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Someplaces: Radio Art, Transmission Ecology and Chicago’s Radius

Jeff Kolar with Radius' mobile transmitter, the Audio Relay Unit, on the shore of Lake Michigan.

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This week Sounding Out! is proud to present the first post in Radio Art Reflections, a three part series curated by radio artist and senior radio lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University Magz Hall. Focusing on innovative approaches to radio art, the series will bring together three leading practitioners who have been researching the field from Canada, Australia and the U.K.

We begin with a fascinating exploration of “transmission ecologies” in recent works in Chicago, Iceland and elsewhere, written by Canadian sound and radio artist Anna Friz — one of the most exciting radio artists working today — who discusses how transmission art has shaped her practice.

– Special Editor Neil Verma

From the early avant-garde Futurists to present-day, utopian dreams litter the history of art meeting technology. When it comes to radio and wireless, these often include the dreams that each new technology will conquer space and time; that the overcoming of distance will enable the symbiosis of human with machine and the union of self with other, while the overcoming of time will bring about a simultaneity of experience. For many radio and transmission artists (myself included), our work with so-called “trailing edge” media seeks to critically engage these myths, positing wireless transmissions instead as time-based, site-specific encounters between people and devices over distances small or large, where the materiality of the electro-magnetic spectrum is experienced within a constantly shifting transmission ecology in which we all, people and devices, function.

If one hallmark of radio art is the desire to appropriate broadcasting by rethinking and re-using technologies of transmission and reception in service of crafting new mythologies and futures for the medium. Artists have long questioned the policies and norms established by state and market around radio broadcasting which delimit experimentation and autonomous practices. Bertolt Brecht‘s call in 1932 for radio to exceed its one-to-many broadcast format in favor of a democratized, transceptive (or many-to-many) medium still resonates with contemporary artists and activists alike. What else could radio become, we ask, if not only a disseminator of information and entertainment, acoustic or digital? If radio so far has largely acted as an accomplice in the industrialization of communications, artistic appropriations of radio can destabilize this process with renewed explorations of radio and electromagnetic phenomena, constructions of temporary networks small or large, and radical explorations of broadcast beyond the confines of programming and format norms.

My first transmitter, built on the Tetsuo Kogawa model, as modified by Bobbi Kozinuk, 1998;

My first transmitter, built on the Tetsuo Kogawa model, as modified by Bobbi Kozinuk, 1998;

Curators, producers and art historians typically describe radio art as the use of radio as an artistic medium, which is to say, art created specifically for the technical and cultural circumstances of broadcast, and which considers these circumstances as artistic material. Today these circumstances have exceeded terrestrial broadcast to include satellite, online, and on-demand forms; similarly radio art has also expanded to include sprawling telematic art exchanges, online podcast series, and unlicensed temporary interventions into the radio dial. As a further reclamation of radio as a medium, many artists pull radio out of the studio to create installations, performance works and public actions which consider not just the act of transmission or the creation of artistic content, but also the material aspects of the electro-magnetic spectrum, and the circuits of people and devices which activate and reveal them.

Japanese media theorist and artist Tetsuo Kogawa describes broadcast radio art as art radio, where art is the content of a transmission. By contrast, radio art involves directly playing with electro-magnetic waves as the artistic medium. Galen Joseph-Hunter of Wave Farm further expands Kogawa’s formulation of radio art with the term transmission art, so as to include audio visual broadcast media and artistic activities across the entire electro-magnetic spectrum, such as work with Very Low Frequency (VLF) and Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) waves, or high frequency wireless networks. These definitions of radio and transmission art emphasize that radio is not a container for content, but is defined as relationships between people and things, occurring in the context of the electro-magnetic spectrum within a transmission ecology.

I apply the term transmission ecology in reference to both the symbolic spaces of cultural production such as a radio station, and to the invisible but very material space of dynamic electromagnetic interactions, both of which feature the collaboration between people and things. Transmission ecology asks more than “who owns the airwaves” by questioning the shifting relationships between all actors in the environment, from human to device to localized weather system to nearby star, and thus is not defined by homeostasis but by constant change. These relationships also support a theory of technology where people are not the absolute controllers of things, but where a push and pull of collaboration occurs within complex material and cultural environments.

Photo of Respire by Anna Friz, a large installation of radios from Nuit Blanche Toronto, 2009. 

Photo of Respire by Anna Friz, a large installation of radios from Nuit Blanche Toronto, 2009.

All activities in the electro-magnetic spectrum form ecologies in relation to one another conceptually, performatively, and materially. Consider the Radia network, an international alliance of independent radio stations who share radio art programming as an alternate transmission ecology within the broader culture of private broadcast radio stations. Another kind of ecology is formed by radio receivers all playing the same station diffused across countless cars and households, as they function in relation to other kinds of wireless devices and electronic systems nearby. Such a muster of receivers can be physically brought together, for instance, in a multi-channel radio installation, to reveal the complex relationships among devices, as each receiver also becomes a sender by electronically effecting its neighbor. A mobile phone receiving wireless internet likewise functions within the instability inherent in the surrounding transmission ecology shaped by all aspects of the built environment, such as the electrical grid and other urban infrastructure, as well as weather or time of day or solar flares. Human bodies and devices alike register the invisible electromagnetic activity that surrounds us as physical, measurable, and affective.

With this in mind consider radio art as occupying “radio space,” a continuous, available, fluctuating area described by the reach of signals within overlapping fields of influence and the space of imagination that invisible territory enables. The extrasensory nature of radio space allows for a productive slippage between real material signals and audible imaginary landscapes. Many radio art and transmission art works specifically draw attention to the transmission ecology in order to question the naturalization of mainstream communications systems, the normalization of practices within those systems, and the pervasiveness of electrical infrastructure, proposing alternate narratives and experiences.

So what is some of this work like? In the past year I have had the pleasure to work with Chicago-based Radius, an experimental radio-based platform which curates monthly episodes broadcast locally using the Audio Relay Unit, an unlicensed autonomous low-watt FM radio transmitter system developed in 2002 by Temporary Services and the Intermod Series. Radius neatly unites radio and transmission art by embracing the production of artistic content for broadcast, sampling existing content for artistic expression, and artistic use of the electro-magnetic spectrum generally. Radius functions as an intermittent exhibition space and as an intervention into the predictable daily grind of the FM dial. Artists compose their pieces specifically for the interference-prone radio space where their work may only be heard in fragments, as the instability and fluctuations of the relatively small Radius signal in relation to the big commercial stations broadcasting from downtown all form the context for experiencing the radio art works. Radius broadcasts one episode per month, on a schedule determined by the artist, with pieces varying in length and repetition, and some following a strict schedule related to cosmic or social timing.

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Photo of my private transmitter + antenna pointing out the window in Seydisfjördur, Iceland

Recently I crafted an episode for Radius while on an artist residency in Seydisfjördur, Iceland. The town was the site of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph link between Europe and Iceland in 1906, which was also the year that Reginald Fessenden first broadcast a human voice over radio from his workshop in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Iceland is remote enough that the electro-magnetic ‘pollution’ from human signal activity is notably absent, and located far enough to the north that in October the light disappears rapidly, so that each day loses eight minutes of daylight. The piece was called Radiotelegraph, a beacon crafted from spoken morse code and sampled signals, then sent from north to south, simulcast on my own low-watt FM transmitter in Seydisfjördur at sundown each day as well as on Radius in Chicago. The transmission marked time passing, beginning earlier each day as it followed the path of the sun. My intention was not to overcome but to experience and recuperate distance through the relation of a remote radio outpost to another minor outpost further south within a metropolis; to hear distance and feel it; to understand that distance, however finite, is a necessary condition for communication and relationship, and that distance is the key ingredient of situated, time-based, spatialized sonic experiences.

Here is the Radius episode featuring Radiotelegraph:

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Power station across the parking lot from the Radius studio at MANA Contemporary, Chicago

Power station across the parking lot from the Radius studio at MANA Contemporary, Chicago

As part of a recent yearly theme on “Grids” Radius tackled the electro-magnetic field space of the city by inviting four artists to create new works to be performed near power stations. In his piece electrosmog, Canadian artist Kristen Roos utilized a high frequency receiver to sonify signal activity in the 800 MHz – 2.5 GHz range, which includes mobile phones, wireless phones, wifi, and microwaves. His site-specific performance took place overlooking the Fisk Generating Station in Chicago, and included microwave ovens and micro-watt transmission to a sound system made of radio receivers. Thus the work was site-specific to both the transmission ecology of urban Chicago and the field effects of the electrical grid, mixing material signals with a speculative approach as to what the cumulative effects of living in this built environment characterized by centralized power could be. In Roos’ work, radio space contextualized and revealed the real–though naturalized and often invisible–relationships between people, things, and systems, where a microwave oven gestured at both danger and musicality.

Listen to the Roos piece here:

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Kristen Roos' set up for his Grids performance

Kristen Roos’ set up for his Grids performance

These radio art works enact places in radiophonic space, and experiment with transmission to question the status quo of how the airwaves are controlled and used. As radio trickster Gregory Whitehead notes, it is position, not sound, that matters most with regard to radio. Artists remain committed to making radiophonic someplaces, however temporarily constructed, inhabited by interpenetrating and overlapping fields and bodies.

Featured Image: Jeff Kolar with Radius’ mobile transmitter, the Audio Relay Unit, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Used with permission.

Anna Friz is a Canadian sound and radio artist who specializes in multi-channel transmission systems for installation, performance, and broadcast. Anna holds a Ph.D. in Communication and Culture from York University, Toronto, and recently completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the Sound Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has performed and exhibited widely across North America, South America, and Europe, and her radio art/works have been heard on the airwaves of more than 25 countries. She is a steering member of the artist collective Skálar |Sound Art | Experimental Music based in Iceland.

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Sounding Out Podcast #36: Anne Zeitz and David Boureau’s “Retention”

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It’s an all too familiar movie trope. A bug hidden in a flower jar. A figure in shadows crouched listening at a door. The tape recording that no one knew existed, revealed at the most decisive of moments. Even the abrupt disconnection of a phone call manages to arouse the suspicion that we are never as alone as we may think. And although surveillance derives its meaning the latin “vigilare” (to watch) and French “sur-“ (over), its deep connotations of listening have all but obliterated that distinction.

In the final entry to our series on Sound and Surveillance, sound artist Anne Zeitz dissects the theory behind her installation Retention. What are the sounds of capture, and how do the sounds produced in and around spaces of capture affect our bodies? Listen in to find out. -AT

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This podcast presents Retention, a quadriphonic sound installation made with David Boureau. It considers the sounds of surveillance, detention and migration. Retention concentrates on the “soundscape” of the Mesnil Amelot 2+3 detention center for illegal immigrants situated to the North of Paris just beside the Charles de Gaulle airport. This center constitutes the largest complex for detaining “illegal immigrants” in France, with 240 places for individuals and families. Approximately 350 airplanes pass closely above the center over a 24 hours time span, creating intervals of very high sound levels that regularly drown out all other ambient sounds. Retention uses quadrophonic recording technology to capture and diffuse a live transmission of communication between pilots and the Charles de Gaulle control tower. The work also integrates recordings from inside the center made by communications via mobile phones. In the short intervals of silence (always implying sounds of some sort), the atmosphere seems suspended. This suspension is paradigmatic for the clash between the local and the global, between those who are trapped in a state of detention before being expulsed by the engines moving over their heads and those who circulate freely (nonetheless under surveillance) in our global society. Retention exhibits a changing sonic space in order to consider how “waiting zones” and processes of mobility meet.

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Featured Image (c) Anne Zeitz and David Boureau, Retention, 2012.

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Anne Zeitz is a researcher and artist working with photography, video, and sound media. Born in Berlin in 1980, she lives and works in Paris. Her research focuses on mechanisms of surveillance and mass media, theories of observation and attention, and practices of counter-observation in contemporary art. Her doctoral thesis (University Paris 8/ Esthétique, Sciences et Technologies des Arts, dissertation defence November 2014) is entitled (Counter-)observations, Relations of Observation and Surveillance in Contemporary Art, Literature and Cinema. Anne Zeitz was responsible for organizing the project Movement-Observation-Control (2007/2008) for the Goethe-Institut Paris and collaborated on the exhibition and conference Armed Response (2008) at the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg. She is a former member of the Observatoire des nouveaux médias (Paris 8/Ensad) and of the research project Média Médiums (Université Paris 8, ENSAPC, EnsadLAB, Archives Nationales, 2013/2014). Her most recent research concentrates on the work of the American artist Max Neuhaus with the publication of De Max-Feed a Radio Net (2014), part of the Média Médiums book series. She is the artist of this year’s Urban Photo Fest and participated at the Urban Encounters / Tate Britain in October 2014.

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Sounds of Science: The Mystique of Sonification

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Hearing the Unheard IIWelcome to the final installment of Hearing the UnHeardSounding Out!s series on what we don’t hear and how this unheard world affects us. The series started out with my post on hearing, large and small, continued with a piece by China Blue on the sounds of catastrophic impacts, and Milton Garcés piece on the infrasonic world of volcanoes. To cap it all off, we introduce The Sounds of Science by professor, cellist and interactive media expert, Margaret Schedel.

Dr. Schedel is an Associate Professor of Composition and Computer Music at Stony Brook University. Through her work, she explores the relatively new field of Data Sonification, generating new ways to perceive and interact with information through the use of sound. While everyone is familiar with informatics, graphs and images used to convey complex information, her work explores how we can expand our understanding of even complex scientific information by using our fastest and most emotionally compelling sense, hearing.

– Guest Editor Seth Horowitz

With the invention of digital sound, the number of scientific experiments using sound has skyrocketed in the 21st century, and as Sounding Out! readers know, sonification has started to enter the public consciousness as a new and refreshing alternative modality for exploring and understanding many kinds of datasets emerging from research into everything from deep space to the underground. We seem to be in a moment in which “science that sounds” has a special magic, a mystique that relies to some extent on misunderstandings in popular awareness about the processes and potentials of that alternative modality.

For one thing, using sound to understand scientific phenomena is not actually new. Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote about meeting scientist Robert Hooke in 1666 that “he is able to tell how many strokes a fly makes with her wings (those flies that hum in their flying) by the note that it answers to in musique during their flying.” Unfortunately Hooke never published his findings, leading researchers to speculate on his methods. One popular theory is that he tied strings of varying lengths between a fly and an ear trumpet, recognizing that sympathetic resonance would cause the correct length string to vibrate, thus allowing him to calculate the frequency. Even Galileo used sound, showing the constant acceleration of a ball due to gravity by using an inclined plane with thin moveable frets. By moving the placement of the frets until the clicks created an even tempo he was able to come up with a mathematical equation to describe how time and distance relate when an object falls.

Illustration from Robert Hooke's Micrographia (1665)

Illustration from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665)

There have also been other scientific advances using sound in the more recent past. The stethoscope was invented in 1816 for auscultation, listening to the sounds of the body. It was later applied to machines—listening for the operation of the technological gear. Underwater sonar was patented in 1913 and is still used to navigate and communicate using hydroacoustic phenomenon. The Geiger Counter was developed in 1928 using principles discovered in 1908; it is unclear exactly when the distinctive sound was added. These are all examples of auditory display [AD]; sonification-generating or manipulating sound by using data is a subset of AD. As the forward to the The Sonification Handbook states, “[Since 1992] Technologies that support AD have matured. AD has been integrated into significant (read “funded” and “respectable”) research initiatives. Some forward thinking universities and research centers have established ongoing AD programs. And the great need to involve the entire human perceptual system in understanding complex data, monitoring processes, and providing effective interfaces has persisted and increased” (Thomas Hermann, Andy Hunt, John G. Neuhoff, Sonification Handbook, iii)

Sonification clearly enables scientists, musicians and the public to interact with data in a very different way, particularly compared to the more numerous techniques involving vision. Indeed, because hearing functions quite differently than vision, sonification offers an alternative kind of understanding of data (sometimes more accurate), which would not be possible using eyes alone. Hearing is multi-directional—our ears don’t have to be pointing at a sound source in order to sense it. Furthermore, the frequency response of our hearing is thousands of times more accurate than our vision. In order to reproduce a moving image the sampling rate (called frame-rate) for film is 24 frames per second, while audio has to be sampled at 44,100 frames per second in order to accurately reproduce sound. In addition, aural perception works on simultaneous time scales—we can take in multiple streams of audio data at once at many different dynamics, while our pupils dilate and contract, limiting how much visual data we can absorb at a single time. Our ears are also amazing at detecting regular patterns over time in data; we hear these patterns as frequency, harmonic relationships, and timbre.

Image credit: Dr. Kevin Yager, data measured at X9 beamline, Brookhaven National Lab.

Image credit: Dr. Kevin Yager, Brookhaven National Lab.

But hearing isn’t simple, either. In the current fascination with sonification, the fact that aesthetic decisions must be made in order to translate data into the auditory domain can be obscured. Headlines such as “Here’s What the Higgs Boson Sounds Like” are much sexier than headlines such as “Here is What One Possible Mapping of Some of the Data We Have Collected from a Scientific Measuring Instrument (which itself has inaccuracies) Into Sound.” To illustrate the complexity of these aesthetic decisions, which are always interior to the sonification process, I focus here on how my collaborators and I have been using sound to understand many kinds of scientific data.

My husband, Kevin Yager, a staff scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, works at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials using scattering data from x-rays to probe the structure of matter. One night I asked him how exactly the science of x-ray scattering works. He explained that X-rays “scatter” off of all the atoms/particles in the sample and the intensity is measured by a detector. He can then calculate the structure of the material, using the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) algorithm. He started to explain FFT to me, but I interrupted him because I use FFT all the time in computer music. The same algorithm he uses to determine the structure of matter, musicians use to separate frequency content from time. When I was researching this post, I found a site for computer music which actually discusses x-ray scattering as a precursor for FFT used in sonic applications.

To date, most sonifications have used data which changes over time – a fly’s wings flapping, a heartbeat, a radiation signature. Except in special cases Kevin’s data does not exist in time – it is a single snapshot. But because data from x-ray scattering is a Fourier Transform of the real-space density distribution, we could use additive synthesis, using multiple simultaneous sine waves, to represent different spatial modes. Using this method, we swept through his data radially, like a clock hand, making timbre-based sonifications from the data by synthesizing sine waves using with the loudness based on the intensity of the scattering data and frequency based on the position.

We played a lot with the settings of the additive synthesis, including the length of the sound, the highest frequency and even the number of frequency bins (going back to the clock metaphor – pretend the clock hand is a ruler – the number of frequency bins would be the number of demarcations on the ruler) arriving eventually at set of optimized variables.

Here is one version of the track we created using 10 frequency bins:

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Here is one we created using 2000:

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And here is one we created using 50 frequency bins, which we settled on:

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On a software synthesizer this would be like the default setting. In the future we hope to have an interactive graphic user interface where sliders control these variables, just like a musician tweaks the sound of a synth, so scientists can bring out, or mask aspects of the data.

To hear what that would be like, here are a few tracks that vary length:

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Finally, here is a track we created using different mappings of frequency and intensity:

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Having these sliders would reinforce to the scientists that we are not creating “the sound of a metallic alloy,” we are creating one sonic representation of the data from the metallic alloy.

It is interesting that such a representation can be vital to scientists. At first, my husband went along with this sonification project as more of a thought experiment rather than something that he thought would actually be useful in the lab, until he heard something distinct about one of those sounds, suggesting that there was a misaligned sample. Once Kevin heard that glitched sound (you can hear it in the video above), he was convinced that sonification was a useful tool for his lab. He and his colleagues are dealing with measurements 1/25,000th the width of a human hair, aiming an X-ray through twenty pieces of equipment to get the beam focused just right. If any piece of equipment is out of kilter, the data can’t be collected. This is where our ears’ non-directionality is useful. The scientist can be working on his/her computer and, using ambient sound, know when a sample is misaligned.

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It remains to be seen/heard if the sonifications will be useful to actually understand the material structures. We are currently running an experiment using Mechanical Turk to determine this kind of multi-modal display (using vision and audio) is actually helpful. Basically we are training people on just the images of the scattering data, and testing how well they do, and training another group of people on the images plus the sonification and testing how well they do.

I’m also working with collaborators at Stony Brook University on sonification of data. In one experiment we are using ambisonic (3-dimensional) sound to create a sonic map of the brain to understand drug addiction. Standing in the middle of the ambisonic cube, we hope to find relationships between voxels, a cube of brain tissue—analogous to pixels. When neurons fire in areas of the brain simultaneously there is most likely a causal relationship which can help scientists decode the brain activity of addiction. Computer vision researchers have been searching for these relationships unsuccessfully; we hope that our sonification will allow us to hear associations in distinct parts of the brain which are not easily recognized with sight. We are hoping to leverage the temporal pattern recognition of our auditory system, but we have been running into problems doing the sonification; each slice of data from the FMRI has about 300,000 data points. We have it working with 3,000 data points, but either our programming needs to get more efficient, or we have to get a much more powerful computer in order to work with all of the data.

On another project we are hoping to sonify gait data using smartphones. I’m working with some of my music students and a professor of Physical Therapy, Lisa Muratori, who works on understanding the underlying mechanisms of mobility problems in Parkinsons’ Disease (PD). The physical therapy lab has a digital motion-capture system and a split-belt treadmill for asymmetric stepping—the patients are supported by a harness so they don’t fall. PD is a progressive nervous system disorder characterized by slow movement, rigidity, tremor, and postural instability. Because of degeneration of specific areas of the brain, individuals with PD have difficulty using internally driven cues to initiate and drive movement. However, many studies have demonstrated an almost normal movement pattern when persons with PD are provided external cues, including significant improvements in gait with rhythmic auditory cueing. So far the research with PD and sound has be unidirectional – the patients listen to sound and try to match their gait to the external rhythms from the auditory cues.In our system we will use bio-feedback to sonify data from sensors the patients will wear and feed error messages back to the patient through music. Eventually we hope that patients will be able to adjust their gait by listening to self-generated musical distortions on a smartphone.

As sonification becomes more prevalent, it is important to understand that aesthetic decisions are inevitable and even essential in every kind of data representation. We are so accustomed to looking at visual representations of information—from maps to pie charts—that we may forget that these are also arbitrary transcodings. Even a photograph is not an unambiguous record of reality; the mechanics of the camera and artistic choices of the photographer control the representation. So too, in sonification, do we have considerable latitude. Rather than view these ambiguities as a nuisance, we should embrace them as a freedom that allows us to highlight salient features, or uncover previously invisible patterns.

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Margaret Anne Schedel is a composer and cellist specializing in the creation and performance of ferociously interactive media. She holds a certificate in Deep Listening with Pauline Oliveros and has studied composition with Mara Helmuth, Cort Lippe and McGregor Boyle. She sits on the boards of 60×60 Dance, the BEAM Foundation, Devotion Gallery, the International Computer Music Association, and Organised Sound. She contributed a chapter to the Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music, and is a joint author of Electronic Music published by Cambridge University Press. She recently edited an issue of Organised Sound on sonification. Her research focuses on gesture in music, and the sustainability of technology in art. She ran SUNY’s first Coursera Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in 2013. As an Associate Professor of Music at Stony Brook University, she serves as Co-Director of Computer Music and is a core faculty member of cDACT, the consortium for digital art, culture and technology.

Featured Image: Dr. Kevin Yager, data measured at X9 beamline, Brookhaven National Lab.

Research carried out at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, Brookhaven National Laboratory, is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, under Contract No. DE-AC02-98CH10886.

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Unsettled Listening: Integrating Film and Place

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Sculpting the Film SoundtrackWelcome to the third and final installment of Sculpting the Film Soundtrack, our series about sound in contemporary films. We’ve been focusing on how filmmakers are blurring the boundaries between music, speech, and sound effects – in effect, integrating distinct categories of soundtrack design.

In our first post, Benjamin Wright showed how celebrated composer Hans Zimmer thinks across traditional divisions of labour to integrate film sound design with music composition. Danijela Kulezic-Wilson followed up with an insightful piece on the integration of audio elements in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, suggesting how scholars can apply principles of music, like tempo and rhythm, to their analyses of the interactions between a film’s images and sounds. In this final entry, Randolph Jordan, considers another dimension of integration: a film’s sounds and the place where it was produced. In his provocative and insightful reading of the quasi-documentary East Hastings Pharmacy, Jordan, who is completing a post-doctoral post at Simon Fraser University, elaborates on how the concept of “unsettled listening” can clue us into the relationship between a film and its origins of production. You’ll be able to read more about “unsettled listening” in Jordan’s forthcoming book, tentatively titled Reflective Audioviewing: An Acoustic Ecology of the Cinema, to be published by Oxford University Press.

I hope you’ve enjoyed taking in this series as much as I’ve enjoyed editing it with the help of the marvelous folks at SO!. Thanks for reading. — Guest Editor Katherine Spring

A mother and son of First Nations ancestry sit in the waiting area of a methadone clinic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, their attention directed toward an offscreen TV. A cartoon plays, featuring an instrumental version of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” that mingles with the operating sounds of the clinic and ambience from the street outside. The tune is punctuated by a metal clinking sound at the beginning of each bar, calling to mind the sound of driving railway spikes that once echoed just down the street as the City of Vancouver was incorporated as the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway (beginning thus the cycle of state-sanctioned erasure of indigenous title to the land). The familiar voice of Bugs Bunny chimes in: “Uh, what’s all the hubbub, bub?”

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Hubbub indeed. Let’s unpack it.

The scene appears one third of the way through East Hastings Pharmacy (Antoine Bourges, 2012), a quasi-documentary set entirely within this clinic, staging interactions between methadone patients (played by locals and informed by their real-life experiences) and the resident pharmacist (played by an actress). Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, dubbed Canada’s “worst neighborhood” for its notorious concentration of transients and public drug use, is also home to the largest community of First Nations peoples within the city limits, a product of the long history of dispossession in the surrounding areas. When the film presents this indigenous pair listening to a Hollywood fabrication of the sounds that marked their loss of title to the city it is a potent juxtaposition, especially given the American infiltration of Vancouver’s mediascape since the 1970s. Long known as “Hollywood North,” Vancouver is more famous as a stand-in for myriad other parts of the world than for representing itself, its regional specificity endlessly overwritten with narratives that hide the city and its indigenous presence from public awareness.

"Quidam +  Noise" graffiti in Downtown Vancouver,  April 6, 2013, by Flickr User Kevin Krebs

“Quidam +  Noise” graffiti in Downtown Vancouver,  April 6, 2013, by Flickr User Kevin Krebs

In her essay “Thoughts on Making Places: Hollywood North and the Indigenous City,” filmmaker Kamala Todd stresses how media can assist the process of re-inscribing local stories into Vancouver’s consciousness. East Hastings Pharmacy is one such example, lending some screen time to urban Natives in the 21st Century city. But Todd reminds us that audiences also have a responsibility “to learn the stories of the land” that have been actively erased in dominant media practices, and to bring this knowledge to our experience of the city in all its incarnations (9). Todd’s call resonates with a process that Nicholas Blomley calls “unsettling the city” in his book of the same name. Blomley reveals Vancouver as a site of continual contestation and mobility across generations and cultural groups, and calls for an “unsettled” approach that can account for the multiple overlapping patterns of use that are concealed by “settled” concepts of bounded property. With that in mind, I propose “unsettled listening” as a way of experiencing the city from these multiple positions simultaneously. Rick Altman taught us to hear any given sound event as a narrative by listening for the auditory markers of its propagation through physical space, and recording media, over time (15-31). Unsettled listening invites us to hear through these physical properties of mediatic space to the resonating stories revealed by the overlapping and contradictory histories and patterns of use to which these spaces are put, all too often unacknowledged in the wake of settler colonialism.

East Hastings Pharmacy provides a great opportunity to begin the practice of unsettled listening. The film’s status as an independent production amidst industrial shooting is marked by the intersection of studio-fabricated sound effects and direct sound recording, as in the example described above, and further complicated by the film’s own hybrid of fiction and documentary modes. That speaks to the complexity of overlapping filmmaking practices in Vancouver today, a situation embedded within the intersecting claims to land use and cultural propriety on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. To unsettle listening is to hear all these overlapping situations as forms of resonance that begin with the original context of the televised cartoon and accumulate as they spread through the interior of the clinic and outwards across the surrounding land. So let’s try this out.

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The cartoon is Falling Hare (Robert Clampett, 1943), a good example of the noted history of cross-departmental integration at The Warner Bros.’ cartoon studios. The scene in question begins at 1:55, and here the metallic clinking sound is just as likely to have been produced by one of music orchestrator Carl Stalling’s percussionists as by sound effects editor Treg Brown. This integration can be heard in the way that the music’s unspoken reference to railway construction charges each clink with the connotation of hammer on spike. However, the image track in Falling Hare doesn’t depict railway construction, but rather a gremlin whacking the nose of a live bomb in an attempt to do away with enemy Bugs seated on top. James Lastra would say (by way of Christian Metz) that the clinking sound is “legible” as hammer on spike for the ease with which the sound can be recognized as emanating from this implied source (126). But this legibility is premised upon a lack of specificity that also allows the sound to become interchangeable with something else, as is the case in this cartoon.

Screen Capture from Falling Hare

East Hastings Pharmacy capitalizes on this interchangeability by re-inscribing the clinking sound’s railway connotations, first by stripping the original image and then by presenting this sound in the context of the dire social realities of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as the city’s sanctioned corral for the markers of urban poverty – and indigeneity – that officials don’t want to spill out across the neighborhood’s increasingly gentrified perimeter.

As one of a string of Warner Bros. cartoons put in the service of WWII propaganda, the Falling Hare soundtrack also resonates with wartime xenophobia and imperialist expansion, branches of the same pathos that leads to the effacing of indigenous culture from the consciousness of colonizing peoples. In Vancouver, this has taken the form of what Jean Barman calls “Erasing Indigenous Indigeneity,” the process of chasing the area’s original peoples off the land while importing aboriginal artifacts from elsewhere to maintain a Native chic deemed safe for immigrant consumption (as when the city paid “homage” to the vacated Squamish residents of downtown Vancouver’s Stanley Park by erecting Kwakiutl totem poles imported from 200km north on Vancouver Island) (26). This is an interchangeability of cultural heritage premised upon a lack of specificity, the same quality that allows “legible” sound effects to become synchretic with a variety of implied sources. And this process is not unlike the interchangeability of urban spaces when shooting Vancouver for Seattle, New York, or Frankfurt, emphasizing generic qualities of globalized urbanization while suppressing recognizable soundmarks from the mix (such as the persistent sound of float plane propellers that populate Vancouver harbour, the grinding and screeching of trains in the downtown railyard, or the regular horn blasts from the local ferry runs just north of the city).

The high-concept legibility of Warner Bros.’ sound effects – used in Falling Hare to play on listener’s expectations to comic effect – is further unsettled by its presentation within the context of documentary sound conventions in East Hastings Pharmacy. Bourges’ film commits to regional specificity in part through the use of location sound recording, which, as Jeffrey K. Ruoff identifies in “Conventions of Documentary Sound,” is particularly valued as a marker of authenticity (27-29). While Bourges stages the action inside the clinic, the film features location recordings of the rich street life audible and visible through the clinic’s windows that proceeds unaffected by the cameras and microphones. This situation is all the more potent when we account for the fact that, in this scene, the location-recorded cartoon soundtrack and ambient sound effects were added in post-production, and so represent a highly conscious attempt to channel the acoustic environment according to the conventions of “authentic” sound in documentary film.

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Screen Capture, East Hastings Pharmacy

While the film uses location recording as a conscious stylistic choice to evoke documentary convention, it does so to engage meaningfully with the social situation in the Downtown Eastside, underlining Michel Chion’s point that “rendered” film sound – fabricated in studio to evoke the qualities of a particular space – is just as capable of engaging the world authentically (or inauthentically) as “real” sound captured on location (95-98). By presenting this Hollywood cartoon as an embedded element within the soundscape of the clinic, using a provocative mix of location sound and studio fabrication, East Hastings Pharmacy unsettles Hollywood’s usual practice of erasing local specificity, inviting us to think of runaway projects in the context of their foreign spaces of production and the local media practices that sit next to them.

Finally, this intersection of sonic styles points to the complex relationships that exist between the domains of independent and industrial production around Vancouver. In his book Hollywood North, Mike Gasher argues for thinking about filmmaking in British Columbia as a resource industry, pointing to how the provincial government has offered business incentives for foreign film production similar to those in place for activities like logging and fishing. Here we can consider how the local film industry might follow the same unsustainable patterns of extraction as other resource industries, all premised upon willful ignorance of indigenous uses of the land. Yet as David Spaner charts in Dreaming in the Rain, the ability to make independent films in Vancouver has become largely intertwined with the availability of industrial resources in town. Just as Hollywood didn’t erase the independent film, colonization didn’t erase indigenous presence.

East Hastings Pharmacy offers a powerful example of how we can practice unsettled listening on the staged sound of Falling Hare, devoid of local context and connected to the railway only by inference, to reveal a rich integration with regional specificity as the cartoon’s auditory resonances accumulate within its new spaces of propagation. In this way we can hear local media through its transnational network, including the First Nations, to understand the overlaps between seemingly contradictory modes of being within the city. And in so doing, we can also hear through the misrepresentation of the Downtown Eastside as “Canada’s worst neighborhood” to the strength of the community that has long characterized the area for anyone who scratches the surface, an important first step along the path to unsettling the city as a whole.

Featured Image: Still from East Hastings Pharmacy

Randolph Jordan wanted to be a rock star.  Academia seemed a responsible back-up option – until it became clear that landing a professor gig would be harder than topping the Billboard charts.  After completing his Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary Humanities program at Concordia University in 2010 he floated around Montreal classrooms on contract appointments before taking up a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. There he has been investigating geographical specificity in Vancouver-based film and media by way of sound studies and critical geography, research that will inform the last chapter of his book Reflective Audioviewing: An Acoustic Ecology of the Cinema (now under contract at Oxford University Press).  If you can’t find him hammering away at his manuscript, or recording his three young children hammering away at their Mason & Risch, look for him under Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge where he spends his “spare time” gathering film and sound material for his multimedia project Bell Tower of False Creek. Or visit him online here: http://www.randolphjordan.com

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