, that you almost don’t need other statistics. (Panorama Bar is the lighter, generally house-ier upstairs floor, but it’s actually not that important to know that; Andi has been found at various points more or less everywhere in the building and garden outside.)
Despite all those times on the lineup, in the old party mode, Andi’s not really a star. There’s just that feeling of being at home when you walk into a room (or garden) with him playing. And he can mix in and out of anything. So while a lot of beginning DJs try to show off with obscure tracks but paint obsessively within the lines, like they’re afraid of each transition, you can count on Andi to take you different places.
He’s a DJ’s DJ, but he’s also a great producer – his ongoing collaboration with fellower Berghain resident Sam Barker has been imaginative and exceptional.
Anyway, I think for any of us involved in production – let alone those of us pouring over music tech – getting to actually listen again and set a mood is vital. And Andi’s latest mix puts me at least in a fantastically nice mood. I’m hugely biased myself not just about Andi but about music in general; I think whether it’s a track or a mix, you can’t separate people from music. I still stubbornly cling to the idea that music says something about who you are. Hell, I think it’s why it matters who’s in the DJ booth. And it’s certainly why I think that mood should come from people and not algorithms. I not only like humans; I think you can hear when humans touch the music.
You can stream the mix, or be as obsessive as Andi is about quality and grab that 24-bit lossless download – all two GB worth. As with all in this series, the mix is free. (Last minute publishing clearance issues had delayed the download since the planned release date this fall.)
Track IDs? Yes:
1 Mystical Institute Sea Believer [00:00]
2 Keith Worthy Guilty Pleasures ($ Of N.C. Mix) [04:10]
3 Greenspan and Taraval Follow The Moonlight [07:01]
4 Duplex Isolator [10:08]
5 Cabaret Voltaire Easy Life (Jive Turkey Mix) [14:51]
6 Dolo Percussion Dolo 9 [18:45]
7 Anthony Naples The Vision (Mix NY) [20:15]
8 QY American [24:13]
9 Jinjé Big Skies [28:02]
10 Saint Etienne Stoned To Say The Least (Beta) [33:05]
11 Barker & Baumecker Nie Wieder [37:18]
12 FaltyDL Paradox Garage Part 1 (With Your Love) [39:40]
13 Röyksopp Sombre Detune [42:29]
14 Œil Cube Lost Flute [46:06]
15 Ajukaja Stranger [50:40]
16 Pulsinger & Irl State 606 [56:12]
17 Duke Slammer Coastal Decay (Pan Solo Remix) [1:00:33]
18 Route 8 From The Valley [1:04:25]
19 Dave Aju Wayahed [1:09:33]
20 Chaos In The CBD Educate The Heart [1:13:09]
21 Ross From Friends High Energy [1:18:55]
22 D. Tiffany Something About You [1:21:04]
23 Zombie Zombie Hyperespace (I:Cube Vampire Tango 87 Remix) [1:26:11]
24 Peverelist Under Clearing Skies [1:28:47]
25 Barker & Baumecker Strung [1:31:33]
26 School Of Seven Bells Low Times (Lafaye’s Brain Mix) [1:38:55]
27 Gen Ludd Bloods Avalanche [1:44:30]
28 Pépe Motorforce [1:49:11]
29 E Myers Hate [1:54:17]
This isn’t just about the DJ. Again, Ostgut is using this series to premiere new works. And this coupling – two EPs (Part I, Part II) – is especially fresh, with immaculate, densely rhythmic productions from . FaltyDL, Jinjé, Big Skies, Ross From Friends, Dave Aju, and Duplex. They’ve got some of that same magical mood of the mix, naturally. It’s house-flavored stuff, aware of its roots, but thoroughly futuristic and optimistic, too. Listen:
That Duplex track is especially timeless, somehow, and Dave Aju is always like a burst of sunlight.
Musicians don’t just endure technology when it breaks. They embrace the broken. So it’s fitting that Holly Herndon’s team have produced a demonic spawn of machine learning algorithms – and that the results are wonderful.
The new music video for the Holly Herndon + Jlin collaboration have been making the rounds online, so you may have seen it already:
But let’s talk about what’s going on here. Holly is continuing a long-running collaboration with producer Jlin, here joined by technologist Mat Dryhurst and coder Jules LaPlace. (The music video itself is directed by Daniel Costa Neves with software developer Leif Ryge, employing still more machine learning technique to merge the two artists’ faces.)
Machine learning processes are being explored in different media in parallel – characters and text, images, and sound, voice, and music. But the results can be all over the place. And ultimately, there are humans as the last stage. We judge the results of the algorithms, project our own desires and fears on what they produce, and imagine anthropomorphic intents and characteristics.
Sometimes errors like over-fitting then take on a personality all their own – even as mathematically sophisticated results fail to inspire.
But that’s not to say these reactions aren’t just as real. An part of may make the video “Godmother” compelling is not just the buzzword of AI, but the fact that it genuinely sounds different.
The software ‘Spawn,’ developed by Ryge working with the team, is a machine learning-powered encoder. Herndon and company have anthropomorphized that code in their description, but that itself is also fair – not least because the track is composed in such a way to suggest a distinct vocalist.
I love Holly’s poetic description below, but I think it’s also important to be precise about what we’re hearing. That is, we can talk about the evocative qualities of an oboe, but we should definitely still call an oboe an oboe.
So in this case, I confirmed with Dryhurst that what I was hearing. The analysis stage employs neural network style transfers – some links on that below, though LaPlace and the artists here did make their own special code brew. And then they merged that with a unique vocoder – the high-quality WORLD vocoder. That is, they feed a bunch of sounds into the encoder, and get some really wild results.
And all of that in turn makes heavy use of the unique qualities of Jlin’s voice, Holly’s own particular compositional approach and the arresting percussive take on these fragmented sounds, Matt’s technological sensibilities, LaPlace’s code, a whole lot of time spent on parameters and training and adaptation…
Forget automation in this instance. All of this involves more human input and more combined human effort that any conventionally produced track would.
Is it worth it? Well, aesthetically, you could make comparisons to artists like Autechre, but then you could do that with anything with mangled sample content in it. And on a literal level, the result is the equivalent of a mangled sample. The results retain recognizable spectral components of the original samples, and they add a whole bunch of sonic artifacts which sound (correctly, really) ‘digital’ and computer-based to our ears.
But it’s also worth noting that what you hear is particular to this vocoder technique and especially to audio texture synthesis and neutral network-based style transfer of sound. It’s a commentary on 2018 machine learning not just conceptually, but because what you hear sounds the way it does because of the state of that tech.
And that’s always been the spirit of music. The peculiar sound and behavior of a Theremin says a lot about how radios and circuits respond to a human presence. Vocoders have ultimately proven culturally significant for their aesthetic peculiarities even if their original intention was encoding speech. We respond to broken circuits and broken code on an emotional and cultural level, just as we do acoustic instruments.
In a blog post that’s now a couple of years old – ancient history in machine learning terms, perhaps – Dmitry Ulyanov and Vadim Lebedev acknowledged that some of the techniques they used for “audio texture synthesis and style transfer” used a technique intended for something else. And they implied that the results didn’t work – that they had “stylistic” interest more than functional ones.
Dmitry even calls this a partial failure: “I see a slow but consistent interest increase in music/audio by the community, for sure amazing things are just yet to come. I bet in 2017 already we will find a way to make WaveNet practical but my attempts failed so far :)”
Spoiler – that hasn’t really happened in 2017 or 2018. But “failure” to be practical isn’t necessarily a failure. The rising interest has been partly in producing strange results – again, recalling that the vocoder, Theremin, FM synthesis, and many other techniques evolved largely because musicians thought the sounds were cool.
But this also suggests that musicians may uniquely be able to cut through the hype around so-called AI techniques. And that’s important, because these techniques are assigned mystical powers, Wizard of Oz-style.
Big corporations can only hype machine learning when it seems to be magical. But musicians can hype up machine learning even when it breaks – and knowing how and when it breaks is more important than ever. Here’s Holly’s official statement on the release:
For the past two years, we have been building an ensemble in Berlin.
One member is a nascent machine intelligence we have named Spawn. She is being raised by listening to and learning from her parents, and those people close to us who come through our home or participate at our performances.
Spawn can already do quite a few wonderful things. ‘Godmother’ was generated from her listening to the artworks of her godmother Jlin, and attempting to reimagine them in her mother’s voice.
This piece of music was generated from silence with no samples, edits, or overdubs, and trained with the guidance of Spawn’s godfather Jules LaPlace.
In nurturing collaboration with the enhanced capacities of Spawn, I am able to create music with my voice that far surpass the physical limitations of my body.
Going through this process has brought about interesting questions about the future of music. The advent of sampling raised many concerns about the ethical use of material created by others, but the era of machine legible culture accelerates and abstracts that conversation. Simply through witnessing music, Spawn is already pretty good at learning to recreate signature composition styles or vocal characters, and will only get better, sufficient that anyone collaborating with her might be able to mimic the work of, or communicate through the voice of, another.
Are we to recoil from these developments, and place limitations on the ability for non-human entities like Spawn to witness things that we want to protect? Is permission-less mimicry the logical end point of a data-driven new musical ecosystem surgically tailored to give people more of what they like, with less and less emphasis on the provenance, or identity, of an idea? Or is there a more beautiful, symbiotic, path of machine/human collaboration, owing to the legacies of pioneers like George Lewis, that view these developments as an opportunity to reconsider who we are, and dream up new ways of creating and organizing accordingly.
I find something hopeful about the roughness of this piece of music. Amidst a lot of misleading AI hype, it communicates something honest about the state of this technology; it is still a baby. It is important to be cautious that we are not raising a monster.
Latlaus Sky’s Pythian Drift is a gorgeous ambient concept album, the kind that’s easy to get lost in. The set-up: a probe discovered on Neptune in the 26th Century will communicate with just one woman back on Earth.
The Portland, Oregon-based artists write CDM to share the project, which is accompanied by this ghostly video (still at top). It’s the work of Ukrainian-born filmmaker Viktoria Haiboniuk (now also based in Portland), who composed it from three years’ worth of 120mm film images.
Taking in the album even before checking the artists’ perspective, I was struck by the sense of post-rocket age music about the cosmos. In this week when images of Mars’ surface spread as soon as they were received, a generation that grew up as the first native space-faring humans, space is no longer alien and unreachable, but present.
In slow-motion harmonies and long, aching textures, this seems to be cosmic music that sings of longing. It calls out past the Earth in hope of some answer.
The music is the work of duo Brett and Abby Larson. Brett explains his thinking behind this album:
This album has roots in my early years of visiting the observatory in Sunriver, Oregon with my Dad. Seeing the moons of Jupiter with my own eyes had a profound effect on my understanding of who and where I was. It slowly came to me that it would actually be possible to stand on those moons. The ice is real, it would hold you up. And looking out your black sky would be filled with the swirling storms of Jupiter’s upper clouds. From the ice of Europa, the red planet would be 24 times the size of the full moon.
Though these thoughts inspire awe, they begin to chill your bones as you move farther away from the sun. Temperatures plunge. There is no air to breathe. Radiation is immense. Standing upon Neptune’s moon Triton, the sun would begin to resemble the rest of the stars as you faded into the nothing.
Voyager two took one of the only clear images we have of Neptune. I don’t believe we were meant to see that kind of image. Unaided our eyes are only prepared to see the sun, the moon, and the stars. Looking into the blue clouds of the last planet you cannot help but think of the black halo of space that surrounds the planet and extends forever.
I cannot un-see those images. They have become a part of human consciousness. They are the dawn of an unnamed religion. They are more powerful and more fearsome than the old God. In a sense, they are the very face of God. And perhaps we were not meant to see such things.
This album was my feeble attempt to make peace with the blackness. The immense cold that surrounds and beckons us all. Our past and our future.
The album closes with an image of standing amidst Pluto’s Norgay mountains. Peaks of 20,000 feet of solid ice. Evening comes early in the mountains. On this final planet we face the decision of looking back toward Earth or moving onward into the darkness.
Abby with pedals. BOSS RC-50 LoopStation (predecessor to today’s RC-300), Strymon BlueSky, Electro Harmonix Soul Food stand out.
Plus more on the story:
Pythia was the actual name of the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece. She was a real person who, reportedly, could see the future. This album, “Pythian Drift” is only the first of three parts. In this part, the craft is discovered and Dr. Amala Chandra begins a dialogue with the craft. Dr Chandra then begins publishing papers that rock the scientific world and reformulate our understanding of mathematics and physics. There is also a phenomenon called Pythian Drift that begins to spread from the craft. People begin to see images and hear voices, prophecies. Some prepare for an interstellar pilgrimage to the craft’s home galaxy in Andromeda.
Part two will be called Black Sea. Part three will be Andromeda.
And some personal images connected to that back story:
Brett as a kid, with ski.
Abby aside a faux fire.
More on the duo and their music at the Látlaus Ský site:
From countries across Europe to the USA, migration is at the center of Western politics at the moment. But that raises a question: why aren’t more people who make music, music instruments, and music tech louder about these issues?
Migration – temporary and permanent – is simply a fact of life for a huge group of people, across backgrounds and aspirations. That can involve migration to follow opportunities, and refugees and asylum seekers who move for their own safety and freedom. So if you don’t picture immigrants, migrants, and refugees when you think of your society, you just aren’t thinking.
Musicians ought to be uniquely qualified to speak to these issues, though. Extreme anti-immigration arguments all assume that migrants take away more from a society than they give back. And people in the music world ought to know better. Music has always been based on cultural exchange. Musicians across cultures have always considered touring to make a living. And to put it bluntly, music isn’t a zero sum game. The more you add, the more you create.
Music gets schooled in borders
As music has grown more international, as more artists tour and cross borders, at least the awareness is changing. That’s been especially true in electronic music, in a DJ industry that relies on travel. Resident Advisor has consistently picked up this story over the last couple of years, as artists spoke up about being denied entry to countries while touring.
In a full-length podcast documentary last year, they dug into the ways in which the visa system hurts artists outside the US and EU, with a focus on non-EU artists trying to gain entry to the UK:
Andrew Ryce also wrote about a visa rate hike in the USA back in 2016 – and this in the Obama Administration, not under Trump:
Now, being a DJ crossing a border isn’t the same as being a refugee running for your life. But then on some other level, it can allow artists to experience immigration infrastructure – both when it works for them, and when it works against them. A whole generation of artists, including even those from relatively privileged Western nations, is now learning the hard way about the immigration system. And that’s something they might have missed as tourists, particularly if they come from places like the USA, western Europe, Australia, and other places well positioned in the system.
The immigration system they see will often come off as absurdist. National policies worldwide categorize music as migrant labor and require a visa. In many countries, these requirements are unenforced in all but big-money gigs. But in some countries – the USA, Canada, and UK being prime examples – they’re rigorously enforced, and not coincidentally, the required visas have high fees.
Showing up at a border carrying music equipment or a bag of vinyl records is an instant red flag – whether a paid gig is your intention or not. (I’m surprised, actually, that no one talks about this in regards to the rise of the USB stick DJ. If you aren’t carrying a controller or any records, sailing through as a tourist is a lot easier.) Border officials will often ask visitors to unlock phones, hand over social media passwords. They’ll search Facebook events by name to find gigs. Or they’ll even just view the presence of a musical instrument as a violation.
Being seen as “illegal” because you’re traveling with a guitar or some records is a pretty good illustration of how immigration can criminalize simple, innocent acts. Whatever the intention behind that law, it’s clear there’s something off here – especially given the kinds of illegality that can cross borders.
When protection isn’t
This is not to argue for open borders. There are times when you want border protections. I worked briefly in environmental advocacy as we worked on invasive species that were hitching a ride on container ships – think bugs killing trees and no more maple syrup on your pancakes, among other things. I was also in New York on 9/11 and watched from my roof – that was a very visible demonstration of visa security oversight that had failed. Part of the aim of customs and immigration is to stop the movement of dangerous people and things, and I don’t think any rational person would argue with that.
But even as a tiny microcosm of the larger immigration system, music is a good example of how laws can be uneven, counter-intuitive, and counterproductive. The US and Canada, for instance, do have an open border for tourists. So if an experimental ambient musician from Toronto comes to play a gig in Cleveland, that’s not a security threat – they could do the same as a tourist. It’s also a stretch of the imagination that this individual would have a negative impact on the US economy. Maybe the artist makes a hundred bucks cash and … spends it all inside the USA, not to mention brings in more money for the venue and the people employed by it. Or maybe they make $1000 – a sum that would be wiped out by the US visa fee, to say nothing of slow US visa processing. Again, that concert creates more economic activity inside the US economy, and it’s very likely the American artist sharing the bill goes up to Montreal and plays with them next month on top of it. I could go on, but it’s … well, boring and obvious.
Artists and presenters worldwide often simply ignore this visa system because it’s slow, expensive, and unreliable. And so it costs economies (and likely many immigration authorities) revenue. It costs societies value and artistic and cultural exchange.
Of course, scale that up and the same is true, across other fields. Immigrants tend to give more into government services than they take out, they tend to own businesses that employ more local people (so they create jobs), they tend to invent new technologies (so they create jobs again), and so on.
Ellis Island, NYC. 12 million people passed through here – not all of my family who came to the USA, but some. I’ve now come the other way through Tegel Airport and the Ausländerbehörde , Berlin. Photo (CC-BY-ND “>A. Strakey.
Advocacy and music
Immigration advocacy could be seen as something in the charter of anyone in the music industry or musical instruments industry.
Music technology suffers as borders are shut down, too. Making musical instruments and tools requires highly specialized labor working in highly specialized environments. From production to engineering to marketing, it’s an international business. I actually can’t think of any major manufacturer that doesn’t rely on immigrants in key roles. (Even many tiny makers involve immigrants.)
And the traditional music industry lean heavily on immigrant talent, too. Those at the top of the industry have powerful lobbying efforts – efforts that could support greater cultural exchange and rights for travelers. Certainly, its members are often on the road. But let’s take the Recording Academy (the folks behind the Grammy Awards).
Instead, their efforts seem to fixate on domestic intellectual property law. So the Recording Academy and others were big on the Music Modernization Act – okay, fine,
a law to support compensation for creators.
I don’t want to be unfair to the Recording Association – and not just because I think it might hurt my Grammy winning chances. (Hey, stop laughing.) No, I think it’s more that we as a community have generally failed to take up this issue in any widespread way. (I sincerely hope someone out there works for the record industry and writes to say that you’re actually working on this and I’m wrong.)
More than anything else, music can cross borders. It can speak to people when you don’t speak their language, literally. When music travels, emotion and expression travels – artists and technology alike.
It’s personal – isn’t it for you?
I personally feel the impact of all of this, now having been seven years in Berlin, and able to enjoy opportunities, connections, and perspective that come from living in Germany and working with people both from Germany and abroad. I feel hugely grateful to the German state for allowing my business to immigrate (my initial visa was a business visa, which involved some interesting bureaucracy explaining to the Berlin Senate what this site is about). I’ve even benefited from the support of programs like the Goethe Institut and host governments to work in cultural diplomacy.
I’ve also had the chance to be involved writing in support of visas and financial backing for artists coming from Iran, Mexico, Kazakhstan, and many other places, for programs I’ve worked on.
And all of this is really a luxury – even when we’re talking about artists traveling to support their careers and feed themselves. For many people, migration is a matter of survival. Sometimes the threats to their lives come from geopolitical and economic policies engineered by the governments we come from – meaning as citizens, we share some responsibility for the impact others have felt. But whether or not that’s the case, I would hope we feel that obligation as human beings. That’s the basis of international rule of law on accepting refugees and granting asylum. It’s the reason those principles are uncompromising and sometimes even challenging. Our world is held together – or not – based on that basic fairness we afford to fellow humans. If people come to where we live and claim their survival and freedom depends on taking them in, we accept the obligation to at least listen to their case.
Those of us in the music world could use our privilege, and the fact that our medium is so essential to human expression, to be among the loudest voices for these human rights. When we live in countries who listen to us, we should talk to other citizens and talk to our governments. We should tell the stories that make these issues more relatable. We should do what some people I know are doing in the music world, too – work on education and involvement for refugees, help them to feel at home in our communities and to develop whatever they need to make a home here, and make people feel welcome at the events we produce.
That’s just the principles, not policies. But I know a lot of people in my own circle have worked on the policy and advocacy sides here. I certainly would invite you to share what we might do. If you’ve been impacted by immigration obstacles and have ideas of how we help, I hope we hear that, too.
Some likely policy areas:
Supporting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers
Supporting refugee and asylum seeker integration
Advocating for more open visa policies for artists – keeping fees low, and supporting exchange
Advocating the use of music and culture, and music technology, as a form of cultural diplomacy
Supporting organizations that connect artists and creative technologists across borders
And so on…
But I do hope that as musicians, we work with people who share basic beliefs in caring for other people. I know there’s no single “community” or “industry” that can offer that. But we certainly can try to build our own circle in a way that does.
Some examples from here in Berlin working on refugee issues here. I would argue immigration policy can find connections across refugees and migrants, asylum seekers and touring musicians, as everyone encounters the same larger apparatus and set of laws:
What’s the sound of an exhibition devoted to silence? From John Cage recreations to the latest in interactive virtual reality tech, it turns out there’s a lot. The exhibition’s lead Jascha Dormann tells us more – and gives us a look inside.
The results are surprisingly poetic – like a surrealist listening playground on the topic of isolation.
“Sounds of Silence” opened this month at the Museum of Communication in Bern, Switzerland, and is on through July 2019. Just as John Cage’s revelation that visiting an anechoic chamber was, in fact, noisey, “silence” in this case challenges listening and exploration. It’s about surprise, not void. As the exhibition creators say, “the search for a place where stillness may be experienced, however, becomes difficult: stillness is holding sway only in outer space – yet even there the astronaut is hearing his own breaths.”
Inside the exhibition, there’s not a word of written text, and few traditional photos or videos. Instead, you get abstract spatial graphics. Tracking systems respond as you navigate the exhibit, and an unseen voice hints at what you might do. There’s a snowy cotton-like entry, radio-like sound effects, and then a pathway to explore silence from the start of the universe until this century.
And you get some unique experiences: the isolation tank invented by neurophysiologist John C. Lilly, 3D soundscapes, Sarah Maitland talking to you about her experience in seclusion on the Isle of Skye, and yes, Cage’s iconic if ironic “4’33”.” The Cage work is realized as an eight-channel ORTF 3D audio recording, from a performance by Staatsorchester Stuttgart at the Beethovensaal Stuttgart. (That has to be silence’s largest-ever orchestration, I suppose.) It’s silence in full immersive sound.
“The piece had never been recorded in 3D-audio before,” says Dormann. “We have then implemented the recording into the interactive sound system so visitors can experience it in a version that’s binauralized in real-time.”
Recording silence – in 3D! The session in Stuttgart, Germany.
Photos source: Museum of Communication Bern
Sound Concept and Sound Production Lead: Jascha Dormann (Idee und Klang GmbH)
Sound Concept and Sound Design: Ramon De Marco (Idee und Klang GmbH)
Sound Design: Simon Hauswirth (Idee und Klang GmbH)
Development Sound System: Steffen Armbruster (Framed immersive projects GmbH & Co. KG)
Sound Implementation: Marc Trinkhaus (Framed immersive projects GmbH & Co. KG)
Performance John Cage – 4’33’’: Staatsorchester Stuttgart conducted by Cornelius Meister
Recording John Cage – 4’33’’: Jascha Dormann at Beethovensaal / Liederhalle Stuttgart
Project in general
Project Lead and Curator: Kurt Stadelmann (Museum of Communication)
Project Manager: Angelina Keller (Museum of Communication)
Scenography: ZMIK spacial design, / Rolf Indermühle
Exhibition Graphics: Büro Berrel Gschwind, / Dominique Berrel
Author: Bettina Mittelstrass
Head of Exhibitions at Museum of Communication: Christian Rohner (Museum of Communication)
Various events are running alongside the exhibition; full details on the museum’s site: