Category Archives: Sound

Cyclist/masseurs and their shakers in urban Vietnam

Hồ Chí Minh City, December 2003

“During my visit to Hồ Chí Minh City I heard a distinct sound, short and accented, coming from the small lanes in District 1. Listening, I tried to determine if there was an ostinato or sequence to the rhythms, but there wasn’t any. Fascinated by the sound, I ventured outside the guesthouse where I was staying to try to determine from where this sound was coming. I was unsuccessful in finding the source of the sound, so I made an enquiry with the guesthouse management. I was told it was a shaker type of instrument commonly heard at night, played by bicycle-riding masseurs offering their services.

Dining out on the following night, I heard another distinct sound that was accented with shorter sounds. That’s when I saw, for the first time, a type of shaker that belonged to one of the hundreds of people who commonly carry these instruments on their bicycles. Within minutes of this initial finding, I noted two more cyclists with their shakers.

After dinner, I approached one of them to ask as to what these were called. Unfortunately, he spoke almost no English and instead offered a massage. Upon returning to the guesthouse, I asked the management to write my question in Vietnamese. I was then able to communicate with another cyclist/masseur to establish the instrument’s name, function, and measurements. The effort was successful for his answer was a chuông gõ.

On my second trip to Hồ Chí Minh, I made a similar enquiry of several cyclists/masseurs to confirm the name of the instrument given to me on my first trip. Though this time the names of chuông gõ, cál lắc, and lắc lắp were given. I noted the variations in the construction of the instrument. The best-constructed ones of the lot were the chuông gõ, which seems to have been made with wire, pierced through the middle of bottle caps, and attached to a handle. Some handles were made of old garden trowels, while the most creative used an old squash racket grip. All variants combined recycled resources.”

Read more from Terry Moran in Vietnamese musical instruments: A monographic lexicon (2020). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

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Filed under Asia, Instruments, Sound

Western classical music as sonic weapon

Western classical music has been celebrated for its capacity to enlighten, to move, and as proponents of the Mozart effect suggest, improve listeners’ mental capacity. However, over the past 30 years in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, classical music has also come to function not just as art or entertainment but as a sonic weapon. It has been used as a means of dispelling and deterring so-called “loiterers” by making certain public and privately owned public spaces, including shopping malls, bus stations, shop fronts, and car parks undesirable to occupy.

The origins of such practice began in 1985 when a branch manager of a 7-Eleven convenience store in British Colombia, Canada began broadcasting classical and easy listening music into the store’s parking lot to prevent local teenagers from congregating. Since then, classical music has been used as a deterrent on public transport systems in Portland, Oregon, in library foyers to deter smokers and loiterers in Canada, and in train stations of northeast England, where the broadcasting of music by the composer Frederick Delius targeted what was described as “low level antisocial behavior”.

Ted Crow/Washington Post

In such cases, the weaponization of Western music can be recognized as an audio-affective technology of what Neil Smith (1996,1998) called “the revanchist city”, resonating with the spatial logics of urban revanchism–drawing comparisons with the mixture of militarism and moralism that characterized the bourgeois, reactionary revanchists of late-19th century Paris. In this context, it becomes a means to affectively police the boundaries of public space, guarding against unwanted and threatening populations. There is also, however, an apparent tension in the audio-affective functioning of Western classical music as a deterrent. Although classical music is thought to improve the undesirable behavior attributed to loitering because of its capacity to soothe and calm, it also drives away and inhibits loiterers by generating negative affections (i.e., sensations of irritation, alienation, and annoyance). While affect has been posited as a site of freedom by comparison to the predictability of social determinisms, weaponized classical music exemplifies how musical affect can reproduce social stratification.

Learn more in “To soothe or remove? Affect, revanchism, and the weaponized use of classical music” by Marie Thompson (Communication and the public II/4 [December 2017], 272–283). Find this journal in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Listen to Frederick Delius’ On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring below.

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Filed under Politics, Sound, Space

Le Corbusier, architecture, and sound

The Swiss-French architect and designer Le Corbusier’s (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) work on the Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp, France (pictured below) has been touted as iconic of the international style. Built between 1950 and 1955, the chapel has a tower reminiscent of a grain silo, a sweeping roof that resembles a floppy hat and curved walls with rectangular apertures of various shapes and sizes. These characteristics all reflect Le Corbusier’s taste for articulated light and reinforced concrete, as well as his distinct penchant for sparse and ascetic design. Due to one wall of the chapel being set several feet inside the edge of the roof, it is possible to be both under the roof and open to the elements. Le Corbusier used the east wall of the chapel as a cyclorama against which the public and private altars were set, incorporating a swiveling statue of the Virgin Mary to accommodate both. The building’s architecture also reminds of Le Corbusier’s past as a Cubist painter and that he continued to produce two-dimensional visual art throughout his career.

Le Corbusier also is well-known for his work on Edgard Varése’s Poéme électronique for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. The work was performed in an elaborate installation of sound routes which circled the performance space in a building designed by Iannis Xenakis. Le Corbusier designed a spectacle of colored lights and images to accompany Varèse’s piece, which was a self-sufficient musical work, part of a larger composition of architecture, sound, light, and image. Unpublished correspondence between Varèse and Le Corbusier suggests that they originally intended to conceptually coordinate sound and image. At the very least, Le Corbusier’s script influenced the form and sound material of Varèse’s piece.

Learn more in the entry on Le Corbusier in A dictionary of the avant-gardes (2001). Find it in RILM Music Encylopedias.

Below is a performance of Varése’s Poéme électronique by the Tufts University Electronic Music Ensemble, followed by a video featuring a walk-through of Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-du-Haut chapel in Ronchamp.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Architecture, Europe, Performers, Sound

AI voice and the posthuman

AI voice, as a groundbreaking phenomenon, highlights two possible meanings that are often not problematized: the voice embedded into AI-based devices and the voice created using AI algorithms. To clarify the distinctions and the intersections of these two meanings, approaches inspired by media archaeology and social constructionism may be used to explore a social phenomenon constructed by the interaction of a discursive level of representation and a non-discursive level of material practice and operation.

The interaction of these two levels results in a tension between anthropocentrism and posthumanism–a characteristic of AI voice. Two case studies represent this tension, namely the commercial of the smart speaker Amazon Alexa and the phenomenon of voice cloning. While the first example demonstrates how at a discursive level the “voice in the machine” is represented to personify AI technology, the second, which consists in the possibility of reproducing the features of an embodied and personal voice, provides an example of how the materialization of that cultural idea depends on the technical possibilities and material practices required by data-driven algorithms.

Read on in “AI voice between anthropocentrism and posthumanism: Alexa and voice cloning” by Domenico Napolitano (Journal of interdisciplinary voice studies VII/1 [August 2022], 35-49).

Below is a video that jokingly explores the voice behind the Amazon Alexa.

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Filed under Acoustics, Sound, Voice

Scott Walker, Sunn O))), and the apocalyptic tone

Daniela Cascella’s 2017 book Singed: Muted voice-transmissions after the fire contemplates the silences and fissures that take disconnected works and tune them into a shared frequency. The book inspires a reading and listening that opens rather than closes the depths of a given work of art. In Soused (2014), the collaborative record between the eminently obscure singer-songwriter Scott Walker and the minimalist sub-bass drone group Sunn O))), the same types of disconnect and shared frequencies elicited in Cascella’s Singed are brought together.

Given the extremity of both Walker and Sunn O))), the meeting point of these extremes leaves listeners to wonder, as Cascella might, how one is able to write or speak after listening to Soused? This evocation is based on the way that both Walker and Sunn O))) push their listeners to various limits, be it lyrically, vocally, aesthetically, or sonically. Walker’s excess is a coalescence of all these things–his lyrics operate through what he calls “edge work”; his voice matures toward a depersonalized space voided of the usual predicates so that it resembles the sound “of just a man singing”. Walker’s aesthetic becomes increasingly dark with each of his albums, punctuated by long periods of reclusiveness and silence. The musical soundscapes, from the album Climate of hunter (1984) onward, become increasingly expansive, more experimental, and ultimately more difficult. Similar to Walker, excess and minimalism characterize Sunn O)))’s primal slabs of guitar and synth. Their maximalist drone doom collapses the boundaries between the aural and haptic, carving out an immersive physio-aural-haptic experience. The idea of an “apocalyptic tone” (inspired by Maurice Blanchot’s notion of disaster) becomes the basis of these imagined frequencies and resonates in the soundworld created by Walker and Sunn O))) on Soused.

Read on in “The apocalyptic tone of Scott Walker, Sunn O))) and Soused” by Adam Potts (Journal for cultural research XXIV/3 [2020], 185–202).

Below is the music video for Brando, from the album Soused, by Gisèle Vienne.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music, Sound

The emergence of the digital humanities

Digital humanities is an umbrella term for branches of humanities disciplines (such as linguistics, literature, history, music, art and religious studies) in which digital technologies are used: as the application of digital technologies and methods humanities objects (e.g., works of music, literature, art) or as the application of humanities methods to digital objects (e.g. digital sound recordings, videos, websites and graphics). Examples of such interdisciplinary applications include digital coding, storage, archiving, searching, processing, and analysis of humanities objects as well as historical, linguistic, cultural research into digital objects.

Today, digital humanities methods are a part of all humanities research. The digital humanities emerged from the first applications of digital calculators and computers in humanities research in the 1950s, primarily in linguistics, but soon also included music research and other disciplines. Since then, its importance has grown steadily with the development of new computer and software technologies.

The basis of many digital music research projects is the digital storage and notation of music. In the mid-1950s, a project at Bell Telephone Laboratories led by Max Matthews (1926–2011, pictured above) developed technology to transmit telephone conversations in digitized form, the MUSIC-N series was the first computer program to generate digital audio through direct synthesis. MUSIC I (1957) and MUSIC II (1958) synthesized simple sounds over a limited number of triangular wave functions. However, it was not until MUSIC III (1960) that the first comprehensive synthesis program emerged. MUSIC IV (mid-1960s) was rewritten in the FORTRAN programming language and revised and expanded as MUSIC V in 1969 at Bell Laboratories. MUSIC V offered more global sound control, the ability to represent individual notes and note patterns, and supported the simulation of performance nuances (such as ritardando and crescendo). MUSIC V’s global parameter differentiation and event list were also precursors to the standard MIDI file format. Today, SAOL (1999) is a MUSIC-N programming language that is part of the MPEG-4 audio standard.

The Plaine & Easy Code was developed by Murray Gould in the early 1964s and later expanded by Gould and Berry S. Brook. It was intended to enable the transfer of musical bibliographic data to electronic data processing devices. The Plaine & Easy Code was a purely monolinear notation, encoded with normal typewriter symbols, with which not only tempo, key, meter, pitch, and durations could be encoded but also some phrasing and ornamentation symbols. Below is an example of the notation.

Below Max Mathews demonstrates his Radio Baton Controller and Conductor software program and performs brief selections by Bach, Chopin, and Beethoven.

Here are some related Bibliolore posts:

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Filed under North America, Science, Sound

Lettrism’s language art

Initiated by Isidore Isou (born Jean-Isidore Goldstein), a young refugee from Romania, lettrism was a multidisciplinary creative movement that began in Paris in 1946 but soon expanded by attracting numerous creative people. Lettrist work was inspired by calligraphy, initially for books but also for visual art. In the age of print, it was quite innovative, although it may not have fared as well in preprint times. One recurring device is letters that resemble verses, even though they are devoid of words. Prominent writers and artists based in France such as Jean-Louis Brau, Gil J. Wolman, Maurice Lemaître, Roberto Altmann, Roland Sabatier, and Jean-Paul Curtay were among those associated with the group at various times.

The movement was named Lettrism because historically it was first and foremost interested in rethinking poetry, which at the time was judged to be exhausted when conveyed simply through words and concepts. Poetic lettrism clearly and systematically for the first time (taking inspiration from Dada) proposed a new conception of poetry entirely reduced to letters and eliminating all semantics. Not unlike other self-conscious agglomerations, lettrism was particularly skilled at producing manifestos which can be read with varying degrees of sense. By discounting semantic and syntactical coherence for language art, some lettrist works are considered the precursors of concrete poetry. Among the alumni are Guy Debord (1931–94), who is commonly credited with initiating the Situationist International (1958–72), which, according to some, represents art’s most profound, courageous, and successful involvement in radical politics. While Situationist writings have been translated into English, lettrist texts largely have been left out.

Find out more about lettrism in A dictionary of the avant-gardes. Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias (RME).

The first image above was created by Roberto Altmann, and the second by Maurice Lemaître–both were artists associated with the lettrist movement.

Below is a video of Orson Welles interviewing Isidore Isou about lettrism and sound poetry in 1955. Be sure to turn up your volume when watching it.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Literature, Sound, Visual art