“One popular new feature on the Net is AI’s Associated Press service. From anywhere on the Net you can log in and get the news that’s coming live over the wire or ask for all the items on a particular subject that have come in during the last 24 hours. Plus a fortune cookie. Project that to household terminals, and so much for newspapers (in present form).”
-Stewart Brand, 1972, in “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums”
I’m on the brink of being able to give some very good news. Not just yet, but within 24 hours…
I was rummaging online and found this photo of me and one of my oldest and best friends, Blake, at my house, the Cloud Club, in Boston a few months ago. Blake’s on the left, obviously, and I’m on the right, looking distracted:
Now I live in faraway Berkeley, and I’ll soon be moving about a dozen miles away to San Francisco. But I miss Boston often, and I miss my beautiful house.
A Mathew Jonson interview by me in Resident Advisor. (Yes, the artwork is totally goofy. No, I did not choose it.)
And there are some pieces by me in the new book The Pitchfork 500, published by Simon & Schuster.
And today is my birthday: I’m now 29 years old. Hanging on to my twenties by a mere thread, but strangely looking forward to my thirties. I went to Vancouver for a few days last weekend to celebrate; it was cold, overcast, and raining the entire time. I spent a day walking through Stanley Park in ill-fitting silver shoes. Lots of moss-covered trees with crimson-colored leaves, and rocks. I’m a big fan of moss. In Maine, where I was a few weeks ago, I saw lots of moss-covered rocks in blue, blue water.
There’s an old spinet, probably a hundred years old, on the top floor of the other side of the art collective I live in. While I had my laundry going in the basement, I walked up the winding stairs to the spinet, which literally sits under a plateau of mirrors beneath a skylight. There was a slight misty rain coming through the window next to the piano. I was just messing around on the spinet, playing a few chords here and there, and banged out “I’ll Come Running” from memory a few times until I could play the whole thing at the proper rhythm and tempo. What a simple song–it’s like a children’s song, only a few arpeggios in a few keys, like something I would have played when I started taking piano lessons. (I quit piano lessons at age 17, and my skills have atrophied significantly in the decade-plus since). But the song’s apparent simplicity is deceptive. I played it in C, picking out the vocal melody line in diads with my left hand to simulate the tenor of the voice, and using my right hand for the bright cascades of arpeggios. It would have been so much easier to play if I had recorded the arpeggios first in Garageband or something and then overdubbed the other parts on top of it. Playing the parts of the song synchronously is tricky, especially on a creaky out-of-tune piano, but with each successive iteration (about six tries) I got decent enough at it. Then I made a stab at “St Elmo’s Fire,” promptly gave up, and went downstairs to switch my clothes to the dryer. Compared to the complicated, heavily layered ambience evident in so many of the other songs on Another Green World, “I’ll Come Running” sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s poppy and sentimental, but that’s part of what makes it so memorable. It’s far easier to replicate on a piano than, say, “On Some Faraway Beach” on Here Come the Warm Jets, another song that gives off the appearance of a straightforward ballad, only to reveal itself as a castle in the air, built of layers of dreamy backing vocals, lead vocals, and intricate keyboard lines that weave in and out of each other.
In German, “castle in the air” translates to “Luftschloss,” and that’s the title of an (instrumental) piano ballad on After the Heat (1978), also sort of oddly placed around the middle of the album, and also very graceful in its own way. It sounds like Roedelius playing the main melody–he has this legendary flair for elegant work with keyboards; the layers upon layers of unearthly sounds that grow around the main melody are so subtle they almost go unnoticed. The key word is “almost.”
Two years ago, I thought it would be fun to write a short book on Another Green World for the Continuum 33 1/3 series of music books, and that fateful pact I made has weighed on my psyche like a ten-thousand-pound albatross ever since. After various fits and starts, I’m happy to say I’m making good progress on the book. Nothing feels better than getting at a project that’s been on the back burner for so long and watching it assume a shape and personality in your hands.
After a dark and dreadful New England winter I’m feeling rejuvenated, inspired. There are roses blooming on my block on vines so massive they look like grand old trees. The community gardens in my leafy Boston neighborhood are in full generative swing. I feel inspired by doing interviews; I feel inspired by being able to think about ideas again, and that process of discovery. Part of it, too, is that I am starting to see connections grow organically, nodes in the circuit where stories meet — I can sketch mental schematics that are going someplace interesting.
Part of the reason I was so stymied was because everything else in life came first — my day job helping to start up a new research center in the confines of the MIT Media Lab, a big move from New York City to Boston, my health, bills to pay. Another reason why my brain was so stopped up was because I felt for a while that I just couldn’t write anymore, outside of the odd article here and there. When I was caught up in thinking about music full time, writing to pay the rent, getting promos, dealing with labels, and just trying to keep up with the relentless breakneck pace of all of those bits being pushed around the Web, I started to hate music, and I had to step back for a while. I could no longer keep up with every new release. I started avoiding new releases. I went through one moody month in which I listened to nothing but Sun Ra’s entire discography. Then cycled through other stuff — Coltrane, Ayler, old disco records.
I got interested in other things — technology, for instance. Free software. Politics and the US elections. Film and video — I inherited an old video projector from 1995, aimed it at one of my slanted ceilings, and use the hazy flicker of old Cabaret Voltaire videos to light my 200-year-old apartment at night. I read Mastering the Art of French Cooking cover to cover and taught myself about béarnaise sauces and soufflés. I attempted to master passages from Horowitz and Hill’s classic The Art of Electronics in parallel with the art of French cooking, in the interest of balance. (I finally learned how an op-amp worked, after avoiding the subject like the plague when I was a student at MIT years ago.) I re-read Jane Jacobs’ “Death and Life of Great American Cities.” I took up cycling (so very Kraftwerk), and now I cycle back and forth across bridges, about eight miles a day. To offer some perspective on this achievement, two months ago I had three broken ribs after falling down a flight of stairs while moving some wood furniture.
I have no interest in writing a standard rock biography of Eno. That would actually be pretty easy to do, and it’s been done. There’s a goldmine of archival interviews and material available online; I wouldn’t have to stray very far from my computer to put together a canned history of “the making of the album.” But I would be bored senseless writing that kind of book, and I don’t even read books like that. I somehow doubt Eno does either.
I’m trying to write an exploratory book on the ideas underpinning the music — I have little interest in the detailing the minutiae of recording sessions and gear. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve learned some fascinating things about the way that Another Green World was put together in the studio. But I’m also interested in Discreet Music, which came out the same year (1975); I’m interested in Evening Star; Obscure Records, Harmonia. I’m interested in cooking, gardening, painting, cybernetics, and televisions turned sideways. But instead of my base of information getting too unwieldy — like my overgrown garden yard in Boston, which is bursting with so much entropy right now that it’s practically impossible to see the marble paths that wind through it — I actually feel calmer and more focused. Every day I hear from an Eno collaborator or friend who has useful advice or a unique perspective or encouragement to offer.
It’s also been helpful to really be into music again. I had just gotten in touch with Dieter Moebius and one searing summer night while I was working I put the Eno/Moebius/Roedelius record After the Heat on the stereo. I was really moved by it, playing certain tracks over and over and hearing something new each time. It was like I could see the pathways of all of the electronic music that came before it and after it, traveling through that record like so many streams.
Countdown to Sonar: 4 weeks.
In the meantime, here’s a snapshot I took of the ceiling of Watergate in Berlin on New Year’s Eve, awash in a blur of programmed LEDs.
I wrote another article for Computerworld last week on hacking the MiFare RFID Classic chip. Those slick “tap and go” cards used by millions to pay for public transit in many of the world’s major cities? Ends up the chips on those cards can be hacked on a laptop in as little as 12 seconds.
Here’s the link:
I went to Berlin in December for the Chaos Communications Congress, Europe’s biggest hacker con. At the conference, a pair of wily German researchers showed how they reverse-engineered the chip backing some of the world’s most-used subway cards and access keys. In the tech magazine Computerworld today, I explained some of the details of their work.
Check it out here: