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

Fortean Times – Sept 2013 – Crook Frightfulness

This month’s Fortean Times #305 (a sort of ‘paranoia special’) features my exposé of the extraordinary anonymously-penned book Crook Frightfulness, self-published in 1935 by “A Victim”.  In this blog post I’ll present some thoughts on the book’s semi-acoustical ideas.

Crook Frightfulness was first brought to my attention by the marvel Westwyrd the Bard: drum-specialist and custodian of curiousness.  For those unacquainted with the book, it’s an autobiography of a man tormented by crooks who embark on a campaign of staring, ventriloquism and covert psychological harassments against the author.  The “Victim” writes of his personal hell in which everybody else is either complicit, or simply fails to notice the ventriloquist abusers who stalk him across the British colonies.  Crooks are also able to hear the Victim’s thoughts by a theorised listening apparatus used with headphones (a sort of powerful stethoscope device).  Some of the antiquated colonial sentiments add an extra dimension of bizarreness.  A colleague described Crook Frightfulness as an “acoustic mystery thriller” although it’s generally seen as a schizophrenic emission.  For anybody interested in sound, its psychology and its perception/misperception, it’s a particularly fascinating book, as the author manages to “attain a degree of impersonal interest” (as he puts it) and proceeds to investigate the phenomena from his own practical, acoustical viewpoint.

Crook Frightfulness is split into three parts.  The first part – some 40 odd pages – begins almost like a potboiler; autobiographical sensationalism comparable to, say, Sydney Horler’s 1934 exposé, London’s Underworld.  Part two is written more matter-of-factly, albeit disjointedly and with heightened paranoia.  Here, the author writes of his experiences and travels around the colonies to outmanoeuvre the ‘crooks’.  The third part is the ‘Vital Climax’ where the crooks’ terrible practices are examined (involving listening apparatuses).   In FT305, it is suggested that the Victim did experience a genuine low-level persecution that left a lasting resonance.


Charles Wheatstone’s ‘Telephonic Concert’ at the Royal Polytechnic Institution

The listening apparatus is hypothesised in general terms.  It is assumed to be able to pick up the minutest sound, akin to an amplifier, functioning in a stethoscope-like arrangement – presumably non-electric.  This acoustic method of sound conveyance conjures to mind Charles Wheatstone’s ideas on acoustic transmission through solids.  Wheatstone coined the term ‘microphone’, not in reference to an electric transducer as we know it now, but to refer to an apparatus where sound is carried by direct transmission through solids to the ear.  In one adaptation of this to sounding bodies, at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in the 1860s Wheatstone exhibited a ‘Telephonic Concert’ – completely non-electric (à la tin-cans-and-string) – where thick wires coupled to musical instruments, played on a concealed lower floor, acoustically carried the sound silently through intermediate floors to a performance stage above, where the wires reconnected with the sounding boards of harps, rediffusing the sound as if by magic.  Wheatstone also visualised the invention of an ideal acoustically conductive material to stretch vast distances, to communicate from Aberdeen to London.   In Crook Frightfulness – ‘A Victim’ presents a visceral horror in which crooks can acoustically subjugate you in this Wheatstonian manner:

“I frequently tried to stifle the annoyance by stopping or closing my ears with my fingers, and when doing so, I rested my elbows on my knees or put my elbows upon the wooden table.  Strange to say, I found that neither of these expedients stopped or banished the sound (…)  The sound when I stopped my ears must have travelled through the wood of the floor and of the table and then through my bones to my ears!  (…)  They no doubt send sounds (by means of some instrument) to molest any intended victim who is in the same premises, or even in adjoining premises.”

Likewise, crooks are said to “hear your thoughts – the sound travelling through the floor you are standing on (…) to perhaps that next room or adjoining house, to the crook listener”.   Thoughts are heard by closely listening to sub-vocal articulation: “when you think (in 95 cases out of a hundred) you actually shape your words in your throat and mouth.  When we breathe through our mouth or nose it is possible for these fiends to hear your thoughts.”  The Victim’s theories evolve as Crook Frightfulness progresses.  Some later editions feature paste-ins where a “sound ‘outfit’ like the BBC” is theorised.  In spite of the book’s skew-whiff nature, some of these ideas were certainly at the ‘cutting edge’ – an early example of widespread covert listening is seen in the early 1940s with the hidden electric microphones around Trent Park’s prisoner-of-war compound to capture prisoners’ conversations.

A BBC “sound ‘outfit'” of the period

Last year, the writer and long-time Crook Frightfulness aficionado Phil Baker sold me a first edition of the book.  Baker was also keen to know more about the book’s author.  This spurred me on to compile all the scraps of information I’d collected over the years with a view to building a profile of “Victim”.

The compilation of biographical facts (gleaned from both the first and expanded editions) revealed the author was born in the East End of London, in or around 1875.  He was involved in rent collection and property.  He left Britain for New Zealand in 1924, moved to the British West Indies around 1928, and returned to Britain to settle in Aberystwyth in March 1932.  Many hours at Kew’s National Archives yielded a list of some fifty or so names, gradually whittled down as each name was followed up.  The use of digital archives plays a key role in such research.

It is revealed for the first time in this month’s Fortean Times that Crook Frightfulness was written by an east London estate agent named Arthur Herbert Mills.  He left Britain using the name Herbert Mills, and returned as Arthur Mills, which slightly confused matters, but further research has confirmed the connections.  His story is very interesting, and only a bare outline could be condensed into the article.

The book presents quite a sad predicament, but it’s hoped that the discovery of the author’s name will enable further study of the text, which charts the onset of auditory disorientation at a point in history where technology could not quite yet provide reasonable objective explanation for the phenomena.  There are a surprising number of narratives very similar to Crook Frightfulness (some early examples are examined in the article).  Today, people with these afflictions/assailments often cite James Lin’s 1978 textbook Microwave Auditory Effects and Applications that superficially appears to corroborate all sonic “unseen assailment” phenomena (although, in practice, such technology is very impractical).

Anyways… It’s not my intention here to delve into the arguments surrounding these phenomena (perhaps in a future posting), it is simply to examine curios and mythologies from acoustical hinterlands.  (It is worth mentioning that a semblance of ‘voices’ can be perceived during exposure to fluctuating white or pink noise for extended periods. This is a psychoacoustic effect: auditory pareidolia.  In one notable example, it is employed in a sound installation by U.S. sound artist Ellen Band in her Acoustic Mirage.)

The full particulars on Crook Frightfulness can be found in Fortean Times #305.

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