Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Sonic Organs of the City

Having spent the last few months examining a variety of soundscapes and documenting their sonic components, I have begun to drill deeper, to analyse and consider the make up of the components themselves, to listen to the sounds within the sounds.

Where my fridge hums and gurgles I have delved in with a mic to discover the subtle rhythms, pops and crackles it omits, deciphering how these change in pitch, depth, speed and resonance from one part to another, combining to form the whole audible to the naked ear.

In search of clarity I have explored Manchester's backstreets and alleyways in the early hours to find particles of sound unaffected by crowds and traffic. This is where the most interesting pure sounds can be found and dissected, air vents behind buildings, whistling, grinding, a cacophony of tone and pitch, layers compressed so tight as to give the impression of a single airy blast, actually constructed of infinite vibrations.

There is something about these sounds that draws me towards them, the audible signifier of the life of the building, the hidden engine, the sonic organs hidden beneath the sheen of capitalist venture.

Where the sound of space and machinery is synonymous with certain industry, the retail and service sectors prefer to create their own sonically controlled world, laced with muzak and hollow foyers, pushing the true sounds that power them into the no mans land of non spaces.

So maybe it is the empty spaces that allow these sounds to develop, maybe the lack of capitalist distractions in these forgotten areas allows you to tune into the drone, to hear the true unaestheticised life of the city, breathing, wheezing, choking, laughing.

Monday, 18 May 2009

A Futuresonic Weekend

It's not often that I discuss music on this blog, but then futuresonic was much more than a music festival, it was festival of ideas, concepts, thoughts and feelings.

My first taste of the festival was visiting the cube gallery late on Friday to witness The royal college of art and Yamaha's exhibition of strangely crafted instruments, all requiring quite definate movement and tactility, emphasising the deep connection between sound and body. Part argument against the aparent lack of bodily connection in digital culture, part persuation that everything is sound, from the sporadic rhythmic clipping of a typewriter to the rustling and scratching of clothing, affected both by its material makeup and that of the human orchestrator.

Saturday had me sat in Nexus art cafe for much of the afternoon as people made their own tapes and constructed one off sound pieces with the clunking and rolling pressing equipment as artists performed on the stage. Again this was a physical sonic experience combining heavy machinic movements with careful folding and stamping. It was also participatory and inclusive, the audience interacting with the performers to break the barrier of artist and fan. By the time Denis Jones took to the stage people were purposely using the equipment in a way that heavily influenced the sound and direction of his pieces. It is exciting to see samplers being used in such a comunal and improvised manner, and also to hear interesting live music composed and recorded in front of you out of a mixture of laregly industrial machinary.

After such a relaxing and thought provoking saturday it was then off to Club Underground for the night to let Kode9 and friends transport us somewhere else entirely. I haven't been so immersed in dancing ever before and I can't remember thinking a single thing for the entiraty of Kode9's set, my body and mind completely overtaken by the sheer speed and depth of some of the records he was playing, lost in the pulse and addrenaline of the music, the bass thundering through my chest and deep into my legs, involuntary movement and overwhelming joy.

Walking home we tried to discuss what he'd been playing and how he'd been manipulating records but the night was beyond theorising, again it was physical, tactile and in a different way interactive, bodies and faces coliding and merging to enhance the mood, voices shreeking, little whelps of joy.

A friend realised that there is something about bass heavy music that affects her sinuses, I was reminded that what I love about sound is its physical and interactive possibilities, we all had a great weekend!

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Talking 'bout my Generation

Having just read Michael Bull's essay 'Thinking about sound, proximity and distance in Western experience' I have been led to think about the significance of the increased use of portable audio devices.

Firstly the Walkman and now the mp3 player provide us with the ability to aestheticise our environment, to create our own soundscape wherever we are, to create a private world within the public arena. Never before did we have such ability to control public space in the way that we control the private.

Before the Walkman we certainly didn't have the ability to shut out the sounds of our environment and overwrite them with our own personal soundtrack. The Walkman provided us with round the clock control of our environment and the choice to hear what WE wanted wherever we were. What was previously experienced in the private domain was taken to the streets.

Maybe this doesn't sound like such a big deal until you consider what would happen, if bored with seeing the same things everyday we all decide to strap TVs to our faces. Chaos. I mean it would completely change the way that we experience the world. And the sonic equivalent has already happened!!

The mp3 player is obviously very much of its time, but in terms of the Walkman I think that in providing people with the chance to finally control and aestheticise their place in the public arena was hugely significant in creating the self centred culture that we experience today.

Saturated with choice, we demand the right to choose what we do and when we do it, sped up by increasingly fast Internet, TV on demand, instantly accessible libraries of music, we long to be in control, dictated by mobile phones, laptops and wi-fi connections.

The birth of the Walkman was the birth of the private within the public, the self centred, detached from auditory contact with our surroundings and those that we share the environment with. This was the birth of the me generation.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

The Physical Affect of the Firework

"you must be the only person to go to a fireworks display and close your eyes... apart from them kids that are scared of fireworks"

I had to close my eyes for periods of the display to focus myself on the sounds, something which can be hard to do in such a visually intense environment, and realised that hearing a fireworks display without seeing it can be a scary experience. And I have full sympathy with those kids that find it terrifying.

When you can see light firing off into the sky, the puff of smoke and the wonderful array of colour in the sky it is easy to place the sound that accompanies it. When you take away the visual element you are left with a succession of sporadic bangs, pops, fizzes and whistles.

The bangs just make you jump when you're not expecting them, but the screamers are trully terrifying as the constant change in pitch and intensity that accompanies their journey gives the impression that they are about plant themselves in your head at any second. Seriously give it a go.

I imagine this must be what it is like to live amongst war, the sound of explosions and rockets all around, often out of sight but sounding much closer than they are, a constant tension in your body caused by sonic vibration.

This physical affect on the body and mind is also evident within tonights display. The gathered crowd are notably calm and gently wowwed by the fireworks as they set off one at a time to be admired, but as more are set at once and the bangs become more frequent, less ordered and more intense you can feel the crowd becoming more overpowered by sound, drawn in, excited and intense.

The samba band begin to pick up the rhythm, to which the fireworks add a counter, extra beats thrown in to jerk the rhythm, crackles and fizzes to heighten the ambience. The crowd of strangers are physically closer to each other than they were at the start, exchanging glances, shoulders touching, legs moving to the rhythm.

To me this is the sign of sound physically affecting the human in a positive and beautiful way, bringing people together and helping them to lose their precomposed ideas of public behaviour. This makes me very happy indeed.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Art of Sonic Navigation

I have been reading lately about echolocation, an awareness that a relatively small proportion of people develop which allows them to navigate their environment sonically by becoming hyper aware of the echoic reactions of the surfaces surrounding them. Or as Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter put it in their wonderful book Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?

Human echolocation is actually a collection of independent abilities to perform a variety of tasks, from hearing spectral changes produced by a nearby wall, to hearing the acoustic shadow produced by a telephone pole, to hearing the reverberation arising from two coupled spaces

This sense is largely developed by the visually impaired (although not a large percentage) but can be mastered by anyone dedicated to the art. Of course most of us will never develop the necessary skills because it is always easier to open our eyes and navigate visually as we have been taught from birth. What I find interesting though is that without thinking, we actually use many of the same techniques already in our day to day lives.

For instance, when I'm cycling to work along busy roads in morning traffic I can't see the cars behind me but I know how close to me they are, I'm well aware when one of them is about to overtake me, and I can hear their frustration and impatience when they want to pass me but don't have the option.

Obviously this is an extreme example as cars are notably loud and their engines sound different dependent on speed and proximity, but I know when not to pull out across lanes purely based on sonic vibrations in the air, I can sense density through tone, and this is surely a starting point for us all.

Although many people will find the idea of navigating sonically through their environment a pointless exercise, I believe that having the ability to hear surfaces that without careful consideration appear to make no sound at all is one of the most amazing things, opening up a whole new world of sound and vibration to be explored.