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SO! Amplifies: Maile Colbert, Rui Costa, and Jeff Cain’s “Radio Terramoto”

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Document3SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

This November 1st will mark the 259th anniversary of the Great Lisbon Earthquake on All Saints Day, 1755, which destroyed a quarter of the city and beget consequential tsunamis and fires. “Radio Terramoto” is a soundwalk research and art project designed to bring this seemingly distant devastation into contemporary consciousness. Based on the idea of listening to sound from a past historical event, “Radio Terramoto” is a traveling audience immersive event. It’s inaugural procession, made up of the creators and audience members, followed a path from the Convento do Carmo down to the River Targus in Lisbon, Portugal. It was also performed this summer in the town of Viseu, Portugal, as part of the Invisible Places, Sounding Cities Symposium in July 2014.

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“Radio Terramoto” is a radio transmission from All Saints Day, 1755. We are not sure how or why the forty minutes were recorded, but having been discovered aaccidentallyit has proven to be an important record of the experience of the people caught in the earthquake. We follow our mysterious ghost recorder from the Convento, where people were gathered for mass. The first wave hits and the convent crumbles. As people run to the river, we follow their path as the buildings around us burst into flames and collapse. Upon reaching the river in a panic, we are only to be greeted by the water pulling out, revealing flopping fish and shipwrecks, pulling towards the ocean to fuel the giant wave that would finally overcome our poor recorder. From here, the transmission stops. (To read this summary in Portuguese click here).

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The end of the inaugural “Radio Terramoto” performance in Lisbon, 11/1/13

The project and research for “Radio Terramoto” asks the question, what can listening to the past reveal about the now, both in artistic practice and scientific research? Its site-based (yet mobile) sound design weaves between the present and the past and is based on research on the earthquake, using documents of first hand experiences and the first seismic and “earthquake”-proof architecture that came after what may be the largest earthquake recorded in history.

processionFor the original “Radio Terramoto” soundwalk in Lisbon, first performed November 1, 2013, we walked with the audience bearing a transmitter; the audience carried radios and cell phones tuned into the specific frequency of the transmission. The soundwalk also included hand-held sculptural octahedra created using a geometric framing system designed by Jake Dotson, assembled as a singular form approximating a Pombaline cage, the first modern earthquake resistant architecture. The radio transmitter, and other key electrical devices were suspended in these 1 foot 3 inch octahetra made of brightly colored sticks of wood held together with friction and tension. The large cage broke apart into the individual octahedra to aid in the transportation of equipment and in providing a visual wayfinding aide for the participants.

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“Radio Terramoto” procession, Maile Costa and Rui Colbert in the foreground, Lisbon, Portugal, November 1, 2013

Like Maile’s “Passageira em Casa,” a traveling intermedia work that explores the concept of “home,” “Radio Terramoto” changes to be site and context specific with each presentation.  When we led a performance in Viseu, Portugal, for example, we began at the Sé de Viseu, moved through the old city center, and ended at a small body of water off the Avenida Emídio Navarro.

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Planned future performances of “Radio Terramoto” include a version in Los Angeles that will unite the original team in collaboration with Jesse Gilbert. Gilbert created the program SpectralGL, a cell phone app  that enables sound to visually affect the landscape from the video camera as the audience member walks. As Los Angeles has its own fraught relationship with earthquakes, we expect this performance to be particularly resonant and thought provoking.

Images courtesy of the artists and Jennifer Stoever (Viseu shots)

Rui Costa is a sound artist from Lisbon, Portugal. He is a founding member and artistic director of Binaural/Nodar, an arts organization founded in 2004 and dedicated to the promotion of context-specific and participatory art projects in rural communities of the Gralheira mountain range, northern Portugal. Rui has been performing and exhibiting his work since 1998 in festivals, galleries and museums across Portugal, Spain, Italy and the United States and has been collaborating regularly with the Italian vocal performer Manuela Barile and the American intermedia artist Maile Colbert. Rui Costa is also a regular speaker in conferences and gives workshops dedicated to sound art. For more from Binaural/Nodar, please check out the organization’s soundcloudvimeo, and flickr.

Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

Jeff Cain is an artist, designer, curator and director of the Shed Research Institute a multidisciplinary art, research, curatorial, and design studio in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles.

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SO! Amplifies: Eric Leonardson and World Listening Day 18 July 2014

SO! Amplifies: Carleton Gholz and the Detroit Sound Conservancy

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Document3SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

I founded the Detroit Sound Conservancy in 2012 in order to preserve what music producer Don Was has called “the indigenous music of Detroit.” I also did it to preserve my own archive of Detroit sound related artifacts – oral history interviews, recordings, vinyl records, cassette tapes, 8-tracks, posters, t-shirts, buttons, articles, clippings, books, magazines, zines, photos, digital photos, notes, jottings, and other miscellaneous ephemera — knowing that if I could not help preserve the materials of an older generation of musicians, producers, DJs, writers, collectors, and fans, my personal archive and passions would not weather the storms (literal and figural) of the early 21st century – PhD or not. After a year or so of organizing virtually from Boston where I had found academic work teaching media & rhetoric, the DSC had its first major success with an oral history project for Detroit music, funded through Kickstarter.  Donations allowed us to throw a great party in Boston, form the non-profit, and push me home to work on the DSC full time.

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The results of the move have already manifested themselves. This summer we had a successful conference at the Detroit Public Library — the first of its kind — dedicated to Detroit sound.We will hold another next year on May 22 dedicated to the key role of Michigan in general, and Detroit in particular, in the emergence of the modern soundscape.  We plan to have the call for papers out this fall.

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October 14, 2014, interview with historian / musician Larry Gabriel and myself at #RecordDET, image courtesy of the author

In addition, we currently have an organizing/promotional night called #RecordDET at a downtown coffee shop  called Urban Bean so that we can continue to both record interviews and playback the sounds / stories we are learning from. So far we’ve interviewed a retired disco / house DJ, a record retail and radio veteran, and two blues historians and musicians.

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The long-term goal is to use the stories and sounds to propel us into a more sustainable future for Detroit’s sonic heritage. Recent local floods  have reminded Metro Detroiters just how vulnerable we are and continue to be. We must preserve or our sonic dreams will perish.

I imagine the DSC as the sonic dream weaver. As one of our inspirations, the Black Madonna in Chicago, says: We still believe.

Carleton Gholz (PhD, Communication Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 2011) is the Founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Sound Conservancy, a lecturer in Communication at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and President of the Friends of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection at the Detroit Public Library.

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SO! Amplifies: Mendi+Keith Obadike and Sounding Race in America

SO! Amplifies: Regina Bradley’s Outkasted Conversations

SO! Amplifies: Eric Leonardson and World Listening Day 18 July 2014

SO! Amplifies: Mendi+Keith Obadike and Sounding Race in America

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Document3SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Several years ago—after working on media art, myths, songs about invisible networks and imaginary places—we started a series of sound art projects about America. In making these public sound artworks about our country we ask ourselves questions about funk, austerity, debt and responsibility, aesthetics, and inheritance. We also attempt to reckon with data, that which orders so much of our lives with its presence or absence.

We are interested in how data might be understood differently once sonified or made musical. We want to explore what kinds of codes are embedded in the architecture of American culture.

Big House/Disclosure

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The first sound art project in this vein that we completed in 2007 was entitled Big House / Disclosure. Northwestern University commissioned Big House / Disclosure to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. We began researching Chicago’s recently (2002) issued Slavery Era Disclosure Ordinance, which states that any business seeking a city contract must publicly disclose (without penalty) its historical relationship, if any, to the slave trade. In that project we interviewed 200 citizens in the Chicago area about that city ordinance, how they (or their ancestors) arrived in this country, the origins of house music, and imaginary plantations, as well as their opinions about the legacy of slavery in their lives. Their answers were woven into a 200 hour house song & public sound installation on the Northwestern campus.

We used custom built software to trigger changes in the sound (drums, bass lines, chords, etc.) of that installation as the stock prices of companies like Lehman Brothers and Wachovia Bank (listed by this city ordinance as having profited from slave trade) rose and fell in 2007. In addition to the sound installation there were a number of performance scores and graphic scores to be performed in the project. The graphic scores were performed at the Stone (John Zorn’s music venue) by bassist Melvin Gibbs, turntablist Val Inc, percussionist Satoshi Takeshi, and pianist Shoko Nagai in New York. The book and album for this project (recorded with percussionist Guillermo Brown, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, cellist Okkyung Lee and percussionist Tim Feeney) were released by 1913 Press.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Bdh5ykfHEE

American Cypher

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In 2012-13 we created American Cypher. This project looked at American stories about race and DNA. The stories included narratives about Barack Obama, geneticist James Watson, Oprah Winfrey, and two men in the criminal justice system. At the center of the project was a multi-channel sound installation made from a small 18th century bell that belonged to Sally Hemings (a woman enslaved by Thomas Jefferson and, as indicated by DNA testing, mother to his children). The bell was recorded and altered. It was tuned using DNA information (microsatellite STR analysis) from the Jefferson and Hemings families. That analysis gave us a pitch set that was used to compose the piece. The project was commissioned by Bucknell University’s Samek Gallery and Griot Institute. The exhibition was mounted at the Studio Museum in Harlem and later traveled to the Institute of Visual Art at the University of Milwaukee Wisconsin.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/81574324″>Mendi + Keith Obadike: American Cypher – Samek Gallery and The Studio Museum in Harlem</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user12307441″>Keith Obadike</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Free/Phase

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Free/Phase is our latest project for 2014-15. This work uses the archives of Columbia College’s Center for Black Music Research (Chicago, Illinois) as its foundation. With this work we are doing conceptual remixes of African-American freedom songs found in the archives. We are thinking about how this music has been used over the past couple of centuries and all that is encoded in these songs musically, politically, and spiritually. There are three nodes to this project. These nodes will be presented and produced in several venues throughout the city of Chicago and will include audience participation.

1) Beacon

“Beacon” is made up of a distributed site-specific sound installation that “rings” morning, noon, and evening, playing a short melodic phrase from specific spirituals found in the CBMR archives. Each spiritual chosen contains musical & lyrical messages that could have been used for pre-emancipation navigation on the underground railroad or inspiration.

2) Overcome

“Overcome” is a video work that is inspired by ways that music was used during the American Civil Rights Movement.

3) Dialogue

“Dialogue” is comprised of “listening posts” throughout Chicago. A number of DJs engage audiences in a discussion about the canon of African-American freedom songs.

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Across this series, we hope to invite new ways of thinking about the archives that hold information about our existence—the records of profit during the era of American slavery, the relationships marked in our genetic information, and the strategies for survival encoded in our music. Our work in this area reflects on the information that sometimes vanishes from view, whether because it is ephemeral or because it has been buried. We hope our sounding the archives invite new ways of listening to the past and the future at the same time.

Mendi + Keith Obadike make music, art and literature. Their works include The Sour Thunder, an Internet opera (Bridge Records), Crosstalk: American Speech Music (Bridge Records), Black.Net.Art Actions, a suite of new media artworks (published in re:skin on M.I.T Press), Big House / Disclosure, a 200 hour public sound installation (Northwestern University), Phonotype, a book & CD of media artworks, and a poetry collection, Armor and Flesh (Lotus Press). They have contributed sounds/music to projects by wide range of artists including loops for soul singer D’Angelo’s first album and a score for playwright Anna Deavere Smith at the Lincoln Center Institute. You can find out more about them at http://obadike.com.

Featured image from authors’ website.

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Or Does it Explode?: Sounding Out the U.S. Metropolis in Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun-Liana Silva-Ford

Reproducing Traces of War: Listening to Gas Shell Bombardment, 1918

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World Listening Month3

Welcome to World Listening Month 2014, our annual forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2014. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us [for the full deets, peep our recent SO! Amplifies post by Eric Leonardson, Executive Director of the World Listening Project].  We kick off our month of thinking critically about listening with a post by media historian Brian Hanrahan, who listens deeply to sonic traces of the past to prompt us to question our desires for contemporary media representations of “reality.”  It also marks the global 100 year anniversary of World War I this August 2014: a moment of silence. –J. Stoever, Editor-in-Chief

For some reason that I don’t fully understand, I am very emotionally moved by the space around a sound. I almost think that sometimes I am recording space with a sound in it, rather than sound in a space. -Walter Murch 

If you want to listen to the past, there’s never been a time like the present. Every year, it seems, new old recordings are identified, new techniques developed to recover sounds thought irrecoverable. Here is Bismarck’s voice, preserved on a cylinder in 1889.  Here, older still, is Edison’s. There is the astonishing recuperation of phonautograms – reverberation traced onto soot-blackened paper in the mid-nineteenth century, digitally processed and played back in our own. But as that processing underlines, no sound recording straightforwardly reproduces the real. An acoustic artifact is a compound of materiality, form and meaning, but also a place where technology meets desire. Old recordings meet the listener’s longing halfway; they invoke a reality always out of reach. And not simply a longing to hear, but also to touch, and be moved by, the fact of an absent existence.

Take, for instance, HMV 09308. In October 1918, just before the end of the Great War, William Gaisberg, a sound recordist of the pre-electric era, took recording equipment to the Western Front in order to capture the sound of British artillery shelling German lines with poison gas. Gaisberg died not long after, probably from Spanish flu, although some say he was weakened by gas exposure during the recording. Nonetheless the “Gas Shell Bombardment” record – a 12-inch HMV shellac disc, just over 2 minutes at 78 rpm – was released a few weeks later, just as the war came to an end. Initially intended to promote War Bonds, ultimately the record was used to raise money for disabled veterans.

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For decades, the HMV recording had a reputation as one of the very earliest “actuality” recordings – one documenting a real location and event beyond the performative space of the studio, imprinted with the audible material trace of an actual moment in space and time. Documents like this – no matter what the technology – usually come with additional symbolic authentication. Here, the record’s label does some of that work. This “historic recording,” says the subtitle, is an “actual record taken on the front line.” Publicity pieces drove home the message. In the popular HMV magazine The Voice, Gaisberg – or probably his posthumous ghost-writer – described the expedition in detail, claiming the track to be a “true representation of the bombardment.”

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In the same issue, a Major C.J.C. Street compared the recording to his own experience on the Front. “Its realism,” he wrote, ”took my breath away… I played the record many times… finding at each attempt some well-remembered detail.” He didn’t say so in his article, but Street – an artillery officer, a novelist and a propaganda man for the intelligence agency MI7 – was in fact the impresario of the record. This was not the first time he had found astute uses for sound media. The previous year he had put together a record that set artillery drill commands to popular tunes – the recording was both a propaganda release and an army training tool for new recruits. With the Gas Shell record, Street knew he wasn’t just selling recorded sound, but also an auratic sense of closeness to an overwhelming reality, the palpable proximity of war and death. Authenticating detail helped to underpin this sense of an absent real made present. Street cued the listener for those “well-remembered details.” In particular, he singled out one indistinct rattly flap-whizz noise, hearing in it, he claimed, the sound of a round with a “loose driving-band.”

The record stayed in the HMV catalog until 1945, but only in the early 1990s were its production history and authenticity claims seriously examined. In specialist journals, archivists, collectors and amateur historians undertook a collective forensic and critical analysis. A promising auditory witness was located: 95-year-old Lt.-Col. Montagu Cleeve another former artillery officer, in his time a developer of “Boche Buster” railway gun, later a music professor – was invited to critically assess the recording. Cleeve vouched unreservedly for its authenticity. He heard in it, he said, an unmistakable succession of sounds – the clang of the breech, the gigantic report of the firing explosion, the distinctive whiny whistle of a gas shell on its way across no-man’s-land. Others looked to data rather than the memories of old soldiers. One expert on pre-electric recording noted the angles commanded in firing instructions, correlated them with known muzzle velocities for 4.5 and 6-inch howitzers, then used this and other information to “definitively” explain the counter-intuitive anti-Doppler sound of the shells’ whistling. He also identified the audible echo effect – the curious “double report” of the guns heard here – as the sound of a brass recording horn violently resonating at a distance of exactly 26.5 meters from the guns.

 

Peter Adamson, “The Gas Shell Bombardment record,” The Historic Record Quarterly, April 1991.

Peter Adamson, “The Gas Shell Bombardment record,” The Historic Record Quarterly, April 1991.

 

Eventually, skepticism won out. Close listening at slow speeds – just careful attention and notation, nothing more elaborate – revealed inconsistencies and oddities in the firing noises. The bongs, plops and whistles seemed internally inconsistent. Some of the artillery sounds – ostensibly a battery of four, firing in quick succession – varied implausibly with each successive firing. Physical evidence from the record’s groove, as well as extraneous noises – surface crackle and fizz, and, audible within the recording, the swish of a turntable – seemed to indicate at least two rudimentary overdubs, in which the output of one acoustic horn was relayed into a second, possibly using an auxetophone, an early compressed-air amplifier. All this resulted in a double- or triple-layered sonic artifact. Finally – the crucial evidence, although oddly it was hardly noticed at the time – an alternative take was located. In this take, according to its discoverer, the entire theatrics of gunnery command is simply absent, and there is no sound at all of whistling shells in motion. What was left was a skeleton sequence of clicks, thuds and cracks, supplemented with only a single closing insert, the portentous injunction “Feed the Guns with War Bonds!”

In short, it seems highly likely that any original field recording was, at the very least, post-dramatized with performed voices and percussive and whistling sound effects. So, it is tempting to say, that clears that up. The recording’s inauthenticity is proven. File under Fake. But in fact, if we don’t stop there, if we set aside narrow and absolutist ideas of authenticity, and instead explore the recording’s ambiguity and hybridity, then Gas Shell Bombardment becomes all the more interesting as an historical artifact.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that some form of basic recording was done in France, very possibly a staged barrage specifically performed for Gaisberg’s visit, and that this recording then had effects added back at HMV in London. The record might then be seen less as a straightforward documentary, and instead as an unusual version of the “descriptive speciality,” a genre of miniature phonographic vignette dating back to the 1890s, far predating longer-form radio drama. Very little is known about these early media artworks, but it is a fair generalization to say that in America the genre was more slanted towards vaudeville comedy, whereas in Europe, imperial and military scenes predominated. As early as 1890, for example, there had been German phonographic representations of battles from the Franco-Prussian war. The Great War saw a flourishing of the genre. Scholars are just beginning to take an interest these old phonographs; here’s one recent essay on the “Angel of Mons,” for example, a British acoustic vignette of a famous incident on the Western Front.

Listen to a 1915 German descriptive speciality, depicting the attack on the fortress of Liège the previous year:

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As a descriptive speciality, Gas Shell Bombardment is unusual because it incorporates an actual indexical trace. But such traces – as emphasized by Charles Sanders Pierce and many later media-theoreticians– do not resemble their referent, they are caused by it. The bullet hole does not look much like a bullet; thunder is lightning’s trace, not its likeness. But for Street and Gaisberg, the trace’s lack of resemblance caused problems: the original recording’s lack of detail, cues and clues, but above all its lack of internal dimensionality, created a perceptual shortfall and a lack of credibility. Maybe they hoped that the guns, by sheer force of amplitude, would overcome the spatially impoverished, reverbless reproduction of pre-electric recording. If so, it didn’t work. Without added effects, the guns’ trace was as flat and “body-less” as a sequence of Morse. It was a sound without a scene. The producers’ interventions aimed to thicken the primary artifact with referential-sounding detail, but also to heighten the sense of materiality and spatiality, and to strengthen the sense of diegetic presence, of worlded thereness. The soldiers’ voices – louder and quieter, close-up and farther-out – and the fake-Doppler of the “shell whistling” lent the recording narrative direction (literally, some trajectory) and “authenticating” points of detail. But above all they gave a sense of internal space to the recording, a space into which the listener could direct her attention.

In this context, we can only admire the creativity and performative élan of the unknown production crew. We know little about effects production in early phonography. It is a safe bet that some techniques were adopted from theatre, and that there was overlap with silent film accompaniment. But whatever the method used, it would have called for the awkward orchestration of a limited number of iconic sounds to create an impression of a spatially coherent and materially detailed sonic environment. The recordist and his team would first have had to imagine how relative loudness – of voices, of material objects struck and sounded – might create a sense of spatial depth when transduced through the horn’s crude interface. Then they would have had to perform this as a live overdub, keeping time with the base track of the gun recording played through another horn. And all this done with participants and equipment crowded tightly around the mouth of the huge horn, crammed into the tiny pick-up arc, a scene looking something like this image of Leopold Stokowski’s pre-electric recording sessions or this photograph of the recording of a cello concerto.

Acoustic recording session with Elgar and Beatrice Harrison, 1920

Acoustic recording session with Elgar and Beatrice Harrison, 1920

As well as this hybrid of trace and live performance, there is another performance here – Gaisberg’s journey itself. With twenty years of recording experience, Gaisberg was probably very well aware that the expedition would not yield a “realistic” recording of the guns. But the expedition had to be made, so that it could be said to have taken place. Expectations had to be primed and colored, so that, to use André Bazin’s famous phrase about photographs, the recording could partake in an “irrational power to… bear the belief” of the listener. The journey, and the accounts of Gaisberg and Street are not a supplement to the “true representation” of the gas bombardment. They are part of that representation. Moreover, in subsequent writing it is noticeable that the manner of Gaisberg’s death becomes a rhetorical amplification for the authenticity of the recording’s trace, as if his fatal inhalation (of gas molecules or flu bacilli) were itself a deadly indexation, paralleling the recording’s claim to capture the breath of the War, and even of History itself.

In media-historical terms, the Gas Shell Bombardment recording can be understood as a late, transitional artifact from phonography’s pre-microphonic era. The desire for the sonic trace, for an ever more immersive proximity to events was there, but electro-acoustic technology was not yet in place. Two years later, in 1920, Horace Merriman and Lionel Guest made the first experimental electrical recording, arguably also the first true field recording. The event, appropriately enough, was an official war memorial service in London, where Merriman and Guest – working for Columbia Records – put microphones in Westminster Abbey, running cables to a remote recording van parked in the street outside, where they sat amidst heating ovens and cutting lathes. By the end of the 1920s, remote recording and broadcasting, while never straightforward, were well on the way to ubiquity.

Illustrated London News, 1920.

Illustrated London News, 1920.

Claims made on behalf of technologies of reproduction may seem simplistic, but there’s a grain of truth to their simplicity. If there were nothing special – even magical – in the referentiality of the camera that captures the moment, the recording that’s like being there, the liveness of the live broadcast, these things would not play the role they do in everyday life and in the ideological fabric of society. But there is falsehood too, in over-simplifying the nature and affective charge of old photographs, old footage, old recordings. These are made things, composed of different materials, media, signs and conventions; they are inseparable from the desires and expectations they induce and direct. They function in part by mimesis and verisimilitude, but also through the gaps, blank spots and false illusions of their trace. They can – rightly – intensify our feeling towards the past, but should also prompt us to think about our own desires and investments.

Image by Flickr User DrakeGoodman, “Horchposten im Spengtrichter vor Neuve-Chapelle 6km nördlich von La Bassée Nordfrankreich 1916,” A trio of lightly equipped soldiers from an unidentified formation oblige the photographer by looking serious and pretending they’re just metres from the enemy, listening for activity in his lines. The improvised “listening device” is actually a large funnel, probably liberated from a nearby farm.

Brían Hanrahan is a film, media and cultural historian, whose work focuses on the history of acoustic media, German and European cinema and the culture of the Weimar Republic.

Edited post-publication at 8:00 pm EST on July 7, 2014


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