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Conor.

conor

I met Conor a long time ago–fifteen years ago or thereabouts. And though I didn’t know him very well, I knew of him for so many years that he was part of the architecture, part of the air.

My memories of Conor from the late 1990s are all hazy and indistinct, for various reasons. In Boston in 1998–well, Cambridge, to be exact–time seemed scrambled; everything moved too rapidly and too slowly. I was 18 years old then, and a sophomore at MIT. In addition to school, I was working two jobs, and running a magazine on the side. I befriended Theo, a tall, lanky waiter at nearby Café Pamplona, who cut a striking figure in head-to-toe black and a top hat. Theo was dry, sarcastic and funny; he was fond of speaking darkly, about dark things. The café had many good espresso drinks, but at the bottom of the menu–as a joke, perhaps–‘Sanka’ was listed. I would always try to order the Sanka. Theo would, on cue, tell me it was not available, but that there were many other fine drinks on the menu.

I also became friends with Theo’s good friend Noah. Noah also dressed in all black, and wore a trenchcoat. Noah looked and acted like a fellow MIT student; he tied his long dark hair in a ponytail and he knew his way around a UNIX command line. Like Theo, he was wildly intelligent, and somewhat obsessed with Oingo Boingo. Both of them were mostly self-taught. Neither Theo nor Noah were in school; Theo had dropped out of high school. Theo and Noah’s friends had names like Starchy (which was short for ‘Starchild’, from what I was told) and Scuba. Together, they represented a rough-and-tumble world hidden inside of stuffy, pompous Cambridge. Their world, and that red cobblestone pit behind the Harvard Square T stop, seemed more human than MIT, in all its brutalist concrete glory. MIT could often feel suffocating and strange, like a cold dystopian ’70s sci-fi novel.

Through Theo and Noah, I met Conor. Conor was disarmingly handsome. He had a chiseled face and a devastating look in his eyes, like someone you’d see in a Calvin Klein ad. Except Conor was a total nerd, and a goth, and he looked ready for battle, in army-navy surplus camos and combat boots. His hair was dyed–all of us had odd-colored hair at the time, so I don’t even remember what color it was. On the surface, Conor seemed to have it all together. He was perhaps two years older than me and Noah, which instantly made him seem more sophisticated and worldly than we were. People looked up to Conor. They imitated his macho swagger, his facial expressions, his sardonic sense of humor. He reminded me of a rough cross between Cary Elwes in ‘The Princess Bride’ and Bruce Campbell in the ‘Evil Dead’ flicks. Women had impossible crushes on Conor. Anytime I saw him, it was as part of a group of people–maybe five or six of us–or I’d see him at a party at the Cloud Club, or at MIT, or in Central Square. At parties, Conor commanded attention by his very presence. A room automatically became cooler if Conor was in it. Like Amanda, who I also met at around the same time, Conor had a theatrical air about him; he performed well in front of an audience.

The last I had heard of Conor, sometime in 2002 or 2003, was that he was hanging out with sheep in New Zealand. This was mostly a joke, but he had traveled to Australia, and there was some business about llamas. I didn’t see Conor again, or much of anyone from that crowd, for a long while.

Fast-forward ten years, to December 2013. I’m at a party in San Francisco, my adopted home of two years. It had been a tumultuous two years in San Francisco, but finally things were starting to settle. I am at a party in a lovely house and Amanda is standing on a chair, and it’s like old times. And Conor is in the kitchen – who I hadn’t seen in over ten years.

San Francisco finally felt like Home, for the first time since I had moved here at the start of 2012. There was food and good drink and friendly people and there was Neil and Amanda and Conor. Conor didn’t recognize me at first–we all look different now–but he looked almost exactly the same. I talked to him for maybe an hour, in the kitchen, catching him up on news of lots of people he knew from his Boston days. Conor seemed to have it all together. He had a fancy job now, as an engineer at BitTorrent. He had a baby (!) and a wife. I was amazed and impressed. We talked about a lot of things. He texted me his number; we were going to hang out. If only I had sensed the deep sadness in his eyes, when he was telling me how great everything was.

“Conor’s eyes were always sad,” Scuba told me at the grim ‘after-party’ following the funeral yesterday, at an old church in Oakland. I half-expected Conor to saunter into the room, to supply a clever riposte. It all felt so surreal, and so strange. Some people were pouring themselves drinks. Some were talking to each other, in hushed tones. Some were crying hysterically. I was struck by how many people were there–Conor had a huge contingent of friends in California, who all seemed so wonderful and interesting and well-dressed. I didn’t recognize most of them, but I recognized Starchy and Scuba. Starchy was heroically fighting back tears until they finally flowed. It broke my heart to see him cry–in these terrifying, huge, gaping sobs that wouldn’t stop, the kind of sobs that make your throat and lungs hurt. I had a long talk with Scuba, who was morose, but more composed.

“Think of it like an overdose,” Scuba said to me. “Conor overdosed on sadness.”

His voice choked up a bit.

“Conor overdosed on confidence, too. Sadness, and confidence.”

I gave Scuba a hug. He gave me a hug. Then I went home, to San Francisco.

Sound art.

Is it possible to write about sound art without listening?

I wondered about this while reading a lamentable recent article in the New York Times on sound art. “Sound art has been on the rise for a decade or two, but it may have last hit the mainstream,” Blake Gopnik writes in his trend piece, bringing up the examples of the new MoMA survey of sound art, Soundings: A Contemporary Score, and the fact that “two major sound installations are to go up in New York in the fall.” (One of these installations, Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet, was first exhibited in New York in 2001, at PS1, and has traveled extensively around the world since then.)

Sound art! It’s the New Thing! Gopnik points to “the role MP3s and podcasts now play in our lives,” musing that sound art seems “less esoteric” now because of our “new comfort with the immaterial world of pure data.” This head-scratching interlude ends with the line: “Sound waves floating through air may not seem any more exotic than information flowing through cyberspace.” While sound might seem mysterious or ineffable, anyone who has felt heavy bass booming from a speaker or taken a high school physics class knows that sound waves are physical by their very nature.

The term “sound art” dates back to the 1980s, but sound art existed long before then. Was Dada sound poetry sound art? Could Erik Satie’s “furniture music” be thought of as sound art? Were Russolo’s Futurist noise-making intonarumori devices sound art? The recent MoMA show “Inventing Abstraction” included a reading of Russolo’s 1913 classic “The Art of Noises,” and ample evidence of the interplay between avant-garde music and painting (Schoenberg and Kandinsky, in particular.) The recent MoMA exhibition on Tokyo and the avant-garde displayed inventive graphic scores by composers and artists like Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yasunao Tone–scores typed and drawn by Fluxus exponent George Maciunas. If you walk a few blocks away from MoMA, to Broadway between 45th and 46th, you’ll stumble into a public sound installation: the late sound artist Max Neuhaus’ Times Square, first installed in 1977 and reinstated in 2002.

Contending with “sound art” means contending with a fundamentally interdisciplinary field. It means delving deeply into the history of experimental music–a history that hasn’t been written into most art history textbooks. Is Pauline Oliveros–who was part of the exhibition that coined the term “sound art”, “Sound/Art” at the Sculpture Center in New York in 1984–a sound artist, or is she an experimental musician and composer? Or can she be all of these things? Is she, to use Gopnik’s lamentable language, a “honk-tweeter,” compared to “art-trained figures” like Susan Philipsz and Janet Cardiff? Here’s where the article really stumbles.

“Aligned with experimental music rather than visual art, the honk-tweeters are interested in strange beeps and buzzings for their own sakes,” Gopnik writes.

The language here–“strange beeps and buzzings for their own sakes” — side-swipes entire histories, thousands of artists and composers, a massive body of creative inquiry. If we talked about abstract art this way–let’s say, Pollock’s “strange drips and splatters”, or Twombly’s “weird scribbles”–it wouldn’t just seem dismissive; it would be reactionary.

Gopnik appears to admire more accessible, conventionally musical pieces of sound art; works like Cardiff’s crowd-pleasing ‘The 40 Part Motet’, based on a recording of a 16th-century choral piece by Thomas Tallis, are easier to digest than many overtly abstract electronic works–those “strange beeps and buzzings” he refers to. Gopnik paraphrases Australian sound scholar Caleb Kelly, writing that “[Kelly] believes that pieces like Ms. Cardiff’s “Motet,” or the riffs on Hollywood soundtracks by the Swiss art star Christian Marclay, will still matter in a century, whereas today’s honk-tweeters (“dial twiddlers,” Ms. Philipsz calls them) will likely disappear, if they keep doing retreads of John Cage’s postwar innovations.”

One can only hope that Kelly didn’t actually say that, because every part of that sentence seems misguided. Let’s put this talk about what will “still matter in a century” aside, because it’s too ludicrous to even contemplate. Are these so-called “honk-tweeters” simply “doing retreads of John Cage’s postwar innovations”? There seems to be a basic lack of understanding here of Cage, his work, his impact, and what his “postwar innovations” really were. David Tudor, to give one example, was most definitely a “honk-tweeter”–a brilliant musician, composer, and artist in Cage’s camp who blazed his own very impressive trail.

Let us not forget that the “Swiss art star” Christian Marclay spent much of his long career as a “honk-tweeter”; I witnessed many of these Marclay concerts myself in little venues like the late Tonic on the Lower East Side. Pay attention to those “honk-tweeters” and “dial-twiddlers”; sometimes those people alter the course of history. But most of all, listen with open ears.

Top 25 Favorite Pieces of 2012

I wrote a lot of words this year, for a lot of different publications. I haven’t actually counted up the number of pieces I wrote, but it’s somewhere in the triple digits. In the spirit of all the end-of-the-year lists that are circulating at the moment, here’s an end-of-the-year list of my own.

The Top 25 Favorite Articles I Wrote This Year, in No Particular Order

BASIC: Inside a Single Line of Code, a Labyrinth. Slate

A sprawling essay I wrote for Slate about an excellent and very odd book, which inspired me to think widely and strangely about art, vintage technology, the Commodore 64, my teenage years with BASIC, and more. Props to my editors at Slate for encouraging me to use my imagination in this nearly 2000-word piece.

William Gibson: The Wired Interview. Wired / Wired UK

Part 1: William Gibson on Why Sci-Fi Writers are Almost Always Wrong.
Part 2: William Gibson on Twitter, Antique Watches and Internet Obsessions.
Part 3: William Gibson on Punk Rock, Internet Memes, and ‘Gangnam Style’.

When I was working at Wired.com, I would read old issues of Wired from the ’90s and think how great it would be if Wired.com tried to engage as deeply and thoughtfully with culture as the magazine did back then. To this end, I sought out William Gibson, one of my favorite people, and did a 7,000-word interview with him. The trick: to talk with him about the history of recorded sound, punk rock, Internet memes, mechanical watches, etc., and not bore him with dull, predictable questions about when the Neuromancer movie was coming out.

The response to the three-part piece was tremendous. I got letters from people around the world thanking me for “bringing it back” to the old days of Wired. I saw the interview cited everywhere. Bill was apparently quoted by South Korean political candidates, in part thanks to his comments in the third segment about ‘Gangnam Style.’ Boing Boing picked up the interview twice, excerpting it heavily, and Wired UK reprinted all three parts in full, further siphoning the page views from Wired.com. Love you guys.

Lost Cause: Beck’s Song Reader. Slate

A nearly 2000-word piece I wrote about Beck for Slate, which also folds in Bing Crosby, the histories of sampling, remixing, recorded sound, tape machines, and more. Another piece which took a lot of hard thinking. It got a nice mention at NPR.

Music To Sleep To: Brian Eno’s Lux, Reviewed. Slate

Brian Eno wrote to me shortly after this 1500-word Slate piece came out, saying it was his favorite out of the pieces on Lux that had been published so far. “It made me right proud, it did,” Eno told me, and said he was sending the link to the piece to his friends.

Conny Plank. Frieze

I interviewed Eno, and many other famous people, for this piece on the life and work of the legendary producer and engineer Conny Plank. As far as I know, it’s the first article of length to be written about Plank since the 1980s. It’s also the first time that Eno has spoken on record about his memories of Plank in detail. This article was a real labor of love for me; I worked on it at night, after working all day in the Wired trenches. Props to Frieze for believing in this article and giving it a beautiful color spread in the summer issue. The article is now getting translated into German, and will run prominently in a German magazine this coming year.

The Algorithmic Copyright Cops: Streaming Video’s Robotic Overlords. Wired

One of the nice things about working at Wired was occasionally getting to write for Threat Level, one of the best sections of Wired.com. This is probably one of the most important feature stories I did this year, in terms of raising awareness and connecting the dots about an emerging copyright issue. This piece helped set off a wave of discussions at the EFF, Slashdot, Boing Boing, and other sites; articles on the subject in the New York Times, the Telegraph, and other newspapers soon followed.

Man Orders TV Through Amazon, Gets Assault Rifle. Wired

Another feature story I wrote for Threat Level, based on an insane fluke I found out about via a chance Facebook connection at 11 p.m. One of the craziest and most widely-read articles I wrote this year.

An Interview with Laurie Spiegel. Frieze

A 3000-word feature story I wrote on Laurie Spiegel for Frieze, based on an interview I did with her in her loft in New York City this past summer. It’s a continuation, in spirit, of the massive Max Mathews interview I did for Frieze in 2011.

Deep in the Woods, A Reclusive Toymaker Builds His Robot Army. Wired / Wired UK

For this story, I traveled across the country, got lost in the deep Vermont woods, hiked up the side of a steep hill on an unmarked trail, and interviewed a guy in his four-story-high hand-built geodesic dome for several hours. Was it worth it? Sure.

Why Polaroid Was the Apple of Its Time. Wired / Wired Taiwan / Wired Japan

An interview piece I did for Wired Design on Polaroid, based on a recent book about Polaroid’s fascinating, odd history.

Researchers Hack Brainwaves to Reveal PINs, Other Personal Data. Wired

A fun feature for Threat Level where I finally got to use my neuroscience degree for something. Before you neuroscience pedants complain about accuracy of the headline, note that I didn’t choose the headline (I almost never do.)

Legends of Electronic Music: Tod Dockstader. Wired

To do this article, I flew cross-country to Massachusetts on my own dime and jumped through considerable hoops to land this very rare interview with the extraordinary Tod Dockstader, who is now well into his 80s. Wired did not understand why I did this, but they didn’t need to understand. Those who know, know why this is important.

It’s in the Cards. Cabinet, Issue #45 (Games)

An essay I wrote for the great mag Cabinet about Brian Eno, the Oblique Strategies cards, Erik Satie, and Satie’s performance indications. I read this essay on stage in San Francisco, at an event called “Writers with Drinks,” and it went over incredibly well–people were laughing hysterically at Satie’s performance indications, and I hadn’t realized what great comic value still exists in them.

Ben Burtt on Star Wars, Forbidden Planet and the Sound of Sci-Fi. Wired

I interviewed the legendary sound designer Ben Burtt about Forbidden Planet at Skywalker Ranch. Wired.com then tried to shoehorn the interview into a Star Wars 35th anniversary package. Which is, you know, whatever. This 2000-word interview is worth reading for all the insights Burtt gives on the potent mysteries of Forbidden Planet and Louis and Bebe Barron. And the Star Wars tidbits are great too. Expect more on this in the not-too-distant future.

For Stelarc, Extreme Body Mods Hint at Humans’ Possible Future. Wired / io9

Stelarc is a legend. When I found out that he was visiting San Francisco, I knew I had to interview him. The Wired piece I wrote was reprinted in the wonderful sci-fi website io9.

Meet Kraftwerk’s Original 3-D Animator, Rebecca Allen. Wired / Wired UK / Wired Japan

With all of the renewed press attention for Kraftwerk this year, I felt that writing this article–about a woman designer and animator–was a way to get a new, and different, story. Allen’s contributions to Kraftwerk’s visual aesthetic, and her vision for the classic music video “Musique Non Stop,” tell an important story about the history of computer graphics and 3-D animation in the 1980s.

‘Pussy Riot’ Becomes a Rallying Cry for Russian Expats. Wired

I interviewed a lot of people for this piece–a lot of unlikely sources, all of them of Russian descent–to try to get a different angle on this story.

From Transistors to Telstar, Idea Factory Traces Bell Labs’ Legacy. Wired

One of the long-form book reviews I wrote this year that took a lot of thinking. I was glad to write it.

Rare ’70s Electronic Music is Hidden in The Hunger Games. Wired

This piece I wrote on Laurie Spiegel–the scoop that her music was “hidden” in the Hollywood mega-blockbuster The Hunger Games–went off the charts, page-views-wise, and also helped kick off a wave of attention, including a follow-up article in Slate.

New Video Shows Japanese Speech-Jamming Gun in Action. Wired / Wired UK / Wired Japan
Japanese Speech-Jamming Gun Designers Reveal Details, Inspiration.

These pieces also got a ton of hits, but what I thought was more important were the references I buried into pieces like these to give them more depth–Stockhausen, Muzak, J.G. Ballard, etc. I always tried to inject a bit of weirdness into my articles, even the goofy shorter ones, to make them worth reading.

Interview: Dieter Moebius. Frieze

The only interview with the fascinating, enigmatic Dieter Moebius of Cluster that has been done at this length (it’s 3000 words). I met up with Moebius on a subway platform in Berlin after visiting Conrad Schnitzler’s house on the outskirts of the city, and did the interview with him in a Berlin cafe. Happily, this also helped lead to Moebius’ appearance at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival some months later.

Embracing 3-D Printers, Manufacturer Tells Customers to Print Their Own Parts. Wired / Wired UK / Wired Taiwan / Wired Japan

A piece I wrote for Wired Design about 3-D printing and synthesizers, documenting the first instance of a company telling customers to print their own parts.

Essay: Looking Back. Frieze

An essay I wrote (scroll down to the second half of the page) looking back on music, politics, etc of the year before.

Ravi Shankar (obituary). Slate

I wish I had more time to write this obituary–I slammed it out in three hours–but I hope to write a longer article on Ravi Shankar at some point. This is a start.

Remembering Maurice Sendak. Wired / Wired UK

One of my favorites out of the several obits I wrote this year. Again written in under three hours, but I tried to pack as much research and thoughtfulness in there as I could on a very tight deadline.

A few other pieces I wrote this year

Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer: Geekdom’s Power Couple on Sandman Prequel and Kickstarter Success. Wired
Control a Giant Modular Synthesizer From the Comfort of Your Home. Wired / Gizmodo
How the Artist Who Built the ‘Chuck Close Filter’ Got Slammed by Chuck Close. Wired
Got a Moment? Listen to a 744-Hour-Long Radio Show. Wired
Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express Draws Stars to MoMA. Wired
Blaming Pop Culture for Gun Violence is Just a Distraction. Slate
David Byrne Breaks Down How Music Works in New Book. Wired
Chris Marker, French Filmmaker Who Inspired Modern Sci-Fi, Dies at 91. Wired
Music: Frank Ocean’s Coming Out. Frieze
3-D For Your Ears: Building the Dolby Atmos System for Brave. Wired
Jonathan Lethem Riffs on Talking Heads in Fear of Music. Wired
Orbital Talks Vintage Synths, Throwing Up and New Album. Wired
Artist Makes Drawing ‘Bot Out of Hacked Turntables. Wired
Idle Screenings Chops Hollywood Movies Into Sea of Animated GIFs. Wired
The Long History of a Little Gadget: MP3. Frieze d/e
Remembering Disco Queen Donna Summer, the Voice of ‘I Feel Love’. Wired
Recovered 1927 Metropolis Film Program Goes Behind the Scenes of a Sci-Fi Masterpiece. Wired / Wired UK

I recently came back from snowy Berlin, where I spoke at the CTM Festival — the music counterpart to Transmediale, which was celebrating its 25th anniversary. I moderated a panel on Conrad Schnitzler’s life and work, with the talents of Thomas Fehlmann, Wolfgang Seidel, and Jens Strüver. (The panel took place in the former Zodiak Free Arts Lab.) A few days later, I did a two-hour conversation on stage with Dan Lopatin, also known as Oneohtrix Point Never, and James Ferraro. Then I went to New York for a day, to Columbia, to speak on a panel. Then back to San Francisco, where I live now.

Photos and text to come.

And – I’m about to make a big announcement, in the next week…

A new review by me in Frieze d/e, in English and in German.

I’ll be starting a new column for Frieze about the history of electronic music. The first installment should launch this coming week, and I’m very excited about it. It was a huge amount of work, as these pieces generally are, but worth it.

Also stay tuned for big pieces in Cabinet and various upcoming issues of Frieze, a guest spot at Ubuweb, and more.

And some big news: I’m moving back to San Francisco on January 1st.

Some new pieces:

There’s a review by me of the recent Angus MacLise retrospective in New York, in the October issue of Frieze.

And there’s a big review by me of the book Sound Souvenirs, in Current Musicology, an academic journal.

No links to either, I’m afraid–print-only!