Sunday, November 22, 2015

In Pursuit of Silence: the rest

The last two hundred pages of George Prochnik's In Pursuite of Silence, proceeded to bounce around to as many places as the first hundred. From shopping malls to boom car clubs, to soundproofing expos, the guy is covering territory. A trip to Copenhagen highlighted his conversations with "soundscapers" and sound mapping as a means to intentionally construct a space for the optimal everyday sound experience. A visit to a college for the deaf introduced Prochnik to the Deaf community's perception of silence and their attempts at a "deaf architecture" to accommodate that experience. He goes back in history to look at the successful campaigns against noise pollution headed by Ms. Julia Rice of New York -and their ultimate demise with the advent of motorized personal transportation. He explores the design of the Japanese garden and it's intended use a a space for quiet, solitary reflection. And finally, he pays a visit to a research laboratory specializing in earthworms and nematodes.

And what comes of these adventures? After the 200 page schizophrenic ping-pong marathon of ideas Prochnik settles on a conclusion similar to that of John Cage. Sound, certainly is not bad. The sounds we made are an assertion of our physical existence (the Italian futurists really harped on that). Ambient sound is, in fact, a necessary and inescapable part of human life. Of all life. Our frantic (and often expensive) attempts to control our ambient soundscape through headphones, soundproofing technology and community policy are simply an expression of our dissatisfaction with an increasingly lo-fi environment.

Our perception of sound is often relative and highly dependent upon who you are, where you're from, how old you are, your past sound exposure, your current sound exposure, and association of ideas you create around the sound you experience. We can fight over policies all at once deemed "too unreasonable" and "not stringent enough," or, as Prochnik suggests, we should shift our focus. Rather than impose upon ourselves and others the sonic environment one person deems best, we should instead attempt to intentionally cultivate opportunities for silence. This isn't to say we should obsessively seek quiet in the sense of "anechoic chamber-type-silence," but to quiet the sounds of our self-assertion, and allow for the sounds of life to show through.

Humans aren't made for complete silence, as evidenced by our own ears' hallucination of sound in the absence of stimulation. Humans are not made for constant sonic stimulation, as evidenced by the -sometimes violent- complaints made by neighbors and communities, and the detrimental physical affects to human health. We should instead, Prochnik suggests, create opportunities for hi-fi environments to exist. It's what we crave. It's what enable the monk to seek enlightenment It's what allows you to develop spacial intelligence. It's what gives you a reprieve from your own ego, and the egos of others, and become aware of everything else.

Overall, a nice, well-researched, and thoughtful read. An excellent exploration of John Cage's later attitudes toward the value of sound and silence. Prochnik's clumsy attempts at literary flair were mostly laughable, but his research of the question from all different angles was admirable.

And to be honest, who would have thought you'd get boom cars and earthworms into the same book?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Ultrachomatic" Compositions and Rainbow Wheels

Ivan Wyshnegradsky was a Russian composer with lofty goals. The 20th century avant-garde pianist was devoted to creating works "capable of awakening in every man the slumbering forces of cosmic consciousness." To do this, he sought out sounds to create music like no one had ever heard before. Sounds like a tall order, if you ask me.

His music was microtonal, meaning that it transcended the 12-scale tuning system in traditional Western music. Microtones are basically the notes between the notes- the Zeno's paradox of music, if you will. I know what you're wondering, and no, you can't play these notes on a regular piano. He spent some time trying to build a special piano that one could play these things on. In the late 1920s, he finished work on a quarter tone piano and began composing some interesting things.

But it was in the 1940s that things started to get really fun. This was when he began translating his "ultrachromatic" compositions into elaborate color wheels. By applying the concepts of synesthesia, be blurred the lines between sound and color, assigning each cell of the wheel a semitone in the musical sequence. What's cool is that you're supposed to be able to follow the spirals and visually "listen" to the melodies they represent.

Pretty cool, if you ask me.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sea Organ: The Water Harmonica

Croatian artist, Nicola Basic, created a giant instrument back in 2005. The "sea organ" may look like a set of concrete steps, but it's actually an elaborate arrangement of chambers, connecting to 35 organ pipes. Who plays such a large instrument?

The Adriatic sea, of course.

While I'm partial to all of the sounds the sea is making on its own, I am curious as to how nature plays this new instrument- and in particular, how it changes the soundscape of the area. What do the seagulls think?

Read more about this "harmonious alliance between man and nature" here.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

In Pursuit of Silence

I was waiting for Dan in the public library (which seems to be a perennial situation) and looking for a book that seemed interesting enough to fill the time. Just while I was (perhaps wrongfully) lamenting the selection available, I chanced upon a spine that caught my eye. I spent the next 15 minutes engrossed in George Prochnik's In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise.

Needless to say, the book came home with me, and I promised to never doubt the library system again.

The inside cover sets the stage perfectly: "More than money, power,  and even happiness, silence has become the most precious- and dwindling- commodity of our modern world." While that's a pretty bold, and perhaps melodramatic, statement to make, I was intrigued from the first page. I'm only about 100 pages in, but Prochnik has charmed me with his vacillation between philosophical musings on the very existence and pursuit of silence and his search for explanations in the biological sciences. Thus far I've been treated to the exploration of silence as a means of connecting with the divine reality of the universe (thanks to interviews with various monastic sects), conjectures from evolutionary psychology on the origins and reasons for hearing in the first place, and speculation on the adaptive purposes for animals' vocalizations. At page 97, I began a foiree into the strategic use of sound environments by the corporate world.

Prochnik's variety perhaps compensates for his lack of depth, but I'm intrigued, nonetheless. Cage's evolving ideas about the significance of silence, and the significance of all sounds are recurrent. though Prochnik has yet to concede to the value of "noise," and has instead focused on the negative physiological and psychological impacts of some sounds in contrast to others.

I'm excited to see where he goes.

Here's a favorite passage of mine from Chapter 1- Listening For the Unknown:

"All the time I'd been in the monastery, I'd been searching for some kinds of clear, encapsulated lesson in silence- something that I could take home with me. But what I'd received instead was a powerful reminder of the good that can come from not knowing, from lingering where the mind keeps reaching outward. I remembered speaking earlier to Vinod Menon, a neuroscientist who has done fMRI studies of people listening to music. Menon discovered that the peak of positive brain activity actually occurs in the silent pauses between sounds, when the brain is striving to anticipate what the next note will be. The burst of neural firing that takes place in the absence of sound stimulus enables the mind to perform some of its most vital work of maintaining attention and encoding memories."

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Movement of Air: Dance and Digital Projection

If you happened to be in the country of France last month, well, lucky you. Aside from visiting historical and cultural sites, drinking wine and eating the best bread on Earth, you might have had the chance to see a magical dance performance orchestrated by Adrian M and Claire B. The hour-long piece, performed by a trio of dancers, was unique in that it combined choreography with digital projection imaging- and did so in a novel way.

Unlike more common uses of digital projection, rather than projecting prerecorded scenes in which the dancers performed, Adrian and Claire utilized fully-interactive scenes that responded to the dancers movement. That is to say, nothing was animated beforehand and the final visual performance was rather spontaneous, or, one could say... indeterminate.

As a dancer myself, I'm skeptical of many visual gimmicks that aim to enhance what is already an excellent (and stand-alone) dance performance. But I appreciate that, in this work, the digital imagery isn't added as an afterthought, and is actively responding to the dancers' movements. In a way, it creates a more complex dialogue between the dancer and the space: the projection responding to the dancer, the dancer responding to the unplanned projection.

Watch a montage of the performance highlights here.
Then curse yourself for not being able to see it performed live.