Musical Intuition meet Technology and Chaos

Today I read through the InfoQ eMag on Chaos Engineering, and was struck by John Allspaw’s (@allspaw) contribution because it reminded me of something I jotted down on a sticky at my desk a few days ago:

Intuition is valid because it is learned like jazz changes.

I’m pretty stubborn and refuse to accept that music is merely a hobby of mine. When people ask me if electronic music or singing is my “hobby”, I am wincing inside. So a question often on my mind is: how does the intuition I have when performing and composing music connect with the work I do as a technologist?

Some musicological background might help. One concept in learning how to improvise (jazz or otherwise) is that you have developed an intuition built around internalizing the materials and form of the piece (or genre) – like scales, chord changes, or rhythm structures. This is different from the more lizard-brainy concept of instinct. Think about a blues progression, the foundation of music you hear every day, everywhere. You know intuitively the chord progression and timing is “right”, even so much that anomalies and departures come across as emotionally significant. The rest is pop history.

But you, homo sapiens, do not have this chord sequence pre-programed in your DNA, it isn’t something that is instinctual. By the same token, great technology leaders develop good intuition (expertise over hundreds of interviews) when hiring engineers but never rely on instinct (oh I just have a good “gut feeling”). The best DBAs have an intuitive understanding of their platform (you want to do X, but did you think of Y+Z?), but there’s nothing instinctual about it.

It is not a stretch, then, to recognize that intuition in improvised music can be directly compared to how Allspaw writes about the “mental map” that engineers develop. They each have their own subjective view on relevant (but overlapping) parts of the system and are challenged when relating each substrate to theirs. For instance, a phenomenon known as “fundamental common-ground breakdown” (Woods & Klein: Common Ground and Coordination in Joint Activity) happens when what I describe as intuitions (accumulated individual learnings about the system) are assumed knowledge among participants, good or bad. Part of the game is learning how to harmonize these separate threads of experience, avoiding costly coordination surprise and re-synchronization… and trust me, I have been in plenty of rehearsals and narrowly saved performances that fit this description!

The important point here is that a system becomes more complex as it grows dimensions, shrinking the capacity of any one person to comprehend the whole thing. Therefore we rely on shared and discovered knowledge to fully grok these fascinating systems. Take any ensemble of musicians: as it grows in membership, individuals gradually lose the ability to contain its myriad relationships in their mental map, so coordination and integration become a matter of listening and rehearsal experience (both modes of communication). Oh and it characterizes the music, too. Building intuition about how to play a part in an opera is much different than in a free improv vocal trio. Orchestrating ten thousand linux containers in a cloud provider doesn’t compare to managing two rows of server racks at the datacenter downtown.

Technologists grapple with the task of building and sharing intuitions about a system because understanding an entire system contributes to what we know about making it more resilient. Communication is key in either musical or engineering teams, collaboration on understanding the whole is no exception. Our mental maps should be adaptable to constant updates, and practices like Chaos Engineering that make discoveries in complex system behavior are supported by this kind of cross-pollination and proliferation of our combined understanding.

A quote from Allspaw’s article highlights it well:

Maybe the process of designing a chaos experiment is just as valuable as the actual performance of the experiment.

– John Allspaw, Recalibrating Mental Models through Design of Chaos Experiments

The use of the term “performance” is apt. We’re familiar with this concept: practice makes perfect. Taken further, the experience of practice is necessary such that the result is merely an extension of practice. It takes meticulous work to understand a piece of music to the level of having an intuition about how it operates, and the same goes for building experimentation that challenges what you think you know about complex software. The results of the “performance” can be enhanced by a focus on understanding the system’s design and steady state (i.e. nominal condition), what we would call the language of the musical work. It is as if the performance of the event naturally evolves from learnings gained preparing for it.

Imagine you are a jazz musician, you have gone through years of studying scales and changes and charts and recordings of a particular artist, and have built a capability for understanding how the language of their music works. One evening at a local club, your dreams are fulfilled, you’re in the audience and invited up for a set with them. You intuitively know how this person plays their music, as it has been a guide for your own. But when you’re jamming together, they do something indeterminately that informs your intuition in a way you would have never discovered yourself. Not only has the process of designing your inevitable collaboration been valuable to understand what you thought you needed to know to play like your biggest influence, but it also served as the basis for learning something new and unexpected.

Whether it is free improvisation or interpreting a through-composed piece of music (and everything in between), there is a certain amount of experience and training informing the performance. Eventually, when we’ve practiced enough, the music itself steps out of the way and intuition takes over. I think this is where my musical performance connection with technology starts: once you understand the fundamentals of the system, let the presentation of the system get out of the way, and you’re in a better place to evolve your mental map and gain further intuition through disciplines like Chaos Engineering.

Listening in 2011

Three years ago was the last time I did any kind of “year’s review” of aural nourishment, and I sort of feel the need to do it again. Those 24 hours of music are worth revisiting, and the following may not even count as a “best of,” but it is some of the best music I’ve heard this year, and I listen to an awful lot. Maybe call it a “compendium”? No that sounds too boring. In actuality this list is simply nothing more than a bunch of shit that goes on my iPod and ends up staying there for longer than it takes for me to get bored of it.

And yeah, there’s some strange shit indeed. Although I don’t cover any “pop” here, there’s still a very wide range of music represented, listeners will be hard pressed to find at least something attractive on this list. Click on the album title to find where you can get the release; you’ll find an amazing amount of these are on bandcamp and can be streamed for free. These also aren’t in any particular order, they all stand alone on their own and can’t really be compared to each other as a “top-#” list. So without further a’do…


Andy Stott
Passed Me By / We Stay Together
Modern Love

I am so happy the throbbing washing machine multi-textured off-balance-beat dub techno sound has continued strong thanks to this artist. The constantly appearing layers are the most surprising and pleasing parts of these tracks, looping sound combinations you just don’t expect, spanning a wide spectrum. There emerge strange hypnotizing rhythms, thankfully not always percussively so, drawing the ear into a swaying communion.


Kangding Ray

I like this label, I really do. I can listen to entire albums of strategically placed pitch-shifted static and buzzing and genuinely enjoy it. These tracks, however, have a personality that stands out among all the other click-pop-n-wrinkle hardcore glitch. Check out older albums too, all extremely nice static buzz filled phat bass ear candy with more of an organic character than your typical release from here.


Aril Brikha
Palma / Forever Frost
Art of Vengeance

Getting involved in the Chicago house DJ scene made me a huge fawning sucker for that special deep style of dimly lit underground basement club speakers-in-your-ears house. These EPs – on Brikha’s new label, very worth following – provide a longing glimmer of those nights, a sliver of a view into that unending helical mass of filtered 4×4, but with the added flavor of a nicely wrought darker melodic display and just the right amount of unpretentious builds, expertly structured above thick analog basslines.


Daniel Menche
Sub Rosa

Really getting into the subtle noise of this album, a stereophonic treat where tendrils of sound creep into formation, directed by equally interesting shifts in rhythm. I’d certainly call it difficult listening, but more on the down-low engaging side than an all out aural assault, it even works as passive earpaper while I sysadmin. This artist is new to my ears this year, so definitely looking forward to discovering more, and super glad I bumped into this release when I did.


The Black Dog
Liber Dogma
Liber Kult (Book 1 Ov 3)
Liber Temple (Book 2 Ov 3)
Liber Nox (Book 3 Ov 3)

Dust Science

It was a great day when Ken Downie teamed up with Dust Science to resurrect The Black Dog in all its weird glory. It’s like a hole was in electronica and nobody ever knew it until new albums and remixes started showing up these past few years, and now here’s a slew of new tracks (colored vinyl if you’re one of the lucky ones!). The label page says the 12″es are meant a continuation of the more darkly ambient Music for Real Airports, but they are definitively more straight-ahead techno. Dogma, on the other hand, is one of my favorite listens of the year, meant as a snapshot of what tBd does live, and the result is a beautifully organic evolving mass of electronic exploration and funky groovability. I never got into this band much pre-Plaid, but what I’ve heard from that era doesn’t touch the production values of what they’re doing now.


The God Particle

I can’t deny my love of this band and when even a small two-track release appears I’m all ears. So although some of their tracks get way too poppy for my taste, it’s perfect that these are somewhat oldskool, and I especially love the Pink Floyd mimickery (not entirely unlike Download’s “Flight of the Luminous Insects”). I guess there’s a lot I like in tracks like these that remind me of my favorite times as a kid listening to the unfolding of albums like Dark Side of the Moon, and that can’t be a bad thing.



It’s really special when I find a record that caters more to darker electronica, the type of filtered analog sound with delicate beats and expansive reverberation atmospheres, the kind you’ll often think “man this would sound killer on a big system in the middle of the desert,” complete with crunchy liquid percussion. It’s not all beats though, there are some incredibly intense ambient sections that equally wrap your ears in haunting melodies from the other side of the chasm.


Margaret Dygas
Margaret Dygas

There is a playfulness in this album that compliments the regular cut-up and deep techno feel I usually get from the label. You know the drill: clean round synth harmonics contrast with crisp lines of shuffly drums and jazz-based samples nestled among the swelling and swaths of ululating drones… sounds typical, yes? Her arrangements are anything but; simple dissonant tonal contrasts propel the tunes beyond a boring four-by-four, and from out of nowhere you’re sifted into head-bobbing syncopation that evolved from surprises you didn’t even realize had happened.


Amon Tobin
ISAM (Control Over Nature)
Ninja Tune

Some regular fans were real disappointed, but the people I know who love it probably do so for all the same reasons i do: a poignant lack of sampling other works, intense abstract sound design, at times tableau-like, to-the-point sonic explorations, familiar filtered analog synth kaleidoscopes mixed with ample digital acrobatics and just the right touch of an eerily disturbing off-kilterness. I got the fantastic blue-fabric bound book version from Amoeba in LA, which is this amazing outlay of a miniature insect-like world created by Tessa Farmer (interestingly enough the very day I interviewed at Buzz). I share some heritage with the album too, mastered as it is by my buddy Shawn (aka Twerk) over at AudibleOddities.


Les Enregistrements Variables

When I listen, I keep wanting the solemn hypnotic repetitions to evolve into a live jam of some sort, and I fondly call this melancholy collection ‘shoegaze klezmer’, if for nothing but the acoustic instrumentation. My favorite parts of it are the weirder, more experimentally minded sounds, rhythms and ambience that flow between and around the masterfully arranged conversation between the instruments (all played by the same composer and arranger). This is a record I might expect to find as a solid Tzadik release with some extended soloing, and will hopefully be picked up beyond its homemade short-run life and get some play out as a real ensemble.


Matthew Mercer
Pianissimo Possibile

If you listen to any amount of electro-acoustic music you’re as painfully aware as I of the the glut of piano works. Fortunately idioms those… here broken… gLitsched… expectations frustrated – (just look at the title) – an immensely enjoyable equal footing of structure and form with materials instead of turning into some kind of accompaniment… driven and poignant, thickly colorful expositions.


Hash Bar Remnants, Part I & Part II

Rod Modell has got the knack for delivering a constant stream of floaty reverberating dub, and these installments are no exception. Slightly ambient tracks with lighter drums sit neatly beside heavier beats that could easily be mixed into techno – in fact all two volumes provide a wealth of nice and long dub house tracks for the discerning mixologist (there is even a follow-up release of loops from these records).


John Tejada

Usually when I see any remix on something done by Tejada, I get it, but have never been so much into the full albums. This one is the exception, a stellar atmospheric and minimal techno release, not to mention I just love having a Tejada vinyl with the ubiquitous Kompakt circles.



Geoff White finally takes off his techno mantle and gives back some even greater tracks from his more smoothly downtempo project. I like his house beats a lot, and the first Aeroc album was excellent, but this one takes all the elements of that goodness and fills in the rest with more of it, generously connecting with samples he uses in more upbeat affairs. Some of the best combinations of weird sounds and more traditional (acoustic) guitar licks out there, with plenty of groove to catch yer hook.


Phantasma Disques

AMEN / AMEN Remixes
Tundra Dub

When you’re actually searching through the underground for new things instead of just allowing them to pop up, you tend to run into some pretty awesomely strange shit (I mentioned the strange shit, right?). So first of all, I hate this genre title: Witch House (and I know you’re thinking, “RUN’s house!”). The alternatives are maybe not that better… ‘Okkvlt’ is probably what works best for me, but there’s also ‘Zombie Rave’ or the more musicological but equally confusing term ‘drag’… not so easy to tell what they actually describe. To that end, I feel like these releases not only encapsulate a lot of what I’ve heard from this style, but also what has gotten through to me more than other stuff. Orchestral, subtle folk, wide range of analog synth timbres, a rave element dialed down to icey glacial projections, plenty of noise and drone elements scattered throughout. Beyond style really, where a lot of genres meet up to melt together in an underworld of aural sublimity. I especially like the aspects of this genre that seem to be meant to keep it underground, for instance the indecipherable symbols and alternate typefaces for titling make it quite difficult for search engines, and a lot of the cover art are just bizarre and weirdly disturbing collages or suggestive imagery, which of course I find fascinating because the music echoes the same combinatory spirit. Highly contrasting, highly original stuff.


The quake song

Having moved to the LA area little over five years ago, it wasn’t until today that I experienced a significantly violent earthquake in our hometown of Fullerton – just across the freeway from the epicenter of the 5.4 quake in Chino Hills today.

I was talking on the phone in my studio for work, when suddenly it all started moving.

What’s interesting to me now is that though I remember the specific feeling of the earthquake, the adrenaline rush of anticipating when it will end, the cycles of disbelief and acceptance and small notions of what the edge of panic feels like… of all this, I remember the sounds the most.

We keep our glasses on a wire shelving unit, which began disposing victims to the kitchen floor. Not many perished, but the crashing and rattling of glass was enough to know. We also have a lot of wind chimes in various forms around different places in the house – most of which live on the front deck. The ones in my studio joined them in exultant songs of the earth! It was nothing less than enlightening, as the high timbers met the rumble of crust.

With little broken but a lot shaken (especially our cats, the breaking glass and shaking house wasn’t their idea of a good time – though our outside cats both napped straight through), it became a sort of coming-of-age moment, as the exhilaration of an enormous power much greater than I could immediately conceive finally welcomed me to California.