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)….

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.

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

EEEbyGUM, Bin Diving, Poverty, Penury, Tapedropping, Regrets and Stolen Glimpses of The Gadget Show through a Businessman’s Window

My last posting had an ulterior motive: I had half-hoped that Noel Edmonds (or, more likely, one of his retinue) might happen upon it and consider bestowing PhD funding to me (for Edmonds’ alleged offer of ‘troll research’).

I don’t think I’ll ever find a job or get PhD funding (which would allow for GROUNDBREAKING RESEARCH).  The unfortunate passage of time has led to this opinion (hopefully incorrect, please?). This lack of social mobility has been going on for far too long.  I thought it couldn’t get any worse in 2006, but now, in 2012, it has!  And then even worse!!  AND WORSE!!!  Colin Wilson may be correct in his opinion that scuppered energies lead to criminality.  I’m now constantly looking in bins for food, entertainment or any sustenance.  The Job Centre building radiates torment.  It’s getting intolerable.  Is anyone reading this?  Attempts are made to attain custodianship of something, but the field of choice narrows and narrows until only mud remains.  It’s when even the mud becomes out-of-reach that some fracture of language occurs.  Laws become wilfully unrecognised.  Trespassing on allotments, we start to resonate our own defecations with salvaged amplifier systems and car batteries.  The EEEbyGUM concept is getting more and more pertinent: Ear Enlightenment Everywhere but yet General Unresponsiveness Manifest.  It refers to the despairing situation of Sonic Art graduates.  I believe to have discovered new techniques which are essential to humanity, but nobastard cares.

Today, whilst on my daily bin-diving expedition (which desperation necessitates), I caught a glimpse of Channel 5’s The Gadget Show through someone’s window.  A man in a suit, with unbuttoned shirt, was sat in front of his plasma widescreen in louche mode after a hard day in the office, no doubt.  I didn’t want to stare for too long, so after a few minutes, when the ad break came on, I crept away with my bag of “soiled knick-knacks” (as a local anti-bin-diving correspondent to the local newspaper once referred to the spoils of scrounge).

The Gadget Show was originally concerned with the latest gadgets.  In principle, it should’ve always catered for the gadgetty anchorites who confine themselves to their bedrooms or garages to reach the nirvana which lies beyond the GUI.  Instead, the prime-time show is now inexplicably aimed at a new breed of Nietzschean Übermensch: sporty bankers with infinite money and predilections for gadgeteering whilst scuba-diving or suchlike.  Racing cars and unnecessary ‘babes’.  It’s aggressively outdoorsy and treads muddy footprints on the anchorite’s face.

TV’s Jason Bradbury

When I looked into the man’s window – the reason I knew immediately he was watching Channel 5’s The Gadget Show is because of its presenter, Jason Bradbury, and his face, which plays host to ever-stupefying glasses of the uniquest futurology.  He never used to wear glasses – methinks they’re fake.

Back in 2004, when he was searching for some new ‘thing’, he sent me a kind email after hearing my tapedropping emissions on Resonance FM.  Bradbury asked to meet up and “discuss ideas”.  Foolishly, I preferred to concentrate on my university work which was consuming a lot of time.  He sent another email:

Thanks for returning my mail.  My interest in your show is quite simple really – I think you’re hilarious.  I’m always looking for tangental ideas and performers but I’m not some old BBC git looking to sign up talent and throw away the key. While I flirt with the mainstream as a producer/director – I’m fronting a crazy science show of my own for Discovery Kids out next month and I’ve just got a role presenting a new technology and gadget show on Ch5 in May 04.  I’m also an experienced comedian with years of stand-up experience and most recently a 5 star show I did at the Edinburgh Festival called ‘Breakdance Therapy’ (a biographical piece about growing up in the 80’s).

So you see – I relate to your 8-bit harmonies and human beatbox – I relate to your divergent presentational style and I relate the potential to roll all of them up into a stage show or a TV proposal or… just an interesting chat over a coffee.

I’ve you’re up for a meet – drop me a mail. I’m around week after next.

Keep up the good work. All the best,
Jason Bradbury

‘Fan mail’ was virtually non-existent, so this was nice.  It was a complimentary, encouraging email and he dispensed his mobile number, although I replied that I really must continue my university work.  Responding negatively to Bradbury is one of my biggest regrets, because I was UTTERLY WRONG in thinking concentration on university work would reap pleasanter rewards.  University has led me to the gutter – LITERALLY.  Since graduating from the Master’s degree in 2007, I have continued ‘studying’ just interiorly in my mind: working on imaginary assignments for imaginary deadlines.  Why won’t anywhere employ me or give my proposals the time of day?  Why won’t they offer PhD funding to me?  I’m already half-way there with my imaginatively-propelled research under chimerical auspices!  So, now I rummage through trade waste bins in the twilight.  I never thought things could get worse, but there is always a new level of misery waiting below.  My studies have resulted in a debt probably never to be paid off.  I grow resentful of society, and The Gadget Show represents all that is abhorrent with unloosed consumerism and conservative young working professionals with their disregard for the obsolete, aversion to make-do-and-mend mentalities, etc.  Yet paradoxically, regrets of not accepting Bradbury’s offer of a meeting lead to cripping ganglions of bitter gall…  (However, in all likelihood, he would’ve thought me “not the full shilling” and dismissed me, as in all interviews I’ve been to).

Aye, maybe Bradbury never did quite fully understand the nature of my tapedropping emissions – the ultimate objectives of tapedropping being to irk deserving recipients.  (Don’t know what the “human beatbox” was all about).  Ironically, all tapedropping recipients were ostensibly the sort of people who currently watch The Gadget Show – the tapedroppings aimed to sonically aggrieve them to the same extent their toxic smugness offended the delicate ear.  Tapes of unbroadcastable grot to evaporate all cliquey trendsetting…

Still, I telephoned Jason Bradbury years later (in 2007) in a spasm of PURE DESPERATION(!!!!!!) in the hope he might employ me for my sound work or something.  He was my last hope of getting on an even keel – maybe I could wrangle some internship leading to steady work?  Maybe I could eventually afford those nice but expensive Marks & Spencer pasta bakes which I circumspectly pilfer occasionally?  Bradbury telephonically calmed me that 2004 was a “long time ago”, although it seemed like only yesterday to me, and still does.  He told me to “never give up” and to “keep going”.  His career had gone from strength to strength, and he’d had some children who were now toddlers, etc.  His advice, whilst being superficially helpful and sensible, has driven me far beyond unemployability into sheer asphyxiated impoverished hell.  THERE HAS GOT TO BE SOMETHING OUT THERE FOR ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  IF NOT ON THIS PLANET, THEN SOMEWHERE IN ALL KNOWN SPACE, AT LEAST???!!!!?!?!!!  This is what I wanted to howl, but decorum and telephone-manner intervened.

Now, today, I stand looking into someone else’s living room – it looks warm – at this profoundly resonant and antagonising televisual face of Bradbury, whilst holding a carrier bag full of stuff pulled out from bins.  Maybe I’m eligible for some sort of disability benefit?  Everything seems ‘out of phase’.  One consoling thought is that new levels of desperation are inevitably coming, but not at this absolute moment in time.

Looking in bins – displaying the crib sheet of ‘dream objects’ for the creation of sonic miracles and vibrational research