Purity: Sine Tones and White Noise


Another slot on Radio NZ Concert’s Upbeat show, this one on the purity – actual and approximated – of sine tones and white noise.

Sine tones and white noise do not occur in nature, though are approximated in nature; rather these are technologically produced sounds, associated with technology (think early sci-fi films) and with early days of technologically produced music; typically signifying a sterile, Spock-esque realm of machines and pure rationality:

Stockhausen, Studie I (1953)

Elektronische Musik 1952–1960, Stockhausen Complete Edition CD 3, Stockhausen-Verlag

A dry form of musical discourse, redolent more of non-human than human world; as if we’re observing physical phenomena in some kind of abstracted form via scientific apparatus (which I find powerful in itself); yet as our lives become increasingly technologized, and filled with the sounds of technology, such forms of sound have become very familiar to us, as everyday sounds, rather than futuristic or other-wordly; evident in the real-world origin of the sounds used in the following piece, which becomes evident at the end of the piece:

Satoru Wono, “Overture” from Sonata For Sine Wave And White Noise (2003)

Sonore: SON 20

As sine tones, white noise, and a whole range of other synthetic/articifical sound become familiar to us, become part of our everyday lives, they come to carry a greater emotional charge which might be associated with the functional use of such sounds; for example, white noise as a technological breakdown (TV/radio static), sine tones as the signal of death from an old school heart monitor; that such sounds have meaningful in their own right, due to such contextual associations, means they do carry an emotional charge, and composers/musicians have become inclined to make use of this; such use is strong in the following piece, where white noise and sine tones set up a coldness which is used in juxtaposition to the warmth of sound and harmony of the piano material:

Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, “pioneer IOO” from Summv (2011)

RastarNoton: r-n 132

The interaction between artificial purity and organic physicality in that piece is extended in the next piece, which demonstrates the complexity that emerges through physical interaction of a sine tone and the physical objects used to amplify it and feed it back into this system of objects; the results are rather beautiful and much more complex than the absolute simplicity of a sine tone, but again it is the interaction of the pure/artificial and complex/physical that creates this beauty

Alvin Lucier, The Wire: III”  from Music on a Long Thin Wire (1977)

Lovely Music: LCD 1011, 1992

Music on a Long Thin Wire is constructed as follows: the wire is extended across a large room, clamped to tables at both ends. The ends of the wire are connected to the loudspeaker terminals of a power amplifier placed under one of the tables. A sine wave oscillator is connected to the amplifier. A magnet straddles the wire at one end. Wooden bridges are inserted under the wire at both ends to which contact microphones are imbedded, routed to a stereo sound system. The microphones pick up the vibrations that the wire imparts to the bridges and are sent through the playback system. By varying the frequency and loudness of the oscillator, a rich variety of slides, frequency shifts, audible beats and other sonic phenomena may be produced”

Alvin Lucier, CD liner note for Music on a Long Thin Wire 

Weirding the voice

A second show on the voice for Upbeat, this one looking at technological transformations of the voice in music that sits happily in the shade of popular music.

John Oswald (1988). “Pretender”. Plunderphonics [EP]. RPM facilitates gender-bending (as do reel-to-reel tape machines, samplers, etc etc): “Over the course of this song Dolly Parton gets an aural sex change. Check out the last verse in which she gets to sing a duet with himself. Meanwhile, the arrangement goes from infinitely fast to infinitely slow. (John Oswald).

Goldfrapp (2000). “Deer Stop”. Felt Mountain [CD]. Alison Goldfrapp’s vocal transformed via Will Gregory’s electronics, rendering the whispery noir delivery all the more potent, as if Gregory’s production tools are microscopes for revealing the sonic qualia of emotion…

Burial (2007). “Archangel”. Untrue [CD]. Burial (Willian Bevan) samples Ray J’s song “One Wish” (2005) – which apparently charted here in NZ –, and uses pitch-shifting and time-stretching to map the vocal to a new melody, a side effect of which is that the voice is androgenized. No more a song of boy meets/loves/loses girl, instead we hear a shape-shifting jilted lover, singing the universal song of being lost in and through love.

Mouse on Mars (2001). “Actionist Respoke”. Idiology [CD]. Voice becomes an electronic instrument, a bionic rhythm machine, thanks to the vocalist’s supper of a sampler and turntable… This track works nicely in tandem with Kodwo Eshun’s book More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (London: Quartet Books, 1998). Eshun’s afrofuturism might just admit two white guys from Germany (Kraftwerk helped Afrika Bambaataa on his way, so why not?)

The Voice on Upbeat

Another show on sound-based music for Radio NZ Concert’s Upbeat show (to be aired sometime next week). The 20 min slot explores the voice as mediator of inside/outside, self/other, the act of making ourselves through sound – “My voice is not something I merely have… Rather it is something I do” (Stephen Connor, Dumbstruck: a cultural history of ventriloquism). The following works are featured:

Sound-based art on Radio NZ Concert

I’ve got a monthly slot on Radio NZ Concert’s “Upbeat” show, produced by Jeremy Brick and hosted by Eva Radich. The first one was broadcast on July 28 and has been archived here. It’s an introduction to soundscape and features Francisco Lopez’s La Selva (though I didn’t mention Lopez’s distate for the concept of soundscape…), David Dunn’s Chaos and the Emergent Mind of the Pond (the sublime rhythmics of aquatic insects), and what might well be the first soundscape composition – or the first work of musique concrète for that matter – Walther Ruttman’s Wochenende, “a film without images” dating from 1930, which is an aural counterpart to his silent film symphonies. The topic for the next show is yet to be decided. Perhaps a look at the work of instrumental composers who have incorporated the soundscape into their work in various ways? Berio’s Voci and Naturale come to mind (if we can accept folk songs as a kind of soundscape), as does Stockhausen’s Orchester-Finalisten (Robin Maconie maintains the instrumentalists play the parts of insects in this piece) and, something more recent, Fennesz’s Black Sea which weaves in and out of field recordings. And of course something by Messiaen featuring birds, though the only technology involved in such works was pencil, paper, and Messiaen’s formidable powers of listening.