The Wire #409 – Psyphonics – ‘Further Listening’

The latest issue of The Wire (#409) contains my article on ‘psyphonics’ – the idealistic practice of attempting to embed idea, emotion and ‘thought’ within sound. A blogpost over at the Miraculous Agitations blog gives a little background to the idea. The Wire article charts how this romantic concept survives and even flourishes within modernity’s rigours.

A newly formed Psyphonics Facebook group now exists for anyone wishing to explore the idea further and share related music/recordings.

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 – 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.