Nasca Octavian Paul’s Paulstretch

Oscillatorial Binnage play room tones

I’ve recently been editing a 2010 Oscillatorial Binnage performance of a piece titled ‘Variations for Rooms and a Tone’.  It features multiple strands of acoustic microphone feedback steered by injections of carefully pitched oscillator tones, and destabilised by various other subtle treatments.  The pitch of the feedback relates to the resonant frequency of the space(s).  Conceptually, it may not sound entirely original (it certainly owes some debt to Alvin Lucier who explored this terrain), but its originality lies principally in the choice of venue – every space having its own unique cluster of tones: a ‘sonic fingerprint’.  This particular 2010 recording was performed at a soon-to-be-demolished former bus depot in Neckinger, known as the Woodmill.  It has unusual resonant cubbyholes allowing for many shifts of resonance.

The editing has been slow owing to an obligation to ‘do justice’ to the old space.  Further complications involve the removal of countless footsteps, which would have to be removed via individual crossfades.

The most fascinating microphone/speaker feedback tones occur when the feedback has not yet stabilised, i.e. when the feedback tone is still ‘finding itself’ after the soundsystem is turned on.  Transitions between conflicted resonances are also very musical.  Yet these moments do not last long, and a way to cleanly extend these moments without affecting quality and pitch is sought.

One notable program comes to the rescue in such situations – a wonderful high-powered timestretcher by Nasca Octavian Paul.  It is called PaulStretch, and most people may have already stumbled upon its fruits in the “800% slower” music stretches on Youtube.  Those who aren’t yet acquainted with it are in for a treat – it allows for lusciously smooth timestretching (along with other treatments) and is specifically designed for long-duration stretches.  PaulStretch can extend a 15-second sound to one lasting over 475 billion years.

It has been used extensively on many unlikely sonics, such as Rick Astley and Justin Bieber hits, the late ‪Eduard Khil‬’s lyricless epic ‘Я очень рад, ведь я, наконец, возвращаюсь домой’ (aka Trololo), the Eastenders theme, and my own favourite, Jerry Goldsmith’s theme to the 1990 film Total Recall.  What initially seem like exercises in trollsome ridiculousness play out as astonishing ethereal meditations.  The beauty of Paulstretch is in its sophisticated algorithm where percussion and drum noise – which would usually become discordant metallic barking in bog-standard timestretchers – are rendered as luscious crashing waves, in keeping with a percussive nature.

It is a curious experience to play old chiptunes, MOD music and Amiga game themes through Paulstretch.  8-bit tones retain their familiarity, yet become uncharacteristically epic in proportion.   Other interesting experiences may be had by playing pure intonation music in Paulstretch.  For example, some of the more complex moments of La Monte Young’s ‘Well Tuned Piano’ – which itself is a long-duration piece of over six hours – become even more fascinating.  Some of the beat-frequency forming ‘cloud’ effects such as those heard on CD 4 of the 1992 Gramavision release benefit from Paulstretch treatment.  I won’t post any examples here, but the software is free and there seems to be a world of potential.  One commentator asks “could this be the start of a new age of music?”   It certainly offers a new viewpoint which can be at times awing to the point of unnerving.

Such clean timestretching is extremely useful for elongating hyperinteresting short sounds, such as the elusive miraculous agitations, and various bookophone flourishes.

Nasca Octavian Paul has also programmed such excellences as the ZynAddSubFX soft-synth and the HyperMammut Fourier transform tool among other things…

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

Tapedropping – Cassette Culture, Mediadropping Musings and the Decline of Audio Pamphleteering

Tapedropping: For Thee…

It is frustrating to find that audio cassettes are now obsolete.  I say this not out of nostalgia, but because cassettes were the ideal medium for mediadropping (that is, anonymously leaving homemade music in random places).  Indeed, prior to the manifest decline of the cassette in around 2004, I referred to mediadropping as tapedropping.  The neologism mediadropping came later.

Available here is a paper entitled Mediadropping Musings detailing the practice and philosophy of mediadropping / tapedropping.  The essay formed part of a larger collection which were often dropped likewise in acts of pamphlet-dropping.  This particular text is reproduced here with all its original faults, but remains a useful document for any effusionist.

The majority of people no longer own equipment to play cassettes.  This practice of mediadropping is now almost completely thwarted by lack of suitable media.  CD-dropping was experimented with, but CDs can also carry data.  I have conducted wide-ranging dropping experiments using both CDs and tapes bearing email addresses in order to harvest responses.  CD-droppings have low response rates.  There is perhaps a sense that CDs can carry computer viruses or even just potentially *too graphic* multimedia experiences.  This makes people loath to pick up a rogue CD-R, even if enticing cover art is provided.  Cassettes, in contrast, are obviously meant for audio – tapes are mysterious Pandora’s boxes which rouse curiosity concerning their content.

Tapedropping: Bad Trad

In recent years, tapes have become ‘cool’ again for their retro appeal in niche circles.  These people who maintain the tape mantle are, however, too knowing to be targeted as tapedropping recipients.   The ideal audience for tapedroppings are just ever-so-slightly leftfield of the middle-of-the-road, but generally uncaring shits – the very people who have now migrated from tape to the latest invisible mp3 zapping technology.  It is a shame.

My own early tapedroppings were anything but ‘cool’.  They were rabid affairs characterised by an element of ‘trolling’ (before the word came to represent foul cyber-desecrations of basic human decency).  Early tapedroppings were directed at aggressors, muse-stiflers, intimidatingly dull bastards, etc.  Often, the tapes smacked of puritanical fanaticism and stoic exhortation against the utterly arrogant sexual mores of tacky, brutish schoolboys.

Tapedropping ‘music’ is rather like a personal individualistic manifestation of what used to be called “rough music” (see E. P. Thompson’s chapter in Customs in Common for an excellent overview).  ‘Rough music’ involved a “rude cacophony” produced by sections of the community to mock or wind up certain persons who had transgressed community norms.  Tapedropping is rather rough music’s reversal, in that it is generally directed back at the community norms.
Rough Music in Warwickshire, 1909
During schooldays I was keen on the concept of thought-vengeance.  A perceived injustice should always be repaid by an anonymously deposited cassette containing specially tailored semi-musical, sonically-distorted composition-rants, all creatively fuelled by the bitterly energising gall-whisk of futility.  Often, these ‘injustices’ didn’t even involve me – for instance, when a quiet boy was kicked downstairs by fourth-formers known to me, I would enact a tapedropping vengeance on the victim’s behalf.  An agitating listening experience would be dispensed, timed in such a manner that it wouldn’t be attributed to myself.
Regrettably, many of the early cassettes were unique – no other copies existed other than the master copies deposited for their intended recipients.  I recall most of the audio-pieces were noisy affairs (turning the air many shades of blue – on tape) intended not only for bully-types, but also those unwittingly cruel ‘casual-bullies’ whose demotivating throwaway remarks were more potent than sustained targeting due to their ‘coolness’.  Cassettes were left in their desk drawers, lockers and in their shoes during gym lessons, among other places.  To effectively irk the deserving targets, it was necessary to give the impression that the cassette originated from somebody much older.  An intricately constructed soundscape was also needed to give the impression that considerable effort had been expended on the article.  Overt obnoxiousness was withheld, pitches were lowered and efforts were made at robust articulation.  Even more effective was the inclusion of the target’s own voice (distorted and made ridiculous through processing) which I might surreptitiously capture on a portable dictaphone during breaktimes and lessons.  On one occasion I gained access to the French teacher’s cupboard where she stored tape recordings of every pupil’s spoken assignments – all the pupils’ names alphabetically arranged.  This was fantastic sonic material.  Later, I would obtain information to weave into lyrical matter by creepily browsing records in the school office (obtaining information such as home addresses and parents’ professions) and phoning the parents from phone-boxes to extract information or to record their voices for later processing.

Special instruments were built from soft drink cans, bits of wheelbarrow and the cord found in the waistbands of elasticated trousers. The more confusing sounds produced, the better.

I noticed that these tapedroppings could bring about changes of behaviour in their targets.  Beholders of rogue cassettes loudly voiced their concerns over the following days, playing detective to fathom the origins and purpose of the strange anti-gift.  Answers were never forthcoming, but gossip and false information were: “Mr. Foulsham made that cassette because he hates your mum”, etc.  Generally, a few weeks after receiving the cassette, the recipient became softer and less liable to abuse quieter people – a good thing.  The effects weren’t so lasting on dyed-in-the-wool bullies, but certainly the ‘casual-bullies’ became more pleasant.

Countless tapes were deployed, but I tried to avoid targeting the same person twice or thrice.  My philosophy was that you only get one chance at this kind of operation, so it had better be a good one!  If a recipient were to receive a second tape, he would be more mentally prepared and its potency would be lost.

At some stage it became apparent that certain combinations of sounds, voice information, treatments and ‘instrumentation’ were more effective at affecting a target than others.  Catchiness of chant or melody was certainly potent.  Without referring back to a master tape, it was impossible to judge what compositions were the most successful.  Until this point, I had been recording directly to cassette using my parents’ hi-fi and dubbing extra tracks by using the second tape deck.  At a car boot sale around 1998, I obtained a four-track, so I began constructing ‘stock’ backing tracks, leaving space for different voice dubbings each time to be tailored for the specific target.  The four-track machine enabled the re-use of certain flights of sound combinations and the retaining of copies.

With age comes maturity, and with maturity comes the unlikelihood of honest puerility. This makes these targeted ‘mediadroppings’ even more discordant, thus memorable, for the recipient.  Aged eighteen, whilst most of my fellows were desperately trying to cultivate some kind of misguided competitive strut, I thought it to be the perfect time to puncture their fledgling pseudo-poise with tapes of ever-sophisticating dispensation.  Tissue-box zithers were strung with extra strings.  There were persons whom I had not yet repaid for past aggressions upon me, some stretching back years.  At this time, CD-Rs were becoming popular, so the sonics took on a digital slant.  With CD-Rs there is the aforementioned problem that the media itself can be mistaken for computer data, thus requiring a printed sleeve to indicate that it is indeed a ‘harmless’ audio CD.  Some printed sleeves featured voyeuristic grainy digital photographs I had taken of the targets from some distance.  These personalised sleeves created such a furore (with incredible near-tearfulness) throughout the sixth form common room that I desisted from this particular graphic quirk, as it seemed to detract from the audio content which should be the focus.

At college, a more altruistic route was taken with the tapedroppings.  I reverted back to cassette and randomly made tapedroppings on a near-industrial scale all around public places.  I mainly strove to create an interesting listening experience for random people who happened to stumble across the tapes.  Encouragement was also given in the supplementary sleeves for the random recipient to create his/her own sonic deployments.  I wanted to hear what other people were sonically capable of when all obligations to follow musical trends were discarded.  Crucially, an email address was provided on the tapes.  Email allowed for recipient feedback, and many responses were harvested this way.  With catalogue numbers on each cassette, the recipient could be asked to cite the number, and thus the actual material would be identified and subsequently honed further and further toward the most reaction-eliciting sonics.

The document Mediadropping Musings highlights the various shades of severity in tapedropping sentiment.  I have divided these into three categories: Subdued, Burlesque and Wayward.  The dangers of ‘wayward’ mediadroppings are also detailed therein.  Without the surreal, artistic, fantastical, incoherent and abstract elements, mediadropping can be hijacked by the aforementioned “dull bastards” who may use anonymity to extend their bullydom and make comically sick provocations to strangers.  This is what we see happening online with the ‘unacceptable’ face of ‘trolling’.  It is vital, therefore, that the mechanics of mediadropping are understood in order to “troll the troll” in attempts to restore equilibrium where possible.  In the digital age, it is, sadly, difficult to coerce people to play unsolicited audio from an unknown web source.   Here’s hoping a new physical audio format suited to mediadropping may emerge in the future!

The Voynich Manuscript – An Acoustic Interpretation

The baffling Voynich Manuscript, written in an apparently indecipherable script, has caused much head-scratching since its rediscovery in 1912.  Thought to be of mediaeval origin, it contains quasi-astrological diagrams, depictions of strange devices, plants – unlike any earthly flora – alongside nude figures bathing in complex networks of ‘pools’ featuring recycled water (some mechanisms of which look decidedly unhygienic to modern eyes).  Some reckon it to be an alchemical text, whilst others believe it a hoax or an artistic exercise in glyptolalia.  Judge for yourself here.

One intriguing set of theories proposed by H. Richard SantaColoma speculate upon its possible representation of Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, specifically Solomon’s House – its college.  For this, it must be assumed that the manuscript was written in the early 17th century (or slightly earlier depending on the actual conception of the New Atlantis utopia) albeit on 15th century vellum (as carbon dating has proven).  The optical activities of the ‘Perspective Houses’ along with the grafting of diverse plants are considered as being represented within the manuscript.  However, if this theory is true, where are Solomon’s House’s famed ‘Sound houses’?  Could the ‘sound’ chapter have once comprised the now missing excised 32 pages?

Sonic activities in Solomon’s House, New Atlantis

These theories are inspiring to contemplate.  There are so many conflicting ideas vying for consideration surrounding the Voynich manuscript that it wouldn’t do much harm to throw in my tuppence worth, as far fetched as my following speculation may *sound*…

It seems that nobody has yet considered the Voynich Manuscript entirely in terms of acoustics.  Does the whole manuscript in fact concern sonics?  Admittedly, at first glance it would appear that sound or music is entirely absent, but to those acquainted with cymatics a possible avenue of investigation reveals itself.  (This may be a cue for some people to stop reading any further, especially for those who stand by the old adage “all comparisons are odious”).  In the tradition of Daphne Oram‘s bravura sonic speculations, tentative explorations can be made with this acoustic angle.

In the 1880s, the singer Margaret Watts Hughes developed a technique of producing 2D organic forms on a flexible membrane strewn with a fine powder, a la Chladni’s plate (but with the singing voice as the agitator).  The membrane was stretched over a sounding chamber with a pipe connected to it, through which Hughes would sustain tones, varying in timbre.  Upon the membrane, plant-like and fern-like forms were made by steadily moving the eidophone membrane over paste-covered glass, in effect creating a recording.  This technique produced entire gardens of sorts.  In 1891, Hughes wrote “(…) day by day I have gone on singing into shape these peculiar forms, and, stepping out of doors, have seen their parallels living in the flowers, ferns and trees around me; and, again, as I have watched the little heaps in the formation of the floral figures gather themselves up and then shoot out their petals, just as a flower springs from the swollen bud”.  Could the Voynich manuscript depict eidophonic activities?

A Voynich ‘rosette’

In the 20th century, Hans Jenny coined the term ‘cymatics’ to refer to the basic visible-sound phenomena.  Jenny used piezo-electric agitation, and also employed water-filled plates (although producing forms in liquids with only the voice would be very difficult – requiring acute volume and pinpoint pitch).  However, many of Jenny’s most iconic cymatic figures were produced by electronic oscillators operating in the kilohertz domain – above vocal range.


Throughout the Voynich manuscript, ‘sprays’ and ‘streams’ can be seen issuing from bizarre pipes.  The wavy streams are evidently liquids of some sort, although the sprays are more incongruous.  The technique of producing fine sprays from liquids was proposed by Bernoulli in his 1738 book ‘Hydrodynamica’ and was only perfected in the form of atomisers in the mid 19th century.  Some of these spray emissions in the manuscript seem to defy gravity, ruling out powder sprays.  Are these sprays early representations of sound?  It’s worth mentioning that the now-discredited corpuscular theory of sound was ‘in the air’ since the 1620s.

On page 77 of the manuscript, five ‘elements’ are illustrated issuing from a pipe manned by figures at each end.  The figure on the right has an apparent emission towards or from the mouth.  Does it represent the formative powers of sound?  There are other suggestions of this power, such as in the ‘rosettes’ fold-out where buildings are seen emerging from the primordial patterns.  Also, the majority of the figures shown throughout have their mouths in an ‘O’ shape hinting at voice production.  The images of ‘bathers in pools’ may actually depict naked choirs all sounding the same resonant note, crowded inside large resonant drums and cavities sending their voices through tubes to membranes, upon which large voice figures figures may be produced.  Their nudity might be due to the fact that clothing absorbs sound, whereas skin (especially if wet) is more reflective of sound (performers today note that acoustics of rooms alter when an audience is present) thus preserving resonance.

The manuscript’s astrological charts show some similarities to cymatic figures.  The charts showing improbable spiral forms may indicate motion, as the combined voices of the singers would be rife with rich phasings (chorusing) which would translate as an unstable, moving cymatic figure, with manifest rotary motions.  The symbolic demarcations of some charts might be attempts at macro/microcosmic integration by corresponding the limbs of voice figures with astrological houses.

The chorusing, that is, the cumulation of pitch and tone discrepancies in a choir voicing the same note, would create ‘blurred’ unstable voice figures.  Maybe the vase-like devices shown in the final section of the manuscript are Helmholtz resonators, or Vitruvius’ urns, tuned to enhance/amplify the purity of the tone?  Furthermore, were membranes stretched over the mouth of these ornate resonator urns?  (H. Richard SantaColoma suggests these devices shown were not resonator urns, but early microscopes).

If an eidophonic system is depicted, the manuscript’s exotic plant forms may derive from species of cymatic/eidophone voice figures.  But this begs the question as to why the plants are coloured – as any particle-based eidophone figures would certainly not be colour specific.  Of course this is all an extremely tenuous speculation.  All natural forms have harmonic characteristics (most notable in phyllotactic patterns) and are thus potentially translatable into sound.  Besides, there’s scant historical record of any such vibratory practices occurring in antiquity, and certainly none this elaborate.  However, it may be remembered that study of natural phenomena was strictly forbidden for centuries in Christendom, and beyond.


The likeliest theory is that the Voynich manuscript is a fantastical piece of systematised confusion: a dreamscape of pure flummox, maybe of hallucinatory origin.  The style was even expertly pastiched by Luigi Serafini in his 1981 masterpiece ‘Codex Seraphinianus‘ – a monumental oddity of glyptolalia.  Imagine randomly finding a book so utterly odd it can only be assumed to originate from another planet.  Incidentally, this is surely the touchstone of mediadropping!

As a footnote, the woodcut a few paragraphs above showing a New Atlantis ‘Sound House’ appears quite a lot online, and is often said to originate from an old imprint of New Atlantis.  It may go some way to show how easily we may be deceived by forgings of period styles, as, after some research, it transpired that it’s in fact a pastiche of 17th century engraving created by 20th century U.S. artist Lowell Hess.  It’s from a 1970 book titled ‘Graphic Design for the Computer Age’.

UPDATE 22/10/11: H. Richard SantaColoma has pointed out that the ‘rosettes’ fold-out page of the Voynich Manuscript most likely depicts a map, perhaps detailing the various departments of the House of Solomon.  Here, a candidate for the Sound House is identified in the top left hand corner.  He draws attention to the pointed loudhaileresque tubes, seen both as an extended pentad on the Sound House, and in shorter clusters surrounding the central House of Solomon.  It can be seen here.

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.