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Marcus Schmickler: “New Methodical Limits of Ascension”

From the album Palace of Marvels (2010) 

One of the most talented and creative figures on the computer music scene today is the German composer Marcus Schmickler. His early solo albums, recorded under noms de plume Wabi Sabi (1996) and Sator Rotas (1999), feature delicately spun harmonic drones and textural morphings at times reminiscent of the music of François Bayle. Schmickler’s more recent works, such as Altars of Science (2007) and Palace of Marvels (2010), both released on the esteemed label Editions Mego, move in a different direction, probing extreme states of auditory perception and pushing the envelope of contemporary electronic production.

Apart from his computer music, Schmickler has composed pieces for classical ensembles, such as Demos (2006), for choir, chamber quintet, and electronics, and Rule of Inference (2011), for percussion quartet. He also heads the spacey post-rock outfit Pluramon. Much of Schmickler’s work explores the interface between art and science, or aesthetics and epistemology, as for example his 2009 project The Bonn Patternization, a 10-channel composition based on the sonification of astronomical data.


Palace of Marvels is an ear-bending trip into the phenomenon of the Shepard tone, an auditory illusion which creates the sensation of a never-ending ascent or descent in pitch. (Roger Shepard, the discoverer of this phenomenon, is name-checked in the track “Shep’s Infinity,” as is French composer and acoustician Jean-Claude Risset in “Risset Brain Hammer.”) On this relatively simple foundation, Schmickler constructs a dizzying array of sonic variations—different perspectives on a common perceptual object—each one leading the listener farther down the rabbit hole. This is devilishly difficult music, but there is a sirenic allure in Schmickler’s work that compels you to keep listening even as your scrambled brain begs for silence.

If you dig Schmickler’s music, you should also check out the excellent annotated playlist he recently curated for RadioWeb MACBA entitled "Ontology of Vibration: Economics, Music, and Number."

Played 289 time(s).

January 10, 2013, 8:31pm

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Kabutogani: “Kuril Probe”

From the album Vector (2010)

Kabutogani (Japanese for “horseshoe crab”) is a solo project of an anonymous French electronic music producer. The 2010 album Vector (spelled, in an apparent nod to Soviet Futurism, in Cyrillic on the album’s cover) was released on the renowned German label Mille Plateaux, which has championed the genre of “glitch music" since its release of the first installment in the Clicks & Cuts series in 2000.

The sound palette of Vector will be familiar to aficionados of the genre: piercing high-frequency sine waves, swelling white-noise washes, mechanical clicks and whirs, and sequenced percussive bursts construct a musical mise-en-scene that is both evocative and forbiddingly abstract. To my ears, the album recalls the meticulously controlled sound-world of German composer Carsten Nicolai (AKA Alva Noto) or the somewhat noisier acoustic repertoire of the Finnish noise duo Pan Sonic

Well polished and at times even borderline formulaic, Vector works within a relatively narrow ambitus of aesthetic effect. Like a laser focused on a single point, it bores into your ears with its unremitting machinic rhythms and brittle digital timbres. In a track such as “Kuril Probe,” the elements come together to create a delicately structured sonic experience that, for all its “post-digital” coldness, attains an almost classical state of equilibrium.


Played 161 time(s).

November 18, 2012, 12:34pm

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Keith Fullerton Whitman: “Generator 5”

From the album Generator (2010)

Keith Fullerton Whitman is a one-man army of electronic music. I first knew of him as the proprietor of Mimaroglu Music Sales, a premiere source for rare and hard-to-find albums within a broad experimental/electronic spectrum. Later, I learned that Whitman was also the main figure behind Creel Pone, a mysterious label devoted to releasing small print runs of CD re-releases of ultra-rare LPs, presented as “Unheralded Classics of Electronic Music - 1952-1984.”

Beyond this staggering curatorial work, Whitman somehow finds time to make his own music, as well. His earliest records, released under the moniker Hrvatski, trafficked in an EDM-inspired sound with heavy doses of sonic weirdness. Later work under his own name explored a more free-form approach to electronic composition that nonetheless betrayed Whitman’s intimate familiarity with the deep history of the genre.

I was fortunate to hear Whitman’s recent performance at the Sonic Acts festival in Amsterdam, where he unleashed a brutal, 10-minute fusillade of raw analog noise in swirling quadrophony. The tone of the music on Generator is for the most part much more reserved, dominated by gently churning sequencers, pure electronic waveforms, and a cumulative, layering approach to compositional form. In its directness, whimsy, and sheer joy in the phenomena of sound, Whitman’s Generator recaptures the experimental spirit animating the best of the electronic music tradition.

Played 251 time(s).

July 25, 2012, 11:13pm

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Xenharmonic triad, part 1

F. F. F. Fiale: “Quattro supernovate in faccia”

From the album Possible Worlds (2011)

One of the phenomena of 20th and 21st-century music I find most consistently fascinating is the constellation of investigation and experiment around the idea of challenging the hegemony of 12-tone equal temperament (12-tet), the tuning system that has prevailed in European-influenced music since the late 1800s.

These efforts are known by different names: one term, “microtonality,” was popularized in the early 20th century and is still used today. It is used to describe tuning systems based on an interval smaller than the tempered semitone (minor second), which is the intervallic atom of 12-tet. Under the auspices of microtonality, composers such as Julian CarrilloAlois Hába, and Ivan Wyschnegradsky delved into the possibility of scales with 24, 31, 48, 72, or more tones within the octave.

But microtonality proved to be an insufficient concept to explain every alternative to 12-tet. What about systems based on the division of the octave into fewer than 12 equal parts? Or systems that rejected the very notion of a single repeated modulus, building instead a network of relations of varying and incommensurable intervallic distances? Or the various forms of just intonation?

To encompass these possibilities, the American composer Ivor Darreg coined the term “xenharmonic,” which describes all music that works outside the system of 12-tet, whether strictly microtonal or not. (The concept of microtonality, for better or worse, has survived and is occasionally used in a broad sense as a synonym for “xenharmonic.”)

Spectropol Records - Possible Worlds

In the next three posts, I will feature three examples of xenharmonic music, a kind of mini-tour of the genre. (Those interested may also want to revisit xenharmonic compositions I’ve explored in previous posts.) We’ll begin from the present and work backward through time. 

The first example comes from the compilation album Possible Worlds, released by Spectropol Records in July of this year, which provides an excellent survey of the stylistic diversity of contemporary xenharmonic music. The album can be downloaded free from the label’s Bandcamp page.

I chose this track to demonstrate an approach to xenharmonic music from outside the classical tradition with which alternate systems of tuning are generally associated. ”Quattro supernovate in faccia” (“Four Supernovas in Your Face”), by Fabrizio Fulvio Fausto Fiale, an Italian musician and a self-described “classical pianist, choir singer, and death metal drummer,” is a “crazy virtual jam session,” based on two kinds of esadecaphonic (16-tone) scales.

Played 70 time(s).

August 14, 2011, 12:36pm

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Tristan Perich: 1-Bit Symphony, Movement 1 (2010)

I am of two minds about the chip music phenomenon.

On the one hand, as any reader of this blog will know, I am an unapologetic partisan of low-bit sound. A raw square wave from a SID chip affects me the way I imagine the swell of a string quartet touched the soul of a nineteenth-century Viennese. 

But at the same time, I’m wary of the mood of fetishistic technostalgia that hangs over the whole endeavor. I want to believe that chip music can be something more than the rehashing of unimaginative dance music via “new” Gameboy arrangements to create muzak for the Nintendo generation.

So I was intrigued to learn of the “1-bit music” pioneered by the New York-based composer Tristan Perich. (In digital audio terms, 1-bit means that the sounds are essentially binary—either on or off. More bits mean more “detail,” more possible gradations of volume or timbre.) Perich’s two “albums” consist of CD jewel cases with a battery-powered circuit glued inside. As you can see from the image below, the circuit contains, from left to right, the battery, an on-off switch, the sound-chip, a button to skip through the tracks, a volume knob, and a headphone jack. When the switch is flipped, the chip begins to play.


There’s something undeniably fascinating about seeing the physical components that create the sound—what Perich calls “the transparency of the circuit.” His albums are like digital music boxes: the music is not played back, as in a recording, but “performed” right before your eyes.

But what’s the difference, really, between ones and zeros being read off a disc by a laser and the equivalent information flowing from a chip in one of Perich’s configurations? It seems that in the digital domain, the once-pivotal distinction between the “live” and the recorded is effaced once and for all. Depending on your perspective, you could say that the playback of a recording constitutes a performance, or that the apparent performance is a kind of playback.

The unique format of Perich’s albums has overshadowed the originality of his music. His two “chip” albums differ considerably: 1-Bit Music features 11 relatively short pieces whose style ranges from rather abstract sound-studies to catchy numbers evocative of Commodore 64 game soundtracks. 1-Bit Symphony, as befits the title, has five longish movements and a much richer, “orchestrated” sound. Although by no means derivative, the music is heavily influenced by American minimalism—Perich cites Philip Glass as a major influence—and the historical idiom of video game composition.

Perich’s other music, composed for various combinations of 1-bit sound and conventional instruments, I find less compelling, although the timbral effect is sometimes quite stunning. More interesting is his Interval Studies, a recent sound installation based on microtonal clusters formed by panels dotted with tiny loudspeakers, each emitting a single tone.

Played 170 time(s).

August 05, 2011, 11:13am

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Giorgio Sancristoforo: Variations on Incontri di Fasce Sonore (2011)

Using the sound material of Incontri di Fasce Sonore by Italian composer Franco Evangelisti, Giorgio Sancristoforo uses a Buchla unit to trigger sounds in MAX/MSP in a brilliant attempt at a “live remix” of a seminal piece of 1950s electronic music.

Sancristoforo’s website is a veritable cabinet of curiosities, and includes such wonders as:

  • Berna, a software emulation of the classic electronic music studio of the 1950s (an idea from my dreams, but sadly for Mac only) 
  • the Roton, a lovely graphic score inspired by Cornelius Cardew's famous Treatise, comprising 23 circular plastic transparencies
  • and, perhaps most surprisingly, an album of blazing, four-on-the-floor neo-disco realizations.

July 28, 2011, 11:31am

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Pierre Sauvageot and Lieux Publics: Harmonic Fields

Sound installation, Martigues, France, June 2010

June 22, 2011, 10:14am

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Musica mundana


Two excellent stories to which I was alerted this morning by NPR, which unfortunately used them as a cutesy segue into a feature on the “real music” of some boring singer/songwriter.

First, physicists at CERN in Geneva are sonifying the data from their experiments with the Large Hadron Collider in order to render perceptible these microcosmic interactions— and perhaps, to better understand them. The project, entited “LHC Sound,” is a collaboration between CERN and a group of physicists, musicians, and artists in London. Unfortunately, this “particle music” sounds a lot like second-rate computer music circa 1995. Nonetheless, intriguing work.


The Large Hadron Collider. Is it a coincidence it looks like the Pompidou Center?

Second, scientists at the University of Sheffield in England have recently used satellite images of the vast “coronal loops” shot off by the sun to measure the frequency of their vibrations and transpose the result into the range of human hearing. The scientists studying these phenomena say that the magnetic disturbances sometimes behave like a plucked guitar string (transverse waves), in other cases like air through a wind instrument (longitudinal waves). Analysis of the sounds is being used to prepare for an anticipated “space storm" in 2013.

I find it fascinating that virtually all of the “nature music” discovered in recent years—whether microcosmic or macrocosmic—sounds like post-1950 experimental electronica. Is nature imitating art here, or vice versa?

June 25, 2010, 11:06am

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