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tag: surveillance

Listening to le Carré

Key moments of sonic telling in Our Kind of Traitor

Surveillance is both a phylum and an order of sound. It is both a context within which sound occurs, and a subset of the way sound functions. We listen intently, and we overhear; we overhear on purpose, and by chance. Our ears are focused by what we want to hear, and by what, as the pristine familiar phrase so succinctly summarizes, catches our ear.

There is very little overt, carefully detailed attention to sound in Our Kind of Traitor, the 2010 thriller by master spy novelist John le Carré — despite the fact that throughout the book, secrets are documented on little tape recorders, and phones are tapped, and everyone with the slightest bit of skin in the game is paying fierce attention at all moments, deciphering words and the tonality in which they are couched. With the exception of a few key moments, that action goes unexamined. However, when le Carré does choose to apply his scalpel of a pen to discerning the act of listening with the same consideration he applies to manners, posture, class, the intersection of international and personal politics, and all things sartorial, he of course excels. Here are five such instances from Our Kind of Traitor:

1. In the Wind:

He could hear the three winds battling round Dima’s glistening bald head. He could see the treetops above him shaking. He could hear the crashes of leaves and a gurgle of water, and he knew it was the same tropical rain that had drenched him in the forests of Colombia. Had Dima made his recording in a single session or in several? Did he have to brace himself with shots of vodka between sessions in order to overcome his vory inhibitions?

The “he” here is a second-tier spy — nth tier in the circles of hellish bureaucracy that define the modern intelligence service, but second in the small crew that make up the book’s team. The spy’s name is Luke. Here he is listening to a tape recording by a would-be defector, a Russian money launderer by name of Dima. We witness Luke’s craft and shortcomings, his perceptive skills and his self-pity, working hand in hand as he listens to, and projects his own experience onto, a recording Dima has made. The recording is Dima’s entreaty to the British spy service. In a way that a written document might not, the sound both provides additional detail about Dima’s situation and transports Luke, momentarily, into his own troubled past. (“Vory” is the term for a Russian crime syndicate of fierce loyalty.)

2. For Ears Only:

“Has Hector been listening to us?”

“I expect so.”

“Watching us?”

“Sometimes it’s better just to listen. Like a radio play.”

The Hector mentioned here is the book’s spymaster. The interlocutors in the bit of dialog are an inquisitive source and the mid-level spy Luke, who is under Hector’s command. Luke reinforces the unique power of sound when taken on its own, devoid of other sensorial data. He also posits a connection between the story being told by le Carré and the concept of the characters experiencing their own lives as if in a scripted drama, touching on matters of fate, and of Luke’s emerging notion of having less control over his own than he would like. (Elsewhere in the book we learn that Luke fails to enjoy the Harry Potter books — an anhedonia that reinforces his separation from his young son. There’s enough fantasy, we’re told, already in his life. There’s something especially British about John le Carré describing a British spy’s inability to appreciate Harry Potter.)

3. For Whom the Bell Tolls:

Perry pressed the bell and at first they heard nothing. The stillness struck Gail as unnatural so she pressed it herself. Perhaps it didn’t work. She gave one long ring then several short ones to hurry everyone up. And it worked after all, because impatient young feet were approaching, bolts were being shot and a lock was turned, and one of Dima’s flaxen-haired sons appeared.

The person who does the listening in this moment is also the one with the least agency of the assembled protagonists. Gail is the girlfriend to Perry. Perry is the book’s initial hero, except in the moments when it lets Luke, Hector, and Gail be the heroes of their own threads of the narrative. Perry and Gail are caught up in Dima’s negotiations with British intelligence. Here, they have gone to collect the family of Dima. Gail’s legal experience often comes into play when she pitches her voice one way or listens to someone else’s. Here her listening skills are brought to bear on her not uninformed paranoia.

4. Go to the Tape:

Then quite suddenly — it was in the evening of the same day — the weather changed, and Hector’s voice rose a notch. Luke’s illicit recorded played the moment back to him.

Luke again here, now in seclusion with Perry, Gail, and Dima’s brood. He has been taping audio late in the book, both his own notes about goings-on, and phone calls with his boss, Hector, who is calling in with updates regarding how he is navigating the halls of power in Dima’s interest. Here, for the first time, Luke revisits a tape, to confirm a suspicion he noticed in the conversation he just had only moments prior. The instance ratchets up Luke’s anxiety, and projects the isolation they all are experiencing.

5. Left in the Cold:

And either there was someone inside to close the door on them or Luke did it for himself: an abrupt sigh of hinges, a double clunk of metal as the door was made fast from inside, and the black hole in the plane’s fuselage disappeared.

That fifth and final sonic moment occurs pages before the book ends. It’s a fateful moment. The book has returned to the point of view with which it originated, the novitiate Perry — Perry, who has learned much as the book has unfolded, including how to listen, and what to listen for. And then it’s a full stop. What happens next is simply, to use one of le Carré’s favored terms, a void. It’s a void for the reader to fill in. The answer may be left to how well the reader has been listening.

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SOUND RESEARCH LOG: Armadas of Hydrophones

On the sonic aspects of naval intelligence:

“Basically, any instrument that can digitally eavesdrop on the military’s stuff is of concern, including seismometers, which measure vibrations so low most wouldn’t typically consider them sound.”

From an article by Matthew Braga at theatlantic.com, via the great 5 Intriguing Things email list by Alexis Madrigal, an editor at The Atlantic.

This entry cross-posted from the Disquiet linkblog project sound.tumblr.com.

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SOUND RESEARCH LOG: On Gyrosurveillance

That fly on the wall could be the vibration of your cellphone:

“In the age of surveillance paranoia, most smartphone users know better than to give a random app or website permission to use their device’s microphone. But researchers have found there’s another, little-considered sensor in modern phones that can also listen in on their conversations. And it doesn’t even need to ask.”

From an article by Andy Greenberg at wired.com.

This entry cross-posted from the Disquiet linkblog project sound.tumblr.com.

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SOUND RESEARCH LOG: Is Voice the Uncanny Valley?

There may have been no better place than io9.com to keep track of Comic-Con, and this popped up in a summary of the Person of Interest panel. That’s the CBS series with an admirably long-game approach to narrative. It’s about an AI coming into sentience. That AI has become more of a character, and as the series enters season four it now is up against a competitive AI:

“Pressed for an answer about whether or not the AIs would get voices, Jonathan Nolan responded, ‘We’re working on the voice thing. But you may not like where it goes.’”

Full coverage at io9.com. It’s rarely advisable to read comments, but there are some strongly worded concerns in the resulting thread about lending voices to the AI, worth checking out if only as an expression of a point of view.

This entry cross-posted from the Disquiet linkblog project sound.tumblr.com.

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SOUND RESEARCH LOG: Always On: Rainforests, Sleep Disorders, More

Nick Shchetko at blogs.wsj.com/digits surveys recent app developments related to “always on” microphones.

There’s Rainforest, a chainsaw-detection tool halfway through its Kickstarter campaign.

He also lists examples that “assess the quality of sleep, explain why a baby is crying, tell you when you’re stressed, identify mental disorder, track gunshots and even help to crowd-monitor endangered cicada species.”

And then there’s BodyBeat, prototype pictured above:

A crude prototype of BodyBeat, revealed in mid-June, uses an external custom-made microphone to track body sounds, such as breath or cough, with the ambitious aim to detect illnesses or record food consumption.

The microphone is placed on the neck with a 3D-printed neckpiece, which is plugged into a small audio processing device that is wirelessly connected to a smartphone. BodyBeat authors plan to redesign the system for better usability in commercial applications.

It may sound far-fetched. But there could be plenty of market opportunities for systems like BodyBeat. Breathing sounds are indicative of lung conditions, and data on what users consume ”“ say, how often do they drink or eat certain products ”“ can provide important data for diet tracking apps.

There are certainly limitations to sound-detection technology. The quality of embedded microphones remains a concern, for one. “The problem is you can’t create a robust app because everyone is using different microphones,”said Alexander Adams, who helped develop BodyBeat.

Found thanks to Alexis Madrigal’s http://ift.tt/1lPwWYp.

This entry cross-posted from the Disquiet linkblog project sound.tumblr.com.

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