This time we talk with a fascinating sound artist and composer Mack met at a recent meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts. As his website puts it, Brian House is an artist who explores the interdependent rhythms of the body, technology, and the environment. His background in both computer science and noise music informs his research-based practice. Recent interests include AI, telegraphy, and urban rats.” If that description looks a little daunting on the screen, the work itself sounds really cool to cris and Mack. We’ll listen to three pieces of Brian’s: a composition that imprints motion-tracking data on collectible vinyl, a field recording from the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and an encounter with the wildlife that put the “burrows” in New York’s five boroughs.

Links to works discussed: Quotidian Record (2012), Urban Intonation (2017).

Mack notes that it was incredible to edit this episode using Daniel Fishkin’s daxophone arrangement of John Cage’s “Ryoanji” (1983).

The other music on today’s episode is by Brian House and Graeme Gibson.

[♪ ethereal music playing ♪]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This… is… Phantom Power.

[FEMALE COMPUTERIZED VOICE]

Episode 3.

[CRIS]

Dirty Rat.

[unidentified sounds raising and lowering in pitch, banging noises]

[CRIS]

So, what are we listening to here, Mack?

[MACK HAGOOD]

What do you think we’re listening to here, Cris?

[noises continue, Mack laughing]

[CRIS]

I don’t know, what is that? Is that an owl, put through a filtering device or something?

[MACK, still laughing]

You think it sounds like an owl put through a filtering device? Let’s listen to some more.

[CRIS]

Oh, wow. So synthetic.

[MACK]

It sounds like an old theatre organ having a bad day.

[CRIS]

Oh, yeah, no, I’m hearing that now. A pipe organ.

[MACK]

Yeah.

[CRIS]

Or something that hasn’t got a lot of wheeze left in it.

[MACK]

Something sad is happening in the silent film.

[CRIS]

Something very sad is happening.

[MACK]

Harold Lloyd fell off the clock.

[both laughing]

[CRIS]

And so he did.

[MACK]

Alright, so… it’s… it’s rats.

[CRIS]

That’s a rat?!

[MACK]

That’s a rat.

[clanging noises begin, rat noises stop]

[MACK]

So today we’re gonna meet the guy behind the rat recordings that you just heard a moment ago:  Brian House. He’s a composer and sound artist I met last November at the Conference for the Society of Literature, Science, and the Arts, which is this really crazy conference for interdisciplinary scholarship and creative experimentation. I met Brian, and when I heard about what he was working on, I just knew we had to have him on the show. His work uses sound to express relationships between bodies, human and nonhuman bodies, social relationships, geographic relationships, temporal relationships, and sonic relationships. So we’ll be hearing three different pieces of his:  a musical composition that traces human, urban, and transatlantic movement, a field recording from the wetlands of Botswana, and an installation that will take us into the underground boroughs of New York City. This is work that helps us make sense of relationships we normally can’t sense at all.

[BRIAN HOUSE]

Well, my name is Brian House, and I’m an artist based right now up here in Providence, though I frequently do work down in New York. Yeah, I’m up here at Brown University at the moment, working on my PhD in music.

[♪ upbeat technological music ♪]

[CRIS]

So, Mack – how does Brian get interested in rats when he’s working on music?

[MACK]

Well, I think in order to get into that, we need to understand more of his previous work and some of the themes that are going on in it.

[BRIAN]

You know, I’ve been particularly interested in the ideas of Henri Lefebvre, right, who, in his last writings, outlined this poetic methodology called “Rhythm Analysis.”

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah, he was the French Marxist sociologist, spent a good amount of time thinking about life in the city, and –

[CRIS]

And the design of the urban environment, and –

[BRIAN]

And that’s been the basis for a lot of my recent work. And, through focusing on time in a specific way, or rather, temporality, in a way that maybe subverts some of the epistemological biases of the society that we live in, which is very object-focused, very visually-focused. So, to have a more acoustic way of experiencing things, but not in a way that’s limited to sound, more the ways that the rhythms of our body come into contact with the world around us.

[MACK]

So, if this is sounding a little bit abstract, maybe it’ll help to talk about a particular piece. What we’re listening to right now is a piece of Brian’s called Quotidian Record, and it’s a kind of sonic mapping of his movement through space.

[BRIAN]

Well, you know, I was really interested in the rhythms of everyday life, as you move around the city, and how that had a particular kind of musical quality to it – or, at least I thought it did, right? So, I tracked my location, using an app on my phone, right, for an entire year. So, I had the latitude and longitude coordinates. And I took that, and transformed it into a piece of music. So every place I visited became a note. And the same pitch of the note meant the same place. But the rhythms from one place to another were largely as I experienced them, except for the fact that instead of taking a year, I condensed it down to about 11 minutes. So that’s about 1.8 seconds per day.

[music fades out]

And the reason it was that speed is because, I realized that a vinyl record –

[sound of a record crackling]

is a beautiful kind of representation of time. You have its rotation, you have this feeling of moving in and out on the platter, so I made this piece of music so it’d fit on the vinyl record such that one rotation of the record –

[clanging noises begin]

was one day of my lived time. So you hear it go around, and you hear the kind of motifs of my everyday life unfold as this record turns, and you can actually see what time that you’re hearing by where the stylus is on the record.

[clanging stops, record crackling fades out]

[CRIS]

I’m liking this idea of the revolution of the day, or the day as one revolution.

[MACK]

Yeah, yeah, it’s lovely, and I gotta say, this is a beautiful object, this record, I’m just so sad that they only made 20 of them because I really want one.

[Quotidian Record fades in again]

[CRIS]

They could at least have made 365.

[MACK, laughing]

Exactly, right?

[BRIAN]

So, I worked with a friend of mine who’s a designer, Greg Mihalko, and we made a diagram for the surface of the record – you know, like it was like a clock, so you could see the time, and you could see what month you were at in the year, and we even put in there what city I was in. So cities corresponded to key changes. And it turns out that it sounds pretty cool, it sounds good, because most of the time it’s just riffing on this major third, which is me at home in New York City, and when you get to the jazz intervals, that’s when I’m going farther field.

[MACK]

So, yeah, but he’s making audible this kind of unheard rhythm of urban life, right? And definitely we’ll put a link to the website so you can see what the record looks like.

[CRIS]

Right.

[MACK]

Yeah, so I think an important point to think about here is that, from Brian’s perspective, this isn’t a representation, per say, he doesn’t want you to decode this –

[CRIS]

Right.

[MACK]

– and figure out that he was in Berlin in July, or whatever.

[CRIS]

Berlin is F sharp.

[MACK, laughing]

Right. But he’s giving us a way of sensing these social relationships in these different kinds of rhythms through space, the ways we move through space, and the ways we interact with humans and nonhumans, actually.

[CRIS]

Right, this is what people ought to be thinking more about, is pattern among organisms.

[MACK]

Yeah, these relations and expanding our idea of what social relations are.

[CRIS]

Exactly.

[clanging noise]

[MACK]

So far, what we’re hearing mainly is his sort of geographic location, but as you’ll hear, he got inspired by some more work that he did, and started to think more about the relationships that are going on between humans and even nonhumans.

[CRIS]

Right. So he’s going backwards and forwards through this network of spaces, but there are other things in those spaces.

[BRIAN]

I had some experiences with field recording over the last couple of years that really opened up my thinking in regard to rhythm as a social relationship. And this really comes off of some of the classic work in acoustic ecology from people like Bernie Krause and this idea of the Niche Hypothesis.

[MACK, laughing]

Ah, yes, the Niche Hypothesis. And what is that, Cris?

[CRIS]

It’s that sense that every living thing that is producing sound has its place within the overall sonic ecosystem of a given environment.

[BRIAN]

Different organisms communicate in their own kind of frequency bands, in a way that they won’t interfere with each other, and can just kind of zero in on the particular frequencies that are of interest to them. So, I went to Botswana with National Geographic and did some field recording in the Okavango Delta region.

[fade in sounds from the Delta, including frogs and a myriad of other creatures]

And this is one of the richest ecosystems in the world. Tons of sound made by all kinds of animals. And so I would just put up the microphone and let the soundscape unfold, and then looking at those recordings later –

[MACK]

Now, when Brian says “looking at the recordings” he’s actually talking about a spectrogram. So, you feed a recording into this software and it shows you all the different frequencies that are being used in that particular recording.

[BRIAN, continued]

It’s very clear how different species have organized themselves in very specific frequency bands. So, they’re layers, it looks like geographic stratification. Absolutely fascinating. You can pick out, “here are the frogs, here are the insects, this is this particular type of bird, these are the big mammals at the bottom.” So they’re all organized in their particular frequency bands, and also temporally, right? There’s different rhythms that these animals use that spread out and interweave with each other. So it’s very apparent that the different species within a soundscape like the Okavango have learned how to listen, not only to each other, but a certain sensitivity to where they fit in within the environment. And, you know, in some cases, they might not be able to even hear each other, because of the physiology of their hearing, or in other cases, they might be paying specific attention to noises outside of their frequency band, because that’s a different type of relationship, maybe a threat or potential lunch.

[CRIS]

That’ll be the mammals at the bottom.

[BRIAN]

But within their own frequency band, that’s a very social relationship. Those are mating calls, are territorial calls, this kind of organization within a society. So sound in that context becomes a very direct way to think about social relationships through rhythm, and we can learn about how these things inform themselves.

[CRIS]

Hang on a minute, Mack. Brian is talking about pitch, but I thought we were talking about rhythm.

[MACK]

Yeah, I had that same reaction, too, but he’s reminding us that pitch is rhythm, that frequency is a micro-rhythm that just moves so quickly that we perceive it as pitch.

[BRIAN]

One way to think about it is that this is all just movement. It’s movement at different speeds. Music, for instance, is audible human motion. That’s an interesting way to think about it because the different speeds of the human body show up in the way that we organize musical time. For instance, the main pulse of a song, the beat –

[a metronome starts]

That’s a heartbeat rhythm. Or it’s a walking rhythm –

[a scale on a piano is played]

Those two things together reflect the energy of the piece. But of course –

[the scale continues, this time twice as fast and in three octaves]

There’s faster sounds that happen in that, the notes flying by, that’s at the speed we move our fingers. It’s a different type of rhythm because it references a different part of our physiology.

[the scale continues, even faster]

And the tone is something that does correspond to the voice, this idea of timbre, something that vibrates on a level that we hear as the quality of the sound or even the pitch of the sound that vibrates our eardrum.

[the scales stop; the metronome fades out]

[electronic music starts; it sounds like what you might hear fighting a boss in an 8-bit video game]

[a distorted, computerized voice that fits the quality of the music fades in; he reveals himself to be MULLOCK]

Hey, what’s up guys, it’s Mullock, the Dark God of Information Capitalism. Mullock, whose eyes are a thousand blind windows. Mullock, whose soul is electricity – and banks! Just takin’ a quick break to remind you guys to rate Phantom Power on iTunes or Apple Podcasts, and even better, write a review of the show! That’s what we in the industry call “engagement,” and it lets Apple know that this podcast rocks! Today we wanna give a big ol’ shoutout to Steph Cerasko, who wrote an iTunes review called Sound Nerds Unite! “Really thoughtful and provocative,” she writes. “Great podcast for sound nerds.” HA HA HA HA HA. Thanks, Steph! So remember, do Cris and Mack a solid and leave a review. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get a shoutout from yours truly, Mullock, the Dark God of Information Capitalism! Now back to the show!

[music fades out]

[MACK]

So, it’s all about relationships between bodies, then. It’s all these temporal relationships between different parts of our bodies and our bodies connecting with one another temporally through sound.

[CRIS]

Yeah, and there’s a similar idea in dance, which is that when you try to stand still, there are multiple small dances going on within the standing still body.

[MACK]

Hmm. That’s really nice. And I think finally we can bring this back to the rats.

[CRIS]

Bring the rats back, Mack.

[clanging noises sound intermittently; the rat noises from earlier very slowly fade back in]

[BRIAN]

So I guess the rhythms that I’m particularly interested in are those that happen on a scale that are outside of the motion of our human body, they’re either faster or slower, and so we don’t typically experience them as sound or music. But through electronic technology or some other strategy, we can scale those things so that they can make sense – I mean literally make sense to our bodies – and we can feel as music or sound something that would normally be operating on a different level, on a different frequency strata, so to speak, just like the Niche Hypothesis of Bernie Krause. And, this is what got me interested in rats – well, that’s a little bit of a lie, I’ve always been interested in rats, for multiple different reasons. Rats are fascinating because they’re an animal, they are a wild animal, but they live entirely within human urban areas. We’re talking about the Norwegian rat or the brown rat here, which spread via capitalism to every major metropolitan city around the world. Rats have adapted to living among us in a really remarkable way. And this idea that there’s a human/nature divide, that nature is somehow elsewhere, and that a city, a human city, the center of human culture, is quintessentially non-nature. Rats burrow through that all the time. They make it very clear that we have our own animal nature and that nature is a process that’s continually happening.

[CRIS]

This is a very different idea of a city, too.

[MACK]

Yeah, this whole idea he’s opening up that the city is actually a natural space and this natural and cultural divide that we’ve made, these boundaries we’ve set up, the rats have no respect for whatsoever, and in fact all of our efforts to be “civilized humans” have just produced this environment for the rats to burrow through.

[clanging noise]

[BRIAN]

I was particularly excited about rats when I learned that the social vocalizations that they make are largely above the human range of hearing. So we all know what a rat “sounds” like, quote unquote, in terms of squeaks or high-pitched growls, or something –

[normal rat noises fade in as he speaks of them]

But these kinds of awful rat noises, we associate with fear, or anger, or these kinds of emotions that we attach to rats – and that’s what they are, that’s what’s being expressed in the squeaks that we can hear. But what’s going on above what we can hear is all the fun stuff.

[upbeat electronic music fades in that includes the altered rat noises from before; it fades to the background as he speaks]

All the social interactions, the playful interactions, the mating, when young rats are playing, when rats are courting each other, when they’re establishing their social hierarchies, all of this is happening outside of our range of hearing.

[CRIS]

So, this is fabulous, and I can’t help thinking about all of the other species’ communication that we’re not hearing. Some of it is to do with pitch, as in that Niche Hypothesis idea, and some of this is to do with volume. And location.

[MACK]

Yeah. The rats are, by design, rather imperceptible to us. We don’t perceive the rats very easily, and, interestingly enough, they don’t perceive us.

[BRIAN]

The range that it can hear presumably covers its entire vocal range, so up to in the 90 kilohertz range. The lower range, of course, is dictated to some extent by the size of its body.

[fade in chatter of a human crowd]

And a rat can actually not hear the fundamental frequencies of the human voice.

[a sliding noise takes out the human voices until nothing but silence remains; a pause]

The overtones of our voices do transmit something, but the fundamental frequency is still below the rat’s range of hearing. If you really wanted to talk to a rat, doing so with the human voice is not ideal. It’s a subsonic frequency to them.

[a sliding noise brings back up the loud chatter of the human crowd from before; funky electronic music fades in as the chatter fades out]

[MACK]

So, I just find this so fascinating, Cris, that we have this sort of symbiotic relationship with these creatures, but we can’t directly communicate with them through the voice, that we live in these sort of parallel universes or niches.

[CRIS]

Yeah, absolutely. When Brian was talking about the hearing range of the rat there, it immediately made me say to myself, “well, what’s the hearing range of the human?” We’re 20 to 20,000 Hertz. This is way lower than that rat range. Dolphins and bats, for example, can hear frequencies up to 100,000 Hertz, higher than the rats, even. And elephants are even lower than we are.  So, there’s something there to do with mass and frequency that I think is of interest, too.

[MACK]

Yeah, it’s the embodiedness of our perception. It’s very based on the instrument that we are.

And what makes this very interesting from an artistic point of view, for Brian, is, our tools are designed to record frequencies that humans can hear.

[CRIS]

That’s right.

[MACK]

So when Brian did decide that he wanted to create this artwork of recording the voices of rats, he had to find special, ultrasonic microphones that could record those frequencies. And, of course, it’s really only because digital technologies operate at such high frequency rates now that these sounds can even be recorded at all.

[BRIAN]

I realized that it might be possible to build something that would let me record rats in their burrows in New York City – under the sidewalk, in the parks, in the trash dumps, whatever – if I could leave a microphone there for a long period of time, and let them habituate to it, maybe I would pick up some of the social interactions that were happening when I wasn’t around, and listen in on how they were talking.

[CRIS]

Yeah, and it makes me wonder, when people say that they’re making a field recording, what they’re actually catching, and were they to put them through a similar process of modification, they would hear other sounds that they didn’t realize were part of that field of audition, or that horizon of listening.

[slowly begin fading out music]

[MACK]

And this raises the point of just the technical issue that he faced of down-pitching the rats voices into a perceptible bandwidth for human beings. So, maybe we should –

[CRIS]

Let’s hear some.

[MACK]

Yeah, let’s hear how he did that.

[CRIS]

More rats.

[MACK, laughing]

More rats, please.

[rat noises start; they are of various pitches and lengths, sounding like sliding noises up and down]

[rat noises stop]

[BRIAN]

Yeah, so I did this project called Urban Intonation, which was just taking these rat recordings that I’d been making in the ultrasonic range and changing the frequencies of the rat voices in those recordings to a range that we could hear, that we could experience.

[rat noises again for several seconds]

And, whenever you change the frequency of something, that’s an act of interpretation. You’re changing the pitch in a mathematical sense, but you’re also changing how it’s situated in the world, what it resonates with, all kinds of other things shift. So, I aimed to make it as close as possible to human speech. Close as possible meaning, putting it in the range of human speech, and also making it a little bit slower temporally. Rats speak very high and they also speak very fast, so I slowed it down a bit, and lowered the pitch, so that we would hear it as speech, hear it closer to something that we would understand as a social relation.

[rat noises again, fading to the background as Brian speaks]

And they sing. They sing and hum and make these sounds that are uninterpretable by us, but clearly have a social meaning to them.

[a pause for rat noises to continue, this time sounding more like a song; they again fade to the background as Brian speaks]

It’s not an “other” creature that is “too low” or “too high” or “too other,” it’s coming at us as speech would come at us. But when you listen to those sounds, they really are uncanny in this way, because you hear aspects of personality, you hear these things that sound human, but of course there’s a kind of fundamental “unhumanness” to it. In terms of how to present the piece, then, I used PA speakers – something that’s making announcements, that is addressing the public, that’s making a particular type of public space through that address. So, why not put the rat voices… why not present them like that, right? [he laughs] Because that’s a totally different relationship. It’s positioning the animal not as a subservient position to our idea of public space, but as the kind of authoritative voice.

[clanging noises; instrumental music fades in]

[MACK]

So, one of the interesting final pieces of this for me, was that, when he was recording the rats, and getting at the frequencies where they live and communicate, so to speak, he found that there were very few human sounds in that space.

[BRIAN]

Well, so the first thing that struck me when recording ultrasonically in New York City is that, even though this is a noisy city – there’s all kinds of things happening, there’s people talking, there’s busses going by, the occasional bird, the radio, whatever it is – all of that, or at least most of that, happens within our hearing range.

[city sounds fade in, including loud automobiles]

So, its below 20 kilohertz that the noise of the city is really present. Once you get into the ultrasonic range –

[a sliding noise as the city fades out into a low whooshing noise]

that goes away. You hear the occasional eerie squeal of certain mechanical sounds or certain electric devices that are making noise up there, but for the most part, there’s a lot more space. So, part of their adaption to living among us is that they’re able to hear and they’re able to speak in a range that isn’t interfered with by all the noise that we’re making. I find that really interesting because, what is it about our species that we make noise within the range that we can hear?

[the city noises fade back up, almost drowning out Brian]

Thus making it more difficult for us to hear ourselves.

[electronic music fades back in as the city noises fade out]

[CRIS]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thanks again to Brian House. You can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we’ve talked about at phantompod.org. You can subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you rated us on Apple Podcasts, that helps a lot. Tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook, or give us a shout on Twitter @phantompod. Today’s show featured music by Brian House, Graham Gibson, and Daniel Fishkin’s Daxophone Quartet. We want to bring up our interns, Natalie Cooper, Nicole Keshock, and Adam Witmer – welcome aboard. [to himself] Oh, no, I can’t say “welcome aboard,” that’s a terrible thing to say… [returning] Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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