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

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Nasca Octavian Paul's Paulstretch

Oscillatorial Binnage play room tones
I've recently been editing a 2010 Oscillatorial Binnage performance of a piece titled 'Variations for Rooms and a Tone'.  It features multiple strands of acoustic microphone feedback steered by injections of carefully pitched oscillator tones, and destabilised by various other subtle treatments.  The pitch of the feedback relates to the resonant frequency of the space(s).  Conceptually, it may not sound entirely original (it certainly owes some debt to Alvin Lucier who explored this terrain), but its originality lies principally in the choice of venue - every space having its own unique cluster of tones: a 'sonic fingerprint'.  This particular 2010 recording was performed at a soon-to-be-demolished former bus depot in Neckinger, known as the Woodmill.  It has unusual resonant cubbyholes allowing for many shifts of resonance.

The editing has been slow owing to an obligation to 'do justice' to the old space.  Further complications involve the removal of countless footsteps, which would have to be removed via individual crossfades.

The most fascinating microphone/speaker feedback tones occur when the feedback has not yet stabilised, i.e. when the feedback tone is still 'finding itself' after the soundsystem is turned on.  Transitions between conflicted resonances are also very musical.  Yet these moments do not last long, and a way to cleanly extend these moments without affecting quality and pitch is sought.

One notable program comes to the rescue in such situations - a wonderful high-powered timestretcher by Nasca Octavian Paul.  It is called PaulStretch, and most people may have already stumbled upon its fruits in the "800% slower" music stretches on Youtube.  Those who aren't yet acquainted with it are in for a treat - it allows for lusciously smooth timestretching (along with other treatments) and is specifically designed for long-duration stretches.  PaulStretch can extend a 15-second sound to one lasting over 475 billion years.

It has been used extensively on many unlikely sonics, such as Rick Astley and Justin Bieber hits, the late ‪Eduard Khil‬'s lyricless epic 'Я очень рад, ведь я, наконец, возвращаюсь домой' (aka Trololo), the Eastenders theme, and my own favourite, Jerry Goldsmith's theme to the 1990 film Total Recall.  What initially seem like exercises in trollsome ridiculousness play out as astonishing ethereal meditations.  The beauty of Paulstretch is in its sophisticated algorithm where percussion and drum noise - which would usually become discordant metallic barking in bog-standard timestretchers - are rendered as luscious crashing waves, in keeping with a percussive nature.

It is a curious experience to play old chiptunes, MOD music and Amiga game themes through Paulstretch.  8-bit tones retain their familiarity, yet become uncharacteristically epic in proportion.   Other interesting experiences may be had by playing pure intonation music in Paulstretch.  For example, some of the more complex moments of La Monte Young's 'Well Tuned Piano' - which itself is a long-duration piece of over six hours - become even more fascinating.  Some of the beat-frequency forming 'cloud' effects such as those heard on CD 4 of the 1992 Gramavision release benefit from Paulstretch treatment.  I won't post any examples here, but the software is free and there seems to be a world of potential.  One commentator asks "could this be the start of a new age of music?"   It certainly offers a new viewpoint which can be at times awing to the point of unnerving.

Such clean timestretching is extremely useful for elongating hyperinteresting short sounds, such as the elusive miraculous agitations, and various bookophone flourishes.

Nasca Octavian Paul has also programmed such excellences as the ZynAddSubFX soft-synth and the HyperMammut Fourier transform tool among other things...

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Bookophone Outing

I comprise one quarter of the improv quartet Oscillatorial Binnage.  Last Thursday we played a short set at the AMM book launch.  Due to an alleged paucity of electricity sockets at the venue, it seemed an appropriate occasion to test drive an acoustic oddity I devised which I call a bookophone.

A bookophone consists of a paperback book and a rod/pipe 'activator bow' of some description.  The rod can be metal, plastic or lacquered wood, and it is drawn perpendicularly across the book's textblock in a bowing action.  It produces acoustic pseudo-shepard tones and, with some practice, a variety of barks and yelps can be produced.

Bookophone technique: A metal 'activator bow' is rubbed across the book

The AMM event was one of the more off-the-wall performances of recent memory.  The two new books being discussed that night were Ben Watson's Blake in Cambridge, and 1839: The Chartist Insurrection by David Black and Chris Ford, both books published by Unkant.   (Tangentially, whilst setting up the space, Ben Watson found convenience in my bookophone's 'activator bow' in liberating from the ceiling the Union Jack bunting left over from a Queen's Jubilee celebration some days earlier).

Interestingly, Watson chose to launch his own book by giving a platform to its critics who proceeded to denounce various aspects of its content, creating much debate (which also encompassed ventings on AMM's anti-academic stance).   Watson - an expert in language-defying tone poetry and mega-freeform vocalistics - then encouraged Oscillatorial Binnage to acoustically ornament/mimic the ensuing debate, which was already agitated by Watson's occasional divergences into his hyperconfusing wordjazz.  Electronics, crackleboxes, bean slicer, clarinet, squeaky toilet paper holder combo, harmonica and bookophone (among other things - mostly stuff found in bins) culminated in a noisome uproar.  Regretfully, some of the younger people present did not at all enjoy the ultra-high pitched amplified blasts.  (All recordings can be heard here).

To change the subject slightly.... My shoes are always broken.  Earlier that rainy, rainy day, I had been in the second-hand book basement of a King's Cross bookshop, trying to identify a louder £1 book for bookophone implementation (without actually compromising the shop's stock by bowing the book edges).  Owing to a hole in my shoe, rainwater had made ingress to my sock, making an unpleasantly wet foot; an irritating feeling which distracted me and so impaired bookophonic sonic book judgement.  Abandoning the search, inspiration made me hop to the British Library where strong plastic bags can be obtained - most convenient!   There, I made myself a plastic sock to place inside my shoe thereby offering protection against the rainwater.  This provided comfort, not just for the rest of the day, but for the next week too.

[Such a feet/feat of necessity is perhaps worthy of Vladimir Arkhipov's attention: specifically his Home Made series of books cataloging folk artefacts borne of such necessity].

However, by the time the AMM book launch began, the plastic sock had started to smell really bad.  There's an esoteric quirk of hygiene that sees unventilated feet turn odorous.  Yet by the unpremeditated combining of the bookophone sounds with the 'British Library bag-sock' footsmell generator, I had fused both scent and sound into a new emission-sensation.  However, the other members of Oscillatorial Binnage were undecided and mildly dismissive of it.  I did wonder what the academics and anti-academics would make of this multi-faceted concept-fusion of bookophonics, British Library bag-socks, bad odour twinned with questionable bookwhine sonics...  It is probably too irrelevant or 'lumpenproletarianesque' to even contemplate.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

In Search of Miraculous Agitations

Now I must explain the title of this blog - 'Miraculous Agitations'.  Miraculous agitations are complex sounds which fortuitously occur every now and then in the oddments of acoustic furniture surrounding us.  Any agitational forces such as draughts of air, hums of electromechanical appliances, etc., allow for vibrational interactions between clustered objects.  When combinations of different agitational forces are acting simultaneously upon clustered objects, fascinating flourishes may be heard.

This month's Brooklyn Rail features a article I wrote on this topic - 'Miraculous Agitation: Scroungings Toward a New Acoustic Synthesis' - which should help explain things. [The live performance mentioned in the article may be heard here].

The occurrence of fascinating sonic flourishes (the miraculous agitations) in our acoustic environment suggests the possibility of building a mechanical synthesiser to acoustically reproduce the miraculous agitations.  Pulleys, jacks, clamps, levers and cranks control the resonances and couplings between vibrating physical elements.

A lot of time and thought has gone into the construction of these apparatuses - many of which use electromagnetic feedback: a multitude of ferric objects 'bowed' electromagnetically.  What is immediately clear is that physical vibration exploits any weak points in an assembly.  Untightened bolts will unscrew, parts will migrate, mechanical hysteresis alters the resonant properties of anything remotely flimsy, and objects placed atop vibrating surfaces will be shunted in a hot potato effect.  Subharmonic undertones are produced, along with many failed subharmonics (unfulfilled bounces).  The picture above shows a resonated pitchfork overarched by subharmonic selector prongs.  Possibilities begin to present themselves when resonant objects are allowed to periodically collide: a physical kind of granular synthesis is effected.  On top of this, entrainments occur between feedback systems.  When sympathetic resonance is also taken into account, the sonic potential of mechanically moderated apparatuses is evident.

Scrounging an apparatus for miraculousness
There is a problem with this.  If it is possible to reproduce a miraculous agitation willy-nilly, it will lose its miraculousness.  However, quirks of acoustic interaction operate on knife-edges beyond our immediate perception.  Also, it is not practical to 'box up' vibrating elements into an enclosed 'synthesiser' construct - everything must be readily accessible.  Even with all axes of control at our disposal, miraculous agitations certainly remain elusive.  I have had to scale down the control mechanisms to near-microscopic ranges.  Magnifying glasses are used to moderate grazing collisions.  These acts of timbre-seeking serve to create fertile ground for chance flourishes to occur.  Even with magnifying instrumental aids, the apparatus is never fully under control owing to the bewildering array of variables even in a primitive few stacked objects.

Futility: Examining grazings between vibrating objects
In the Charles Dickens book 'David Copperfield', there is a character named Wilkins Micawber, a debtor who is known for his hopeful motto that 'something will turn up sooner or later'.  This attitude is often referred to as Micawberism.  It is by applying Micawberism to music that the miraculous agitations may be patiently anticipated.  It may not be known what expressive form or character they will take, but if one waits long enough at a vibrating assembly, something miraculous will indeed turn up.

Just as the assembly is played through experimentally scrounging for these interesting moments, the apparatus is similarly constructed from amalgamating scrounged materials picked from the trade waste bins of small businesses, charity shops, factories, etc.  "Soiled knick-knacks" are sought (see local newspaper report in the previous posting).  This dispenses with commercial hardware fetishism, and relegates the 'composer' to compositor, working in the service of the apparatus, rather than vice versa.  All pretensions are placed on the back-burner during such services.

I had tried to shoehorn the study of miraculous agitations into my university studies in 2005, but was dissuaded at the time due to my lack of articulateness on the matter.  In time, poverty taught me the correct lingo.  Continued dustbin investigations have led to the crystallisation of 'dream mechanics'.   'Dream mechanics' may sound like a troupe of male strippers, but it actually refers to idealised mechanisms suggested by conjunction of concepts.  This blog was originally intended to present these mechanics sequentially, but this would appear to be too esoteric to contemplate.  I will, however, elaborate on various mechanisms and miraculous agitation techniques in later postings…

Available here, on the 'Post Electronic Sound Harvesting Initiative' Soundcloud page, is a rare live attempt to produce miraculous agitations in 2009 at the Gasworks Gallery.  It failed somewhat, but miracles can't be summoned at will in such a relatively short space of time, and apparatus is not easily transportable.  Some electronic blasts are also fed into the agitators in the hope the feedback strands may be periodically unsettled to produce changes in vibratory states (to avoid the boredom with comes with waiting).  There are still some moments of timbre-seeking approaching miraculousness.

Pages from the scrapbook of dream mechanics detailing waveshapers to generate object-couplings, subharmonic grazings and non-linear chatter

Monday, 30 April 2012

EEEbyGUM, Bin Diving, Poverty, Penury, Tapedropping, Regrets and Stolen Glimpses of The Gadget Show through a Businessman's Window

My last posting had an ulterior motive: I had half-hoped that Noel Edmonds (or, more likely, one of his retinue) might happen upon it and consider bestowing PhD funding to me (for Edmonds' alleged offer of 'troll research').

I don't think I'll ever find a job or get PhD funding (which would allow for GROUNDBREAKING RESEARCH).  The unfortunate passage of time has led to this opinion (hopefully incorrect, please?). This lack of social mobility has been going on for far too long.  I thought it couldn't get any worse in 2006, but now, in 2012, it has!  And then even worse!!  AND WORSE!!!  Colin Wilson may be correct in his opinion that scuppered energies lead to criminality.  I'm now constantly looking in bins for food, entertainment or any sustenance.  The Job Centre building radiates torment.  It's getting intolerable.  Is anyone reading this?  Attempts are made to attain custodianship of something, but the field of choice narrows and narrows until only mud remains.  It's when even the mud becomes out-of-reach that some fracture of language occurs.  Laws become wilfully unrecognised.  Trespassing on allotments, we start to resonate our own defecations with salvaged amplifier systems and car batteries.  The EEEbyGUM concept is getting more and more pertinent: Ear Enlightenment Everywhere but yet General Unresponsiveness Manifest.  It refers to the despairing situation of Sonic Art graduates.  I believe to have discovered new techniques which are essential to humanity, but nobastard cares.

Today, whilst on my daily bin-diving expedition (which desperation necessitates), I caught a glimpse of Channel 5's The Gadget Show through someone's window.  A man in a suit, with unbuttoned shirt, was sat in front of his plasma widescreen in louche mode after a hard day in the office, no doubt.  I didn't want to stare for too long, so after a few minutes, when the ad break came on, I crept away with my bag of "soiled knick-knacks" (as a local anti-bin-diving correspondent to the local newspaper once referred to the spoils of scrounge).

The Gadget Show was originally concerned with the latest gadgets.  In principle, it should've always catered for the gadgetty anchorites who confine themselves to their bedrooms or garages to reach the nirvana which lies beyond the GUI.  Instead, the prime-time show is now inexplicably aimed at a new breed of Nietzschean Übermensch: sporty bankers with infinite money and predilections for gadgeteering whilst scuba-diving or suchlike.  Racing cars and unnecessary 'babes'.  It's aggressively outdoorsy and treads muddy footprints on the anchorite's face.

TV's Jason Bradbury
When I looked into the man's window - the reason I knew immediately he was watching Channel 5's The Gadget Show is because of its presenter, Jason Bradbury, and his face, which plays host to ever-stupefying glasses of the uniquest futurology.  He never used to wear glasses - methinks they're fake.

Back in 2004, when he was searching for some new 'thing', he sent me a kind email after hearing my tapedropping emissions on Resonance FM.  Bradbury asked to meet up and "discuss ideas".  Foolishly, I preferred to concentrate on my university work which was consuming a lot of time.  He sent another email:

"Thanks for returning my mail.  My interest in your show is quite simple really - I think you're hilarious.  I'm always looking for tangental ideas and performers but I'm not some old BBC git looking to sign up talent and throw away the key. While I flirt with the mainstream as a producer/director - I'm fronting a crazy science show of my own for Discovery Kids out next month and I've just got a role presenting a new technology and gadget show on Ch5 in May 04.  I'm also an experienced comedian with years of stand-up experience and most recently a 5 star show I did at the Edinburgh Festival called 'Breakdance Therapy' (a biographical piece about growing up in the 80's).

So you see - I relate to your 8-bit harmonies and human beatbox - I relate to your divergent presentational style and I relate the potential to roll all of them up into a stage show or a TV proposal or... just an interesting chat over a coffee.

I've you're up for a meet - drop me a mail. I'm around week after next.

Keep up the good work. All the best,
Jason Bradbury

'Fan mail' was virtually non-existent, so this was nice.  It was a complimentary, encouraging email and he dispensed his mobile number, although I replied that I really must continue my university work.  Responding negatively to Bradbury is one of my biggest regrets, because I was UTTERLY WRONG in thinking concentration on university work would reap pleasanter rewards.  University has led me to the gutter - LITERALLY.  Since graduating from the Master's degree in 2007, I have continued 'studying' just interiorly in my mind: working on imaginary assignments for imaginary deadlines.  Why won't anywhere employ me or give my proposals the time of day?  Why won't they offer PhD funding to me?  I'm already half-way there with my imaginatively-propelled research under chimerical auspices!  So, now I rummage through trade waste bins in the twilight.  I never thought things could get worse, but there is always a new level of misery waiting below.  My studies have resulted in a debt probably never to be paid off.  I grow resentful of society, and The Gadget Show represents all that is abhorrent with unloosed consumerism and conservative young working professionals with their disregard for the obsolete, aversion to make-do-and-mend mentalities, etc.  Yet paradoxically, regrets of not accepting Bradbury's offer of a meeting lead to cripping ganglions of bitter gall...  (However, in all likelihood, he would've thought me "not the full shilling" and dismissed me, as in all interviews I've been to).

Aye, maybe Bradbury never did quite fully understand the nature of my tapedropping emissions - the ultimate objectives of tapedropping being to irk deserving recipients.  (Don't know what the "human beatbox" was all about).  Ironically, all tapedropping recipients were ostensibly the sort of people who currently watch The Gadget Show - the tapedroppings aimed to sonically aggrieve them to the same extent their toxic smugness offended the delicate ear.  Tapes of unbroadcastable grot to evaporate all cliquey trendsetting...

Still, I telephoned Jason Bradbury years later (in 2007) in a spasm of PURE DESPERATION(!!!!!!) in the hope he might employ me for my sound work or something.  He was my last hope of getting on an even keel - maybe I could wrangle some internship leading to steady work?  Maybe I could eventually afford those nice but expensive Marks & Spencer pasta bakes which I circumspectly pilfer occasionally?  Bradbury telephonically calmed me that 2004 was a "long time ago", although it seemed like only yesterday to me, and still does.  He told me to "never give up" and to "keep going".  His career had gone from strength to strength, and he'd had some children who were now toddlers, etc.  His advice, whilst being superficially helpful and sensible, has driven me far beyond unemployability into sheer asphyxiated impoverished hell.  THERE HAS GOT TO BE SOMETHING OUT THERE FOR ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  IF NOT ON THIS PLANET, THEN SOMEWHERE IN ALL KNOWN SPACE, AT LEAST???!!!!?!?!!!  This is what I wanted to howl, but decorum and telephone-manner intervened.

Now, today, I stand looking into someone else's living room - it looks warm - at this profoundly resonant and antagonising televisual face of Bradbury, whilst holding a carrier bag full of stuff pulled out from bins.  Maybe I'm eligible for some sort of disability benefit?  Everything seems 'out of phase'.  One consoling thought is that new levels of desperation are inevitably coming, but not at this absolute moment in time.
Looking in bins - displaying the crib sheet of 'dream objects' for the creation of sonic miracles and vibrational research

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Trolling in the Material World - In Defence of Noel Edmonds

The etymology of the the term 'trolling', as applied to the internet, is interesting.  Once, it referred to 'playing the fool' anonymously.  Over time, the 'fool' became an 'upstart'.  To my mind, it once seemed to be a label for acts of what could be called elongated reciprocal interference, ostensibly unprovoked, but arising from microscopic/imagined discomforts of perception (hence reciprocality).  Today it is something unmentionable.  Trolling might involve leaving abstract comments on forums which would steer conversational threads towards the ridiculous.  However, in the last few years, the term 'trolling' has now been used by the UK press to refer to anonymous hate emissions designed to cause maximum offence.  In the US however, this hate-emission is termed 'flaming'.  'Flaming' is a suitably malign word to use, whereas 'trolling' retains a rather benign character, quite at odds with the viciousness it often refers to.

According to today's press reports, popular TV personality Noel Edmonds recently hired a detective agency to track down the creator of a small Facebook group entitled "Somebody please kill Noel Edmonds".  Bizarrely, it was found that the creator of this group was a PhD student.  Rather than informing the police, Edmonds contacted the student's campus to request a face-to-face meeting with the troll, who subsequently apologised - the troll-intent short circuited.  Elsewhere, it was reported that Edmonds also offered to fund a special PhD to investigate the phenomenon of internet trolls and the motives behind trolling.  It is certainly a fascinating research topic.  I'd kill (metaphorically) to have such an opportunity...

Today is April 1st.  The significance is pronounced.  Indeed, there is no immediate evidence that this "kill Noel Edmonds" Facebook group ever existed (although evidence of a Midlands punk zine titled Kill Noel Edmonds crops up on Google).  Time will tell whether the Noel Edmonds story is true, but at the moment, the fizz of uncertainty propels thoughtfulness.

Solar Fictions; A free inquiry into the received astronomical
doctrine and popular opinions concerning the sun
Trolling has been around since time immemorial in the form of general hoaxing, literary frauds, Interventionist Art, etc.  It is glimpsed in the imp of the perverse.  The Situationist Guy Debord published his 1959 artist book Mémoires with a sandpaper cover, to gradually destroy adjacent books or polished surfaces.  Elsewhere, in literature, one undermentioned and particularly strange pseudonymous book titled Solar Fictions by 'A Freeman' seems to qualify as religiously motivated trolling of sorts.  This sarcasm-laced 1871 publication sought to pooh-pooh rationalism, discredit all scientific endeavour, and ultimately disprove the existence of the sun (its cover shows the sun being extinguished with a candlesnuffer).  These two things are just random examples.  One might condemn Solar Fictions as woefully misguided anti-astronomy, or the sandpaper of Debord's Mémoires as inconsiderate gimmickry, but both possess honest artistry in their elaborate conception... There is actual thought-content.

As technology makes it easier to produce throwaway emissions, flippancy creeps in.  And with flippancy is the inclination toward bluntness; the shedding of any remaining responsibilities; the artistry disappears.  In the audio cassette's heyday, a hoaxer named John Humble created tapes where he claimed to be responsible for the Yorkshire ripper killings.  These were anonymously posted to the police.  Queasily, one tape featured Andrew Gold's pop hit Thank You for Being a Friend.  It was easy for Humble just to hit record and spill out his guff.  Now, with the internet, the potential for agitational flippancy is astronomical.

My own mediadropping projects (especially the targeted varieties) had a touch of that same 'imp of the perverse' which informs some of the more lightweight examples of modern trolling, and also its incoherent sister, crapflooding.  Domineering local personalities were targeted with self-made soundstuff - physical media such as CDs and cassettes were deployed.  Mediadropping is specifically a sonic affair characterised by confusing, abstract and possibly enlightening elements.  The certainties of small-town prejudice and mediocrity were confronted head-on with semi-worrying anti-mediocrities (often, paradoxically, mediocre).  Artistic attempts were made to diffuse dumb malaise with some finely crafted agitation.

Things get stupidly unjust if the roles are reversed.  If bullish people try to make their own mediadropping, all abstractness with its gentle mystery is thrown out the window.  The results are uninteresting, and often plainly derogatory (murderousness unadorned), negating all artistry.

If the Noel Edmonds story is true, did the trolling PhD student reckon Edmonds to be a figurehead of mediocrity?  Did he resent the concept of mediocrity and take out his directionless angst on Edmonds?  If so, the aspiring doctorate-holder has atrocious judgement and rotten imagination (besides, Edmonds has already been 'trolled' in a rather more imaginative drama setup by Chris Morris).  Aside from the moral murk of inciting murder, even jokingly, there is something utterly wrong about targeting Noel Edmonds in the context of trolling.  Edmonds himself is a skilled channeller of the 'imp of the perverse'; see, for instance, his NTV segments on Noel's House Party - where spy cameras were fitted onto a random viewer's television set, to be switched into the live feed on Edmonds' command.  Shocked viewers would suddenly see themselves on national television, and Edmonds would attempt to communicate with them whilst in their shocked state.

If today's story about the Noel Edmonds troll does turn out to be an April Fool, then may this post collapse upon itself tidily.  If not, then may these points be scrutinised with heightened seriousness.

UPDATE 18/01/12:  It appears the Noel Edmonds troll story is true after all, and not an April Fool's fabrication.  If Edmonds or any of his retinue are reading this, vis-a-vis the hint in the above text, I'd be unbelievably keen to embark on a PhD in the origins of trolling, its cultural ramifications, etc., but I have no money...  My own theory is that trolling instances rise in tandem with the decline of alleged 'poltergeist' activity - as the same motivation underpins both, and the internet offers the path of least resistance.  I've been begging for PhD funding (in a wide range of fields) since 2007.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Tapedropping - Cassette Culture, Mediadropping Musings and the Decline of Audio Pamphleteering

Tapedropping: For Thee...
It is frustrating to find that audio cassettes are now obsolete.  I say this not out of nostalgia, but because cassettes were the ideal medium for mediadropping (that is, anonymously leaving homemade music in random places).  Indeed, prior to the manifest decline of the cassette in around 2004, I referred to mediadropping as tapedropping.  The neologism mediadropping came later.

Available here is a paper entitled Mediadropping Musings detailing the practice and philosophy of mediadropping / tapedropping.  The essay formed part of a larger collection which were often dropped likewise in acts of pamphlet-dropping.  This particular text is reproduced here with all its original faults, but remains a useful document for any effusionist.

The majority of people no longer own equipment to play cassettes.  This practice of mediadropping is now almost completely thwarted by lack of suitable media.  CD-dropping was experimented with, but CDs can also carry data.  I have conducted wide-ranging dropping experiments using both CDs and tapes bearing email addresses in order to harvest responses.  CD-droppings have low response rates.  There is perhaps a sense that CDs can carry computer viruses or even just potentially *too graphic* multimedia experiences.  This makes people loath to pick up a rogue CD-R, even if enticing cover art is provided.  Cassettes, in contrast, are obviously meant for audio - tapes are mysterious Pandora's boxes which rouse curiosity concerning their content.
Tapedropping: Bad Trad
In recent years, tapes have become 'cool' again for their retro appeal in niche circles.  These people who maintain the tape mantle are, however, too knowing to be targeted as tapedropping recipients.   The ideal audience for tapedroppings are just ever-so-slightly leftfield of the middle-of-the-road, but generally uncaring shits - the very people who have now migrated from tape to the latest invisible mp3 zapping technology.  It is a shame.

My own early tapedroppings were anything but 'cool'.  They were rabid affairs characterised by an element of 'trolling' (before the word came to represent foul cyber-desecrations of basic human decency).  Early tapedroppings were directed at aggressors, muse-stiflers, intimidatingly dull bastards, etc.  Often, the tapes smacked of puritanical fanaticism and stoic exhortation against the utterly arrogant sexual mores of tacky, brutish schoolboys.

Tapedropping 'music' is rather like a personal individualistic manifestation of what used to be called "rough music" (see E. P. Thompson's chapter in Customs in Common for an excellent overview).  'Rough music' involved a "rude cacophony" produced by sections of the community to mock or wind up certain persons who had transgressed community norms.  Tapedropping is rather rough music's reversal, in that it is generally directed back at the community norms.
Rough Music in Warwickshire, 1909
During schooldays I was keen on the concept of thought-vengeance.  A perceived injustice should always be repaid by an anonymously deposited cassette containing specially tailored semi-musical, sonically-distorted composition-rants, all creatively fuelled by the bitterly energising gall-whisk of futility.  Often, these 'injustices' didn't even involve me - for instance, when a quiet boy was kicked downstairs by fourth-formers known to me, I would enact a tapedropping vengeance on the victim's behalf.  An agitating listening experience would be dispensed, timed in such a manner that it wouldn’t be attributed to myself.
Regrettably, many of the early cassettes were unique - no other copies existed other than the master copies deposited for their intended recipients.  I recall most of the audio-pieces were noisy affairs (turning the air many shades of blue - on tape) intended not only for bully-types, but also those unwittingly cruel ‘casual-bullies’ whose demotivating throwaway remarks were more potent than sustained targeting due to their ‘coolness’.  Cassettes were left in their desk drawers, lockers and in their shoes during gym lessons, among other places.  To effectively irk the deserving targets, it was necessary to give the impression that the cassette originated from somebody much older.  An intricately constructed soundscape was also needed to give the impression that considerable effort had been expended on the article.  Overt obnoxiousness was withheld, pitches were lowered and efforts were made at robust articulation.  Even more effective was the inclusion of the target’s own voice (distorted and made ridiculous through processing) which I might surreptitiously capture on a portable dictaphone during breaktimes and lessons.  On one occasion I gained access to the French teacher’s cupboard where she stored tape recordings of every pupil’s spoken assignments - all the pupils’ names alphabetically arranged.  This was fantastic sonic material.  Later, I would obtain information to weave into lyrical matter by creepily browsing records in the school office (obtaining information such as home addresses and parents’ professions) and phoning the parents from phone-boxes to extract information or to record their voices for later processing.

Special instruments were built from soft drink cans, bits of wheelbarrow and the cord found in the waistbands of elasticated trousers. The more confusing sounds produced, the better.

I noticed that these tapedroppings could bring about changes of behaviour in their targets.  Beholders of rogue cassettes loudly voiced their concerns over the following days, playing detective to fathom the origins and purpose of the strange anti-gift.  Answers were never forthcoming, but gossip and false information were: “Mr. Foulsham made that cassette because he hates your mum”, etc.  Generally, a few weeks after receiving the cassette, the recipient became softer and less liable to abuse quieter people - a good thing.  The effects weren’t so lasting on dyed-in-the-wool bullies, but certainly the ‘casual-bullies’ became more pleasant.
Countless tapes were deployed, but I tried to avoid targeting the same person twice or thrice.  My philosophy was that you only get one chance at this kind of operation, so it had better be a good one!  If a recipient were to receive a second tape, he would be more mentally prepared and its potency would be lost.

At some stage it became apparent that certain combinations of sounds, voice information, treatments and ‘instrumentation’ were more effective at affecting a target than others.  Catchiness of chant or melody was certainly potent.  Without referring back to a master tape, it was impossible to judge what compositions were the most successful.  Until this point, I had been recording directly to cassette using my parents’ hi-fi and dubbing extra tracks by using the second tape deck.  At a car boot sale around 1998, I obtained a four-track, so I began constructing ‘stock’ backing tracks, leaving space for different voice dubbings each time to be tailored for the specific target.  The four-track machine enabled the re-use of certain flights of sound combinations and the retaining of copies.
With age comes maturity, and with maturity comes the unlikelihood of honest puerility. This makes these targeted ‘mediadroppings’ even more discordant, thus memorable, for the recipient.  Aged eighteen, whilst most of my fellows were desperately trying to cultivate some kind of misguided competitive strut, I thought it to be the perfect time to puncture their fledgling pseudo-poise with tapes of ever-sophisticating dispensation.  Tissue-box zithers were strung with extra strings.  There were persons whom I had not yet repaid for past aggressions upon me, some stretching back years.  At this time, CD-Rs were becoming popular, so the sonics took on a digital slant.  With CD-Rs there is the aforementioned problem that the media itself can be mistaken for computer data, thus requiring a printed sleeve to indicate that it is indeed a ‘harmless’ audio CD.  Some printed sleeves featured voyeuristic grainy digital photographs I had taken of the targets from some distance.  These personalised sleeves created such a furore (with incredible near-tearfulness) throughout the sixth form common room that I desisted from this particular graphic quirk, as it seemed to detract from the audio content which should be the focus.

At college, a more altruistic route was taken with the tapedroppings.  I reverted back to cassette and randomly made tapedroppings on a near-industrial scale all around public places.  I mainly strove to create an interesting listening experience for random people who happened to stumble across the tapes.  Encouragement was also given in the supplementary sleeves for the random recipient to create his/her own sonic deployments.  I wanted to hear what other people were sonically capable of when all obligations to follow musical trends were discarded.  Crucially, an email address was provided on the tapes.  Email allowed for recipient feedback, and many responses were harvested this way.  With catalogue numbers on each cassette, the recipient could be asked to cite the number, and thus the actual material would be identified and subsequently honed further and further toward the most reaction-eliciting sonics.

The document Mediadropping Musings highlights the various shades of severity in tapedropping sentiment.  I have divided these into three categories: Subdued, Burlesque and Wayward.  The dangers of 'wayward' mediadroppings are also detailed therein.  Without the surreal, artistic, fantastical, incoherent and abstract elements, mediadropping can be hijacked by the aforementioned "dull bastards" who may use anonymity to extend their bullydom and make comically sick provocations to strangers.  This is what we see happening online with the 'unacceptable' face of 'trolling'.  It is vital, therefore, that the mechanics of mediadropping are understood in order to "troll the troll" in attempts to restore equilibrium where possible.  In the digital age, it is, sadly, difficult to coerce people to play unsolicited audio from an unknown web source.   Here's hoping a new physical audio format suited to mediadropping may emerge in the future!