IKLECTIK Tuesday 13th June 2017: Extra Nights #2: Nicolas Collins + Oscillatorial Binnage

Oscillatorial Binnage will be performing at IKLECTIK tomorrow (13th June)! More details can be found on the Iklectik website: here.  There’s a Facebook event page here.  It forms the second in the series of Resonance Extra’s ‘Extra Nights’.

A posting over at the main Miraculous Agitations blog gives an idea of what to expect.

Here’s an impromptu behind-the-scenes photograph of us setting up for our rehearsal at the weekend:

Toby Clarkson, Fari Bradley and Chris Weaver

Wok Music: Music of the Hemispheres

The process of obtaining ‘miraculous agitations’, as I’ve written before, revolves around chance occurrences.  From a purely intuitive standpoint, it’s hard to pin down the catalyst that transforms a vibrating apparatus from a ‘bone-idle-tone’ into inspirational ‘tone-drama’ (that is, the once-in-a-blue-moon complex and inspiring acoustic stuff).  It appears as a chance convergence of microscopic parameters: an imperceptible movement of some element suddenly causing an emergent state…

The standard stainless steel cooking bowls (un-wok-like), with a paucity of tone-ballast.

The cauldron is perhaps the paradigm of all this tone-drama-seeking malarkey.  In fact, it’s surprising that cauldrons aren’t used more often in improv gigs.  Objects may be placed in a vibrating cauldron and stirred until the much longed-for ‘tone-drama’ emerges.  The cauldron body would be resonated electromagnetically, and eventually, with enough stirring trials, there will arrive a point where a highly specific configuration is obtained, bringing about pulsing rhythms or harmonic progressions.

When I was angling to incorporate pseudo-cauldrons into resonant assemblies, the adage “beggars can’t be choosers” manifested itself in the galling fact that dishes and bowls receptive to magnetism are very hard to find.  If you walk into a shop, all the stainless steel bowls will be non-magnetic.  This is frustrating, as many of the most resonant bowls will not be suitable for resonating via the electromagnetic field method (a non-contact method of resonating).

Looking in bins and trade waste containers can yield older steel bowls, where the steel was treated differently during manufacture, thus retaining its ferric virtue and allowing for EM resonation.  Although, these are rare.

Wok mounted to a sounding board with resonator and pickup coils.

Whereas in the past the poverty and unemployability that necessitated my dumpster-diving actions lent a teeth-gnashing restrictive atmosphere, it’s now obvious that this impoverished flâneur approach embraces chance happenings: a good thing.  One day, a wok presented itself.  Woks can be easily adapted to resonate.  When a wok handle is removed, woks resound like Tibetan bowls…  And they’re always (in my experience) responsive to magnetism too.  Woks are also somewhat hard to find, but they’re easily spotted, at least, whether in bins, car-boot sales, or vistas of ruin.

When a resonator coil is fixed in proximity to a wok’s rim, several harmonics can usually be obtained.  The most harmonically rich woks happen to be Ken Hom woks – this particular brand was the heaviest/densest I’ve so far found (the chrome handles of certain Ken Hom wok lids also make excellent subharmonic-generating objects to place inside woks).   The polarities and phase of the resonator coil / pickup coil combo can be arranged so that a descending scale of harmonics can be elicited by moving the pickup anticlockwise around the rim, on the right-hand side of the resonator (as shown in this scrawling).  When subharmonic ballast is added, a veritable sonic stir-fry is formed… with all the potency of the paradigmatic cauldron: thaumatacoustics in action.

So far, I have found four woks.  It is interesting to note that the resultant chords obtainable purely from the woks themselves – without adding objects inside – are chords of chance provided by the trade waste bins.   A convergence of people all deciding at a certain time to discard their woks resulted in this very specific chord.

I recorded a short and unpolished study simply to display aspects of this chord. (Please excuse the unskilful pickup collisions)….

Build your own Francis Bacon ‘Sound-House’

I feel behaviourally aslant in my secret indulgence for dolls house paraphernalia.  But that’s mainly due to a culturally-instilled inhibition that really needs to be shaken off.  After all, dolls houses are affordable, but real houses are not.  As the saying goes, you must “live within your means”.

‘Rendering that scaffolding dangerous’

For some years now I’ve itched to create a Sound-House, as defined in Sir Francis Bacon’s unfinished fable ‘New Atlantis’ (1624):

“We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds and their generation.  We have harmonies which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and lesser slides of sounds; divers instruments of musick likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet.  We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp.  We make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire.  We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds.  We have certain helps, which set to the ear, do further the hearing greatly.  We have also divers strange and artificial echos reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it, and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller, and some deeper, yea, some rendring the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive.  We have all means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes in strange lines and distances.”

A previous posting (here) touched upon some visual clues as to how Francis Bacon may have designed his Sound House if he had been tasked with realising one.

The “we have also sound-houses” passage has come to be quoted as a foresightful envisioning of electronic sound treatments.  Yet the majority of modern electronic works invariably pivot on trickeries and deceptions of the ear – keeping the listener ‘in the dark’ as to the nature of sound sources and treatments.  (Also, Bacon’s words conjure to mind a mechanical acoustic endeavour with contrivances similar to those imagined by his inventor contemporaries Salomon de Caus or Cornelis Drebbel.)  Allying Bacon’s Sound Houses with electronic sound technique seems incongruous when Bacon later writes a few paragraphs later:

“And surely, you will easily believe that we that have so many things truly natural, which induce admiration, could in a world of particulars deceive the senses, if we would disguise those things, and labour to make them more miraculous: But we do hate all impostures and lies insomuch, as we have severely forbidden it to all our fellows, under pain of ignominy and fines, that they do not shew any natural work or thing adorned or swelling, but only pure as it is, and without all affectations of strangeness.”

John Reid: Pyramid Sound-Houses?

If I ever had the opportunity to build a full size Baconian sound house, it would contain resonant granite sarcophagi (akin to those found in Egyptian tombs), moveable granite panelling and compartments.   Deep stone tunnels with mix-and-match obstructors.  Parallel surfaces for flutter echoes.  Bellow-pumped pipe tone generators and trumpeted alterants.   Clues may also be found in Bacon’s acoustical investigations documented in his Sylva Sylvarum.  In the meantime, I will continue experimenting with my dolls houses…  The dolls houses are more like weird garages, over-plumbed within an inch of their daintiness.  And the ‘dolls’ exist only in the mind.

Miraculous agitations in our acoustic environment – as I’ve written elsewhere – indicate the possibility of real-world sound rivalling electronic sound in terms of tonal complexity and delineation.  It is a question of engineering.  The miraculous agitation assemblies eventually come to resemble ‘houses’ – or ‘garages’ – stressed with the addition of perilously piled Jenga-like miscellany.  An ‘electromechnical Baconian dolls soundhouse garage’.   With all property so dismally unaffordable,  I would like to live in one of these… cohabiting with Cliff Richard’s proverbial ‘Living Doll’ – a husk of hope. (“Take a look at her hair, it’s real / And if you don’t believe what I say, just feel / I’m gonna lock her up in a trunk / So no big hunk can steal her away from me” [?!])

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.

The Wire issue 344: Unofficial Channels: ‘Acoustic Synthesis’ and Post-Electronic Sound

The ‘Unofficial Channels’ column of this month’s Wire magazine (#344) hosts a very short piece I’ve written on Acoustic Synthesis, giving a short overview on experimental manoeuvrings in the largely undefined sphere of post-electronic music.

As described elsewhere, ‘post-electronic music’ is a term I use to refer to the application of classical electronic music technique to acoustic systems, usually involving electro-mechanical parts and mechanical gears.

The sub-harmonic demonstrations of music theorist José A. Sotorrio are mentioned in the column.  Sotorrio’s introduction to the undertone series can be viewed here on Youtube.  A sounding tuning fork held against a movable obstruction (such as paper) produces different notes of the undertone series (seen at 1:00 in the video).  The ease at which the undertones can be elicited in physical vibrating systems provides glimpses of a sonic netherworld quite distinct from musical traditions derived from the overtone series.

Acoustic synthesis (as I practice it, at least) is principally concerned with enhancing the exactness with which mechanical controls act upon vibrating assemblies.  For instance, an electromagnetically sustained tuning fork may be gradually brought into contact with the paper by a vernier gear with a very high reduction ratio – this would allow undertones to be slowly scanned through discretely and selected.  These kinds of colliding interactions are an integral part of tone production.

The usage of adjustable prong-umbrellas to build up subharmonics (note the usage of a reverberant grille-pile)

The rich effect of subharmonics / undertones can be heard at the end of this short unfinished study on a small apparatus.   The growling occurs due to a vibrating prong colliding with a Rice Krispies box, periodically repelling it, before making contact again.  A swinging microphone adds a timbre shifting effect.

One may well wonder about the origins of post-electronic music.  I had often wondered if an ‘acoustic equivalent’ of a synthesiser was theorised during the electronic music heyday of the 1970s, or even earlier.  It seems that this was indeed almost touched upon by Terence Dwyer in his 1975 school course Making Electronic Music (Book 2 – Advanced).  The work of Terence Dwyer (now in his 90s) has received fresh attention recently thanks to Ian Helliwell‘s captivating article in last month’s The Wire (#343).

It is interesting to find Terence Dwyer suggesting the acoustic mimicry of electronic sounds in a volume of his Making Electronic Music textbook.  The textbooks serve as an introduction to the rudiments of electronic music for school students, but are practically concerned with tape splicing and tape effects.  Curiously, Book 2 contains a small section titled ‘Imitating Electronic Sounds’ – wonderful wispings towards a post-electronic modus operandi!  Acoustic equivalents are given: electronic waveforms and their acoustic substitutes:

Sine wave (pure, no harmonics) – Recorder, Tuning Fork, Whistling, Rubbed Wine Glass

Sawtooth (ramp) wave (all harmonics) – Kazoo, Comb and Paper

Squarewave (odd numbered harmonics) – Clarinet

White noise (random superimposition of all frequencies) – Vocal hissing by several people

Filtered noise (narrow bands of random frequencies) – One person making various hissings such as Ss, Sh, Ch, F, V, Z, Zh, Kh, Hh

In Search of Miraculous Agitations

Now I must explain the title of this blog – ‘Miraculous Agitations’.  Miraculous agitations are complex sounds which fortuitously occur every now and then in the oddments of acoustic furniture surrounding us.  Any agitational forces such as draughts of air, hums of electromechanical appliances, etc., allow for vibrational interactions between clustered objects.  When combinations of different agitational forces are acting simultaneously upon clustered objects, fascinating flourishes may be heard.

This month’s Brooklyn Rail features a article I wrote on this topic – ‘Miraculous Agitation: Scroungings Toward a New Acoustic Synthesis‘ – which should help explain things. [The live performance mentioned in the article may be heard here].

The occurrence of fascinating sonic flourishes (the miraculous agitations) in our acoustic environment suggests the possibility of building a mechanical synthesiser to acoustically reproduce the miraculous agitations.  Pulleys, jacks, clamps, levers and cranks control the resonances and couplings between vibrating physical elements.

A lot of time and thought has gone into the construction of these apparatuses – many of which use electromagnetic feedback: a multitude of ferric objects ‘bowed’ electromagnetically.  What is immediately clear is that physical vibration exploits any weak points in an assembly.  Untightened bolts will unscrew, parts will migrate, mechanical hysteresis alters the resonant properties of anything remotely flimsy, and objects placed atop vibrating surfaces will be shunted in a hot potato effect.  Subharmonic undertones are produced, along with many failed subharmonics (unfulfilled bounces).  The picture above shows a resonated pitchfork overarched by subharmonic selector prongs.  Possibilities begin to present themselves when resonant objects are allowed to periodically collide: a physical kind of granular synthesis is effected.  On top of this, entrainments occur between feedback systems.  When sympathetic resonance is also taken into account, the sonic potential of mechanically moderated apparatuses is evident.

Scrounging an apparatus for miraculousness

There is a problem with this.  If it is possible to reproduce a miraculous agitation willy-nilly, it will lose its miraculousness.  However, quirks of acoustic interaction operate on knife-edges beyond our immediate perception.  Also, it is not practical to ‘box up’ vibrating elements into an enclosed ‘synthesiser’ construct – everything must be readily accessible.  Even with all axes of control at our disposal, miraculous agitations certainly remain elusive.  I have had to scale down the control mechanisms to near-microscopic ranges.  Magnifying glasses are used to moderate grazing collisions.  These acts of timbre-seeking serve to create fertile ground for chance flourishes to occur.  Even with magnifying instrumental aids, the apparatus is never fully under control owing to the bewildering array of variables even in a primitive few stacked objects.

Futility: Examining grazings between vibrating objects

In the Charles Dickens book ‘David Copperfield’, there is a character named Wilkins Micawber, a debtor who is known for his hopeful motto that ‘something will turn up sooner or later’.  This attitude is often referred to as Micawberism.  It is by applying Micawberism to music that the miraculous agitations may be patiently anticipated.  It may not be known what expressive form or character they will take, but if one waits long enough at a vibrating assembly, something miraculous will indeed turn up.

Just as the assembly is played through experimentally scrounging for these interesting moments, the apparatus is similarly constructed from amalgamating scrounged materials picked from the trade waste bins of small businesses, charity shops, factories, etc.  “Soiled knick-knacks” are sought (see local newspaper report in the previous posting).  This dispenses with commercial hardware fetishism, and relegates the ‘composer’ to compositor, working in the service of the apparatus, rather than vice versa.  All pretensions are placed on the back-burner during such services.

I had tried to shoehorn the study of miraculous agitations into my university studies in 2005, but was dissuaded at the time due to my lack of articulateness on the matter.  In time, poverty taught me the correct lingo.  Continued dustbin investigations have led to the crystallisation of ‘dream mechanics’.   ‘Dream mechanics’ may sound like a troupe of male strippers, but it actually refers to idealised mechanisms suggested by conjunction of concepts.  This blog was originally intended to present these mechanics sequentially, but this would appear to be too esoteric to contemplate.  I will, however, elaborate on various mechanisms and miraculous agitation techniques in later postings…

Available here, on the ‘Post Electronic Sound Harvesting Initiative’ Soundcloud page, is a rare live attempt to produce miraculous agitations in 2009 at the Gasworks Gallery.  It failed somewhat, but miracles can’t be summoned at will in such a relatively short space of time, and apparatus is not easily transportable.  Some electronic blasts are also fed into the agitators in the hope the feedback strands may be periodically unsettled to produce changes in vibratory states (to avoid the boredom with comes with waiting).  There are still some moments of timbre-seeking approaching miraculousness.

Pages from the scrapbook of dream mechanics detailing waveshapers to generate object-couplings, subharmonic grazings and non-linear chatter