The eyes trump the ear for most human beings. Visuals grab a large chunk of our attention. Perhaps this is why live music, audio CDs and movie soundtracks are so loud now. Sound is trying hard to be noticed, to be heard.
The sounding world uses up its juicyness in this bid for conscious attention. Sounds have a subliminal power. The constant soundtrack that accompanies our days and nights shapes our lived experience in subtle ways. To my ear, it all sounds like music. So the dishwasher in the background as I write is pulsing a rhythm and growling/toning to my consciousness while the wall clock keeps a semblance of time. This “noise” can literally or in essence make its way into a future soundscape or song painting.
A deeper listening taps into the body sounds-rush of blood, beat of heart, the shushsh of air through the nose, throat, into the lungs and out again. Body sounds drone and pulse along with the external environmental soundtrack. All of these sounds have something in common-they are all transmitted through a physical medium like air or water. An unsettling pressure on the medium causes vibration, excitation of molecules in oscillating waves, which become sound signals. These oscillations travel through the medium till they encounter a receiver that knows/recognizes and transduces the vibrations into a signifying event which we know as sound.
Sound vibrations and their meanings render our reality. I think that is why we wrestled with that “tree falling in the woods” question for so long. The righteous still debate it, but the answer hinges on how we define “sound.” When a tree falls in the woods it will vibrate air molecules, which fits with this definition of sound : “vibrations that travel through the air or another medium and can be heard when they reach a person’s or animal’s ear.” In which case, vibrating air molecules are sound. When the vibrations land on a reciever and are transduced into distinguishable perceptions, then we move into this definition of sound: “the sensation produced by stimulation of the organs of hearing by vibrations transmitted through the air or other medium.” Both of these definitions are ensconced in the dictionaries. So we each can choose and articulate which definition we are using in any given situation. In my case, sound serves a meaning making function, an orientation to the world function, and a wormhole between my psyche and the Universe. There are more than just trees falling here!
All of this sound vibration happens in sonic space(s). This space can be big or small depending on where we perceive the sound to be, our proximity to the sound source, the amplitude, frequency, oscillation, attack and decay of the sound as it moves through space. Making sound art is the process of sculpting these spaces. We work with audio samples, midi instruments, audio effects, acoustic noise, various transducers and sound diffusion systems, and place these in some kind of relational space with listeners.
So far I am thinking about sound art that exists in the physical world. This would be the sounding world we all live in. Our ears are the conduits to an even bigger world. The internal soundtrack of mind is a vivid place where pitches, song snatches, ear worms, the quiet hum of the meditative state all coexist. The internal and external soundtracks co-create in beautiful and unusual ways.
I am very interested in the ethereal sonic space that exists in the mind or the “brain ear”. This space is personal, individual, where sound engages with mind and imagination. The community built here is with the self, the soul, This is where sound inhabits the body and moves around a perceived sonic space between the ears and over the head. This space is accessed through headphones for the binaural audience. This space has been explored and defined through music CDs and mp3s listened to through headphones. The stereo field feels enlarged and contained in the “brain” part of the head. Sound can bounce off the walls of the mind and settle in a corner and scuttle off later. I enjoy creating and listening to soundscapes in the room of my mind. I am very conscious of placement and movement of sound into and around this room. I am always looking for ways to expand the size of this room. I love morphing the sense of space when sculpting a soundscape or tune within this room. This is my favorite room to play.
I want to orchestrate a similar experience diffusing sound into physical spaces. Explore playing the acoustics of a space. My experiences performing soundscapes in public spaces have raised many interesting questions for me.
How can a work of sound art present itself in a roomful of talking people? Can the sound enter a room as a subtle presence, rise up like the wind and tap the listener on the shoulder, then settle back into a shade? Is there a way to sculpt a piece of sound that could tap into the resonant frequency of a room full of talking people? Does a roomful of talking people have a resonant frequency? Is there a way to shape the sound presence more through frequency than amplitude?
I had a quantum leap experience around these questions on February 7, 2015 at Open Eye Cafe. See “Nested Soundscapes” blog post. I realized that each time I play a soundscape in a different place with different cohorts, the soundscape is made anew in that space/time. So I MUST record each time I play. These soundscapes become something different with each playing. Listening to the new version can suggest modifications to the original. Soundscapes become works in constant progress, joyfully incomplete, keeping the action potentials open. Never finished, never done – how does THAT feel?
After my year of study and celebration of “In C” I have developed some further interests in free-form methods of composition using scales, modes and layering melodic and rhythmic ideas. Idiosyncratic beats are beats that go in and out of sync with each other. Whether it is consonance to dissonance and back or arrythmia to groove and back, the beats may not move as you expect them to. Don’t reject this right away, keep listening. As you open up to the the unexpected, suddenly it comes together in a totally satisfying way. That is the reward of deep listening.
So “In C” inspires me to play with statements of varying lengths and tonal relationships by letting them flow over each other for extended periods of time. So a high-hat phrase might loop through 13 bar ms while the other parts are in loops of four and eight bar ms. This means the high-hat phrase is off-set from the other phrases so the phrase changes over time. At first this may be unsettling to the ear, but because the phrase is consistent over time, it develops a different, but clear and discernable, relationship to the other phrases. This conscious falling in and out of sync feels like the cycle of life, of growth and the clear result of the constantly vibrating Universe in which we live.
In 2017, “In C” revealed itself to me as a package of samples with Terry Riley’s version being one way of putting them together. This became Terry Riley’s In C or TRIC, and I began probing it with questions, such as
~Performance directions from Terry Riley suggest that the piece should not be played too fast. This made me wonder what a Minute In C would sound like?
~What would playing through TRIC sequentially, moving from one pattern to the next without pausing sound like? What would numerous staggered voicings of this sound like?
~Where is the middle of TRIC? (Pattern 27) can the piece be folded inward by starting at the edges (Patterns 1 and 53) and moving in to end on 27? can TRIC be played from the inside out, starting on 27 and moving to the edges?
TRIC Questions is an on-going soundscape generator for iBoD.
“A consideration of musical listening raises the question of the extent to which music simply reflects, or attempts to expand, human perceptual and cognitive capacities.” – Music and Mind in Everyday Life Pitts/Dibben/Clarke
What is the purpose of all of this?
The first thing is to deeply listen as much as possible. I enjoy listening, so am drawn to do it. My ears feel like a deep and open conduit between my inner and outer worlds. When I am playing I feel connected to a vast and joy-filled Universe.
The second thing is to select and shape sounds into a tune or a soundscape. When designing a soundscape for an art exhibit, I like to use sounds created while the artist is making their art work. Around and through these sounds I shape a song in response to the works of art. Soundscapes tend to be longer works running 25 minutes to an hour. A tune is usually 3 to 6 minutes. Tunes are sound sketches that tell a story or convey a sensibility about something. I love fleshing out feeling in sound/making feeling flesh through sound.
So that is basically HOW I engage with sound, but WHY/for what purpose do I engage with sound? This is the ever-evolving question, fluid as the Universe. On the egoic base-camp level, engaging with sound fulfills my need to create and share my unique sensibility with the world. And, sound helps me make sense of the world. The desire to know myself deeply, and express myself freely has lead me through my life. This is the way I have always been following. Through tap dance, ventriloquism, acting, art class, singing, theatre training, photography, poetry, directing, drumming, I have tried on many creative coats. Sound art/musical design has emerged as my true path and I am overjoyed!
One of the signs that this is my true path is that I leave egoic base-camp when I create sound art. This is a spiritual practice for me. When I play and create sound art, my intention is to listen for the timbre of the moment, and the variety of rhythms and intervalic relations being played in eternal sonic space in this moment-that space where The Big Om resonates. All kinds of songs bounce around and make and remake themselves in that space. Sometimes I capture snatches of these melodies or rhythms and can use them in a work. When performing soundscapes, my intention is to wake up the ears to a deeper listening, massage the sonic environment, and be a loving sound presence.
I combine the “song in the moment” with “archetypal” sound riffs and rhythms that may be recognizable and evoke feelings and memories. We each have our own bag of tunes that we love. And what we love is often times some particular part of these songs such as intervalic tone relationships or harmonic interplay or a syncopated rhythm. Many of my favorite songs begin with a major fifth interval. The very first interval of a tune establishes a path of expectation that the next step can either reinforce or break-and you are on your way. Just a few notes in and a certain rhythmic relation can stimulate physically and emotionally. It is so amazing. So I say that I “steal” riffs-I may use the first 3 to 5 notes of a phrase from a particular song ( sometimes I am conscious of the song and sometimes not) When I hear that part of the work, the whole of the song is there for me-not just the notes, but the feeling it evokes. My access to this approach is my own bag of earworms, and so I use them and hope that other people can hear something that resonates with their own bag.
In addition to “stealing” melodic riffs, I like to dip into the tonality of a particular song. When creating soundscapes for people (such as a friend, relative or artist), I will choose a song they like, or one I think they would like and sample 3-5 note phrases from that song or simply use the key or mode of the song to pick the scale for the scape. Then I will layer phrases together into conversational motifs.
This quote from the dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham, is a light I am following:
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares to other expressions. It is your business to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that activate you. Keep the channel open.
“And, while I would love to have other people listen to and appreciate what I create, I don’t need them to do so. It is enough to get to go there, come back and make something with what I found.” – dejacusse 2014
My vision has shifted from the above and now I know I want to share what I am finding and creating. The experience of playing soundscapes at Open Eye Cafe, listening to the recording of the soundscape, and shaping this idea of nested soundscapes (i.e. a recording of the electronic soundscape diffused in acoustic space and interacting with other players, the random environmental sounds, and natural acoustics of the space.) This approach challenges all of the players to listen to the soundscape as a part of the sound of the room. What do we need to get to that place of larger listening? When we can do that larger listening, how does it impact the choices we make? More questions to investigate.
Performing a soundscape within a soundscape reframes the audience/performer relationship. The audience is part of the soundscape from the moment they walk in the door, their footsteps, their conversation, all become part of the soundscape. And the soundscape is best heard with “peripheral attention” or “soft attention” rather than rapt or focused attention. I like to think of the soundscape as a glowing fire diffusing warmth to the entire room.
This clip is an example of a “nested soundscape” with some specific examples of background sounds that flow into the soundscape we are playing. There is a conversation that certain words or phrases pop out, but not enough to really get the conversation. There are tinklings of cups, an almost shaker-like sound that I think might be emptying coffee grounds out of a filter!? – not sure but I thought it was one of my cohorts playing percussion until I realized they were each playing their instruments with both hands at that moment.
That was Susanne Romey and Josh Zaslow with me at The Open Eye Cafe. Since then, I have been blessed with a lovely band of cohorts, who bring interesting sounds and ideas to the soundscapes. They are Jim Kellough on digital horn, Susanne Romey on keyboards, Native American flute, recorder, and Eleanor Mills on harmonicas and melodica. We call ourselves idiosyncratic beats of dejacusse, or iBoD for short.
By our fourth session, Susanne, Eleanor, Jim and I had started to find interesting ways to interact with each other and the soundscape. Here is a clip of three sections of Big Stride which we played most recently. In the first example, there is a wonderful swirling blend of harmonics out of which each voice emerges. All four of us were playing, and we all emerge at certain points in an identifiable way and then return to the larger sound. In the second example, we build to a swell of dissonance that eventually tapers down to a whimper, and then the main theme enters. This is a wonderful example of dynamics and transitions on the fly. The third example, contains what I call a “trade-off” where one player drops several notes that are then picked up by another and then the third player. It happens rather quickly, so you might need to listen several times to catch it, it is well worth it – so delightful! I am lucky to have this crew
“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 strategies 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. In order to be faithful, one must be fully present. And a powerful path to 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 it. 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. When the hypercritical, judgemental mind lets go into curious, discerning mind, the listener has reached a place of deeper listening from which to engage the soundscape.
Once inside the cave, 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 of sounds within a soundscape exist 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 the counterpart 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!
All quotes from Pauline Oliveros
Quantum Listening: From Practice to Theory (to Practice Practice)
Music Works Issue #76 (Spring 2007)
The idea of “nested soundscapes” feels like a deep reaching into the realm of “all of the waveforms”. Then the question is one of how do we “faithfully” transmit them? What sorts of preparation, sonic information and feedback loops do we need to do our faithful best in transmitting? With so much randomness, how can we engage with the cycle of entrainment and entropy to play with them, give them shape and bounce, add and subtract, express potentials?
With the addition of my cohorts (see blog post) I am starting to hear/feel the ocean of sound I want to create. The first Nested Soundscape was cobbled together by me from our April Improv and included in the blog post. This was captured in the Sun(Ra) Room with one Zoom recorder in surround mode placed up high (closer the ceiling than the floor) in the center of the sounders. The second recorder in stereo mode was set back just inside the corner cutout in the room. This recorder picked up the best mix of all the sounders and the scape. The center high one caught a lot of high frequencies. So mixed the two files together and got a fuller richer sound. There is a slight delay built between the two which adds to the texture.
How should a listener attend to a soundscape? I think it takes quantum listening, and by that I mean a willingness to confront and cast off the “codified” ear. The codified ear has been well trained to favor certain tones, certain rhythms, certain intervals and key relationships, genres, styles and, oh, yes, WORDS. Most people I know have very little appreciation for music that is not a vehicle for words. The “particular” ear of the well-trained (enslaved) listener will feel initially overwhelmed and disoriented by the risings and fallings in this ocean of sound, but with just a few deep breaths, recognizable patterns will emerge, hang out and fade away. Sometimes there will be a groove, and always, always there is an innate pulse. That is the underlyer; once you have aligned with that steady and shifting pulse, you can follow things and let things go. Form emerges from and submerges back into the pulsing ocean of sound.
I love it here and I hope you will too.
The computer as creative tool and performing instrument allows the envelope of sound and music to expand. By this I mean that this instrument can be programmed with such consistency that we expand our notion of tone and time. Complex polyrhythms can be created when the many parts are held with great accuracy as will happen with an Ableton clip loop. These clips never waver! So some REALLY unusual rhythms will be heard. Examples forthcoming-