Cyclic Defrost last interviewed Marc Weidenbaum around the release of his book about Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II.
As well as being as author, Marc undertakes a variety of roles that relate to audio, including teaching and supervising music for the science fiction film Youth and running the blog Disquiet.com that has now been online for over two decades.
One activity that’s developed at Disquiet is the weekly Junto, which brings together musicians and audio recordists from around the world to undertake projects that respond to various prompts and instructions.
As the Junto approaches its 300th project, longtime participant Jason Richardson took the opportunity to learn more about Marc’s philosophies and process for preparing these activities.
What recollections do you have of early sounds and music? Did you while away hours playing with tape recorders?
There’s one sonic instance in particular from fairly early in life that’s been on my mind a lot for the past few years. I have numerous memories of visiting the car repair shop with my parents, and I recall how it was often the case that they would try to replicate a sound — usually with their mouths but occasionally by tapping on the dashboard or through other means — to help the service person get a sense of what was perceived to be wrong. Maybe it was the carburettor needed attention, maybe the muffler was loose, or maybe the engine was acting up. Was it electrical or mechanical, interior or exterior? I have no specific correlations committed to memory. I was too busy reading novels in the back seat — science fiction, mostly — to pay much attention, but the way they communicated in sound has stuck with me. The way seemingly noise-like sounds contained shareable meaning has stuck with me. The way these simulations were more descriptive than description stuck with me. This scenario is by no means unique to my parents. In the U.S. there was, for 35 years, a radio show about car repair called Car Talk. It was hosted by the Magliozzi brothers, Tom and Ray. They had a nationwide audience. Listeners would call in to ask for advice, and often they and the brothers would communicate in noises. The brothers were very funny, and they’d frequently make a joke out of the sounds, but they also were fully conversant in the language of automotive noise. As it turned out, the show was about “car talk” in a literal way.
I didn’t make much music in my youth. I’ve never considered myself a musician. I played clarinet in elementary school, very poorly — as with the car shop visits, I was more likely to be reading science fiction than practicing scales. I remember shortly before a winter vacation my music teacher warning me about being careful, so I wouldn’t hurt myself. I returned with a broken arm. My arm recovered, but my clarinet playing didn’t. I fiddled with guitar later in junior high, but at that point I was deeply into computer programming and just didn’t dedicate any time to anything else.
As for tapes, I did go through a spell of making pause tapes in my late teens. I have clear memories of making rhythmic compositions mixing up things like Adrian Belew and Charles Mingus, but it wasn’t something I stuck with. I was really into the Beatles as a teenager, and then into John Lennon’s post-Beatles recordings. I think between their tape experimentation and later on Lennon’s work with Yoko Ono, I was very interested in how sound could be manipulated after it was recorded.
To bring it back around to noise, the Beatles also played a role there. I was pretty addicted to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” from the album Abbey Road, in particular the loop of a jam that is the core of the song, to the extent that it even is a “song.” I’d just play it over and over, and one of my parents would eventually knock on the door, come in, and tell me to turn it off. I wasn’t playing the song particularly loud. It was just the repetition that really bugged them — and it was the repetition that really enticed me. I wasn’t a rebellious kid by any means, but my grandmother once told me she though I got into writing about music because my dad can’t stand noise. I don’t think it’s true, but I do wonder if there’s some truth in her observation. Similarly I loved the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and listened to the opening over and over, wishing there was music that sounded like it. There’s only 30 seconds before the band kicks in, and I’d just lift the needle and start over. Later my first CD player let me select A and B spots to loop, and I’d loop the opening of the track, and interstitial moments of other CDs. Eventually I discovered Robert Fripp’s Frippertronics and Brian Eno’s ambient music, and later still the minimalism of Terry Riley, for whom that Who tracked was named. It was exciting to find out that the little noises I dug were, in fact, windows into genres and vast catalogues of composition and performance, of philosophy and technological innovation.
How much of your role, as a teacher and in leading the Junto community, is opening ears (or the “windows” you mention) so that people can recognise the many roles that sounds and simple effects like room reverb play in our lives?
That’s definitely at the core of my work as a teacher. I teach a course once a year at a local art school for BA and MFA students about the role of sound in the media landscape, about how things express themselves in sound, from jingles to product design to retail environments, and how things related to sound express themselves, often in non-sonic ways. It’s a 15-week series of three-hour class meetings, and the first three weeks are all about listening: culturally, artistically, theoretically, philosophically, biologically. Waking students up to sound is my goal. It’s for that reason that we don’t actually focus on commercial music as a subject until the very last week of the course. By the time we get around to talking about music in that sense of the word, I want them to think of it as a tiny subset of the overall experience of being a human who listens. By the time we get around to talking about how an album or band is marketed, the students have been deep in anechoic chambers and ambisonic sound design, in the soundscape theories of R. Murray Schafer and the Deep Listening pursuits of Pauline Oliveros, and they’ve pondered how everything from a potato chip to a computer keyboard is designed to have a certain sonic coherence, a sonic presence — by the time we talk about pop music, they’re like, “Oh yeah, that.”
All of which said, I teach in part because I learn so much from my students. They open my ears, as you put it. Due to age and culture — they’re from all over the world, and with a few exceptions they’re all millennials — they have very different perspectives than I do, and I learn both from how they respond to what I say, and from what they bring into class from their own lives. I figure most of the time when you’re talking, somewhere on the planet someone else is having a similar conversation, even if it’s about something serious, like death or disease or heartbreak or financial issues. In my class, conversations take place that I feel comfortable saying aren’t likely happening anywhere else, like the day that a student from Thailand was giving a presentation on the doves — or maybe it was pigeons — he kept back home, and the small whistles he attaches to them. Another student, one from Saudi Arabia, also happened to keep birds, and also attached small whistles to them, and suddenly these two very different people were talking about a very specific topic from two very different perspectives — culturally, economically, environmentally, and so forth — and doing so from the standpoint of sound. There was nowhere else on the planet I wanted to be at that moment.
As for how that plays out in the Junto — well, when I teach I do so from the assumption that I have more practical knowledge than the audience, my students. With the Junto, I do it with the assumption that the audience, the musicians, know far more than I do: about music theory, about their instruments, about composition, about the physics of sound, about performance practice. It may or may not be true but I assume they are very knowledgeable, and they are looking to being taken out of their comfort zone a little. As with my teaching, I learn a lot in the process, either directly from the responses to the Junto prompts and the ensuing online conversations, or earlier when I ping individuals for input as a project idea is coming into focus. In class I assume most of the students know little to nothing of the curriculum before class begins. In the Junto I assume that every week there are people who know far more about a given week’s prompt than I do. I recently posted a project, and a participant half-joked that the prompt was, in essence, his compositional process in a nutshell. We have Junto participants who have helped write the very software or developed the very instruments that other participants are employing. The knowledge base of the Junto is deep. What the repeat participants have in common is often a kind of curiosity, a desire to be surprised — a desire to surprise themselves. The prompts and the community that has developed around those prompts are an engine for that kind of surprise.
What surprises have you had from the Juntos?
So many surprises, pretty much weekly. It started with a surprise. When I posted that first project from a now defunct cafe on Valencia Street in San Francisco, I didn’t know if anyone was going to do it. And then dozens of people did. Remembering that first week always brings to mind the idea of buying supplies for a party and wondering if anyone will show up. When I did that first project I didn’t know if there would be a second one, or if the second one would be a week later or months later. But so many people showed up that I started doing it weekly. Every week there are things that surprise me — interpretations of the assignment I had never considered, or sometimes confusion about the instructions I thought I had edited in advance of. Every few weeks I meet someone new through the Junto who has some fascinating background, culturally or professionally or personally or artistically, that I learn from. The Junto has led to opportunities I hadn’t expected, like being invited to produce a piece of art to be installed at the San Jose Museum of Art to coincide with its 45th anniversary, or having been invited to use a Junto project to fill the apex art gallery in Manhattan with sound for a show that R. Walker put together, or to give a lecture at SETI on networked artistic creativity, or how generous participants were with their time and energy when we first started doing concerts. Or the welcome invitation by Monome cofounder Brian Crabtree to start posting the Junto projects on the llllllll.co community he’d gotten running, or how friendly and accessible and supportive members of the SoundCloud staff turned out to be. The surprises aren’t always positive — or at least they aren’t always things to celebrate. I remember when we experienced our first death, in March 2013. I was at a cafe writing when I got the news, and I just shut down emotionally. I packed up my bag, walked home, and went to straight to bed, it had hit me so hard. He and I had never spoken, but he’d been an active participant, even had set up the Twitter list of Junto participants. I had been on email lists since the early 1990s, and been on every major social media network and many minor ones, but I still wasn’t aware of how strong the sense of connection would be online. You see the word “community” often online, arguably more often than i factually accurate, but when it’s true it’s a pretty amazing thing to participate in.
The sheer output of the participants is a constant source of surprise. I believe you’re personally aware there’s an individual across the world from me who has recorded over 100 videos — not just tracks but videos — of the projects.
Heh, I think I know that guy. Does the Junto have its own mission statement?
The standing description of the Junto, at disquiet.com/junto, is:
“The Disquiet is a group in which musicians respond to weekly, fast-turnaround assignments to compose, record, and share new music. The idea is to use constraints as a springboard for creativity.”
That’s as close to a mission statement as we’ve got. I like Ethan Hein‘s description, as quoted in an article that Lottie Brazier wrote in The Wire about the Junto in 2016, in effect that I write record reviews of music that doesn’t exist yet, and then Internet strangers make it real.
For me the Junto is as often a process as a prompt. Sometimes they’re instructions, other times it’s an opportunity to record an idea of my own. Sometimes I get a result in-between, a version of a song skewed with an unlikely character. I like that because the Beastie Boys would extol how a sample-based composition needs something that shouldn’t belong to spice it up.
I think that’s very much the case, the process-prompt aspect. The purpose of the multi-step format is, in part, to break the assignment down into pieces, which makes productivity so much simpler. Anyone who does just about anything learns at some point, hopefully not too late, that just about anything worth doing requires concentration, dedication over the long term, failure, and the ability to break things down into pieces. The Junto is structured to support that. I think that’s the “process as a prompt” matter. As for the Beastie Boys, they can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned.
What’s the process for you on the other side of the Junto? How do you keep track of ideas?
I have lists of Junto project ideas in various stages of completeness, from a phrase to a draft of steps to thorough completed ones ready to go. Many of these are my own, but there are others I’m co-developing based on proposals from Junto members, and also from external people I seek out. My prompts don’t begin as prompts. I think that’s the main distinction that’s proved useful when I’ve been asked this question over the years. I don’t set out each week to “come up with a prompt,” though of course coming up with a prompt is the end result. What I do is think of things that intrigue me, something I’ve heard or read or experienced, or that someone else has proposed, and then I reverse engineer that into a prompt. Like, when I was writing my Aphex Twin book, on the album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, I thought a lot about the structure of one of the tracks, how it uses wind chimes as a generative rhythmic element. I then wondered if I could describe the track in a structural way, and have people re-compose it from the description. So, instead of saying “Cover this tune in particular” I said “Here’s how a piece of music might work; please now try to turn that into music.”
Some Juntos seem spontaneous or timely, while at other times you’re clearly exploring a theme.
Yeah, the goal is to mix it up, to not have too many in a row be similar. Still, every one of them has to stand alone because any one of them might end up being the first one that someone encounters, or perhaps more importantly the second one someone encounters. Two points make a line, so the first two that anyone encounters are going to, in combination, give the participant some sense, right or wrong, about what the Disquiet Junto is about.
Your comments about opening ears to daily sounds other than musical ones preempted an observation I was going to make: the Junto themes seem to have proportion to daily life, with a number about sleeping, waking, eating, walking, etc.
I like that a lot. Connecting music to everyday listening is important to me, and it makes sense that would mean connecting it to everyday living, which I now realize is something I’ve been up to. That balance wasn’t a conscious plan, but I have no difficulty recognizing it and appreciating the observation. Thanks for that. Per my response to one of your earlier questions, the ideas from the Junto arise from everyday experiences and observations, and it is important to me that the projects themselves involve engaging with and recognizing the sonic potential of everyday experience, everyday sound. I listen to a lot of classical music and I read a lot of literary fiction, and the one thing both those have against them is how they are praised: they’re often framed as epiphany engines, as the highest aesthetic form of human experience, which as other people have noted, especially in the case of classical music, sets it up for failure when people witness it for the first time. They go to hear Beethoven and wonder why the sky hasn’t opened itself up and exposed the gossamer undergirding of the multiverse, since that’s what the playbill and the newspaper preview said was going to happen. It’s not a matter of “I want my money back. My mind doesn’t feel expanded.” It sets people up to feel stupid, or out of the loop, or to think that the work in question has a bad case of the emperor’s new clothes.
The Junto sits at an intersection in terms of uniting technologies in home recording and online publishing. Do you think it could exist at another time? Or is it a product of our times?
In practical terms, it’s definitely a product of our times. It came out of a lot of factors, notably my own growing connection as a writer during the early 2000s to the musicians I had been writing about since the late 1980s, thanks largely to the Internet. However, its basis, the word “junto” itself, has an archaic history. The word dates from the early 1700s, when Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the U.S., needed a term for a club he was forming for mutual self-improvement. There are also plenty of precedents that predate the consumer Internet, notably art movements like Fluxus and Oulipo and mail-art. “What’s next” was definitely on my mind as the Junto got going, not in a definitive, making-plans sort of way, but definitely in a sense of charting the new territory. Lots of people over the years had asked when I’d start a label or a netlabel, and the Junto was in part a response to that. The best record labels, to my mind, often produced albums that in effect served as selective windows onto a rich scene, like how Blue Note and Motown in particular cycled musicians and repertoire. Record labels have always been central to my listening, and I appreciate when labels connect the musicians on their rosters, in ways that Elektra and Mute and No Limit and others have over the years. The Disquiet Junto is, in a sense, a scene with a wide open window. It’s a record label folded inside out. That wasn’t the main plan, but it was on my mind and it’s how it turned out.