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News, essays, reviews, surveillance

What Sound Looks Like

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt


It’s been raining in the city. It’s been raining hard on and off for weeks. It’s been raining, and the wind has been knocking down trees. In certain neighborhoods the intense buzz of the chainsaw has become as common a sound as one imagines it to be in rural areas, or in horror movies for that matter. Construction sites in this boomtown have been forced to take days off. Repair vehicles are a frequent block to traffic. People are expressing, albeit in diplomatically hushed tones, that they miss the drought. The rain and wind do their fair share of damage, and of cleansing. The city streets shine at night. The reflection of bus taillights on soaked black tarmac casts red streaks the length of full blocks. Perhaps the elements are to blame, as well, for this blank slate of a doorbell. It’s quite common for dwellings to be marked at multi-unit entries with thick pens, or with little plastic tags affixed by tape. Maybe the rain washed it all away. Though, judging by the uniformity of the buttons, the prim white grid, this is more likely a fresh install. Supporting the impression is the bright grey of the faceplate, and the barren cavity where there might in the future be a doorknob. What visitors are supposed to do in advance of the association of buttons with apartments is an open question. It’s also difficult to imagine how the labels will fit in this design. The spacing is tight. The sense of a geometric grid will diminish should the numbers be placed below or beside each button. Should they be written on the buttons, they’ll be worn away by usage, by friction and sweat. No doubt the landlord is waiting for the inclement weather to pass before labeling the buttons. Soon enough the rain will end, or at least take an extended pause. And then, almost certainly, the implementation of mundane visual damage will begin.

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt.
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Naming a Disquiet.com Podcast

Asking for input

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This Week in Sound: Sonic Civil Rights +

+ universal natality + doorbell financing +

A lightly annotated clipping service.

Sonic Defense: There’s a lawsuit underway in New York City bringing to the fore the legality of sound weapons, in particular the Long Range Acoustical Device (see lradx.com) and whether it is a threat to civil rights. John Riley’s Newsday article appears at (policeone.com), reporting on bystander complaints and the city’s argument in favor of the technology.

Natal Communication: Further evidence appears in Nature’s Scientific Reports of universal commonality of non-verbal vocal sounds among human infants. This study is focused on the interpretations of infant sounds by adult parents and non-parents from varied geographic and cultural backgrounds. The research is by Verena Kersken, Klaus Zuberbühler, and Juan-Carlos Gomez.

Doorbell Bubble: Ring — formerly known as Doorbot — has raised over $100 million in new funding to further its next generation doorbell technology. In unrelated news, I’m typing this on a computer connected to the Internet via my cellphone because the ISP that provides Internet access to my home is currently experiencing an on and off DDoS attack. (Via Jared Smith.)

Home Front: Meanwhile, at reuters.com, Stephen Nellis reports on domestic fault lines in the competition between Amazon and Apple in particular for “smart home” technology dominance. The philosophical differences between the companies shouldn’t be much of a surprise: “Amazon is pursuing an open-systems approach that allows quick development of many features, while Apple is taking a slower route, asserting more control over the technology in order to assure security and ease-of-use.” According to Nellis, there are roughly 250 devices “certified to work” with Amazon’s Alexa, and less than half that for Apple.

To Surveil Man: David Beer at medium.com uses The Conversation to push discussion of prevailing forms of everyday surveillance, touching on familiar aspects like social-network snooping and always-listening consumer product devices, and reporting on this: worker badges that, in a story from Chris Weller last year in businessinsider.com, “watch and listen to their every move.” (Via George Kelly.)

What “HNOP” Means: As I’ve mentioned recently, no English-prevalent country seems to have more conspicuous concerns about noise pollution than does India. Someone at Uber took note of this, and is using noise activism to promote the company’s “ridesharing” service, reports dnaindia.com: “Uber India has tied up with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)’s youth wing, Yi, to promote anti-honking.” This is part of HNOP, which stands for “Horn Not OK Please.” January 25 was HNOP Day across India.

Tune Beyond: Forgive me if this is the “microdosing” straw post that breaks your newsfeed back, but Amy Maxmen reports on LSD studies at Nature, with an emphasis on how participants respond to music. Perhaps the best sentence: “Free jazz elicited substantial emotions only in those who had taken LSD without ketanserin.”

More Eno(ugh): This may devolve into he said, he said between the producer and his interviewer, but Eno has clarified his comments, mentioned here last week, in a Guardian interview. Less reported were statements Eno made to flaunt.com the week prior. Eno made his Guardian comment on his facebook.com page. … Reggie Ugqu at buzzfeed.com shined a spotlight on the music favored by young fascists — feel free to Google it if you want (found via Robin James). … And Josh King, who was the White House director of production for presidential events from 1993 to 1997, reports in detail at theverge.com on the sizable new microphone that employed by the newly sitting U.S. president: “On Inauguration Day, another transition was complete. The trusty, time-honored two-mic rig of Shure SM57s on the presidential lectern was out. The Long Neck Era had begun.” … Bandcamp is donating 100% of its share of sales on February 3 (“starting at 12:01am Pacific Time”) to the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s also highlighting music from countries at the center of current U.S. presidential action regarding travel and immigration, including Mexico, Somalia, and Yemen (bandcamp.com).

Download Lowdown: Keith Helt is doing research into the culture of netlabels, which are online labels that generally release their music for free download, with the permission and participation of the musicians they release. His Netlabel Interview Project is collecting the perspectives of the proprietors of various netlabels, including the superb Absence of Wax, Dusted Wax Kingdom, Impulsive Habitat, Vuzh Music, and Webbed Hand.

How the Turntable Turns: The vinyl revival means the revival of turntable technology. The most prominent recent addition to home consoles is the new Technics 1200. Now there is Yves Béhar’s “intelligent turntable,” which looks like the sort of thing your grandmother used to use to pull crumbs off the table after dinner, and connects your vinyl collection with your phone — via designboom.com. What this means, among other things, is that the object can deduce how many tracks are on an album and let you move between them. … In related news, a company called Viryl Technologies is introducing a new manner of vinyl pressing, reports Jon Fingas at engadget.com.

Listen to Many: Iain Emsley and David De Roure at jtei.revues.org describe how to apply sonification techniques to literature, using Hamlet as their focus — in particular to highlight variations between texts: “Playing a synchronized audio stream per text in each ear helps the listener’s brain to hear any subtle differences between two versions through use of binaural transmission.”

# Doorbell Tale: Ghost Button

Below is a lightly edited email I received about a home doorbell. I received this via email from an old friend, Daniel Miller, whom I’ve known since junior high school. His home on Long Island, outside New York City, was significantly upgraded over the past year. I posted a photo of his home’s side doorbell 27 weeks ago, according to Instagram, when it was still under construction. At the time, he told me he’d report back when the doorbell work was completed.

Marc,

You asked me to let you know what was happening with my doorbell. I thought I’d wait until this was resolved and give you a complete report. However that still hasn’t happened. I am sorry I have left you hanging for so long. I’ll start from the beginning. The doorbell wasn’t working. A doorbell consists of a button that is wired to a chime. We were told we had to buy a new chime as our old one was destroyed during demolition. We bought a lovely unit that can be hardwired or can work wirelessly. It still didn’t work. The contractor said we had bought a 120v unit and that a low-voltage unit was required. A little (very little) research was done and not only did we have a low-voltage unit, but there is no other kind. Basically what happened was they forgot to keep the doorbell wiring in the wall during construction, and now that everything is sealed up and insulation is in the walls, reinstalling it is out of the question. So by stealing a part from the doorbell button we bought for the side door, they were able to get our front doorbell working wirelessly. However it sometimes chimes for apparently no reason. It happened often enough that we noticed that there was a reason: The neighbor across the street opening the trunk of her car. The saga continues.

Daniel

If you have a doorbell story, or photo, to share with me, please do. I won’t share it further without your permission.

# Fade Out

Recent deaths of note.

RIP, drummer Butch Trucks (b. 1947), founding member of the Allman Brothers Band

RIP, Black Sabbath keyboardist Geoff Nicholls (b. 1948)

RIP, Henry-Louis de La Grange (b. 1924), Mahler scholar

RIP, reggae singer Ronnie Davis (b. 1950), member of the Tennors and the Itals

RIP, Chuck Stewart (1927), prolific photographer for jazz album covers

RIP, Gil Ray (b. 1956), of Game Theory and the Loud Family

RIP, early electronic music composer Richard Allan (or is it Allen?) “Dick” Robinson (93)

RIP, composer Philip Cannon (b. 1929)

RIP, film sound figure Richard Portman (b. 1934), worked on Star Wars, Harold and Maude, Paper Moon

RIP, Kraken leader and Columbian rock musician Elkin Ramírez (54)

RIP, video artist and Miami Beach arts figure Charles Recher (66)

RIP, John Wetton (b. 1949), singer for Asia, King Crimson

RIP, Masaya Nakamura (b. 1925), founder of Namco (Pac Man, Galaxian, Tekken)

RIP, James Laurence (27), half of hip-hop production duo Friendzone

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the February 1, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Brackets Frame the Sound

What captions leave out

The brackets frame the sound. The brackets appear in subtitles to online videos. You select the subtitle option because you have no knowledge of Japanese or of Persian or of Polish, or because the actors’ British accents are simply too thick for your American ears, even in contemporary police dramas devoid of period linguistic idiosyncrasies, or because you’re keeping the volume down so as not to antagonize the neighbors.

Bracketed sounds can be diegetic or non-diegetic. That is to say, they can be on-screen sounds, like the squeak of a car’s break, or they can be apart from the scene’s physical activity, like the score’s musical theme associated with the entrance of a threatening anti-hero. Either way, bracketed sounds are not dialogue. Dialogue appears unadorned by brackets. Dialogue appears simply as text on the screen, occasionally preceded by a character’s name and a colon to provide narrative guidance. The only dialogue that gets bracketed is dialogue that serves a purely non-verbal purpose, dialogue that cannot be comprehended, dialogue that isn’t dialogue but is, instead, emotive sound: [mumbling], [whispers], [unintelligible sobbing].

Brackets tell you what the director is saying, not what the characters are saying. Brackets, however, are not decoder rings. They only go so far as to what they divulge. The brackets don’t explain the British class system to you. There’s no reference for an American viewer when the cut-glass enunciation is meant to signify a specific upbringing, or when regional utterances, from Cornwall to Glasgow, easily set the British viewer’s imagination while leaving unknown voids for those of us who haven’t lived in the culturally prolific island kingdom, or in one of its more longstanding colonies.

So much happens in a given moment of video, even a “silent” one, which is to say: a moment free of human speech but still intruded upon by sound. Only so much can be detailed between brackets. What’s left out is worth taking note of.

These two screenshots, by way of example, are from different episodes from the TV show Travelers, a solid time-travel series newly streaming on Netflix and created by Brad Wright. (If you are a fan of time travel stories, as I am, Travelers is at least as recommended as Continuum, with which it shares actors if not a timeline, and 12 Monkeys.) In both shots birds are, we’re told, chirping. It may or may not be meaningful that both shots focus on the same character, named Trevor, who, at the risk of giving too much plot away, is something of an old soul. Both shots are at the start of a new scene. In the first, Trevor is riding his bicycle home. In the second he is teaching meditation to its mostly unlikely novitiate, his mean-girl girlfriend. In the first, what’s missing from the bracket is the score’s drone, the sense of dread infused into the scene with just a few threatening sine waves. Perhaps the meditation scene, which appears later in the series, intends to reference the earlier one by presenting the birds free of their droning encumbrance. The hearing-impaired viewer will never know the difference, and the everyday viewer is left to wonder.

There is, true, only so much room on the bottom of the screen. More than a line of text is inelegant, and reading time might surpass a given sound’s appearance if the text’s overseer is inattentive to the chores at hand. Still, editorial decision-making only goes so far as an excuse for contextual excision.

What both sets of chirping birds have in common is that they are almost certainly sonic elements added from a library of recordings to flesh out the given scene during post-production. In other words, one might surmise, the bracketed sounds in a film or TV show aren’t what are “in” the scene so much as what was added to the scene.

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 31, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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What Sound Looks Like

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt


What fireworks look like, after the fact. Lunar New Year celebrations here in San Francisco have their share of noise, from bursts of fireworks at random moments day and night, to the loud drumming of Chinese New Year dragons. The dragons, actually small crews of men and women in a lengthy collective outfit, bring wishes of good fortune to neighborhood businesses, and provide teachable performances about diversity at elementary schools. The fireworks sound is itself generic, a modest martial ratatatat that suggests a confined gun battle. What marks the fireworks culturally is the detritus, the red paper strewn on sidewalks a visual echo of the annual clamor.

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt.
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