Sounds Heard: The Disquiet Junto

Dear Members of the Disquiet Junto,

This week’s project focuses on the spatial aspect of sound. The instructions are as follows

Rework Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography

It is Franklin’s own Junto Society that provided the name for this association. Image courtesy Disquiet.com

On Thursday night, I get an email from the Disquiet Junto group on SoundCloud. It’s a homework assignment I know I will not complete by its Monday deadline, but one that fascinates me nonetheless. It’s also one I know will result in the creation of many tracks of new music built by others.

If this sounds intriguing to you, you can join in at any time—anyone can participate, no application necessary. There are just a few rules and simple guidelines to ease everyone into the party.

Even for those who don’t want to wade in and create music themselves, with 88 projects already completed, the curious listener has a cavernous library to select from (and ample shared process notes from each track creator to get lost in). More files are being added each week.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to select for you any kind of “best of” representative mix from this project, but for anyone intrigued by the sonic ideas this type of exercise can generate, your spelunking down the Disquiet Junto rabbit hole is sure to be rewarded. When you stumble on something special, please share it in the comments!

Drowning in options, I decided to start with some personally intriguing assignments and work from there. We begin at the beginning, a very good—if chilly—place to start. Access the full assignment details and track notes by clicking through to each file’s SoundCloud page.

Assignment #1: Ice Cubes

Assignment #6: Remixing Archival Edison Cylinders

Assignment #8: Rework Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography

Assignment #56: Make music from the sound of the tick of a clock.

Assignment #57: Use sounds from the Phonetics Lab Archive at UCLA to depict emotions.

Assignment #82: Create a minimal techno track using elements of a Haydn string quartet.

***

Quick Questions with Junto founder Marc Weidenbaum

Molly Sheridan:
You win the gold star for the most creatively stimulating homework assignments I have ever encountered. What took the Disquiet Junto from neat idea to actually happening project?

Marc Weidenbaum: Thanks! That’s super generous of you. The enthusiasm of the participants, who come back week after week, is what has made the Disquiet Junto happen: their music, their ideas, their energy, their generosity. I’m afraid to say that had the first project not been so warmly received—40-plus participants joined in, if memory serves—I might not have had the nerve to do a second. Instead, we hit the ground running, and we haven’t stopped since, one week after the next.

MS: Let’s quantify this image. Can you throw some fun numbers at me—number of participants since the project started, number of tracks, hours of music created, number of plays and comments gathered—that sort of thing? How many people does it take to run this machine or does the machine provide the tools on its own?

MW: Sure thing. Here are some numerical accountings of our goings-on, as of September 4, 2013:

  • 2,533: number of tracks currently live in the Disquiet Junto group page
  • 372: number of musicians responsible for those 2,533 tracks
  • 87: number of weekly projects
  • 71: number of tracks submitted to the most active weekly project
  • 18: seconds in length of shortest project (a mini-suite based on the Vine app)
  • 4: number of days from project announcement (Thursday) to deadline (Monday)
  • 4: number of live concerts thus far (one each in Chicago, Denver, Manhattan, and San Francisco)
  • 1: number of moderators (that is, it’s just me)
  • 0: number of weeks we’ve taken off

MS: You’re the Junto founder/moderator, but are you also an active participant?

MW: I believe I’ve only participated in the Disquiet Junto once, for a project called “audiobiography,” the 60th, back in March 2013. I don’t really make much music, myself, in the direct sense, though I think the projects themselves count as a kind of music-making, in a meta sense. I do fiddle with music at home. I play with iOS and Android apps—at some point I may even upload some super minimal rhythmic work I’ve been up to. I used to make pause tapes in my teens. I had two turntables and a mixer until my kid was born. I do a lot of push-button, straightforward reworking of existing material—like, I enjoy running instrumental hip-hop through the Automaton plug-in from Audio Damage. But I think of much of that as “active listening” more than as music-making. And with only a few exceptions, the Junto projects have been way, way beyond my meager ability level. This whole thing comes out of my experience as an editor of arts/culture journalism and of comics, both of which I have done a lot of: I assign work I could not myself accomplish.

MS: While I haven’t participated myself, it’s been my impression that the restriction provided by the assignment is key but that discussion of the employed method(s), a sort of “show your work,” is also central. There’s an outsider input and public process to the music making. Even though we often talk about the digital cocooning that new technologies allow, this is a reversal of that in some ways through technology—bringing others into what is often normally a private creative space for just one artist.

MW: Yeah, I agree entirely. I think three key things are essential to the Junto’s success. The restraints and the deadline are big, but so too is the knowledge that not just an audience but an audience of peers is at the ready: to listen, give feedback, befriend, collaborate with. As for the “through technology,” as you put it, absolutely: this project exists specifically as a means of utilizing the SoundCloud interface. I’m not saying it would not have existed otherwise, but it exists as it does to make the best use of that virtual public space as SoundCloud both intentionally and unintentionally happened to have designed it.

MS: Where does the Junto project, both the structure of it and the work coming out of it, stand in relation to other music in the 2013 landscape? It strikes me that it touches so many current anxieties and obsessions: remix culture, social media, transparency, collective action, crowd sourcing.

MW: One person’s anxieties are another’s enthusiasms. The Disquiet Junto is the most “fluid” and “immediate” work I have ever done, and I think fluidity and immediacy are common factors in the various phenomena you list. A key distinction I’d add is that the Junto is often as much about sound as it is about music, or about music as a subset and/or adversary of sound, and about both sound and music being a means to explore ideas non-verbally.

MS: The concept has since moved offline through some concert organizing and such. I haven’t heard a live event, but I can see how that might generate some conceptual tensions. Is the Disquiet Junto bigger, or at least about more, than the sum of its online parts?

MW: I like to think that the SoundCloud Disquiet Junto presence is a home, not a family. The Junto members can go other places from time to time and be a family there, too. Those can be virtual places, like YouTube and Vine, and they can be physical places, like concert halls and art galleries.

MS: No one is making any money here, correct? No albums made and sold, created content shared to varying degrees (depending on the assignments and the participants). Considering its collaborative nature, can things like ownership and revenue generation co-exist here or is this space not for those end goals.

MW: Some small amount of money has been made here and there, though making money is at best a quaternary aspect of the Disquiet Junto. We charged a small ticket price at some of the concerts, though others were free admission. Some people have released some of their tracks commercially. SoundCloud gets money from those who elect for a higher grade of account. More likely the projects have refined and expanded the skills of the participants, myself as moderator included, and that experience perhaps has helped people economically elsewhere. As for the Creative Commons matter, we have not engaged with some projects because of financial concerns—for example, there was a cool band that did an open remix project, but the band stipulated that it retain the full, rather than shared, copyright of the remix, and that seems unfair, so I didn’t proceed with it. Though I’m still thinking about it. Did I mention this is all fluid? See, while making money is not a focus of the Disquiet Junto, commerce—the exchange of ideas, culture, technology—is.

6 thoughts on “Sounds Heard: The Disquiet Junto

  1. Pingback: Disquiet Junto Q&A @ NMBx

  2. bassling

    One of the best things about the Disquiet Junto for me has been overcoming perceived obstacles.

    Many weeks I read Marc’s email and think ‘How would I even begin to approach that?’ Then an idea starts to take shape, usually encounters some technical or mental obstacles, and then I find solutions.

    It’s like a three-act structure: exposition, complication and resolution; but, more importantly, it teaches self-reliance and new skills as I move beyond the initial frustrations.

    At the end I compare my experiences and recordings with those of other participants, a process that reveals new approaches and allows me to further develop my skills.

    Reply
    1. Molly Sheridan Post author

      I have been thinking a lot lately about post-school education and actually started Kio Stark’s Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything this morning, so this real-world example illustrating her points about structures and fellow learners is very timely! Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
      1. Marc Weidenbaum

        I think one of the best things school can teach you is how to learn, and to want to learn.

        In the course that I teach on sound in the media landscape, here in San Francisco, I make it clear that most every class session’s topic is rooted in a question to which I do not yet, myself, have a complete answer. I’m learning right along with the students.

        Reply
  3. Schemawound

    Thanks for much for including my track in your article and helping to spread the word about the Junto. I think it is an amazing tool for stretching ones skills and forcing creativity into new directions. Last month I wrote up a blog post detailing my thoughts on the Junto:

    “I recently completed my 10th assignment for the Disquiet Junto and decided that it would be a good time to reflect on what the Disquiet Junto is and what is has meant for me as an artist

    The Disquiet Junto is a series of weekly musical “assignments” based around the concept of constraint. Marc Weidenbaum, the founder of the project, describes it in much better detail here (http://disquiet.com/2012/01/27/the-disquiet-junto/).

    Since I have never had any form of musical training the only challenges I have had to overcome have been ones I have set for myself. This lead me to only exploring certain areas of creativity and neglecting the ones that did not appeal to me initially. Having an external source of challenges leads you to push yourself in directions you would not have explored on your own. Often you will find that within these areas there is a wealth of untapped resources. The problem solving you learn while completing these assignment become a tool to use in the future.

    The four day time limit is another important lesson. I have always been an over-thinker with my projects, I would start a song quickly and then never finish it in the belief it could always be better. When I wrote this blog post (http://schemawound.com/post/52422776505/release-it) I was speaking to myself as much as I was speaking to anyone else. By creating quickly and releasing through the Junto I have learned to execute a project in a short time frame. Through the generous feedback of the group I learned my worries about songs being half complete were unfounded. If you look at the pace of my album releases you will notice a significant increase in their frequency this year, that is due to lessons I learned from the Junto.

    In your life as an artist there are certain events that change your way of thinking about your own art and about art in general. For me the Disquiet Junto is one of those events. I invite everyone to join the list, pick one of the projects in the next few weeks and begin. You may be surprised by what you discover.”

    http://schemawound.com/post/58071498870/what-i-learned-from-the-junto

    Reply
  4. TimHeld

    I am so thankful that I found the Disquiet Junto group. I love producing electronic/experimental/ambient music and these weekly assignments keep me busy and inspired.
    Thanks Marc and thank you Molly for this great article!

    Here is my favorite piece that I have produced for the group for any of those interested:

    Reply

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