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

tag: brands of sounds

Sound Course, Week 2 of 15

A Brief History of Listening

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Each week I summarize the lecture and discussion from my course on the role of sound in the media landscape. In cases where I’ve already documented the discussion fairly thoroughly, as with week two, I’ll link to the full summary, and do a more concise one here.

The second week of sound class is the first full lecture, the first week of sound class having been a combination of an extensive overview of the syllabus and a compacted run through the use of music in the work of JJ Abrams, from the “un-theme” of Lost’s opening credits to the highly “originalist”(“ur-theme”) adherence to John Williams’ modus operandi in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The second week’s lecture takes a long view. Titled A Brief History of Listening, it covers in less than three hours about 200,000 some odd years of human development, physiologically (the development of hearing and speech), technologically (from homing pigeons to moveable type to recorded sound), and culturally. The latter bit, the cultural facet, focuses on two subjects. The first discussion is about how Socrates’s anxiety regarding the move from oral to written culture can be mapped to contemporary concerns about transitioning into a digital world. The second discussion is on John Cage’s 4’33”, about the work’s conception and reception, about the idea of an anechoic chamber, and about the way Cage connects, in his book Silence, the ideas inherent in 4’33”beyond music to architecture and sculpture.

As I state occasionally in the early weeks of this course, I’m not trying to convert students to work in sound full time. I don’t need a single student ever to decide to go into sound design or sound engineering to feel that I’ve accomplished something. Quite the contrary, I’m trying to develop sleeper agents who will bring a creative conscientiousness in regard to sound to whatever field they choose to pursue — art direction, design, and so forth.

The big challenge early on in the course is shepherding the students’ off-site work, specifically in the sound journals they’re required to maintain, four days a week, for the full length of the course. For the first entries I ask that they simply list the sounds around them. Inevitably these come back not as sounds but as sources of sounds: door, not door creaking; fan, not fan whirring; baby, not baby cooing. Moving from source to sound, from sound to description, from description to meaning is where we’re headed. It can be painstaking, but learning about sound is like learning a language or achieving a significant improvement in an athletic pursuit. It’s all about dedication and persistence. It’s about practice.

Today’s class (week 3, more on which in next week’s This Week in Sound newsletter) narrowed the scope: last week was 200,000 years; this week was just about 100 years, as the subject was the role of sound in film and television. The timing of today’s class may have been fairly timely, because I was just approached by an organization to give a talk about the past and future of sound in film, and I’m now piecing together an approach for the talk. Here’s a first-draft summary:

Eyes are forgiving, ears less so. Eyes want to be seduced. Ears are sensitive to incongruity, discontinuity, artifice. How can sound reinforce narrative? How can sound be narrative? How can sound design serve as score? We’ll explore the past and the technologically enabled promise of film sound.

And, yeah, when I say “promise” I’m using alliteration as a way to get out of saying “future.” More on this as it comes together.

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the February 17, 2016 (it went out a day late), edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound”email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Sound Course, Week 1 (of 15)

Listening to media

February 3 was the first class meeting for the new semester of the course I’ve been teaching for several years now about the role of sound in the media landscape. Taking off last semester turned out to be unfortunate timing, due to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. See, my opening lecture each semester has focused in some detail on the role of music in the films and television of J.J. Abrams, from the various tweaks on Fringe‘s theme, to the virtual non-theme of Lost’s opening credits, to his decision to employ a new theme for Star Trek, to his teasing extenuation of the Mission: Impossible theme in the film in that franchise he directed.

Abrams is so prolific in his directing and his producing that there has, each semester, been a new project to tag onto the sequence, sometimes to even include as homework viewing. After Abrams was announced as the head of the new, Disney-era Star Wars films, my lectures began to speculate what Abrams’ take on John Williams’ score would be. We now know, of course, that like the film itself, he has opted for an originalist scenario, going back to the first trilogy (that is, the “Luke trilogy” not the “Anakin trilogy”) and building on that framework.

There’s some notable sound design in the new film. The intense daymare experienced by Rey in the forest on Takodana has gotten a lot of attention for how, among other things, it manages to include the late Alec Guinness saying the character’s name by snipping a syllable from another word — all the more potently, the word “Rey” was culled from is “afraid,” very much Rey’s state of mind in that sequence. More impressive, or at least less fleeting, was the audible breath of Darth Vader heard when the camera shows that his grandson, Kylo Ren, maintains a shrine of Vader’s melted mask.

The class will proceed weekly through May 18, aside from spring break on March 23. I won’t be summing up all the early lectures each week, because I’ve already documented them fairly well, but I’ll link to the previous summaries here (week one), and make note of any new developments. I have been lining up some great guests, including a technology lead from a major streaming service and a curator at a major art institution.

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the February 9, 2016, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound”email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Teaching Sound / Spring 2016

I'll be doing my sound course in San Francisco for 15 weeks starting February 3.

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I’ll be teaching my course on “the role of sound in the media landscape” — aka “Sounds of Brands / Brands of Sounds” — again this coming spring 2016 at the Academy of Art here in San Francisco.

The semester runs from February 1, 2016, through May 21, 2016. The class meets on Wednesdays from noon to 2:50pm, which means the first class meeting is February 3 and the final class meeting will be on May 18. There’s no class on March 23, which is spring break, for which I’ll probably assign a close-listening analysis of Cliff Martinez’s work on the score to Spring Breakers. Just kidding. Well, maybe not kidding.

Last semester we had one of the heads of the Mutek festival (Patti Schmidt) address the class, as well as someone from the software developer Cycling ’74 and someone from Facebook’s virtual-reality team, among others. The previous semester we had someone from BitTorrent and someone from SoundCloud, and we took a field trip to an anechoic chamber at the local research lab of an audio company. The guest speakers aren’t generally lecturers; I usually interview them in front of the students, who also ask questions. The semester prior both the sound artist Robin Rimbaud (Scanner) and the voice actor Phil LaMarr (Samurai Jack, Static Shock) visited via Skype.

Here’s the course outline from last year:

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I teach the course to a mix of MFA and BA students. This is the seventh semester that I’ve taught the course, after taking off last semester with the intention of teaching it once a year rather than twice a year, to leave room for loads of other projects.

You can read summaries and documentation from past semesters using the “brands of sounds” and “sounds of brands” tags here at Disquiet.com.

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Two More Listeners

A recording engineer and a sound artist discuss making listening heard.

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Earlier this week I posted responses I’d made to a series of questions about listening posed by Steve Ashby, who teaches music at Virginia Commonwealth University. Two more people have replied to Ashby’s questions, and I wanted to share segments of their thoughts here, both of them responding to the fourth, and core, question in Ashby’s survey: “How does one make their listening listened to?”

This is Bryan Walthall, a recording and mastering engineer who runs Stereo Image in Richmond, Virginia:

my perception of the way music sounds has changed greatly over the past 15 years. my favorite records when i was a kid (hendrix, nirvana) sound completely different! sometimes it breaks my heart because they don’t have the exact same magic they did when i was younger. its as if my “suspension of reality”has been diminished because I’ve seen the sausage being made for 15 years. for the most part they still evoke the same emotional response, but it has been diminished. i hear things completely different now, because i know how they were achieved. thats good for me making records, but the kid in me gets a little bummed sometimes that i can’t just listen to the song, i have to “hear the drums”or “know thats a plate and not a spring”or that “thats obviously a vocal double.”

This is the sound artist Stephen Vitiello. Up top is an image of visitors to one of his sound installations:

I mostly hope to achieve this in installation environments. Setting lighting in a space, comfortable seating, establishing a volume level and a speaker system that works well with the material are all important. Also, removing or minimizing visual distractions is vital ”“ so that it is clear that in the work I’m presenting, sound is primary and not secondary to any sort of visual content. As I re-read these responses, it seems I’m hoping to create a space for the installations that goes back to what I used to create for myself when listening to a new record for the first time.

Ashby is archiving the responses at his ashbysounds.com website, and on his syllabus page at VCU’s rampages.us site.

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In the Province of Real Time Electronica

MUTEK’s Patti Schmidt on how Jurassic Park helped birth — and how emphasis on scenography and human scale helps sustain — the music festival

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The following interview is with Patti Schmidt, a longtime programmer for the MUTEK festival in Montréal, Canada. The interview took place during the final class session of the spring 2015 semester of the class that I teach about the role of sound in the media landscape at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Schmidt joined us via Skype.

I frequently invite professionals — musicians, startup representatives, coders, sound designers, publicists — to speak in my class. Rather than ask the guests to prepare a presentation, I interview them in front of the class, and then have the students themselves ask questions. This is a lightly edited transcript of Schmidt’s appearance in class. The interview took place on Wednesday, May 13, 2015, just before the 16th annual MUTEK festival, which ran from May 27 through May 31.

Marc Weidenbaum: First thanks, Patti. I’d like to introduce Patti to the class. This is Patti Schmidt from MUTEK. She’s going be talking with us today via Skype.

Patti, these are the students in the sound class I teach here at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. The class is about the role of sound in the media landscape. This last five or six weeks, we’ve been focused on what we call “brands of sounds,”which is how things related to sounds “brand”themselves, how they express themselves in the marketplace. That followed six or seven weeks on the opposite subject, which was “sounds of brands,”about how things — objects, organizations, services — use sound to make an impression.

I tend to end each semester talking about music, and often I’ll have a music publicist come and talk about the challenges of the past 10 years as the record industry has changed, how streaming and other changes in the music and recording industries have shifted their attentions and skills and so forth.

Patti’s speaking with us in class actually began as the result of an interaction with someone in music PR, who reached out to me to ask if I’d be interested in writing an article somewhere about MUTEK, or cover the festival in some way. I replied that I don’t really cover festivals much. Then I suggested we do this, which is have Patti address the class in the form of a live interview, which I’d then edit and post at Disquiet.com, and the MUTEK publicist was enthusiastic about the approach. Patti, could you start just by talking to the class a bit about what MUTEK is and a bit about what you do there.

Patti Schmidt: MUTEK is an electronic music and digital creativity festival having its 16th edition this year. It started in Montréal in the year 2000. The director of MUTEK’s name is Alain Mongeau, and in the mid-’90s he was the president something called ISEA, an electronic arts organization that’s based in the Netherlands. ISEA was one of the first international organizations to really become concerned with the role of digital media and digital sound and digital art. So, he helped host the 1995 edition of ISEA here in Montréal, and his idea was that Montréal is a very unique and weird city in North America because there’s been all kinds of technology leading industries and arts here. The video game industry, Ubisoft [a French company], is based here; Soft Image, which was responsible for Jurassic Park, and all these very early special effects, was based here; and Cirque du Soleil, all this stuff. There are a lot of big spectacle, innovative, tech things that have come out of this province — that you would think might otherwise be isolated because of language, because French is the first language that is spoken here. But somehow through technology and technologically driven art and spectacle, including electronic music, Montréal has sort of distinguished itself in the world. Alain helped start a venue here in Montréal called the Society for Art and Technology, or the SAT, as we call it, and it’s become a real hub for a lot of research on immersive performances, visual works, sounds works.

ISEA was a way for Alain, in 1995, to attempt to really route this idea of innovation in music and performance in Montréal. He went on to program a component for a film festival that was concerned with new media, the Festival of Nouveau Cinema. They gave him a component called the Media Lounge for 5 years, where in the late 1990s he would bring in people like Richie Hawtin, who at the time was rather unknown and would be presenting minimal sound and interactive light installations. This was the beginning of laptops becoming an important tool not only for music, but for visual work. And it became possible to then compose on these brand new portable, reasonably affordable tools. So there was an explosion of art and music going on, all over the world, and so he programmed components of this film festival for a few years. Then he was given some seed money by the guy from Soft Image to begin the very first edition of MUTEK, which was hosted inside of a big complex dedicated to new media that this guy had also just started, called Excentris, roundabout 1999.

That was the basic background on MUTEK. A few years later, maybe it was 2003 or 2004, Alain also — because he has this sort of global view and a positive idea of globalization and technology — he started planting seeds for other MUTEKs in South America, and a “micro”MUTEK festival happened in Chile. Then a few years later — it’s now into its 11th year — Mexico City began its MUTEK franchise. This is all, like, “open source,”no money — we don’t receive any money from these festivals at all. It was more about the idea of inverting the axis of the music industry, which usually goes from North America to Europe, so horizontal, and instead, doing a vertical axis — Montréal down to Latin America — where these emergent economies and artistic communities that were also beginning to just use computers and digital technologies to make music, and to plug into a whole global circuit existed. Alain has a personal history in Latin America, which made this possible. He speaks Spanish; his father is a university professor. They were in Chile during the coup in 1973, and he is very comfortable working these angles. So now MUTEK Mexico is 11 years old — MUTEK Argentina has sort of moved to Mexico. We just started a version of the festival in Colombia. The ones in Chile are a little bit dormant. We also have an outpost in Barcelona, Spain, which is European but it is also a place where tons of Latin American expats end up. The festival has a real mission and mandate statement to always cultivate local audience and the kind of artists and communities that are left out of the regular global conversation that’s western-dominated about technology and music — and that’s an essential interest of the festival. And over the years, as well, MUTEK has cultivated a local community here in Montréal. A number of them, a big chunk of the local artists who helped start MUTEK Montréal, have since relocated to Berlin. And they have quite vibrant careers there, so we work this axis as well. And we still always try to cultivate and throw into our international network local artists who are innovative in using technology. There’s other interesting things to look at over the course of a 16-year history of a festival that takes technology as its important taking-off point, and this technology is constantly mutating, and evolving, and changing, and if you’re going to stay relevant you are going to have to stay on top of what those changes are. Read more »

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