Sunday 25 September 2011

The Voynich Manuscript - An Acoustic Interpretation

The baffling Voynich Manuscript, written in an apparently indecipherable script, has caused much head-scratching since its rediscovery in 1912.  Thought to be of mediaeval origin, it contains quasi-astrological diagrams, depictions of strange devices, plants - unlike any earthly flora - alongside nude figures bathing in complex networks of 'pools' featuring recycled water (some mechanisms of which look decidedly unhygienic to modern eyes).  Some reckon it to be an alchemical text, whilst others believe it a hoax or an artistic exercise in glyptolalia.  Judge for yourself here.

One intriguing set of theories proposed by H. Richard SantaColoma speculate upon its possible representation of Sir Francis Bacon's New Atlantis, specifically Solomon's House - its college.  For this, it must be assumed that the manuscript was written in the early 17th century (or slightly earlier depending on the actual conception of the New Atlantis utopia) albeit on 15th century vellum (as carbon dating has proven).  The optical activities of the 'Perspective Houses' along with the grafting of diverse plants are considered as being represented within the manuscript.  However, if this theory is true, where are Solomon's House's famed 'Sound houses'?  Could the 'sound' chapter have once comprised the now missing excised 32 pages?

Sonic activities in Solomon's House, New Atlantis

These theories are inspiring to contemplate.  There are so many conflicting ideas vying for consideration surrounding the Voynich manuscript that it wouldn't do much harm to throw in my tuppence worth, as far fetched as my following speculation may *sound*...

It seems that nobody has yet considered the Voynich Manuscript entirely in terms of acoustics.  Does the whole manuscript in fact concern sonics?  Admittedly, at first glance it would appear that sound or music is entirely absent, but to those acquainted with cymatics a possible avenue of investigation reveals itself.  (This may be a cue for some people to stop reading any further, especially for those who stand by the old adage "all comparisons are odious").  In the tradition of Daphne Oram's bravura sonic speculations, tentative explorations can be made with this acoustic angle.

In the 1880s, the singer Margaret Watts Hughes developed a technique of producing 2D organic forms on a flexible membrane strewn with a fine powder, a la Chladni's plate (but with the singing voice as the agitator).  The membrane was stretched over a sounding chamber with a pipe connected to it, through which Hughes would sustain tones, varying in timbre.  Upon the membrane, plant-like and fern-like forms were made by steadily moving the eidophone membrane over paste-covered glass, in effect creating a recording.  This technique produced entire gardens of sorts.  In 1891, Hughes wrote "(…) day by day I have gone on singing into shape these peculiar forms, and, stepping out of doors, have seen their parallels living in the flowers, ferns and trees around me; and, again, as I have watched the little heaps in the formation of the floral figures gather themselves up and then shoot out their petals, just as a flower springs from the swollen bud".  Could the Voynich manuscript depict eidophonic activities?

A Voynich 'rosette'
In the 20th century, Hans Jenny coined the term 'cymatics' to refer to the basic visible-sound phenomena.  Jenny used piezo-electric agitation, and also employed water-filled plates (although producing forms in liquids with only the voice would be very difficult - requiring acute volume and pinpoint pitch).  However, many of Jenny's most iconic cymatic figures were produced by electronic oscillators operating in the kilohertz domain - above vocal range.

Throughout the Voynich manuscript, 'sprays' and 'streams' can be seen issuing from bizarre pipes.  The wavy streams are evidently liquids of some sort, although the sprays are more incongruous.  The technique of producing fine sprays from liquids was proposed by Bernoulli in his 1738 book 'Hydrodynamica' and was only perfected in the form of atomisers in the mid 19th century.  Some of these spray emissions in the manuscript seem to defy gravity, ruling out powder sprays.  Are these sprays early representations of sound?  It's worth mentioning that the now-discredited corpuscular theory of sound was 'in the air' since the 1620s.

On page 77 of the manuscript, five 'elements' are illustrated issuing from a pipe manned by figures at each end.  The figure on the right has an apparent emission towards or from the mouth.  Does it represent the formative powers of sound?  There are other suggestions of this power, such as in the 'rosettes' fold-out where buildings are seen emerging from the primordial patterns.  Also, the majority of the figures shown throughout have their mouths in an 'O' shape hinting at voice production.  The images of 'bathers in pools' may actually depict naked choirs all sounding the same resonant note, crowded inside large resonant drums and cavities sending their voices through tubes to membranes, upon which large voice figures figures may be produced.  Their nudity might be due to the fact that clothing absorbs sound, whereas skin (especially if wet) is more reflective of sound (performers today note that acoustics of rooms alter when an audience is present) thus preserving resonance.

The manuscript's astrological charts show some similarities to cymatic figures.  The charts showing improbable spiral forms may indicate motion, as the combined voices of the singers would be rife with rich phasings (chorusing) which would translate as an unstable, moving cymatic figure, with manifest rotary motions.  The symbolic demarcations of some charts might be attempts at macro/microcosmic integration by corresponding the limbs of voice figures with astrological houses.

The chorusing, that is, the cumulation of pitch and tone discrepancies in a choir voicing the same note, would create 'blurred' unstable voice figures.  Maybe the vase-like devices shown in the final section of the manuscript are Helmholtz resonators, or Vitruvius' urns, tuned to enhance/amplify the purity of the tone?  Furthermore, were membranes stretched over the mouth of these ornate resonator urns?  (H. Richard SantaColoma suggests these devices shown were not resonator urns, but early microscopes).

If an eidophonic system is depicted, the manuscript's exotic plant forms may derive from species of cymatic/eidophone voice figures.  But this begs the question as to why the plants are coloured - as any particle-based eidophone figures would certainly not be colour specific.  Of course this is all an extremely tenuous speculation.  All natural forms have harmonic characteristics (most notable in phyllotactic patterns) and are thus potentially translatable into sound.  Besides, there's scant historical record of any such vibratory practices occurring in antiquity, and certainly none this elaborate.  However, it may be remembered that study of natural phenomena was strictly forbidden for centuries in Christendom, and beyond.

The likeliest theory is that the Voynich manuscript is a fantastical piece of systematised confusion: a dreamscape of pure flummox, maybe of hallucinatory origin.  The style was even expertly pastiched by Luigi Serafini in his 1981 masterpiece 'Codex Seraphinianus' - a monumental oddity of glyptolalia.  Imagine randomly finding a book so utterly odd it can only be assumed to originate from another planet.  Incidentally, this is surely the touchstone of mediadropping!

As a footnote, the woodcut a few paragraphs above showing a New Atlantis 'Sound House' appears quite a lot online, and is often said to originate from an old imprint of New Atlantis.  It may go some way to show how easily we may be deceived by forgings of period styles, as, after some research, it transpired that it's in fact a pastiche of 17th century engraving created by 20th century U.S. artist Lowell Hess.  It's from a 1970 book titled 'Graphic Design for the Computer Age'.

UPDATE 22/10/11: H. Richard SantaColoma has pointed out that the 'rosettes' fold-out page of the Voynich Manuscript most likely depicts a map, perhaps detailing the various departments of the House of Solomon.  Here, a candidate for the Sound House is identified in the top left hand corner.  He draws attention to the pointed loudhaileresque tubes, seen both as an extended pentad on the Sound House, and in shorter clusters surrounding the central House of Solomon.  It can be seen here.

Thursday 14 July 2011

The Wire - August 2011 - Daphne Oram

To mark the exhibition of the Oramics machine at The Science Museum, this month's The Wire contains an article I wrote on the little-known esoteric interests of Daphne Oram.  This represents, it seems, the most extensive examination of this aspect of Oram's work in print at present.  Daphne Oram was a true pioneer in experimental and electronic music - she is known principally for her establishing of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and her subsequent development of Oramics (a technique of crafting electronic music by hand-drawn notation).

What is not generally known is that Oramics refers not solely to the drawn sound technique, but also to a wider philosophy of sound - a holistic approach to studying all vibrational phenomena and their relationship to human life.  Part of the reason for the obscurity of this phase of Oramics may be in part due to the general scarcity of the only book she published - her groundbreaking 'An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics' (1972).

'An Individual Note ...' presents not only a breathtakingly fresh perspective on electronic music, but also asks "fascinating questions relating to the working of the human mind and the present and future roles for the individual and for society".  It studies the human aspects of electronic music.  Of particular relevance today is the analogy Oram gives involving "mismatched impedance" (relating to audio devices improperly connected).  For a healthful functioning society, people must find matched impedances, e.g. university graduates should secure an employment where their energies are put to use comfortably.  If a highly qualified or energetic individual finds himself/herself psychologically constrained, working in a fish and chip shop, a form of potentially damaging distortion ensues.  I would personally go further and say that if no matched impedance is provided, i.e. unemployment upon graduation, it is utterly destructive in many ways - one's activity is bounded by hard constraints (waveform clipping!) and these ricochets against the constraints produce agonising harmonics.  Incidentally, the writer known for studies into the unknown, Colin Wilson, has highlighted a link between artistic frustration and criminality... But I digress...

In the early 1980s Daphne was preparing another book, this time on ancient acoustics - a field of study known today as archaeoacoustics (the most notable recent study being 'Archaeoacoustics' published by McDonald Institute in 2006).  If her manuscript, 'The Sound of the Past', had been expanded and published in book form, it would have marked yet another pioneering achievement.  Sadly, lack of matched impedances prevented this being realised.  However, this short unfinished text will soon be available on the Daphne Oram website.

In 'An Individual Note', Oram places emphasis on the joy of musing - "on sniffing the air" and "catching scents".  She says, "if the scents lead me sometimes 'up the garden path', I still enormously enjoy catching them".  In time, science may go some way to verify some of Oram's more radical speculations (particularly those in her unpublished notes).  For instance, the behaviour of the human organism in response to geomagnetic wave phenomena is taken more seriously now than in previous decades.  These zones of thought on the periphery between knowledge and mystery are also where profoundly fascinating insights take place, with accompanying inspirations.  And such inspiration is, after all, fine fuel for artistic creative endeavours.

Acupuncture, astrology, ancient resonances of Egypt's Great Pyramid and Britain's dolmens and barrows, John Erskine Malcolm's curious theory of systemic arterial resonance.... Read about all this (and more) in this month's The Wire, issue 330... because it's extremely difficult to condense all this into a single blog post.

Friday 8 July 2011

The Philosophy of Mediadropping podcasted, and the history of "planking"

'The Philosophy of Mediadropping' show mentioned in the previous posting is now available online as a podcast here.

Mediadropping is the random public dropping of home-made media which is peculiar in some way, with the intention of eliciting a reaction from whoever finds and plays the media.

I have often wondered if an old mediadropping was responsible for the phenomenon of "planking": where photos are taken of people lying down in unusual places and circumstances.  In March 2005 I had compiled a CD-R mediadropping extravaganza, bearing various mp3s, images and random text files of quantum physics and variations on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  Its intention was to flummox.  One directory, titled "The Fallen" contained a dozen photos of persons lying unexplainably prone.

One of these images, for example, taken around February 2005, featured Resonance FM's Richard Thomas on the floor of 9 Denmark Street (the old station offices) clutching a drumstick, seemingly staking his claim as a pioneer of this art.  A rare and remarkable thing, this was seen as a radical nugget to be experimentalised as mediadropping fodder.  It should be noted this was before the UK "planking" craze of 2009 - after which time it was picked up by the tabloids and divested of its mystique, and, as such, would from there onwards be seen as being perhaps a bit infra dig (as least, to those already acquainted with the practice before it 'sold out').  Today's "planking" bandwagon-chasers mostly appear to be people mucking about, often dangerously.  But these pre-craze 2005 mediadropping photos exude a profound honesty, a "professional strangeness" - an artistic integrity, if I may be so pretentious - which modern day attempts entirely fail to capture.

I can provide evidence of perhaps the earliest instance of "planking" (or, "the lying down game" as it's also known).  I am certain that "planking" can be linked to a general mediadropping tradition... In 1995 I made several photographs showing the "lying down" phenomena - some school friends I persuaded to down their clipboards during a school trip.  Duplicates of these were made to accompany mediadropped cassettes from 1995-96.  This was before Radiohead's video for 'Just' (showcasing epic "profound lying down"), and also predates the alleged invention of the "game" in 1997.  Of course, it completely precedes Robert J. Sawyer's 1999 novel 'Flashforward' (curiously, also encompassing quantum physics in relation to "profound lying down"), the US TV adaption of the same name, and 'This Morning' hosts Phillip Schofield and Jenni Falconer popularising the "lying down" and trashing it up still further earlier this July.

Thursday 16 June 2011

The Philosophy of Mediadropping - ResonanceFM, 17th June, 4pm

As part of Resonance 104.4FM's broadcasts from Raven Row, a show I produced, voiced by Will Luscombe (of the exquisite Luscombe's Choice), will be aired on Friday 17th June, entitled 'The Philosophy of Mediadropping'.

'The Philosophy of Mediadropping' is a relentless musing on the practice of mediadropping - the dropping of home-made CDs, DVDs, tapes, books, manuscripts, etc. in public places for random people to find.

Mediadropping is a pathological habit of mine.  My old Resonance show, 'The Exciting Hellebore Shew', documented many mediadroppings in detail (or tapedroppings as I referred to them back then, as cassette was the weapon of choice).  Special 'music' was consigned to cassette or CD-R and scattered hither and thither.  Over time, an instrumentarium was built up specifically geared toward sonically shocking unsuspecting mediadropping recipients.

Mediadropping may be seen as a physical analogue of the 'crapflooding' and 'trolling' phenomena of the internet age, but this is a debatable comparison to be treated in a later posting here.  In the meantime, tune in to catch 'The Philosophy of Mediadropping' and hear Luscombe's voice fed through a sawn-off trolley and a garage door.  Feel the cassette-grot erode your tolerance threshold.

Tuesday 14 June 2011


Please make yourself at home.  Hopefully you'll find some interesting or inspiring nuggets here.

Someone told me that I should be more proactive in advertising my activities.  Blogsmanship was suggested as a partial solution to the debilitating malaise instilled through studying Sonic Art.  For further details of this condition, see my article 'Sonics in the Wildernesses - A Justification' (published in the April 2011 issue of The Brooklyn Rail).  It's a rather whinge-heavy text, but should provide some orientation.

More postings to follow...