Ep. 3: Dirty Rat (Brian House)

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 ♪]


This… is… Phantom Power.


Episode 3.


Dirty Rat.

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


So, what are we listening to here, Mack?


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

[noises continue, Mack laughing]


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.


Oh, wow. So synthetic.


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


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




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


Something sad is happening in the silent film.


Something very sad is happening.


Harold Lloyd fell off the clock.

[both laughing]


And so he did.


Alright, so… it’s… it’s rats.


That’s a rat?!


That’s a rat.

[clanging noises begin, rat noises stop]


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.


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 ♪]


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


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.


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.”


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


And the design of the urban environment, and –


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.


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.


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]


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


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]


They could at least have made 365.

[MACK, laughing]

Exactly, right?


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.


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.




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 –




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


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.


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


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



[clanging noise]


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.


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


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?


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


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 –


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.


That’ll be the mammals at the bottom.


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.


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


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.


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]


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.


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.


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


Bring the rats back, Mack.

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


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.


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


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]


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.


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.


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.


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]


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.


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.


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.


That’s right.


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.


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.


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]


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 –


Let’s hear some.


Yeah, let’s hear how he did that.


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]


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]


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.


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]


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 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.

Ep. 2: City of Voices (Shannon Mattern)

Shannon MaternThis episode we have a single longform interview with a media scholar of note–The New School’s Shannon Mattern. We have teamed up with Mediapolis, a journal that places urban studies and media studies into conversation with one another, to interview Mattern about her new book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (U of Minnesota Press: 2018).

And lucky for us on Phantom Power, a large portion of Mattern’s story is about sound, from the echoes of ancient caves to Roman amphitheaters to telephone wires and radio towers—she shows us how sonic infrastructures allow us to communicate and form communities, cultivating forms of intelligence that are embodied and affective, as well as informatic. Before there was the smart city, there was the sonic city—and the sonic city isn’t going anywhere soon.

Some topics discussed: Patrick Feaster and First Sounds; Neil Postman; Harold Innis; Marshall McLuhan; John Durham Peters’ The Marvelous CloudsCarolyn Birdsall’s Nazi Soundscapes. 




[ethereal music ]

cris cheek:        This is Phantom Power.

Female computer voice:                       Episode two.

cris cheek:        City of Voices.

[fade out ethereal music ]

Shannon Mattern:         When we reduce the city to a computer, we think that everything can be ‘datified,’ everything can be fed through an algorithm. There are actually a lot of really important dimensions, human dimensions in particular, historical dimensions, things that resist ‘datification,’ that don’t really fit into that model. So, there’s a lot about a city that sort of leaks through those algorithms, that isn’t captured when you equate the entire city with a computational machine.

Mack Hagood:             That’s Shannon Mattern, an associate professor of media studies at The New School in New York City. Thanks for joining us on Phantom Power, a podcast about the sonic arts and humanities. I’m Mack Hagood, flying solo this episode. cris cheek will be back for episode three. Last year we put this episode online as a preview of the series. So, for the couple hundred of you who listened to it, give it another listen. There’s a lot going on. Or just check us out again in two weeks, when we’ll talk to sound artist Brian House. But for everyone else, this episode, we talk with Shannon Mattern about her new book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt:  Five Thousand Years of Urban Media.  A large portion of Mattern’s story is about sound, from the echoes of ancient caves,


 to Roman ampitheaters,


to telephone wires and radio towers.

[pre-recorded radio broadcast]

She shows us how sonic infrastructures allow us to communicate and form communities, cultivating forms of intelligence that are embodied and effective, as well as informatic. Before there was the Smart City, there was the ‘sonic city,’ and the sonic city isn’t going anywhere soon.

[bell music]

If you spend any time looking at architecture or design blogs, or reading tech websites or watching TedTalks, you’ve probably encountered a couple of truisms about how human beings will live in the future. The future is urban, and the future is ‘smart.’

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          Half of the population of the world’s actually live in cities.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities covering less than 2% of the earth’s surface

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          But cities also give off a lot of challenges.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:              Never have cities been so challenged.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          Well, many cities are starting to adopt ‘smart technology.’

[upbeat music]

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  Public transportation, IT connectivity, water and power supplies, sanitation and solid waste management, efficient urban mobility, governments, and citizen participation, and it does this using every buzzword imaginable!

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice 2:           Such as the Internet of things.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          The Internet of things?

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  The Internet of things.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice 2:           An artificial intelligence.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          And harnessing the power of data.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  From Big Data –

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice 2:           For a multifaceted solution – the smart city.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  Smart City.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice 2:       The Smart City.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          The smart City.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          Everyone talks about being ‘smart.’

[ethereal bell music]

Mack:              Despite the recent hype, the Smart City has been beta testing since the second half of the twentieth century.

[fade music ]

Shannon:         After World War II, for instance, there were quite a few organizations and research groups, and kind of corporations who tried to sell their services and technologies because the War Department didn’t need them anymore – the government, the federal government, that is – to cities. So, companies like Rand and various government agencies used their computer power and their data-based methodologies to try and address urban issues

Mack:              Mattern thinks we should approach this so-called ‘Smart City’ with caution, and unearth the history, ideas, and assumptions that form its infrastructure, just as much as its servers, routers, and fiber-optic cable. And in her new book, she does a kind of urban media archaeology, digging through the strata of media technologies that have always made cities ‘smart.’

Shannon:         Today, with the ubiquity of computing, and particularly with the presence of computing devices in everybody’s pockets and bags, the ‘computer as’ is a metaphor that tends to be kind of universally applied. And we often use the computer, as a metaphor to think about how cities work. And that’s not just a metaphor, actually – we are incorporating a lot of computing power, a lot of sensor technologies, a lot of algorithms, a lot of central control rooms to really regulate and monitor, urban services and flows. But when we reduce the city to a computer, we think that everything can be ‘datified,’ everything can be fed through an algorithm. There are actually a lot of really important dimensions that don’t really fit into that model. Again, there are lots of historical, embodied, and also non-human types of things. These are all our co-inhabitants in urban environments, too. So, these are the things that sometimes leak outside of those algorithmic models.

Mack:              And so, your book really intervenes in this misperception that intelligence equals informatics, right? There’s a passage where you write, ‘yesterday’s cities, even our earliest settlements, were just as smart, although theirs was an intelligence less computational and more material and environmental.’ Can you talk about that?

Shannon:         Sure. So, when I’m mentioning that cities have always been intelligent, but that the historical forms of intelligence have been perhaps more material or environmental than they are computational, I’m arguing that forms of knowledge, even forms of the kinds of things that a computer does today, things like accountancy, administration, that those things have always been performed in cities – in fact, the whole need to account for things, to keep ledgers of things, was something that arose, some historians and archaeologists and anthropologists argue, with the rise of large-scale human settlements. So, things like computation, logistics, management of resources, again have always been inherently urban operations and necessities, but they’ve been taken, they’ve taken place often through more material media – things like clay tablets, bullae, which were kind of the clay tokens that some theorists including Denise Schmidt argues preceded a lot of writing systems. So, these, these forms, these historical forms of intelligence were always there, it’s just that they were registered and processed, if you want to use kind of contemporary computational metaphors, of media that were more analog than digital. Even the urban environment itself, the facades of buildings, the grid of the street, these forms, these types of things, the environment itself, has served as a conduit and a register of a lot of this form, this type of intelligence.

Mack:              Yeah, and you used the word, ‘logistical,’ which reminds me of John Durham Peters’ recent book, The Marvelous Clouds, right, he mentions that our digital new media sort of foregrounds the logistical role of media once again. So, for our field of media studies, it arose during the broadcast era, trying to study radio, film, and TV, but these might really be a sort of deviation in terms of media, right? Or the essential quality of media for somebody like Peters is not sort of the, the sort of transmission of or broadcast of representational information, but its more about managing our relationship to time and space and power.

Shannon:         Absolutely. And if you look again, a lot of historical media, which were prevalent in cities all throughout history, they serve that purpose. So, you had, and this might be kind of a liberal definition of what constitutes media, but this comes from kind of my training in media studies from graduate school, is taking a kind of a McLuhen-esque, informed by his own mentor Innis, and really being pretty capacious in determining what fits within the ‘basket’ of media, so if you look at statuary, at architecture itself, at inscriptions on buildings –  which again stretch our perception of what we might consider as media technologies today – these were all helping to shape people’s experiences, interactions, sync people up with time and space, which is again that much kind of more fundamental understanding of what function logistics serves.

[ethereal bell music ]

Mack:              As a student of media ecologist Neil Postman at NYU, Shannon Mattern took her place in the intellectual lineage of Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, and others who consider media and mediation as integral parts of the lived environment. When in the late oughts she encountered the emergent field of media archaeology, it gave her a new way to frame her already ongoing studies of media cities. Media archaeology is a field that attempts to understand new and emerging media by examining old and often dead media technologies. Mattern takes inspiration from the field, but notes that most of its ‘digging in the past’ is metaphorical. ‘What if we took media archaeology literally,’ she writes, ‘and borrowed a few tricks from archaeologists of the stones and bones variety?’ Her book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt, pushes us in that direction. Each chapter moves us farther back in time, in an examination of old urban media infrastructures, starting with the sonic technologies of the telegraph and radio, then moving to the urban emplacement of the printing press, followed by an examination of the earliest surfaces for writing, clay and stone; and finally, perhaps the oldest medium of them all, the human voice. Each of these media reorganized the city around itself, and each of them is still with us today, as past and future media mingle in the present.

[fade out music ]

One of Marshall McLuhan’s more famous ideas, which I think he sort of cribbed from his student Walter J. Ong is that voice communication is this more primitive yet holistic form of communication and he associate, tends to associate it with tribes and villages and that sort of thing. And then we get this more rational yet alienated print culture that I would assume would allow us to build complex things like cities, but one of the things I really liked about your book is that it doesn’t have these sort of clear-cut stages, and in fact it gives us a way to think about the city as a sonic development, and in many ways, to think of a city as a space made for voices.

Shannon:         Right, so, while McLuhan and Innis and Ong have been influential in kind of my foundational study, I think there’s been a lot of thinking and scholarship in the years since they did their work that still values the contributions they made, particularly their very liberal interpretation of what constitutes a medium, their idea that media shape environments, Innis’s idea that even infrastructures and staple goods constitute communications media. So, there’s a lot of value in their work, but at the same time, I think scholars have really questioned this idea that history precedes in various, not necessarily ‘clear-cut,’ but defined revolutions. So, we’ve kind of realized, since these foundational thinkers did their work, that history didn’t really happen the kind of periodic way that they presented it. So, when we think about our urban histories, and how those have been intertwined with our media and communications histories, we also have to recognize that traces, and not necessarily historical ruins but also living, still vibrant, existences of these quote-unquote ‘old media’ are still present in our contemporary cities.

Mack:              Yeah, I really like this word you used of ‘traces,’ and, it makes me think of the sound scholar Patrick Feaster?

Shannon:         Whom I do not know, I’m afraid.

Mack:              Okay. So, so he’s a really interesting person, and somebody who I think of as a very literal media archaeologist. So in his, in his terminology, he educes, the information in old media objects.  So, so Feaster is best known for digitally educing sound from the phonotograph –

Shannon:         Huh.

Mack:  – which was that 19th century stylus that traced soundwaves onto sort of scratchy lines of paper.

Shannon:         Uh-huh.

Mack:              And he figured out, with his partners, a way to, digitize that sound and actually turn it into sound, educe sound from this thing that was just supposed to be a visual tracing of sound waves.

[scratchy sounds from phonotograph fade in]

And then he moved on to do things like use this technique on medieval musical notation, drawing sound out of these pieces of paper.

Shannon:         Hm.

Mack:              And, once he said to me – and I think he was half-joking [laughter] – that he would like to educe acoustic events that had sort of registered themselves on clay walls millennia ago. But I think this word ‘eduction’ is a good word for the kind of work you’re doing in this book, because we can’t reproduce the sounds of the past, but we can treat the city as a historical medium in itself and try to coax these remnants of forgotten sounds from that medium.

Shannon:         So, I appreciate that very much. And yes, I like this idea of ‘eduction,’ which isn’t really a word that I used in the book, but now that you’ve mentioned it, it really does resonate very nicely. And I think that plays out that methodology kind of, unintentionally on my part, kind of plays out a few places in the book. Sonic media are one particular, kind of I guess you could call it ‘class of media,’ that make it, make historic study kind of difficult, especially when you’re looking past the beyond, or preceding the time before recorded sound. How do you know what a space sounded like before you had recordings that you could play back on machines today? This is something that sonic historians, the rise of the whole field of sensory history over the past 15 or so years, they have been addressing these methodological issues, particularly the problematics of doing things like recreations or re-staging, because our contemporary ears that are so, ruined by earbuds and the contemporary use of autotune, et cetera, the way we’re trained to hear today, we just couldn’t possibly imagine the cultural, class, racial, historically defined ways that people heard in these preceding eras. But, there is still something to be learned by thinking about our historical environments, not just as visual and material spaces. We don’t necessarily have to be limited by the senses that our, existing historical records leave for us. Even images, tracings in the walls, ruins – archaeological ruins, for instance, still offer, again, traces or echoes of what they might have sounded, how they might have reverberated or resonated in the past. So, Emily Thompson wrote a really foundational book in 2002, goodness, Soundscape of Modernity, where she really has to use things like photographs, catalogues of acoustic materials, textbooks from the, kind of the rising field of architectural acoustics, to piece together what these new, modernist architectures sounded like. You also have then the field of archaeology, I would say maybe a marginalized but still present community of people who are practicing archaeo-acoustics who are using somewhat speculative methods, still adopting a lot of the media technologies, so there’s a lot of intersection of what we do in media studies in this field of archae-acoustics, to try to imagine how certain rituals or everyday practices might have functioned as sonic practices in historical or ancient environments. So, testing reverberation patterns, seeing how particular hallways or subterranean spaces might’ve lent themselves to particular types of acoustic or verbal events or performances, and again this is speculative, but still it opens up a richer, more multisensorial, more performative form of history, and, allows us to recognize kind of different, different types of embodied history, I guess you could say.

Mack:              Yeah, there’s a really lovely episode of David Hendy’s BBC radio series Noise:  A Human History

Shannon:         Yes, uh-huh.

Mack:              – with the French scholar Iégor Reznikoff, who, you also mention in your book.

Shannon:         Mm-hmm.

[clip from Noise:  A Human History]

David Hendy:              Iégor Reznikoff is one of several archaeologists who’ve tried an intriguing experiment. Moving slowly, and in total darkness along the narrower passages in caves –

[Iégor Reznikoff vocalizing in the background]

Like Arcy-Sur-Cure they’ve used their voices as a kind of sonar, sending out a pulse of sound, then listening out for any unusually resonant response.

[end clip]

Mack:              He is sort of moving through these caves in France, using his voice to sort of sound out the spaces, and then when he encounters particularly resonant spaces, he’ll turn on his flashlight and quite often, that’s where the cave art will be located, not in a space that would be the most obvious visually, and in fact often the cave art is in a pretty inaccessible and strange space from a visual perspective, but from a sonic perspective, it’s a place where the cave speaks back to you.

[another clip from Noise:  A Human History]

[Iégor Reznikoff vocalizing]

David Hendy:              We’re near the bottom of the main hall, where each sound might provoke up to seven echoes, and, looking around, we can see several mammoths, some bears, a rhinoceros or two, some fish, some sort of big cat, and on the floor, the delicate outlines of a bird.

[end clip]

Shannon:         Right, absolutely. To understand how some of our oldest media, including things like cave paintings, worked, we have to realize that they were very much embodied, performative experiences. They were kind of training rituals, for people to learn the hunt, essentially. The resonance of the space was combining with the flickering light which made the cave paintings supposedly look like they were dancing – not dancing, but moving, which really kind of reinforced the power of those experiences, of seeing the bison running, hearing their footsteps, and kind of psyching yourself up to go out for the hunt.

Mack:              And so this perspective allows us to start thinking about the city as an outgrowth of that, right? That there’s a sort of embodied and affective intelligence and communication that evolves in and through the city and that throughout time we have actually developed spaces for verbal and oral communication, as you argue. So, Walter Ong thought of Ancient Greece as the site where the transition form orality to literacy happened, but you show in your book that the oral rhetoric and the Ancient City were sort of a co-production, right? Like, they literally shaped one another. Oral rhetoric and the space of the Roman City, for example, were shaped for and by one another.

Shannon:         Right, so if you look at Classical, philosophy, you look at the work of kind of early architects, before they were officially architects, the work of Vitruvius, for instance. You can see that acoustics was an integral part of not only the way a city should be designed but also of even these idealistic visions or imaginations of what a just, ideal city would be. So, the city is a space of discourse. The voice is an integral thing that has to be essentially planned for when we are organizing our cities. The idea that a city shouldn’t be so big that you can’t hear the voice of a herald standing in the center of the city calling out to everybody. You need something that’s going to unite everybody within an acoustic environment. So there are a lot of these principles that shaped ideals for the city and actual plans. You can look at things like the way an amphitheater was designed, for instance, or the way certain kind of meeting spaces in Ancient Greece and Rome were designed, kind of legislative spaces. There were definite acoustic principles that were shaping the materialization of those sites.

Mack:              You use this wonderful term, I don’t know if this comes from Carolyn Birdsall’s book Nazi Soundscapes or not, but you talk about this ‘affirmative resonance,’ right, the way that sound in a collective space can sort of interpolate us as subjects or group members.

Shannon:         Right. I do think that is Carolyn Birdsall’s term in regard to Nazi Soundscapes, but you can see that principle applying elsewhere too. You can see it today in protest movements around the world.

[rhythmic clattering sounds fade in]

In, the sound politics of making noise among marginalized populations, the fact that they’re kind of claiming their right to space by creating an acoustic envelope for it. So, these are still examples of this principle of affirmative resonance. It’s enclosing people who are within the earshot as being within a community of some sort.

[clattering fades]

Mack:              I can’t help but think about Trump rallies when I’m, uh…

[both laugh]

I mean, Trump is sort of a master architect of effective spaces –

[fade in an unintelligible Trump speaking through a megaphone, crowd cheering]

[fade out clip]

– Trump is a sort of architect of effective spaces, and sound is a big part of what he does.

Shannon:         Yeah, so I guess you could say that the idea of affirmative resonance does not necessarily suit one particular political orientation over another, it’s not an inherently democratizing, progressive type of thing, it’s not necessarily for radical protest, for instance; it is a method, I guess you could say a socialization method, for lack of a better phrase, that could serve multiple political purposes and end goals.

Mack:              Yeah, I think that’s very important, because we get excited about things like The People’s Microphone in Zucotti Park, and, I mean, that’s very wonderful, but these resonances can have all kinds of effects, and it’s definitely not only progressive, for sure.

Shannon:         Right. The Third Reich used that principle very well too, just as the liberation movements in the Middle East around 2011, and, as you mentioned, Zucotti Park, so, yes, it operates for multiple ideologies.

[ethereal music and radio interference fading in, a man’s voice ]

Mack:              But I also want to talk about the radio stuff.

Shannon:         Okay.

Mack:              In chapter one, you focus on radio as what you call an ‘ethereal medium,’ so, it’s a medium that almost supernaturally affects the atmosphere of a city with sounds and voices that are carried on electromagnetic waves, but at the same time, it’s also a heavily material system. As you mentioned, there are wires and tubes and transmitters and switches. So, maybe we could say that this chapter is about radio as a force that reshaped the city both materially and immaterially?

[ fade in song “Mr. Radio Man” broadcast over a radio]

Shannon:         Yeah, absolutely.

[music continues to play ]

Sound, we could say, is a medium without a body. It doesn’t really have a material instantiation in the same way that a printed book does, or a carved clay tablet, for instance. So, it is ethereal, in that way, and particularly if you look at some of the early writing about radio when it first came into existence, it kind of was, there was a lot of spiritualized language surrounding it. It was very much connected to kind of the rise of spiritualism, with some of its wired predecessors, the telegraph and the telephone as well.

[song becomes clear. Mr. Radio Man, tell my mama to come back home, won’t you do what you can, `cos I’m so lonely, I’ve been listening here every day, since she went away, but no word from Heaven’s been heard, can’t the angels hear me pray, when the sandman is nigh ]

[music fades ]

But, these seemingly ethereal media do have, as you said, a lot of very material kind of effects on the landscape. And this is something that sounds like a new revelation in the Data Age, and the past few years a lot of theorists and artists and designers have talked about, surprise, the Internet is a place, you know, it actually has a material existence, it lives in data centers and cables and satellites, et cetera, and that was very important for us to recognize because it helps us to realize the uneven distribution of connectivity, it helps us to recognize there’s a political economy and ownership structures, to see the Internet as a thing with a geography that shapes space and is shaped by geography, which I think is a very kind of important revelation for us in the Digital Age, to think critically about these seemingly placeless ethereal media. A similar thing was happening in kind of the radio and telegraph and telephone age – these things that were kind of discussed in this romantic, often spiritual language, had a very physical, architectural impact on the landscape. Again, laying cable, building new architectures, new purpose-built buildings, the rise to new in some cases beautiful antennae that inspired a lot of aesthetic movements at the time, so their traces were very physically present in the landscape, too.

[fade in ethereal music and radio interference ]

Mack:              And this is where we come full circle. Because, you know that ethereal magic we all love today – WiFi, and LTE? Yes, that invisible connection that allows us to text our friends and control our thermostats from afar, and imagine our data as sending into the Cloud just like the angels – that’s radio too. Both the hardware and the spiritualism of the Smart City show evidence of radio’s material and ethereal influence.

[fade in clicking computer processing sounds]

Shannon:         And also today, with the rise of Smart Cities and the Internet of things, is the fact that we have these devices that are talking to each other all throughout our cities, supposedly making life much more efficient and allowing us to monitor things like air quality and traffic, et cetera, we’re still relying on radio technologies and a lot of line of sight communication to make that happen. So, radio might be used by different devices, but radio, kind of the whole world of radio technology, is still super present in our cities today.

Mack:              Shannon Mattern, talking about her book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt:  Five Thousand Years of Urban Media, out on Minnesota Press, and this episode was written, edited, and musically scored by me, Mack Hagood. Special thanks to Shannon Mattern and special thanks to Orfeas Skutelis at The New School for his engineering assistance. This episode was produced in conjunction with Mediapolis:  A Journal of Cities and Culture. Mediapolis is edited by Brendon Kredell and Erica Stein. The reviews editor, who suggested today’s interview, is Noelle Griffis. You can get lots more great content on media and cities at Phantom Power is produced by me and my cohost, the poet and media artist cris cheek, and you can get more information at Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.