What does finance sound like? Is it the clanging of the opening and closing bells at the New York Stock Exchange? The shouting of offers to buy or sell? The beeps made by cash registers as a credit card is swiped? The whirring of fans working overtime to cool computers? What is this noise?
Noise, however, is not purely a sonic phenomenon. Since the late 1940s, noise has been intimately linked with theories of communication and information, as Aaron Trammell discusses in Sounding Out! posts such as “What Mixtapes Can Teach Us About Noise.” My research attempts to bring these two aspects of noise—the sonic and informatic—into conversation. I trace the interferences noise makes within a set of disparate disciplines: I listen to the history of the impact of information theory on experimental and electronic music; investigate the interferences of “fearless speech,” artistic robotics, and the public; and examine how noises digital and sonic have impacted the development of finance. Rather than creating my own definition of noise, I follow how other disciplines deal with their encounters with noise as both a material phenomenon—something that interferes with a signal, or a sound that is deemed unwanted—and as something to be theorized, asking questions such as what are the meanings of these noises? or should we be controlling noise at all?
In this post, I discuss three vignettes that outline the different ways in which noise (sonic and informatic) interferes with different aspects of finance: the shouts of open-outcry pits and the information they may or may not convey; new forms of electronic trading and the noises of server farms and trading behavior; and the Flash Crash of May 6th, 2010 that provoked noises from both traders and artists. Each reflects a particular conjunction of the sonic and informatic aspects of noise. When we attend to both components simultaneously, we discover that financial noises are complex entities that are not inherently revolutionary nor regressive, but are rather an elusive combination of both.
Noisy Trading: The Pits
My interest in the noises of finance comes in part from listening to open-outcry trading, following the work of Caitlin Zaloom’s Out of the Pits: Traders And Technology from Chicago to London and the documentary Floored (2008). An open-outcry pit, such as that found on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT), pairs buyers and sellers through a bodily practice of trading involving the extremities of behavior. Shouting, pushing, and shoving occur on the steps of the pit as buyers and sellers work to match their orders through nearly whatever means necessary.
In the wonderfully titled article “Is Sound Just Noise?”, the business school professors Joshua Coval and Tyler Shumway ask, in one of the few academic articles related to the sounds of the pits, whether or not the shouting might convey information that is not necessarily available on the computer screens that were then coming to dominate trading:
we ask whether there exists information that is regularly communicated across an open outcry pit but cannot be easily transmitted over a computer network. Any signals that convey information regarding the emotion of market participants—fear, excitement, uncertainty, eagerness, and so forth—are likely to be difficult to transmit across an electronic network (1890).
Coval and Shumway found that the ambient sound level of the pits did have predictive impact regarding various aspects of the market: in short, the louder the pits got, the higher the volatility in the prices of securities and the decrease in the likelihood of conducting a trade.
Noisy Trading, Redux: Datacenters
Yet changes in the structure of the market have not only shifted the location of activity to people behind computer screens and away from these types of sounds, it has also shifted the actual location of the exchanges themselves. No longer do most trades take place in the physical location of, for example, the NYSE; rather, they take place in buildings like this one, at 1700 MacArthur Boulevard in Mahwah, NJ.
This is the location of the NYSE’s new datacenter, a 400,000 square foot facility. (In the linked video, note the whirring of the fans, a new noise of finance beyond that of the pits.) The servers in these datacenters—run by highly-capitalized financial firms large and small alike—are able to respond much quicker to market information the closer they are to the computers that run the exchange. And what can be closer than being co-located in the same datacenter as the exchange? This need for speed has lead to all sorts of interesting situations, such as new fibre-optic lines being laid to shave off a millisecond or two in travel between New Jersey and Chicago, or the taking into account of special relativity effects in the location of future datacenters. The new High-Frequency Trading (HFT) algorithms run on these servers in these datacenters.
Noisy Trades, Sonified: May 6th 2010
The voice on this recording, made on May 6th, 2010, belongs to Ben Lichenstein, an employee of a firm called Trader’s Audio. Now, Trader’s Audio provides live coverage of market movements from a person on the floor of an exchange in order for day traders and others to get an idea of the “sentiment” of a market. It’s kind of like a play-by-play of market activity, a running commentary of major market movements that can’t be discerned soley by the watching of numbers on a screen. What, then, could have been going on for Ben Lichenstein to be in such a frenzy, for his voice to be inflected in such a way? What are we to make of this noise?
Well, May 6th, 2010 was the day of what has infamously become known as the Flash Crash. The full details of this day are beyond the scope of this post, so I will outline it schematically, following the findings of the official US report produced by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). (For a different take on this, see the sociologist of finance Donald MacKenzie’s “How to Make Money in Microseconds”.) In short, between the hours of 2 and 3PM Eastern Time the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) had both its largest single day loss as well as its largest single day gain, a swing of over 600 points. A series of trades made by algorithms that failed to take into account their impact on the market caused the prices of securities to swing to extremes, excerbated by the activity of High-Frequency Trading (HFT) algorithms. While the market eventually recovered—in part due to the activity of the same algorithms that caused the problem in the first place—the event indicated the precariousness of the stock market, the potential for things to spiral quickly out of control, and the difficulty in forecasting the behavior of an ecosystem of opaque algorithms.
How do the HFT algorithms relate to the Flash Crash that took place on May 6th, 2010? While the report of the CFTC and the SEC regarding the Flash Crash does not lay blame on HFT in particular, it did indicate how these algorithms contributed to the large price swings, the immense number of shares traded, and the drying up of liquidity (that is, the ability to find buyers and sellers in the market). One of the reasons why the market swings were so severe on May 6th, 2010 was due to the fact that HFT algorithms react immediately to small fluctuations of price, a quality of markets that financial economists call microstructure noise, a fascinating topic that is unfortunately beyond the scope of this particular post. In general, HFT and these datacenters go hand-in-hand, as it is a truism that it will take longer for data to travel between a machine in New Jersey and one in Chicago, than it will to travel between two machines in the same data center in New Jersey. HFT works to take advantage of this shorter latency in order to exploit market movements on the timescale of milliseconds, accelerating trading far beyond the open-outcry pit.
Noisy Finance: The Sonic and the Informatic
Let’s conclude with a sonic artifact of the Flash Crash from the French collective rybn. Their work has explored the concept of “antidatamining,” that is, the use of the “data mining” techniques of computational capitalism in order to shed light on the intersection of data and society. Consider their piece FLASHCRASH SONIFICATION (one of the few artistic responses to the Flash Crash), where rybn took trading data from nine different exchanges on the afternoon of the Flash Crash and created an austere, digitally-sharp yet undulating soundscape that recalls the work of artists Ryoji Ikeda or Carsten Nicolai without the rhythmic precision. If you can, listen to their online-available, two-channel mix on headphones in order to appreciate the details of the piece.
The building towards the end of “FLASHCRASH SONIFICATION” was meant to “emphasize the moment of the crash, [by] adding an effect of resonance, which propagates slowly, making it more tense, as the krach goes on” (all quotes in this paragraph from author’s personal interview with rybn). Thus instead of merely transparently translating the data into sound, rybn constructed the sonification in order to bring out this resonance: “resonance is pointed [to] as one of the major risk[s] of HFT by many economists and the feedback phenomenon was in the center of our discussions when we were preparing the piece.” Isolating the Flash Crash was important for rybn as it was perhaps the “moment when people started to understand financ[ial] orientations more clearly” thereby highlighting the symptomatic nature of the “speculative short-term loop finance seems to be stuck in.”
In FLASHCRASH SONIFICATION, sonic noise becomes a translation of the data from the market—abstract yet eminently material—into a different abstract form that does not immediately signify. FLASHCRASH SONIFICATION suggests rather than indicates; listening to it cannot provide us with rational information regarding the dynamics of the Flash Crash. Instead it produces a dark foreboding of the mechanisms at work, the high-frequency pulses first recalling heartbeats that soon speed up beyond any ability for distinction. In FLASHCRASH SONIFICATION, rybn comments on the inability for computation—and by extension, the market—to be the perfectly rational, ordered space it is ideally understood to be.
In Noise We Cannot Trust
If there is one thing clear about the examples of noises heard and encountered in this post—the shouting in the pits, the fluctuations of prices, the whirring of air conditioning, the sonification of the Flash Crash—it is that noise cannot be counted upon for positive or negative disruption. Noise cannot be counted upon as a political exploit in the market, as it can signify the potential of a trade, or be recuperated into profit through the activity of HFT algorithms. Yet noise can also provide an alternative experience of the Flash Crash beyond that of bureaucratic reports and figures. It is thus through the interferences noise causes within the dynamics of finance that we come into contact with the equivocality of noise as a phenomenon, and thus become attuned to a particular need to not confine noise to preconceived notions of positivity or negativity.
Nicholas Knouf is a PhD candidate in information science at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. His research explores the interstitial spaces between information science, critical theory, digital art, and science and technology studies. His dissertation, “Noisy Fields: Interference, Elusiveness, and Embodied Temporality in Sonic Practices,” examines the sonic and informatic characteristics of noise across a set of disparate disciplines, arguring for an attention to the equivocality of noise as a material-discursive phenomenon. He is also a media artist whose pieces engage with academic publishing, ad-hoc networking, and non-speech vocalizations. More information about his research and practice can be found at http://zeitkunst.org.
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CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Animal Transcriptions: Listening to the Lab of Ornithology
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This podcast culls material from seven hours of interviews about sound and animal life with scientists, engineers, programmers, archivists and other staff working in the Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP) and in the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds (LNS) at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The interviews were conducted as part of a research project situated at the intersection between sound in poetry (prosody) and environmental sound (soundscape), specifically focused on animal vocalizations.
Poetry might help us to use, study, and deploy animal morphologies in ways that hope to better, rather than merely exploit, the human relation with such life forms, if not to improve the welfare of the species themselves. As Katy Payne, Mike Webster and others suggest, when we speak of animal “song,” we bring metaphors from the arts of poetry and music to complement our limited scientific understanding of the intricacies of animal communication.
At the same time, the process of capture, practiced by poets and recordists alike, heightens ethical choice in a time of accelerated species extinction: many of the techniques and resources developed at LNS and BRP are currently used for basic monitoring of conflict between animal life and human industry. This podcast explores both why and how the Macaulay LNS collects animal sounds (which some of the archivists refer to as “specimens”), and how such a collection is conceptualized, deployed and situated within a matrix of concerns (philosophical, aesthetic, ethical, and political) about human relations to other-than-human life forms.
This article continues the work on “rendering” I began here at Sounding Out! last spring. My interest in the Macaulay LNS, directed by Mike Webster and Greg Budney, introduced me to the vital, cutting-edge, and often mind-blowing work being done in BRP, under the leadership of Chris Clark as well as of a pioneer in animal communication and conservation such as Katy Payne, who founded the Elephant Listening Project and has also contributed to the podcast. Although I did not get Chris’s voice on record, his groundbreaking research, activism and leadership on behalf of a “singing planet” nevertheless loom large behind much of the work featured here. I was fortunate to be able to speak with Tim Gallagher, of Ivory-billed Woodpecker fame, in the Lab of Ornithology. The podcast also explores the crucial work of audio engineers Bill McQuay and Karl Fitzke, and of software analysts and research specialists LIz Rowland, Ann Warde, Laura Strickland, and Ashakur Rahaman, amongst others.
The staff at the Lab of Ornithology generously granted me a tour of their archive, showed me their gear, explained their sound visualization software, and sat me down in the surround sound listening room, where I heard some unforgettable recordings, which opened up my investigation to acoustic dimensions I had never before suspected. We sounded these dimensions in wide-ranging conversations about archiving, acoustics, field work, gear, communication, looking at sound, music, evolution, and conservation. This podcast offers, in a condensed form, some of the highlights of those conversations and experiences.
Thanks are due to the staff whose voices the podcast features: Mike Webster, Greg Budney, Bill McQuay, Liz Rowland, Alexa Hilmer, Ann Warde, Mary Winston, Tim Gallagher, Ashakur Rahaman, Katy Payne, Laura Strickland, and Karl Fitzke. Thanks are equally due staff who consented to be interviewed or otherwise helped out but whose voices didn’t make it onto the podcast: Chris Clarke, Christianne McMillan White, George Dillmann, Connie Bruce, Tammy Bishop. Thanks to Aaron Trammell for crucial editorial and technical help. Thanks finally to the Cornell Society for Humanities for the 2011-2012 research fellowship and the scholarly community that made this research possible.
Animal Transcriptions: Listening to the Lab of Ornithology – Contents and Credits
Winter Wren, at normal and at one-half speed (Greg Budney, from The Diversity of Animal Sounds, Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds sampler CD)
Sound: Greg Budney and Musician Wren (Cyphorhinus arada, LNS 8897, Peter Paul Kellogg)
Sound: Ashakur Rahaman and Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus, played back at eight times normal speed, LNS 128263, Paul Thompson)
Bill McQuay, Greg Budney: Africa Sequence (The Bai)
Sound: Greg Budney and Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi, LNS 50192, Geoffrey Keller) and Brown-backed Solitaire (Myadestis occidentals, LNS 136544, Michael Andersen)
Sound: Ann Warde and Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas, LNS 126105, Donald Ljungblad)
Greg Budney: Beluga multi-array recording
Sound: Katy Payne (Humpback Whale)
Greg Budney: Madagascar lemur family group
Bill McQuay: Treehopper sequence (NPR Radio Expedition)
Sound: Mike Webster and Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus, LNS 12830, Ted Parker), Common Potoo (Nyctibius griseus, LNS 59964, Paul Schwartz)
Looking at Sound 27:25
Sound: Alexa Hilmer and Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae, LNS 110847, Paul Perkins)
Sound: Laura Strickland and Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina, LNS 11316, Arthur Allen; LNS 125223, Michael Andersen)
Greg Budney (Spot-breasted Oriole duet, LNS 164045, David Ross)
Mike Webster (Black-throated Blue Warbler, LNS 27208, Randolph Little)
Katy Payne (Humpback whale group singing, LNS 118147, William Steiner)
Sound: Alexa Hilmer, Katy Payne with Common Loon (Gavia mimer, LNS 107964, Steven Pantle)
Greg Budney: Attwater’s Prairie Chicken lek
Sound: Karl Fitzke and European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris, recording by Greg McGrath)
Recordings used with permission of Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Starling recording used with permission of Greg McGrath.
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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Animal Renderings: The Library of Natural Sounds– Jonathan Skinner
On Sunday evening, Susan discovered the tofu had gone bad. Unfortunately, the entrée for the evening was to be tofu with sweet chili sauce. We connect on Skype at 3:30pm, as Susan is cutting up vegetables. Usually, she has classical music on while she cooks; it helps her concentrate. She’s cut up so many vegetables in her life, that she finds music sweetens the repetitive activity. However, today I hear only the rewarding sound of her knife bisecting baby bok choy.
Susan and I don’t talk about this sound, but it is certainly familiar. She says she cuts up the pieces small, as Mimi likes the chunks of bell pepper to be as little as possible.
My ethnographic work on cooking is birthed from a very personal place: Susan is my Aunt and Mimi my mother. They live together in Kingston, Massachusetts, where Susan’s cooking nourishes Mimi through her ongoing chemo and radiation treatments. Using Skype, I watched and asked questions remotely from Raleigh, North Carolina on three consecutive evenings during their dinner preparation in order to more deeply understand cooking as an art. From the first moment of preparation each night, Susan and I talked about the meal, the cooking techniques, and her feelings about cooking and eating–and I noted that sound emerged as central to her culinary process.
Opening my ethnographic practice up to sonic analysis enables new definitions of both chef and kitchen as lively, complex sites, constantly negotiating with each other. Taking the role of sound into account in the practice of cooking allows me to construct new interpretations of cooking artistry that considers everyday negotiations and embodied limitations not as “threats” to the cooking art, but, instead, as elements that enrich its artistry.
My sonic analysis specifically chafes against dominant formations of ”cooking as art” in the contemporary moment, exemplified by reality television programs such as The Food Network’s Chopped, which constructs a static configuration of space with the cook as subject and the meal as art object. On Chopped, four chefs are given thirty minutes and four ingredients. Using these items, they must make a dish to be judged by a panel of food experts. These items are often strange or incongruous: on one episode, they had to make an appetizer out of frosted wheat cereal, baby red romaine lettuce, black garlic, and quahog clams. The success of a dish is measured by the chef’s ability to balance the necessary experimentation with an implied universal of good taste, texture balance, and pleasuring preparation. In other words, Chopped collapses art-making and capital into the “art object-meal,” reproducing a tired definition of “high art” that necessitates access to wealth and privilege, because the creation of “art” requires expensive foodstuffs, sophisticated kitchen technologies, and a highly controlled visual and sonic environment.
In my Aunt Susan’s kitchen, there are a number of sonic and spatial negotiations that preclude her cooking from the singular criteria of artistry perpetuated by Chopped. Specifically, my Aunt Susan’s cooking does not meet Chopped’s standards because it requires negotiations related to her personal mobility and my mother’s health. My Aunt uses a wheelchair to get around her house, and, as a result, some kitchen appliances are harder to reach. My mother’s chemo and radiation treatments mean that she has both complicated limitations to her diet and fluid culinary desires.
In seeking to understand the fluid challenges of Susan’s cooking, I designed my virtual sensory ethnography by combining two methods, defined respectively by Sarah Pink and Jenna Burrell. In Sensory Ethnography, Pink proposes that the ethnographer is immersed in smells, tastes, sights, and sound during the ethnographic process. Things that might seem mundane such as the sound of onions being chopped, for example, can actually reveal a complex set of relations about the cook and their process. The cook might be listening to the chopping as a rhythm in her process, like background music: the pleasing sound as it hits the cutting board. But if the onion isn’t fresh, the sound is less crisp, less crunch, the sounds changes to speak of a different type of knowledge, and she must act differently in response. In “The Field Site as a Network,” Burrell proposes an understanding of the ethnographic field site as a network rather than a singular object. The field site, in other words, is a heterogeneous set of connections, always expanding. Using a technology like Skype to do ethnography is not “ethnography at a distance,” she implies, rather it is the field site manifested through a multiplicity of connections. It simply reflects the ever-changing set of relations that comprise our world.
After Susan has cut up all the longer-cooking vegetables and set the chili sauce to simmer, we disconnect. At 5:15pm, we connect again. Susan unwraps the tofu, and something isn’t right. She calls Mimi into the kitchen, and, after some deliberation, they decide that steak will need to replace the tofu. It’s a disappointment as the tofu would have tasted best with the sweet chili sauce.
The sonic landscape of Susan’s kitchen has been, up to this, point, fairly solitary and controlled. When Susan welcomes Mimi in, the kitchen becomes a lively space of conversation, interaction, and negotiation. The production of the sonic space in the kitchen, from solitary preparation to lively interaction, is a crucial part of Susan’s art. The kitchen has undergone what Brian Massumi, in his essay “Floating the Social,” calls a “modulation of the dimension of perception [rather] than an encoding of separate pieces of data or a sequencing of units of meaning” (41). Such a sonic modulation challenges the narrative of lone artist-chef creating object-meal. Rather than segmenting the meal into a set of data blocks (chef, food, preparation time, and eater), Susan orchestrates the art of cooking as participatory with Mimi.
In the kitchen, Mimi also examines the tofu. She offers some information about it, and then joins Susan to figure out what other protein might work.
Once the steak is decided upon, Mimi exits and Susan works again at preparing dinner.
Susan’s sonic modulations, in this case conversation, allow for immersion and engagement in the lively sonic space of her kitchen. Mimi and Susan create a co-constitutive relationship between chef and eater. Unlike on Chopped, the eater is a participant rather than a judge.
Susan and I disconnect from Skype to give the steak time to thaw. We connect once again, at 6:20PM, once the steak has been properly thawed. As we discuss how Susan learned to cook, the smoke alarm suddenly comes to life.
An unplanned sonic intervention has occurred. The smoke alarm has its own desires; it insists on total control of the sonic space. Susan’s response is a necessary modulation. She counters the smoke alarm’s desire for sonic control with words, saying that it triggered accidentally because of the steak, sizzling in the pan. The interruption of the smoke alarm exemplifies how Susan’s cooking technique is not one of dominance. Rather than producing clear boundaries between chef and eater, the food and the preparation, the kitchen and its outside, Susan allows for fluid boundaries, welcoming chance and the unknown into her art.
In the context of Susan’s kitchen, Massumi’s definition of modulation applies, however subtle. These domestic modulations are not a movement toward total control, but, instead, a lively negotiation with a set of partly unpredictable relations – an orchestration of the sonic space. The idea of sonic orchestration allows us to consider the complex set of possibilities existing between the choices made by the subject, here, the chef, and the presence of a set of potentialities, such as the smoke alarm. To Susan, the art of cooking is not the reduction or elimination of “threats”; her art is the negotiation of modulations. In contrast to Chopped, where careful boundaries are constructed in order to protect the privilege inherent in its definition of art, Susan’s art lies in her engagement with the lively potentialities of the sonic art of cooking.
Seth Mulliken is a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program at NC State. He does ethnographic research about the co-constitutive relationship between sound and race in public space. Concerned with ubiquitous forms of sonic control, he seeks to locate the variety of interactions, negotiations, and resistances through individual behavior, community, and technology that allow for a wide swath of racial identity productions. He is convinced ginger is an audible spice, but only above 15khz.
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Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil–Leonardo Cardoso