Popular Archeology: Shellac

Thanks to Marij van Gorkom spent more time than she needed to working through the minutiae of my short piece, Popular Archeology: Shellac, for bass clarinet and monophonic audio, in preparing for the concert she gave last night as part of her Sonic Spaces project.  Needless to say, such attention to detail is greatly appreciated and, what’s more, essential in a piece such as this which reduces the huge expressive range of the bass clarinet down to a scale appropriate to the sound reproduction capabilities of a small loudspeaker placed in the bell of the instrument.

The piece itself is very much concerned with the relics found by an amateur audio media archeologist – an Op.37 by someone no doubt once well known, a song with the title “Cherry Ripe” (precious little left to hear of it) – and will expand as other artefacts are committed to digital media. Marij is keen to help with the ongoing excavations.

Awkward Ecologies now online

My piece on the awkward ecologies of sound-based music is now available in eContact! 13.3 which “features a selection of articles presented at the 2010 Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium (TES) and further complementary articles addressing contemporary issues of performance, education and composition in the larger EA milieu, and is rounded out with interviews and chats with Canadian and international composers and performers.”


Silence and non-cochlear sound art

Jason Wright drew my attention to the sound installation work of Tristan Perich and Felix Hess. The two works below exemplify a non-cochlear sound art (Seth Kim-Cohen) and are mesmerising proof of sound’s status as the most “withdrawn” of phenomena, with silence as the apotheosis of this: “Silence is not merely negative; it is not the mere absence of speech. It is a positive, a complete world to itself” (Max Picard, in George M Foy’s  Zero Decibels). But clearly neither pole is replete, there is a necessary complicity between sound and silence – “Silence is the ‘other side’ of sound” (Don Ihde, Listening and Voice)

Felix Hess, It's in the air (1996)

Felix Hess’ It’s in the air must beg the question “is it?”. A silence which draws the auditor to the horizon of sound. “Tens of tiny paper vanes move with the imperceptible eddies of air pressure fluctuations in a space. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this installation can create both a heightened sense of hearing, or an awareness of complete silence.”

Tristan Perich’s Breathing Portraits (2005-2010) use sub-audible waveforms to drive naked speaker cones (we all know what these look like, but there’s a photo below) so as to visually represent the breathing patterns of the subjects of these portraits. Sound is cut from its source and reproduced, inaudibly but visibly, and out of this emerges the invisible life-force, the pneuma, that drives the loudspeakers in the first instance. The loudspeaker cone ceases to be the reproductive source of a spectral presence (the invisible source-cause) and becomes an uncanny thing, a hyperobject, the affective power of which derives from its ontological distribution across visible presence (moving loudspeaker cone) and audible absence (human breathing). This, to appropriate Steven Feld’s take on Gregory Bateson’s term, is a rare form of sonic schismogenesis and very beautiful it is too. [and what a shame I can’t embed video without paying for a WordPress video upgrade…]

Tristan Perich, Breathing Portraits – Chris and Tom

Notes towards a programme

Lilburn in the Victoria University EMS

Douglas Lilburn’s electronic music continues to fascinate. I’ve written about it in a number of (offline) contexts, and this Wednesday evening will be helping to present a concert marking the 10th anniversary of his death – 10 years ago today. Here follow notes towards programme notes for the electronic works in the concert, which explores the links between his lesser known piano works and the electronic work. Lilburn’s complete electronic works, by the way, are available as a box set from SOUNZ.

God Save (1972, 1:00). A familiar melody, transformed into wonky bagpipe filigree and, later, towards those birdlike forms so prevalent in the electronic work. It  is no doubt a republican snipe, not least given Lilburn’s focus on the “the discovery of our own [musical] identity” (Lilburn, 1946), and delivered with irreverent antipodean wit.

Five Toronto Pieces – Sings Harry (1963, 5:06). One of Lilburn’s earliest electronic works and it presages many of the features of his mature works in the electronic medium. There is a sparseness, a concern for inharmonic timbres (so characteristic of the technology of the day), a structure defined by refrain (song is never far away in Lilburn’s music), and the sudden opening of the texture into ebullient melody (birds and bagpipes again). Then at the end, somewhat unexpectedly, there is Lilburn, giving voice to a different reading of Denis Glover’s poem. This might be understood as Lilburn revising his own history which in 1963, as Lilburn embarked on a journey into the nascent electronic medium, was still largely defined by the success of the other Sings Harry (1954).

Soundscape with Lake and River (1979, 11:00). Without doubt Lilburn’s best known electronic work. It remains a singular statement, juxtaposing and overlaying field recordings made near Taupo with electronic textures that reflect and refract the natural world of New Zealand which Lilburn held to be key to his aural imagination. Aside from its sheer beauty, the reasons for the work’s significance are best articulated by Lilburn: “I think the last piece that I did [Soundscape with lake and river] really brought me full circle to what I’d been wanting to do all the time: take the natural sound of the river and lake at Taupo and weave it into the texture of the electronic sound and fuse them in some way.”

Triptych (1977, 11:00). This work presents something of summary of many of Lilburn’s signature sounds and techniques, and as ever bears relationship both to his instrumental work (melody always hovering close by) and his engagement with the natural world (birds around tangled horizons). To a contemporary ear, it has an appealing quirkiness and grittiness, which is one reason why these pieces grab the attention of those who are as interested in electronica as Elektronische Musik. More than this though, it is in soundworlds such as this that, as Frederick Page put it, ‘the strangeness, the remoteness, of our world, finds its sound’ (1970).

Awkward Ecologies

My essay on the awkward ecologies of sound-based music is to be published online in eContact! (13.3), the journal of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community. Thanks to Kevin Austin for spotting the essay in this blog, and to Jef Chippewa for his editorial prowess. The piece isn’t hugely changed, but has been softened slightly…

Magnetic North: Wow & Flutter

Andrew Clifford’s “Magnetic North” essay, on my installation Popular Archeology, is now online. The installation was the first show in the Letting Space series curated by Sophie Jerram and Mark Amery.  Andrew’s essay nicely situates the installation in the context of a bunch of other media-obsessed and medial projects, articulates its relationship to popular culture (long live the mixtape), and links it to a much longer tradition – vanitas and the ars morendi. Oddly, I hadn’t though of making this link, but it of course makes perfect sense and reminds me that I was once told by Miriama Young that the word cassette derives from the French “casse” or “caisse” meaning “casket” (among other things).

Andrew’s descriptions of the installation are rich and apt. Here’s one of my favourite passages: “Repeated listening to any fragment only makes it stranger, like trying to identify a mumbled word on a recording, or reciting a phrase until it becomes meaningless.” This suggests a link to the Formalists, perhaps making the installation a Shklovskian gesture for the 21stC: “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make focus difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” (“Art as Technique”, 1917).

The essay also features some wonderful photos of the installation taken by Boofa (thanks again!).

Black Water, Brown Water

This is the afterword I wrote for David Prior’s wonderful phonographic piece Black Water, Brown Water, originally a site-specific headphone soundwalk commissioned from Liminal (David Prior and Frances Crow) by British Waterways for the Stourport Canal Basin Regeneration project. As conceived by Prior, “Black Water Brown Water is a cinematic rendering in sound of the characters involved in the creation of the Stourport Basin.” As a phonographic work the piece is released as a book/CD (and available to order online) by Acts of Language. The afterword is a poetic examination of phonographic technology and (un)mediated listening as a substrate to the piece.

“The water sounds today like it did yesterday”

(Black Water Brown Water)

The soundwalk originates in listening. Without fear of being “Obscured and made weak; as the voyce of a man is in the noyse of the day” (Hobbes, 1651): the Italian Futurists, “Let us cross a great modern capital with our ears more alert than our eyes” (Russolo, 1913); John Cage, using listening to bring down walls (4’33”, 1952); Max Neuhaus, stamping the word LISTEN on his audience’s hands before leading them through New York (1966).

For R. Murray Schafer, inveterate soundwalker and progenitor of acoustic ecology, there is no music in the industrialised world. “Only a brutish society would allow itself to be awaked each morning to such non-natural noises as [lawnmowers, leaf blowers etc] without a murmur of protest.” He’s right, in a sense. The Stourport Canal Basin has been colonised by traffic sound.

Yet the machine neither opposes nor is opposed to listening.

As Microscopes or Magnifying Glasses, help the Eye to see near Objects, that by reason of their smallness were invisible before. So Microphones or Micracousticks, that is, Magnifying ear instruments may be contriv’d after that manner, that they shall render the most minute Sound in nature distinctly Audible — BP. N. MARSH (1684)

The microphone is a machine that ‘listens’, but its ear must always be judged against our own. In the space between these, sound is estranged from its original context, even while the listener remains within the scene. In the headphone laboratory, sound becomes specimen. The listener’s ear audits, at an objective remove, sound bodies: at the tip of the microphone boom, water pouring over a lock; around the hydrophone, the pressure of immersion.

Sensual empiricism.

We stroked the left ear of a dummy head with a paintbrush and recorded the sound and the scene. We then presented the sound, the images, or the both to participants. The participants rated their subjective tactile experience by answering a questionnaire. The results revealed that the participants felt a tickling sensation when the sound was presented near to the head — Kitagawa and Igarashi (2005)

Microphonic estrangement begins schismogenesis (Feld), but the unfolding aural scene outside remains wedded to what is heard inside the headphones. The microphone heightens perception of sonic grain and perspective, but the fact of presence prevents full estrangement of sound from source. If one is unsure of what one hears, one looks. Seeing is believing.

Was it starting to rain? I listened, I listened again. I found the noise persisted… Was I then satisfied? Not at all. For, my ears might be ringing. I went to the window. No water on the pane. But rain may fall straight down. Consequently, I opened the window and leaned out — Spaier (in Sartre, 1936)

Schismogenesis is complete when auditor becomes phonographer. Recorded sound can be played back (temporal estrangement) in any context (spatial estrangement). Recording is documentary, but you shouldn’t always believe what you hear. Apparition. Audition.

WARNING: Using headphones can be disorienting — Soundwalk map, Black Water Brown Water

Schismogenesis allows commingling. Was and is, here and elsewhere. Dartington Estate birds in Stourport’s trees. Canal side voices from an acoustically neutral studio. Superposition is the method of the mediated soundwalk, problematising the real. Estrangement encouraging engagement. Not the same as a personal soundtrack to manage everyday life.

After a long succession of noises, as the fall of waters, or the beating of forge-hammers, the hammers beat and the waters roar in the imagination long after the first sounds have ceased to affect it — Edmund Burke (1757)

Signal processing of recorded sound furthers estrangement, induces abstraction. Fast Fourier Transforms of water recordings stretch time – allowing close scrutiny of “the babble and blot, the swash and spume” (Black Water, Brown Water) – and render spectra mutable. Water droplets or record crackle?

Abstracted still further, sound is bridled to music.

[M]achines as the means not only of producing sound but also of musical values themselves… Many researchers, well understanding the pre-eminent importance of musical value, turned to the physicists. Their values were now frequencies, decibles, harmonic spectra. With electronics they could get direct access to all this and have really precise and objective musical values — Pierre Schaeffer (1995)

Inside the machine, speech couples with a barrel organ, becomes music, births a sonorous metaphor. Soundwater. Exterior, entering the body, becoming interior, projected outwards again, to take yet unpredicted forms and meanings.

It goes in

It comes out

It rains

It steams

— Black Water, Brown Water

So the body of sound, of the listener, is located in an environment in an ecosystem in the biosphere, through the medium and metaphor of water. Sound articulates our fluid substrate. Brindley, “the enemy of each salt flood and ebbing stream”, seeks to rationalise water, “the liminal river, intemperate and unowned” (Black Water Brown Water). Sabrina obvenes. Water, like sound, is a feminine medium. Labile, unbridled, fertile, encompassing.

Each soul knows the infinite, knows everything, but confusedly. It is like walking on the seashore and hearing the great noise of the sea — Leibniz (1714)


Burke, Edmund (1757). A Philosophical Inquiry into the origin of our ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful with an introductory discourse concerning Taste, and several other additions

Leibniz, Gottfried (1714). The Monadology

Feld, Steven (1994) “From Schizophonia to Schismogenesis: On the Discourses and Commodification Practices of ‘World Groove’ and ‘World Beat’”, in Music Grooves (ed. Keil and Feld), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Hobbes, Thomas (1651). Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil

Hodgkinson, Tim and Schaeffer, Pierre (1986). Interview with Pierre Schaeffer, Recommended Records Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1987

Kitagawa, Norimichi and Igarashi, Yuka (2005). “Tickle sensation induced by hearing a sound”, The Japanese Journal of Psychonomic Science, Vol. 24, No. 1: 121-2

Marsh, BP. N (1684). Entry for “Microphone n., 1. A mechanical device”, Oxford English Dictionary Online

Sartre, Jean Paul (1936). Imagination: a psychological critique (trans. Williams), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962

Schafer, R. Murray (1992). “A Deceptive Neighborhood: The Soundscape of Toronto’s Lower Forest Hill”, Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter, Vol. 3

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The water sounds today like it did yesterday by Dugal McKinnon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.