Archive for ‘sound studies’

May 11, 2011

Long After We’re Gone

Long After We’re Gone is a soundscape piece that I made comprising video and audio field recordings in and around the Gowanus Canal. The title comes from a conversation I had with Eymund Diegel, who took me out on the canal by canoe. Eymund is an Urban Planner with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Gowanus Canal. He talked about the natural streams that have been flowing into the canal for centuries and that will still be around long after we’re gone.

April 2, 2011

McLaughlin Park

For a sound journal assignment, I visited a local park on different days and times over a couple of weeks. The park is a block away from my house.

My favorite sonic moment in the park was on a quiet Wednesday evening at about 9pm: An adult woman came in and started using one of the playground swings. I was enjoying the gentle squeaking of the swing — she had her back to me and I don’t think she was aware of my presence. Then she surprised me by these sounds:

What a great sonic use of a city park: When our apartment walls and the close proximity of neighbors threaten us with suffocation, we may not be able howl at the moon in a far-off empty field, but there there is McLaughlin Park.

February 24, 2011

Thank you Eliane Radigue

Last night while listening to Last FM, my selection switched to a kind of drone which at first I wasn’t too thrilled to hear.  I was soon mesmerized however by this slow layering of extraordinary sounds. The composition had a meditative effect on me and as I was lying in bed listening in darkness, I eventually dozed off. This morning I discovered that I had been listening to Elian Radigue, a French composer who for most of her career used the ARP 2500 to create her sounds. This was ARPs first synthesizer, built in the 1970s, and only 100 were sold.


The track I listened to last night is called Koume, from Trilogie De La Mort. I highly recommend headphones for this.  To read more on Radigue go here. There’s also a lovely profile of her on Vimeo:

February 24, 2011

Just Intonation

My discovery this week is Just Intonation and microtonal music.  Unfortunately my technical understanding of music is limited, so my explanations will have to rely on a lot of quotes.  Microtonal music is a move away from the the music most westerners are familiar with — music based on a tuning system called Equal Temperament. From American Mavericks:

Standard tuning in today’s Western classical music is called 12-tone equal temperament. The everyday scale that we use divides an octave into 12 equally spaced pitches. The major advantage to having equal temperament is that melodies can be transposed into any key and remain identical. A melody written in the key of C sounds the same as a melody written in the key of D, and so on. By the same token, every key sounds more or less the same, and the distinct characters of different modes are lost, along with their expressive potential.

Americans have heard equally spaced scales all our lives and have learned to accept them as normal. When we hear other scales, such as Asian, Indian, or Greek, they sound as if they are out of tune because they don’t fit neatly into our preconceptions.

According to Kyle Gann:

Music schools teach that this Big Mac tuning has been around for centuries and represents an immutable endpoint of progress. It’s a lie. History, even in Europe, has provided many alternatives, Arabic and Asian cultures have provided rich tuning resources unknown to us, and many recent American composers have explored alternative tuning possibilities.

There is nothing that musicians take more for granted than the fact that there are twelve pitches to an octave, and that these pitches divide the octave into twelve equal steps. Apparently few musicians question this arrangement, and only a tiny minority can explain whence it arose, why, and from what principles its authority derives. This 12-pitch assumption, however, is far from innocent. Twelve-tone equal temperament, as this common tuning is called, is a 20th-century phenomenon, a blandly homogenous tuning increasingly imposed on all the world’s musics in the name of scientific progress. In short, twelve-tone equal temperament is to tuning what the McDonald’s hamburger is to food.

Charles Ives was interested in the tones the kind of in-between tones that are not usually available on a normally-tuned piano. This is one of his 3 Quarter-Tone Pieces, in which one of the two pianos is tuned one-quarter tone down creating a strange-sounding music to the western ear:

As an alternative to Equal Temperament tuning, some composers instead use ‘Just Intonation’, which is way too technical a concept for me to understand, but which basically opens up a far larger range of pitches and tones to create music with than equal temperament.  Harry Partch, who was an American pioneer of ‘Just Intonation’,  is known for using a 43 tone scale.  A little more on Just Intonation:

Just Intonation is not a particular scale, nor is it tied to any particular musical style. It is, rather, a set of principles which can be used to create a virtually infinite variety of intervals, scales, and chords which are applicable to any style of tonal music (or even, if you wish, to atonal styles). Just Intonation is not, however, simply a tool for improving the consonance of existing musics; ultimately, it is a method for understanding and navigating through the boundless reaches of the pitch continuum—a method that transcends the musical practices of any particular culture.

Despite my limited understanding of all how this all works, I’ve been listening to Harry Partch music for the past couple of days and am really enjoying it.  Partch was kind of a mad genius who created a bunch of instruments because existing instruments could not play the music he was writing.  Here he is playing his Cloud Chamber Bowls:

I’m looking forward to listening to a lot more microtonal music. It’s whole new auditory world to explore. For a taste Harry Partch, here’s a lovely composition of his, Daphne of the Dunes:

February 9, 2011

Max Neuhaus Time Square

Our sound studies class had a little field trip last night to Times Square to listen to a permanent audio installation by Max Neuhaus.  It’s unmarked and if you don’t know about it, you may very well miss it.  I’d like to go back to spend some more time there — last night was absolutely freezing and I couldn’t be out in the icy wind for very long.

This is how Neuhaus describes the piece:

The work is located on a pedestrian island, a triangle formed by Broadway and Seventh Avenue, between Forty-sixth and Forty-fifth Streets in new York City’s Times Square.

The aural and visual environment is rich and complex. It includes large billboards, moving neon signs, office buildings, hotels, theaters, porno centers and electronic game emporiums. Its population is equally diverse including tourists, theatergoers, commuters, pimps, shoppers, hucksters and office workers. Most people are in motion, passing through the square. As it is a junction of several pathways across the square, the island is sometimes crossed by a thousand or more people in an hour.

The work is an invisible, unmarked block of sound on the north end of the island. Its sonority, a rich harmonic sound texture resembling the after ring of large bells, is an impossibility within its context. Many who pass through it, however, can dismiss it as an unusual machinery sound from below ground.

For those who find and accept the sound’s impossibility, though, the island becomes a different place, separate, but including its surroundings. These people, having no way of knowing that it has been deliberately made, usually claim the work as a place of their own discovering. (via propheticdesire)

Here’s a video about Neuhaus and the re-installation of the piece.  He originally installed it in the 70s and it was reinstalled in the 90s.   This is what it sounds like:

I was also quite intrigued by Neuhaus’ Silent Alarm clock invention from 1979:

It’s a device emitting a continuous tone slowly increasing in volume until it suddenly stops at the appointed time, thus awaking the sleeper. It’s not the subtle sound that actually awakes, but its disappearing.  (via Continuo)

February 8, 2011

Binaural recording

After following a link in a twitter post by media storm entitled audio is the new video, I read for the first time about binaural sound. The link was to a blog post on where he embedded a Nike Commercial with very impressive sound.

Binaural audio is best described by the comments on the blog:

McKenzie: it is the process of recording audio in a fashion that imitates the natural way our ears “capture” audio. This includes placing microphones on either side of a dummy head, and often inside pinnae (outer ears) to replicate the unique manner that our ears take in sound. 3D for the ears.

Mike: Whilst it uses 2 mice like all the other stereo techniques mentioned, has 1 key difference. Whilst there is a slight (we’re talking a few ms here) delay due to the mics being placed slightly apart like our ears, our brains also interpret the frequency difference that the masking of our head creates. A sound coming from the left will arrive later at the right ear, but as the head is in the way, will also be missing some of the high frequency content.

For example, using this technique, recording through a dummy head (and listening through headphones) it’s possible to tell if a sound is in front, or behind, even though it may have the same distance difference between the left and right ear. The masking of our ears in this case removes a small amount of high frequencies (around 7kHz).

Binaural audio has been around for a very long time — before stereo.  I don’t think it has been used much, perhaps because it’s best experienced when listening with headphones.  Apparently a lot of iphone game have binaural audio now, which makes sense.  Most of the equipment to record binaural sound is expensive, but after searching around online, I found a DIY method here.  You can make cheap binaural-ish mics by switching out cheap headphone speakers with little electret mics.  It involves some soldering — but it’s pretty easy.  My partner helped a lot with actually creating the bigger earbud boxes with plastic and electric tape.  I initially thought it wasn’t working because I hadn’t realized that my Zoom h2n recorder had plugin-power capabilities.  I usually use xlr mics with it.  These are my new  earbud microphones:

The fun thing is that you can walk around with these plugged in your ears and no-one knows that you’re recording.  It also gives the recordings a more surround-sound feel if you’re listening has stereo headphones on.  Of course since you have the mics in your ears, you can’t actually listen to what you’re recording.  Here’s a little sample that I recorded in an elevator yesterday (there a little glitch in the middle) — remember to listen with headphones on:

and another where I was just standing at a street corner

I’ll keep experimenting and figure out the best way to use this.

Here’s a pretty famous example of real binaural audio —

And the Nike Commercial I mentioned above — not sure if it’s binaural, but it’s pretty great.

February 4, 2011

Sound Studies

Even though it’s only been 2 weeks, I’m really enjoying my Sound Studies class with Prof Melissa Gray.  My main reason for taking it was to learn how to create more layered and thoughtful soundscapes for my video projects.  Up until now, my main concern with sound has been to get clear audio whenever a documentary subject speaks and at least  useable audio for any other scenes.  While editing my film Waited For, I was often frustrated with my limited audio choices.  I think I could have depicted certain moods and emotional shifts far better had I given more thought to sound design while in production.

Our reading so far has looked at a history of the stethoscope, futurism, sound ecology — all fascinating.  Our final project can be kind of anything that touches on sound studies and I have a few vague ideas.

At first I thought I might do something about cell-phones and music in Africa.  The blog Sahel Sounds has an interesting piece on how cellular phones are being used to record and share music.

The amateur recordings on cellphones are the envy of any ethnomusicologist — Tamashek poetry, tende drumming, multiphonic issawat chanting. All, in fact, done without the chasm the foreigner, an outsider whose motives are questioned and ability to understand hampered by culture and language. The ethnomusicologist cannot ignore the effect of the cellular phone, nor the utility that it plays in research.

. . .

The new media places the technology in the hands of the Africans. And as such, questions the role of the intrepid collector, the documentary filmmaker, the anthropologist, the photographer. The foreigner who has descended onto the continent over the past centuries has benefited from the technological inequity to become the voice, the conduit. Like the cassette, his days are numbered.

Sahelsounds also compiled cassette of music collected from cellphones aptly titled Music from Saharan Cell phones.

At the same time that Christopher from Sahelsounds claims that Africans are empowered to distribute their own music through new technology, there is also a renewed interest in using little-known African music in Western remixes.  In a post on the blog Africasacountry, Chief Boima correlates the Western DJs search for rare African vinal to colonialism:

The current mad-dash for rare African vinyl could be analogous to Europe’s 19th Century Scramble for Africa, a mad-dash for rare African minerals. There is a trend among rare-groove DJs to “find fortune” in the (re)discovery of musical gems in places where the value of vinyl and recorded music from the past has diminished . . . The image of these guys as plundering opportunists isn’t helped by their reception in “The West”.  As one music writer puts it,”Frank Gossner’s DJ sets burst with exclusive tracks that are so rare that they can’t be heard anywhere else on this planet” (from Rare music from planet Africa!?! Who wouldn’t want to get a piece of that?

Interesting stuff.  As an essay, I’m not quite sure what angle I would take and though it’s about music, it’s not really about ‘sound’ as such.    I’ll keep reading and see what develops.

It might be best to do a production piece instead of an essay for the final project.  We have the choice.  I also have a vague idea for this that  in line with my goals of trying to create more layered soundscapes for my films.   I might create a sound piece that conveys the changing ambience and  mood as time goes by in one particular location.  I could do use time-lapse photography to show the changing light of day – sunrise to sunset.  I’ve been meaning to experiment with time-lapse on my Canon 5D camera so this might be a good reason to do so.  The challenge is to focus on the audio this time and have the visuals be secondary.