Education is never politically neutral. Many of us advocate for social justice when we’re outside of the classroom but struggle to continue that work inside as well, especially with issues that appear on the surface largely unrelated to our disciplines. This inaction maintains the centering of the white experience, continuing to normalize and prioritize it at the expense of all others. Marginalized voices remain marginalized. We don’t need our own students to be directly impacted by policies to advocate on behalf of those who are. This is work we all must do.
While social issues have made important inroads within musicology and ethnomusicology, they rarely make an appearance in music theory or composition, especially in a classroom setting. To begin these conversations, we must expand the scope beyond the purely technical and examine the ways in which music is a social and cultural phenomenon. Understanding how a triad functions, for example, is only part of the story. We must also recognize that any musical activity involves a network of people who might be engaged in any combination of producing, performing, buying, selling, listening, analyzing, teaching, institutionalizing, and so on. Discussing these networks means discussing their persistent systemic inequalities and power differentials, and understanding that these are social and not just musical issues. Cultivating this awareness is crucial in the development of our students as critical thinkers who can question the society in which they live, who can locate injustice and fight to advance social good. Abstract music theory is important, but music theory combined with a social awareness is vital.
Georgetown University hosts an annual Let Freedom Ring! initiative, a recurring project to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. “Teach The Speech,” in particular, is a cross-campus curriculum project where interested faculty and staff incorporate that year’s selected work by Dr. King in our courses and workshops, sparking campus-wide conversations rooted in themes of social justice. The first time I joined the “Teach the Speech” efforts, I redesigned my basic theory class to include guiding principles from King’s entire body of work. In addition to covering the expected chords, scales, and other technical material, we discussed the disparity in representation faced by women and POC within music, viable modes of protest in music, and the possible roles of government sponsorship and censorship of artists. We rooted these issues in the real-life examples of the Grammy’s, the Women’s March, and the threats by the Trump administration to cut funding to the NEA and the NEH. Final projects based on these bigger-picture topics provided students further opportunity to reflect on the ways in which these and similar topics manifest in their own lives, transcending a preoccupation with “notes on a page.”
My second time participating in the “Teach the Speech” initiative, I used a recording of Dr. King delivering “I Have Been to The Mountaintop” as part of a module on sampling for my DJing and production class. Students had to create short tracks using this recording as the only permissible sound source. Anything resembling a kick, snare, hi-hat, melody, or harmony had to be constructed from a sample. Using something we don’t typically consider to be music as the sound source for creating music demonstrates the power of the studio and illustrates just how far creative slicing, dicing, and processing can take us. Beyond these important practical applications, though, the use of speech provides us with a framework for discussing why context matters. Do context and history always travel alongside the immediate acoustic phenomenon of sound? Can we identify something as “the music itself”? Through wrestling with these and related questions, students begin to understand sample-based composition as both a musical and a moral undertaking.
The process of sampling is largely a process of curation, involving a responsibility not just for the product but also for the source. If a student chooses to sample a large-enough portion of Dr. King’s speech, so that one can recognize words, phrases, even full sentences, then her choice includes the layers of extra-musical meaning attached to those words in addition to their musical qualities. “Violence,” for example, has a particular sonic profile and meaning that most listeners understand. How we actually interpret this word depends on many factors, including the context in which it is used in the original source, the identity of the speaker, and any audio processing that students might apply. The addition of distortion, for example, will influence the impact of that word on and its reception by the listener. The sampled word might be a fragment of a larger word, “violence” snipped from “nonviolence,” and never appear in its own right in the source. These and other complex issues involved in the process of sampling exist whether or not the student chooses to engage with them.
If the student samples an extremely small fragment of the Dr. King speech, obscuring the source and working with sound on an almost molecular level, then perhaps these questions go away. Can we still discuss the attendant connotations and denotations of indecipherable fractions of words or slices of the ambient hiss between the words? In this situation, is the origin of the sample still relevant for the work being done? When the ties connecting a heavily processed source to the finished product are untraceable, does it matter where we sampled from? Is white noise simply white noise?
Arriving at these kinds of questions is largely the point of the exercise. With a little deliberation, students realize that there is a very clear distinction between sampling the word “violence” from a speech by Trump and from a speech by MLK. There is a context, a lineage, and a history to samples that lives outside the phenomenon of pure sound, and this holds true even at the molecular level. This is crucial for students to understand, and its implications extend far beyond a music class.
We can, for example, ask students to consider the related question about whether or not it’s possible to separate art from the artist. Can we ever listen to pre-MAGA Kanye with the same ears? How do we interpret a post-MAGA Kanye song about uplift and resilience? What does it mean to watch a film where Harvey Weinstein had a major role in producing? A minor role? Moral dilemmas form a part of every media interaction we have, and similar questions comprise other aspects of our lives. Can we continue to allow the misappropriation of Dr. King’s “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” without acknowledging the “radical” Dr. King? Can we reconcile a country built on expropriation, slavery, and genocide with one whose propaganda extolls the principles of equality and freedom? These are indeed crucial lines of moral inquiry, and our pretending otherwise enables current systems to remain in place. Sampling King’s speech enables my students to engage with those lines of inquiry from an angle they have not considered before: at the level of sound.
This is work we all must do. Within academia, we need to combat injustice inside the classroom as well as outside to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. One way we can engage is through careful attention both to the examples we choose and the way we contextualize them. Students and educators alike need to understand the political nature of education that is too often a means of upholding the power structures within society that position whites at the top, and white males at the very top. These largely invisible systems have very real impacts on our lives, and the only way we can evolve to a more just society is by questioning their seeming inevitability. We must foster dialogue that transcends the classroom. We must engage with social problems. We must look beyond the accumulation of knowledge as an end in itself. We must, in short, to do good. This is work we all must do.
Featured image: “Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial” by Flickr user Cocoabiscuit, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Dave Molk teaches composition and theory at Georgetown University. He’s close friends with producer Olde Dirty Beathoven, a founding member of District New Music Coalition, and a board member of New Works for Percussion Project. Outside of music, Dave is a leader of CCON, an organization devoted to supporting undocumented communities in higher ed in the DMV. Find him online at https://www.molkmusic.com/ and @DaveMolkMusic.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
A pair of firsts! This is both the lead post in our summer Sound and Pleasure series, and the first podcast in a three part series by Leonard J. Paul. What is the connection between sound and enjoyment, and how are pleasing sounds designed? Pleasure is, after all, what brings y’all back to Sounding Out! weekly, is it not?
In today’s installment Leonard peels back the curtain of game audio design and reveals his creative process. For anyone curious as to what creative decisions lead to the bloops, bleeps, and ambient soundscapes of video games, this is essential listening. Stay tuned for next Monday’s installment on the process of designing sound for Retro City Rampage, and next month’s episode which focuses on the game Vessel. Today, Leonard begins by picking apart his design process at a cellular level. Literally! -AT, Multimedia Editor
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Game Audio Notes I: Growing Sounds for Sim Cell
SUBSCRIBE TO THE SERIES VIA ITUNES
ADD OUR PODCASTS TO YOUR STITCHER FAVORITES PLAYLIST
Game Audio Notes I: Growing Sounds for Sim Cell
Sim Cell is an educational game released in Spring 2014 by Strange Loop Games. Published by Amplify, a branch of News Corp, it teaches students how the human cell works. Players take control of a small vessel that is shrunk down to the size of a cell and solve the tasks set by the game while also learning about the human cell. This essay unpacks the design decisions behind the simulation of a variety of natural phenomena (motion, impact, and voice) in Sim Cell.
For the design of this game I decided to focus on the elements of life itself and attempted to “grow” the music and sound design from synthetic sounds. I used the visual scripting language Pure Data (PD) to program both the sounds and the music. The music is generated from a set of rules and patterns that cause each playback of a song to be slightly different each time. Each of the sound effects are crafted from small programs that are based on the design of analogue modular synthesizers. Basic synthetic audio elements such as filtered noise, sawtooth waves and sine waves were all used in the game’s sound design.
The visuals of the game give a feeling of being in an “inner space” that mirrors outer space. I took my inspiration for Sim Cell‘s sound effects from Louis and Bebe Baron’s score to Forbidden Planet. I used simple patches in PD to assemble all of the sounds for the game from synthesis. There aren’t any recorded samples in the sound design – all of the sound effects are generated from mathematics.
The digital effects used in the sound design were built to emulate the effects available in vintage studios such as plate reverb and analog delay. I found a simulation of a plate reverb that from a modified open source patch from the RjDj project, and constructed an analogue delay by using a low-pass filter on a delayed signal.
In keeping with the vintage theme, I used elements of sound design from the early days of video games as well. Early arcade games such as Space Invaders used custom audio synthesis microchips for each of their sounds. In order to emulate this, I gave every sound its own patch when doing the synthesis for Sim Cell. I learned to appreciate this ethic of design when playing Combat on the Atari 2600 while growing up. The Atari 2600 could only output two sounds at once thus had a very limited palette of tones. All of the source code for the sounds and music for Sim Cell are less than 1 megabyte, which shows how powerful the efficient coding of mathematics can be.
Another cool thing about generating the sounds from mathematics is that users can “zoom in” on sounds in the same way that one can zoom in to a vector drawing. In vector drawings the lines are smooth when you zoom in, as opposed to rasterized pictures (such as a JPEG) which reveal a blurry set of pixels upon zooming. When code can change sounds in real-time, it makes them come alive and lends a sense of flexibility to the composition.
For a human feeling I often filter the sounds using formant frequencies which simulate the resonant qualities of vowel sounds, thus offering a vocal quality to the sample. For alarm sounds in Sim Cell I used minor second intervals. This lent a sense of dissonance which informed players that they needed to adjust their gameplay in order to navigate treacherous areas. Motion was captured through a whoosh sound that used filtered and modulated noise. Some sounds were pitched up to make things seem like they were travelling towards the player and likewise they exploited a sense of doppler shift when pitched down, giving the feel that a sound was traveling away from the player. Together, these techniques produced a sense of immersion for the player while simultaneously building a realistic soundscape.
Our decision to use libPD for this synthesis turned problematic and its processing requirements were too high. In order to remedy this, we decided to convert our audio into samples. Consider a photograph of a sculpture. Our sounds, like sculpture in the photograph, could now only be viewed from one direction. This meant that the music now only had a single version and that sound effects would repeat as well. A small fix was exporting the file with a set of five different intensities from 0 to 1.0. Like taking a photograph from several angles, this meant that the game could play a sample at intensity levels of 20%, 40%, 60%, 80% and 100%. Although a truly random sense of variation was lost, this method still conveyed the intensity of impacts (and other similar events) generated by the physics engine of the game.
PD is a great way to learn and play with digital audio since you can change the patch while it is running, just like you might do with a real analogue synthesizer. There’s plenty of other neat stuff that PD can do, like being able to be run on the Raspberry Pi, so you could code your own effects pedals and make your own synths using PD for around $50 or so. For video games, you can use libPD to integrate PD patches into your Android or iOS apps as well. I hope this essay has offered some insight as to my process when using PD. I’ve included some links below for those interested in learning more.
- “The Generative Music and Procedural Sound Design of Sim Cell” – School of Video Game Audio
- Pure Data – download extended from Puredata.info for all platforms
- Download 10 free patches demonstrating the sound effects in Sim Cell from my site at VideoGameAudio.com – search for “Patches” section for “10 Procedural Sound Design Patches” – Power down, fat synth, spaceship, whoosh, robot blabber, missile, alising scream, alien blast, computery, explosion and bonus synth cat meow sound
- Miller Puckette’s book “The Theory and Technique of Electronic Music” – free 300+ page book using Pure Data
- “Designing Sound” by Andy Farnell has great patches in it from fires to guns to birds – great for game audio
- Download student patches from previous times I’ve taught at Emily Carr University
Leonard J. Paul attained his Honours degree in Computer Science at Simon Fraser University in BC, Canada with an Extended Minor in Music concentrating in Electroacoustics. He began his work in video games on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System and has a twenty year history in composing, sound design and coding for games. He has worked on over twenty major game titles totalling over 6.4 million units sold since 1994, including award-winning AAA titles such as EA’s NBA Jam 2010, NHL11, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, NBA Live ’95 as well as the indie award-winning title Retro City Rampage.
He is the co-founder of the School of Video Game Audio and has taught game audio students from over thirty different countries online since 2012. His new media works has been exhibited in cities including Surrey, Banff, Victoria, São Paulo, Zürich and San Jose. As a documentary film composer, he had the good fortune of scoring the original music for multi-awarding winning documentary The Corporation which remains the highest-grossing Canadian documentary in history to date. He has performed live electronic music in cities such as Osaka, Berlin, San Francisco, Brooklyn and Amsterdam under the name Freaky DNA.
He is an internationally renowned speaker on the topic of video game audio and has been invited to speak in Vancouver, Lyon, Berlin, Bogotá, London, Banff, San Francisco, San Jose, Porto, Angoulême and other locations around the world.
His writings and presentations are available at http://VideoGameAudio.com
Featured image: Concept art for Sim Cell. Used with permission (c) 2014 Amplify.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig: