Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Noise & Silence

Earlier this month, I took a free tour of Columbia's Computer Music Center (formerly the Princeton-Columbia Electronic Music Center), the highlight of which was getting to see this beast, the historic and currently non-functioning RCA Mark II synthesizer. In looking up that last link, I noticed that this bit of (presumably) fake trivia has been inserted into the RCA's Wikipedia page: "Igor Stravinsky was rumored to have suffered a heart attack upon hearing Babbitt's glowing description of the synthesizer's capabilities".

The tour (part of the Unsound Festival) having whetted my appetite for synth/computer music, I went down to Littlefield in the Gowanus this weekend to check out Marcus Schmickler's set. I mentioned in this post that I was enjoying some of Schmickler's recent computer-generated sounds. His set was considerably more punishing than I expected from hearing his arpeggio-crazy album Palace of Marvels (the description of which cites, among many other things, Leibniz, Foucault, and the Panopticon!), but then again, the title of the showcase was "Oceans of Noise". I was thinking up titles for sections of Schmickler's set as it was going on, but only got as far as these first two, "Chorale for Jet Engines" and "Colecovision Nightmare".

Schmickler deployed an impressive variety of sounds in his multi-pronged digital noise attack, all of which gave me a new context in which to appreciate the wholly analog, truly assaultive, and I would guess unsynthesizable noise that the boiler pump in my basement started making later than same night. If I'd had a sampler handy, I certainly would've captured the sound for future use.

As an antidote to all this noise, I listened to what must be very close to the opposite pole of music, and very near to silence in comparison, John Cage's music for prepared piano. The Cage, two discs on Naxos featuring the pianist Boris Berman, was part of a big The Rest Is Noise-inspired purchase I made at J&R Music World, a surprisingly good source for bargain-priced jazz and classical CDs (they even carry this rather amazing item), and one of the few remaining venues (after the demise of the NYC Virgin Megastores and Tower Records) where one can have the experience of browsing thousands of discs on multiple floors under harsh fluorescent lighting. There's a nicely melancholy tribute to departed record stores and the joy of the browse here.

And speaking of the browse, there were some unusually worthy finds in the "dollar room" at the Brooklyn Record Riot this weekend. In particular, there was one box of mostly '80s stuff from which I extracted seemingly good condition (haven't played them yet) records by Squeeze, the Del-Lords, Ian Hunter, Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe! (I also paid more than a dollar for records by Andrew Hill and the Young Fresh Fellows.)

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