During a trip to Washington D.C. in 2017, granddaughter Jahniya purchased a silver necklace from the International Spy Museum gift shop. The necklace is the word “strength” in Morse Code with round beads for the dots and longer tube beads for the dashes. When she showed me the necklace, I saw the dots and dashes as stabs and long tones and began wondering about soundscapes with words and phrases spelled out in Morse Code.
This idea is a perfect companion to TRIC Questions, and my interest in using overlapping “predeterminded” sound articulation patterns in music. Morse Code is also a way to imbed words into soundscapes. People seem to prefer music with words. We like a story, an image and the sound of the human voice. For me, the singer and the words hijack a large percent of the ear brain in any listening situation. That is why I prefer my music sans words – let the instruments convey the narrative. Since 70% of meaning is derived from the non-verbal components of speech, including cadence and tonality, then music should be capable of conveying information/meaning quite effectively. Morse Code brings a verbal aspect into the soundscape without words taking over the show.
Here is the simple instruction sheet for creating Morse Code:
This will be my idiosyncratic metric template. The time signature is open and based on units: 1 unit = 1 beat = the length of a dot. The measures can be laid out in the number of units it takes to complete the word or phrase in Morse Code with the 7 unit break between iterations of the word.
Feeling sure that modern composers have explored this idea already, I googled “Morse Code music”. What I found were instances of Morse Code used as drum patterns. The code was always tied to a time signature, so the actual prescribed template for Morse Code is not what is heard. Plugging these patterns into Ableton voices means that the exact Morse Code template is played and preserved in time. This rhythmically offsets the clips, since they are different lengths. I have played with this idea for over a year using different words like love and joy, or om shanti. I did an iteration of “peace” over and over for International Peace Day 2017.
Now it is September 2018, and I am playing off the Peace Day soundscape in preparation for the Wake Forest Dance Festival this coming weekend (9/29/18). Justin Tornow was invited as a guest choreographer. She is creating a solo for dancer Maggie Page Bradley which I will accompany. The sound piece is called PSS – short for Peace Shalom Salam. Each clip is a Morse Code Template of peace or shalom or salam. Each template follows the unit pattern described in the Morse Code description above. Some units are quarter notes and some are eighths, another layer of rhythmic offset. After laying out the templates, I squeezed several of them into smaller time frames (oh, the things you can do in Ableton), thus speeding them up while maintaining the integrity of the Morse Code Template. In addition, I am throwing into this randomness one of my favorite Ableton audio effects called Fade to Grey. This is a high pass and low pass filter that move towards each other and basically squish the sound to nothing, but the addition of a ping pong delay holds a bit of the sound in an echoic pattern. This effect allows the sound to be fractured and reflected in interesting ways. The effect is on every track, so there is the potential to break the sound into multiple glimmering pieces. Here is a short sample of this effect at work:
If you are in Wake Forest close to Joyner Park tomorrow, please come to the Wake Forest Dance Festival. There is an open tech rehearsal in the morning, movement around the park in the afternoon and the dance performances will be from 5-6:30. As always, I appreciate your support!
Data sonification is a burdgeoning area of sound design that is quite amazing in its depth and flexibility. I have a keen interest to sonify data in a way that furthers our understanding of the data. I would love to create a sonic pie chart for example. While a visual pie chart is a snapshot, a sonic pie chart would be more like an animation. A chemical reaction could be sonified by assigning particular voices to different parameters of the reaction: as the reaction proceeds, the voices would change from “reagent” voices to “product” voices. Consonance and dissonance couid illustrate the changing relationships amongst the components of the chemical reaction. One possible way to sonify, in my mind.
Then at Moogfest 2018, a workshop introduced me to the world of SuperCollider and MaxMSP as instruments for creating sonic pie charts. Mark Ballora of Penn State University (Please check out his work at http://www.markballora.com) has been working with sonifying data for decades. He was doing it when no one was paying attention. Mark uses SuperCollider to create sonifications of tidal changes and the movement of hurricanes. This type of sonic representation of data illustrates how a group of parameters changes over time, and when you listen, you hear all of the changes happening over time. Voila! A sonic pie chart! Attending Mark’s workshop, shifted my soundsense, as I realized I do not want to learn computer programming (at this time). This blog post by Mark Ballaro and George Smoot (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-ballora/sound-the-music-universe_b_2745188.html) helped me understand that my interest is in exploring how modal/timbral shifts that are set in a familiar,equal-tempered scale spectrum might illustrate data-driven relationships. What I am interested in is more a sonic illustration, than a map or a pie chart.
Just before Moogfest, The Dance DL, a Durham dance listserve sent this announcement:
Rob Dunn’s lab at NC State University explores microbiomes of some of our most familiar places. The sourdough project studies sourdough starters from around the world, including some really ancient ones that have been passed down for generations. Seeking an artist working in any media with an interest in microbiology, bread baking, making the invisible visible, and/or communicating complex science through art. Help us bring the awe and wonder of science–and the microbial world– to the world.
As I read this notice, it felt like a dream! I have a two and half year old sourdough starter which is used to create 75% of the bread Trudie and I eat. I have recently studied cell biology, neurobiology and have a deep interest in molecular chemistry about which I am just learning. And I am looking for a data sonification project. I sent them an inquiry, they checked out my sound work, and I was invited to participate.
First step, meet with the Sourdough folks at Rob Dunn’s Lab. On Friday June 15th, Erin McKenney, post-Doctoral Fellow in Microbiome Research and Education and a research lead on the sourdough project, and Lauren Nichols, Dunn Lab Manager, met me in the lobby of the David Clark Labs (home of the Dunn Lab). I learned that the sourdough project is looking at the ecology of sourdough starter communities as relates to yeast and bacteria growth in flour when exposed to water and the local microbial environment. I attended a lab staff meeting and learned about the amazing research being done here. All the projects are basically looking at how the smallest phenomena impact much larger phenomena and vice versa, the micro to macro to micro feedback loop. And they keep finding that diversity is the key to sustainable growth and a healthy environment. I left the meeting excited and inspired! Next stop will be the As If Center in Penland, NC in October.
The only other preparation I would like to do is to try sonifying some data. I reached out to the Rob Dunn Lab folks, and Erin McKenney sent me a data set to try my hand at. The data is about nine lemur babies from three lemur species, and how the microbial makeup in each baby’s stomach evolves as changes are introduced to their diets. (This is Erin’s dissertation study!) We have identifiable parameters that can be orchestrated to show changes over time. Perfect!
The data is on a massive (to me) spreadsheet with lots of terminology I don’t know…yet. This will be an interesting process as we work out exactly what the sonic map will depict. I sense that certain data will lend itself to sonification and that is the part I do not yet know. After spending some time studying the spreadsheet, I asked Erin how we can cluster some of the microbial data together, and she sent me the class and phylum data sheets. Phylum became my focus as there were only 35 phylum as opposed to 95 classes and 255 strains of bacteria. One of the lemur mothers had triplets so I decided to put together phylum profiles on this small group. Culling through the data for these specific individuals narrowed the phyla divisions down to 24, then I made an arbitrary cutoff point of >.00 density for each phylum (Erin said this was fine and is actually a tool scientists use to declutter data). Now was down to 15 phylum – a manageable number for a timbral illustration.
The microbes were collected from the three babies six times from birth to nine months. The timeline for the samples was birth, nursing, introductory solid foods, regular solid foods, and two times as they were weaning. Microbes were collected from the mother when she gave birth. Erin had the brilliant idea to have the mother’s phylum profile (which does not change over time) be a drone under the babies’ phylum profiles in the sound map. This allows you to hear when the profiles diverge and when they converge.
The sonic substance for all this is a phyla megachord that stretches from G1 to G5. Each phylum is voiced by a single pitch, so, for example, Protobacteria is G1. Since there are only thirteen pitches in a chromatic scale, some of the phyla would land on the same pitch, different octaves. There were five phylum that tended to have the highest presence in each sample, so I made them the Gs, and all the rest had separate, distinct pitches. I used amplitude to render the amount each phylum was present in each sample.
Then there was how to voice the individual profiles in order to hear the data as clearly as possible. After much experimentation the mother’s voice is a woodwind with steady tone throughout. I chose bell-like voices for the three lemur baby profiles, letting each phase ring out four times over the mother’s profile. The idea is to listen and compare the mother’s profile with the babies’ profiles. Listen for the change (or lack of change) as the each stage rings in four times. You will probably need to listen closely several times. What you hear is a uniformity of tone at birth that becomes more dense and dissonant as the phyla diversify with the babies’ diversifying diet. Then the final wean profiles settle into more consonance with the mother’s profile. So very interesting!
When I sent this to Erin, she said, “The patterns you’ve detected and sonified are exactly what I published.” Yes! This is the sketch I will use to create a soundscape of the Lemur Data. From this exercise, some tentative questions have emerged that will help when we start working on the sourdough project:
How is the data organized/catagorized?
What is being measured?
What are the signifigant changes and time frames within the data collection process?
What are the researchers interested in hearing from the data?
When I was a child, we often visited our grandparents in Elkins WV. Elkins is home to the Mountain State Forest Festival, and is my birthplace. My Mother’s family has a long history with Elkins. Her grandfather was one of the first mayors and one of two doctors after the town’s 1890 incorporation. I am not sure how my Dad’s mother got there. Mamaw lived in a brick row apartment with a porch and stoop to play on. And she lived one block from the volunteer fire department.
When I slept over with Mamaw, there was always a fire in Elkins, sometimes two. The volunteers had to be called in from all over town, and what called them was the longest, most mournful sound my young ears had ever heard. As loud as it was (remember we were one small block away) the siren also sounded ghostly. It went on and on and on for an eternity and then it stopped! A lovely silence would fall and gently wash away the residue of the wailing. If it happened at night, I would return to sleep; by day, it was back to play. Either way, the siren always elicited a jolt of free-floating anxiety.
The Mountain State Forest Festival takes place the first weekend in October in Elkins and has for 85 years (with a short hiatus during WW II). This Festival was a highlight each and every year of my growing up. We got out of school for two days, traveled through the gorgeous colors and crisp fall air to spend several days with carnivals, exhibits, parades and pageantry. One of the parades took place on Friday night and involved 100 firetrucks sounding their sirens at the same time. The Fireman’s Parade attracted fire departments from all over West Virginia, and into Virginia and Maryland. The trucks would line up at one end of town and slowly make their way down the main street blaring the siren song of their station, their truck. The sound of 100 firetrucks calling their warning song together cannot be described. People flocked the sidewalk, laughing, trying to talk to each other over the din. My brother Matt is famous in our family for having slept through the Fireman’s Parade when he was a babe. Even back then, I enjoyed the interplay of the various intervals that make up a siren song.
A few years ago, my cohorts from iBoD (idiosyncratic Beats of Dejacusse) were discussing ideas for soundscapes. The one sound artifact that really stands out in the urban growth we are experiencing in Durham NC is the frequency of emergency sirens. This became the basis for an iBoD piece called The Sound…of Sirens. One online resource said the intervals of sirens telegraphed who’s coming: the police are a perfect fifth, ambulance is a fourth, and fire trucks are a whole tone. I designed the soundscape with those intervals. We all started with the basic intervals, and as the piece went on, we threw different intervals into the mix. The ending is a big crescendo and all out except the tail of the reverbed voices of the scape, which I turn up to a final fading shriek. We played the piece at a few venues. I thought of it as a novelty song.
I talked about all of this in an interview with Margaret Harmer, who produces electronic music as Shifting Waves. Margaret is producing an album of work from 15 to 20 women electronic artists from all over the world. She asked each of us to think back to a sound in our childhood, to find the story around that sound, and bring it forward into a piece. (I actually added that last part, Margaret did not say the story had to be about the piece for the album, and it sure did flow that way for me.) Here is a link to the interview.
I took the soundscape for The Sound…of Sirens and began to analyze it harmonically and timbrally. The piece was sculpted from thick resonant voices (several synth pads and strings). This allowed me to carve out the movement of the sirens, the doppler effect of approach and recede, the abruptness of a nearby siren suddenly starting or stopping – the psychoacoustic impact we experience in our communities. Now called Song of Sirens, the piece was a fountain of siren voices overflowing and receding. There are several short repeated interludes during the first section. Several crescendos and several interesting places where the sound drops out leaving space in the front of the mix. This is most obvious when listening through headphones. This has peaked my interest in how we define the sonic space a piece takes up, and how to keep the full space alive when the sound recedes.
Siren’s song in mythology is characterized as an intentional “luring” of sailors onto the rocks. This sounds like one side of the story to me. Who was hearing and for what end? Was the siren song seductive, plaintive, demanding? Was it the call of grey seals, baying and mournful, resounding in the range of the female voice, a voice the sailors had not heard in years? Perhaps the sailors drove themselves into the rocks looking for women to rape. There are many possible scenarios when all points of view are considered.
I wanted to put an intention of comfort and nuturing from female voices into Song of Sirens. How interesting that modern day emergency sirens call out warning, answer your cry for help, or pursue you – all at once. How to embody all of this while flipping the mythology of blame the women. So I recorded Trudie, her daughter, Sheila, and three granddaughters singing phrases of Brahm’s Lullaby and wove them in and around the siren soundscape.
We are creating a new mythology as our brains and conciousnesses go through an extraordinary evolutionary shift. The reptillian brain – the one that fights or flees – is softening into the polyvagal brain. We are moving from survival of the fittest to survival of the kindest. Feminine consciousness knows how to be kind, not just benevolent. As the Song of Sirens raises the death knell of the reptillian brain, grandmothers, mothers and granddaughters sing a soothing lullaby swaddling the panicy cries.
Song of Sirens will be released as a track on Voices from Eris, produced by Shifting Waves studios. Stay tuned for more on fundraising and release date. I appreciate your listening!
Jody Cassell and I are super excited to be bringing our dancing stories to this wonderful program in the Fall of 2018. East Durham Children’s Initiative (EDCI) is a community-targeted educational initiative with the vision that all the children in a 120 block area of East Durham will graduate from high school. This is grassroots activism at its best! Now, thanks to American Dance Festival (ADF) and a grant from the Ivy Community Service Foundation of Cary, Inc we get to offer our skills to this amazing community.
For the last 5 years, Jody and I have been part of the ADF Community Outreach. We take our programs of interactive creative dance and storytelling to libraries, YMCAs, schools, and museums to promote dance as a joyful, imaginative and expansive activity for children. Jody teaches creative dance classes for “little ones” and their care providers as well as classes for children age 4-9 at ADF Studios. So our community workshops help spread the word about those classes and about the overall ADF season which peaks in Durham every summer. Last summer, ADF sent us for a workshop with the EDCI Stepping Stones summer program at the Maureen Joy Charter School. A preschool group of about a dozen with a lead teacher and several aides moved with us through BrainDance(c) and Jody’s story Where’s Leon?. We had such a great time with them! We really wanted to go back. Then ADF staff obtained a grant that allows for three more dancing story performances and two professional development sessions for teachers at EDCI in November/December 2018!
As I read through their Six Year Impact Study, it was clear that our dancing story programs are designed to fulfill aspects of EDCI’s mission. EDCI emphasizes early childhood intervention as a path to greater success in grade school and beyond. Jody Cassell trained as a Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts teaching artist and served as a Master Artist for over a decade. She has honed her skills in community-based dance and story in Atlanta and Baltimore school systems, and special residencies in school systems throughout NC. Her programs are designed to promote brain development and physical coordination, improve focus, engage somatic learning, and foster creative expression. The soundscapes for Jody’s stories center around pulses from brain wave states, which sonically enhance relaxation and focused engagement during dancing stories. The most important element in all is that we have fun!
Durham is such a rich place to live with so many wonderful and terrible things happening all at once. It is a joy to be engaged with locally focused organizations that are planting the seeds of creativity, respect and a high regard for the wide variety of learning styles that exist in the world.
I am grateful to have found myself at this particular intersection!
If, like me, you did not know about EDCI and the important service they provide, please check out their 6 year impact study: http://edci.org/en/about/impact
iBoD is back playing in the Sun(Ra) Room with a focus on improved recordings. In addition, we plan to play at the Central Park School Soundgarden on the Sunday evening after Moogfest, May 20. The last time we played there, the request came through for “more bells”. So, this year, the bells will be central to the evening’s soundscapes. So, more bells, y’all! per yer request.
In 2016, in preparation for playing soundscapes in the Soundgarden, I did a detailed analysis of the harmonics of the metal tanks and tank tops that we call “The Bells”. From this came the piece called Adrift in a Sea of Bells, which we played the first post-Moogfest soncert. The dissonance and consonance that The Bells throw out can be sculpted by the soundscape’s sonic character, and the additional frequency forms created by the cohorts. Here is an excerpt from that performance:
We will perform this piece again on May 20th, but I wanted to design a different piece for The Bells. Instead of a sea, we will sound out a large field. This idea was fun to develop- starting with a reexamination of the sonic data from my previous research (for more on this see https://wp.me/p5yJTY-ci ). Two ideas emerged – the field should be low, rumbly, percussive and – the tonailty should be shaped by the tones of the middle pole tanks and tops. These are the ones Eleanor focuses on when she “wakes up The Bells”. I have a recording of Eleanor performing this sonic ritual, so I loaded that clip into an audio channel in Ableton, and looped it. Then I started listening to voices in the Ableton stable. Then I layered in some tones and liked the sound of it!
The fundamental tones of the six tank tops and two short tanks available from the middle post are DEF#G#A. The intervals in this pentatonic scale are 5th, 4th, tritone and minor third. A scale beginning on C and including those intervals is CEbFGbG. In Hewitt’s Musical Scales of the World, this scale is close to the minor blues scale (if we throw in the Bb). Next step, play around with that. The scale patterns being offset by a step creates a tension that is held together by the one common note – the F#|Gb.
The voices and tonalities I choose to play under The Bells tend to be quite dark and heavy. The Bells have a cheery brightness of tone that calls for this buzzy darker undertone as counterpoint. The dissonant character of The Bells is a dominant feature of the soundscape. They go together in this sweet and lovely way. Both Adrift and A Field tug at my stomach and heart! The process is to analyze the sonic spectrum of The Bells and then listen for what goes with that – and this heart- heaving stuff comes out.
Listening to the interplay of bells and electronic voices, I hear the bells encouraging continuous movement. These two balance and catalyze each other! Unfortunately, I do not yet have the live sound equipment or knowledge to convey all of this sonic richness to the world when we perform live. To be heard, The Bells must resound when being played. Subtle gestures do not carry. Eleanor Mills, who is the master player of these bells, must pull alot of sound out of them to be heard when accompanied by iBoD. Ideally, I would mic the bells and all the players into a mixing board and out to three speakers. Perhaps, one year, a person of sound heartitude would step forth. Till then you are stuck with my meager amplification.
In spite of our less than ideal sound setup, we have made some lovely recordings at The Bells. Here is one of Gone Won: Life is a Dream from iBoD’s last soncert at The Bells in August 2017:
Then there is the question of how to audience iBoD?
“Well, we just pull up a chair and watch you, right? You’re going to put on a SHOW, right?”
Well, not exactly. Our ideal audience would probably stroll by, slowly, listening, sit on the steps, look at the sky. Or lie on the ground close by with eyes closed.
Actually, Catherine DeNueve of Beaver Pageant fame, embodied our ideal audience as she strung up a hammock or did walking meditation around the schoolyard. Reclining and strolling are the appropriate audience postures for our soncerts. We are not entertainers, and yet we bring a gift of great vibrancy in the form of these long form soundscapes which we will play for you on
Sunday May 20th
Central Park School Soundgarden (on the hill behind Cocoa Cinnamon.)
I just heard Doseone perform at the Ableton Loop Vocal Synthesis Panel. The whole panel was great, and Doseone put in an extraordinary performance. His lyrics are cosmic and thoughtful. Gonna be listening so somore Doseone! I love this song!
When one door closes, a better one opens! Such was the case for Stephanie Leather’s CELEBRATE SITES happening, when the Durham Hotel pulled out as venue (to make way for a “paying” client), and Tim Walter’s space The Fruit was available. This former fruit and produce warehouse is now a fluid, accessible, and raw performance space. Perfect for CELEBRATE SITES with it’s focus on Durham’s fast-paced urban growth (I counted three cranes hanging around downtown this week). On February 16, as part of Durham’s Third Friday events, SITES participants gathered at The Fruit. In retrospect, the venue switch was fortuitous as the sound part of the program might have tumbled the walls of the hotel.
Jody Cassell, my collaborative partner, continues to send me her Mom dialogues. I worked a number of them into a sound pallette. There is a narrative structure to what we are doing, so we prepped for the evening in our usual way. After I had setup and sound checked I mentioned to Stephanie that Jody and I wanted to start things off at 8. Stephanie said just start when you are ready. There will be no order. It will unfold as it will. A true happening!!
The sound collaborators set up in surround sound with me in the entryway corner, Curtis Eller on amazing banjo in the next corner, and guitar, synth, drum trio LICE cattycorner from me. As the evening progressed, Jody and I dropped our storyline. She became a slow, calm center in the storm of activity all around. I shimmered the edges, grabbed the lead a couple times with some idiosyncratic beats, and added harmonic content in places. It was me and my QSC filling space with a cadre of amps and a drum set. My sound pallette was dark, but sassy and a bit frothy. I got the sassy in at one point. That energy was in contrast to the heavy, pounding pallette the guys were playing. At one point, Jody’s mother singing fit in perfectly with a dirgy piece that LICE was leading. All in all, a satisfying experience.
The movers were an energetic organism, that swirled around and about in front of me. Limbs swinging, red pulsing shadows, people with chairs for shoes walking across the room. The dancers soloed, paired up, and dropped out at various times. In the fourth corner, Lee Moore Crawford and Michelle Gonzalez-Green built an altar to the earth, plants, water and #nosingleuseplastics, and dressed us in plant matter throughout the evening. Kim Gray and Stephanie Leathers offered photos of Durham sites and SITE events. And the audience moved about the space, mostly around the edges, taking in as much as they each were able. I am sure it was overwhelming at times.
After the performance, Ginger Wagg said an event like this should be happening at The Fruit every month.