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jason on 11/24/2012 at 12:00AM

As Real As It Gets: Disquiet Junto's Online Sound-Making Community @ ApexArt Gallery (Interview & MP3s)

Shawn Wolfe, Vending Machineries, 2001 from As Real As It Gets organized by Rob Walker at Apex Art Gallery, NYC. The exhibit hosts a Disquiet Junto performance on Tuesday Nov 27th 6:30pm

Disquiet Junto is an interactive project from Disquiet.com, Marc Weidenbaum's long-standing website about ambient music, electronic audio and creative technology.

The Junto is an online collective that is open to your participation as its members create sonic responses to a weekly set of creative constraints. Assignments start with anything from the sound of ice cubes to the sound of your own trash. Subtractive audio processing, archival Edison Cylinders, Creative Commons netlabels, the sounds of Hurricane Sandy, fake field recordings, and remixes of the Junto itself are just a few of the prompts for this project that is showing no sign of slowing down.

Disquiet Junto recently surpassed 1500 tracks, and Marc selected a sampler for the Free Music Archive. It begins with two industrialized remixes composed of soundscapes from retails spaces, followed by two actual soundscapes from retail spaces, and concludes with two artificially created soundscapes of imaginary retail spaces.

The  Disquiet Junto has also spawned a concert series, including a performance this Tuesday Nov 27th at NYC's Apex Art gallery (part of Rob Walker's 'As Real As It Gets' exhibit), and Dec 6th at San Francisco's Luggage Store Gallery.

I interviewed Disquiet's Marc Weidenbaum by email.

What inspired you to start the Disquiet Junto and how does it compare to some of the other projects you've curated in the past like Instagr/am/bient and Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet?

Each of these larger-scale projects you mention results from a combination of observations and impulses, and it's probably easiest to track the progression starting with the first of them: Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet. That compilation was released for free download in 2006, ten years after I started Disquiet.com. It happened not as a plan but as the result of an impression, and a desire. Brian Eno and David Byrne had released stems, which is to say chunks, of songs off their landmark My Life in the Bush of Ghosts album to celebrate its anniversary, and they invited listeners to rework the material and post it on a website they'd set up. I didn't find much to enjoy amid what I heard, and it occurred to me that there were musicians I'd like to hear do remixes. In the process of suggesting to some of these musicians that they do such a thing, collecting them for release as an album was the natural next step.

I initiated several such compilations over the years that followed; each was in response to something — two, for example, were responses-in-sound to articles I strongly disagreed with, one by Megan McArdle about the nature of the music industry, and one from the Daily Telegraph that had disparaging things to say about an artist I admire. This notion of responses-in-sound I came to think of as "sound as commentary," how sound alone, apart from verbal content, can participate in a broader cultural dialogue. The fact that I've reverted to the word "dialogue" is evidence of how prominent verbal communication is, but I keep pushing, keep trying to figure out ways to insinuate sound into the conversation. Ah, there I've done it again.

Over time I started to wonder more about this "sound as commentary" idea, and I questioned whether my compilations could really be seen as discussions if they had a single unifying overseer — that is, me. So I started thinking about ways to make them less like albums and more like communities, less like fixed documents and more like living documents. Around the time I was focused on this, the Insta/gr/ambient project happened. Again, it began as a means to wrestle with something, but for me the big step was that it was more loosely constructed than the previous projects. I wasn't a fan of Instagram, I felt that the filters fueled instant nostalgia, which I'm opposed to, but I had noticed that a lot of musicians I admired used Instagram. I find questioning my initial reactions to things to be useful, and so I started to wonder about parallels, specifically between the filters employed on Instagram and the techniques employed by electronic musicians when they remix field recordings. I wasn't so sure they were all that different, as both use algorithms to alter pre-existing documents of the world, image in one case, sound in the other. So I put a call out for contributors, asking for ambient-leaning musicians who use Instagram to send me photos. I then redistributed the photos, so each participant got an image they hadn't shot, and then I asked them to record a piece of music imagining that the image sent to them was the album cover. By the way, in the end I became an active participant on Instagram. I'm @dsqt on Instagram.

I'm a big fan of netlabels, where musicians actively release their music for free download. It seemed natural for me to do such a thing. Most of what I write about at Disquiet.com is freely available music. I kept wondering when I would start a netlabel, but I never quite got to the point where I really wanted to do it. There are already so many, and I love so many of them. And along the way, this different approach made itself apparent to me. There was something about the scale and the interaction on Insta/gr/ambient that distinguished it from the previous projects I'd done. The amount of discussion between the musicians in advance of, during, and after the project was very rewarding for me — especially on Twitter, where I am @disquiet. The Disquiet Junto was the next step: why found a record label when you can found a forum?

How did the upcoming performances at Manhattan's apexart, on November 27, and San Francisco's Luggage Store Gallery, on December 6, come about? What can we expect when an online music-making community gathers in a physical space?

The apexart performance is an outgrowth of an invitation. There's a show at apexart running from November 16 through December 22 titled "As Real As It Gets," and it's focused on what its organizer, Rob Walker, terms "speculative branding." Walker invited me to propose some sound design ideas for the exhibit. I came up with about a dozen, and the result of our discussion was a combination of installation, web release, and live concert.

The Disquiet Junto community did three of its weekly projects related to the apexart show. The first was a series of raw field recordings of large-scale retail spaces, from Boulder to Tokyo to London.

The second was a series of "fake field recordings," in which the contributors made what was supposed to sound like a retail environment but was artificially constructed — which is sort of funny, since it suggests that otherwise real retail spaces are natural environments. One of Walker's favorite writers is Émile Zola, who wrote a book, The Ladies Paradise, in the late 1800s that focused on the rise of the modern department store. Zola is thought of as a realist writer. Walker is a highly experienced journalist — he wrote a column for the New York Times Sunday Magazine for years — and I think he admires the reportage that informs in Zola's novels. There are instances in Ladies' Paradise, though, that struck me as more futurist than realist, that depict the department store as a kind of machine.

For the third of the three Disquiet Junto projects, contributors took the existing field recordings and reworked them into something informed by Zola's sense of the store-as-machine, something rhythmic, industrial, sentient.

There was going to be a fourth such Junto project, but then Sandy hit the East Coast, and the week's slot was given over to a reworking of a field recording of the storm. I subsequently engaged a handful of people to create brief sound cues for the store to serve as short advertisements for this hypothetical The Ladies' Paradise store. The collected efforts are intended to be speculative, to explore the idea of the sound of retail not as a realist enterprise but as one knee deep in the fantastic, the hypothetical. All this sound is played in the gallery for the length of the exhibit, and for the November 27 concert we'll be exploring the Zola-futurist approach in a live setting.

The Luggage Store Gallery show is part of the long-running series of Thursday concerts, run by Matt Davignon and Rent Romus. These concerts are one of the great cultural institutions in San Francisco. Every Thursday at 8pm there's a show of experimental sound at the gallery. Though having a two-year-old child has reduced my overall concert attendance — and done wonders for my ukulele playing — I have probably attended more shows at the Luggage Store than at any other single venue in the Bay Area. Anyhow, I'd discussed with Davignon and Romus the idea of hosting a show there for years, and had a rough idea for one right around when my kid was born — yeah, bright of me — and they were totally supportive when I told them about the other Junto concerts we've been up to.

The format of the Junto concerts sets up a specific situation. Each Junto concert involves the participants doing two pieces of music. For one, everyone responds to the same Junto project, or compositional prompt. For the other, they perform a piece they want to share with their peers and audience. They're encouraged not only to play these pieces, but to briefly discuss the aesthetic, conceptual, and technical aspects of what they're up to. Just a side note: There's a joke about experimental music that most of the people in the audience are other musicians, like this is somehow a sign of failure, or lack of popularity or something. I used to laugh at the joke, too. But then I wondered: What if that were a good thing? Anyhow, Disquiet Junto concerts are like that on purpose.

We've done shows so far in Chicago [photo at left], back in April, and Denver, back in August. At both shows musicians who made not dissimilar work and lived in roughly the same area met for the first time, which was a big surprise for me. I figured they'd all already know each other. Also what surprised me was how I came to understand how the concert functioned. It's much more like a guitar pull, or a songwriter circle, than like a proper concert. The audience isn't just there to watch the musicians. It's there to watch the musicians, to watch the musicians interact with each other, and to watch how everyone handles the same assignment.

Each week's project starts with a new set of creative constraints by way of assignment. How do you come up with these project ideas? Do you rely on your own set of broader constraints for the Junto itself?

So far all the projects, the first 46, have originated as ideas I've generated, some of them in response to input from participants. We've done one piece that was an approach at a pre-existing composition, a version of a Yoko Ono Fluxus work from 1955, and we've been lucky to be allowed to rework other musicians' original sounds, including tracks by musician Marcus Fischer, the LA classical ensemble wild Up, and the field recordist Michael Raphael, among others. There are broader constraints, as you aptly put it, but they're probably too numerous to get into in a meaningful way. It'd take awhile to delineate them all. Sometimes the way I think is to set a dozen mice loose in my brain and let them figure out how to get out of the maze. The Junto is like that. There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of possible ways to nudge it, and a lot of thought goes into, for example, when a particular project is proposed: does it too closely resemble a recent project, is it welcoming to new participants but rewarding to older ones, is it timely in a manner that will lend it additional meaning, is it too timely and will feel gimmicky? That's just a start of the list.

You describe the Junto as an experiment in "community organizing as a form of curation." Yet the community is open—anybody can join. Where does the curation come in, and how does this relate to the community?

The word "curation" has been an abused term in recent years. It's come to mean little more than selecting, perhaps lending a bit of context. That description, "community organizing as a form of curation," works both ways — it's as much about looking at community organization as a creative process as it is about looking at curation as a communal effort. In the Junto I'm looking at curation in a manner that I've come to realize is akin to how a composer who makes generative music thinks about composition: it's not about making fixed work; it's about coaxing. It's not about building a finished edifice, but about tending to a garden. I know I'm speaking in metaphors, but that's how I think about this.

The Disquet Junto is massive, with over 1,500 tracks so far. Since anyone can join the SoundCloud group, it seems like there is some potential for chaos. Has there been any? What's your approach to moderating this open community?

There's been no chaos, not in the negative sense. The closest thing to an irritant is the occasional individual who posts tracks to the group without reading the group's instructions. Usually this is just out of a clueless interest in getting their music listened to. When it happens, I disassociate the track from the group and I shoot the offender a short note explaining why. Not to tempt fate, but in 46 weeks I think I've banned one person — I'm not even sure if I ended up banning him, but after deleting his tracks twice, I think I got through to him. There has been chaos in the positive sense — the amorphous music that confounds some listeners and excites others, the bootstrapped nature of the concert series. It's been thrilling.

My approach to moderating is difficult for me to summarize. The best I can say is I try to think several moves ahead, about not only what to say about things, but how what I say might be interpreted. I've been a manager much of my life. I've overseen 30- and 40-person subsets of large companies. I've learned a lot about communication over the years, through trial, error, failure, success, and examples both good and bad. Sometimes what you don't do is the most meaningful thing. Here's a useful example: I don't ever create albums of the tracks from a given project. Sure, I collate them into sets on SoundCloud, but I don't collect them into something that resembles an album. One key reason for this is I don't want anyone doing work on a Junto project to wonder if it's gonna "make the cut," or to have in the back of their mind, "Well, this will be collected, so I had better do a really good job of it." There's already enough pressure in the Junto: first, the rigors of the project's definition; second, the four-day deadline. That's enough. The Disquiet Junto only works well if it's a place where people feel comfortable failing in public. Hold on a second — lemme revise that. The word "failure" has become something of a fetish in the business world, so let me say, the Disquiet Junto only works well if it's a place where people feel comfortable putting up work that they may find embarrassing, that they may feel is unfinished, that they may feel doesn't even sound like them.

I'm not against collections of Junto work, by the way — I just don't think me personally doing them sends a good message. I love that people make collections of their favorite tracks, and I love that the participants know that somewhere out there, if they do particularly appealing work, something may come of it. Rob Walker selected about an hour of his favorites from the almost three hours of "As Real As It Gets" audio, and we made a set of that. For one recent project we remixed tracks from a French netlabel, called Nowaki, and they liked the resulting music so much they made it one of their netlabel releases.

Why do you think so many of the artists involved are using Creative Commons licenses for their contributions? Did you consider making this a requirement for participation?

There are many factors. The participants are generally encouraged to use Creative Commons licenses, and to make the music downloadable for free. The downloadable part is because sometimes a project will be built on a previous project, and if your track isn't downloadable, the process of getting permission doesn't really work in the four-day timeframe each project has. Also, we do a lot of work with audio sources from places that employ Creative Commons licenses, like netlabels, and maintaining the license is part of the deal. Finally, I am simply a huge proponent of the Creative Commons — the structure of the Disquiet Junto, the approach, is largely predicated on the idea of the commons, especially as informed by works I've read by Lawrence Lessig and Eric S. Raymond. That Nowaki label project I mention above is an interesting case. Even though there are hundreds of netlabels using a Creative Commons license to make their music freely downloadable, a surprisingly small subset — well, surprising small to me, and to other people who pay attention to the field, like C. Reider of Vuzh Music — use the license that allows for derivative works to be created. We focused our Junto creative energies on Nowaki as a thank you to Nowaki, because Nowaki's license does allow for derivatives. I wish more netlabels did. I wish all netlabels did. And I really want to say thanks at this juncture — while we're discussing the Creative Commons — for the invitation to discuss these topics. What the Free Music Archive is up to is pretty freaking special; it's important, formative, inspiring.

Thanks, Marc. And same to you at Disquiet. Hey I was wondering: is the project supposed to be a year-long, or will it keep going?

It is ongoing. Plans are already in the works for a London Disquiet Junto concert early in 2013, and we're looking into a Portland, Oregon, one — I'm also thinking about Berlin, Boston, Los Angeles, and Miami. I'm looking at places where there are clusters of participants, and with 260-plus participants, there are quite a few clusters. There are a lot of new weekly projects lined up, and we're beginning to get guest projects, submitted by musicians of note, who will not only develop a compositional prompt for the crew but weigh in with comments after the tracks are posted. That will be a great addition to the Junto. I'm talking with educators — mostly college level — about using the Junto in classes about musical composition and performance. I think there's some opportunity with museums and galleries along the lines of what's happening at apexart in Manhattan. For example, we did a project that responded to the display at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver of the painter's own records — he liked traditional classical music but painted abstract art, so we remixed recordings of music he liked into music that fit the museum's posted definition of abstract expressionism; I think maybe some museums might like to have such a project as part of their programming. I also have ideas about a book collecting some of the projects, perhaps a self-contained weekly guide that self-starting musicians could employ on their own.

What has been the greatest surprise so far regarding the Junto?

Well, beyond the ones I've mentioned, the greatest surprise happened the day I launched the Disquiet Junto, which was the first Thursday of 2012. The surprise was that anyone wanted to play along. I was sitting at a café and after noodling the idea for awhile I pushed the button to make the SoundCloud page go live. And then I got back to some work I had to finish up. And then I went home. A few hours after creating the group, I checked its page and not only were there 39 members, but there were already 3 tracks. I seriously had no sense if anyone would do it, let alone that it would be still going strong after almost 50 straight weeks. Everything since then has been less a surprise than it has been a testament to the generosity and creativity of the people involved — for example the translators, who most weeks provide versions of the project instructions in languages such as Croatian, Czech, French, German, Japanese, Turkish, and Spanish.

The sheer number of people who've participated in one way or another has been phenomenal. I hesitate to single out anyone, for fear of offending someone else. But the overall vibe of the Junto has been so collegial and communal, I do want to note some individuals — not as standouts so much as individual cases from whose roles you can extrapolate the myriad ways people have participated: Guy Birkin, from England, and Brian Biggs, from Philadelphia, have made some tremendous music, and when they've had the opportunity, they've also made the discussions rich with technique and theory. Naoyuki Sasanami from Japan and M. Emre Meydan from Turkey have been tremendous translators, in Japanese and Turkish respectively — also Norma Listman from Oakland for Spanish, Éric Legendre from Canada for French, among many generous others. C. Reider from Colorado is such a proponent of the Creative Commons that his presence in music-making and discussion is essential. Ethan Hein, from Brooklyn, is a wonderful musician and also a great communal force. The participation of Stephen Vitiello has been amazing, because he is so accomplished, it's amazing he is available; he even brought Steve Roden in for a project. Emma Hendrix doesn't have as much time for the Junto as we'd all wish, but her music-making is always top notch — because she's in Vancouver, her track when she does participate is usually the last one, and thus appears at the top of the list on SoundCloud, and her take on a project is always a solid starting point for a listener. Mark Rushton from Iowa keeps extensive notes on the approaches he takes to each track, which sets a great example for others — Robert M. Thomas from London is also excellent at this. Jami Welch, who works at SoundCloud, has been incredibly supportive. The British musician jmmy kpple has forged a unique and powerful persona — glitchy, wry, vibrant — in the Junto. And, finally — again just among a handful of examples — Benjamin Dauer of Washington, D.C., has made a point of commenting widely and thoroughly on individual tracks, and has helped promote the idea to Junto members that listening and commenting is as much a part of participating as is recording and uploading. And then there's everyone who's helped make the concerts happen, so much support and generosity. Again, those are just a few of the 260-plus participants, and I am thankful for everyone's contributions.

What else are you up to?

This year has been pretty great, in some ways my favorite year ever, and I've had some great years — I had a great college education, I worked as a music magazine editor, I edited comics, I worked on the Internet fairly early on, I lived in New Orleans, I worked in manga — but man, 2012 has been incredible, and there's still a whole month to go. I was contracted by the great 33 1/3 series to write a book about Aphex Twin's 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Volume II, and I'm deep in that. I did music supervision for a documentary film, The Children Next Door, which just won an award at the DOC NYC festival; I developed the sound design for the film with the hyper-talented Taylor Deupree. I've been doing some really cool collaborations with a small web developer and graphic design firm here in San Francisco. And I've been doing a lot of writing for, and, about an artist, Paolo Salvagione, whose work mixes levity, engineering, and participation in equal parts; there's currently an exhibit at the San Francisco Center for the Book that includes five letterpress essays I wrote. I've been doing some app development. I've been making progress on some fiction-writing I've been very happy with. Plus lots of freelance writing: magazine stuff, liner notes, and so on. And I'm teaching: I was invited to create a course about sound at the Academy of Art in San Francisco; that's been a blast, and it looks like I'll be doing it again next semester. And, of course, I'm working on my ukulele playing so I can entertain my two-year-old; my medley-mashup of the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon" and George Gershwin's "Summertime" is coming along well.

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Keep up with Marc Weidenbaum at Disquiet.com

The sampler of tracks from the Disquiet Junto below includes:
:: Two remixes with mechanical intent made from soundscapes from retail spaces ("Jazzy Macys", "Modular Mart").

:: Two soundscapes from a retail space ("H Street NW", "秋葉原電気街 Akihabara Denki Gai").
:: Two artificially created soundscapes of imaginary retails spaces ("Summer of Nebula", "Departure Store").

Listen to all 1500+ and join the group on SoundCloud

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disquiet on 11/25/12 at 04:45AM
Just wanted to say thanks, very much, for covering the Disquiet Junto.
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