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” [?!])

The Wire – August 2011 – Daphne Oram

To mark the exhibition of the Oramics machine at The Science Museum, this month’s The Wire contains an article I wrote on the little-known esoteric interests of Daphne Oram.  This represents, it seems, the most extensive examination of this aspect of Oram’s work in print at present.  Daphne Oram was a true pioneer in experimental and electronic music – she is known principally for her establishing of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and her subsequent development of Oramics (a technique of crafting electronic music by hand-drawn notation).

What is not generally known is that Oramics refers not solely to the drawn sound technique, but also to a wider philosophy of sound – a holistic approach to studying all vibrational phenomena and their relationship to human life.  Part of the reason for the obscurity of this phase of Oramics may be in part due to the general scarcity of the only book she published – her groundbreaking ‘An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics‘ (1972).

‘An Individual Note …’ presents not only a breathtakingly fresh perspective on electronic music, but also asks “fascinating questions relating to the working of the human mind and the present and future roles for the individual and for society”.  It studies the human aspects of electronic music.  Of particular relevance today is the analogy Oram gives involving “mismatched impedance” (relating to audio devices improperly connected).  For a healthful functioning society, people must find matched impedances, e.g. university graduates should secure an employment where their energies are put to use comfortably.  If a highly qualified or energetic individual finds himself/herself psychologically constrained, working in a fish and chip shop, a form of potentially damaging distortion ensues.  I would personally go further and say that if no matched impedance is provided, i.e. unemployment upon graduation, it is utterly destructive in many ways – one’s activity is bounded by hard constraints (waveform clipping!) and these ricochets against the constraints produce agonising harmonics.  Incidentally, the writer known for studies into the unknown, Colin Wilson, has highlighted a link between artistic frustration and criminality… But I digress…

In the early 1980s Daphne was preparing another book, this time on ancient acoustics – a field of study known today as archaeoacoustics (the most notable recent study being ‘Archaeoacoustics’ published by McDonald Institute in 2006).  If her manuscript, ‘The Sound of the Past’, had been expanded and published in book form, it would have marked yet another pioneering achievement.  Sadly, lack of matched impedances prevented this being realised.  However, this short unfinished text will soon be available on the Daphne Oram website.

In ‘An Individual Note’, Oram places emphasis on the joy of musing – “on sniffing the air” and “catching scents”.  She says, “if the scents lead me sometimes ‘up the garden path’, I still enormously enjoy catching them”.  In time, science may go some way to verify some of Oram’s more radical speculations (particularly those in her unpublished notes).  For instance, the behaviour of the human organism in response to geomagnetic wave phenomena is taken more seriously now than in previous decades.  These zones of thought on the periphery between knowledge and mystery are also where profoundly fascinating insights take place, with accompanying inspirations.  And such inspiration is, after all, fine fuel for artistic creative endeavours.

Acupuncture, astrology, ancient resonances of Egypt’s Great Pyramid and Britain’s dolmens and barrows, John Erskine Malcolm’s curious theory of systemic arterial resonance…. Read about all this (and more) in this month’s The Wire, issue 330… because it’s extremely difficult to condense all this into a single blog post.