Tag: audio

This is the Album of the Future

record collection

I am a composer, performer, music producer, and avid record collector, and I am currently in a complicated relationship with physical media. Like many others, I love the tangible process of opening up a CD or LP, playing it through my home system, and studying the artwork and liner notes as I listen. I hold my own albums to this standard as I release them into the world. I pore over the details of the physical package, driving my collaborators crazy as I attempt to perfect every aspect of its design. After spending several maddening months—and often years—to make an album, the moment of finally holding the object itself is a satisfying final seal, assuring me that I’ve created something permanent.

Yet the age of streaming rages on, my closets are filled with boxes of overstock, and even my mother is more likely to listen to my music online than she is to put on a CD or LP. As much as we like to think of these discs as the sacred vessels of our musical concepts, many of us are questioning whether it is worth the time, money, space, and materials to produce the physical object.

What makes an album such a powerful statement is that the artists and producers craft a complete experience for the listener, not only through a cohesive musical idea but through its presentation: artwork, information, liner notes, and now virtually any form of media. Currently, digital platforms do not allow much room for this, confining albums to tracklists and an album cover: a thumbnail representation of something that could be physical. This has had financial repercussions—by reducing an album’s worth to the play count of its individual tracks, huge corporations have gotten away with paying artists fractions of pennies for their work.

In response to these changing tides, some of us have chosen to dig deeper into the classic formats, releasing our albums on limited edition vinyl and cassette tapes. Others search for new objects to represent their album (beer koozie with download code anyone?). Look no further than Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Music (2005), a self-contained electronic music circuit and playback device within a CD case, for an eloquent example of physicality as the concept of the album itself.

There have been many creative approaches to releasing albums as physical objects in today’s world, but that’s not what this article is about. I’m tossing any purity I have left aside, and I am wondering: What can an album be now that it no longer needs to be an object?

Florent Ghys’s “This is the album of the future” from his video album Télévision

The album has always been and continues to be a malleable form, having adapted to over 100 years of changes in technology, business, and pop culture. The very first albums were, literally, albums: bound books manufactured to contain several 78 RPM phonograph records, examples of which can be found as far back as 1908. When Columbia Records began releasing 12-inch discs in 1948, the term had already been extended past its original meaning to refer to any collection of musical tracks. Since then, our albums have contorted through a variety of formats, shapes, and sizes and now, residing on the internet, they no longer require a physical container. Artists can release albums at a faster rate and with more ease than before, and the possibilities seem to be endless for the integration of multimedia and interactive elements.

Some are skeptical as to whether some of the newer formats should be identified as true “albums.” To decide for myself, I apply a very simple litmus test: Does the artist call their work an album? If yes, then it is so. I see the changes in how music creators conceive and present this music as the indication of its evolution as a term.

I have been searching for compelling examples of albums that have extended this form within the digital world and collected them here. Some big-budget and mainstream offerings need to be mentioned, but I have chosen to focus on a few specimens from independent artists and labels, and have given them a close and thoughtful listen.

This is by no means a comprehensive survey. I invite anyone with examples of albums that should be included in this discussion to post in the comments below.

Notes from Sub-Underground

Object Collection’s Notes from Sub-Underground (2017)

One of the immediate parameters that is lifted for albums in the digital age is that of length. At one end of the spectrum, an artist can release a shorter offering and present it as a complete concept without feeling the need to fill the entirety of a CD, tape, or LP. On the other end, albums can be very long indeed. Notes from Sub-Underground, a 2016 collection of experimental music put out in the wake of the Trump election, is an awesome example of this. Produced by the music theater group Object Collection, this five-hour-plus compilation is comprised of 62 tracks representing somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 artists. The line-up includes influential experimentalists from across generations including Richard Foreman, Cat Lamb, Phill Niblock, Michael Pisaro, and Matana Roberts, as well as performing groups String Noise, Ensemble Pamplemouse, and my own group Dither.

Beginning with a call for submissions in December, the compilation was assembled in less than two months and released on Inauguration Day, 2017. Object Collection compiled the tracks, did some basic post-production work, and produced a cover and liner notes for digital distribution. Upon its release, in order to download a copy of the album, listeners would contribute an amount of their choosing through an Indiegogo campaign, all proceeds of which were donated to the ACLU. (You can now access the compilation through Object Collection’s website.) While only some of the tracks are overtly political, the collective album effort is what makes this an effective statement.

And it’s a great record. I committed to a complete listen, toggling between sessions on my home computer and on my headphones while on New Jersey Transit. Although the sequence of the tracks is not curated (the song titles are placed in alphabetical order), there is a satisfying flow to the album in its consistent inconsistency. One of my listening sessions began with Mellissa Hughes and Philip White’s “Clinging to a Cloud, an abstracted pop song comprised of autotuned melismas intertwined with synth tones and computer voices. This track flows beautifully into an excerpt from Suzanne Thorpe’s vocal collage “Constituting States,” constructed of recordings of the U.S. national anthem as sung in different languages. The voices swirl around each other and finally resolve, to be interrupted by Jonathan Marmor’s clangorous electronic piece “Easter Helicopter”. Listening to the entire project is a cathartic experience that holds true to Object Collection’s maximalist and DIY ethos.

OneBeat Mixtape 18

OneBeat Mixtape 18: Vols 1-6 (Found Sound Records, 2019)

A collective musical endeavor that approaches the album format as a series of shorter offerings comes from the Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization Found Sound Nation. To document the output from their OneBeat program in 2018, for which they enlisted 24 international artists to create collaborative works, they have produced and released a series of digital “mixtapes,” each averaging around 20 minutes in length. Their concept is to provide an extension (“B-sides”) to the golden record that was included aboard the two Voyager spacecrafts in 1971. They staggered the release of the six volumes, each referencing a stop as the ships traveled deeper into space. The entire project can be found on Bandcamp.

While the eclecticism of the tracks on each volume holds true to the idea of a mixtape, the concept and production of the recordings create a unified offering. (All tracks were produced by OneBeat and recorded during the same sessions.) “Sorabe,” the opening track of Vol 1: Earth composed by Tsanta Randriamihajasoa, groups the Malagasy pianist with Indian vocalist Pavithra Chari, Hungarian clarinetist Zolt Bartek, and Algerian drummer Younés Kati. The track is a jazz-infused tour of each artist’s musical language, emulating the idea of the earth’s bustling “acoustic and organic sounds.”

Skipping ahead, Vol 6: Heliopause is described by OneBeat as a collection of “abstract pieces perhaps only understandable by the most adventurous human ears.” While I don’t find this material to be inaccessible (especially after listening to 5.5 hours of Object Collection) this volume certainly conjures an otherworldly sonic palette that one might equate with the edge of our solar system. Beginning with the more tangible songlike opening of “Outer Space,” each track of the album continues a trajectory deeper into textural and droney soundscapes.

Florent Ghys: Télévision

Florent Ghys: Télévision (Cantaloupe Music, 2014)

There are many notable examples throughout recorded music history of a film being produced in conjunction with an album. The Beatles’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) are two of many landmark works which were released separately as film and soundtrack. As home video systems became increasingly popular in the 1980s, artists began to regularly distribute video compilations, live concerts, and documentaries as part of their output. I fondly remember the comedic band Green Jellö (popular on MTV for their heavy metal claymation video “Three Little Pigs”), who claimed in the opening credits of their Cereal Killer VHS (1993) to be the “world’s first video-only band.” (They did in fact release a soundtrack album separately from the video.)

Billing an audiovisual work as the album itself is still a relatively new phenomenon which is quickly being embraced by the mainstream, encapsulated by the success of Beyoncé’s “visual album” Lemonade (2016). Although one might question how these offerings differ from the films and videos made by their predecessors, I see this as a natural arrival point, enabled by current digital platforms: the audio and visual elements of the album are both readily available on the same interface and can be easily conceived, created, marketed, and distributed together as a unified concept.

Bassist/composer Florent Ghys dubs his most recent solo release Télévision (2014) a “video album,” and it is indeed a high-level integration of musical and visual concepts. In this case, the two elements are so intrinsically connected that it’s hard to imagine experiencing the music alone. Working in sync with both audio and video software, Ghys composed the two entities in tandem, providing a direct video corollary to virtually every musical event.

In the opening track “Beauté Plastique,” each new instrumental layer enters with a corresponding visual element, creating a complex tapestry of hockets and contrapuntal lines. The final track, “This is the Album of the Future,” features a tongue-in-cheek video collage of dated advertisements for compact disc players. (Télévision is in fact also available as a CD from Cantaloupe records.) The entire video is an absorbing and effective visual experience which kept me engaged in a way that felt more akin to binge watching a TV series or going down a YouTube rabbit hole than listening to an album of the past.

Rabbit Rabbit: Rabbit Rabbit Radio, Vols 1-3

Confronting the issue of digital distribution, another creative video-based offering comes from Rabbit Rabbit (Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi). Frustrated with online services, in 2012 the duo began a long-term project in which they released a song and video per month on their own subscription-based site, rabbitrabbitradio.com. Although they have now chosen to end their monthly output and focus on larger-scale works, they compiled their three years of work into three albums which can be listened to and watched on Bandcamp.

While maintaining high production values, these videos are intimate and homegrown, often using footage from the recording studio or home performances. They incorporate several candid and personal moments, including a living room session in which their young daughter throws a minor tantrum during the song. Family and friends feature prominently throughout the three volumes. “Paper Prison” is a documentary portrait of Bossi’s father as he discusses his rare book collection. The final track, “Merci Vielmal,” was recorded on a train while on the road with their group Cosa Brava (performed with bandmates Fred Frith, Shahzad Ismaily, and Zeena Parkins). Not only is this music captivating, but you come out of the experience feeling as if you have had a window into the artists’ everyday lives.

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition (Microfest records, 2013)

In the ‘90s, artists such as Peter Gabriel, Primus, and The Residents released CD-ROMs with game-like applications along with their albums, providing an interface for listeners to explore the songs, art, and other elements. Today, our touch-screen devices offer even more potential for interactive music applications. Bjork’s Biophilia (2011) was released as an “app album,” featuring artwork, extensive liner notes, videos, and games associated with each track. Other artists take the interactive model further by allowing the music to be generated in real time. Brian Eno’s most recent release Reflection (2017) exists both in fixed media and as an application that creates a unique and endless version of his composition.

An interesting example of a generative album experience comes from Microfest Records’s release of John Cage’s The Ten Thousand Things (2015). In the 1950s, Cage composed this set of pieces to be played independently, in any combination, or reconfigured in a variety of ways. Microfest produced The I-Ching Edition of the album which consists of a fixed version of the piece, accompanied by an application (delivered via thumb drive) that allows you to generate unique versions the composition. Each rendering is constructed from performances by pianists Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay, bassist Tom Peters, percussionist William Winant, and an archival recording of Cage himself reading his lecture “‘45 for a Speaker.” Each new version of the piece uses the same recordings, but is unique in its organization.

One of the most satisfying things about this piece is that the spoken material in Cage’s fragmented lecture describes the same compositional techniques that you are hearing in real time. The chance aspect of the application itself adds yet another layer. The creativity of this format, the top-notch performances, and the charm of hearing Cage masterfully read his lecture make for an enthralling aleatoric experience.

Ironically, many of these innovative application-based albums have fallen victim to operating system upgrades. We can still get Bjork’s album through Apple’s app store, but similar offerings from Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, and Philip Glass seem to have become obsolete in less than ten years. These apps were either never updated, or they were seen by the record companies merely as short-term marketing tools. There also just haven’t been a huge quantity of app albums made, as the financial overhead required to create these programs is still prohibitive for most independent artists.

With so much trial and error required, it is not a surprise that album formats have needed to pass a high threshold of popularity and mass consumption in order to achieve longevity. This is one reason that physical albums are still relevant today—they survive as permanent objects on the sidelines of a constantly changing and merciless digital landscape.

What is the album of the future? I hope for an interface that is as accessible and navigable as the current streaming platforms, one that allows artists to configure a unique experience for their listeners, and one that empowers us to control its monetization. (Bandcamp is well ahead of the pack in this regard.) The ideal platform would not only provide easy access to music, art, text, and all types of media, but be malleable so that new elements can be integrated as they arise. The next sea change in business and technology will surely provide new and unforeseen formats for our music, and within it artists will continue to innovate, adapt, and respond.

Live Streaming 103: DIY Live Stream Tech

During the month of June, I have been writing about live streaming your new music concerts. Live Streaming 101 dealt with the “why” of live streaming. Live Streaming 102 discussed where to host your stream. This week’s installment will discuss some technical requirements for live streaming, but without diving in so deep that you get lost in the ones and zeros of the codec. By the end of this post, however, you should be armed with the basic skills and knowledge required to get a live stream up and running.

Site Preparation

The first thing any stream needs is a reliable, speedy internet connection. To simplify things, here is an internet checklist for your live streaming venue:

1. Get the WiFi/internet login information
2. While you’re at it, if applicable, get the contact info for the IT person or team
3. Get online and do a speed test (google “speed test” in a browser and use the google version)
4. Do a stream test

What matters most when it comes to internet speed for this application is the upload speed. This article has a great, in-depth description about live streaming and internet speeds. The gist is that higher quality streams carry more information (video resolution, audio bit depth) and thus need higher upload speeds.

Internet speed test

If you decide not to use mobile devices or WiFi (which inherently run more risks than a hard-wired connection), you should find an ethernet port and work with IT to make sure you have access. Some schools, companies, or public school venues have firewalls built in to their internet connections, so it’s important to learn about your venue and to make sure you can get to your streaming destination as described in the previous article.

Apart from the internet, it’s also important to test the lighting, sound, and proposed camera locations for your live stream. If you are working primarily with mobile devices, finding camera points close to the stage—but not blocking audience view—will likely be ideal. If you are working with external cameras and a separate encoder, you’ll want a room outside of the hall to run cables to, where your video team can talk freely, and where any computer keys or cooling fan noises (yes, this happened to me during this stream) will not distract from the performance.

iOS and Mobile Tech Camera Set Ups

For the beginner, starting with mobile technologies is the easiest way to go live. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube all have this option in their mobile apps. The resolution and FPS of recent smartphone cameras is high enough to make a nice looking video. You don’t even need the latest iPhone to stream in HD!

But there are two downfalls to streaming with a single mobile device. 1.) the variety of shot is nil. So make sure when you set your shot, it is up close and tightly framed, so your subjects are in clear view. 2.) research and listening suggests smartphone microphones are optimized for the human voice, not your music. So I recommend the addition of a smartphone microphone or compatible audio interface to connect your mics to.

Next, I will take you through some specific tech I have either used or researched with the help of some tech experts from Sweetwater. I have also included Amazon affiliate links where applicable, which will support New Music USA. (If you are shopping on Amazon, you might also consider using Amazon Smile to support their work.)

Mobile Tech Highlights: smartphone audio

Disclaimer: I have received no compensation in exchange for recommending any of the following products. I simply either have used the product itself or it seems well suited to the DIY Live Streaming specs I researched while planning these articles.

For mobile phone audio, I always recommend a microphone or an interface that can handle a stereo signal. Nothing sounds more natural than a stereo signal on a good microphone, I mean, we have two ears, right? There are piles of mono options, but I wouldn’t recommend any of these for live performance streaming.

Shure MV88: stereo mic with multiple patterns, gain control, etc.

Shure MV88

In my own work, I have been using this microphone and, over all, I am pleased. It plugs right into the lightning port of an iPhone, and it has piles of control options via its free app, Motiv Audio.

For zero hassle, this is a great option. It does require the phone to be set to “do not disturb” and “airplane mode” so that cell signals don’t interfere with the electronics. This is not hypothetical. Texts and calls do weird things to the recordings. WiFi can still work in this scenario.

Tascam iXR

Tascam iXR

During my research, I was looking for a two-channel interface that could work with mobile technology. Thanks to my friend and sales rep Vern at Sweetwater, we came up with two solid options. The Tascam was first on the list. The interface boasts connectivity to your iPhone or iPad directly via USB and the lightning port on your iOS device. With this option, you can use your favorite stereo mic pair and send your mobile device an excellent audio signal.

With interfaces, it is important to remember that they cannot charge your mobile devices. Make sure your devices are fully charged for live streaming!

Presonus AudioBox iTwo

Presonus AudioBox

Presonus also makes an iOS-compatible, two-channel interface. I have yet to try out this unit, but I do know that Presonus is an excellent company with great, affordable products. I once used an interface of theirs for ten years before I finally upgraded, and I was still able to resell the device! The iTwo interface is also iOS compatible and has overall better reviews than the Tascam.

Whichever way you go, make sure you talk to a sales rep about compatibility with your video device.

Switcher Go

I came across this app and subscription service during my research, and it is extremely appealing. For a relatively affordable monthly cost, you can use multiple iOS devices to create a multi-camera shoot. This is a pretty attractive option when you’re ready to take the next step and make your live stream productions look more professional by using multiple camera angles, but are not yet ready to invest piles of money into dedicated cameras, switchers, and computers or encoders.

The blog about Switcher Go explains the basic functions of their product. For $29 a month (just do a month at a time if you are not streaming every month), you have access to their software which allows you to connect as many as nine iPhone or iPads as external cameras, wirelessly. With a few friends (who have iPhones or iPads) and some mic stands and mounts, you can create a really professional looking multicam production with an external audio source and other cool abilities.

Stands and Mounts for Mobile Devices

With all of these mobile-based solutions, there are two things you cannot forget: a stand and a mount for your device. I recommend using a good tripod microphone stand with a boom arm, and a phone mount of your liking. (There are so many to choose from.)

My favorite microphone stand is the K&M Tripod microphone stand. I have personally used these for all sorts of applications, and they have never let me down. One of them is almost 15-years old.

There are so many accessories for mobile devices it’s almost obscene. My personal favorite device mount is the Accessory Basics, but I’ll trust that you can do your own homework. When choosing, consider the compatibility with the device, and also make sure the rear camera and the lightning port are accessible while mounted so you can plug in your external mic and still get a good shot. If you are using an iPad, the same considerations apply.

External Camera and Encoder Set Ups

If you are not inclined to use mobile technology, there are other ways to connect external cameras to encoder hardware or software, and then send that signal to a streaming platform. For the beginner, I find this more problematic as it typically requires a computer, more computing power, and—if you want a multi-camera shoot—more hardware.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t do it! As you do your research, just be aware of the cost concerns to get a signal similar to what you could get with a mobile device. External cameras sending video to a computer will also typically need external audio.

External Cameras and Encoder Highlights

Zoom Q2n (audio & video solution)

Zoom has been a long-time player in the mobile A/V world. The Zoom Q2n is a microphone stand-mountable camera and X/Y stereo microphone all-in-one. For a relatively low cost, you can have video and audio going to a computer for streaming via the HDMI out. As always, be wary of adapters if your computer is not already designed to accept an HDMI connection (which carries both video and audio).

Open Broadcaster Software (encoding software)

Some external cameras are able to connect to Facebook Live via the “create” link (as discussed in Livestreaming 102), but if they can’t, there is a simple and free solution. Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) is a great program for Mac and PC that allows you to take incoming video signals and broadcast them to a streaming platform such as YouTube or Facebook. Although it has a simple interface, OBS has many options for intake and output that make it a versatile and useful program. With OBS you can have multiple video sources, separate audio sources (if needed), graphics, and other media inserted into your stream. Please note that the higher the quality video you are working with, the greater processing power you will need from your computer.

Side note: as mentioned above when discussing the Zoom Q2n, some cameras will not simply send an HDMI signal directly into your computer. I encountered this when trying to send a GoPro HDMI signal to my 2012 MacBook. Without something like a Game Capture HDMI to USB 3.0, there is no way my MacBook would accept an HDMI signal. Not all camera/computer setups are like this, so it’s important to do your research.

Look for Future Tech

Since preparing my presentation on live streaming for the New Music Gathering, my Facebook has been bombarded with ads from companies trying to sell me live streaming hardware and software. We are definitely in the middle of a boom of new live streaming technologies, which is exciting. So before you commit to a specific system, see what is out there that might best fit your needs, budget, and existing equipment.

Test Everything, Then Test Again

I cannot stress enough the need to test all components of your stream before the day of the event. Make sure audio, video, internet connection, and the output to your specified platforms all works, because usually something will go wrong and you will need the reassurance that you had it working before! Here’s a simple checklist:

1. Test your internet connection and speed
2. Test audio and video sync, shots, and levels
3. Test the connection to your streaming host/platform
4. Test with an actual stream; make sure your audio sounds like your audio before it hits the internet, and your video is clear and not choppy!
5. Check all connections and settings again before the event

In my final article next week, I will discuss live streaming with collaborators (and how to think about building those relationships), best practices for use of your video post-stream, easy ways to achieve graphic overlays and title slides, licensing and copyright issues, and ways to build your live streaming audience.

Audio or It Didn’t Happen

This is the first in a short series of essays about how sound is inscribed.

It’s a Friday afternoon and the nearby school kids are playing with such ferocity that it seems possible an enhanced interrogation center has sprung up just two floors down from my office window.

Then a loud bell rings. Its waveforms are so thick it’s as if you can see them floating in the misty San Francisco air. The bell is all stately gravitas. Even if you didn’t know that the nearby school is parochial, you’d sense the bell’s churchly vibe.

And then, suddenly, there is silence: Recess has concluded. The bell has marked a juncture. There was a before and now I’m in the after. It’s not utter silence, not the absence of sound, what I’m experiencing now. It’s the sort of silence that traffic and hallway chatter and a neighbor’s music can still, somehow, collectively suggest as silence when the ear is no longer burdened by hundreds of energized children screaming at one another.

I’m struck by the moment. So, I do something that comes naturally to me when something of sonic interest arises. I tweet about it. I tweet about the transition from chaos to peacefulness, summarizing the tonal shift in just under 140 characters.

Shortly thereafter someone replies to my tweet.

Before paraphrasing the reply, it might be easier to first characterize the incident by employing a comparison. Perhaps you’re familiar with the phrase “pics or it didn’t happen.” It’s a not uncommon response when someone posts—text-only—something of interest that seems to beg visual documentation, like if you run into a celebrity (“Jonny Greenwood was at the music equipment shop!”) or buy something snazzy (“I finally sprang for a sequencer module for my synthesizer”) or do something tawdry (“Judging by the mess, last night’s jam session involved too much bourbon, too little music”).

The “pics or it didn’t happen” response isn’t necessarily a literal encouragement to follow up with a document of evidence. It’s a gentle teasing. It’s a friendly social-network admonition in the form of a rhetorical nudge—though, it’s worth noting, virtually no one who ever says “pics or it didn’t happen” would be unhappy if pics did follow.

As for the response I got to my afternoon tweet—the response I have not infrequently received to such a tweet—it was the audio equivalent of “pics or it didn’t happen.” Essentially I was asked: “But did you record it?”

That’s a complicated question to answer, despite the inquiry’s brevity. The simplest answer is: no. No, I didn’t record it, not with an audio recorder. But I did record it, in the sense that my tidy, brief, Twitter-circumscribed description was consciously intended to encapsulate it.

That’s how and why I record sound: by writing it, inscribing it—not so much notating it as noting it, unpacking it, coming to understand how it works by investigating how it works.

The matter comes down in part to what “it” is. Is “it” the bells, or is “it” the sound of the bells through the window, or the sound of the kids, or the way the kids and the bells worked in congress with each other, or how the bells masked the more detailed nature of the kids walking back into school from the playground, or how when the bells ended the remaining low-key urban cacophony was still, in its own way, peculiarly placid. That’s a lot of “it.” There was a lot packed into the period of time that passed.

And then again, how much time had passed, how long of a hypothetical audio recording are we talking about? Sure the transition could be mapped from a few seconds of screaming kids to a few seconds of street noise with the bell sequence in between—maybe a minute total? However, the impact of those kids screaming had built up over the hours prior I’d been seated at my desk working—in fact, as an experience, the impact had built up over the years I’ve sat at that desk in that room listening and not listening.

An audio recording might have given some glimpse into what I’d experienced, but no more and arguably less than what I’d been able to summarize in my description.

bird on a bell

Photo: Luke Barnard

And that’s how and why I record sound: by writing it, inscribing it—not so much notating it as noting it, unpacking it, coming to understand how it works by investigating how it works. I do it a lot, sometimes on Twitter or Facebook, occasionally on Instagram (to caption a photo), sometimes in longer essays or reflections—once as an extended series of mini-essays in which I treated everyday sound as something that one might review, much as one reviews a record or concert. Titled “Listening to Yesterday,” the series ranged from birdsong in a toxic harbor to restaurant kitchen noise to the user interfaces of conference call systems.

As I hoped to express in the slightly longer form of those “Listening to Yesterday” entries, the descriptions of sound in my tweets and my longer-form writing aren’t about description, any more than a record review is about description—well, a good record review. My hope in describing sound is to unpack it. It’s about getting inside the sound, sonically and contextually. The best advice I ever got about reviewing music was to give the reader a suggestion about how to listen to the piece in question, what one might listen for. The same can be said—should be said—about writing about everyday sound. (As I write this I’ve become aware of the fact that I’m writing about the process of describing sound on a social media platform whose name is itself a common instance of onomatopoeia.) Writing differs from sound in key ways. Sound is temporal. Writing, especially pithy writing, can happen in an instant, and yet suggest something of any given length. A tweet of a moment’s sound is both briefer than the occurrence and yet capable of suggesting something altogether longer, even timeless, which is to say something not just about that moment but about similar moments—not just that school day, but many school days at many schools, in and out of the mist, with and without bells, parochial and secular, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Sound is temporal. Writing, especially pithy writing, can happen in an instant, and yet suggest something altogether longer, even timeless.

If anything, to reproduce with a recording rather than a description would fall short of my own goals in several ways.

For one, the recording (I have made them) never sounds like what I heard. The ear doesn’t work that way. The ear hears through things, focuses on things, filters out things. That happens in the world as a mix of brain wiring and personal inclinations. Once reproduced as a recording, those varying degrees of attentiveness are flattened: everything becomes evident relative to its respective volume.

For another, if you listened to the recording, you’d likely not hear what I heard—I heard a pulse, but you hear a beat; I heard something soothing, but you hear something antagonizing; I heard children, but you hear traffic. To share the moment in sonic form is to instantiate a Rashomon, to introduce the opportunity for multiple interpretations. My goal in these moments isn’t, generally speaking, to ask what something is; it’s to say what I think it is—and to ask that you say what you think some other moment of sound is.

Finally, my attentive listening in the day-to-day world is almost always a matter of retrospectively acknowledged reflection. That is to say, it’s a matter of “This is something I just heard, and now I will note it down as a means to capture my sense of it.” I couldn’t have recorded it because I hadn’t become conscious of it until it was happening, perhaps even until after it had happened. The only way I could really accomplish what’s asked when someone says, “Did you record it?” is if I had the sort of technology running that Nagra helped innovate, in which I was always recording everything around me, and then at the end of the day could go back to the tape and locate it.

I don’t do that, because recording everything—putting aside matters of surveillance and ethics—is exactly contrary to the reason I summed up the moment in the first place. I’m not looking to reproduce a generality, to document a public moment; I’m looking to hone a specific experience, a private moment.

Wit and Wisdom: Musicians On Being

Krista Tippett’s On Being, the widely syndicated NPR show formerly known as Speaking of Faith, doesn’t record interviews with just anybody. Each week, Tippett sits down for in-depth conversations with some of the most influential figures of the 21st century, from superstar poet Mary Oliver to the Thich Nhat Hanh, from “living saint” Jean Vanier to marketing guru Seth Godin.

With its expansive, hour-long format and intimate feel, On Being allows listeners to feel like they’re getting a one-on-one with today’s spiritual and creative heroes. Or maybe that’s just me—I’m a huge fan of the show and have chopped many rounds of vegetables in the kitchen while absorbing its wisdom and good vibes.

When a journalist like Tippett can interview anyone in the world, which musicians does she choose? And what does this tell us about musicians’ perceived impact in the wider world? Below, I’ve linked to five On Being episodes featuring musicians that Tippett found interesting enough to interview: engaging songwriters, legendary performers, and even a few composers of concert music. Although each interview is intended for an audience of musical laypeople, there’s some great stuff here for the field insiders, too.

Photo by Ben Brewer, via onbeing.org

Photo by Ben Brewer, via onbeing.org

Mohammed Fairouz: If you interpret “composer of concert music” strictly, Fairouz is the only On Being interviewee who fits the bill—and he’s not even thirty yet. Specialists may roll their eyes a little at the characterization of Fairouz as a “post-millennial Schubert” or gawk at the swaggering bravado he demonstrates when discussing everything from composition to statecraft. But there’s no question that Fairouz’s engagement with political issues has come to national attention. (NewMusicBox, of course, was way ahead of this and featured Fairouz in a Spotlight three years ago!)

Gustavo Santaolalla: Film music—perhaps our culture’s biggest remaining gateway into concert music—is the subject of this episode. Tippett chose Santaolalla because he’s scored some widely beloved films, including Brokeback Mountain, and makes compelling use of “world music” idioms such as tango. Santaolalla makes for a charming, slippery interview subject. He’s clearly an artist whose work is better experienced than discussed; he is congenial but refuses to “describe” or nail down his music with glib descriptions or sound bytes.

Meredith Monk: The wise, funny Monk is the perfect match for Tippett’s wide-eyed interview style. Monk is utterly endearing in this interview, and demonstrates her spiritual commitment to live performance: “When you are that present, and you are that awake,” Monk said excitedly, “the audience experiences the deepest part of themselves—and the whole situation becomes transcendent. The way we live our lives is not necessarily with that level of presence.”

Rosanne Cash: A fabulously intimate interview with the respected songwriter, author, and daughter of the late Johnny Cash. Lovers of the elder Cash will treasure her candid memories of her father, and her reflections on finding one’s creative voice are valuable for artists in every field. She tells an amazing story about the day she decided not to be a dilettante: “I was leading myself into an ever-narrowing corner with my work. I knew that if I kept dabbling, and trying to make hit records, and not going deeper into what I did or developing a mastery of it, that that was it. I was going to end up doing parodies of myself.”


Yo-Yo Ma: In Chicago, it’s starting to feel like the famous cellist is just a loyal friend who shows up at every party. Ma spearheads the ambitious, populist Citizen Musician initiative and is the Judson Greene Creative Consultant at the Chicago Symphony. In this interview, we get a taste of the idealism and boundless energy that have made him one of classical music’s most prominent figures. “I often ask musicians, do you think of yourself as your instrument? As a musician? Or as a human being? And what is the ratio between the three? I think the citizen part is towards the human part.”