Organised Sound – Alternative Histories of Electroacoustic Music – August 2017

My paper – ‘Failed Histories of Electronic Music‘ – appears in issue 2 (vol. 22) of Organised Sound.  It brings to light some electronic music precedents that have never received detailed attention, if at all.

The background of the ‘failed histories’ concept is given in a new blogpost over at my Miraculous Agitations blog – click here.  It raises many questions, including “why can’t I earn a living from my research?”

Bookophone Outing

I comprise one quarter of the improv quartet Oscillatorial Binnage.  Last Thursday we played a short set at the AMM book launch.  Due to an alleged paucity of electricity sockets at the venue, it seemed an appropriate occasion to test drive an acoustic oddity I devised which I call a bookophone.

A bookophone consists of a paperback book and a rod/pipe ‘activator bow’ of some description.  The rod can be metal, plastic or lacquered wood, and it is drawn perpendicularly across the book’s textblock in a bowing action.  It produces acoustic pseudo-shepard tones and, with some practice, a variety of barks and yelps can be produced.

Bookophone technique: A metal ‘activator bow’ is rubbed across the book

The AMM event was one of the more off-the-wall performances of recent memory.  The two new books being discussed that night were Ben Watson‘s Blake in Cambridge, and 1839: The Chartist Insurrection by David Black and Chris Ford, both books published by Unkant.   (Tangentially, whilst setting up the space, Ben Watson found convenience in my bookophone’s ‘activator bow’ in liberating from the ceiling the Union Jack bunting left over from a Queen’s Jubilee celebration some days earlier).

Interestingly, Watson chose to launch his own book by giving a platform to its critics who proceeded to denounce various aspects of its content, creating much debate (which also encompassed ventings on AMM’s anti-academic stance).   Watson – an expert in language-defying tone poetry and mega-freeform vocalistics – then encouraged Oscillatorial Binnage to acoustically ornament/mimic the ensuing debate, which was already agitated by Watson’s occasional divergences into his hyperconfusing wordjazz.  Electronics, crackleboxes, bean slicer, clarinet, squeaky toilet paper holder combo, harmonica and bookophone (among other things – mostly stuff found in bins) culminated in a noisome uproar.  Regretfully, some of the younger people present did not at all enjoy the ultra-high pitched amplified blasts.  (All recordings can be heard here).

To change the subject slightly…. My shoes are always broken.  Earlier that rainy, rainy day, I had been in the second-hand book basement of a King’s Cross bookshop, trying to identify a louder £1 book for bookophone implementation (without actually compromising the shop’s stock by bowing the book edges).  Owing to a hole in my shoe, rainwater had made ingress to my sock, making an unpleasantly wet foot; an irritating feeling which distracted me and so impaired bookophonic sonic book judgement.  Abandoning the search, inspiration made me hop to the British Library where strong plastic bags can be obtained – most convenient!   There, I made myself a plastic sock to place inside my shoe thereby offering protection against the rainwater.  This provided comfort, not just for the rest of the day, but for the next week too.

[Such a feet/feat of necessity is perhaps worthy of Vladimir Arkhipov’s attention: specifically his Home Made series of books cataloging folk artefacts borne of such necessity].

However, by the time the AMM book launch began, the plastic sock had started to smell really bad.  There’s an esoteric quirk of hygiene that sees unventilated feet turn odorous.  Yet by the unpremeditated combining of the bookophone sounds with the ‘British Library bag-sock’ footsmell generator, I had fused both scent and sound into a new emission-sensation.  However, the other members of Oscillatorial Binnage were undecided and mildly dismissive of it.  I did wonder what the academics and anti-academics would make of this multi-faceted concept-fusion of bookophonics, British Library bag-socks, bad odour twinned with questionable bookwhine sonics…  It is probably too irrelevant or ‘lumpenproletarianesque’ to even contemplate.

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