Soon after I wake on Friday mornings, I begin looking for news of the latest Disquiet Junto project.
The Junto is an online community established by Marc Weidenbaum, who runs the Disquiet.com blog. You can read a previous interview with Marc here.
Each week he emails a prompt to record audio and share the outcome, emphasising that documenting approaches and commenting on each other’s work is integral to the project.
As a result, participants often learn as much from each other as they do undertaking the assignments.
Since joining the mailing list in 2012, I’ve undertaken around two-thirds of the Junto projects and here I will preach some of the benefits.
Sometimes the prompts are like cryptic crossword questions, and it’s fun to see the variety of interpretations that emerge from the community; other times they’re prescribed directions and it still seems as though everyone comes up with something radically different.
The results vary but usually the process is rewarding and occasionally surprising.
So, as the Junto approaches its 500th project, I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned from Marc and the community he has created.
Ice is hard
The first Junto assignment each year is the perennial instruction to “record the sound of an ice cube rattling in a glass, and make something of it.”
I’ve cooled on this project over the years because working with ice is challenging.
And, unlike Junto participants in the northern hemisphere, the first weekend in the Australian new year is often one of the hottest in our southern summers.
To cope I’ve settled on re-using previous material to avoid having to switch off the air-conditioning while recording.
However, the brittle qualities of ice can be headache-inducing, particularly the sharp transients to negotiate when manipulating samples in my computer.
Over eight years I’ve explored using contact microphones with massive reverbs to extend the sounds, but in recent years have mostly settled into making and layering percussion loops.
Sometimes it seems the most important lessons are those that we’ve already learned but need reminding or recontextualising.
So one of the more profound Junto projects for me was this prompt to manipulate the stereo field as three dimensions:
Part 1: Your track will consist of three simultaneous segments: a drone, a beat, and a melodic fragment.
Part 2: Each of those three segments will repeat consistently for the length of the finished track.
Part 3: The only thing that will change is that you will manipulate them to simulate three-dimensional motion for someone listening to the track on headphones. You can do this by using stereo effects, volume shifts, filters, or any other technological means.
Part 4: Your track will last one minute and thirty seconds. For the first 30 seconds, the drone and the beat will remain consistent, but the melodic fragment will move around in 3D. For the second 30 seconds, only the beat will move around, and for the final 30 seconds, only the drone will move around.
This assignment forced me to reconsider stereo. Rather than being an axis moving from left to right, it began to sink in that reverb and filters can create a sense of depth that moves from front to back.
Maybe it’s my background playing bass and being obsessed with lower frequencies (which are usually split across both channels), but I found this Junto project brought into focus the potential for creating a listening experience through stereo placement.
The Syrian civil war was as emotionally distant to my life as it was geographically, until the Disquiet Junto started a series of projects about Bassel Khartabil.
Prior to his arrest on March 15, 2012, in Damascus, Khartabil was working on several projects, including a computer rendering of the ancient city of Palmyra.
The Junto projects began innocuously enough, by imagining a soundtrack to accompany those CGI images.
By then end, after we’d interpreted his letter from prison and incorporated his voice into music, it was surprisingly impactful when I learned of his death. I hadn’t realised how invested I’d become in his plight.
Junto participant Rupert Lally had the idea of creating an album from our projects to raise funds for the memorial fund in Bassel’s name. Accompanying that release, Marc reflected on the resonances from those projects in this post at Disquiet.com:
The Disquiet Junto is an open community of musicians who respond weekly to shared compositional prompts. Facets of Bassel’s life provided several such prompts over the years. We created soundscapes to bring a new dimension to his CGI renderings. We sampled his voice and turned it into music. We created VR scores, and we tried to extrapolate sound from the poetic language of his correspondence. In the end, what we tried to do was spread word of his plight, to keep his story alive even after he was no longer.
The “commons” is an essential metaphor that inspires open source activity. It is in the Creative Commons that people can build on each other’s work, to freely create things that neither party would have imagined possible separately. We often speak of the commons through related words, such as “community” and “communal.” We speak of the open-source community, and of communal effort. Through the Disquiet Junto projects, we’ve tried to connect with Bassel in yet another way — to commune with his spirit.”
Some of my favourite Junto activities are those that introduce a new technique, such as this prompt to “Use a favorite trick of legendary sound designer Walter Murch”:
“If you are in an ordinary sized room and play the voice at four times speed … and you record it on the other tape recorder, also running at this very fast speed, then when you play the other recorder back at normal speed you get the original sound but you get the space of the room as if it was four times larger than it really is.”
Working with a digital audio workstation I looked over the software available to me and used a reverb modelled on Ocean Way Studio to try and get a similar effect.
I wasn’t convinced the result sounded four times bigger, but it was surprising to hear the drums take on an effect like I’ve heard in samples. I wondered if speeding up the sound, adding reverb and then slowing it down again was similar to the process used by samplers in previous generations, where samples were recorded fast and played back slow to overcome limited memory space.
It shifted something in my perception of the sound and I was happy to think my playing somehow reminded me of The Chemical Brothers.
Fifty Shades of Same
Another technique learned from the Junto came from a creative prompt proposed by Brian Crabtree, “who along with Kelli Cain makes the Monome, the adventurous grid music interface.”
When I first looked at the ‘Layered Sameness’ directions I couldn’t understand how it would result in anything worthwhile:
Step 1: Compose a relatively simple, short(ish), performable moment to be repeated as a loop, such as notes on a guitar, or clapping, or vocalizing, or some other live performance technique.
Step 2: Choose how many times you’ll play the loop in a row. Aim for a total duration of a minute or two, but feel free to deviate from this suggestion.
Step 3: Record yourself performing this loop, without a metronome.
Step 4: On a new track, record yourself again performing the same number of loops for roughly the same amount of time without listening to the previous take(s) or to a metronome.
Step 5: Repeat step 4 between 4 and 40 times.
Step 6: Adjust master levels. If desired, pan each track randomly.
Throughout recording a dozen and half takes with a simple chord progression, I thought how the result would likely be a mess. In my imagination it was going to be like mixing too many shades of paint and getting a poo-shade of brown result.
It was an incredible feeling to layer up my ordinary guitar playing and hear a shimmering cloud of notes playing out of the speakers.
The ‘layered sameness’ technique is one I’ve often returned to use and it’s provided surprising results each time, usually after I’ve exhausted myself trying to nail a single take and have a dozen or more imperfect versions that would otherwise be pretty much useless.
So I think that, while there are many lessons I’ve learned from being part of the Disquiet Junto community, a key one to reflect on here is that creative experiments can not fail. You just need to adopt an attitude that you’re still learning.
I find it’s important when approaching any activity to switch off my inner critic and unleash a child-like sense of play.
Recently this observation came to me while at a life-drawing class, where I began to put pressure on myself to get a good result and saw everything fall apart, until I adopted an indifferent attitude and attempted to mentally step back from the process.
Processes for progress
One of the best things about the Disquiet Junto is finding that creativity doesn’t need to wait for inspiration.
Over the years I’ve seen there are points in the annual cycle where I am reluctant to do anything. Particularly as winter begins to drag in August, I only seem to be capable of writing slow minor key music for moping.
Then the Junto prompt arrives and, if I can shake the inertia, it will get me to try something different.
It might be an experiment, sometimes it will be an opportunity to use an idea that I’ve been meaning to try, but it will lead to some result and it’s surprising how often those Junto tracks have found a purpose.
This is a benefit that Marc Weidenbaum observed in a recent conversation we had on Twitter:
@Disquiet Sometimes I don’t like the prompts but, like when I reviewed movies I didn’t like, I challenge myself to find something to enjoy.
@ShowcaseJase When approached about this individually, as is sometimes the case via email or DM, my response is generally that I think doing prompts that seem uninteresting is sort of the point, to get outside of oneself.
The Disquiet Junto has taught this old dog new tricks and has broadened my abilities and understanding of sound production, while also providing perspective on my creative activities.
As the Junto community moves toward a decade of learning and sharing, I salute it and recommend it to musicians and producers who are looking to develop their skills. Join us!
To learn more about the Disquiet Junto, read the FAQ at this link: