2019

Last year I probably spent more on music than ever before. I was trying to support emerging artists and new labels, especially those I’ve been involved with, but was also driven by the usual consumerist desire to acquire stuff and fear of missing out. I bought music on CD, vinyl, tape and digital. This year it’s been the opposite, mainly because I just can’t afford it now, but also in an effort to live more sustainably. So I’ve bought only a handful albums – downloads only, and kept my two Bandcamp subscriptions. I’ve relied more on newsletters, mailing lists and radio. And instead of buying new books, I’ve picked up some of the unread ones I already own. So this year’s list of stuff I liked is a bit more idiosyncratic than usual. I’ve also gone back to a mostly vegetarian diet and make all my own meals from scratch. It’s cheaper and healthier, and although it takes time there’s a therapeutic benefit to cooking, especially if you’re feeding others too, so it’s time well spent. One favourite new recipe is chickpea soup, which sounds dull and measly, but it’s bright yellow with loads of flavour and is surprisingly satisfying:

  • dried chickpeas soaked overnight, cooked for 3/4 hour with bay leaf and garlic clove;
  • chopped onion fried in spices – turmeric, fresh ginger, garlic, black mustard seeds, cumin, coriander seeds, black pepper, fenugreek, cloves, cinnamon;
  • combine chickpeas and onion in vegetable stock with chopped fresh coriander and a bit of lemon juice or hot pepper sauce.
A graph showing monthly average carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 1958 to 2019, increasing from 315 parts per million to 410.

Monthly average atmospheric CO2 (ppm). Data source: NOAA, Mauna Loa https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/data.html

The chart above shows atmospheric CO2 measurements from the Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. CO2 is just one measure associated with global warming which, in turn, is not the only driver of the current environmental crisis. But it is representative in the sense that it clearly shows what we have achieved in terms of tackling the broader problem: nothing. CO2 levels are at their highest and the rate of growth for 2019 is 4th fastest, so there’s no signs of a slowing increase, let alone a decrease. The reasons why we’re in this predicament are summed up well in an article by Neil J. Hagens, ‘Economics for the future – Beyond the superorganism’ [open access]. Hagens describes how, through our collective behaviour which is built on cognitive biases, human society is effectively operating as a “single, mindless, energy-hungry ‘superorganism'” that’s eating itself out of house and home. In theory, we are smarter than this big stupid creature, but in practice we’re not, yet (as the CO2 chart shows). Hagens discusses energy and the economy, arguing that “money is a claim on energy” because every good or service that money pays for ultimately uses energy. Similarly, “debt is a claim on future energy” because it drags into the present the consumption of resources that would otherwise take place in the future. Debt is therefore not only borrowed money but “borrowed energy.” There is a lot of debt right now, because for the past 50 years debt has been expanded to prop up economic growth and to allow us to consume beyond our means. This debt may not be repaid, as has happened time and again in history, as shown by David Graeber (Debt: The First 5,000 Years). Hagens concludes: “It is likely that, in the not-too-distant future, the size, complexity, and (literal) ‘burn rate’ of our civilization will be much reduced by forces other than human volition.” On a slightly more positive note, he ends by outlining a need for a new ecological economics:

Whatever we’ll call it, we are desperately in need of a set of guideposts and principles that include not only ecology but also biology, psychology, physics and emergent behaviors. This discipline will focus at least as much on ‘what we’ll have to do’ as on ‘what we should do’.

Various Artists – CODE234 (CO-DEPENDENT)
The CO-DEPENDENT label was on my list for 2018. I didn’t pick out any specific albums then, but this time I will. It’s worth repeating the fact that neither label nor artists make any money from this – it all goes to a charity. CODE234 has only 5 tracks but it’s 3 hours long. It starts with what sounds like hand-controlled filter sweeps of sustained tones by the mysterious dj??water??, whose music and remixes are always interesting. PARSA’s track is digital crunch with vowel-like movements. Victor Moragues packs loads of variations into his track that starts with relatively simple repeats and then gets more chaotic. GOHV make a disorienting sound with beating frequencies and pulsing tones. The compilation ends with Luke Corbin’s 2-hour drone that veeery slooowly oscillates in pitch.

Autechre
This year Autechre gave us free stuff, including a hiphop mix on RA Podcast 687 and a 12-hour eclectic mix on Mixlr. The image below is a snippet from the Mixlr live chat – those comments made me listen to Chiastic Slide again. Best of all though is WARP TAPES 89–93. It’s ace to hear these old tracks, with elements that were later used in other albums. It’s mixed really nicely too, not just fading in/out, it sounds like the tracks are re-worked, with parts isolated, extended and interleaved with each other.

Screenshot of online chat text between Autechre and fans.BandCloud
A weekly selection of electronic music on Bandcamp and SoundCloud by Aidan Hanratty, mostly abstract/ambient and club music and things in-between. Usually delivered midday Friday, providing a nice wind-down to the week and a lead-in to the weekend. Aidan also commissions guest mixes, does a show on Dublin Digital Radio, and has released a compilation album, Missives. Sign up for the email here: http://www.bandcloud.org/about

Bass Clef – Open Hand Real Flames (NTS Radio)
A series of radio shows by Bass Clef. Two of these I particularly like because they focus on instruments I used to play: church organ and steel pan. Other favourites are the Nina Simone special and the one on mechanical musical instruments. I also played the hell out of Bass Clef’s ‘Holy Days Wholly Dazed’, a long piece of evolving looped and filtered beats that starts with a simple chord stab that eventually becomes a layered arpeggio, while a single rumbling bass develops into a fluttering cascade of delays.

Konstantin Batygin et al. – ‘The Planet Nine Hypothesis’ (Physics Reports, 809)
The motions of trans-Neptunian objects in the Kuiper Belt suggest the presence of a larger solar body. This paper reviews the observational motivation, dynamical constraints, and prospects for detection of the proposed object known as Planet Nine.

Tina Besley & Michael A. Peters – ‘Life and death in the Anthropocene: Educating for survival amid climate and ecosystem changes and potential civilisation collapse’ (Educational Philosophy and Theory)
An article that argues for the inclusion of survival skills in education, given the threats posed by the climate crisis. Besley & Peters ask: “Do we have a moral, ethical, personal or professional obligation to now begin such conversations in educational and political arenas? Or should we not bother and just do nothing in light of life and death in the anthropocene?” They cite an article by Luke Kemp (2019) that looks at the history of civilizational collapse and identifies some indicators, including environmental sustainability, societal complexity and inequality.

Boogie Down Productions – By All Means Necessary (Jive)
Some old-but-new-to-me music. BDP’s second album from 1988. Honest, straightforward approach to lyrics (KRS-One) and beats (DJ Scott La Rock) but highly creative and very effective.

David Burraston
I had the pleasure of meeting Dave this summer while he was over in the UK. We went on a pilgrimage to visit the grave of Ada Lovelace, the pioneering programmer, at St Mary’s church in Hucknall whose crypt is also the resting place of her father, Lord Byron. She foresaw the potential for computers to “compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” We also went to Green’s windmill in Sneinton, former home of George Green, a self-taught mathematician who made contributions to calculus and theories of electricity and magnetism. Dave and I have some things in common: living in Nottingham, working in scientific/technical jobs, doing a PhD combining art and science (that’s how I first came across his work, about 10 years ago), using cellular automata for creative purposes, and now making generative music and field recording. The difference is that he does it professionally. He’s also hugely talented and vastly knowledgeable. It was good to discuss music, synthesis, computing and complexity theory, and to talk about being a musician and researcher and surviving through your practice. Listen to Dave talk about all this stuff and his work in this interview for Radio Web MACBA: https://rwm.macba.cat/en/sonia/david-burraston/capsula

Camping in Derbyshire with friends
We’ve been camping at the same spot in an ancient woodland for more than 20 years now. Usually twice a year, around Easter and autumn, but just once this year. It’s halfway up a steep slope, so you’re knackered after carrying the gear up there, but then you can sit, have a beer, and absorb the scenery and the sounds. Facing downhill you get a view through the canopy of trees, mostly beech and some oak. The site’s acoustic quality is defined by the valley that it’s part of, and by the woodland’s hillside that stretches up to the north and down to the reservoir in the south. Motorbikes can be heard from miles off. Honking geese on the water echo off the opposite hillside. Owls and woodpeckers reverberate through the trees. At night, when the traffic has died down, the woodland soundscape is pretty noisy with nocturnal insects, birds and mammals, which can keep you awake if you’re not used to it. Even when it’s dead still, the trees drop their leaves, twigs and branches. When it’s very windy, the roaring sound is all around but there’s always a louder bit that’s localised and moves around, as if God is using a leaf blower. The fireplace we made with the stones lying around has really bedded in to the landscape over the years and moss grows on it. Its shape has been slightly modified to include a space for cooking. By burning smaller sticks first, you can build up a bed of embers that can be scraped over to that part of the fireplace to grill food on one side, leaving the main fire burning for heat and light in the middle. To sit round a fire with friends, sharing food and stories, is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

DEAFKIDS – Metaprogramação
Raw, trippy hardcore. Brazilian rhythms, distorted guitars and delay effects.

Mrs Dink – CODE777 (CO-DEPENDENT)
I also like the other two techno albums by Mrs Dink, CODE091 and CODE187, but CODE777 has the most individual sound.

Kevin Drumm – Bandcamp subscription

William Fields – FieldsOS
Originally broadcast as a series of shows on https://extra.resonance.fm/ in the first half of the year, with hour-long pieces of algorithmic music generated on the fly. William Fields describes how it was made: “FieldsOS was created with Javascript, using WebMIDI to talk to REAPER. Javascript handles the algorithmic/generative aspect. REAPER is the audio/sequencer engine.” The generative system makes different styles of music by setting or controlling different parameters. Some pieces are based on named genres, others on various arbitrary settings. For each show, the system was started and left to run without interference, unlike a live situation where the system would be steered. William explained to me that there are 240 parameters, each with 128 possible values, so the generative space of FieldsOS is 128^240, which approximately equals 10^500. This is a very big number. In comparison, the estimated number of atoms in the entire universe is 10^80. “But most of it sounds like crap,” he said, “so my job is to find interesting zones within that space.” This is a central problem in generative art, particularly in the digital realm where it’s easy to use large numbers. The possibility space of a generative system that’s complex enough to be interesting or useful is likely to be to too vast to map exhaustively. Any system complex enough to generate something interesting will in most cases produce something that’s either simple or chaotic. The interesting states are also the least likely. We may know that “the interesting stuff is in the middle” on the border between order and chaos (so said Gary William Flake), but with such a large parameter space it’s not easy to find. This is also what Dave Burraston’s PhD was about, in relation to cellular automata. FieldsOS represents a new set of solutions to that problem, a journey through previously unexplored algorithmic terrains of familiar and unfamiliar styles.

RM Francis – CODE889 (CO-DEPENDENT)
There’s a great variety of sonic textures in these three long-ish tracks. Synthetic sounds are produced, sequenced and mangled in different ways. Squelches, honks, bleeps and whines. But not harsh or aggressive; it’s more like a methodically paced scientific demonstration. It makes for some really nice spectrograms. The spectrograms may show the structure of the sounds (in terms of their frequency content and amplitude), but they don’t reveal how they were made – in fact, it makes this album even more mind-boggling.

M.R. James – Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories (Oxford)
One from the unread pile. Really enjoyed these stories, which I’d been meaning to read since reading k-punk on M.R. James. This year Hyperdub released Mark Fisher and Justin Barton’s audio essay, On Vanishing Land, which is based on and in the eerie landscapes that James wrote about.

Om Kalsoum – Enta Omri (انت عمري)
Another old-but-new-to-me album, Enta Omri is a well-known and well-loved piece of music in Egypt since 1964 that’s been re-released this year by Souma Records.

Scott A. Kulp & Benjamin H. Strauss – ‘New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal flooding’ (Nature Communications, 10)
New research that show it’s worse than we thought. Based on the findings, they made an interactive map that shows the land expected to be at risk of flooding in the near future.

Tom Mudd – Brass Cultures (fancyyyyy)
Algorithmic music that makes use of software developed by researchers at Edinburgh University that models brass instruments. Tom Mudd makes unheard-of sounds by inputting physically improbable parameters into this model, using algorithms to control instrument size and shape as well as how it’s played, “such as breath pressure, lip frequency, lip mass, valve fingering, and even temperature“.

Nihiloxica – Biiri (Nyege Nyege Tapes)
Nihiloxica supported Aphex Twin this year. Hypnotic polyrhythms from a group of drums and atmospheric synth sounds.

Peter Oborne highlighted the political role of the media in an article on Open Democracy and runs a site dedicated to documenting the lies of Boris Johnson and his government https://boris-johnson-lies.com/

Angel Olsen – ‘What It Is’ (Jagjaguwar)
The rest of the album All Mirrors isn’t really my thing, but I like this track. 70s-style production with slapback echo and some nice strings on top. The bass and guitar sound like T. Rex and the drums play a lolloping rhythm a bit like Mick Fleetwood would.

Jim O’Rourke & CM von Hauswolff – In, Demons, In! (iDEAL)
Smeared chants and drones that ooze around and sound like they turn inside out inside your head.

George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four and Why I Write.
Seemed like the right time to read these.

PARSA – CODE147 (CO-DEPENDENT)
An album released at the end of last year, made with cellular automata. You can read my interview with PARSA about the album uvuuvu in an earlier post.

Paul Prudence – Ficciones
Paul Prudence is author of the Dataisnature blog and audio-visual artist, but this is his first album. I like the detail and the kind of nervous twitchiness to the synthetic and and recorded sounds in the first 2/3 of the album. Then there’s a softer collection of drones starting with the hazy track ‘Gravity Map’, before returning to the scratch and hiss of recorded sounds in the final track.

Marcin Pietruszewski – The New Pulsar Generator Manual (Remote Viewing)
It isn’t the actual user manual for the NuPG software developed by Pietruszewski. It’s an essay about algorithmic composition, digitality, experimental sound and sound art, citing Curtis Roads, Manuel DeLanda, and Fernando Zalamea.

Francisco Sánchez-Bayoa & Kris Wyckhuys – ‘Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers’, Biological Conservation, 232
The first global review of published evidence on insect declines, this study shows the main causes to be (in order of importance):

  1. habitat loss, caused by intensive farming & urbanisation
  2. pollution
  3. biological factors
  4. climate change

SDEM – deloc (.meds)
I like all of Tom Knapp’s music. He had 3 or 4 albums out this year, including Index Hole which is a collection of barrelling beats and filter-sliced synths, but deloc is probably the one I’ve played the most. It’s an interesting mix of order and disorder, natural and synthetic sound. I also recommend Tom’s recent mix for Leftovers, LFTMX_28_SDEM, which he describes as “1 TAKE… (POST ELECTION RESULTS HATE MODE) FRIDAY 13TH DECEMBER 2019”: https://soundcloud.com/leftoversuk/lftmx_28_sdem

sold – RA.689 (Resident Advisor)
Really nice mix of non-dance music by sold (Glenna Fitch, @glorbis).

James Tenney – Harmonium (New World Records)
I’m a fan of Tenney’s writing on music theory, particularly Meta + Hodos and META Meta + Hodos. This is an album of his work performed by the Scordatura Ensemble, including Harmonium and four other pieces.

Whitehouse et al. – Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history (Nature, 568)
A new study about social complexity and how it developed in relation to religion, based on analysis of data representing 414 cultures over 10,000 years.

Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.

XI-N – CODE139 (CO-DEPENDENT)
One of the loudest albums ever. It has a dynamic range (DR) rating of 0, the lowest possible score, with an average difference between peak and RMS loudness of 0.3dB. Only four other tracks in my collection have the same DR – one is a mashup of 95 Metallica songs, and the other 3 are all by Kevin Drumm: ‘Another Odyssey Of Waiting’, ‘Blocking’ (2018, Bandcamp), and ‘Purge’ (2013, iDEAL). In contrast with the quite hectic sound of CODE139, XI-N also made some ambient generative music, Pulsar (Amek Collective).

xin – MELTS INTO LOVE (Subtext Recordings)
xin ≠ XI-N, this is a different artist. Well-produced individual tracks and a nicely structured album. Like Saplings Records, proceeds from sales go to planting trees. xin also did a good mix for FACT: https://www.factmag.com/2019/11/21/xin-subtext-fact-mix/

Fernando Zalamea – Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics (2012, Urbanomic / Sequence Press)
François Laruelle – The Concept of Non-Photography
(2015, Urbanomic / Sequence Press)
More from the unread pile. I bought these together a couple of years ago. They have similar format and design with details of artworks on the cover. Laruelle’s book has Moiré 3  by Liz Deschenes and Zalamea’s has Los regalos perfectos by Maria Clara Cortéz. I’ve got some familiarity with photography through formal training and experience, but I know little about advanced maths, so I expected Zalamea’s book to be the more challenging, but it was mostly the other way round. I struggled to read Laruelle’s writing and follow his lines of thought, so it wasn’t a very pleasant or enlightening experience. Zalamea’s writing was easy to read even though I had to look up some things to know what it was even talking about, but it was clear where the limits of my own knowledge were preventing deeper understanding of the text. It was much more highly structured, too, with lots of internal references and some simple diagrams and tables that were necessary and useful. Perhaps that says more about me than it does about the quality of the books. Both worth a read.

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