2020

I spent a lot of time with music in 2020. Most of what I listened to has been confrontational rather than contemplative, something to combat what the year has thrown at us, rather than the ‘balm for troubled times’ variety, but there’s been plenty of that too, with both old-and-familiar and old-but-new-to-me music. I bought only 3 or 4 physical copies of albums but on my hard drive I’ve got around 8 and half days worth of music that was released this year alone. These are some of the things I enjoyed the most.

{arsonist} – Reality Structure. I like this album a lot. Probably one of the most melodic and definitely one of the most emotionally engaging. It includes glitchy textures, generative patterns, saxophone and choral strings, and it literally ends with a bang as the final track bursts into percussion that sounds like fireworks, turning what’s quite a sad atmosphere into something more hopeful.

Maryanne Amacher (19382009) was an artist whose name I knew but not her work. Amacher made some incredible sounds, and specialized in otoacoustic emmissions (OAEs) – sounds generated in and by the ear itself. Sound Characters (Making The Third Ear) (1999) mainly features sounds that generate different kinds of OAEs, while Sound Characters 2 (Making Sonic Spaces) (2008) uses the same techniques more sparingly in fewer, longer pieces. Marcin Pietruszewski recommended this article by David Kemp, ‘Otoacoustic Emissions: Concepts and Origins’, as a good summary of the subject.

Autechre‘s DJ stream on Mixlr was one of my favourite things this year. It was a nice surprise, and it became a daily occurrence for a while. Much of the music they played was their own favourites and influences, with different genres on different days, and some newer music, like William Fields, Kindohm and SDEM, as well as some of their own previously unreleased stuff. They also streamed on Twitch, showing one of their systems that uses video as input to generate and control the music. The online chat provided a sense of community during the first lockdown in March, and when they streamed SIGN just before it was released. SIGN doesn’t follow the trajectory implied by previous albums, which was going towards more messed up beats, more complex sounds, more different styles within and across tracks, and increasing durations. It’s lush, melodic and concise and it repays repeated listening because there’s a lot going on under the surface: the sounds appear to be the residue of a complicated process of creation and erasure, an auditory palimpsest bearing traces of each modification. ‘Metaz form8’ (track 6) and ‘r cazt’ (the final track) are the tracks that catch my ear, not because they’re loud or intrusive, but because of their gentle intensity and emotional potency. PLUS was a nice surprise addition but is more like what you’d expect the new album to sound like, and that’s why I prefer SIGN. When I bought them from AE_STORE, I discovered Sinistrail Sentinel (2018) in my downloads – apparently given to those who bought the CD version of NTS Sessions, but I’d never noticed it. A final treat was the replication of Autechre’s 2008 live set at Echoplex by two fans, ios and digit, who spent a lot of time and effort working with the synth patches and sysex files that had been made available via a hidden link on the website.

Of all the musicians who sadly died this year, the one that hit me hardest was Mr Chi Pig (Ken Chinn), singer of SNFU, a band that’s been a favourite since my teens. He wrote from experience about the pains of everyday life and love, about mental illness and addiction. I got to speak to him once after a gig at Derby Wherehouse in the 90s. As a frontman, Chi Pig was one of the best.

Akira Sileas is one of my favourite new artists, discovered through a recommendation by Mylar Melodies, and I’ve bought everything they’ve made since then. Under the name AB-607 are two EPs of extended acid tunes, both released on cassette. Under their own name are more experimental sounds made with physical modelling algorithms and pure data patches.

De Forrest Brown Jr published How Platform Capitalism Devalued the Music Industry, an article commissioned and then rejected by Resident Advisor. As Speaker Music he made the vital album Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry (Planet Mu) that comes with a booklet of text and images by Brown and other artists. Like Percussive Therapy, the EP that preceded it, this album is made of brutal, broken beats, but instead of therapeutic benefits it offers protest music and contextual information to counter ignorance and discrimination. This is an example of the politicization of art as a counter-response to the aestheticization of politics which Walter Benjamin described in the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction [PDF]

Dave Burraston started a Bandcamp subscription which I signed up to straight away, with loads of existing albums available, plus new and old work added regularly. As NYZ he released his first albums with beats – OLD TRX (87-93) (Death of Rave) and CCD (FLUF), as well as more meditative drones, like a split with ELEH (Important Records). Dave was also part of Knob Twiddler’s Hangout #30, hosted by Jochem Paap (Speedy J), along with Vincent Koreman (Drvg Cvltvre, New York Haunted) and Stephen McEvoy (TUUUN, FLUF), where he talked about working on the presets for AFX Station and how he developed the rainwire environmental sonification system.

In Workaround (PAN), Beatrice Dillon constructs pieces of music that balance extreme high and low frequencies in simple parts that make complex and unusual rhythms. This is a really impressive album, and I listen to it a lot.

Do/While – a DJ live stream by Dan and Wonja archived on SoundCloud. Usually on Sunday night, it’s a nice end to the weekend with some relaxed beats and tunes. Alita the dog usually features on the video stream, lolling on the rug and playing with toys. Dan and Wonja also set up Sound.Rodeo, a message board for sharing rips of hard-to-find and out-of-print music.

Do/While 13/12/2020

Boomkat’s Documenting Sound series of tapes is one of many examples of productive and creative responses to what’s been a terrible year for musicians. Some of my favourites in the series are Mark Leckey, Dean Hurley, Lucy Railton and FUJI||||||||||TA. Another series I enjoyed is Touch: Isolation including Chris Watson, Jana Winderen, ELEH and Claire M. Singer

The members of farmersmanual have been busy putting out old and new music as a group, as solo artists and in collaborations with others. Through their generate and test label they released General Magic’s 2005 performance as The Bratislava File, which is as much industrial metal as glitchy computer music, and Entrée Contrôle by Sluta Leta which combines vocals and retro synths, a bit like Finlay Shakespeare’s album Solemnities (Editions Mego) which I also liked a lot. 11​.​84​.​0​.​-​1​.​0​-​1​.​1​-​1 is an album that started with a single initial track, and each time someone bought the album a new track was generated, based on the initial one, until it reached 100 tracks. Another favourite is flowers a sun hazy by dprmkr, a live session from 1997 with an 808 recorded to digital tape.

FRKTL – Excision After Love Collapses. A complex album of electronic music made with a variety of different methods: field recording, live instruments, generative beats, vocal samples and digital processing.

Darryl Hall & John Oates – Abandoned Luncheonette (1973). A Sunday morning kind of album, one that makes you feel better. I got this for research purposes, while collecting music that features Bernard Purdie on drums, because I’ve been working on a data sonification that uses the Purdie Shuffle. Other favourite albums featuring Bernard Purdie include Young, Gifted and Black by Aretha Franklin and Yusef Lateef’s Detroit.

Eiko Ishibashi – ORBIT (SUPERPANG). The second of three tracks, ‘WE ARE BUILT’, combines arpeggiated synths with snippets of field recordings featuring human voices. It’s one of my favourite tracks this year.

When I met up with Dave Burraston last year, he recommended Nightclubbing (1981) by Grace Jones. Coincidentally, my granny’s name was Grace Jones, although her friends called her ‘Gem’, short for her full name – Grace Edith May. I’d always liked what I’d heard of Grace Jones’ music but hadn’t listened to any albums in full. When Autechre played ‘Feel Up’ from Nightclubbing on their Mixlr stream, it prompted me get the album as Dave had suggested. He wasn’t wrong. It’s got a really good sound, recorded with Sly and Robbie at Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. At the Grace Before Jones exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary art gallery I got to see some of the studio’s master tapes for her Fame album and the log sheets that record the positions of all the knobs and sliders on the mixing desk. Nightclubbing has been on my MP3 player most of the year.

Phil Julian – Carrier Dynamics (fancyyyyy). Recorded at Ina-GRM studios using their Serge Modular system, this is the kind of weird synthesized sound I like. Also really nice artwork/poster designed by Renick Bell.

Atte Elias Kantonen made 3 albums that I very much enjoyed. Studies in Audio Fabrics (Granny Records) is developed from research into the perception of auditory textures. The way that the electronic sounds chirp, groan and growl reminds me of Rashad Becker’s Traditional Music of Notional Species. Similarly, Frankille (Active Listener’s Club) and Nom Occasions (SUPERPANG) explore synthetic sounds produced/composed in such a way that they seem animalistic rather than mechanical or rational.

Nakul Krishnamurthy has previously collaborated with Mark Fell on projects and live performances exploring the intersections between the systems of Carnatic music and generative/algorithmic music. Tesserae (Takuroku) is Krishnamurthy’s first solo album, comprising two tracks that would each fit on one side of vinyl. The first track, ‘Anudhatthamudhatthassvaritham’, builds layers of vocal and string drones into a swirling mass, like a Hindustani version of Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten or Iannis Xenakis’s Persepolis. Track 2 is more sparse, and the sounds get stretched and squeezed in ways that make it hard to tell whether the source is human, instrumental or electronic. Completely absorbing. https://www.cafeoto.co.uk/shop/nakul-krishnamurthy-tesserae/ On the subject of India and avant-garde music, Paul Purgas did a fascinating programme for BBC Radio 3, Electronic India, prompted by the discovery of a box of tapes at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad.

Maalem Mahmoud Gania – Aicha (Hive Mind Records). Originally released in Morocco in the late 90s on cassette. Mahmoud was a guimbri player and singer. This is nourishing, spiritual music. The album comes with liner notes including lyrics and analysis by Tim Abdellah Fuson of Moroccan Gnawa music and ritual.

Doris Norton – Personal Computer (1984). I wasn’t aware of Doris Norton until someone re-tweeted a link to this album. As a pioneer of computer music, she deserves to be better known. Norton was a singer in Italian prog rock band Jacula in the 70s before her solo work involving the computer in the 80s. She became the first musician endorsed by Apple and later a consultant for IBM. I’d somehow missed the interviews she did for The Wire and Resident Advisor a couple of years ago, coinciding with the vinyl reissue of 3 albums, but I’m happy to have caught up now.

Pantea is an electronic musician from Iran, and Everydaymeal is an audio-collage made from field recordings in and around Edinburgh and Tehran. There’s been quite a lot of this kind of work recently, but this stands out for me as one that’s particularly engaging. I also liked Things (Active Listeners Club), made with more synthetic sounds. Pantea has been helping me learn about Persian music, specifically Arabic Maqam, a system of melodic modes and a form of traditional folk music also shared with Turkish and Azerbaijani cultures. I’d used part of the Maqam system in a sonification of coronoavirus genome data and done some research on it, and so we exchanged music and articles. One reason for this research is that I just like this kind of music and would like to understand/appreciate it better; another is to break free from the Western 12-tone equal-tempered scale system (on that subject, I recommend this article by Khyam Allami). In December Pantea did her first solo live performance on the SWGBBO online platform, a virtual club where you can hang out and chat as a pixel-art avatar. The event also included Kindohm, Parsa & Ramtin Niazi (who started the Active Listeners Club label) and Calum Gunn.

I think it was listening to Music From Mills (get it from UbuWeb) that got me into Maggi Payne. It’s a compilation album from 1986 celebrating the centennial anniversary of the Californa college where Payne was co-director of its Center for Contemporary Music from 1992 to 2018. Dave Burraston used the college’s 1965 Buchla 100 synth, together with his own cellular automata programs, to make his MILLZ MEDZ album. I soon realised that, like Maryanne Amacher, Maggi Payne is a creator of some spectacular sounds. This year Aguirre Records reissued Ahh-Ahh (2012), and it’s become one of my favourite albums. Joshua Minsoo Kim interviewed Maggi Payne for Tone Glow, where you can also hear and download a new mix, ‘Immersion, Bay Area Soundscape’.

PBTHAL makes high-quality digital rips of records that you’re unlikely to find, recorded on equipment that you could never afford. Previously available only through file-sharing, in January the PBTHAL ARCHIVES started as a blog that collected all the old rips together, provided download links, and added new ones frequently. In November it was taken down, but it now seems to have appeared again here (you just have to email for the links).

One of the genres I returned to this year that helped keep me going was jungle. I dug out my old vinyl – Photek 12″s and the Metalheadz compilation Platinum Breakz, and I listened to some old cassette mixes from Yaman Studios by Peshay, downloaded from Hardscore.com. I also watched some old documentaries, like Jungle Fever (1994) which was part of the All Black series on BBC2, and a Dutch programme from 1996 featuring Squarepusher, Photek and Source Direct.

Pulsar synthesis is a method for making sounds involving the generation of a stream of (usually very short) pulses and was originally designed as a computer program by Curtis Roads and Alberto de Campo in 1997. Its roots lie in the quantum theory of sound proposed by Dennis Gabor (1947), in which sound is composed of ‘acoustical quanta‘, and it is related to granular synthesis – a method first realized by Iannis Xenakis (1959). Whilst possible of producing a wide variety of sounds, the main characteristic of pulsar synthesis is typically a sharp, thin, piercing kind of sound that transforms unnaturally quickly. A bit like a digital version of chewed-up tape. Music made with these tortured synthetic screeches has provided a suitable soundtrack for this shitty year, and many of these albums have been made with one particular bit of new software: the New Pulsar Generator (nuPg) created by Marcin Pietruszewski, who was also part of $ pwgen 20, a collaborative group and label set up by Victor Moragues and RM Francis based on pulsar synthesis, which I’ve been a small part of since Marcin helped me to get nuPg running on Windows. Marcin Pietruszewski’s The New Pulsar Generator Recordings Volume 1 is an organized collection of demonstrations of what nuPg can do and a document of Marcin’s practice-based research. The CD came with a booklet reproducing Curtis Roads chapter on pulsar synthesis, beautifully designed by Joe Gilmore. Marcin also wrote about Auditory Sieve (ETAT) in a PDF that comes with the download. Also, Presto!? Records re-released Point Line Cloud by Curtis Roads.

Propagandhi – Victory Lap (2017). I saw Propagandhi when they last played at Rock City, Nottingham in 2013, after they’d recruited a second guitarist that added a more melodic element to their hard sound, making it even more complex, but I hadn’t kept up to date since then. I caught up this year, and Victory Lap made an appropriate soundtrack to 2020.

Lucy Railton made some really good things. First there was Forma, a split release with Max Eilbacher on GRM’s Portrait series. Louange à l’éternité de Jésus was a cello and organ piece by Messiaen whose proceeds went to charity. My favourite is S-Bahn (Boomkat Editions – Documenting Sound), made with recordings of the light rail transit system in Berlin.

C. Reider‘s Radiodrones is made from recordings of AM and shortwave radio. These processed recordings sound like the retro-futurism of Edward Artemiev’s score for Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

claire rousay – Both. Inaudible for the first minute and a half, the first of the two tracks slowly reveals the quiet noise of a library. Subtly manipulated, the noise builds and reveals the echoes of distant voices, reverberated electronic bleeps and mechanical clanks, and a low muffled drone of traffic. In contrast, the other track starts suddenly, a close-up of crackling noise rather than a distant perspective, exterior rather than interior.

SDEM – ZNS. A collection of beat-based tracks made between 2004 and 2019.

Shedding made two albums of generative music based on flocking algorithms related to the original Boids program by Craig Reynolds. Flocking KF Variations was released on FLUF at the start of the year, and Flocking 19 came out via SUPERPANG in November.

Tone Glow has provided some of the most interesting interviews with musicians and the most useful reviews and recommendations. The epic and meandering interview with Jim O’Rourke is a particular highlight. https://toneglow.substack.com/

Rian Treanor not only made some great music, File Under UK Metaplasm (Planet Mu), but as a result of lockdown has been working on projects in collaboration with Mark Fell aimed at building communities and improving access to music-making. They developed networked systems that allow them to operate instruments remotely and allow members of the public to connect and make music together. One project involved elderly residents of a care home in Paris, others were arranged for school kids, including one in Bratislava and an online performance for the No Bounds Festival by Rian and two children. I attended Mark Fell’s online masterclass, part of a series on algorithmic music which also included one by CNDSD on TidalCycles. Ostensibly on the subject of Max/MSP, Fell’s class wasn’t actually very useful for learning the program but he showed and explained some of the systems he’s developed for various projects, like the early SND albums. It was a bit like a condensed and interactive version of his PhD thesis. I also really enjoyed his two collaborative albums with Will Guthrie, Infoldings and Diffractions. Bits of field recordings included among the mostly percussive sounds in ‘Infoldings 1’ really add to the disorientating Moire effect of the polyrhythms.

Like most social media, Twitter undoubtedly has its faults, yet despite having a negative impact on mental health it’s been a lifeline during isolation. It doesn’t happen often, but receiving some nice feedback on my music – whether from artists whose work I admire or from complete strangers – means more than any sales numbers or earnings, and so I’ve tried to do more of that myself. Slack and Lurk groups have offered a similar sense of community with less of the downsides, having a more limited social circle and more specific areas of interest. So if you’re reading this and we know each other online, ‘hello!’ and thank you (not that this blog is any more real than those virtual networks, but, all the same, thanks).

Valhalla make some really good audio effect plugins. In June they released a new one, Valhalla Supermassive, for free. I’ve used Valhalla Room reverb for a while, and it’s great. Whereas Room is modelled on real spaces and natural effects, Supermassive allows you to explore a possibility space of artificial effects unconstrained by physical models. It’s based on feedback delay networks, a type of artificial reverb, and it makes complex delay and reverb effects as well as flanging and chorus. In addition to the usual delay time and feedback controls, ‘mode’ sets the algorithm that changes the overall character, ‘warp’ varies individual delay times, and ‘density’ controls how much the echoes mix together. Get it here.

Ricardo Villalobos & Oren Ambarchi – Hubris Variation Parts 2 & 3. Two remixes of tracks from Ambarchi’s album Hubris (2016). This has been one of my most-frequently played albums when needing something less harsh or challenging. That’s not to say it’s bland; this is a complex remix of the original guitar, drum and synth sounds overlaid in multiple rhythms. The remixing increases the amount of variation in Hubris, resulting in something that’s constantly interesting as well as danceable.

The raised profile of Black Lives Matter that followed the protests for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd also brought about the dissemination of resources to learn about black history and acknowledge its cultural contributions. The Dweller Forever library is one such repository of writing from a black perspective focusing on electronic music, organized into ‘reading’ and ‘audio/visual’ resources. There’s a lot of good stuff to read, watch and listen to, like this poignant interview with Drexciya from 2002 recorded just a short time before James Stinson’s death. I learned about Underground Resistance, the collective led by Mike Banks, Robert Hood and Jeff Mills. I was more familiar with their individual work than with the collective, and hadn’t previously appreciated UR’s influence or understood their political approach to art and business.

Tatsuhisa Yamamoto – mipyokopyoko / mupyokopyoko. Yamamoto, a drummer who has worked with Jim O’Rourke, Eiko Ishibashi, Keijo Heino and Oren Ambarchi, released 10 albums this year through Bandcamp. I bought 5 of them, and they’re all very good.

ZZ Top – Eliminator (1983). My mum bought this album for the family when it was released, and I’ve still got that copy of it now. An album I hadn’t listened to for years, dismissed for some reason. On listening again, side A is pretty much perfect, and side B is average. ZZ Top are great when they’re raucous and fast, but equally great when grooving slowly and precisely, like ‘El Diablo’ from the Tejas album (the drumming on that track is phenomenal) and also like this:

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1 Response to 2020

  1. Pingback: Detritus 564 | Music of Sound

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