The Disquiet Junto

Update: see extensive documentation of one of my Junto projects.

A significant chunk of the music I’ve made in the past year has been prompted by a blogger and journalist named Marc Weidenbaum, proprietor of the fine electronic music web zine Disquiet. This is funny, because while I’ve had a number of online exchanges with Marc, we’ve never actually met face to face. Nevertheless, in the age of the internet, this is no obstacle to a creative relationship.

My first contact with Marc came when he wrote up some of my sample genealogies. I started following his blog, which has put me in touch with a lot of new music and musicians. While I’m less interested in the avant-garde than Marc is, he’s a fine advocate for it, and he writes about “normal” music too.

Rather than just commenting on the experimental electronic music scene, Marc has recently taken it upon himself to spur the creation of new work. A representative musical commission: the Instagr/am/bient project, in which twenty-five musicians created ambient tracks based on one another’s Instagram photos. Here are the results.

The first of Marc’s musical challenges that I participated in was a compilation of tracks using only recorded sighs. There was a complex back story about a music critic he disagreed with. I was too late with my submission to make the compilation, but it was still an interesting project, and it set the tone for a lot of future Marc-oriented music. A sigh is mostly white noise, and it was a challenge to sculpt such uninteresting material into beats and melodies.

Marc became a truly significant presence in my creative life when he launched the amazing Disquiet Junto. Each Thursday, Marc emails out a different “assignment.” You have until the following Monday to submit a track that follows the assignment to the Junto SoundCloud group. Past assignments have included:

  • Make music with a turntable but without vinyl.
  • Treat a chart of U.S. presidential-election polling data as graphic notation.
  • Make music from the sound of running water.
  • Create a piece with one field recording representing each of the four seasons.
  • Make a piece of music with the NodeBeat app and one other instrument.
  • Create a cross-species collaboration between bird song and acoustic guitar.
  • Remix another participant’s submission from the previous week — this is my favorite kind of assignment.

Here are some of my recent Junto submissions.

I don’t participate in the Junto every week, but when I do, I almost always wind up with something cool. I’m a great believer in constraints as a spur to creativity, and the Junto provides them, both in time and content. Very often, Marc specifies source material that’s either very abstract or aggressively “unmusical.” Most of the participants live squarely in the experimental realm, so this is no obstacle for them. I sometimes do ambient drone pieces too, but usually I like to find a beat and some kind of melody. It can be hard to do that within the assignment, but in doing so, I’m forced to exercise a lot of craftiness, and that helps me grow as a musician and producer. For example, if all I have to work with is unpitched noise, I can impose pitches using resonator or vocoder. Tuning a short chunk of noise down usually gives a good kick drum, tuning it up usually gives a good snare, and tuning it even higher makes a good hi-hat.

The Junto was especially useful when I started grad school, particularly for Advanced Computer Music Composition. The composition assignments in that class overlapped significantly with Junto assignments: make a piece using only white noise and silence, or using the sound of a summer rainstorm. If I were a lazier student, I could have handed in Junto pieces more or less unchanged.

Meanwhile, Marc has graciously featured me on his blog several more times: about a piece I wrote for Morton Subotnick’s class, about a duet I did with an accordion player, about a mashup of Doug E Fresh and the Buchla synth. At some point this fall, there might be a Junto concert in New York, which I hope to perform in, and where I can also finally meet Marc in person. In the meantime, I’m glad of his presence on the internet, and am looking forward to cranking out a lot more tracks inspired by him.