nature

Ep. 6: Data Streams (Leah Barclay and Teresa Barrozo)

On July 18th this year, Teresa Barrozo‘s question — What might the Future sound like? — will be opened to global participation. We bring news of World Listening Day, and speak with Teresa about her intervention.

We also hear of data archival developments in acoustic ecology. And we speak with Leah Barclay, the editor of Soundscape: The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, about her Biosphere Soundscapes project and some of the challenges of developing accessible apps for mobile platforms.

Cris grapples inadequately with the terminology of the anthropophone, the biophone and the geophone in his everyday life.

The audio work heard in this episode can be found on the Soundclouds of Leah Barclay and Teresa Barrozo.

Ep. 4: On listening In (Lawrence English)

Lawrence English is an influential sound composer, media artist and curator based in Australia. In this episode of Phantom Power: Sounds about Sound we speak with Lawrence about listening. In particular we think about his reworking of an important work in the fields of musique concrète and field recordingPresque Rien by Luc Ferrari, and the recent premiere of Wave Fields, his own 12-hour durational sound installation for sleepers at Burleigh Heads in Queensland as part of the Bleach* Festival.

Lawrence is interested in the nature of listening and the capability of sound to occupy a body. Working across an eclectic array of aesthetic investigations, English’s work prompts questions of field, perception and memory. He investigates the politics of relation listening and perception, through live performance, field recordings and installation.

The show includes extracts from the following tracks:

Album: Cruel Optimism: Hammering a Screw.”

Album: Wilderness of Mirrors: Wilderness of Mirrors,” “Wrapped in Skin.”

Album: Songs of the Living: Trigona Carbonaria Hive Invasion, Brisbane Australia,” “Cormorants Flocking At Dusk Amazon Brazil,” “Various Chiroptera Samford Australia.”

Album: Ghost Towns: Ghost Towns.

Album: Kiri No Oto: Soft Fuse.”

Luc Ferrari: Presque Rien

[♪ ethereal music playing ♪]

 

[CRIS CHEEK]

This… is… Phantom Power.

 

[COMPUTERIZED VOICE]

Episode 4.

 

[CRIS]

On Listening In.

 

[buzzing sounds fade in, and fade out as Cris begins to speak]

 

The hive of the sugarbag bee, endemic to northeastern Australia

 

[loud music starts abruptly]

 

The first notes of a piece called…

 

[more loud notes]

 

Hammering the Screw.

 

[scratching noises and metallic noises begin]

 

Found objects – a 44 gallon drum, a ghost town in far northern Australia.

 

[scratching sounds]

 

Just some small extracts from recordings made by today’s guest.

 

[MACK]

It’s Phantom Power, sounds about sound. That’s Cris Cheek, and I’m Mack Hagood.

 

[LAWRENCE, pre-recorded]

I’m Lawrence English, and I have been described as a professional listener.

 

[bullfrog sounds fade in]

 

Which does make me sound like a very second-rate therapist.

 

[laughing]

 

But, it is the kind of thing that I spend a lot of time doing in my everydays. There is a lot of listening that goes on, and I suppose in some respects I’m increasingly interested in problematizing what that actually means, what our relationship is with that way of knowing the world around us.

 

[music fades in, intense and somewhat sad]

 

[MACK]

So, Cris, I’m really excited that you got this interview with Lawrence English.

 

[CRIS]

Yeah!

 

I’m familiar with his work. I always thought of him as the Drone Guy, he does these really amazing and complex droning soundscapes, but it turns out, as you’ve just shown us by playing that material, that’s not even the half of what he does.

 

[CRIS]

Yeah, that’s right. He’s a highly contemporary model of the artist scholar, I think. A prolific composer – there’s at least 18 solo records and rising in the current millennium. He’s a sound art researcher, an artist, a fine photographer, and he supports a ton of other artists through his highly influential imprint, Room 40, based in eastern Australia, but genuinely servicing a global audience. Really interesting.

 

[MACK]

So, Cris, I know today you’re gonna walk us through some of Lawrence English’s recent work, including this recreation of a piece by a godfather of sound art, Luc Ferrari, and also some of his recent albums such as Cruel Optimism and Wilderness of Mirrors. But, what was it like talking with him? Did you find that there were any sorts of through lines to his work?

 

[CRIS]

One of the through lines that I found is that we were always coming back to talk about listening in relation to audience, listening in relation to where you are, to context, listening as a kind of politics, collective listening – all of his projects are situated in relation to the act of listening. As both an artist and as a scholar he’s making an intervention into how we listen and how we filter sound.

 

[LAWRENCE]

I always argue that we are much better at filtering sound than we are at actually listening to it. We’re much more successful at filtering. And all you have to do is go outside and walk around for half an hour.

 

[everyday sounds fade in – the chiming of a clock tower, a few chattering people, the leaves rustling]

 

And you realize actually if you stop and then consciously listen you will suddenly recognize all of this material that is going on around you that you have been very successfully filtering with almost no real effort. And I think that’s a great thing to be conscious of because even in social settings, semantic listening, we often still kind of have that going on, and it has implications for Communication Theory as much as it does for a kind of Aesthetic Listening Theory.

 

[MACK]

This is really interesting. So, just to get through our day, we filter out the vast majority of what presents itself to our ears.

 

[CRIS]

That’s right.

 

[MACK]

But we get so poor at paying attention to what’s going on around us that this even happens when we’re listening to others – the semantic listening that he’s talking about, listening to others’ words, we filter those out, too.

 

[CRIS]

Yeah, or we filter out part of what they’re saying, and focus on another part, the part that we want to focus on, or the part that we’re more comfortable with or familiar with.

 

[music fades back in]

 

[LAWRENCE]

This idea that somehow listening is this given, that we can just all do it all of the time, is a fallacy. It’s the same as any other kind of serious pursuit or practice, it needs training. You look at a bodybuilder, a bodybuilder cannot lift 300 pounds straight away, they build up to that and they build techniques that facilitate them doing it in a way that allows them to maintain their strength over a certain period of time. I think it’s the same. Listening can be very fatiguing. You talk to people that are potentially introverts, or something like that – it’s very fatiguing for them to be out, with lots of conversation going on, and then trying to navigate their way through it. I think it’s the same way going out and making field recordings. It requires a lot of commitment and focus and energy from you to apply yourself to those particular things as they unfold in time.

 

[bullfrog noises fade back in]

 

Because, if you lose that focus, they’re gone. You can never get those moments again. They’re just there for that instant, and then they’re gone.

 

[music fades back out]

 

[MACK]

So, Cris, this kind of focused attention to the sound of our lived environment, this is something that you’ve spoken about in our previous episode with Brian House, but we really haven’t discussed soundscape recording and what that is and the history of it.

 

[CRIS]

You’ve got to think about somewhat portable reel-to-reel tape recorders. That makes a huge difference, when you can start to take technology, carry it around with you, to take it on journeys, to take it to some place to record the sound of the place rather than just to record a concert in a concert hall. And somebody like Luc Ferrari – and he was an early pioneer in this field – is known for being an electro-acoustic musician, combinations between technology and acoustic sound.

 

[music fades in, with pounding drums and some electronic sounds]

 

 

He’s also known as being a progenitor and pioneer in the field of concrete music, musique concrète, a sense of listening to everyday life with acute perception, or a kind of affective listening, as Lawrence writes about it.

 

So, in 1968, Ferrari is attending a conference in what was at that point Yugoslavia and is now a part of Croatia, a small town, Vela Luka, on the seaside, so we’re fifty years ago, and he gets very fascinated by what he’s hearing in the everyday environment.

 

[a recording begins; it is old, and contains sounds of footsteps, chickens, and other everyday sounds one might hear in a small village; the sounds continue as cris continues]

 

By the sounds of how people move around that space, donkeys, wagons, carts, the kinds of engines that they’re using to drive with or the kinds of engines that they’re using to manufacture with, the sounds of the voices and the architecture and how the architecture affects the resonance of those voices, church bells, cicadas in the treetops, the sound of the seaboard close by and how the sound of the sea carries over the town at night, and so forth. He spends several days doing not much more than recording in various different parts of the town. He made a composition – it was about 20 minutes long – it was called Almost Nothing – Presque Rien.  [sounds fade out] And it’s that piece that Lawrence seeks to kind of recreate. He goes back to that town just under fifty years later, and re-records that town, and listens to Ferrari’s compositional arc, and stitches something together that really is in a relational conversation with the act of listening that Ferrari got engaged with.  [MACK]So Lawrence English is going back to the same town that Luc Ferrari originally recorded in some fifty years ago, and he’s recording there again, is that right?

[CRIS]Correct.  [Lawrence’s new recording of Vela Luka fades in] [LAWRENCE]Yeah, it’s interesting. I think Vela Luka is a very particular place in that some things have changed a lot and that some things have not changed at all. [laughing] It’s quite extraordinary. I can say categorically, there are less donkeys than there were in Ferarri’s day, that is for sure. I don’t believe I saw a single donkey walking. But now I would say there are a lot more scooters than there were before. But, it was interesting, the character of the architecture of the space was incredibly similar because the nature of the stone had not changed in the sort of fifty years since either of us had been there. Some of the motors were, I’m pretty sure, the same as they were, it’s just that probably I was able to record them in a slightly different way, and I probably approached them quite differently to the way that Luc might have done that. And the kind of language, the accent there is very particular, and I think that is still very much the same. When I play that to other people in Croatia they identify that as a very particular kind of accent that you get in the Adriatic. So, I think there’s scales of time, I think the expressions of time, and that the material influences of sound are at play there. Whether that be the kind of fixed architectural things, the thing that we understand maybe as “space,” it’s in some ways constant, but then the implications of place, how it is that we make the atmosphere that sort of tenuous thing that we understand as “place” rather than “space,” has obviously shifted dramatically in that time. There’s this weird tension there that exists between these things that are lingering and that are fleeting, and they’re constantly kind of pulling at each other in really interesting ways. [CRIS]I think the interesting thing there is Lawrence’s engagement with Ferrari’s act of listening, and feeling that he can hear – sounds kind of weird, but it’s not totally weird – that you can hear somebody else’s listening inside their recording.  [LAWRENCE]I think that for me is actually one of the pleasures of field recording, is that, as a practice, you’re trying to bring those things into focus or out of focus. What it is you’re trying to capture out of a particular moment is so individuated.  [sounds of nature fade in] It was very much about this kind of concept of Relational Listening, around how it is that the interior psychologicalist thing that we undertake and the external technological reception of the prosthetic ear of the microphone, if you like. What that relationship is there, but also how it is that you interrogate or can interrogate your own capacities for listening.  There are lots of different examples where there can be these situations where, suddenly, it’s like, “wow, okay, I was so focused on the bird in the tree that I didn’t hear the highway behind me” [the sounds change slightly, first to a highway as Lawrence speaks, and then to the sounds of trickling water and other noises before fading out] [MACK]Yeah, this is a fascinating point, because, on the one hand, English is pointing out that the microphone hears everything, it doesn’t filter out sounds the ways that the human mind does. It provides us more of a sense of everything that’s going on – within it’s technical capabilities. But, on the other hand, this brings us up to an important concept in Lawrence English’s work, which is Relational Listening. [water sounds fade back in] [LAWRENCE]So, and that’s why for me the Relational Listening idea was so critical, was that I recognized that these things are not naturally aligned, that we need to work towards that, not just our capacity as listeners but our capacity as being able to relate to the kind of auditory capacity of the microphone – it’s critical if we’re going to be able to reflect our listening through that lens, to use a metaphor, we have to kind of have that relationship, we have to be conscious of it, it can’t just be a given. It needs to be investigated. [CRIS]I am thinking about the question of how the experience of memory is continually modifying our experience of listening. [LAWRENCE]I became quite interested in this idea of [inaudible] memory construction. I think for me, as I return to field recordings, in the same way that if you return to photographs, I think there’s a certain capacity those documents or whatever you want to call them have for shaping our memory. It’s interesting that you can identify yourself or your presence in those things, even though, obviously, it’s not necessarily represented, it might be visually represented if it’s a photograph… when I return to field recordings, in the ones that I feel are most successful, I can sense myself in those recordings, because I’m sensing my listening in that moment. And I think for me, that’s really the value of the field recording, and what I love about people’s work, with field recording particularly, is when I sense them in it, whether that be the technical capacity that they have to transmit that interest, or sometimes just the sense of personality that comes through in the way that people approach a particular environment in those moments.  [water continues and music fades in; water slowly fades out] [CRIS]The key phrase that I’ve read from Lawrence is the idea of listening to the listener’s listening. So, if somebody goes outside, like Luc Ferrari, and records a particular sound – the trains in the trainyard, for example – because of how they position their microphone, because of how they frame the material the microphone records, what I end up listening to, if I hear that recording, is Luc Ferrari’s listening, in that particular place at that particular time. [MACK]Yeah, so a field recording isn’t just a recording of sound, it’s a recording of someone’s listening. [CRIS]Right. [MACK]The person who made that recording. That sort of agency, that intentionality that we bring when we do the kinds of focused listening that Lawrence English was talking about earlier, that can sort of be heard through their recordings. You leave your mark on the recording, on the memory that you have constructed, through the recording. [CRIS]Right. And so that’s the Relational Listening.  [music fades out; distorted technological sounds fade in, which change to soft music] [CRIS, soothingly]Help us out, just a little minute, everybody please, if you like the show, go rate us on iTunes, like us on Facebook, hit us up on Twitter. Helps us all to rise… [distorted sounds again, and an abrupt cut back to the show] [CRIS]So, I was thinking about the diversity of the kind of things that Lawrence English does, and wondering what happens if you pay this kind of intense, close listening to conventional instruments. The recording of them, and the production of the sound from them. And I asked him quite specifically to give me an example of how he produces his sounds.  [MACK]Oh, is this where we get to find out how he makes those magnificent drones? [laughing] [CRIS]Well, you know, the source for what you think is a drone does not sound the way you expect it to sound. [LAWRENCE]The first sounds on Wilderness of Mirrors, that kind of droning tone, is actually a piano. [a cut to the droning piano tones that continue as Lawrence speaks] Played with an EBow, but recorded very close and very hot, so a lot of the artifacting or the kind of harmonic distortion element of that sound is built in to the recording. For me that’s part of the framing and not being able to step back from something to kind of undo it, is in the capture of that.  [droning continues, becoming more intense and then fading to the background] [MACK]Yeah, I definitely would not have thought that was a piano. And he said he’s using an EBow – that’s really interesting. An EBow is this little handheld device with a battery in it, and it’ll stimulate a steel string and make it vibrate, and it’s usually used by electric guitarists. And it really changes the attack, so you don’t hear the string get plucked, it just starts vibrating due to this magnetic field. And so, the attack, the beginning of the note, really gets changed, and it often makes a guitar sound more like a violin. And he’s using this on piano strings, that’s really cool.  [CRIS]Right. And I like this term that he uses, recording something “hot.” [MACK]Yeah, yeah, turning the levels up and getting these harmonics of distortion going.  [CRIS]Super close miking, contact mics, and so forth to get very different kinds of resonances out of their instruments.  [MACK]And he’s making this decision from the get-go. He’s not recording a “clean signal,” so to speak, and then adding distortion later in the computer. He’s doing it in real time and listening carefully as he does it. He’s committing.  [LAWRENCE]In some respects, I guess it reflects the practice in listening in field recording, that I’m making a decision in that moment, and that decision is the decision I need to live with, so I need to think about it there and then, rather than this idea of being able to go back and change things later, which, for me, I totally understand in some circumstances that’s really critical, but for the work that I do for myself, I want there to be decisions made that are irreversible, that can’t be changed, that in some respects shape the way that the future of the work will become. There’s a kind of pressure or a weight that gets behind the way that the work is developing, and you can’t really return to a sense of ground zero, or to get back to the roots of that thing. I like the fact that some of those decisions are sort of hardwired, and they inform what that come after them. And there’s this kind of additional pressure or material pressure. [the music gets louder and intensifies before fading out] [MACK]And so I bet these swelling drones, these fields of sound that I normally experience through my headphones or a speaker, must be an incredible experience live. [CRIS]Yeah, I think I used the word “visceral” to describe the experience of the sound. It’s almost as if your body is being taken over by the sound. Your body, your body-mind, your psyche is being occupied. [MACK]Is that something he thinks about in terms of live performance? The bodies of the audience? [CRIS]Yeah, absolutely. He talks about the embodied listener. [LAWRENCE]Yeah, I mean, that’s actually a lot of the performative end of what I’m doing, the sort of synesthetic nexus, I suppose, that exists between audition and sensation, the transitional points where sound falls out of our sense of acoustic audition into the realm of the flesh. There’s that very powerful moment where sometimes you recognize yourself, as in your body, in the sound, in a way that you don’t necessarily get in everyday life. I think that’s one of the powerful things about concerts, is the opportunity for that to be realized, particularly now with the quality of sound systems that are available, and that kind of thing. But it’s also interesting as a kind of collective experience, because I think for me it’s actually, and I say this quite often when I’m talking just before concerts, it is a very powerful metaphor, the fact that we can all come together, to this place, and we all have these very individuated experiences, whether they be the psychological experiences of how the music affects us, or whether they be the physiological way that our bodies resonate in that time and place, and everyone will have those, very different to one another, but we’re sharing this common time and place together, and for me that’s a really interesting metaphor for the idea of community, where we do have all these different opinions, but we can come together and share these things and have a dialogue, whether it be a purely sensory dialogue or something more afterwards. It’s very powerful, I think, to think about it in those terms, that it’s not just this very simple appreciation of performance, but there’s other resonance, you can think of a social resonance. Partly, Judith Butler’s most recent books about public assembly, this idea of a sort of performative language for public assembly, is really interesting. Because it does lend itself, I think, to having ratings that are outside protest, that are about different kinds of gatherings. Obviously, she touches on those.
Something like Cruel Optimism or Wilderness of Mirrors is entirely born out of these interactions with the broader socio-political cultural sphere. I’m not one of these people that can just make music for the sake of it, I tend to work much better when I’m trying to address a particular theme or difficulty or whatever the case may be. I like a frame, and I like it to be tightly bound. I think there is great energy to be absorbed out of being bound and the kind of pressure that it brings. [CRIS]Constraints, working with constraints. [LAWRENCE]Absolutely. And I think it’s one of those things that for me is more and more important. And also because I think it breathes a certain intensity to the way that the work can be expressed. [music fades out; popping sounds fade in, almost like fireworks; the sounds fade out] [MACK]So, you did this interview a little while ago, but you asked him what he had coming up next, and that sounded pretty interesting too. [CRIS]Right, so here he is talking about a piece called “Wave Fields,” that premiered on the gold coast of Australia, in early April, this year.  [music fades in, ethereal, with deep, long sounds and higher sounds of the same length] [LAWRENCE]I’m working on a very long duration, twelve hour piece, actually, which will be performed next to a very significant indigenous site, and people we invited to come sleep on the beach, 200 or 300 people sleeping on the beach together, and overnight, basically, the piece runs from dusk until dawn. And it’s a very interesting process, maybe because a lot of the work is to do. I’ve been very interested in the way sound operates in sleep for a long time. This is a very particular investigation into that, because I’m also working with the natural environment, the waves are very present there, very strong sound base. So it’s how all these things speak to each other, and how do they speak to each other in a way which facilitates various levels to which the sound can be participated in or experienced in, whether it be conscious or subconscious in this case. [MACK]So wait, this is a concert where you actually have permission to fall asleep? [CRIS]Yeah, and I’ve had that experience, too. It’s too long a story, but at the beginning of the Japan festival with a Noh performance in London, the guy who was the Japanese cultural ambassador said, “feel free to go to sleep; because whatever you see when you wake up, will be the essence of Noh.” [MACK]Oh, that’s nice. [laughing] [CRIS]So he’s encouraging people to think about the function of sound and hearing during sleep. [LAWRENCE]When I think about the history of how it is that our ears have operated, they have been our greatest security device. In the early days, when there was the campfire and nothing else, it was our ears that told us the wolves were coming for us or the bear was behind us, whatever the case may be. Our eyes failed us, but our ears kind of opened up the dark. You have those moments occasionally where you are out somewhere and you don’t necessarily know a space, and it’s dark, and you hear whatever it might be, a twig snapping, footsteps, whatever it is, and you feel in your body a very visceral, tactile response to that audio information that still somehow ties us back to that ancestral way of steering clear of trouble in the dark.  [music fades up from the background again, then fades out, while a new piece starts]

 

[MACK]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thank you to Lawrence English. Today we heard a little bit of sound by Luc Ferrari while Cris was talking about him, but other than that, all of the other incredible sounds you heard today were by Lawrence English. We’ve got some great shows lined up for the coming weeks including English professor Jennifer Stoever on her new book The Sonic Color Line, sound artist Leah Barclay on acoustic ecology, and ethnomusicologist Langston Collin Wilkins on the slow, loud, and bangin’ sounds of Houston’s hip hop car culture. You can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we’ve heard and talked about at phantompod.org. And those transcripts take a little time to write up and drop, so I think we’re up to episode two – we’re catching up, so please be patient with us on that. You can also subscribe to our show at phantompod.org or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you rated us on Apple Podcasts. Tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook, or give us a shout on Twitter @phantompod. Our interns are Natalie Cooper, Nicole Keshock, and Adam Witmer, and Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

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 ♪]

[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.