On March 24th, 2019 the record release party for The Electric Golem’s 6th CD Golemology was held at the Loft in Ithaca, New York. The Electric Golem is an avant-garde synthesizer duo featuring Trevor Pinch and James Spitznagel, that has been in existence for about ten years.
Trevor Pinch is a local sound artist and professor at Cornell University. He is an STS (Science and Technology Studies) and Sound Studies scholar. As a key thinker of STS, Trevor is the coproducer of theories about Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), and the role of users in technological history and innovation. However, Trevor’s interest in dates back much farther; he built his first modular synthesizer when he was a physics student in London in the 1970s.
The other half of The Electric Golem, James Spitznagel, is a multi-media artist who uses the iPad as a musical instrument and to create digital paintings. While he has played many roles in the music and culture industries—guitarist in a rock band, record store owner, art gallery and guitar shop investor, and even business manager for the Andy Warhol Museum—he moved to Ithaca to focus on producing abstract art: digital paintings and experimental, improvisational music. Being an energetic and enthusiastic person who has unrestrained fantasies, James finds that everything around him can be his inspiration.
Pinch and Spitznagel formed the group after Spitznagel read Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco) and realized Pinch also lived in Ithaca. Spitznagel simply looked his name up in the phone book and called him up: “I go, ‘is this Trevor Pinch?’ He said, ‘yes.’ I said, ‘well, you don’t know me, but I just read your book and I love it.’” And then they got together for a beer and have been best friends and collaborators ever since. Once Spitznagel heard about Pinch’s homemade synthesizer, he asked Trevor to try to make something together and it turned out to be a fascinating mixture of analog–Trevor’s synth, Moog Prodigy, and a Minimoog–and James’s digital instruments.
Building from this first moment of discovery, The Electric Golem’s music is electronic, experimental, and totally improvised. Typically, the pieces of music last twenty minutes to half an hour and expresses their interaction with the machines and with each other in the studio. James is much more controlling of the tone and rhythm, and patches the sound as he goes along, whereas Trevor is much more about making spontaneous weird sounds. They complement each other and the creation process is usually by random and spontaneous, as Spitznagel describes: “I didn’t tell Trevor what to do or what to play, but I said, here’s the piece of music I’ve written. He just instinctively knew what add to it.” Reciprocally, “he might just play something that I go, oh, I can weave in and out of the ambient sound he’s putting there.”
For the duo, the process of producing music becomes a shared experience with their listeners. The music is ever changing and evolving. In addition, unexpected drama adds vitality to the palette. “The iPad might freeze up or synthesizer might break somehow,” Spitznagel notes, “that’s happened to us, but we carry on. Like Trevor looks at me and says, it’s not working there. Or, I look at him and go, I have to reboot my computer, it’s not working. But, those times actually inspire us to try new things and go beyond what we are doing.” James explained. Their inspiration comes from the unknown, which just emerges from their practice. “Generally, this sort of music is completely unique to Electric Golem.” Trevor concluded.
The name “Electric Golem” comes from a series of books with Golem in the titles that Trevor collaborated on with his mentor Harry Collins. “The golem is a creature of Jewish mythology,” Pinch and Collins wrote in The Golem, What You Should Know about Science, “it is a humanoid made by man with clay and water, with incantations and spells. It is powerful, it grows a little more powerful every day. It will follow orders, do your work, and protect you from the ever threatening enemy. But it is clumsy and dangerous. Without control, a golem may destroy its masters with its flailing vigour” (1). Noting Trevor’s association with the concept of the Golem, Spitznagel added the “Electric” twist not just as a metaphor for their sound but also because “it’s kind of like a retro name.” The Electric Golem mushroomed from there, and in the past decade they have had many invitations and bookings to play out, receiving the first recording contract from the Ricochet Dream label, and have played with a bunch of notable musicians, such as Malcolm Cecil of Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Simeon of Silver Apples, and “Future Man” (aka Roy Wooten), and they haven’t stopped there.
According to Pinch, the key feature of The Electric Golem’s music is its ability to encompass different moods. “I think Electric Golem has become good at one thing: its changing and transitioning from one sort of mood of music to another. And we have become quite good at those transitions. I think people would say that’s what they kind of like about us.” These sorts of slow transitions construct a unique texture of sound that can be quite cinematic, so much so that in 2012, the Electric Golem performed the accompaniment to the silent movie A Trip to the Moon, a special Cornell cinema event. Overall, as improvised experimental music, it is sometimes challenging to listen to, with no regular rhythm or reliable melody. Trevor produces warm, rich drones from the analog side that contrast with the sharper digital rhythms that James programs. In short, the Electric Golem varies between these two affects but the music goes far beyond the representation of emotional states; sometimes it conjures up the feeling of the vastness of space and time.
Experimental music, is a collaboration and negotiation process between instruments and their users. No matter if analog or digital, instruments have autonomy; they are non-human actors with their own agency to some extent. As Trevor Pinch intimates, “I understand the general sort of sound that can be produced, but the particular details of how it will work out, you don’t really know, that’s much more spontaneous, you have to react to that.” Instruments can often be uncontrollable–making their own sounds—so that Electric Golem must respond in kind. “So, it’s sort of like higher level meta-control versus actually doing what you’re doing in response to the instrument that combines together,” Trevor describes, “which I think is the secret to controlling these sorts of instruments.” It is incredible that Pinch and Spitznagel know each other so well—and each know their instruments so well–that they can improvise for long periods with no trouble. Trevor says: “Follow the use of these instruments! Follow the instruments! They are not essentialized. They are just stabilized temporarily.”
On the whole, The Electric Golem shows an artistic form which breaks the traditional paradigm, deconstructs and then reconstructs it, seeking to free sound from the instruments. Their music is beyond pure melody and rhythm, beyond the expression of existence, expressing more of an aesthetic state of transcendence. They challenge what music is, and what musical instruments are; they challenge divisions between the identities of engineer and musician. Electric Golem’s music co-constructs art and technology and binds them together; art, for them, is a mode of presenting technology, and vice versa, technology is a pathway through which art can flourish.
My favorite Electric Golem piece is called “Heart of the Golem.” What is the heart of the Golem? According to Pinch, “It is a mystery, a process of unfolding and discovery. It is somewhere where analog and digital sound meet, and an improvisation.” What the magic is remains unknown and unlimited, just like the future of the Electric Golem.
Featured Image: Courtesy of The Electric Golem
Qiushi Xu is a PhD candidate in the subject of Philosophy of Science and Technology in Tsinghua University, Beijing and in a joint PhD program in the Department of Science and Technology Studies in Cornell University, working with Prof. Trevor Pinch. Her research areas are Sound Studies, STS, Cultural Studies and Gender Studies. Her current research focuses on the sociology of piano sound and the negotiation and construction of piano sound in the recording studio (PhD dissertation), gender issues in recording industry, experimental music, auscultation and sound therapy. She holds an MA in Cultural and Creative Industries from King’s College London; a BA in Recording Arts and a BA in Journalism and Communication from the University of China, Beijing. She is also an amateur pianist, writer, and traditional Chinese painter. As a multiculturalist, she is am fascinated by different forms of art and culture in different cultural contexts.
Today we bring you the latest post in SO!’s spring series, Live from the SHC, which follows the new research from the 2011-2012 Fellows of Cornell’s Society for the Humanities, who have gathered in the A.D. White House to study “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.” For the full series, click here. Today poet, scholar, and ecocritic Jonathan Skinner brings us all a treat for spring, so throw open your windows and take a deep listen. –Editor in Chief, JSA
This planet is singing 24/7 but are we listening to it? Take out your earbuds, turn down the music and the air conditioning, walk away from the fridge, shut off your engine, open the windows, and tell me what you hear. If you are in the humid parts of the temperate regions, chances are you’ll hear right now, amidst the myriad human sounds, and depending on the time of day, the spring peepers going, the woodcocks peenting and displaying, a grouse drumming, the whistling of cardinals and robins, chickadees countersinging, blackbirds trilling, cawing of crows, blue jays scolding, honking of geese, hooting of an owl or two, woodpeckers drumming, house sparrows chirping (in this case, to a Satie carillon), perhaps some coyotes yapping it up after midnight. Not to speak of wind in branches and leaves, water, thunder and lightning. These are just some of sounds I can pick up, with a bit of careful listening, in and around the relatively urban environment of Ithaca, New York. If you put your ear to the grass, you might hear this astonishing Treehopper communication.
Or maybe you heard these sounds in some music you were listening to, in a movie soundtrack or videogame? Just as we pervade their worlds, animals pervade our environments, and their sounds are used to “render” these environments within the relatively flat dimensions of our media—the way three dimensions of spatial information get “crunched” to the two dimensions of a video game’s display (see 4:00 – 5:20 for a demonstration of Aiden Fry’s “generative birdsong” program below, developed through the analysis and sampling of birdsong as a solution to repetitive sound effects that can diminish the immersive quality of the game). Even the most sophisticated “surround sound” audio must “render” figuratively the environed experience of hearing.
The next time you watch a movie, listen to some “ambient” music or play a videogame that renders an outdoors environment, imagine subtracting the animal sounds (either literal or evoked) from these media scapes and consider how incompletely rendered the experience would be. A reversal of the effect, as in Gus Van Sant’s use of Hildegard Westerkamp’s “Beneath the Forest Floor” soundscape, to track and underscore the anomie of certain characters through Elephant, his thinly veiled recreation of the Columbine High School tragedy, also proves the rule (note especially the soundtrack from 3:10 – 3:40).
Greg Budney and Mike Webster explain their dedication to compiling the world’s largest and best quality archive of animal recordings (now in video as well as audio), the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University, as a responsibility to future acoustic biologists, who may bring tools and concepts to the data we have not remotely conceived. Their mission is first and foremost a scientific one. However, conservation is also high on their list: Budney, an expert recordist, points out how high quality recordings—as of lekking Greater Prairie-Chickens—can be played back into the environment, to promote nesting of endangered populations.
These bioacousticians agree that high quality sound recordings can be a powerful way to interest laypeople in the sounds of the robin in their backyard, and, by extension, in broader issues of conservation. Sounds in the Macaulay Library also are available to the entertainment industry, so that, indeed, myriad animal vocalizations contribute to the renderings of its various media. Licensing fees in turn contribute to the conservation mission of the Library.
Rendering is not so much a matter of reproduction—accurately representing a “real” environment—as of recreating, through a consistency that “completes” the aesthetic experience, the feelings associated with an environment. (Think of the difference in quality between the “finished” HD, surround-sound movie and the behind-the-scenes “special features” on a DVD.) In Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, media theorist Michel Chion identifies an important feature of rendering in “materializing sound indices,” noises that help render, in sound and image, a particular “clump of sensations” (112-116).
For instance, spatial depth, in outdoor scenes, is often rendered through the presence of bird song or dogs barking, etc. Or consider the cooing of pigeons that often accompanies the opening of a garret window in a movie set in Paris. Or that ubiquitous red-tailed hawk’s cry indexing a “wild” landscape. The absence or thinness of these indices can be just as helpful to rendering, as when the landscape includes “ethereal, abstract, and fluid” entities: “out of touch” characters in Jacques Tati films or the drawn characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where hollow, lightweight, plastic sounds help us believe that we are indeed seeing (or, as Chion reminds us, “hear-seeing”) cartoon characters (watch from 1:19 – 1:33 for the famous “clang” the drawn Jessica Rabbit makes as she collides with the live action Eddie Valiant).
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, both the book and the film version, deploy effectively the total absence of animal sounds to convey the uncanny complex of feelings bound up in environmental apocalypse—the “silent spring” invoked by Rachel Carson a half century ago in her indictment of the toxic legacy of the chemical industry.
In his study of environmental aesthetics, Ecology Without Nature, ecocritic Timothy Morton faults rendering for perpetuating an “ecomimetic illusion of immediacy,” an “ambient” art that ultimately comes in between us and the life it is supposed to bring us close to (36). Rendering lures us into the “relaxing ambient sounds of ecomimesis,” precisely when we need to hear “the screeching of the emergency brake” (as Morton puts it: “whistling in the dark, insisting that we’re part of Gaia” 187, 196). However, Chion notes that “the disjunctive and autonomist impulse [à la Godard] that predominates in intellectual discourse on the question (‘wouldn’t it be better if sound and image were independent?’) arises entirely from a unitary illusion” that there is “a true unity existing elsewhere” (Audio-Vision 97-98). Such unity is in fact elusive: for instance, it can be difficult to identify the sources of sounds in “nature” (consider the bewildering variety of blue jay calls), while the notion that a sound can on its own invoke more abstract characteristics of its source, especially when it is produced by a nonhuman species, betrays a kind of magical thinking. (Forms of non-western magical thinking actually acknowledge the disjunctive quality of natural sounds by referring, for instance, to “voices in the forest.”) Also, sound is so context dependent, and our listening is so strongly influenced by the conventions of our media, that “sound in itself”can be a very slippery object. Chion notes that we need something like an “auditory analogy of the visual camera obscura” —i.e. the monitoring and recording of soundscapes—to help us listen to “sounds for themselves and to focus on their acoustical qualities” (108).
In a time of mass extinction, how are we to approach the rendering of animal sounds in our mediated environments? Do these sounds have agency? Does listening to and “capturing” animal sounds bring us closer to them, or only lure us, with an illusion of immersion and unity, away from realizing the dark nature of our ecology, and the urgent reforms needed, if we are actually to help animals (does our rendering and consumption of whale song—pace what Songs of the Humpback Whale has done for whale conservation—end up perpetuating the same extractive process that “renders” whale blubber)?
I would say that, so long as we approach these sounds neither as a substitute for, nor as an experience “less than,” the daily practice of listening to our environments, a resource like the Macaulay Library can add immeasurably to our awareness of the diversity, and the vulnerability, of life on Earth. (Another resource worth exploring is the British Library’s Environment & nature sounds archive, especially the collection of early wildlife recordings.) Careful attention to renderings of animal sounds in our media can make us aware of the extent to which we “render” the landscape around us, through selective habits of listening, and open us to the disjunctive, noisy, reverberant, distorted sounds such renderings obscure. (R. Murray Schafer made this point long ago, in his book The Soundscape urging us to listen to noise if we want to defeat it.) Clips posted here, of media using birdsong to render scenes of human violence, state the complexity of our pastoral aesthetics in an exaggerated way, but every day our listening has access to a range of sonic collisions.
Consider the famous recordings of nightingales in Beatrice Harrison’s backyard, to the accompaniment of her cello, as well as to RAF bombers—on Minnesota Public Radio’s Music & Nature. Part of what we will hear when we listen with open ears is our own domination of the soundscape, one that can have concrete implications for the survival of other species (Chris Clark, head of Bioacoustics Research at Cornell, has imaged the way the noise of shipping lanes impacts the acoustic habitat of endangered Right Whales.) How might the infrasonic or ultrasonic vocal communications—of blue whales, elephants, mice and bats, for instance—that operate beyond the range of the naked human ear (but not of our instruments) impact our media environments? The “materializing sound indices” of recordings can be used to return us to the embodied, imperfect natures of these other beings, whose vulnerability, philosopher Jacques Derrida suggests in The Animal That Therefore I Am, it is our own nature to follow.
The more we listen to the environment acousmatically, the better critics we become of our media environments’ often crassly commercial renderings. Many of these sounds (see also some of the recordings collected on the Earth Ear label’s Dreams of Gaia) are simply beautiful, or astonishing—conveying an aesthetic dimension alluded to in veteran nature recordist Bernie Krause’s new book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. (My concern with a focus on the exotic is that privileging “wild places” might have the effect of devaluing the “not wild,” i.e. where most people live—places nonetheless full of wild creatures—and where we might best develop our listening.) Finally, the more we find ways to render these sounds meaningfully in our own lives, outside patterns of consumption, the better chances are we’ll begin to develop (politically, ethically) meaningful relationships with these other species, species with whom we must collaborate if we want to tend the web of life that so desperately needs our care.
**Featured Image Credit: Digital Collage Bird Art by Flickr User Peregrine Blue
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 the poets Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Ronald Johnson, Bernadette Mayer, Lorine Niedecker, and Charles Olson; on Poetries of the Third Landscape, Documentary Poetics, and Poetry Animals; and an ethnographic study of the Tohono O’odham Mockingbird Speech. Skinner’s poetry collections include Birds of Tifft (BlazeVox, 2011), Warblers (Albion Books, 2010), With Naked Foot (Little Scratch Pad Press, 2009), and Political Cactus Poems (Palm Press, 2005). Skinner’s latest creative project is a book on the urban landscape designs of Frederick Law Olmsted.