Music is just a subset of the sound of our lives. As I was thinking, at year’s end, about 2016 and compiling lists of favorite recordings, and movie/TV scores, and mobile apps, I found myself focusing as well on the various sonic milestones that had occurred in the preceding 12 months. The role of sound in daily life is the subject of my weekly(ish) This Week in Sound email newsletter, and I worked up this list of 20 milestones from 2016, ranging from outer space to the public domain, from religious loudspeakers to kitchen-table artificial intelligence, and from sound art to sky fracking:
(1) Introducing the CGI of Sound For the time being, the computer-generated presentation of humans remains largely a visual situation. The reception of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story shows that the Uncanny Valley between flesh-human and digital-human has yet to be reconciled. Meanwhile, a far deeper divide exists between the verbal sounds emitted by people and machines. There’s a reason that cartoons, computer-generated and otherwise, use voice actors: it’s hard to make a computer mellifluous. However, the underlying technology is improving. Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) this year announced that algorithms are paving the way for audio that passes the “Turing Test for sound.” Meanwhile, WaveNet (“a deep generative model of raw audio waveforms”) has shown how neural networks are rapidly improving test-to-speech (TTS) technology.Read: mit.edu, deepmind.com.
(2) Debunking the Silence of Space Space is no longer synonymous with endless silence. Every few months a space probe or monitoring system seems to adjust our understanding of the sonic properties and potential of the vacuum that is our universe. And it isn’t just contemporary research recordings that are informing our sense of space. Earlier this year NASA released audio recorded by the Apollo 10 crew back in 1969 (cnn.com). Looking ahead, in 2020 NASA will include microphones on the next Mars lander (jpl.nasa.gov).Read: theconversation.com.
(3) Steve Reich Turned 80 Mavericks sometimes have the opportunity to age into a world that resembles the one they had once inhabited alone. There may be no living composer of his generation with more reason to feel at home in the current creative climate — looped-based, pattern-oriented, technologically enabled, immersively audio-visual — than Steve Reich, the minimalist, who celebrated his 80th birthday in 2016. 2017 will, in an appropriately repetitive way, note the 80th of another major minimalist, Philip Glass. (Terry Riley turned 80 the year before Reich, and the year before that was Michael Nyman’s 70th.) Glass’ year kicks off with his collaboration with the team behind the Buddha Machine, who’ve made a small device containing loops of Glass’ music. Somewhere an industrious cultural institution is already planning a heap of centennials.Read: npr.org, nytimes.com.
(4) “Happy Birthday” Entered the Public Domain In a long and drawn out series of legal actions suitable to a Charles Dickens novel, the ubiquitous song of calendrical celebration finally entered the public domain, which among other things means that chain restaurants no longer need to devise their own in-house songs in order to avoid paying royalties. The song “Happy Birthday” didn’t transfer easily from the hands of Warner/Chappell Music; the publishing company had to pay a $14 million settlement. And the public domain party doesn’t end with “Happy Birthday.” Songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Your Land” are now being probed for similar treatment.Read: arstechnica.com, fortune.com, billboard.com.
(5) The U.S. Regulated Sound in Electric Cars In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ruled that electric cars must, like their internal-combustion predecessors, make noise sufficient for the safety of pedestrians. Sonic skeuomorphs such as the simulated SLR shutter sound of digital cameras are often dismissed as nostalgic cues, but sounds, especially sounds rooted deep in habit and culture, often have a utility, even if it wasn’t the initial purpose of a given object’s engineering or design. In the case of electric cars, the presence of sound isn’t about cultural legacy; it’s about safety.Read: cnet.com, nhtsa.gov.
(6) Peak Noise Pollution in India This list is self-admittedly largely western, and I’m always working to expand my sense of the role of sound in the world as a whole, both at a micro-cultural level (do read Gus Stadler’s piece at soundstudiesblog.com on cultural and racial assumptions in sound studies) and a global one. The main thing that I’ve found this year is that there may be no industrialized country with a greater concern about noise pollution than India (at least among countries with an active English-language news media).Read: indiatimes.com, newindianexpress.com, dnaindia.com. (Just a side note, the India Times’ Mumbai Mirror had an interesting story about ham radio operators — why are they always “buffs”? — noting “mystery signal transmissions”: indiatimes.com.)
(7) Muezzins’ Loudspeakers Faced Regulation Technology provided a spiritual culture clash around the world. Governments in India, Indonesia, Israel, and Nigeria, among other countries, sought to study and curtail the use of loudspeakers by mosques to broadcast the daily Muslim calls to prayer. Read: nytimes.com, independent.co.uk, theguardian.com, indiatimes.com, bbc.com.(Side notes: In the small Spanish town of Mostoles, a church faced a potential fine due to noisy bells: catholicherald.co.uk. And in England, the technological mediation of religion played out as St George the Martyr in Borough High Street had a technical issue that led to its bells running continuous through the night: standard.co.uk.)
(8) Amazon’s Alexa Altered the Meaning of “Home Audio” The question of what the term “home audio” means is going through a major shift. Historically it has referred to sound systems, such as living-room stereos, that allow for music playback. The arrival of always-listening technology — such as Amazon’s Echo and Alexa, which receive voice commands and reply in kind — suggest that the wired home will, perhaps, have microphones as well as speakers. Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, and other technologies are rising to the challenge. In short time, we may very well think of a home with high-quality audio as one where commands can be uttered anywhere, not just at the kitchen counter. The ramifications of such technology are coming rapildy into focus. At the very end of 2016, Arkansas police petitioned Amazon to release Echo data to help solve a murder case. The smarthome™ doesn’t just have ears. It has a memory. Read: engadget.com, cio.com.
(9) Los Angeles’ Transportation Department Employed Sound Artist Los Angeles is one of the automobile-intensive cities on the planet, and what the local government does to regulate that traffic can set models for other municipalities. If the hiring of sound artist Alan Nakagawa helps with L.A.’s citywide “Vision Zero” safety initiative, then we can expect sound experts to be of increased perceived utility. While transportation agencies often have artists in residence, the L.A. scenario isn’t just about exhibits and installations; it’s about the agency’s core mission. Read: lacity.org, scpr.org, outsideonline.com.
(10) Sonic Boom = Sky Fracking Triborough residents thought there was an earthquake. It turned out to be the result of a sonic boom, so loud that it wasn’t just heard but was registered by the US Geological Survey. The source was a Navy test of a F-35C stealth fighter. Perhaps “stealth” means disguised as a seismic event. In semi-related news, DARPA cancelled development of robot military dogs because the loud mechanisms were giving away positions. Read: gizmodo.com, nytimes.com, earthquake.usgs.gov, cnet.com, military.com.
An Additional 10 Sonic 2016 Milestones
(11) Earthquake researchers employ audio for advance notice (uaf.edu). • (12) Video game players dream sound effects (ntu.ac.uk). • (13) Caption studies got its own academic conference (wou.edu). • (14) Apple hardware began to ditch the audio jack (theglobeandmail.com). • (15) Apple ditched the laptop startup sound (theverge.com). • (16) Electric cars began to ditch AM radio (vice.com, bmwblog.com). • (17) A “fire suppression system” intended safekeep a Romanian bank’s data led to its destruction when the loud sound of gas canisters letting loose caused enough vibration to reportedly damage the bank’s hard drives (vice.com). • (18) The “hum” was debated (newrepublic.com, theguardian.com, bbc.com). • (19) Sonification went mainstream (google.com, economist.com). • (20) The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its first “strategy roadmap” for dealing with ocean noise (cetsound.noaa.gov, washingtonpost.com).
This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 3, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.