There is something of “a sonic axiom,” Clayton writes: “Amplified music sounds terrible in empty rooms. The less stuff there is in any given space, the more sound waves will bounce around the walls and ceiling and glass, losing definition as they both interrupt and double themselves. The resulting audio is smeary, muffled, and diffuse. However, when the same space fills with bodies moving around, those waves are absorbed, dampening those irksome reflections and allowing us to hear the sound more powerfully and in far greater detail.”
The effect is such that “the only thing that could make [music] sound better is people.” Bodies make music better—a second sonic axiom, as well as an optimist’s call for more social listening. In other words, your music will sound better the more people you experience it with. Hang out with others. Be bodies. Share.
In any case, Clayton’s piece went online a couple weeks ago but I find myself thinking about it almost daily, as the acoustic effects of the coronavirus lockdown become clear in cities around the world.
“As the pandemic brought much of the crush of daily life to a halt,” the New York Times reported, “microphones listening to cities around the world have captured human-made environments suddenly stripped of human sounds.” To put this in Clayton’s terms, cities are now spaces without bodies.
Think, for example, of Francesca Marciano describing “the new silences of Rome” in an age of coronavirus, or the New York Times itself pointing out how, in Manhattan, “the usual chaos of sounds—car horns, idle chatter and the rumble of subways passing frequently below—[has] been replaced by the low hum of wind and birds. Sound levels there fell by about five decibels, enough to make daytime sound more like a quiet night.”
There is an interesting paradox at work here, though, in terms of a widely reported belief that birds appear to be singing louder than ever before: birds are actually quieting down now, as they have less competition to out-sing. As the NYT writes, this is “because they no longer have to sing louder to be heard over the racket of the city, a behavior, known as the Lombard effect, that has been observed in other animals, too.”
I’ve written at length about sound and the city elsewhere, but one of my favorite pieces on this was a short profile of acoustic engineer Neill Woodger, then-head of Arup’s SoundLab, published in Dwell way back in June 2008.
There, Woodger made the point that, as we transition to electric vehicles, which will remove the sound of the internal combustion engine from our cities, we are being given a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime acoustic opportunity: to redesign urban space for sound, highlighting noises we might want to hear—birdsong, bells, distant train whistles—and helping to excise those we do not.
The coronavirus, it seems, has inadvertently set the stage for another such sonic opportunity. Our global urban lockdowns have all but stripped our cities of “bodies moving around,” in Clayton’s words, such that our streets now sound quite eerie, as if replaced by uncanny muted versions of themselves, or what Marciano calls “an atmosphere of peaceful suspension, as when it snows and everything is wrapped in cotton wool.”
Much has been made of how temporary design interventions in response to COVID-19—things like wider sidewalks, outdoor cafes, streets liberated from cars and opened up to children, families, and the elderly—might become permanent.
In this context, what permanent acoustic shifts might we hear coming from all this, as well?
The above image, as described by Susanna Kohler over at AAS Nova, depicts an ultra-large-scale magnetic “harp” near the center of our galaxy, emitting radio waves. The black lines apparently “span several light-years.”
As Kohler writes, where the parenthetical comments are her own, “a team of scientists argues that this cosmic music is caused by a massive star or a pulsar (a magnetized neutron star) plunging through an ordered magnetic field in the galactic center. As the star crosses (moving upward, in the image above) bundles of field lines, it discharges high-energy cosmic rays that travel in either direction along the bundles, emitting radio waves.”
Weatherall’s taste in music was idiosyncratic, in the best possible sense, animated by something much larger than—and outside—the music, as evidenced by his own introductions to his show. “Greetings, sisters and brothers,” Weatherall usually began. “Welcome to the temple of gnostic sonics.” From that moment on, the bass lines were heavy, the beats repetitive, the mood as high as his own cannabinoid proclivities.
He had at least two famous tattoos: “Fail We May,” one forearm said. “Sail We Must,” replied the other. And we must.
Although I’m only slowly coming around to the music itself, it is hard not to be impressed by the level of narrative engineering that went into Luke Sanger’s 2019 album Onyx Pyramid.
The music, Sanger writes, is a kind of fictional soundtrack for a landscape of offworld megafarms, where a human skeleton crew has been reporting “auditory hallucinations” amplified by the effects of an artificial atmosphere. Audio scifi.
The combination of a worldwide shift to GM crops and rising global temperatures led to a series of global disasters, destroying many natural resources and causing a permanent environmental imbalance. Earth’s leaders make the choice to outsource all food production to off-world corporately owned farm planets, known as ‘flatlands’.
These giant artificial orbs contain vast crop fields and are operated robotically. A handful of human ‘farmers’ are required to oversee operations and perform maintenance tasks. Although the environmental conditions are engineered to mimic 21st century Earth, there is no wildlife. Farmers have been reporting strange experiences of auditory hallucinations, nicknamed ‘flatland frequencies’, these are most likely a byproduct of the chemically engineered atmosphere combined with extreme isolation.
You can buy or stream the full album over at Bandcamp.
An anecdote I often use while teaching design classes—but also something I first read so long ago, I might actually be making the whole thing up—comes from an old interview with Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin. I’ve tried some very, very lazy Googling to find the original source, but, frankly, I like the version I remember so much that I’m not really concerned with verifying its details.
In any case, the story goes like this: in an interview with a music magazine, published I believe some time in the late-1990s, James claimed that he had been hired to remix a track by—if I remember correctly—The Afghan Whigs. Whether or not it was The Afghan Whigs, the point was that James reported being so unable to come up with new ideas for the band’s music that he simply sped their original song up to the length of a high-hat, then composed a new track of his own using that sound.
The upshot is that, if you were to slow down the resulting Aphex Twin track by several orders of magnitude, you would hear an Afghan Whigs song (or whatever) playing, in its entirety, every four or five minutes, bursting surreally out of the electronic blur before falling silent again, like a tide. Just cycling away, over and over again.
What’s amazing about this, at least for me, is in the possibilities it implies for everything from sonic camouflage—such as hiding acoustic information inside a mere beep in the overall background sound of a room—to art installations.
Imagine a scenario, for example, in which every little bleep and bloop in a song (or TV commercial or blockbuster film or ringtone) somewhere is actually an entire other song accelerated, or even what this could do outside the field of acoustics altogether. An entire film, for example, sped up to a brief flash of light: you film the flash, slow down the resulting footage, and you’ve got 2001 playing in a public space, in full, hours compressed into a microsecond. It’s like the exact opposite of Bryan Boyer’s Very Slow Movie Player, with very fast nano-cinemas hidden in plain sight.
The world of sampling litigation has been widely covered—in which predatory legal teams exhaustively listen to new musical releases, flagging unauthorized uses of sampled material—but, for this, it’s like you’d need time cops, temporal attorneys slowing things down dramatically out of some weird fear that their client’s music has been used as a high-hat sound…
Anyway, for context, think of the inaudible commands used to trigger Internet-of-Things devices: “The ultrasonic pitches are embedded into TV commercials or are played when a user encounters an ad displayed in a computer browser,” Ars Technica reported back in 2015. “While the sound can’t be heard by the human ear, nearby tablets and smartphones can detect it. When they do, browser cookies can now pair a single user to multiple devices and keep track of what TV commercials the person sees, how long the person watches the ads, and whether the person acts on the ads by doing a Web search or buying a product.”
Or, as the New York Times wrote in 2018, “researchers in China and the United States have begun demonstrating that they can send hidden commands that are undetectable to the human ear to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Inside university labs, the researchers have been able to secretly activate the artificial intelligence systems on smartphones and smart speakers, making them dial phone numbers or open websites. In the wrong hands, the technology could be used to unlock doors, wire money or buy stuff online—simply with music playing over the radio.”
Now imagine some malevolent Aphex Twin doing audio-engineering work for a London advertising firm—or for the intelligence services of an adversarial nation-state—embedding ultra-fast sonic triggers in the audio environment. Only, here, it would actually be some weird dystopia in which the Internet of Things is secretly run by ubiquitous Afghan Whigs songs being played at 3,600-times their intended speed.
Between cross-country moves, book projects, wild changes in the online media landscape over the past few years, and needless self-competition through social media, my laptop has accumulated hundreds and hundreds, arguably thousands, of bookmarks for things I wanted to write about and never did. Going back through them all feels like staring into a gravesite at the end of a life I didn’t realize was mortal.
In any case, another link I wanted to write about many eons ago explained that legendary producer and ambient musician Brian Eno had been hired to design new acoustics for London’s Chelsea and Westminster hospital, part of an overall rethinking of their patient-wellness plan. Healing through sound. “The aim,” the Evening Standard explained, “is to replicate techniques in use in the hospital’s paediatric burns unit, where ‘distraction therapy’ such as projecting moving images on to walls can avoid the need to administer drugs such as morphine.”
This is already interesting—if perhaps also a bit alarming, in that staring at images projected onto blank walls can apparently have the same effect as taking morphine. Or perhaps that’s beautiful, a chemical testament to the mind-altering potential of art amplified by modern electrical technology.
Either way, Eno was brought on board to “refine” the hospital’s acoustics, much as one would do for the interior of a luxury vehicle, and even to “provide soothing music” for the 爱博体育在线
’s patients, i.e. to write a soundtrack for architecture.
We are already in an era where the interiors of luxury cars are designed with the help of high-end acoustic consultants, where luxury apartments are built using products such as “acoustic plaster,” and where critical governmental facilities are constructed with acoustic security in mind—a silence impenetrable to eavesdroppers—but I remain convinced that middle-budget home developers all over the world are sleeping on an opportunity for distinguishing themselves. That is, why not bring Brian Eno in to design soothing acoustics for an entire village or residential tower?
Imagine a whole new neighborhood in Los Angeles designed in partnership with Dolby Laboratories or Bang & Olufsen, down to the use of acoustic-deflection walls and carefully chosen, sound-absorbing plants, or an apartment complex near London’s Royal Academy of Music with interiors acoustically shaped by Charcoalblue. SilentHomes constructed near freeways in New York City—or, for that matter, in the middle of nowhere, for sonically sensitive clients. Demonstration suburbs for unusual acoustic phenomena—like Joel Sanders et al.’s “Mix House” scaled up to suit modern real-estate marketers.
At the very least, consider it a design challenge. It’s 2020. KB Home has teamed up with Dolby Labs to construct a new housing complex covering three city blocks near a freeway in Los Angeles. What does it look—and, more to the point, what does it sound—like?
Musician Andrew Pekler has composed soundtracks for “phantom islands,” or “islands that had existed on maps but not, as it turned out, in reality,” The Wire reports.
“Though a few of them were invented by unscrupulous captains seeking glory (or just further commissions),” Pekler explained to The Wire, “most phantom islands were unintentional fictions—the results of the imprecise science of navigation, clouds, fog banks and icebergs being mistaken for land, and wishful thinking.”
The accompanying website is pretty rad (although it apparently does not work in mobile), though, fair warning, it will easily consume a great deal of your afternoon at the office.
While reading about Pekler’s work, I was reminded of the so-called “Null Island” effect, a different kind of phantom island that invisibly inhabits the space at 0°N, 0°E in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa.
“Every day, countless people seeking digital directions on their computers and smartphones are diverted to an isolated spot on the Atlantic Ocean, 1,000 miles or so off the coast of Africa, where the Prime Meridian and the equator intersect,” the Wall Street Journal explains. “It’s called Null Island.”
This digital “island”—the paper describes it as “the default destination for mistakes”—exists as a result of programming errors in geographic information systems (GIS).
“Unfortunately, due to human typos, messy data, or even glitches in the geocoder itself,” Tim St. Onge wrote for the Library of Congress back in 2016, “the geocoding process doesn’t always run so smoothly. Misspelled street names, non-existent 爱博体育在线
numbers, and other quirks can create invalid addresses that can confuse a geocoder so that the output becomes ‘0,0’. While this output indicates that an error occurred, since ‘0,0’ is in fact a location on the Earth’s surface according to the coordinate system, the feature will be mapped there, as nonsensical as the location may be. We end up with an island of misfit data.”
Alas, Andrew Pekler’s Phantom Islands project doesn’t include a soundtrack for Null Island, but perhaps other musicians and sound designers will take that as a challenge. A fictional ethnomusicology for digital nowhere.
(Thanks to @RJCeetoo for the heads up about Phantom Islands and to Wayne Chambliss for telling me about Null Island many years ago.)
The next generation of car audio might not require speakers at all, according to the New York Times, with interesting implications for architecture.
“Continental, a German auto-components supplier, has developed technology that makes parts of the car’s interior vibrate to create high-fidelity audio on a par with any premium sound system on the road now,” the newspaper reports. “The approach turns the rear window into a subwoofer. The windshield, floor, dashboard and seat frames produce the midrange. And the A-posts—the posts between the windshield and the doors—become your tweeters… The result is something like an enhanced version of surround sound.”
The architectural applications are pretty obvious—for example, transforming your home’s windows, pillars, floors, and even foundation walls into pieces of an inhabitable sonic ensemble. The results would be sound everywhere. “You can’t tell where it’s coming from,” a Continental engineer remarks.
Should the tech find a foothold in car design, its leap over into architecture will not be far behind: first up would no doubt be amusement parks, cinemas, and other venues where immersive sound without origin is a premium service, followed closely by luxury home construction and then, finally, the rest of us. The whole article, in fact, has descriptions of future car audio—noise-cancellation, cones of silence, and more—that should be of interest to architectural designers.
2. Amazon wants to put robots in every home. “The retail and cloud computing giant has embarked on an ambitious, top-secret plan to build a domestic robot, according to people familiar with the plans. Codenamed ‘Vesta,’ after the Roman goddess of the hearth, home and family,” the robot “could be a sort of mobile Alexa,” Businessweek speculates, “accompanying customers in parts of their home where they don’t have Echo devices. Prototypes of the robots have advanced cameras and computer vision software and can navigate through homes like a self-driving car.”
3. A woman in Austin, Texas, went missing in 2015. Without monthly payments, her house was eventually seized and sold by the bank—but the home’s new owners found the skeletal remains of a body inside one of the walls back in March. It was the missing woman. “In the attic, there was a broken board that led down to the space” where the skeleton was found, a coroner’s spokesperson explained. “Law enforcement thinks she may have been up in the attic and fell through the attic floor.” Horrifically, whether she was killed by the fall or remained alive, trapped inside the wall, is unclear.
4. At an event here in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, artist and writer Julia Christensen drew my attention to officially recognized “former constellations,” or named star groups that are no longer considered referentially viable.
5. The Roman monetary system left a planetary-archaeological trace in Greenland’s ice sheet, according to Rob Meyer of The Atlantic. “A team of archaeologists, historians, and climate scientists have constructed a history of Rome’s lead pollution,” Meyer explains, “which allows them to approximate Mediterranean economic activity from 1,100 b.c. to 800 a.d. They found it hiding thousands of miles from the Roman Forum: deep in the Greenland Ice Sheet, the enormous, miles-thick plate of ice that entombs the North Atlantic island.” With this data, they have “reconstructed year-by-year economic data documenting the rise and fall of the Roman Republic and Empire.” Oddly enough, this means the Greenland Ice Sheet is a landscape-scale archive of Roman financial data.
6. Speaking of economic data mined from indirect sources, “satellite imagery that tracks changes in the level of nighttime lighting within and between countries over time” might also reveal whether countries are lying about the strengths of their economies. According to researcher Luis R. Martinez, “increases in nighttime lighting generally track with increases in GDP,” and this becomes of interest when lighting levels don’t correspond with officially given numbers. Of course, this is not the first time that satellite imagery has been used to estimate economic data.
7. “Today our experience of the night differs significantly from that of our ancestors,” Nancy Gonlin and April Nowell write for Sapiens. “Before they mastered fire, early humans lived roughly half their lives in the dark.” Cue the rise of “archaeological inquiries into the night,” or what Gonlin and Nowell have evocatively named the “archaeology of night.”
8. There was an amazing article by Jake Halpern published in The New Yorker two years ago about Nazi gold fever in Poland and the incredible amount of amateur detective operations there dedicated to finding an alleged buried fortune. It’s a wild mix of abandoned WWII bunkers, secret underground cities in the forest, and urban legends of untold wealth. It turns out, however, there is a (vaguely) similar obsession with lost or buried gold in northwestern Pennsylvania: “For decades, treasure hunters in Pennsylvania have suspected that there is a trove of Civil War gold lost in a rural forest in the northwestern part of the state,” the New York Times reports. “The story of the gold bars was pieced together from old documents, a map and even a mysterious note found decades ago in a hiding place on the back of a bed post in Caledonia,” the paper explains.
9. People are drawn to forests for all sorts of reasons. As Alex Mar wrote last autumn for the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Slender Man phenomenon—that inspired two young girls to try to murder a classmate—also had a forest element. “Girls lured out into the dark woods—this is the stuff of folk tales from so many countries,” Mar writes, “a New World fear of the Puritans, an image at the heart of witchcraft and the occult, timeless.” Mar points out that, after the attempted murder, the two girls began heading “to Wisconsin’s Nicolet National Forest on foot, nearly 200 miles north. They were convinced that, once there, if they pushed farther and farther into the nearly 700,000-acre forest, they would find the mansion in which their monster [Slender Man] dwells and he would welcome them.” The whole article is an interesting look at childhood, folklore, and the sometimes dark allure of the wild.
10. More treasure hunts: is there a cache of buried armaments, stolen from a National Guard armory in 1970, hidden somewhere in Amesbury, Massachusetts? According to a commenter on the Cast Boolits forum, William Gilday, who once “led an assault on a National Guard armory in Newburyport” and who spent nearly half of his life in prison for killing a police officer, confessed on his death bed that he buried guns and ammunition stolen from the armory somewhere in his hometown of Amesbury. “It’s one of those ‘what if’ things,” the commenter continues. “I’ve known about the confession for years, and I walk my dog in the ‘suspected’ vicinity just about every day. The problem is that the ‘authorities’ claim that everything that was stolen was recovered. But, a few weeks ago, I emailed a local radio talk show host who was involved in the death bed confession and I asked her if she thought that stolen items really had been buried in my town and she replied, ‘Yes…do you know where they are?’”
11. “A dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has disrupted the electric power grid for most of the Continent, making certain kinds of clocks—many of those on ovens, in heating systems and on radios—run up to six minutes slow,” the New York Times reported back in March. “The fluctuation in the power supply is infinitesimally small—not nearly enough to make a meaningful difference for most powered devices—and if it were a brief disturbance, the effect on clocks might be too little to worry about.” But this six-minute lag is enough to cause subtle effects in people’s lives. A bad first novel could be written about slow clocks, distant political disputes, and some sort of disastrous event—a missed train, a skipped meeting—in the narrator’s personal life.
12. The above story reminds me of the suspicion last year that Russia was using some sort of large-scale GPS jamming device in the Black Sea. “Reports of satellite navigation problems in the Black Sea suggest that Russia may be testing a new system for spoofing GPS,” David Hambling reported for New Scientist. “This could be the first hint of a new form of electronic warfare available to everyone from rogue nation states to petty criminals.” The reason I say this is because you can easily imagine a scenario where someone is driving around, totally lost, receiving contradictory if not frankly nonsensical navigation instructions, and it’s because they are an unwitting, long-distance victim of geographic weaponry being used in a war zone far away.
I’ve been delinquent in mentioning Jace Clayton’s new book, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture. Longtime readers of this blog might recognize Clayton—aka DJ /rupture—from an interview published many years back in The 爱博电竞APP
Book, on the topic of music, sound, and cities.
Uproot is Clayton’s guide to various sonic undertows shaping contemporary music around the world, from Autotuned vocals spilling out of North African villages to raves in ruined 爱博体育在线
s on the divided island of Cyprus, or from Jimi Hendrix’s literally sinister left-handed amplification of the “Star-Spangled Banner” to five thousand years of continuous habitation—and urban music—in Beirut.
Clayton has long defined himself as a kind of human forward-operating base, picking up the signals of incoming future music, writing dispatches for Fader, giving interviews to The Wire, and chronicling much of this on his own blog, Mudd Up!
The book itself proceeds through a series of longer chapters punctuated by aphoristic statements (“Dancing is a form of listening”; “Music that doesn’t change is free to do other things”; “To be local is to have few options”; “What we care for we repeat”). These summations both highlight and launch each chapter’s short, linked essays that back up Clayton’s claims.
Its very first sentence simultaneously warns against and advocates digital amnesia: “The early twenty-first century will be remembered as a time of great forgetting,” he writes. He is referring to the complex effects of an ongoing format change, as musical culture transfers “from analog to digital.” Later in the book, Clayton develops this into what he calls the “distributional aesthetics” of 21st-century music, with both approval and slight political hesitation. He has in mind not just DIY punk CDs sold for cash after road shows but Lebanese cab drivers streaming new, anonymous tracks to jet-lagged passengers over Bluetooth.
How the sounds are delivered—through whom they are distributed and how they are saved—becomes as much a part of their effect as their rhythm or their BPM.
Uproot is at its best and most resonant when Clayton is out in the field, tracking down the physical origin of today’s music, whether that means visiting a town in Monterey, Mexico, to interview a 17-year-old bedroom producer of tribal ranch techno or browsing the stalls of Moroccan public markets.
In the latter case, Clayton gives an unexpected material signature to otherwise ephemeral MP3 culture. “The inorganic tang of injection-molded plastics off-gassing complex, probably carcinogenic polymer molecules mingles with sweat and diesel exhaust,” he writes. “Find the sellers of cheap plastic and you’ll have found the sellers of music, because for most of the world music is only worth as much as the plastic it comes delivered on.”
Questions of preservation, economic control, and cultural power interlace throughout the book, but Clayton manages to ground these in examples of samples—Sting profiting from P. Diddy, say—and software, such as the now-ubiquitous Autotune mentioned earlier, originally developed as a seismic tool for oil exploration.
Clayton remains both attention-addled and unusually focused, zooming in to track, with forensic detail, the unlikely paths a specific remix followed from a Berlin apartment to becoming an online dancing meme, before he abruptly changes station and moves on to new ground. Later, for example, Clayton shifts from the impossible task of preserving an ever-growing ocean of MP3s washing around online to thoughts about why sending golden phonographs to space with the Voyager mission—intergalactic file-sharing—wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
In any case, what’s particularly great about the book is that it wasn’t simply written from the comfort of Clayton’s home, an introvert’s report from too many hours spent downloading vast catalogs of exotic sounds; instead, Uproot is a road book, part field guide, part treasure map, a demonstration project to show that all music is made somewhere and that Clayton is unusually good at locating it.
For those of you in Wales next month, there will be an interesting collaboration between musician Gruff Rhys and architect Roger Paez i Blanch, called “Breaking and Entry.”
It is described as the “soundtrack to a Catalan prison,” one designed by Paez i Blanch’s firm, and it relies on an unusual graphic score “based on a map of the prison that registers the emergent life that also occupies the 爱博体育在线