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

Monthly Archives: March 2008

148-Year-Old Phonautogram MP3

It seems almost silly to point, prominently, from a small site to a large one, especially from a site as focused as this one to something as massive as the New York Times. But for anyone who missed the front-page report yesterday about the discovery of an audio recording that’s 148 years old, here’s the story. A full 17 years before Thomas Edison recorded himself reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” a French inventor made his own recording of “Au Clair de la Lune.” This was only recently discovered in what the Times aptly describes as an act of “audio excavation.” The tinkerer’s name was Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, and his device, pictured below, courtesy of the Times, is called the phonautogram.

The device had been known to students of recording history, but what hadn’t been known was the existence of an actual recording the phonautogram had succeeded in making.

The Times story, written by Jody Rosen, explains:

Scott’s device had a barrel-shaped horn attached to a stylus, which etched sound waves onto sheets of paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The recordings were not intended for listening; the idea of audio playback had not been conceived. Rather, Scott sought to create a paper record of human speech that could later be deciphered.
I don’t believe that the phonautogram is mentioned in the essay “The Life and Death of Media” by Bruce Sterling in the forthcoming MIT book Sound Unbound, edited by DJ Spooky, but Sterling’s piece provides good background in what could perhaps best be described as the Betamaxes of history. Sterling, who directs the Dead Media Project with science fiction writer Richard Kadrey, lists other semi-forgotten audio endeavors, including “Gaumont’s chronophone, the synchronoscope, the movietone, phonofilm, the graphophonoscope, the vitaphone” and various other fantastic product lines that few if any spell-checking software programs today would recognize.

By coincidence, I had lunch with Kadrey yesterday. Asked about the discovery he replied,

Martinville’s genius wasn’t that he made his “phonautograph” to record sound; it was that he made it for us. Like the Voyager space probe, which was launched into deep space with a gold disc of earth images and sounds, the voice Martinville captured on his paper recording wasn’t for 19th century Frenchmen, but for the aliens who, one day in the future, would find and decipher his message.

Good news, Édouard. The aliens got it. Thanks.

The Times has posted an 11-second audio of the recording (MP3). Its sound is muffled enough to be considerably less legible than the visage in the Shroud of Turin. What’s especially interesting is the nature of the noise that muddies the original signal. It sounds very much like the static that results from wind rushing against a microphone — even though the process of converting the phonautogram from, as the paper describes it, “squiggles on paper to sound” was done without any actual acoustic machinery. Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley used visual scanning equipment to achieve the results. Pictured here, also courtesy of the paper, is historian David Giovannoni holding a phonautogram:

Get the full story, dateline 1860, at nytimes.com.

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Paul Slocum’s Rockin’ Dot Matrix MP3

The dot matrix printer may have beat the fax machine to the recycle bin of history, but both have something in common: an unintentionally musical quality to their audio output. For the latter it’s that telecom handshake, that mashed-data noise of two communication systems finding some common technological ground. For the former, it’s that steady stream of bristling, rat-a-tat sound that accompanied the rapid deployment of blocky letters on a perforated scroll of paper.

The word is “accompanied,” past tense, because the dot matrix printer is at this point something one rarely if ever witnesses, except perhaps in particularly depressed car-rental franchises … and in art galleries. Earlier this week I mentioned Paul Slocum‘s art project that uses a dot matrix printer to intentionally make music (disquiet.com). It was shown as part of the Sound Device exhibit that ran throughout March at the gallery Root Division in San Francisco. The result of this ingenious tinkering is fuzzier than Dave Davies at his most heavy metal, and more pizzicato than Yngwie Malmsteen in even his most extroverted, math-rock mode, judging by the sample that Slocum has posted (MP3). There’s detailed information about the three stages of development of the printer project at his website, qotile.net.

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PB8’s Music from Sleeping MP3

If the work by artist PB8 mentioned in yesterday’s entry on the recent Sound Device exhibit (disquiet.com) emphasized physicality and interaction, the recording of “Close to Silence I” on his website (pb8.lt) embraces exactly the opposite. A solid example of procedural composition, it is a piece of music in which the musician focused his creative energies on his own absence, or near-absence.

The sounds on “Close to Silence I” are jittery, scratchy noises — as if a mouse were heard cautiously navigating the space just below the floorboards. In fact, those sounds are recordings of PB8 himself sleeping, with all the true silences edited out, resulting in a nearly nine-minute-long recording of jerky, unintentional gestures, a candid aural snapshot of a musician caught deep in REM state (MP3). They are, in other words, the sounds of the composer’s body instinctively reacting to his mind navigating the space just below his consciousness.

Here’s a segment of PB8’s description of the work, from his website:

I tried to stay close to silence. I connected wooden platform with contact microphones to MaxMSP program and slept on it. So I recorded the sounds of my movements during the sleeping time and later on deleted the silent moments in-between. This allowed me to delete my ego absolutely like an artist who is creating sounds, because there couldn’t be planned intervention while sleeping.
More info on PB8, a 25-year-old Lithuanian sound artist, at his elegantly designed, bilingual website, pb8.lt.

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Sound Device Exhibit @ Root Division (San Francisco)

The gallery Root Division in San Francisco exhibited a group show of sound art, titled Sound Device, for a short time, from March 5 – 22, ending this past Saturday. I made the opening night reception, but didn’t have an opportunity to return before the exhibit shut down. I do have photos I shot that first evening, though. As with much sonic art, the works in the show tended toward the quiet, and thus experiencing the individual pieces in a packed room wasn’t the best way to appreciate them. But here’s a visual record of some of the entries, and a few observations.

At a stand that resembled Lucy’s therapy set-up in the comic strip Peanuts, Rafael Canedo made compositions on a beat box based on people’s work schedules, as delineated on time cards that the individuals completed. The performance was titled “Rhythm Life Symphony…Musical Taylorism”:

Also turning the workplace into an engine for creativity, “Dot Matrix 3.0” by Paul Slocum was an outmoded printer that makes music. Was it McLuhan who said that past technology becomes art? As the sign reads, push buttons to rock out:

Elinor J. Domol Diamond‘s “Music Box I: As Heard by the American Guild of Music, 1993” riddled some sheet music by Mozart and illuminated it from behind. The work — his Sonata in A major, K.331 — looked like it had been hit by one of William S. Burroughs’s shotguns, or run through one of Conlon Nancarrow’s player pianos:

Jeff Ray‘s “Pipe Organ / Forest” filled a corner of the room, and for opening night he performed on it by controlling the pipes with his laptop:

Luciana Ohira Kawassaki and Sergio de Moraes Bonilha Filho‘s “M.M.M.O. Minimum/Maximum Multidimensional Occupation” stretched audio tape the length of two walls and wound it through a reel-to-reel machine; the result added a visual fragility to the sound. It also brought to mind the techniques employed by early hip-hop producers to achieve their desired loops:

Two circular mats connected to an upturned cardboard box, “Collective Instrument” by PB8, allowed participants to, fairly instinctively, create collaborative, beat-based music. Stepping on the black circles in the center started and stopped loops, while the outer circles were amplified thanks to contact microphones:

Sound Device was exhibit was curated by Annie Yalon, Scott Kiernan and Deric Carner. Other artists involved included Jacqueline Gordon, Robert Jackson Harrington, Candice Jacobs, Katrina Lamb, Nina Petrochko & Paris Mancini, and Roddy Schrock. More info at rootdivision.org.

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EA Laptop Quintet Live MP3

The group EA has more computer equipment than do many Silicon Valley startups. Despite which, they rummage amid some of the most lo-fi sounds around: radio static, synthesized vocals, field recordings, and nearly sub-aural bass rumbles.

EA consists of André Gonçalves (laptop), Andy Graydon (laptop), Ben Owen (laptop, objects), Gill Arno (laptop, objects, FM radio), and Richard Garet (laptop) — and as heard on a recent con-v.org single, balancing act with controlled dynamics: take two, they venture in unison from one zone to the next, from textural delicacy to white noise to blurpy near-melodies (MP3). The individual segments have seemingly little in common; the point of balancing act, true to the title, is how the group moves naturally between the varied sonic environments. The performance, presented here as one 30-minute track, was recorded in December 2006 in Fotòfono in Brooklyn.

The previous balancing act (take one) was released earlier this year on the label Winds Measure (windsmeasurerecordings.net). The music is available for purchase, but a downloadable set of files includes essays by several members of EA, the time-keeping software they employed, and this image of the concise visual score by Gil Sanson:

Writes Sanson his essay:
The main idea was to to produce a free music with a clear structure of limitations aiming at generating a complex sound organism with distinctive features adressing the relation between sound and silence. The score outlines the temporal and dynamic forms, using John Cage’s definition of form as “the morphology of continuity”, from his lecture “composition as a process”. Long periods of silence are integral to the music, as well as a sound-silence ratio favourable to the low dynamic range: the performer is placed in the situation of “buying” with silence his choice of sounds. As a result, loud sounds become throughly meditated, having a clear sense of purpose.
More details on EA at ruccas.org.

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