This Week in Sound: The Science of Calling a Cat

Plus: sound gadgets for infants, onomatopoeia ingenuity, and more

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the May 9, 2023, issue of the Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter, This Week in Sound.

JUST KIDDING: There is a Kickstarter (I have no association with it) for a “smart pacifier.” The little device, which seems to combine a harmonica and a binky, is designed to “activate the creative mind at an early age, making passive listeners into musicians before they can say their first words.” … And separately, news about a nursery device that turns “patented auditory sequences into soothing melodic and other background tracks to help the infant brain do its job of paying attention to environmental sound changes.” It’s the Smarter Sleep Sound Soother from RAPT Ventures.

WHISKER WHISPERERS: “Scientists in France might have just found the most effective way to catcall an unfamiliar cat. The team discovered that cats living at a cat cafe responded most quickly to a human stranger when the stranger used both vocal and visual cues to get their attention. The cats also appeared to be more stressed out when the human ignored them completely,” writes Ed Cara at Gizmodo. Here’s a helpful diagram of how the experiment, by Charlotte de Mouzon and Gérard Leboucher at Paris Nanterre University’s Laboratory of Compared Ethology and Cognition, was undertaken:

THE THIX OF IT: “Irish inventors Rhona Togher and Eimear O’Carroll created an advanced acoustic material that reduces noise and can be used with household appliances, as well as in the automotive, construction, and aerospace industries.” The material is called SoundBounce, and it “has a cellular structure that works in tandem with a thixotropic gel placed inside the cells that allow sound to be dampened, reducing noise transmission from one space to another.” FYI, “thixotropic” means “Becoming a fluid when agitated but solid or semi-solid when allowed to stand.” Togher and O’Carroll are currently in the running for a European Inventor Award 2023.

CROSSTOWN TRAFFIC: The ecommerce/delivery reality is making life louder: “With millions of Americans now living in close proximity to a warehouse, it’s time to start treating these drab, feature-less buildings like pollution hotspots, says a recent report by the Environmental Defense Fund. Warehouses are quickly popping up all over the US, bringing truck traffic and tailpipe emissions with them. And yet there is no federal database to see where current or proposed warehouses are located, unlike other major sources of pollution like oil and gas facilities. … [T]here’s significantly more traffic, air pollution, and noise in census tracts with warehouses compared to those without them, another study based in California found last year.”

QUICK NOTES: Rim Shot: Netflix has a news desk (I don’t know how new it is) and it’s called “Tudum” — i.e., onomatopoeia for the network’s sonic brand logo — and that is sorta genius (netflix.com/tudum). ▰ Bank Teller: Voice biometrics was the focus of a letter sent by Senator Sherrod Brown, chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, reportedly to JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Charles Schwab and TD Bank. ▰ Moon Man: Austin Kleon did a new blackout poem inspired by comments I madein recent issue of This Week in Sound. ▰ Bull Market: The Shriek of the Weekwas the bullfinch, “adept mimics” that “can be taught to whistle a human tune like a parrot.” ▰ Mo’ Mojang: There’s new ambient music in Minecraft (update 1.20) and Rohan Jaiswal knows where to find it. ▰ Street Scene: Check out this microtonal composition based on data related to Krasnodar Public Transport in Russia. (Thanks, Glenn Sogge!) ▰ Blue Jay Way: Soundfly, which offers courses for musicians and connects them to mentors, has a story about bird song — I love the idea of musicians having an avian tutor.

This Week in Sound: Sing Reliably in the Depths of Night

A lightly annotated clipping service

These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the April 25, 2023, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter, This Week in Sound.

This Week in Sound

▰ STRING THEORY: HARP stands for Heliophysics Audified: Resonances in Plasmas, a program that combines data from a quintet of NASA satellites. An article in the Washington Post announces that it “is now open to citizen scientists.” HARP is like neighborhood watch — but with your ears … in space. Writes Erin Blakemore: “The hope is that volunteers can help trawl through the massive amount of data while sussing out sounds that reveal more about the vibrations. Researchers will use their increased understanding of those interactions to help humans better prepare for future space weather events.” 

This is a graphic depicting how different types of space waves are analogous to different instruments, such as a clarinet or a guitar

Learn more at listen.spacescience.org, where this accompanying image (by QiuGang Zong of the University of Massachusetts Lowell) depicts how “types of space waves are analogous to vibrations in air made by musical instruments.” (Thanks, Mike Rhode!)

▰ FIELD REPORT: I recently ordered an AudioMoth, an open-source device intended for use when making field recordings of sound in nature. It’s a great tool for acoustic ecology. (As The Economist has explained, “The device takes its name from the fact that moths can hear sounds across a wide frequency spectrum.”) I love that the mobile app for the AudioMoth does exactly one thing: it emits a chime that can set the device’s internal clock. 

▰ BRAND SLAM: WPP, an advertising conglomerate, has acquired amp (the name is all lowercase), a sonic branding company with such clients as Cadillac, Adobe, Dove, and Lay’s. Michele Arnese founded amp in 2009. I think the big question now is what this means for other small agencies that focus on sound branding: will they continue as standalone entities, or will we see an uptick of such acquisitions in 2023 and 2024? For my part, I think sound branding as a standalone operation isn’t as effective as within a larger organization, where it can be part of a broader, coherent strategy — though as in any field, there will always be small teams that push norms in a way larger organizations struggle to do.

▰ PHONE HOME: The CBC reports on a payphone in the middle of a forest. It is intended for “visitors dealing with the loss of a loved one to pick up the receiver and speak to those they miss.” (My dad died last June just shy of his 87th birthday, and I have an urge to use a wind phone as I type this.) Apparently the concept of the “wind phone” originated in 2010 thanks to Itaru Sasaki, a Japanese garden designer. You can find a wind phone near you at mywindphone.com. The nearest one to me (I live in San Francisco) is across the bay in Oakland on 5th Street below where Interstate 880 and Interstate 980 connect. According to that website, it was created by Jordan Stern in the memory of the three dozen people who died in the 2016 Ghost Ship Fire. Here’s a partial map of wind phone locations around the world. (Via Christof Migone)

▰ TRACK TRACKER: If film music is your thing, then you are probably already (or should be) checking out soundtrack.net’s regularly updated news, such as that Kevin Kiner, known for his work on some great Star Wars animated series (most recently The Bad Batch) is scoring the forthcoming live-action Ahsoka (based on a character who originated in the animated series; now starring actual human Rosario Dawson), and that Mica Levi has a new assignment (The Zone of Interest, based on a Martin Amis novel from 2014 and from the director of Under the Skin, which Levi also memorably scored). Related topic: still no word on an album release for Siddhartha Khosla’s exceptional score for the TV series Rabbit Hole

QUICK NOTES: Wind Bag: A scientist explored an idiomatic expression and learned it’s mistaken: “It isn’t harder to shout into the wind; it’s just harder to hear yourself.” (Thanks, Glenn Sogge!) ▰ Orchestral Maneuvers: “The Los Angeles Metro is using classical music on its light rail system to deter homeless people from congregating and sleeping in a downtown station.” (Thanks. Rich Pettus!) ▰ Bird Brain: The podcast from Emergence Magazine recently had an episode titled “The Nightingale’s Song,” featuring “acclaimed folk singer, conservationist, and song collector Sam Lee, who steps into the forest each spring to sing with these beloved birds.” ▰ Channel Surfing: What appears to have been an intercepted comment on a taxi radio “has become a sensation in Argentina after the driver’s taxi radio interfered with the signal from the International Space Station and popped up live during NASA’s live broadcast of a spacewalk.” ▰ App Alert:“Voicemod, the popular voice changer and soundboard, has just landed on macOS, allowing Mac users to transform their voices and trigger sound effects in real time.” ▰ Hearing Aid: A new tool in speech-to-text recognition is modeled on the human ear. ▰ Speak AI: Speech recognition software is increasingly part of the medical world, and a recent study, using mock patient encounters, explores its effectiveness in history-taking. ▰ Planet Rock: Jenna Jones and Joseph Joyce, for Ableton, summarize the benefits of data sonification as a tool for climate action. ▰ When a Problem Comes Along: A podcast called the Wind has a new episode about the politics of the whip: “How a small sonic boom came to represent homelessness in Reno, and how the city responded to unhoused people taking up sonic real-estate.” (Via Rob Walker’s always excellent The Art of Noticing newsletter) ▰ Avian Squad: One of my favorite online nature features is the “Shriek of the Week” by Charlie Peverett of Birdsong Academy, who this week highlighted the nightingale, one of the “few birds to sing reliably in the depths of night and during the day.”

RIP, Scott Johnson (1952-2023)

RIP to composer and guitarist Scott Johnson. It’s hard for me to overstate how obsessed I was with his music during college and in the early 1990s, especially of course John Somebody (1982), his debut recording, which introduced his signature mode, in which music carefully tracked the nuances of human speech. And then there’s his inventive original score for Paul Schrader’s 1988 film, Patty Hearst. He was part of Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels and David Van Tieghem’s Strange Cargo, two albums from 1989 that, like his own music, sounded strange at the time and turned out to be the foundation of a future normal: glitchy, fractured, conceptual, and innately mediated by technology. Kronos Quartet recorded at least two of his pieces (on Short Stories and Howl, U.S.A.). The central text of John Somebody — “You know who’s in New York? You remember that guy, John somebody? He was a … he was sort of a …” — is as cemented in my head as are the homeless man’s song in Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971) and the preaching in Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain (1965).

Steve Smith has a well-informed obituary in today’s New York Times, from which I borrowed the above transcription of the spoken material in John Somebody.

On Repeat: NIN Cover, De Vis & Co.

Home/office playlist

Brief mentions each Sunday of my favorite listening from the week prior:

▰ This is my favorite of some of the recent pieces that guitarist Simon Farintosh has posted, maybe because it feels especially close to the original in tone, like the pace of the source material and the size of the room in which it was captured. Farintosh is best known for his transcriptions for classical guitar of Aphex Twin’s music (about which I’ve interviewed him). Here he does “The Frail” from Nine Inch Nails.

▰ Gorgeous trio, featuring frequent Disquiet Junto participant De Vis with bassist Roy Mastega and a horn player I’ve yet to identify. It’s somewhere between a slowed down “Love Supreme” and an especially stripped down Jon Hassell.

▰ And I’ve been spending a lot of time with some other albums I’ve mentioned recently, notably Years of Ambiguity from keyboardist Kjetil Husebø, supported by Eivind Aarset and Arve Henriksen, and Travel from the Necks.

Junto Profile: Kei Terauchi Sideboard

From San Francisco, California (and Japan): embracing contradictions, reading to compose

This Junto Profile is part of a new series of short Q&As that provide some background on various individuals who participate regularly in the online Disquiet Junto music community.

What’s Your Name? Kei Terauchi Sideboard

Where Are You Located? I currently live in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco, California. I was born in Chiba, Japan, and grew up in Tokyo and Saitama, playing the piano, in the 1980s. I suppose I was gifted but I wasn’t a very good student. I refused to learn to read music for years and really did not like practicing. My family moved to Edina, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, in 1991 for my father’s work. There my piano lessons felt less confined, but I still played the classical canon of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, etc. I studied French literature and music at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. My senior thesis for French was on the retelling of Tristan and Isolde in literature and — you know it — Wagner, and my music project/presentation was talking about and performing pieces from the Second Viennese School, Berg’s Sonata Op. 1 (which is honestly more Romantic than Second Viennese), and Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces Op. 19.

I went to SUNY Stony Brook and got an MA in Music Theory/History with a focus in music and technology. My master’s thesis was on Der Lindberghflug by Weill and Hindemith. I guess music in academia in my time was very Germanic! To support myself financially I worked as a bartender in NYC and got sucked into the restaurant world. This derailed me from the trajectory of waiting for a tenured professor to pass to finally land a faculty job in a university music department. I worked in some very nice restaurants in NYC, Kyoto, Japan, Minneapolis, Napa Valley, and SF, for 17 years, until I fell into the start-up philanthropy work I’m currently in.

What Is Your Musical Activity? Since I left academia I always played the piano and jokingly called it my party trick. Honestly I wasn’t very inspired for a number of years. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial uprisings — the murder of George Floyd and anti-Asian hate crimes in particular — made me rethink about the limitation of playing the classical repertoire, dead white men’s music, on the piano. At this time I had also started an MA program in Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University and as I learned to think more critically about the world I decided to push the realm of critical thinking into creativity. This is how I started to make my own music based on my own experience for the first time. I start with conceptualization, then make that into music. The “style” of my music varies quite a bit because I borrow various musical techniques to make what I’ve conceptualized, but I think I have my own recognizable sound. My master’s thesis is about my compositional process accompanied by a dozen pieces I had written during my first and second years in the program. Some Junto projects I have participated in overlap with these.

Kei Terauchi Sideboard reflects on both sides of the Pacific

What Is One Good Musical Habit? 1. Go to performances, see other musicians play music, hear what they do and how they do it. 2. Reading works by authors who figured out how to tell their story their own way helped my music making. Some writers I admire are Alexander Chee, Ocean Vuong, Joan Didion, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, James Baldwin, and Natalia Ginzburg.

What Are Your Online Locations? Bandcamp (needs major update): keiterauchisideboard.bandcamp.com.
SoundCloud: soundcloud.com/user-637835668.
Website (also needs major update — this is where I’ll drop my MA thesis on music): keiterauchi.com.

What Was a Particularly Meaningful Junto Project? 0551: The Bends (“Get less strict about something you’re strict about”) helped me get over my fear of composing on/for the piano!

0544: Feedback Loop was also really nice in that it encouraged participants to interact with each other through close listening and commenting.

When you make music now, would you say you find yourself “unlearning” your earlier classical knowledge, or building upon it? I don’t think I can unlearn my earlier musical knowledge. For one, that would mean erasing the muscle memory from years of piano playing. I avoided using the piano for my composition for a while but there is something physical about piano playing that I need in my life. So I began to write on the piano last summer in a way that makes sense to me. I also think unlearning tonal harmony, the language of classical Western music, is really difficult because it’s everywhere in our culture.

I think of my earlier musical knowledge like language or food you grew up with. Even if it wasn’t your choice, even if you grew up with it because of oppressive circumstances, and even if you hated it at some point in your life, cultural items like language, food, and music, you can come to accept it’s folded in your DNA. You have language or food or music to connect with others around you. So even if a musical tradition was shoved down your throat, when you strip it down to just sound, I think you can let that be, and embrace it, embrace the contradiction within yourself. I think it’s that visceral, at least for me, and that’s how I look at my musical background.

The writers I mentioned earlier showed me that you can have complexity and not have to explain everything in your work. For example, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s book Dictée is a really powerful work of art that shows that the process of creating is how, when and where we express. And she gives zero f’s if you understand what she’s talking about or not. Her writing is engrossed in the act of writing itself and I want my music making to be like that, using my own experience and sounds in my memory, the good ones and the bad ones, because they are both mine. That’s an homage to Ocean Vuong; in his On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous there’s this line, “The thing is, I don’t want my sadness to be othered from me just as I don’t want my happiness to be othered. They’re both mine. I made them, dammit.” Making music lets me hold my contradictions, lets me be me.