Ivory Tower Misdoings, or "Something for Nothing"

The current acoustics-themed Leonardo Music Journal (#22) features my paper ‘Miraculous Agitations: On the Uses of Chaotic, Non-Linear and Emergent Behaviour in Acoustic Vibrating Physical Systems‘.  It gives an overview of the philosophy of miraculous agitations (or thaumatacoustics: acoustics compounded with the prefix ‘thaumata’, meaning ‘wonder’) and methods of electromagnetically resonating object-assemblies.  In the LMJ paper, I avoided describing how poverty shaped the philosophies behind miraculous agitation apparatuses.  I’ll descant upon this aspect here.

An older composer – either misunderstanding my words or trying to ‘get a rise’ from me – once described the miraculous agitation technique as the “musical equivalent of benefit fraud”(!).   He believed that it was sheer laziness to sit and make arbitrary mechanical adjustments to piles of vibrating junk in the hope that a composition would compose itself.  I suppose he thought it was something like getting a “finished composition” for free.  Whilst his unusual angle was very thought-provoking, I’d have to summon to memory a quote that would be appreciated by someone of his generation: “I think you’re entering the realms of fantasy here, Jones.”

Music is traditionally composed – or ‘worked out’ – in ‘horizontal’ time (as most music sequencers scroll).  Thaumatacoustic apparatuses on the other hand are scrounged together, assembled and ‘worked out’ beforehand in an instance removed from time.  So the ‘work’ goes into the arrangement of global conditions outside time.  The composing here is principally a process of searching for objects, assembling objects and arranging an initial state in ‘vertical’ time, before the electromagnetic agitators are even switched on.  It’s more about ‘compositing’ than ‘composing’.  The actual tonestuff emerges over time, almost of its own accord, from largely unforeseen interactions within the assembly.
 
For an apparatus to be capable of producing sonically useful ‘wonders’, patience and perseverance is essential.  It is true that the apparatus is built from stuff pulled out dustbins – this is perhaps the part that the aforementioned critic took issue with.  This seems a contentious area (and it really shouldn’t be).  To this day, passive-aggressive people still crow “should you be doing that?” and “go away” whilst I’m searching for acoustic parts in bins.

I’d be a great sound designer, researcher or archivist at the British Library’s sound archive (for example), but frustratingly, employment has not been forthcoming.  I’ve ranted about this elsewhere…  Jobseeker’s Allowance was cut off.  Poverty compelled me to rummage through bins, for food, entertainment, tools and raw materials for quasi-saleable crafted miscellany (including miraculous agitation assemblies).  It’s scandalous to behold how much usefulness gets discarded.  The thaumatacoustic philosophy is ensconced in these experiences.

In the light of this seemingly beggarly state, it was invigorating to find on March 2nd that five messages had reached me through diverse channels.  The messages were all from one researcher for RDF Television / Zodiak Media, apparently involved in making a TV documentary for Channel 4:

Hi there,
I was wondering if you might be able to help me. I work for a TV production company called RDF Television and we are currently working on a new show for Channel 4 – which looks into all the weird and wonderful things you can get for free.

I have come across a sound artist called Dan Wilson who creates musical instruments out of unwanted goods and electrical parts he finds in skips and I read that he sometimes performs with Oscillatorial Binnage.

I would really like to have a chat with Dan but can’t find any contact details for him any where. I was wondering if you could let me know if there is any way of getting in touch with him or perhaps you could forward this email on to him so he can get in touch with me? Just want to have a chat with Dan about what he does.

You can contact me here or my email address is —-  or my direct number is —–.

Hope to hear from you,

These TV researchers often cast their net widely, and I did suspect that they might find me too weird a fish for their fishtank.  I described my practices and provided links to various examples, but also lamented that I couldn’t produce more expository audio examples due to lack of equipment (more high quality microphones would be a Godsend).

The correspondent elaborated on their remit:

I’m not sure how much I explained about the show.  We’re making a consumer programme for channel 4, that looks into all the things you can get for free – weird and wonderful things that you might not think of.

I really liked the idea that you make instruments from electrical  items you find in skips and that is what I was interested in talking to you about. We’re looking for people who are experts in their field who would like to talk on camera about their experiences – for example the pitfalls of skip diving / the best places to go for the best finds – so we’re looking for a spokesperson who can tell us about the ‘art’ of skip diving. It’s not so much about the music itself, I’m afraid.

I’m not sure if this is something you would be interested in at all?

Yes – it sounded worthwhile and useful exposure.  But then came the bitter irony.  Any payment?  “There is no payment, I’m afraid, as we don’t have the budget.”   So, a programme about the “weird and wonderful things you can get for free” is trying to source the raw materials for free!

This reminded me of a certain King’s Cross publisher who, some years ago, sought to find homeless ‘renegade gardeners’ to write for them about their personal experiences of homeless gardening.  There was no payment for this work, yet the book would retail for +£15 per copy.

I gently berated the RDF correspondent: “Not wishing to sound exhortational – it seems a bit skew-whiff to make a programme about bin-diving – a last resort for the poorest and most vulnerable in society – and not pay the interviewees!

The reply was defensive and ambiguous: “It is a factual documentary to show the general public that there are benefits to be had in this time of financial crisis. And in no way will we be showing ways in which to take from people who really need it.”  (‘Benefits to be had in this time of financial crisis’?!?)  One media behemoth I once dealt with some years ago had its minions bandying about the term “loser generated content” with some enthusiasm, and I’ve been wary of these sapping dilettantes ever since.

Nevertheless, I agreed to provide some insight for this programme, but suddenly the doors had closed tightly:  the reply read “I’m afraid the format of the show has slightly changed in the past couple of weeks. When I last spoke to you we were still in the early research stages and seeing what stories were out there, but now we have fully cast all our contributors and experts.

Disappointments far outnumber wonders when searching for miraculous agitations.  I sighed, and an apparatus set on a cardboard box sympathetically buzzed in an interesting manner.

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