Monday, 2 December 2013

LMJ #23 - "Electric Music" on the Victorian Stage

There are many obscure, under-explored sonic marvels to be found in the old music hall annals - I'm rustling to publish a detailed survey soon.  In the meantime, the latest Leonardo Music Journal (#23) features my paper on 'electrical music' in Victorian music halls, focussing specifically on the work of the eccentric Johann Baptist Schalkenbach and his imitators.  In the 1860s Schalkenbach developed an act in which he played on an amalgamation of instruments he called the Piano-Orchestre Électro-Moteur (built around a reed harmonium).  Whilst playing, he would simultaneously trigger musical, noise and optical effects via the electromagnetic triggering of circuits connected to objects placed around the hall.  It's a delicate precursor to the noise machines of the Italian Futurists.  Over the decades, the apparatus gradually became more spectacular as new features were added.
For some years now I've been hunting down ephemera relating to Schalkenbach and his copycats in the hope of shedding some light on the electrical music contraptions.  Precious little information exists, despite Schalkenbach performing for almost 40 years.   LMJ 23's "'Electric Music' on the Victorian Stage: The Forgotten Work of J.B. Schalkenbach" forms the most complete account so far of Schalkenbach's work.  My research also suggests that in the 1870s Schalkenbach assisted in the construction of acoustic magic tricks for celebrated magicians Maskelyne and Cooke.  Schalkenbach's conspicuous absence from the "standard" prehistory of electronic music can perhaps be accounted for by the lack of credible information about the electrical aspects of his Piano-Orchestre Électro-Moteur.  Minor gripes rooted in nationalism possibly also contributed to his present obscurity - one early review states that Schalkenbach's act met with great applause, but: "we fancy it would have gained still greater favour but for [his] singular resemblance to the great German Chancellor Prince Bismarck, which did not quite please some of the audience."
Maskelyne & Cooke's Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. (Demolished in 1905)
Schalkenbach played upon the mysteriousness surrounding "electrical music".  One newspaper reporter presumed that the rain sounds were electrically produced: "in a moment even electricity travels to the roof of the building and also to the apparatus around the hall, and causes vibrations as if a thunderstorm were heard approaching from the distance; you hear the howling of the wind and the downfall of a torrent of rain."   Investigations reveal that, in reality, the electric action was only employed to control a door, releasing buckshot that rattled down concealed descending shafts (later to become a popular off-stage acoustic rain effect).  But Schalkenbach's instrument was nevertheless very sophisticated.   In the 1890s, an electrical journal asked, "was it telephonically or phonographically that Herr J. B. Schalkenbach transmitted sounds to a distance?"  It is unlikely that either of these techniques were employed.  It appears to have been primarily electromagnetic triggering (including percussive sounds, motors, release mechanisms, explosives, detonations and light effects), the possibility of trembling-bell style feedback, and the basic wind bellows with their artful acoustic couplings through pipes and funnels.  Although, there are still many mysteries.
The descriptive, noisy, electrically actuated music pioneered by Schalkenbach was subsequently copied by many music hall acts, including Professor Beaumont (aka John Walmsley Beaumont) "Necromancer and Electric Musician", Herr Renier, and most interestingly, H. F. Juleene (aka John Parsons) and Dot D'Alcorn (aka Susette D'Alcorn), a double act who titled their demonic centrepiece Mephisto.   Dot D'Alcorn is possibly the first professional female performer of an electrical musical instrument.  Juleene and Schalkenbach had an interesting run-in played out in the The Era stage newspaper involving aggressive placement of adverts.

In performance, Schalkenbach played his own music (which does not seem to have survived), and also included selections from operas, such as Daniel Auber's La muette de Portici‬ and The Storm from Rossini's William Tell.   Mephisto on the other hand, was more grounded in music hall styles, and some original Juleene compositions do exist.  Dot D'Alcorn would play the electric instrument dressed as Mephistopheles.  I have transcribed the surprisingly twee Mephisto Gavotte (the electrical parts are not scored) - it gives a flavour of the Mephisto repertoire.  It is a MIDI arrangement:


Schalkenbach and his ilk are particularly interesting in relation to the post-electronic music techniques outlined on this blog and elsewhere.  In 'post-electronics', acoustic sounds are wrought with close adherence to classical electronic music techniques.  Essentially: acoustics aspiring to electronic sound.  In Schalkenbach's art, acoustics likewise aspire (or are styled) to 'electric' sound despite the utter non-existence of any "electric music" listening paradigms at that time(!).  Schalkenbach produces acoustic sounds - musical and non-musical - distant from the console, and presents them enigmatically as electrically produced sounds - sounds of mysterious provenance: the beginnings of sound art.

More coming soon...

Leonardo Music Journal #23 is out now.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Fortean Times - Sept 2013 - Crook Frightfulness

This month's Fortean Times #305 (a sort of 'paranoia special') features my exposé of the extraordinary anonymously-penned book Crook Frightfulness, self-published in 1935 by "A Victim".  In this blog post I'll present some thoughts on the book's semi-acoustical ideas.

Crook Frightfulness was first brought to my attention by the marvel Westwyrd the Bard: drum-specialist and custodian of curiousness.  For those unacquainted with the book, it's an autobiography of a man tormented by crooks who embark on a campaign of staring, ventriloquism and covert psychological harassments against the author.  The "Victim" writes of his personal hell in which everybody else is either complicit, or simply fails to notice the ventriloquist abusers who stalk him across the British colonies.  Crooks are also able to hear the Victim's thoughts by a theorised listening apparatus used with headphones (a sort of powerful stethoscope device).  Some of the antiquated colonial sentiments add an extra dimension of bizarreness.  A colleague described Crook Frightfulness as an "acoustic mystery thriller" although it's generally seen as a schizophrenic emission.  For anybody interested in sound, its psychology and its perception/misperception, it's a particularly fascinating book, as the author manages to "attain a degree of impersonal interest" (as he puts it) and proceeds to investigate the phenomena from his own practical, acoustical viewpoint.

Crook Frightfulness is split into three parts.  The first part - some 40 odd pages - begins almost like a potboiler; autobiographical sensationalism comparable to, say, Sydney Horler's 1934 exposé, London's Underworld.  Part two is written more matter-of-factly, albeit disjointedly and with heightened paranoia.  Here, the author writes of his experiences and travels around the colonies to outmanoeuvre the 'crooks'.  The third part is the 'Vital Climax' where the crooks' terrible practices are examined (involving listening apparatuses).   In FT305, it is suggested that the Victim did experience a genuine low-level persecution that left a lasting resonance.

Charles Wheatstone's 'Telephonic Concert' at the Royal Polytechnic Institution
The listening apparatus is hypothesised in general terms.  It is assumed to be able to pick up the minutest sound, akin to an amplifier, functioning in a stethoscope-like arrangement - presumably non-electric.  This acoustic method of sound conveyance conjures to mind Charles Wheatstone's ideas on acoustic transmission through solids.  Wheatstone coined the term 'microphone', not in reference to an electric transducer as we know it now, but to refer to an apparatus where sound is carried by direct transmission through solids to the ear.  In one adaptation of this to sounding bodies, at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in the 1860s Wheatstone exhibited a 'Telephonic Concert' - completely non-electric (à la tin-cans-and-string) - where thick wires coupled to musical instruments, played on a concealed lower floor, acoustically carried the sound silently through intermediate floors to a performance stage above, where the wires reconnected with the sounding boards of harps, rediffusing the sound as if by magic.  Wheatstone also visualised the invention of an ideal acoustically conductive material to stretch vast distances, to communicate from Aberdeen to London.   In Crook Frightfulness - 'A Victim' presents a visceral horror in which crooks can acoustically subjugate you in this Wheatstonian manner:

"I frequently tried to stifle the annoyance by stopping or closing my ears with my fingers, and when doing so, I rested my elbows on my knees or put my elbows upon the wooden table.  Strange to say, I found that neither of these expedients stopped or banished the sound (...)  The sound when I stopped my ears must have travelled through the wood of the floor and of the table and then through my bones to my ears!  (...)  They no doubt send sounds (by means of some instrument) to molest any intended victim who is in the same premises, or even in adjoining premises."

Likewise, crooks are said to "hear your thoughts - the sound travelling through the floor you are standing on (...) to perhaps that next room or adjoining house, to the crook listener".   Thoughts are heard by closely listening to sub-vocal articulation: "when you think (in 95 cases out of a hundred) you actually shape your words in your throat and mouth.  When we breathe through our mouth or nose it is possible for these fiends to hear your thoughts."  The Victim's theories evolve as Crook Frightfulness progresses.  Some later editions feature paste-ins where a "sound 'outfit' like the BBC" is theorised.  In spite of the book's skew-whiff nature, some of these ideas were certainly at the 'cutting edge' - an early example of widespread covert listening is seen in the early 1940s with the hidden electric microphones around Trent Park's prisoner-of-war compound to capture prisoners' conversations.

A BBC "sound 'outfit'" of the period
Last year, the writer and long-time Crook Frightfulness aficionado Phil Baker sold me a first edition of the book.  Baker was also keen to know more about the book's author.  This spurred me on to compile all the scraps of information I'd collected over the years with a view to building a profile of "Victim".

The compilation of biographical facts (gleaned from both the first and expanded editions) revealed the author was born in the East End of London, in or around 1875.  He was involved in rent collection and property.  He left Britain for New Zealand in 1924, moved to the British West Indies around 1928, and returned to Britain to settle in Aberystwyth in March 1932.  Many hours at Kew's National Archives yielded a list of some fifty or so names, gradually whittled down as each name was followed up.  The use of digital archives plays a key role in such research.

It is revealed for the first time in this month's Fortean Times that Crook Frightfulness was written by an east London estate agent named Arthur Herbert Mills.  He left Britain using the name Herbert Mills, and returned as Arthur Mills, which slightly confused matters, but further research has confirmed the connections.  His story is very interesting, and only a bare outline could be condensed into the article.

The book presents quite a sad predicament, but it's hoped that the discovery of the author's name will enable further study of the text, which charts the onset of auditory disorientation at a point in history where technology could not quite yet provide reasonable objective explanation for the phenomena.  There are a surprising number of narratives very similar to Crook Frightfulness (some early examples are examined in the article).  Today, people with these afflictions/assailments often cite James Lin's 1978 textbook Microwave Auditory Effects and Applications that superficially appears to corroborate all sonic "unseen assailment" phenomena (although, in practice, such technology is very impractical).

Anyways... It's not my intention here to delve into the arguments surrounding these phenomena (perhaps in a future posting), it is simply to examine curios and mythologies from acoustical hinterlands.  (It is worth mentioning that a semblance of 'voices' can be perceived during exposure to fluctuating white or pink noise for extended periods. This is a psychoacoustic effect: auditory pareidolia.  In one notable example, it is employed in a sound installation by U.S. sound artist Ellen Band in her Acoustic Mirage.)

The full particulars on Crook Frightfulness can be found in Fortean Times #305.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Bookophonics: Making Music with Books

The bookophone is described in an earlier post here.  It involves a paperback book and a bowing rod - preferably some kind of hollow tube, upon which the friction tone is amplified.  The character of the tone derives somewhat from the choice of bowing rod.

Playing bookophones
Last Friday, a short bookophone piece called 'Summer Song' was debuted on William English and Chris Weaver's Weavelength (part of a series of Wavelength specials touching on cassette culture).  All the sounds in this piece are created by four paperback books overdubbed together: 'Social Anthropology in Perspective,' Bird's 'Mathematical Formulae,' 'Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition,' and 'Is it Just Me or is Everything Shit?'.   The books are played with plastic and chrome bows.

It appears that temperature affects the bookophone sound.   Bookophones are generally deeply unplayable things and near-impossible to wrest a melody from, despite weeks of practice.  In the summer season, books are apparently more stubborn than usual in producing tones, demanding a more vigorous action (as heard in this piece).  This is perhaps because there is less discrepancy between the environmental warm temperature and the momentary heat caused by the bow friction(?).  Dryness certainly deadens the tones.  Anyways, it just means that in the summer, when playing the bookophone, you must really 'give it some welly'.

I can't seem to find any similar technique employed in making books 'sing', but surely over 500 years somebody must've tried something similar.  Maybe a romantic poet?   Incidentally, the very clever Maywa Denki laboratory has produced a musical electric book beating apparatus.  (Maywa Denki received exposure in the UK some years ago with a memorable appearance of a self-playing acoustic guitar on BBC One's Adam and Joe Go Tokyo.)

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Wok Music: Music of the Hemispheres

The process of obtaining 'miraculous agitations', as I've written before, revolves around chance occurrences.  From a purely intuitive standpoint, it's hard to pin down the catalyst that transforms a vibrating apparatus from a 'bone-idle-tone' into inspirational 'tone-drama' (that is, the once-in-a-blue-moon complex and inspiring acoustic stuff).  It appears as a chance convergence of microscopic parameters: an imperceptible movement of some element suddenly causing an emergent state...

The standard stainless steel cooking bowls (un-wok-like), with a paucity of tone-ballast.
The cauldron is perhaps the paradigm of all this tone-drama-seeking malarkey.  In fact, it's surprising that cauldrons aren't used more often in improv gigs.  Objects may be placed in a vibrating cauldron and stirred until the much longed-for 'tone-drama' emerges.  The cauldron body would be resonated electromagnetically, and eventually, with enough stirring trials, there will arrive a point where a highly specific configuration is obtained, bringing about pulsing rhythms or harmonic progressions.

When I was angling to incorporate pseudo-cauldrons into resonant assemblies, the adage "beggars can't be choosers" manifested itself in the galling fact that dishes and bowls receptive to magnetism are very hard to find.  If you walk into a shop, all the stainless steel bowls will be non-magnetic.  This is frustrating, as many of the most resonant bowls will not be suitable for resonating via the electromagnetic field method (a non-contact method of resonating).

Looking in bins and trade waste containers can yield older steel bowls, where the steel was treated differently during manufacture, thus retaining its ferric virtue and allowing for EM resonation.  Although, these are rare.

Wok mounted to a sounding board with resonator and pickup coils.
Whereas in the past the poverty and unemployability that necessitated my dumpster-diving actions lent a teeth-gnashing restrictive atmosphere, it's now obvious that this impoverished flâneur approach embraces chance happenings: a good thing.  One day, a wok presented itself.  Woks can be easily adapted to resonate.  When a wok handle is removed, woks resound like Tibetan bowls...  And they're always (in my experience) responsive to magnetism too.  Woks are also somewhat hard to find, but they're easily spotted, at least, whether in bins, car-boot sales, or vistas of ruin.

When a resonator coil is fixed in proximity to a wok's rim, several harmonics can usually be obtained.  The most harmonically rich woks happen to be Ken Hom woks - this particular brand was the heaviest/densest I've so far found (the chrome handles of certain Ken Hom wok lids also make excellent subharmonic-generating objects to place inside woks).   The polarities and phase of the resonator coil / pickup coil combo can be arranged so that a descending scale of harmonics can be elicited by moving the pickup anticlockwise around the rim, on the right-hand side of the resonator (as shown in this scrawling).  When subharmonic ballast is added, a veritable sonic stir-fry is formed... with all the potency of the paradigmatic cauldron: thaumatacoustics in action.

So far, I have found four woks.  It is interesting to note that the resultant chords obtainable purely from the woks themselves - without adding objects inside - are chords of chance provided by the trade waste bins.   A convergence of people all deciding at a certain time to discard their woks resulted in this very specific chord.

I recorded a short and unpolished study simply to display aspects of this chord. (Please excuse the unskilful pickup collisions)....


Monday, 25 March 2013

Build your own Francis Bacon 'Sound-House'

I feel behaviourally aslant in my secret indulgence for dolls house paraphernalia.  But that's mainly due to a culturally-instilled inhibition that really needs to be shaken off.  After all, dolls houses are affordable, but real houses are not.  As the saying goes, you must "live within your means".

'Rendering that scaffolding dangerous'
For some years now I've itched to create a Sound-House, as defined in Sir Francis Bacon's unfinished fable 'New Atlantis' (1624):

“We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds and their generation.  We have harmonies which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and lesser slides of sounds; divers instruments of musick likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet.  We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp.  We make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire.  We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds.  We have certain helps, which set to the ear, do further the hearing greatly.  We have also divers strange and artificial echos reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it, and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller, and some deeper, yea, some rendring the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive.  We have all means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes in strange lines and distances.”

A previous posting (here) touched upon some visual clues as to how Francis Bacon may have designed his Sound House if he had been tasked with realising one.

The "we have also sound-houses" passage has come to be quoted as a foresightful envisioning of electronic sound treatments.  Yet the majority of modern electronic works invariably pivot on trickeries and deceptions of the ear - keeping the listener 'in the dark' as to the nature of sound sources and treatments.  (Also, Bacon's words conjure to mind a mechanical acoustic endeavour with contrivances similar to those imagined by his inventor contemporaries Salomon de Caus or Cornelis Drebbel.)  Allying Bacon's Sound Houses with electronic sound technique seems incongruous when Bacon later writes a few paragraphs later:

“And surely, you will easily believe that we that have so many things truly natural, which induce admiration, could in a world of particulars deceive the senses, if we would disguise those things, and labour to make them more miraculous: But we do hate all impostures and lies insomuch, as we have severely forbidden it to all our fellows, under pain of ignominy and fines, that they do not shew any natural work or thing adorned or swelling, but only pure as it is, and without all affectations of strangeness.”

John Reid: Pyramid Sound-Houses?
If I ever had the opportunity to build a full size Baconian sound house, it would contain resonant granite sarcophagi (akin to those found in Egyptian tombs), moveable granite panelling and compartments.   Deep stone tunnels with mix-and-match obstructors.  Parallel surfaces for flutter echoes.  Bellow-pumped pipe tone generators and trumpeted alterants.   Clues may also be found in Bacon's acoustical investigations documented in his Sylva Sylvarum.  In the meantime, I will continue experimenting with my dolls houses...  The dolls houses are more like weird garages, over-plumbed within an inch of their daintiness.  And the 'dolls' exist only in the mind.

Miraculous agitations in our acoustic environment - as I've written elsewhere - indicate the possibility of real-world sound rivalling electronic sound in terms of tonal complexity and delineation.  It is a question of engineering.  The miraculous agitation assemblies eventually come to resemble 'houses' - or 'garages' - stressed with the addition of perilously piled Jenga-like miscellany.  An 'electromechnical Baconian dolls soundhouse garage'.   With all property so dismally unaffordable,  I would like to live in one of these... cohabiting with Cliff Richard's proverbial 'Living Doll' - a husk of hope. ("Take a look at her hair, it's real / And if you don't believe what I say, just feel / I'm gonna lock her up in a trunk / So no big hunk can steal her away from me" [?!])

Monday, 18 March 2013

Ivory Tower Misdoings, or "Something for Nothing"

The current acoustics-themed Leonardo Music Journal (#22) features my paper 'Miraculous Agitations: On the Uses of Chaotic, Non-Linear and Emergent Behaviour in Acoustic Vibrating Physical Systems'.  It gives an overview of the philosophy of miraculous agitations (or thaumatacoustics: acoustics compounded with the prefix 'thaumata', meaning 'wonder') and methods of electromagnetically resonating object-assemblies.  In the LMJ paper, I avoided describing how poverty shaped the philosophies behind miraculous agitation apparatuses.  I'll descant upon this aspect here.

An older composer - either misunderstanding my words or trying to 'get a rise' from me - once described the miraculous agitation technique as the "musical equivalent of benefit fraud"(!).   He believed that it was sheer laziness to sit and make arbitrary mechanical adjustments to piles of vibrating junk in the hope that a composition would compose itself.  I suppose he thought it was something like getting a "finished composition" for free.  Whilst his unusual angle was very thought-provoking, I'd have to summon to memory a quote that would be appreciated by someone of his generation: "I think you're entering the realms of fantasy here, Jones."

Music is traditionally composed - or 'worked out' - in 'horizontal' time (as most music sequencers scroll).  Thaumatacoustic apparatuses on the other hand are scrounged together, assembled and 'worked out' beforehand in an instance removed from time.  So the 'work' goes into the arrangement of global conditions outside time.  The composing here is principally a process of searching for objects, assembling objects and arranging an initial state in 'vertical' time, before the electromagnetic agitators are even switched on.  It's more about 'compositing' than 'composing'.  The actual tonestuff emerges over time, almost of its own accord, from largely unforeseen interactions within the assembly.
 
For an apparatus to be capable of producing sonically useful 'wonders', patience and perseverance is essential.  It is true that the apparatus is built from stuff pulled out dustbins - this is perhaps the part that the aforementioned critic took issue with.  This seems a contentious area (and it really shouldn't be).  To this day, passive-aggressive people still crow "should you be doing that?" and "go away" whilst I'm searching for acoustic parts in bins.

I'd be a great sound designer, researcher or archivist at the British Library's sound archive (for example), but frustratingly, employment has not been forthcoming.  I've ranted about this elsewhere...  Jobseeker's Allowance was cut off.  Poverty compelled me to rummage through bins, for food, entertainment, tools and raw materials for quasi-saleable crafted miscellany (including miraculous agitation assemblies).  It's scandalous to behold how much usefulness gets discarded.  The thaumatacoustic philosophy is ensconced in these experiences.

In the light of this seemingly beggarly state, it was invigorating to find on March 2nd that five messages had reached me through diverse channels.  The messages were all from one researcher for RDF Television / Zodiak Media, apparently involved in making a TV documentary for Channel 4:

Hi there,
I was wondering if you might be able to help me. I work for a TV production company called RDF Television and we are currently working on a new show for Channel 4 – which looks into all the weird and wonderful things you can get for free.

I have come across a sound artist called Dan Wilson who creates musical instruments out of unwanted goods and electrical parts he finds in skips and I read that he sometimes performs with Oscillatorial Binnage.

I would really like to have a chat with Dan but can’t find any contact details for him any where. I was wondering if you could let me know if there is any way of getting in touch with him or perhaps you could forward this email on to him so he can get in touch with me? Just want to have a chat with Dan about what he does.

You can contact me here or my email address is ----  or my direct number is -----.

Hope to hear from you,
---


These TV researchers often cast their net widely, and I did suspect that they might find me too weird a fish for their fishtank.  I described my practices and provided links to various examples, but also lamented that I couldn't produce more expository audio examples due to lack of equipment (more high quality microphones would be a Godsend).

The correspondent elaborated on their remit:

I’m not sure how much I explained about the show.  We’re making a consumer programme for channel 4, that looks into all the things you can get for free – weird and wonderful things that you might not think of.

I really liked the idea that you make instruments from electrical  items you find in skips and that is what I was interested in talking to you about. We’re looking for people who are experts in their field who would like to talk on camera about their experiences – for example the pitfalls of skip diving / the best places to go for the best finds – so we’re looking for a spokesperson who can tell us about the ‘art’ of skip diving. It’s not so much about the music itself, I’m afraid.

I’m not sure if this is something you would be interested in at all?


Yes - it sounded worthwhile and useful exposure.  But then came the bitter irony.  Any payment?  "There is no payment, I’m afraid, as we don’t have the budget."   So, a programme about the "weird and wonderful things you can get for free" is trying to source the raw materials for free!

This reminded me of a certain King's Cross publisher who, some years ago, sought to find homeless 'renegade gardeners' to write for them about their personal experiences of homeless gardening.  There was no payment for this work, yet the book would retail for +£15 per copy.

I gently berated the RDF correspondent: "Not wishing to sound exhortational - it seems a bit skew-whiff to make a programme about bin-diving - a last resort for the poorest and most vulnerable in society - and not pay the interviewees!"

The reply was defensive and ambiguous: "It is a factual documentary to show the general public that there are benefits to be had in this time of financial crisis. And in no way will we be showing ways in which to take from people who really need it."  ('Benefits to be had in this time of financial crisis'?!?)  One media behemoth I once dealt with some years ago had its minions bandying about the term "loser generated content" with some enthusiasm, and I've been wary of these sapping dilettantes ever since.

Nevertheless, I agreed to provide some insight for this programme, but suddenly the doors had closed tightly:  the reply read "I’m afraid the format of the show has slightly changed in the past couple of weeks. When I last spoke to you we were still in the early research stages and seeing what stories were out there, but now we have fully cast all our contributors and experts."

Disappointments far outnumber wonders when searching for miraculous agitations.  I sighed, and an apparatus set on a cardboard box sympathetically buzzed in an interesting manner.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Wire issue 344: Unofficial Channels: 'Acoustic Synthesis' and Post-Electronic Sound

The 'Unofficial Channels' column of this month's Wire magazine (#344) hosts a very short piece I've written on Acoustic Synthesis, giving a short overview on experimental manoeuvrings in the largely undefined sphere of post-electronic music.

As described elsewhere, 'post-electronic music' is a term I use to refer to the application of classical electronic music technique to acoustic systems, usually involving electro-mechanical parts and mechanical gears.

The sub-harmonic demonstrations of music theorist José A. Sotorrio are mentioned in the column.  Sotorrio's introduction to the undertone series can be viewed here on Youtube.  A sounding tuning fork held against a movable obstruction (such as paper) produces different notes of the undertone series (seen at 1:00 in the video).  The ease at which the undertones can be elicited in physical vibrating systems provides glimpses of a sonic netherworld quite distinct from musical traditions derived from the overtone series.

Acoustic synthesis (as I practice it, at least) is principally concerned with enhancing the exactness with which mechanical controls act upon vibrating assemblies.  For instance, an electromagnetically sustained tuning fork may be gradually brought into contact with the paper by a vernier gear with a very high reduction ratio - this would allow undertones to be slowly scanned through discretely and selected.  These kinds of colliding interactions are an integral part of tone production.

The usage of adjustable prong-umbrellas to build up subharmonics (note the usage of a reverberant grille-pile)
The rich effect of subharmonics / undertones can be heard at the end of this short unfinished study on a small apparatus.   The growling occurs due to a vibrating prong colliding with a Rice Krispies box, periodically repelling it, before making contact again.  A swinging microphone adds a timbre shifting effect.


One may well wonder about the origins of post-electronic music.  I had often wondered if an 'acoustic equivalent' of a synthesiser was theorised during the electronic music heyday of the 1970s, or even earlier.  It seems that this was indeed almost touched upon by Terence Dwyer in his 1975 school course Making Electronic Music (Book 2 - Advanced).  The work of Terence Dwyer (now in his 90s) has received fresh attention recently thanks to Ian Helliwell's captivating article in last month's The Wire (#343).

It is interesting to find Terence Dwyer suggesting the acoustic mimicry of electronic sounds in a volume of his Making Electronic Music textbook.  The textbooks serve as an introduction to the rudiments of electronic music for school students, but are practically concerned with tape splicing and tape effects.  Curiously, Book 2 contains a small section titled 'Imitating Electronic Sounds' - wonderful wispings towards a post-electronic modus operandi!  Acoustic equivalents are given: electronic waveforms and their acoustic substitutes:

Sine wave (pure, no harmonics) - Recorder, Tuning Fork, Whistling, Rubbed Wine Glass

Sawtooth (ramp) wave (all harmonics) - Kazoo, Comb and Paper

Squarewave (odd numbered harmonics) - Clarinet

White noise (random superimposition of all frequencies) - Vocal hissing by several people

Filtered noise (narrow bands of random frequencies) - One person making various hissings such as Ss, Sh, Ch, F, V, Z, Zh, Kh, Hh