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Marc Weidenbaum


BBC Engineering Monographs from 1950s and '60s: Once 5 Shillings, Now Free

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The legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop closed down in 1998, after 40 years. 50th-anniversary celebrations in 2008, and a just-published book by academic Louis Niebur, titled Special Sound (Oxford), have helped to secure the Workshop's legacy of sonic experimentation, notably the efforts of such figures as Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, and the creation of the theme song and sci-fi sound design for Doctor Who -- not to mention work on Quatermass serials and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

While I was finishing up a review of the Niebur book, a friend introduced me to the following. Over at the BBC website, there is a treasure trove of old technical monographs from the Radiophonic's heyday. The documents, packed with technical diagrams and detailed descriptions of BBC procedures, date back to the 1950s.

These include, for Radiophonic fans, a great one from November 1963. The monograph series deals with various aspects of the BBC's operations, but this specific one (number 51) is 21 pages long and is entirely dedicated to the Radiophonic Workshop. It cost five shillings upon release, but is available for free download these days. The above image, from Monograph 51, shows a "keying unit" that was rigged up in the studio:

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Seaquence: "An experimental musical petri-dish"

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Why not take the idea of generative sound literally?

John Conway certainly set the standard during the early 1970s for taking the programming-as-organism metaphor at its word with his Rules of Life. That was his game-like system in which small cellular automaton expand into a pulsing pixelfield of what resemble living, if not breathing, digital beings, especially as they get more and more complex.

Conway's mix of visual play and algorithmic ingenuity informs Seaquence.org, which may just be the coolest non-iOS interactive audio-game (or sound toy) to appear in 2010.

Seaquence is a browser-based sequencer that looks like a petri dish. Or, the more you play with it, a petri dish that acts like a sequencer. You develop your own set of paramecium-ish creatures, each of which acts like a so-called "step sequencer." That means that it plays a sequence of notes that are notated in a grid-like pattern. Make one creature, toy with its musical DNA (affecting "waveform, octave, scale, melody, envelope, and volume," as the instruction explain), and then add others to see how they interact.

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Wax Cylinder: Occult Sonic Technology of a Bygone Age, Good as New

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(Photo: Thomas Adank, courtesy Touch)

Move over, cassette-tape and 8-track reanimators. There's a far older—and arguably more beautiful—retro-tech sonic fetish object in town: the wax cylinder.

The original tech dates from the late 1870s, when serial tinkerer Thomas Edison was at the prime of his powers, having installed himself in his famed Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory.

The device has been revived by Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Michael Esposito, who have released a brand new cylinder, titled The Ghosts of Effingham, as noted on the website of the publisher Touch this past weekend. Effingham has been released by Ash International, a hub of experimental sound whose splendid motto is "R&D not A&R." Oh, and just to one-up Edison, the Effingham cylinder glows in the dark.

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If You Meet the Buddha Machine on the Road, Hack It

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Looking for that perfect holiday gift for your most sonically adventurous friends or loved ones? Look no further.

The Buddha Machine, introduced in 2005 (and blogged here many many many many times before), is a portable little sound-loop device in a plastic box introduced five years ago by the China-based duo FM3 (aka Zhang Jian and Christiaan Virant). It so resembles an impressively generic AM radio that Muji products look like Prada by comparison.

The first two generations of the Buddha Machine contained short varied loops of ambient sound. Generation two (2008) introduced pitch control, allowing the user to alter the speed of the loops; this was, in part, a nod to enthusiasts who'd hacked the first generation. I always find myself slowing the loops as much as possible, to get them to their drone-iest, which suits the device's zone-out charm and its background-music functionality.

The third generation, newly released this month, retains the pitch control but replaces all those electronic-audio recordings with loops recorded on an ancient Chinese instrument known as the qin. This gen-three Buddha Machine is named the Chan Fang (or 禅房), which translates as Zen Room. (Between the second and third generations there was also Gristleism, a device that resulted from a collaboration between FM3 and Throbbing Gristle, whose longtime member Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson passed away late last month.)

The qin, or guqin, or 古琴, is the ancient Chinese zither. It's a long instrument with seven strings, and its history dates back thousands of years.

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Netlabels: Release, Remix, Repeat

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(Photograph contributed to the Boing Boing Flickr Pool by BB reader Josh Koonce)

If there's a more robust realm of music more closely simpatico with the Creative Commons philosophy than netlabels, please let me know what it is.

Netlabels are online record labels that actively release music for free download, with the full and enthusiastic participation of the musicians involved.

The vast majority use a Creative Commons license that allows for free download, attributed redistribution, and remixing. They are largely enterprises invested heavily in electronic music, albeit a wide and disparate range thereof -- from phonography (darkwinter.com) to sound art (stasisfield.com) to techno (monokrak.net) to instrumental hip-hop (dustedwax.org) and beyond.

As just one sign of the phenomenon's ever-increasing popularity, there are various competing curated lists of netlabels available online. The one I refer to primarily is maintained at disruptiveplatypus.wordpress.com/netlabels. As of this typing, it contains 13 scrolling screens of active netlabels (OK, I'm on a netbook; your scrolling may vary), from the Guadalajara, México-based amp-recs.com to the Modena, Italy-based zymogen.net (plus a bunch whose monikers start with numbers or symbols).

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Music Apps Killed the MP3 Star


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The Hollywood life cycle has become familiar: it starts as a movie, continues as a comic, and then proceeds to app stage.

This is where Inception, the summer's popcorn brain-twirler from director Christopher Nolan, currently is at, having arrived in the iTunes Store today as an app.

But what's great is that the app isn't everyday brand-emblazoned cookie-cutter smartphone fodder.

What it is is a beautifully crafted remix of the great reactive audio app, RjDj. And it's free.

Nolan and Inception score composer Hans Zimmer worked with software producer Michael Breidenbrüker, of RjDj parent company Reality Jockey (Breidenbrüker was also one of the founders of Last.fm), to develop a version of the company's flagship software that channels the dream-like aesthetic and logic of the film.

RjDj is a reactive app, which means it takes signals from the real/physical world and processes them in real time. In the case of RjDj (along with its iPad sibling, Rj Voyager), this is a combination of familiar iOS tactile maneuvers, like touching the screen or shaking the device, and the senses-warping experience of hearing sounds around you transformed. Audio enters through your microphone, and then emerges ever so slightly augmented via your headphones.

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Susan Philipsz becomes first sound artist to win Turner Prize

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Student protests greeted the announcement of Susan Philipsz as this year's winner of the Turner Prize, the biggest annual award for an artist in Britain.

Susan_Philipsz.jpg Philipsz is the first artist in the 26 years of the prize to win for a work of sound art.

As the Guardian noted, she is the "first person in the history of the award to have created nothing you can see or touch."

The students, though, weren't protesting the absence of visuals in Philipsz's art; they were using media coverage of the announcement as an opportunity to protest prospective diminished budgets for the arts at universities.

The work for which Philipsz was commended, an installation titled "Lowlands," involved recordings of her singing an oft-covered Scottish song, "Lowlands Away," being played by the river Clyde in her native Glasgow. Her plain, natural, casual (i.e., largely untrained) voice seemed to emanate from nowhere and everywhere. It echoed against a massive bridge structure, and mixed in with the sounds of the environment.

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