This is reprinted from a 2002 article in Wired. [read original] I ran across this concept sometime last year and have been very fascinated by the austere aesthetic.
Whisper the Songs of Silence
By Leander Kahney
Music generated on a computer is usually associated with the thumping beats of techno. But a quieter aesthetic is emerging.
It's so subtle you can hardly hear it.
"Lowercase sound" is the name given to a loose movement in electronic music that emphasizes very quiet sounds and the long, empty silences between them.
Created largely by scientists, techies and experimental musicians, lowercase recordings are frequently based on the magnification of minute sounds through a computer, typically a Macintosh.
Recent compositions include a bubbling symphony of boiling tea kettles, the gentle hiss of blank tapes being played through a stereo and the soft bumps of helium balloons hitting the ceiling.
One recent album was so quiet, listeners wondered whether it actually contained any sound at all.
"Lowercase resembles what Rilke called 'inconsiderable things' -- the things that one would not ordinarily pay attention to, the details, the subtleties," said Steve Roden, the Los Angeles artist who coined the term.
Roden is responsible for an album of paper being handled in various ways. Called "Forms of Paper," the recording was originally commissioned by -– no kidding -– a public library in Hollywood and it has turned into one of the most prominent recordings of the genre.
Lowercase recordings are often based on scientific subjects: an amplified anthill, a mobile phone running out of power and the soft pops of bacteria being flash-frozen in dry ice and methanol.
Using contact mikes, composers record teeny-weeny noises and amplify them with software such as DigiDesign's Pro Tools. The sounds are then chopped up, looped, stretched, repeated or delayed to create minimalist, near-silent musical compositions. The results demand deep, concentrated listening, but can be surprisingly affecting.
The music is reminiscent of works by John Cage, the minimalist modern classical composer. But unlike Cage's silent composition, "4'33," which caused a scandal during its 1952 première, most lowercase compositions do include sounds.
"It allows you to hear sounds you would not normally pay attention to," explained Josh Russell, a scientist and lowercase musician. "It changes your perception. A lot of sounds now sound musical to me that did not years ago. You become aware that the sounds themselves are beautiful."
Russell, a 31-year-old biochemist from San Diego, runs a leading lowercase record label, Bremsstrahlung Recordings, and has just released a second compilation of lowercase compositions called Lowercase Sound 2002.
Russell put the first compilation together for members of a lowercase mailing list. He was pleasantly surprised when the 500 copies he made sold out in just two weeks.
The second CD will run to 1,000 copies. It features 28 different artists, almost all from different countries. Between them, the compilations include works by such lowercase luminaries as Roden, Bernhard Günter and Taylor Deupree.
I looked on the Bremsstrahlung Recordings website, and this followup compilation doesn't seem to have come to pass. I may contact them to find out more.
Taylor Deupree has a very interesting label called 12K, which has put out a lot of this type of music. He is currently working on a project where he is recording a different sound each day during 2009. Many interesting entries on his blog [here].