BEDLAM (ˈbɛdləm)
-n 1. a noisy confused place or situation.
Listening on the Farm – thunder in the farmhouse

There have been massive storms rolling through two nights in a row. I am such a fan of storms when outside of the city. They look and sound amazing. The whomp, gzzzzz, rumble with the flash and the counting for distance (5 seconds is about a mile) is definitely a favorite listening experience. Being outside of the city and experiencing intense storms such as these reminds me of the power of the natural world and there are things that no matter how we try, we humans just can’t control. We can’t make storms and we can’t prevent them. We can do our best to seek shelter but there are times when the storm decides to come inside too, as the basement in the second house on the farm fell victim too last night. The moment when the full realization takes hold that nature is still pretty well in charge is the moment when the power goes out, you hope it’s just a flicker, it stays off, and you realize after a couple minutes that you now don’t know if it will be minutes, hours or days until the power comes back on. In the early hours of this morning, the power went off for a couple hours making it very clear where I stood in the larger order of things. Luckily I had the storm to listen to with a sense of reverence and enjoyment.

I wonder if there is a name for stormfans like there is for railfans–who I’ve recently learned are called “foamers” by train workers. It’s not storm chaser because I don’t go looking for them. But when they descend upon me I thoroughly enjoy watching and listening. Here on the farm, the experience of these storms has been quite amazing. First, the openness of the farmland surrounding the house creates an expanse that allows the light and the sound to travel and reverberate all throughout the landscape. Similar to the wind, the effect of the lightning and thunder has very little mitigating it as the weather cell blows through. Adding to this are the characteristics of the house and the room that I am staying in. The farmhouse is over one hundred years old and it feels like it. With many bedrooms, a couple bathrooms and several closets and common areas, the house is open and many of the surfaces are hard, adding to the reverberation of the thunder as it reflects around the cavernous room in which I am staying. The room is also on the southwest corner of the house, meaning that it has been facing the majority of the storm activity rolling through the landscape. The lights are amazing. The sounds are beautiful. The storms are powerful. They wash the landscape with a range of frequencies as they rattle and resonate throughout the built structures. Hearing the old structures of the farm respond to the storm has been a really fascinating experience. With mostly indoor artist activity, the weather and its affect on the material of the farm has become another defining characteristic of the soundscape during my time here.

Listening to the Farm – Drips, Pens & Tills

This morning a very large storm cell rolled through with claps of thunder so loud and violent that it woke most of us as it rattled the walls and windows of the 100+ year old house in which we were staying. A sharp reminder of something that I talk about great a deal when discussing the importance of listening. Our hearing does not turn off, even while we sleep. Evolutionarily, this was probably very important for millions and millions of years. Rest is important but so is remaining safe from predators and other dangerous elements. This storm also afforded me two other opportunities this morning to witness how important keen hearing is in this type of environment (the farm) in which maintenance and awareness of the facilities and resources is of key importance. Joe Lucina, founder and co-director of the Grin City Collective is also responsible for much of the upkeep of the house, property and buildings. This morning, he and I were sitting at the dinning room table eating and all of a sudden he jumped up and went out the to porch. What been a slight dripping sound from the ongoing deluge of rain suddenly made a different sound. It was subtle but it could have been something major. Turns out it was not a portion of the roof collapsing but instead something else that outside and on the roof, maybe a clogged cutter finally hitting the overflow point.

Roof as floor

Roof as floor

Later in the morning, I was finishing my coffee and a chapter from a book I’m reading when all of sudden Joe came running down the stairs. It’s the weekend and him and I are the only ones in the Brick House and awake. From his upstairs studio, he had heard a noise outside in the strong wind that sounded out of the ordinary and when he looked out, noticed that the turkey pen he and Carolyn Grace Sherf had built was overturned by the wind and the small turkeys were walking around the yard. He raced out to make sure none of the birds were hurt or trapped and then he and I worked to flip it back over, heard the birds back in, and re-secure it using some heavy weight and few properly tied bowline knots. None of the birds escaped and once we cut some vents in the tarp roof to give some wind somewhere to go, the birds seemed perfectly safe and content.

Being connected to the soundscape of the farm is an important aspect of the work that is done here. I had a great conversation last night with Jordan Scheibel who runs a CSA garden from the Grin City farm called Middle Way Farm. During the open studio, he had tried on a set of my modified headphones made from hearing protection earmuffs. He told me a story about how when runs the till, it is incredibly loud and in order to reduce the risk of hearing damage from exposure, he wears earmuffs while using it. The other day, he was trying someone else to use it and let them use the earmuffs for their own comfort which provided him the chance to hear the machine running with open ears. “Holy shit that’s loud!” he said. He also realized just how much information was in that listening experience. He could better hear how the till was working and when it hit obstacles like glass or metal. He has no interest in operating this thing entirely without the use of hearing protection but the headphones that I created got him curious about other ways in which he might be able to mitigate the noise so that it is both less dangerous to his hearing yet maintains his connection to the sounds of the machine functioning.

Listening connects us to our environment. and provides information about what is happening around us. It warns of danger and provides us with pleasure. It lets us know if something is as it should be and can inform us if anything has gone wrong. Listening on the farm is a great experience for me as an agricultural tourist but last night and this morning reminded me that the necessary listening is as much functional as it is enlightening.

Audium: A theater of sound-sculpted space

1.12 Arrived in SF in time to see Audium, a 176 speaker sound-sculpture space

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.

Listening Instruments Workshop Booklet

Listening Instruments Workshop Booklet

on Flickr

A small booklet to go along with the workshop at Side Street Projects in Pasadena.

This is my way of replacing the introductory projected presentation since the workshop is off the grid.

Plus, I’m a big fan of Garnet Hertz’s workshop pamphlets.

Hunting vs Foraging

This is an important distinction for me.

There’s a lot of language about “hunting” in reference to field recording and capturing of sound. Even there, the use of the word “capture” leaves one with the sense that sounds are elusive and difficult to attain – which is true. Anyone who has spent time waiting for a sound to record can attest to the evasive sensed during the act of waiting, listening and anticipating. Even the naming of the shotgun microphone makes reference to the language of hunting and capture. The issue that I have with the idea of hunting lies in the result of the act. The act of hunting results in leaving something else fundamentally changed. In the case of animal, it is dead. Hunting is the act that leads to killed. (This is of course unless you grew where I did and hunting simply translates to drinking cheap beer in the woods. But let’s assume actual hunting.) Other things besides simply the capture of something are at play in the use of hunting language in field recording. There is the planning and preparation. The gear needs to be prepped and organized. The locations need to be scouted, mapped and selected in the hopes of best results. The timing needs to be just right to increase your chances of success. This means time of day and time of year but it also refers to the fact that enough time needs to be allotted for the task at hand. It is an act of patience, of waiting, and of anticipation. These are phases of the process that build up to the final act of collection.

The reference to hunting, stalking and tracking of sound is definitely accurate but there is another way to think about this activity. A relationship can also be drawn to search itself. A quest guided by insight, information and inspiration that leads to the investigation of a soundscape for what it has to offer. It still requires planning and preparation. The process most definitely involves patience and awareness. Instead of language about leaving something fundamentally changed that results from a hunted object, foraging provides the sense that it’s there for collection if it happens to be the thing that you are looking for. Foraging is about the search, the investigation. The open awareness to the surroundings in a connected and knowledgeable way that leads to the collection of material for later use. Like foraging for the ingredients of a soup. There for anyone with access to attain. Foraging provides a method of observation and collection with language that resides in the experiential knowledge of context and growth as apposed to the occupational or invasive violence associate with the climax of the final kill or capture. Noise foraging is the act of collecting otherwise unwanted sounds from the urban soundscape. What is traditionally blocked or ignored is instead scooped up for inclusion in different forms.

Mysterious Hums – Collective Listening

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.

Listening to Mysterious Hums

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.

All content ©2014 Alex Braidwood unless otherwise stated.

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