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” [?!])

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