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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: video

The (Other) Helicopter Quartet

Aka Chrissie Caulfield, Michael Capstick, and a floor full of guitar pedals

This Helicopter Quartet isn’t four Stockhausen-annointed violinists in their own individual whirlybirds. This Helicopter Quartet is two musicians — Chrissie Caulfield on violin and Michael Capstick on guitar, and he appears to play a theremin app on a smartphone toward the end of this video — along with a floor full of guitar pedals. The pedals more than fill out the billing, though the duo together strive to eke out as subtle a space as possible. This piece is called “Quiet,” appropriate for a work that for all its myriad constituent parts sounds like one person working alone with a limited toolset, if not a limited palette. It’s all slow, arching tones, looped and layered, the seesaw of a slow lapping of water against a pier, the mood as calm as the deepest recesses of the night.

“Quiet” is a trial run toward a track from the Helicopter Quartet’s forthcoming album. Video originally posted at Chrissie Caulfield’s YouTube channel. It’s the latest piece I’ve added to my ongoing YouTube playlist of fine “Ambient Performances.” More from Caulfield at chrissieviolin.info. More from the Helicopter Quartet at helicopterquartet.bandcamp.com.

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Hear the Refurbished 1970s Bell Labs Alles Machine Synthesizer

In a 2016 performance by Oberlin TIMARA undergraduate Judy Jackson

Oberlin’s TIMARA school has exactly one video on its YouTube page, and it was uploaded this past week. What it shows is the early synthesizer the Alles Machine, named for Hal Alles, who built the instrument while at Bell Labs in the 1970s. Computer music pioneer Max Matthews also contributed to the Alles Machine’s development. The video is a performance from 2016 by TIMARA undergraduate Judy Jackson.

The Alles Machine has been in TIMARA’s collection since the early 1980s. This is from a TIMARA blog post on January 30, 2017: “[T]he instrument was donated to the TIMARA Department, although it was barely functioning and lay dormant till recently. TIMARA engineer, John Talbert, has repurposed the machine for future generations of TIMARA composers.” Talbert is one of the half dozen faculty at TIMARA, which stands for Technology in Music and Related Arts, and counts among its alumni the classical critic and composer Kyle Gann, electronic musician Bob Ostertag, and playful digital-media artist Cory Arcangel.

The original deployment of the Alles Machine involved a Digital Equipment Corporation’s LSI-11, a sibling of the PDP-11. An article from a 1983 publication of the International Computer Music Association by Talbert and his TIMARA colleague Gary Nelson describes (see: umich.edu) how Max Matthews visited Oberlin during the 1979-1980 school year, and that led to the TIMARA acquisition of the Alles Machine. Nelson and Talbert traveled to Bell Labs in June 1980: “After several weeks of asking questions and taking notes,” they write, “we gathered up technical documentation, circuit diagrams, and the machine itself and headed back to Ohio to begin a challenging but rewarding period of what the seal of Oberlin College calls ‘learning and labor.'” (And if you want to go wayback, here’s a PDF of the 1979 PDP-11 Processor Handbook.)

It’s unclear when and for how long the Alles was mothballed, presumably decades, but a 2016 document from Talbert, linked to from the TIMARA site, details how the Alles Machine was recently disconnected from the antiquated LSI-11 and now functions thanks to a Mac Mini (“loaded with programs such such as the MPIDE Programming Environment, Max/MSP and Steim’s junXion”). Here’s a shot of the Max/MSP interface:

Jackson is a senior at Oberlin, where she is pursuing dual majors, one of them in computer science, the other at TIMARA. Her performance with the refurbished Alles Machine opens with brittle static, the white noise of a failing radio signal from which slowly emerges random, more softly tonal elements, which in turn give way to a warping sing wave. Jackson proceeds to work with these elements, eventually ushering in ever more raucous waveforms. It may be my imagination, but she appears to have opted for an outfit that resembles the one worn by Laurie Spiegel in this widely viewed video of a 1977 Alles Machine performance:

The Judy Jackson performance on the Alles Machine also appears on TIMARA’s Vimeo channel. More on TIMARA at timara.oberlin.edu. More from Jackson at soundcloud.com/judy-jackson118.

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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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Marcus Fischer Live in His Home Studio

A video shot last fall in Portland, Oregon

Marcus Fischer is currently participating in an artist residency at the Rauschenberg Foundation on Captiva Island off the Florida coast. His Instagram feed is filling up with images and brief videos captured during his time there: Sugimoto-like pictures of the sea and a studio as white as a Rauschenberg painting. He’s suspending tape loops from the ceiling and quoting his fellow residents about the changes afoot in American politics.

The Instagram materials constitute beautiful slivers of his goings-on, but fortunately Datachoir is filling the void with a 17-minute video of Fischer alone in his Portland, Oregon, home studio — one continuous solo performance for electric guitar, synthesizer, pine cones, and other tools. The constituent parts are far more than the sum total of the sounds. He takes near-silent textures and generates light dustings from them. He strokes the guitar once, and then transforms the chord into something muted yet majestic. And while he plays, the videographer tours his studio, focusing in on his instruments, on a matrix routers and additional guitars, on cabling and boxes of spare parts.

I’ve worked on several projects with Fischer myself, and I recall an instance where someone we were newly working with asked what his primary instrument is. I struggled to explain there wasn’t a single focus of his music-making imagination. That studio is his instrument, and watching him employ it at length is a true pleasure.

It’s on the Datachoir Sounds YouTube channel. I’ve added it to my playlist of longform ambient performances. More from Fischer at mapmap.ch and marcus-fischer.bandcamp.com. Previous Datachoir videos have featured Summer Mastous, Nate Dalton, and Jeremiah Green, among others.

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“Avril 14th” from Above

A rendition by Josh Cohen

Back on January 14 I wrote about the Australian pianist Josh Cohen’s fantastic cover of Aphex Twin’s “Aisatasana,” the quiet closing track from the 2014 album Syro. Cohen captured not only the understated melody, but the way distinct silences frame and bisect that melody. Now he has put his nimble hands to a far more famous Aphex Twin piano work, “Avril 14th.” It’s a beautiful rendition, paced appropriately, to neither bliss it out nor rev it up. Cohen’s version hints at Erik Satie’s proto-minimalism as much as it does at mid-century (that is, mid-1900s) popular music. It’s parlor music: nostalgic, personal, touching. The real pleasure of the performance is the presentation. Like all of Cohen’s videos, it’s shot from above, his hands in full view, each of them playing its distinct part, the left doing its routinized duty while the right edges at various roles.

Video originally posted at Cohen’s YouTube page. More from him at joshcohenmusic.com. Cohen lives in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia.

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