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This is an archived newsletter from Robin Sloan. You, too, can receive these! They go out every Sunday.

Week 12, rehydrated

Mask

Mask, New Kingdom, ca. 1550–1295 B.C.

In reply to my question last week about the appeal of Louise Penny, I received a LOT of comments and insights, and I’m grateful for them. I liked what Cindy had to say:

You’re probably right about the “a bit older than [your] cohort” nature of the readership. We probably do see ourselves in the older main characters, people who have learned to balance activity and skill and thought, rather than racing from one chase to another.

The replies were very diverse, though; readers identifying a lot of different things—some almost contradictory—that they appreciate in Louise Penny’s books (not to mention her dashing Inspector Gamache).

One thing I’ve learned, writing books and then talking to people about those books and others, is that people read for wildly different reasons. I don’t only mean they read different books for different reasons—“I like mysteries, because they keep my brain occupied”; “I like fantasy novels, because they offer me a world that is fundamentally ordered and legible”—but also that they read the same books for different reasons. Wildly different. I mean sure, there is always the shared foundation of processing sentences on the page, rendering them into a kind of waking dream; but beyond that, there is sometimes zero overlap between the objectives and pleasures of different kinds of readers. The more I’ve been convinced of that, the more I’ve come to love it. It’s weird and challenging and exciting.

I had the thought this week: wouldn’t it be interesting if Louise Penny wrote a book set in her cozy little village of Three Pines in which… no one died?


Nine Things About Nils Frahm

On Friday, I went to a concert in San Francisco; the performer was Nils Frahm, who I’ve mentioned in this dispatch before.

During the concert, up close to the stage, some thoughts occurred to me, but/and I didn’t want to pull out my phone and start tapping away, so instead, I built a mnemonic phrase—a little key to help me hold on to those fleeting responses. I compressed each one into a single word, which I knew would be enough to help me “rehydrate” the thought.

I use this technique every so often. Once, memorably, on a bike ride through Golden Gate Park, a story took shape in my mind. I didn’t have my phone with me, so I started building a mnemonic phrase. As the story grew and the phrase extended, I got more and more and excited, so I looped around, pedaled hard for home, and crashed through the front door with a bizarre sequence of words looping on my lips. The thoughts were all there in my head; it was just a matter of knowing their addresses. Collected, they became the skeleton of a short story that I still really like.

So! I walked out of the Nils Frahm concert muttering this sequence:

Elf, sweep, loop, texture, build, piano, east, content, Yanni.

Here, now, is the rehydration.

Elf

In person, Nils Frahm was a delightful presence! Short and compact. He pranced and leapt around the stage. Funny and self-deprecating. He had none of the self-seriousness I expected.

Sweep

—by which I meant, “filter sweep.” It’s one of the first sounds we heard as the concert began; a simple trick that never gets old. Here’s like the most basic audio example.

It’s a very very common sound, but if you haven’t ever made one, or seen it made, you might not know quite what you’re hearing. A filter sweep is, essentially, a door opening, allowing more frequencies through. For me, there is always the undeniable sense of something emerging; a spaceship rising out of the ocean.

Bad movie, good scene

Loop

Are the musical traditions we inherited from the 20th century fundamentally all about loops? On stage, Nils Frahm plays the looping tape echo. Truly—it’s his primary instrument. Early electronic sequencers had severe limitations that became whole beloved genres. Computers love loops. There’s a reason Ableton, the company behind a ubiquitous music production application, calls its annual conference “Loop.”

Texture

To say you like a particular Nils Frahm song is really to say you like a particular texture. His performances diverge from his recordings, building and morphing and mutating; however, they’re absolutely faithful to the original textures. Much of his work on stage seems to be tweaking and adjusting—seeking, seeking, until a balance is struck, a texture recreated.

It makes me think of a certain kind of Instagram musician. They’re very satisfying to follow, but/and they aren’t sharing songs, or anything even resembling songs. On some level, they know you’re just going to listen to their clips for five or six seconds, so, what they give you is… a texture. Here’s an example.

Extending that—and the thing about loops, too—I think the tape musicians are the real Instagram savants. They give you textures, and something to look at—the spinning wheels, the odd vintage equipment –and a kind of sound that can be reproduced perfectly by tinny phone speakers! I mean, I think people stumbled into this, but it’s a kind of evil genius!

Pure texture. Culture is so weird. I love it.

Build

Every Nils Frahm song does basically the same thing: layer layer layer, build build build, from a spare beginning to an overwhelming climax followed by a tinkly resolution. Yes, I realize that is a sequence common to all music since the dawn of time, and other activities besides music, too.

I do wonder if Nils gets a little bored with it sometimes.

Piano

To the layers provided by his mountain of forty-year-old analog electronic gear, Nils Frahm adds a fair amount of piano and… I just don’t think it measures up!! Those electronic instruments, their richness—for me, it’s night and day. This isn’t even a case of “well, the synthesizers are good for some things, and the piano is good for other things.” Instead it’s just like… don’t bother me with that piano!

East

It’s interesting to notice that, for all his interest in electronics, Nils Frahm is devoted to the keyboard. (You can see how the previous thought led directly to this one.) Early in the development of electronic music, there was an interesting schism between “East Coast” and “West Coast” philosophies. East Coast synthesis is by far the most familiar; it’s every sleek black keyboard on stage ever. But remember, in the early days, when these sounds were newly possible, the electronics didn’t come with keys attached. Someone had to glue those on, tame the waveforms and fix them to the grid of the piano roll. For the West Coast synthesists—they were centered near where I’m typing this, actually—this was the original sin. To yoke these machines to those keys gave up too much.

Content

Are any of Nils Frahm’s songs really about anything?

I went to another concert a couple of weeks ago, the pop virtuoso Robyn, and there, the tones were as rich and interesting as Nils Frahm’s; the beats significantly more predictable; but/and there was also: language. I don’t mean that every Robyn song has, you know, a message. It’s more like: Robyn is playing an additional keyboard, one tuned not to notes but to symbols, dreams, allusions.

I really love Nils Frahm’s work, and I listen to a fair amount of purely instrumental music in general, but/and, especially in a concert setting, I wonder if language is just too powerful to forgo.

Not that it has to be singing! I think of a dorky favorite of mine, Daft Punk’s overture to the Tron sequel, which opens with a wonderful rumble from Jeff Bridges. Just a few sentences, but they color everything that follows.

Yanni

Is Nils Frahm the high-end, 21st-century Yanni?

He might be.

That’s okay.


Mask

Mask, French, ca. late 1700s


I have a small computer program that, whenever I open a new tab in my browser, shows me a random note from a very large database I’ve been building since 2010 or so.

This one popped up recently, and it’s good:

March 2012

Invention and rugby

His book on the origins of modernism, A Fine Disregard, used an analogy from the history of rugby to illuminate the moment of artistic innovation:

During a soccer game at the Rugby School, in England, an unknown young man named William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it, and a new game came into being. A lot of people thought that Kirk was celebrating a Romantic view of invention. But his was a liberal, not a Romantic, view of art. It began with an individual and extended to a community. What fascinated him was the circumstances that let someone act creatively and other people applaud instead of blowing the whistle.

Minor googling reveals the writer of that graf is Adam Gopnik and the “his” is the “his” is Kirk Varnedoe. (I only looked that up for the purposes of attribution here; in my day-to-day consideration of these notes, I definitely do not care.)


This useful Twitter thread, about the possible root causes of the recent Boeing crashes, made me think about the Toyota Production System and its “five whys.”

Let’s say a welding robot stopped abruptly. Workers and managers would gather around the robot and answer a series of “why” questions:

Why did the robot stop?
The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.

Why is the circuit overloaded?
There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.

Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?
The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.

Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?
The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.

Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?
Because there is no filter on the pump.

So you end up finding and fixing the deep, hidden problems, not just applying layers of band-aids.

P.S. Toyota is an amazing institution in the, like, history of this world. For all its great success, for as much as it’s been studied, I think it might still be underrated.


Dan Cohen wrote a blog post about the last print offering, Treasured Subscribers, and its relationship to my novel Sourdough. The post is very generous; I had to squint and look away in parts; they were too kind.

Dan writes:

Indeed, much of what makes his writing both fun and thoughtful is that rather than toning down cyberenthusiam and technoskepticism to find a sensible middle, he instead uses fiction to turn them up to 11 and toward each other, to see what new harmonious sounds, if any, emerge from the cacophony. Sloan looks for the white light from the overlapping bright colors of the analog and digital worlds.

Here’s an observation, having now read a non-zero number of reviews, appraisals, appreciations, and critiques of my work:

When a reader or critic identifies something you did, that’s fine; even when the observation is totally spot-on, and/or totally complimentary, it is fine. When a reader or critic correctly identifies, as Dan does here, what you were, and are, trying to do—ah. That’s what gives you the sense of: transmission received. That’s what it’s all about.


Visions

I received a copy of a magazine called Visions that I’m exploring and enjoying. It’s beautifully designed, printed in three colors, black and white and yellow, packed with a whole range of different kinds of material, most notably—for me, anyway—a novella by a French writer that’s never before been available in English. There’s also a set of very short stories written using my AI autocomplete software, which is very cool to see in print!

Part of the magazine’s appeal, honestly, is the liberal application of a typeface called Marvin Visions, a revival of a classic called Marvin by the magazine’s founder and editor. Observant readers will note that I used Marvin Visions for the cover of this year’s first print offering. I suspect I will use it again.


Another note that popped up this week:

September 2017

I was much taken by the sentence “He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase”—an elegant telescope of psychological insight.

I’ll let you do the minor googling on that one.

Mask

Mask, Teotihuacan, ca. 3rd–7th century

☄️R

March 2019, Oakland

Here, at the bottom of the page, I shall say again: the newsletter is the best way to keep up with new offerings.

This website uses the typeface Albertus Nova, an update by Toshi Omagari of Berthold Wolpe’s classic, and GT America, designed by Noël Leu with Seb McLauchlan.

Have a question? Spot a typo? Your story didn’t arrive? Email robin@robinsloan.com

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