Bird Calls (more info about where this started here on my blog and here on the BCSC blog) is an intervention to play with ideas of community and nature. While the artist in residence at the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture, I became interested in the community notice boards located at the grocery store in the village down the mountain. I poset a request for local birdsongs to generate some content for the work that I am making and these are two of the responses I received. Part of this comes from the realization that my number in Australia is temporary and giving it out is consequence free. Having a temporary number with voicemail to play with is kind of amazing.
-n 1. a noisy confused place or situation.
I’ve gotten a bit obsessed with these community notice boards. The SHOPPER cards that folks from the community can fill out are really interesting. Especially once they use pictures and highlighters. These boards aren’t new to me. I’ve seen them in grocery stores in the United States and I remember them in the grocery in the town where I grew up. There’s even something similar at the local market I go to but it is less official and less systematic. I originally spotted them on our way up to Bogong Village as we hung fliers for the Listening Walk that I will be leading as a way to engage the community. I began wondering if this board system could be another way of reaching out to the community. So I quickly filled out a card and posted it. I grabbed a couple extra because I wanted to be better prepared next time I came down the mountain.
I designed my own card to resemble theirs but included my own messaging. It’s a request for birdsong impressions. In Bogong Village the birdsong is wonderful. It’s rich with character, dense and persistent throughout the day. The village however is a temporary community left over from the when the hydro-electric scheme was being built and in the early days of it running. There’s a dam that has created a lake and around the lake are a series of cabins that can be rented throughout the year. The dam and the recreational water way are evidence of attempts at controlling nature and the idea of imitating birdsong seemed like an interesting way to investigate the sounds of that intersection. The lake asks questions of “nature” and “real” while this intervention poses a similar request.
[This post was originally written for the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture Blog while I was the artist in residence there.]
This morning I got up to return to the dam that I walked around after first getting into town. It’s an amazing structure that carries with it a great deal of mixed emotions. Right before leaving the United States for the artist residency here at BCSC, I co-taught a graduate seminar in the Masters of Design in Sustainable Environments (MDesSE) program at Iowa State University where water was a key subject of research and inquiry. We had several discussions about water management and use in a variety of environments and scales. The dam in front of me represented a point of tension within these previous discussions. However, I wanted to go there early in the morning to record the wildlife surrounding it and get a sense for it was like to engage with the dam by listening on the back side of the structure. I found a nice spot up the hill to set up my microphones, cleared a little spot to sit, started everything up and just began to listen. The bird song was incredible. There is so much life and activity in the area. I have yet to go through and estimate the number of different species calls I captured but it was many. As I sat perfectly still, listening to the environment, I began to think more about the dam in front of me. The positive and negative effects of the dam began to swirl as a cycle of thought emerged.
The dam was created as part of a much larger hydro-electric scheme. At four different places down the mountain these systems where introduced to convert moving water into electricity. That electricity is used in the communities all down into the city. That electricity, in many cases, is converted into some form of unwanted sound. It’s the charging of a neighbors phone that goes off at all hours of the night. It’s the power behind that tram that rumbles through the city. It’s the guitar amp down the street. It’s the dance music next-door at 9am Monday morning. It’s the leaf blower before church. It’s the blender in the apartment above while you’re trying to fall asleep. It’s the large HVAC units on the way to the subway. It’s the hum of the street lights overhead. The result of this dam is the electricity that creates a soundscape that we work to ignore and that we feel the need to escape from.
The village around the damn is a resort destination. It’s the type of place that people go to get away from everything. Family holidays and fishing expeditions. Maintaining a status of tourist destination is part of the mission of the village after having fought to remain on the map. Originally, the village was intended for the workers connected to the dam and the power company. Everything had been developed with very temporary intentions. Infrastructure was all done quite quickly with no real sense of longevity. It only needed to last a short amount of time and serve a few people. Once the village had served it’s purpose it was to be leveled and allowed to be reclaimed by nature. This sounds pretty interesting as premise. Temporary neighborhoods with a plan for elimination. Maybe suburban planned communities could take not. After having been a few different iterations of functional town and then resort village for the power company employees, people fought to save it. They were successful and now it is a very small yet busy destination, especially in the winter during ski season. There’s a large ski resort just a few kilometers up the road.
The dam has now served dual roles in the complexity of our relationship with nature. It has provided a valuable resource but at some expense to the surrounding habitat. It has resulted in electricity that we convert into things that we want. The dam has created a lake and a surrounding village used to escape these very same things. The cycle of cause, effect, problem and solution folds back onto itself in a complex way in this area. The soundscape also reflects this. The space is rich with birdsong and the interactions of these sounds with the infrastructure are very compelling. The electrical hum of the transformers sit behind the dawn chorus as a gentle sustaining tone through which the wildlife punctures. The echo chambers in the dam and the parabolic feature of the valley result in a unique listening experience that connects place, memory and the consequences of man’s manipulation of nature.
Water is electricity is noise.
The O’Hare Urban Garden is built from recycled and reused material such as structural steel, water proofing membranes, security doors, airport furniture and electrical panels.
End Transmission, 2013
A collaboration between Ezra Masch and Alex Braidwood
Installation at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Philadelphia
Audio recordings of jet engines play on a 4-channel loop. The sound system is positioned in front of a sheet of reflective mylar, which vibrates in response to air pressure from the speakers. Light is projected onto the surface of the mylar, reflecting a luminous image of the material's movement on the opposite wall.
Note: this project contains low-frequency sound that may be difficult to reproduce with most home stereo equipment.
Last spring, I traveled to San Francisco to experience the Audium in person. This trip was supported by a grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation in Los Angeles. What follows is a writing that I created after the performance as part of the final grant report.
Originally written on July 2nd, 2012
A large room with a suspended ceiling and a floating false floor houses this permanent audio-performance-as-sound-art-installation created from a composition performed through a series of 176 different speakers mounted throughout the space. There are square acoustic panels mounted in concentric circles at the ceiling. Speakers of different sizes, for frequency and response, are hung from the ceiling facing down, under the floor facing up and along the wall facing toward the center. The audience is seated in a series of 3 concentric circles facing the center. There are speakers mounted directly under many – if not all – of the chairs. Some of the walls are solid but some of the curved forms used to define the space are created from stretched white fabric. The area where the performer sits is a very Kubric-esque station opposite the entrance that contains a custom mixing area with a series of dials and switches. The entirely custom-built interface is marked with glow-in-the-dark labels so that they can be seen by the performer but won’t give off any projected light. This aligned with the initial announcement that requested people remove any watches with illuminated faces or anything else that might light up during the performance. As the sound began, the room was slowly taken to complete and absolute darkness. In fact, during the second movement, the gentlemen sitting next to me got a silent phone call and the light emanating form his blue jeans pocket was incredibly bright, emphasizing the darkness after 30 minutes of being without light.
A primary technical feature of the space is that it provides sound the ability to move through the space and be composed with other moving sounds. The tape performance consisted of a mix of musical instruments, synthesized sounds, field recordings and even some voice samples. These sounds create a dream-like state that flows through a series of emotions and compositional movements. It deals with issues of tension, beauty, memory, child hood innocence and scientific exploration. There are moments that are heavily rhythmic and draw the listener’s attention around the space and other times the sound comes to the listener during the experience.
The presentation throughout the space functions in a way that a normal projected listening experience cannot. The sound moves through the space in a way that directly reflects one’s listening ability in real space. Sounds come from all around us. We hear in 360° and we can’t turn it off. Our ears don’t blink – as the famous John Cage saying goes. This installation / performance explores this and presents a composition in a way that creates a different relationship to recorded and projected audio. The listening experience is quite amazing. Hearing a performed composition distributed through space in such a way draws the listener in and blurs the familiar lines of experiencing recorded sound, usually limited to 2 channels of stereo or at most maybe, 5 channels of surround sound. Having sonic distribution at this granular level to compose against creates a great deal of questions and opportunities for composers. As a media artist, I am intrigued by the questions this raises about the methods by which an artist would perform in this type of space. How does one perform within such a dramatically complex and interwoven sonic environment? What are the interaction implications of a controller for 176 distributed, discrete audio channels? And how might this controller work in reverse if instead of distributing sound out to many channels, we consider ways that our binaural listening system might be hacked and modified to perform this space surrounding a listener? While considering the role of the listener within this rich, dynamic performance environment that the Audium presents, these are some of the questions that the experience of this multi-speaker audio installation and performance has raised for me.
There’s another aspect of the mysterious hum phenomenon that I find particularly interesting and it has to with characteristics of the noises being experienced and the relationship that listeners develop with both the noise and each other. When discussing their initial reaction when hearing a mysterious hum, people regularly make statements about wanting to know if other people hear it too. They express relief when they discover that others are hearing and feeling the sound as well. Once they know they aren’t the only one, they don’t feel crazy anymore.
What an interesting characteristic of a sound. When a sound is heard and the source is known, wondering if other people hear it too isn’t something that is even considered. If I’m home alone and I drop a pan, I’m probably the only one to hear it. That doesn’t make me crazy. With the mysterious hum noises, people need to be comforted by knowing it is some type of shared experience. Similar to that of a jet engine or train whistle. This results from the lack of a determined source, the frequencies involved and the sporadic timing and amplitudes of the sounds. They occur in such a way that the listener is in fact questioning wether they are hearing them at all or if they are the result of some other phenomenological occurrence. Like a ringing in the ears, listening being refocused to hear bodily functions or some type of neurological short circuit. Once a community of hearers forms, these concerns evaporate and the focus then becomes attempting to identify the source in order to address the issues raised by the noise itself. After all, it can be fully considered a noise once it’s heard by a community.
Reports of mysterious hums continue to emerge in the media. There are the old standard hums such the Taos Hum in New Mexico which has been being reported for over twenty years and still remains sourceless. There is the Windsor Hum in Windsor Ontario, across the river from Detroit, which has been under investigation for almost two years now. The source of this one is assumed to be the manufacturing area of downriver Detroit known as Zug Island. However, due to the cooperate interests of those involved, the investigation by the government in the city of Detroit ended as soon as it led them to the doorstep of the island. So officially, it too remains sourceless. Most recently there have been a rash of reports in Ireland that describe the sound as a low rumbling that appears at inconsistent intervals. It has reportedly been recorded, which is rare for a hum, but the frequency is so low that it is difficult to determine the distance from which the sound is originating. A common theme surrounding many hums that are reported is that the people feel them more than they hear them. What they describe is as much a physical sensation as a hearing one. This also adds to the difficulty in collecting recorded evidence of the noises. In one case, a video crew was attempting to document a mysterious hum outside of Brighton in the UK and after several minutes of silent, concentrated listening, they thought for sure that they had heard it on their headsets. Unfortunately, it turned out that what they had heard was the functioning of the camera that was recording them, not the mysterious hum that they were there to collect.
But this got me thinking about different types of hums that have been introduced into our environment and where they come from. I’m also intrigued by the idea that the noises are reportedly just as physical and they are audible. When officially categorizing noise within a community such as in a standard noise ordinance there tend to be two major factors in identifying a sound as an official noise violation. The first is the decibel level of the unwanted sound. Certain levels are allowable but there is a threshold that, once crossed, makes that sound a violation of noise ordinance. Second to the decibel level, yet often directly connected, is the source of the sound. So, for example, a bar inside the city limits cannot exceed 95db after a certain time of night. This identifies a limit to the level of the sound and a source. These two pieces of information make filing reports about mysterious hums difficult. With the hums being felt yet barely audible, if a recording is difficult to achieve, than so is a decibel reading. Even more important, however, is the identification of the source. This is probably the key aspect in that these hums are mysterious because attempts at identifying a reasonable source aren’t successful. Although the officials in Michigan refuse to investigate the industrial manufacturing practices on Zug Island for fear of economic repercussions, the fact that the Windsor Hum has been traced to this location is rare within the development of mysterious hums.
The largest discussions around these hums are attempts at identifying a source for the noise. Once a source for a noise like this is defined, then people can form real opinions about it. If it’s from nearby military activity, one group will ask for consideration while others will claim a patriotic duty to cope. If it’s from a commercial or manufacturing source, a camp will develop that asks for limitation and consideration while another will claim that the noise is necessary to create jobs and save the economy. Once the cause of the noise is determined, people can then formulate their true feelings about the issue. Until then, it reads like a combination of curiosity and frustration. Another recent example from Clintonville, WI is described as being a series of underground mysterious booms as apposed to a mysterious hum. The noise bursts have occurred at night and are violent enough to wake people from their sleep and even, reportedly rattle pictures hanging on the wall. Again, no source has been identified but there were enough calls into the emergency responders that city officials have worked to rule out things like the underground gas and electrical systems. Similar to other mysterious and un-sourced noises, the speculation of what the sounds could be or mean have been wild and covered everything from the Earth’s electromagnetic field and secrete military operations to alien activity.
As people living in communities, we produce a great deal of noise. As an industrialized manufacturing society, we also produce and consume a lot of things that produce a lot of noise. Part of what I find so fascinating about all the activity surrounding mysterious hums is that it is another indicator of unconsidered consequences within the audio ecology of our surroundings. For example, we want climate controlled interior spaces. Achieving this results in the introduction of large, fan-based HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) units that sit outside humming away at all hours of the day and night. We put so much noise into our environment and the sourceless-ness of a mysterious hum becomes the tipping point of absolute frustration. This has led me to explore the use and manipulation of other industrial hums to make new listening experiences by rendering the sourced materials sourceless through a variety of techniques. Investigating the noise and vibrations created by this type of climate control infrastructure is just one of the reasons why I created the Hum Collector and eventually, the Hum Listener.
The work also investigates the potential for collecting and listening to noises that are as much felt as they are heard. Through the creation of portable Listening Instruments such as the Hum Collector and the Hum Listener, these vibration are made audible. A different layer of the urban soundscape is transformed into a real-time performance for the listener. These aren’t sounds to be blocked out. They aren’t vibrations to be ignored. Instead, they are layer of understanding that needs to be considered as we make progress into the future. What is the difference between an industrial persistent sound that we can identify verses one that we cannot accurately determine a source for? Does the source of the sound matter that much to our listening experience with that sound? Or, similar to Pierre Schaeffer’s ideas of the Sonorous Object, what if we don’t concern ourselves with attempts to identify a source and give the noise meaning in that way. I understand this would be key to elimination but what if we assume elimination isn’t a possibility? What happens if we begin to consider this noise a new natural? A new bird call or wave crashing. A new thunderstorm or whale song? Instead of wind storms and bison herds we have massive exhaust fans and train cars. A cell phone waiting lot becomes a mechanical aviary. A mysterious hum is an elusive occurrence that is difficult to not only locate but identify. As they become more and more common – and potentially more and more accepted – investigations into new types of listening experiences developed from and inspired by these unintended outcomes could transform our relationship to this different space within our sonic environment.
Also, testing a new glitch edit/insert/creation script that I’ve been working on.
Wearing the Upside Down Goggles by Carsten Höller which flip and reverse everything that you see was a wild experience. I have to admit, when I first put them on, it was very disorienting and I was so curious about what was around, I turned around very quickly and nearly ate it right in the middle of the gallery. Did I mention that I was there with some well known interaction designers and hoping to make a good impression? I was. But so be it. I almost bit it wearing the Upside Down Goggles. I only wore them for a few minutes, 2 different times. Once was in the middle of the gallery on the 4th floor near the carousal under the bird mobile / kinetic sculpture. The other was in the infared video wall room. Each time was not very long at all, 3-5 minutes maximum. One of the most interesting aspects of it is that after taking them off, I felt odd for a time period much longer than I had them on for. The best way I can describe how I felt was “fucked up.” It was sort of dizzy, but not in a falling over kind of way. I didn’t feel sick or tired. I wasn’t off balance. The world visually just wasn’t quite making sense. My friends that were with me commented on the same thing. The lasting effects of having worn the device were much longer than the original experience.
Las Vegas is a place of sensory maximalism. Lights, sounds, movement, winning, loosing, hugging strangers and permanent marks on your body. It epitomizes the sense that the great downfall of music is that culturally it has been relegated to the background.
All content ©2014 Alex Braidwood unless otherwise stated.
- mysterious hum
- sonic fiction