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.

The Wire issue 344: Unofficial Channels: ‘Acoustic Synthesis’ and Post-Electronic Sound

The ‘Unofficial Channels’ column of this month’s Wire magazine (#344) hosts a very short piece I’ve written on Acoustic Synthesis, giving a short overview on experimental manoeuvrings in the largely undefined sphere of post-electronic music.

As described elsewhere, ‘post-electronic music’ is a term I use to refer to the application of classical electronic music technique to acoustic systems, usually involving electro-mechanical parts and mechanical gears.

The sub-harmonic demonstrations of music theorist José A. Sotorrio are mentioned in the column.  Sotorrio’s introduction to the undertone series can be viewed here on Youtube.  A sounding tuning fork held against a movable obstruction (such as paper) produces different notes of the undertone series (seen at 1:00 in the video).  The ease at which the undertones can be elicited in physical vibrating systems provides glimpses of a sonic netherworld quite distinct from musical traditions derived from the overtone series.

Acoustic synthesis (as I practice it, at least) is principally concerned with enhancing the exactness with which mechanical controls act upon vibrating assemblies.  For instance, an electromagnetically sustained tuning fork may be gradually brought into contact with the paper by a vernier gear with a very high reduction ratio – this would allow undertones to be slowly scanned through discretely and selected.  These kinds of colliding interactions are an integral part of tone production.

The usage of adjustable prong-umbrellas to build up subharmonics (note the usage of a reverberant grille-pile)

The rich effect of subharmonics / undertones can be heard at the end of this short unfinished study on a small apparatus.   The growling occurs due to a vibrating prong colliding with a Rice Krispies box, periodically repelling it, before making contact again.  A swinging microphone adds a timbre shifting effect.

One may well wonder about the origins of post-electronic music.  I had often wondered if an ‘acoustic equivalent’ of a synthesiser was theorised during the electronic music heyday of the 1970s, or even earlier.  It seems that this was indeed almost touched upon by Terence Dwyer in his 1975 school course Making Electronic Music (Book 2 – Advanced).  The work of Terence Dwyer (now in his 90s) has received fresh attention recently thanks to Ian Helliwell‘s captivating article in last month’s The Wire (#343).

It is interesting to find Terence Dwyer suggesting the acoustic mimicry of electronic sounds in a volume of his Making Electronic Music textbook.  The textbooks serve as an introduction to the rudiments of electronic music for school students, but are practically concerned with tape splicing and tape effects.  Curiously, Book 2 contains a small section titled ‘Imitating Electronic Sounds’ – wonderful wispings towards a post-electronic modus operandi!  Acoustic equivalents are given: electronic waveforms and their acoustic substitutes:

Sine wave (pure, no harmonics) – Recorder, Tuning Fork, Whistling, Rubbed Wine Glass

Sawtooth (ramp) wave (all harmonics) – Kazoo, Comb and Paper

Squarewave (odd numbered harmonics) – Clarinet

White noise (random superimposition of all frequencies) – Vocal hissing by several people

Filtered noise (narrow bands of random frequencies) – One person making various hissings such as Ss, Sh, Ch, F, V, Z, Zh, Kh, Hh

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.