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Sound Designing Motherhood: Irene Lusztig & Maile Colbert Open The Motherhood Archives

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A Conversation Article in Chat with  Irene Lusztig, Director of The Motherhood Archives and Sound Designer Maile Colbert

In 2011 filmmaker Irene Lusztig contacted me about designing sound and composing for her film project, The Motherhood Archives.

Irene had spent several years buying discarded educational films on eBay and working in historical archives to amass an unusual and fascinating collection of  archival films aimed at teaching women how to be pregnant, give birth, and look after babies. The Motherhood Archives uses this extraordinary archival treasure trove to form a lyrical essay film excavating hidden histories of childbirth in the twentieth century, illuminating our changing narratives of maternal success and failure, and raising questions about our social and historical constructions of motherhood.

I was immediately intrigued by her concept and construction process as well as her desire to work with sound design in a very collaborative manner at an earlier stage in the project than most filmmakers would. Geographically distant, Irene and I mostly worked by “satellite,” using email, chat, Skype, phone, and file sharing software to communicate and send files.  We did manage to have a few production weeks in New York and Santa Cruz, but the majority of the work was woven back and forth across an ocean and continent…California to Lisbon, Portugal, West Coast to West Coast. Rather than hindering, this method lent itself to an exquisite corpse nature to the work. In the creation of this article we followed much the same process, using an initial Gmail chat.

Maile Colbert (MC): So, I’m both shy and excited about asking this… why me, Irene?

 Irene Lusztig (IL): I had heard your work in both Adele Horne’s film [The Tailenders, 2005] and Rebecca Baron’s [How Little We Know of Our Neighbors, 2005], both films with beautiful sound.

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The sound in How Little We Know of Our Neighbors in particular does something with natural / unnatural that I was really interested in – field recordings that somehow become other kinds of things as they are layered, transformed, and processed. I think of myself as a documentary maker / artist who is invested in actuality, but not very invested in traditional documentary form, and I think your sound has similar investments and disinvestments. It begins with the sounds of the real world but takes those sounds to very unexpected places that are often quite far from their original context.

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MC: I love that you brought up the “natural/unnatural.” It not only really describes well my work and approach in general, but also the experience we get in your film with mediated motherhood. We would often talk about certain sections being very science fiction…then you think, wow, this really happened, this is part of a history that led up to our experience now, and one I’m currently having, having recently become pregnant for the first time!

IL: I think there is a lot to say about science fiction and sound! First, there is a great tradition of feminist science fiction that I feel like our work is very connected to: Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, and even stuff like Shulamith Firestone’s futuristic vision of external uteruses. A lot of that work has in common a willingness to “make strange” or denaturalize aspects of female reproduction and mothering in ways that feel radical.

MC:  I’m not sure if I was able to contain my excitement when you first mentioned a section felt sci-fi to you. This is something that I think has a root back in my childhood. My father was and is an obsessive science fiction film watcher: I grew up with a soundtrack of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Lost in Space. These soundscapes that “weren’t” became such a part of what I wanted to listen to.

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IL: I always thought I had no interest in science fiction when I was younger, but I think growing a human inside my own body probably shifted my relationship to that!

I think science fiction is almost always expressing our anxieties about the future, about our technologies, about things that we struggle to control. And of course questions and anxieties about trying and failing to control things are completely at the heart of our experiences with pregnancy, birth, and learning to be new mothers in the 21st century. As are questions around technological mediations that we feel ambivalent about, whether it’s fertility technologies, medicalized birth technologies, or things like baby monitors or worrying about whether the iPad is rewiring your baby’s brain. So science fiction feels like a sonic space that totally makes sense for negotiating these maternal anxieties.

MC: One of our biggest struggles was trying to make sure things weren’t too dark for the audience.

IL: People often respond with anxiety to the film and its sound design. I’ve never before made a film where the sound comes up so often in post-screening discussions, and generally the question is something like “why is the sound so dark / scary / anxiety-provoking?” It seems very specific to the subject of The Motherhood Archives – how anxious we are societally about the whole topic, and also how uncomfortable we are being open about these anxieties.

MC: I’m still shocked at how shocked I am when I realize how some people react to this film, how uncomfortable they are. U.S. society seems just as afraid of birth as death in this manner! We speak of each in such a similar way and we’re not allowed the complexity of, for example, being simultaneously anxious about how this will affect our careers and identity, and how in love we are when we hear that heartbeat!

IL: Do you think of yourself as a feminist artist? I ask because becoming a mother (and making art about motherhood) has made me much more aware of myself as a feminist artist.

MC: I absolutely consider myself a feminist– it’s woven into every part of my life and my work.  I’m also beginning to feel this in a new way with the pregnancy: I recently lost a gig I was really looking forward to because there was an assumption that I couldn’t do it somehow because I was pregnant.  A recent interviewer asked me about how I navigate motherhood and my work, and I couldn’t help consider that this question would never come up with a male artist.

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My recent recordings of my future daughter growing and moving have been wonderful to listen to: watery and subdued, you still feel like you’re only getting a little of her sonic world, so mysterious.  But it reminds me of when I was a child – in any body of water I loved to dive down to the bottom, let go of my breath and just rest there as long as I could…it was an ultimate peace.  I loved the visual perspective of the world above me, but most loved the deep gentle filter of everything aural coming through this watery world.  Some might argue that peace refers to our first soundscape experienced…and listening to my own active womb, it doesn’t seem far-fetched.

IL: There are a lot of watery sounds in the film! My friend Irene Gustafson made this great connection between all the water in the soundtrack and the voiceover passage in the twilight sleep section about how the “soothing sound of running water muffles newborn cries to prevent the formation of what are called islands of memory.” That description of water literally being used to erase memory allows all the water sounds throughout the film to become a metaphor for the erasure of historical memory… the fact that we no longer remember the historical moment where feminists were advocates for anesthetic drugs and medicalized childbirth, for instance…the many ways that the histories in the film are now forgotten.

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MC: I think sounds are like cells in a way…they carry a memory, even though abstracted.

That’s why I love working with natural sources initially,  something comes through from that palette, a shadow is carried from its initial source.  As animals, we use sound for information,  much processing and translation happens that we aren’t even aware of.  So I do feel like when a sound is removed by processing, it still carries its source information with it, and we pick up on some of that.

 IL: Talking about cellular memory makes me think about the section of the film that a friend described as “crispy cells:” the image is from a very early 20th century educational film about reproduction – sheep cells that are dividing and reproducing – and the sound is the sound of the magnetosphere, which I love!

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MC: I find listening to the magnetosphere sort of grounds me. I use a VLF recorder very often when I travel. If there are lightening storms or space weather, like solar storms, you get these very beautiful and strange soundscapes. I often use the recordings in my work, but your film is the first that seemed to demand them as a sound source! That section just called out for them, in their “pure” form. When you placed them there and sent it to me, I was blown away…it seemed like that was the sound of the video itself somehow.

I’ve been collecting and working on my sound library for over a decade now, and I’ve never been in a situation where a client or collaborator was interested in it in such a hands-on way.  It seemed so right to share it with you and build upon it together for this project.  For each sound – some of them going way back – I still remember the source, recording conditions, what was surrounding it (or rather what it was surrounding usually!).  They become symbols, but also memory triggers.  Now some of them have changed and were saved with this project, so there are generations as well. And the historic archival sounds you added to it…they come with their own history and memory; your film and their use is then added to that.

IL: Speaking of archival sound, one of the most amazing (to me) moments in our collaboration was really close to the end when you sent me the end credit sound. We’ve actually never talked about this because as soon as you sent it I totally intuitively and immediately knew that it was perfect. The sound is a backwards transformation of the wax cylinder Chopin Waltz recording that is used earlier in the film during the pregnant ballet sequence. There’s something so brilliant about your instinct to bring back that very polite, restrained music at the end, but have it reversed – both because it turns something familiar and half-remembered on its head, but also because I think it says something about history that is so attuned to the way the film works. The film thinks about histories of childbirth, but the chronological structure is circular, not linear – which I think of as a kind of challenge to the conventional forward-marching progress narrative.  History is always haunting the present, and history is always circular. It makes amazing and beautiful sense that this music that we’ve heard before returns at the end in this uncanny backwards form.


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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!

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Wayback Sound Machine: Sound Through Time, Space, and Place– Maile Colbert

Sounds Like a Baby– Liana Silva-Ford

Playing with Bits, Pieces, and Lightning Bolts: An Interview with Sound Artist Andrea Parkins– Maile Colbert

Live Electronic Performance: Theory And Practice

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This is the third and final installment of a three part series on live Electronic music.  To review part one, “Toward a Practical Language for Live Electronic Performance” click here. To peep part two, “Musical Objects, Variability and Live Electronic Performance” click here.

“So often these laptop + controller sets are absolutely boring but this was a real performance – none of that checking your emails on stage BS. Dude rocked some Busta, Madlib, Aphex Twin, Burial and so on…”

This quote, from a blogger about Flying Lotus’ 2008 Mutek set, speaks volumes about audience expectations of live laptop performances. First, this blogger acknowledges that the perception of laptop performances is that they are generally boring, using the “checking your email” adage to drive home the point. He goes to express what he perceived to set Lotus’s performance apart from that standard. Oddly enough, it isn’t the individualism of his sound, rather it was Lotus’s particular selection and configuration of other artists’ work into his mix – a trademark of the DJ.

Contrasting this with the review of the 2011 Flying Lotus set that began this series, both reveal how context and expectations are very important to the evaluation of live electronic performance.  While the 2008 piece praises Lotus for a DJ like approach to his live set, the 2011 critique was that the performance was more of a DJ set rather than a live electronic performance. What changed in the years between these two sets was the familiarity with the style of performance (from Lotus and the various other artists on the scene with similar approaches) providing a shift in expectations. What they both lack, however, is a language to provide the musical context for their praise or critique; a language which this series has sought to elucidate.

To put live electronic performances into the proper musical context, one must determine what type of performance is being observed. In the last part of this series, I arrive at four helpful distinctions to compare and describe live electronic performance, continuing this project of developing a usable aesthetic language and enabling a critical conversation about the artform.  The first of the four distinctions between different types of live electronic music performance concerns the manipulation of fixed pre-recorded sound sources into variable performances. The second distinction cites the physical manipulation of electronic instruments into variable performances. The third distinction demarcates the manipulation of electronic instruments into variable performances by the programming of machines. The last one is an integrated category that can be expanded to include any and all combinations of the previous three.

Essential to all categories of live electronic music performance, however, is the performance’s variability, without which music—and its concomitant listening practices–transforms from  a “live” event to a fixed musical object. The trick to any analysis of such performance however, is to remember that, while these distinctions are easy to maintain in theory, in performance they quickly blur one into the other, and often the intensity and pleasure of live electronic music performance comes from their complex combinations.

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Flying Lotus at Treasure Island, San Francisco on 10-15-2011, image by Flickr User laviddichterman

For example, an artist who performs a set using solely vinyl with nothing but two turntables and a manual crossfading mixer, falls in the first distinction between live electronic music performances. Technically, the turntables and manual crossfading mixer are machines, but they are being controlled manually rather than performing on their own as machines.  If the artist includes a drum machine in the set, however, it becomes a hybrid (the fourth distinction), depending on whether the drum machine is being triggered by the performer (physical manipulation) or playing sequences (machine manipulation) or both. Furthermore, if the drum machine triggers samples, it becomes machine manipulation (third distinction) of fixed pre-recorded sounds (first distinction) If the drum machine is used to playback sequences while the artist performs a turntablist routine, the turntable becomes the performance instrument while the drum machine holds as a fixed source. All of these relationships can be realized by a single performer over the course of a single performance, making the whole set of the hybrid variety.

While in practice the hybrid set is perhaps the most common, it’s important to understand the other three distinctions as each of them comes with their own set of limitations which define their potential variability.  Critical listening to a live performance includes identifying when these shifts happen and how they change the variability of the set.  Through the combination their individual limitations can be overcome increasing the overall variability of the performance. One can see a performer playing the drum machine with pads and correlate that physicality of it with the sound produced and then see them shift to playing the turntable and know that the drum machine has shifted to a machine performance. In this example the visual cues would be clear indicators, but if one is familiar with the distinctions the shifts can be noticed just from the audio.

This blending of physical and mechanical elements in live music performance exposes the modular nature of live electronic performance and its instruments. teaching us that the instruments themselves shouldn’t be looked at as distinction qualifiers but rather their combination in the live rig, and the variability that it offers. Where we typically think of an instrument as singular, within live electronic music, it is perhaps best to think of the individual components (eg turntables and drum machines) as the musical objects of the live rig as instrument.

Flying Lotus at the Echoplex, Los Angeles, Image by Flickr User  sunny_J

Flying Lotus at the Echoplex, Los Angeles, Image by Flickr User sunny_J

Percussionists are a close acoustic parallel to the modular musical rig of electronic performers. While there are percussion players who use a single percussive instrument for their performances, others will have a rig of component elements to use at various points throughout a set. The electronic performer inherits such a configuration from keyboardists, who typically have a rig of keyboards, each with different sounds, to be used throughout a set. Availing themselves of a palette of sounds allows keyboardists to break out of the limitations of timbre and verge toward the realm of multi-instrumentalists.  For electronic performers, these limitations in timbre only exist by choice in the way the individual artists configure their rigs.

From the perspective of users of traditional instruments, a multi-instrumentalist is one who goes beyond the standard of single instrument musicianship, representing a musician well versed at performing on a number of different instruments, usually of different categories.  In the context of electronic performance, the definition of instrument is so changed that it is more practical to think not of multi-instrumentalists but multi-timbralists.  The multi-timbralist can be understood as the standard in electronic performance.  This is not to say there are not single instrument electronic performers, however  it is practical to think about the live electronic musician’s instrument not as a singular musical object, but rather a group of musical objects (timbres) organized into the live rig.  Because these rigs can be comprised of a nearly infinite number of musical objects, the electronic performer has the opportunity to craft a live rig that is uniquely their own. The choices they make in the configuration of their rig will define not just the sound of their performance, but the degrees of variability they can control.

Because the electronic performer’s instrument is the live rig comprised of multiple musical objects, one of the primary factors involved in the configuration of the rig is how the various components interact with one another over the time dependent course of a performance. In a live tape loop performance, the musician may use a series of cassette players with an array of effects units and a small mixer. In such a rig, the mixer is the primary means of communication between objects. In this type of rig however, the communication isn’t direct. The objects cannot directly communicate with each other, rather the artist is the mediator. It is the artist that determines when the sound from any particular tape loop is fed to an effect or what levels the effects return sound in relation to the loops. While watching a performance such as this, one would expect the performer to be very involved in physically manipulating the various musical objects. We can categorize this as an unsynchronized electronic performance meaning that the musical objects employed are not locked into the same temporal relations.

Big Tape Loops, Image by Flickr User  choffee

Big Tape Loops, Image by Flickr User choffee

The key difference between an unsynchronized and s synchronized performance rigs is the amount of control over the performance that can be left to the machines. The benefit of synchronized performance rigs is that they allow for greater complexity either in configuration or control. The value of unsynchronized performance rigs is they have a more natural and less mechanized feel, as the timing flows from the performer’s physical body. Neither could be understood as better than the other, but in general they do make for separate kinds of listening experiences, which the listener should be aware of in evaluating a performance. Expectations should shift depending upon whether or not a performance rig is synchronized.

This notion of a synchronized performance rig should not only be understood as an inter-machine relationship. With the rise of digital technology, many manufacturers developed workstation style hardware which could perform multiple functions on multiple sound sources with a central synchronized control. The Roland SP-404 is a popular sampling workstation, used by many artists in a live setting. Within this modest box you get twelve voices of sample polyphony, which can be organized with the internal sequencer and processed with onboard effects. However, a performer may choose not to utilize a sequencer at all and as such, it can be performed unsynchronized, just triggering the pads. In fact, in recent years there has been a rise of drum pad players or finger drummers who perform using hardware machines without synchronization. Going back to our three distinctions a performance such as this would be a hybrid of physical manipulation of fixed sources with the physical manipulation of an electronic instrument.  From this qualification, we know to look for extensive physical effort in such performances as indicators of the the artists agency on the variable performance.

Now that we’ve brought synchronization into the discussion it makes sense to talk about what is often the main means of communication in the live performance rig – the computer. The ultimate benefit of a computer is the ability to process a large number of calculations per computational cycle. Put another way, it allows users to act on a number of musical variables in single functions. Practically, this means the ability to store, organize recall and even perform a number of complex variables. With the advent of digital synthesizers, computers were being used in workstations to control everything from sequencing to the patch sound design data. In studios, computers quickly replaced mixing consoles and tape machines (even their digital equivalents like the ADAT) becoming the nerve center of the recording process. Eventually all of these functions and more were able to fit into the small and portable laptop computer, bringing the processing power in a practical way to the performance stage.

Flying Lotus and his Computer, Image by Flickr User  jaswooduk

Flying Lotus and his Computer, All Tomorrow’s Parties 2011, Image by Flickr User jaswooduk

A laptop can be understood as a rig in and of itself, comprised of a combination of software and plugins as musical objects, which can be controlled internally or via external controllers. If there were only two software choices and ten plugins available for laptops, there would be over seven million permutations possible. While it is entirely possible (and for many artists practical) for the laptop to be the sole object of a live rig, the laptop is often paired with one or more controllers. The number of controllers available is nowhere near the volume of software on the market, but the possible combinations of hardware controllers take the laptop + controller + software combination possibilities toward infinity. With both hardware and software there is also the possibility of building custom musical objects that add to the potential uniqueness of a rig.

Unfortunately, quite often it is impossible to know exactly what range of tools are being utilized within a laptop strictly by looking at an artist on stage. This is what leads to probably the biggest misnomer about the performing laptop musician. As common as the musical object may look on the stage, housed inside of it can be the most unique and intricate configurations music (yes all of music) has ever seen. The reductionist thought that laptop performers aren’t “doing anything but checking email” is directly tied to the acousmatic nature of the objects as instruments. We can hear the sounds, but determining the sources and understanding the processes required to produce them is often shrouded in mystery. Technology has arrived at the point where what one performs live can precisely replicate what one hears in recorded form, making it easy to leap to the conclusion that all laptop musicians do is press play.

Indeed some of them do, but to varying degrees a large number of artists are actively doing more during their live sets. A major reasons for this is that one of the leading Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) of today also doubles as a performance environment. Designed with the intent of taking the DAW to the stage, Ableton Live allows artists to have an interface that facilitates the translation of electronic concepts from the studio to the stage. There are a world of things that are possible just by learning the Live basics, but there’s also a rabbit hole of advanced functions all the way to the modular Max for Live environment which lies on the frontier discovering new variables for sound manipulation. For many people, however, the software is powerful enough at the basic level of use to create effective live performances.

Sample Screenshot from a performer's Ableton Live set up for an "experimental and noisy performance" with no prerecorded material, Image by Flickr User Furibond

Sample Screenshot from a performer’s Ableton Live set up for an “experimental and noisy performance” with no prerecorded material, Image by Flickr User Furibond

In its most basic use case, Ableton Live is set up much like a DJ rig, with a selection of pre-existing tracks queued up as clips which the performer blends into a uniform mix, with transitions and effects handled within the software. The possibilities expand out from that: multi-track parts of a song separated into different clips so the performer can take different parts in and out over the course of the performance; a plugin drum machine providing an additional sound source on top of the track(s), or alternately the drum machine holding a sequence while track elements are laid on top of it. With the multitude of plugins available just the combination of multi-track Live clips with a single soft synth plugin, lends itself to near infinite combinations. The variable possibilities of this type of set, even while not exploiting the breadth of variable possibilities presented by the gear, clearly points to the artist’s agency in performance.

Within the context of both the DJ set and the Ableton Live set, synchronization plays a major role in contextualization. Both categories of performance can be either synchronized or unsynchronized. The tightest of unsynchronized sets will sound synchronized, while the loosest of synchronized sets will sound unsynchronized. This plays very much into audience perception of what they are hearing and the performers’ choice of synchronization and tightness can be heavily influenced by those same audience expectations.

A second performance screen capture by the same artist, this time using pre-recorded midi sequences, Image by Flickr User Furibond

A second performance screen capture by the same artist, this time using pre-recorded midi sequences, Image by Flickr User Furibond

A techno set is expected to maintain somewhat of a locked groove, indicative of a synchronized performance. A synchronized rig either on the DJ side (Serato utilizing automated beat matching) or on the Ableton side (time stretch and auto bpm detection sync’d to midi) can make this a non factor for the physical performance, and so listening to such a performance it would be the variability of other factors which reveals the artist’s control over the performance. For the DJ, the factors would include the selection, transitions and effects use. For the Ableton user, it can include all of those things as well as the control over the individual elements in tracks and potentially other sound sources.

On the unsychronized end of the spectrum, a vinyl DJ could accomplish the same mix as the synchronized DJ set but it would physically require more effort on their part to keep all of the selections in time. This would mean they might have to limit exerting control on the other variables. An unsychronized Live set would be utilizing the software primarily as a sound source, without MIDI, placing the timing in the hands of the performer. With the human element added to the timing it would be more difficult to produce the machine-like timing of the other sets. This doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be effective, but there would be an audible difference in this type of set compared to the others.

What we’ve established is that through the modular nature of the electronic musician’s rig as an instrument, from synthesizer keyboards to Ableton Live, every variable consideration combines to produce infinite possibilities. Where the trumpet is limited in timbre, range and dynamics, the turntable is has infinite timbres; the range is the full spectrum of human hearing; and the dynamics directly proportional to the output. The limitations of the electronic musician’s instrument appear only in electrical current constraints, processor speed limits, the selection of components and the limitations of the human body.

Flying Lotus at Electric Zoo, 2010, Image by Flickr User TheMusic.FM

Flying Lotus at Electric Zoo, 2010, Image by Flickr User TheMusic.FM

Within these constraints however, we have only begun touching the surface of possibilities. There are combinations that have never happened, variables that haven’t come close to their full potential, and a multitude of variables that have yet to be discovered. One thing that the electronic artist can learn from jazz toward maximizing that potential is the notion of play, as epitomized with jazz improvisation. For jazz, improvisation opened up the possibilities of the form which impacted, performance and composition. I contend that the electronic artist can push the boundaries of variable interaction by incorporating the ability to play from the rig both in their physical performance and giving the machine its own sense of play. Within this play lie the variables which I believe can push electronic into the jazz of tomorrow.

Featured Image by Flickr User Juha van ‘t Zelfde

Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications. In 2014 he will be releasing an expanded version of this series as a book entitled “Toward a Practical Language: Live Electronic Performance”. He is a regular guest contributor to the Create Digital Music website, and maintains his own AvantUrb site. Luta is a regular presenter for theRhythm Incursions Podcast series with his monthly showRIPL. As an artist, he is a founding member of the live electronic music collectiveConcrète Sound System, which spun off into a record label for the exploratory realms of sound in 2012.

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Evoking the Object: Physicality in the Digital Age of Music--Primus Luta

Experiments in Agent-based Sonic Composition–Andreas Pape

Calling Out To (Anti)Liveness: Recording and the Question of PresenceOsvaldo Oyola

Sounding Out! Podcast #21: Jonathan Skinner at the Rutgers University Center for Cultural Analysis

Jonathan Skinner at The Rutgers Center for Cultural Analysis.

Jonathan Skinner at The Rutgers Center for Cultural Analysis.


CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Jonathan Skinner at the Rutgers University Center for Cultural Analysis

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This week’s podcast is a companion piece to our prior podcast Animal Transcriptions, Listening to the Lab of Ornithology. In this series of excerpts from Skinner’s three hour seminar at the Rutgers University Center for Cultural Analysis, Skinner discusses the importance of sound studies scholarship to his work. Ecopoetics, soundscapes, animal communication, and the post-human are all discussed in this lively roundtable! Listen in as Skinner explains the practice of sound poetry, and the importance of Sound Studies to his methodology.

Special thanks to The Center of Cultural Analysis and its wonderful fellows and attendees for lending such insightful discussion to this work. As explained on their site: “The Center for Cultural Analysis [is] Rutgers University’s hub for interdisciplinary research in the humanities and humanistically-oriented social sciences. Each year we run a biweekly seminar that draws faculty, advanced graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and various affiliated scholars into a sustained conversation on a topic of importance. In 2012-13 our seminar topic is “Formalisms.” What do we talk about when we talk about form, particularly across disciplines? Is form simply a residue or remainder after everything else, from motive to content, is taken away or accounted for? Or is it rather the ultimate and most important outcome?”

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Jonathan Skinner founded and edits the journal ecopoetics, which features creative-critical intersections between writing and ecology. Skinner also writes ecocriticism on contemporary poetry and poetics: he has published essays on Charles Olson, Ronald Johnson, Lorine Niedecker, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Bernadette Mayer, Cecilia Vicuña, translations of French poetry and garden theory, essays on bird song from the perspective of ethnopoetics, and essays on horizontal concepts such as the Third Landscape and on Documentary Poetry. Currently, he is writing a book of investigative poems on the urban landscapes of Frederick Law Olmsted, and a book on Animal Transcriptions in contemporary poetry. He teaches poetry and poetics in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick.

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Peter DiCola at River Read Books– Peter DiCola

Animal Renderings: The Library of Natural Sounds– Jonathan Skinner

Animal Transcriptions, Listening to the Lab of Ornithology– Jonathan Skinner

Wayback Sound Machine: Sound Through Time, Space, and Place

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World Listening Month3This is the second post in Sounding Out!’s July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2013.  World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. To read last week’s post by Regina Bradley (and to read more about World Listening Day) click here.

When I travel to somewhere I’m unfamiliar with to create a work, I’ve become in the habit of bringing my VLF receiver, hydrophones, and underwater camera in order to explore. Whether what comes out ultimately becomes part of the work or not, my interest in these particular tools stems from a fascination with obscure events around me, real and happening, that I cannot perceive.  But it also marks my wonder at events and elements in our world that have been, while changing, continuous in a time line extending much further than my own.  Similar to the sense one may get when experiencing a desert, or an ocean, with time and patience, what might at first seem bleak, barren, or monotonous, begins to give hint to a rich world hidden from our day to day.

Photo by the author, Saint Michael’s Mound, Marazion, Cornwall

Photo by the author, Saint Michael’s Mound, Marazion, Cornwall

Two autumns ago, finding myself with a day off from a project I was working on near Penzance in Cornwall, I decided to take the day to hike the lesser known British arm of the Santiago Pilgrim Route: the St. Michael’s Way.  Dating back tens of thousands of years, St. Michael’s Way enabled pilgrims and missionaries traveling from Ireland or Wales to choose to abandon their ships and walk across the peninsula, rather than navigating the treacherous waters around Land’s End.  In the days of such pilgrimmages, the way was fraught with all sorts of dangers, and the path itself splits a few times, veering off towards a church near the harbor where they would get the boat to cross them.  There they would meet a guide who would offer safe passage from the many thieves and pirates along the way.  Still marked with the iconic scallop shell symbol of the pilgrim route, the path was nevertheless neglected, and overrun with all sorts of modern obstacles such as busy roads and farm irrigation systems.

Photo by the author, Gulval, Cornwall

Photo by the author, Gulval, Cornwall

As I got lost time and time again making my way towards Saint Ives, I found myself marveling at all sorts of new and heretofore unknown sensations.  My ears tuned from the project I was there working on, I was especially taken by the sound.  Toward the middle of the path–located at the top of the hills inland of the peninsula –the wind from both sides carried over pieces of the day to day from the villages; a tractor, grazing animals, bits of conversation in Cornish, and church bells wisping by as quickly as they came, like ghosts.  It is fitting that St Michael, after whom the route was named, is the patron saint of high places.

Photo by the author, Ludgvan, Cornwall

Photo by the author, Ludgvan, Cornwall

I began to wonder what this path may have sounded like back in the time of thieves and pirates, back when the occasion to use it was a shared occasion celebrated with the voices of people, priests, prayers, and the markets and fairs along the way to fuel all this activity.  As I continued walking, I began to wonder how it may have sounded even before then, before the hills were blanketed with crops and cattle, before the many battles that must have been waged, and villages built and grazed. . .were there more birds then? Were there more trees? Were there more boar and foxes? What about even before these hills were hills, could there be a way to sonify these hills forming?  I started to dream of a “wayback machine” for sound.  What if as you walked this path, you could listen to time spinning back, listen to how it might have sounded, listen to its history?  And what could you take from that experience?  Could something be taken from this? In the two years since that happenstance, this idea has since stuck with me.  Beginning tentative research and practice to apply these thoughts, I continue to unearth more questions than answers, so I began to seek others experimenting in a similar vein.  While acoustic ecology is a growing field, I still have not found many researchers working with sound in/as time.

One person who has come close to this idea is acoustic ecologist, musician, and sound recordist Bernie Krause, whom last year I interviewed in an article on the sound of disaster about disappearing sounds as a signal of impending crises.  The prelude of Krause’s book The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, is the beautifully written, “Echoes of the Past,” which takes a meandering listen to how the world might have sounded sixteen thousand years ago.   With that trip in mind, perhaps something could come from working with people in various fields of statistical analysis to see what sounds are projected to go extinct from a soundscape with time, and what this could mean in terms of how the sound line will be extended into the future.  In the section “First Notes,” Krause describes working with a graduate student, Kristin Junette, who reasoned that based on fossil records and the known sounds of insect species today, we might be able to re-create the insect ambience of about sixty-five million years ago.  Then, based on acoustic physiology of the skull of a Hadrosaur, a dinosaur of the time, Krause and Junette were able to re-create a representative vocalization of its call to place in this early soundscape (for the Discovery Channel’s vision of how the hadrosaur might have sounded click here).

Hadrosaur skull, Image by Flickr user e_monk

Hadrosaur skull, Image by Flickr user e_monk

I was also excited to learn of the research of Miriam Kolar, who has been working with various techniques and with people in various disciplines on a team studying and “recreating” the acoustic architecture of the Chavín de Huántar, a 3,000 year old ceremonial center, predating the Inca in the Peruvian Andes.  Chavín de Huántar is a complex underground maze of rooms and twisting corridors connected by air-ducts.  When they were being excavated, archeologists noticed the rooms played strange acoustic tricks on them. “This environment is not only a physical maze, but it’s a sound maze,” says Kolar.  For one example, some rooms have interconnected spaces that multiply echoes and bounce them back to the ear so rapidly that the sounds appear to emanate from all directions at once, while other areas seem designed for absorption.  The team has been using 3-D computer modeling and specialized recording equipment to try and recreate the auditory effect. “If you have archaeology and no acoustics, you’re deaf,” says archaeoacoustician David Lubman. “And if you have acoustics and not the other, you’re blind. You need both” to understand ancient places like Chavín.

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Chavín De Huántar

Inspired in part by the research of Krause and Kolar, “Passageira em Casa/The Traveller at Home,” one of my projects from the two years since my walk in Cornwall, begins to explore the notion of the wayback machine with sound in geography.  Passageira em Casa is an intermedia and interdisciplinary performance inspired by the journey to define the concept of home. The narrative is a partially fictionalized and personalized account of the Maritime history of Portugal, enacted by a dancer, vocal performer, live video, and live electronic sound composition that creates a geography through the narrative and space of the project.  From a dawn chorus in Lisbon to underwater earthquakes in the Pacific, field recordings along a maritime navigation route flow throughout the performance, giving a soundscape to the narrative’s location.

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The recent Australian version “Passageira australis” begings to explore sound in time.  Recently developed at the iAir residency at RMIT, holds a focus on the debate behind whether the Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Australia, based on the 16th century Dieppe maps of Jave la Grande and the myth/history of the Mahogany Ship.  The soundtrack reveals a soundline based on the impact on flora, fauna, and overall soundscape on both countries.

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A two channel composition, different then stereo, one speaker represents Europe, the other Australia.  As the dancer, our sailor, moves from one end of the space to the other, the sound in each channel is changed based on her approximate location to each “country”.  With this experience, my hope is the audience comes away thinking about interconnectivity of the world, and how we impact the places we touch.  Although I will continue to research when I return to Australia, already the project had me working with a map historian at the Victoria State Library, as well as consulting the thesis of geologist Andrew Pickering on using GIS technology to search for the location and story behind the presumed mythological Mahogany Ship.

Based on hearing, listening (from an anthropological point of view) is the very sense of space and of time. . .By her noises, Nature shudders with meaning: at least this is how, according to Hegel, the ancient Greeks listened to her.  The oaks of Dodona, by the murmur of their boughs, uttered prophecies, and in other civilizations as well. . .noises have been the immediate raw materials of a divination, cledonomancy: to listen is, in an institutional manner, to try to find out what is happening. –Roland Bathes, “Listening”

Sound has a special importance to emotion, instinct, and memory, both individual and historical..  Hitting the oldest part of our brain, sound provides immediate information telling us where we are, whether it is safe, and how we should feel about it.  The wayback machine would function as a sonic database that would not only help us to remember and learn about the past, but also to create new experiences within the complexity of changing soundscapes over a period that usually defies our human comprehension.  I see this tool being helpful to researchers in many disciplines as a new kind of living archive, but also having a place in libraries, museums, centers, and perhaps “in the field” along paths such as the Santiago’s Way, where one could download an audio file from the map online, then listen with wonder and unique sensation as they walk back through history.

Photo by the author, Saint Michael’s Mound, Marazion, Cornwall

Photo by the author, Saint Michael’s Mound, Marazion, Cornwall

Featured Image photo credit: Vahid Sadjadi, Joshua Tree State Park, California

Author’s Note: A version of this post was presented at Musique et Écologies du Son/ Music and Ecologies of Sound: Theoretical and Practical Projects for the Listening of the World, Universitê Paris 8, May 2013. I slightly changed the original title of the paper to: “Sound through time, space, AND place.” Frank Vanclay said quite nicely in “Place Matters.” “‘Place” is generally conceived as being ‘space’ imbued with meaning.  Thus, it refers more to the meanings that are invested in a location than to the physicality of the locality.” He goes on to state sometimes it’s the biophysical characteristics that make the foundation for those personal meanings.

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!

tape reel

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

 “Listening to Disaster: Our Relationship to Sound in Danger”–Maile Colbert

Within a Grain of Sand: Our Sonic Environment and Some of Its Shapers” –Maile Colbert

“Animal Renderings: The Library of Natural Sounds”--Jonathan Skinner

 

 

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