The Art of a Scientist is an annual exhibit curated by Duke University graduate students who are interested in promoting dialogue between art and science. STEM graduate students submit images from their scientific research to the AoS Committee. I answered a call for artists to work with the project, and was paired with a graduate medical student who submitted a video.
The video is of the vascular system of a mouse hind leg. It begins with a view of the murine vascular tree branching out in red. We see the side of the leg rotating, then it tilts and rotates around, and disappears. An angled plane (that resembles a microscope slide) moves from bottom left of screen to top right of screen, to reveal the leg with the soft tissue enclosing the vascular system. The image rotates, then the layers melt away as the leg disappears. Then the image reverses and the layers swirl back together. The image stops before the layers finish, rotates a half turn and is complete.
The video is a collaboration between Hasan Abbas, an MD/PhD student, and the Shared Materials Instrumentation Facilities at Duke University. The mouse leg visualization can be used to model healthy and diseased cardiovascular systems. When I asked Hasan what he heard while creating the video, he said, “scholarship”, “elegance” and “discovery”. I love this as a jumping off point for a soundscape – “elegant discovery”.
And then there is the mouse! My first thought while curating samples for this project was to “give voice to the mouse”. Modern medical research is built on the backs of mice, so it seems right to honor and acknowledge their participation. I found hours of recordings of mice squeaks and scratches. Another element I wanted to capture was the branching of the vascular structure at the beginning of the video. So the creak and cracking of a large body of ice was layered into the sound bed. These sounds were synthesized into a liquidy flowing underbed (suggestive of bloodflow) over which orchestral voices swell in wonder. This piece is called O Men and Mice.
Hasan Abbas and I had several email correspondences. I sent him my first soundscape and he gave wonderfully useful feedback. In all of his correspondence, Hasan spoke with keen interest about the technology used to create the video. The method is called diceCT and the technology is a micro-CT scanner. Hasan referred to the technology as “a thousand tiny X-ray” images stitched together to create the detailed 3D image of the mouse hind leg. This made me wonder how 1000 Tiny X-rays might sound. So a second soundscape was born.
For this piece, while the primary idea is the sound of 1000 tiny x-rays, I also wanted to convey a sense of excitement and pride in an amazing technological accomplishment. diceCT is a new way of seeing living matter that could reveal hidden organic structures or systems. Drum rolls, claps and cymbal crashes are iconic sounds of triumph, so these were used as the sound source. In the video, when the tilted slide-like plane moves from bottom left to top right, the full leg emerges, and there is a feeling of a “great reveal”. This feeling is emphasized by a drum roll and cymbal splash into a moment of silence in the soundscape. For the sound of thousands of X-ray images being taken, granular synthesis was applied to the drum sounds as they built up in dense layers. Interestingly, granular processing does a similar thing to audio as the diceCT method does to matter. Hasan provided me with a video that was slower in pace for this piece. The layers of the whole leg system as they swirl away and return are so beautiful and perfectly fitted together, I wanted it to take more time.
The Art of a Scientist will open Saturday April 6 at the Golden Belt Grand Gallery (800 Taylor St. Durham) and will run through June 23, 2019.
My quest to synthesonize Ableton Live has taken an exciting new turn. Last Sunday, we discovered that by micing The Bells at the Central Park School Soundgarden, I can run that sound through Ableton and into the various synth modules and FX racks I am building. What happens is that the Abeju Synth Modules and FX Racks capture most of the harmonics that arise from Eleanor’s bell playing. The harmonics can be shaped by envelopes and attenuation and, of course, granular synthesis. My goal is to gradually shape the bell harmonics into a watery stream sound. This will be part of the soundscape for The Place ReSounds of Water (TPRSW) on April 14th at 4pm for SITES Season 2018-19.
When iBoD first started playing with The Bells, I recorded and analyzed their harmonic content. These bells are former compressed air tanks with the bottoms cut off, so the metal is not pure, it is some kind of alloy. This translates to lots of harmonic AND enharmonic content! A pure metal would render more pure harmonics. These pure harmonics are pretty, often beautiful, but my ear grows tired of the stasis of it all. The idea of purity in all of its forms is an illusion that leads to much misunderstanding and anguish in the world. Think about what striving for purity has given us: genocides, fascism, chronic autoimmune diseases, disconnection from and attempts to conquer nature, diminished empathy, and on and on. It is my prayer that riding and faithfully playing All the en/harmonic waveforms will encourage evolutionary growth. That is what I am going for!
TPRSW is my first attempt to sync up with the National Water Dance. My timing is off as this is not the year for National Water Dance, however I am hoping this will kickoff some interest for 2020. The idea for TPRSW is to give prolonged loving attention to water in the form of sound, light and the liquid itself. The soundscape will consist of Eleanor Mills playing The Bells, dejacusse aka Jude Casseday capturing and playing the en/harmonic waves from The Bells and morphing them into a watery feeling soundbed. Then Susanne Romey will play Native American flute over that for a while, then we start the wave again. The movers will pour water from vessel to vessel. An altar of flowers may be built. The whole thing is a mystery.
Our location at the Soundgarden at Central Park School gets full afternoon sun, so the visuals might include sparkles and shimmers of water. We could be lit up! If it is overcast, the air will be moist and the sounds of water will carry more clearly. If it threatens rain on Sunday, we will do it on Saturday instead! Or, perhaps, we will figure something else out and perform as it rains.
One of the pages attached to this blog is my Artist’s Statement. I believe in intention and evolution, so this statement is a living document for me. I reflect and revise the statement as soundscapes guide me through the world. Last July, I had the opportunity to expand my understanding of a Pauline Oliveros quote that is an integral part of my statement. I thank my dear friend, Theresa Carilli, for helping me clarify what I am saying! (Photo of Pauline Oliveros from media.hyperreal.org)
“Nevertheless, She Transmitted” – The Subtle Activism of Soundscaping
Pauline Oliveros, pioneering electronic musician and Mother of Deep Listening, defines a soundscape as
“All of the waveforms faithfully transmitted to our audio cortex and its mechanisms.”
With this statement, Oliveros calls out all the limitations that we place on inclusiveness, and issues a challenge to both sound artist and listener. This is not an acoustically contained melody in a particular key with carefully cultivated supporting orchestrations. This is not about money, commodity, mastery of instrument, aesthetics, standards of excellence, competition or any other divisive concept decreed from the bully pulpit. This is “All of the waveforms…”, all of the frequencies in the sounding world. All of them! Oliveros envisions inclusiveness as “essential to the process of unlocking layer after layer of imagination, meaning and memory down to the cellular level of human experience.” Her vision offers the soundscape as antidote to patriarchal divide and conquer methodologies that are extremely loud in our current culture. As a sound artist, creating and performing soundscapes with a community of cohorts, it has become my devout intention to take up her challenge to transmit all of the waveforms to audio cortexes everywhere!! How is this to be done? As sound practitioners, how do we “faithfully” transmit all of the wave forms? And as audience members, how can we also “faithfully” receive all of the wave forms?
The challenge in her definition of soundscape is carefully packed in the words “all” and “faithfully”. These two words are intimately connected in this statement. They transform a physiological description into a guiding intention. “All” means striving for inclusion/no exclusions. In order to be “faithful”, one must be fully present. And a powerful path to inclusiveness AND presence for both sound artist and audience member lies in the practice of deep listening with reverent attention to the harmonics/enharmonics, melodies/noises, and rhythms/arrhythms that comprise each sonic moment.
As a presence-practicing soundscape artist, I explore this terrain and bring back markers for accessibility to anyone who wants to give audience to soundscapes.
For many first-time listeners, soundscapes may feel overwhelming and chaotic. Many reject giving audience to soundscapes for this reason. Soundscapes do not give much direction as to what to listen to, so one must listen INTO the soundscape. That is the first adjustment for the listener – stop, breathe, find a friendly line or voice and follow it. The line might be a long meandering phrase or a loop, percussion or melody, foreground or background, fast or slow, loud or soft. It takes a curious desire to hear WHAT? is going on IN THERE! to get past the boredom, fears and defensiveness that often arise when forms are changing in unexpected ways. When the hypercritical, judgemental mind lets go into curious, discerning mind, the listener will discover the pathway inside the soundscape.
Once inside the cave of sound, footholds are both secure and insecure. Like a bird lighting on a branch, the listener does not know if the center will hold, so deep listening provides the wings to move to another branch. We explore the fluid nature of “in time” and “in tune” as we settle into and are disrupted by the soundscape; blips and glitches, fits and starts, followed by a deeper sense of the flow of the scape beyond preconceived ideas of tempo and tonal center.
So soundscapes are these churning, swirling, floating containers, within which my cohorts and I add other voices and textures. I think of the soundscape as a beautiful being and we are the accessories. Another cohort observed that soundscapes are like patchwork quilts. We have a bunch of scraps of sounds and we weave them into a whole. Or the soundscape is an aquarium full of fish swimming and darting around.
The aquarium metaphor is a very helpful template for listening to a soundscape. When you watch an aquarium, your eye may follow one fish for a while until the fish passes another one which grabs your eye. Or one fish may make a sudden move that startles you and so you keep an eye on that fish. In this same way, your ear, if it is sufficiently relaxed and accepting, may hear into parts of the scape or moments of improvisation from the players. Sounds and voices come forward and recede, and your ear, brain and body follow along as you are drawn into this cornucopia of sound.
The cacaphony within a soundscape exists because of the mandate “all of the waveforms.” The soundscape is a dense pallette that moves and morphs through tonal and rhythmic relationships in actual time and in a particular space. Then, as my cohorts and I layer in more waveforms, we create a Nested Soundscape, a permanent recording of the sonic moment folding and unfolding through time and space. Each performance sets rippling frequencies into the atmosphere that are then time stamped onto a recording. Then we offer it to any and all listeners via Soundcloud. This is the transmission process I use at this time.
Adrift in a Sea of Birds is one example of a Nested Soundscape. There is much to hear here – starting with the soundscape itself, which is the catalyst for waveforms in the moment, then the players adding in more waveforms, then the sound of the birds outside the open windows and much more that I leave for you to discover. There are places of beauty and places of disconnect, all of which make up the sonic field of this moment. As players and listeners we honor all contributions to the rich universe of waveforms stirred up by the soundscape.
The act of transmitting all of the waveforms is a practice that challenges me as a sound artist and a listener. It is an action of allowing that is counterpoint to the action of resistance. It is a form of Tai Chi, using energy to create not only new visions, but also little earthquakes in the status quo. The critical mind gets to take a vacation and let go into a listening field that includes all sound. A place where “sounds become interrelated rather than chaotic and meaningless–the field conveys forces (energy) from one sound to another.”
As an active and dedicated transmitter, it is my dream to assist human ears in evolving beyond the codification of common practice, popular music and the calcified ear brain, inviting listeners to open ears as they open eyes and take in a broad spectrum of colors, textures, movements. Learning to listen to soundscapes is an act of allowing that can lead to shifts in consciousness and in the corporeal world. As Oliveros sees it, this sort of listening practice “is the foundation for a radically transformed social matrix in which compassion and love are the core motivating principles guiding creative decision making and our actions in the world.”
Just for a while, disengage from the notions and expectations of prescribed and habitual forms and allow yourself to enjoy the dance of formlessness to form to formlessness. This simple action could awaken an entirely new sense of your self and your world!
Reference: All quotes from Pauline Oliveros in “Quantum Listening: From Practice to Theory (to Practice Practice)” Music Works Issue #76 (Spring 2000)
Collaborating on a weekly basis with the cohorts in the Sun(Ra) Room as we prepare to play at the Won Buddhist Temple Bazaar on October 10th. I record each session, then listen closely to learn what it is we are doing. One thing I hear clearly is that we are playing to the overtones. This can be discerned in the “extra” voices that can often be heard when listening to these soundscapes. The soundscapes themselves stem from my dreams, which are about flowing water and spinning into stillness of late. The form of soundscapes is a swirling vortex. The movement is spinning and flowing. Other worldly overtones get kicked up in the process.
For many listeners, soundscapes may feel overwhelming and chaotic. Just as the players must listen their way into the vortex, so the listener must as well. Desire helps fuel this; a wanting to hear WHAT? is going on IN THERE. To “give audience” to the soundscape means to listen INTO the soundscape. And, as with most of lived experience, the less effort the better!
Soundscapes are often wild and do not give much direction as to what to listen to. That is the first adjustment for the listener – stop, breathe, find a friendly line and follow it. The line might be a long meandering phrase or a loop, percussion or melody, foreground or background, fast or slow, loud or soft. Often high, fast, foregrounded loops and percussion will grab attention first, so I recommend riding those lines for a short burst and then listening beyond them.
Soundscapes make the harmonic bed, the listener chooses whether to lie in it. The listener has to surrender to the vast cave of sound spinning and swirling around. You must be willing to enter.
The cave of sound offers footholds that are secure and insecure. Like a bird lighting on a branch, the listener does not know if the center will hold, so deep listening provides the wings to move to another branch. This goes for both tone and rhythm. We explore the fluidity of “in time” and “in tune” as we settle into and are disrupted by the soundscape. Blips and glitches, fits and starts, followed by a deeper sense of the flow of the scape beyond time and tonal center.
I learned from Ubaka Hill (the great womyn’s drum teacher, songwriter and performer) about focused and diffuse listening when playing in a drum circle. Pauline Oliveros speaks of these concepts, too. Focused listening is very close into-the-body with attention on some smaller clarity of sound, something distinct and close in proximity, something specific. Diffuse listening is moving away from the body, away from the singular experience. Attention is soft and spread out, appreciating the great swaths of tones and harmonics. Focused listening pays attention to the downbeat; diffuse listening feels the sway of the pulse. Focused listening is compression. Diffuse listening is rarefaction.
So the soundscape is this churning, swirling, floating container, and I and my cohorts play in and around it. I think of the soundscape as a beautiful being and we are the accessories. Friend and cohort, Linda Carmichael said soundscapes are like patchwork quilts. We have a bunch of scraps of sounds and we weave them into a whole. Wholeness is the priority, not a preconceived notion of perfection. Or the soundscape is an aquarium and we are the fish swimming and darting around in it.
The aquarium metaphor is a great guide to listening to a soundscape. When you watch an aquarium, your eye may follow one fish for a while until the fish passes another one which grabs your eye. Or one fish may make a sudden move that startles you and so you keep an eye on that fish. In this same way, your ear, if it is sufficiently relaxed and accepting, may hear into parts of the scape or moments of improv from the players. Sounds and voices come forward and recede, and your ear, brain and body follow along as you wander through the cacaphonous marketplace of sound.
Here is a recording called “Spin Cycle”, which was recorded in the Sun(Ra) Room with me adding in some Fluke strums to drive the vortex of sound. First, you will hear a spinning, pounding pulse driven by bowed strings. The Fluke rides in on top of this white water vortex of sound. The listener can focus on the Fluke strums or spread attention out over the whole soundscape and take it all in. This is the place where overtones can be heard. Listen closely and you will hear people chanting, speaking, moaning.
It is my dream to assist our ears in evolving beyond the codification of common practice and popular music. I invite listeners to open the ears as you open your eyes, taking in a broad spectrum of colors, textures, movements. Just for a while, disengage from the notions and expectations of codified form, and allow yourself to enjoy the movement of formlessness into whatever form emerges in the moment.
I understand that evolution is scary, we really have no choice. It is happening, so we might as well join in and enjoy it!
And – as always, my deepest appreciations for listening!!