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Every day at work I sift through the Google Alerts for Soundwalk’s Gmail account, and occasionally come across something I love. I always like getting alerts from Fluid Radio because the work they feature is usually stunningly beautiful and thought-provoking. Today I found this audio sample from Yann Novak‘s composition Nightfall, which “was created at the Jentel Artist Residency outside Banner, WY in February 2010. Based upon a simple field recording of the start of a snowfall at dusk… the composition explores the shifting point between day and night in the dry and overcast winter month.” (In connection with a piece I once wrote on different ways of telling time, this composition strikes me as being one that defines timelessness, in the sense that timelessness is equally stillness and relentless movement.) “The original recording begins with the dry, empty silence of the landscape, slowly enveloped by the piling of snow upon the microphone’s windscreen.

Each copy of Nightfall is accompanied by a unique watercolor based on the cover photograph of the landscape taken at dusk through the studio window.”

I haven’t purchased the full recording yet, as it’s $40, but the clip available on Fluid Radio is a good taste of it. In discussing sound editing with the guys I work with, I’ve been told that part of the process is manipulating the recordings, usually just hours and hours of static and hertzian frequencies, into something accessible with a narrative. Though I know there is more to Nightfall than just the few minutes on Fluid Radio, even the dark grey wash of sound one hears in the clip seems narrative to me. Perhaps something about its constancy and propulsion, about the feeling of being enveloped, is the key to this. Its lush monotone excludes both everything and nothing – it surrounds like a blanket and like a dark forest, both comfortingly and eerily. The feeling it gives is perhaps that of a freezing person falling asleep in the snow: of simultaneous risk and consolation, and most of all, of timelessness.


Written by bellaheureuse

July 21, 2010 at 1:28 am

some thoughts on sound and color

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Collage by Alexis Anne McKenzie | More here

I am thrilled as pie (is that an expression? pleased as pie? yes) about my avant garde music class at Paris VII. Recently we’ve been talking about Messiaen’s work and I’ve been taking copious notes a) because I bought a fountain pen and love watching it write and b) because talking about his color-based theories for composition could not fit more cozily into the niche of things I try to wrap my brain around whenever it’s feeling flexible. We spent a good hour talking about the way he, because of his synesthesia, heard color in music – he describes chords with adjectives like “blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white.” (If any of these remind you of words you’d use to describe the colors of a bird, there’s a reason: his music theory treatise was called Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie [Treatise of Rhythm, Colour and Birdsong]). The treatise apparently manages to prove that color is not a decorative element of music, but instead absolutely ingrained in its fundamental structure.

Olivier Messiaen – Préludes I. La Colombe

Olivier Messiaen – Préludes II. Chant D’extase dans un Paysage Triste

The first track above  was written with orange in mind, and the second, a deep blue.

I’m so interested in the relationship between music and color, suddenly. Taking the term “chromaticism”, in its musical context, it might seem that color and music have always been associated with each other, but the word proves to be a bit of a red herring, if you will: it shares the same origins as coloration, or the medieval system of the coloring in of notes to indicate duration. The ties between the frequency of electromagnetic radiation (that is, color) and the frequency of sound still seem indisputable, however: lower frequencies are so fixedly matched in our minds to equal degrees with deep colors and deep sounds, and higher frequencies with brighter colors and higher sounds. I am hesitant to pretend I know more about science than I do, or to tentatively posit ideas that I am sure have been investigated in volumes already, but I find them to be so pertinent to things I think and write about that I can’t help but unpack them a bit for myself.

Messiaen’s use of color as a tool for the hearing and writing of music reminds me, as so many things do these days, of making a map: of using the parameters of one field both to define, and in so doing, to create, another. (Here we could also consider the colors used to indicate height and depth in mapmaking, and in linking these colors to pitch, consider the potential similarity between a musical score and a topographical map.) In thinking about Messiaen’s additional work with palindromic rhythms, I am reminded of mirrors and their central role in so much literature, philosophy and art. One could say that Messiaen’s work is a good indicator of the most basic desire humans seem to have to represent one thing with something else – put simply, to make art.

It is the indelible stamp of process – of distance between the real and the rendered – that gives art, as an act of transposition, its deeply human element. Mirrors, then, are appealing to us like anything that is untouched or otherwise without signature: as producers of no more or less than a copy, they present us with the purest form of parallel; with a result too perfect to be human. In Messiaen we sense this aesthetic gap both growing and shrinking: his representation of color through music is rooted in the fundamental fissure defining human art, while his fascination with the perfect, with the mathematical, with the mirror reminds us of the deep-seated longing we have to close this divide.

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Written by bellaheureuse

February 17, 2010 at 10:50 pm

score for a hole in the ground

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This image is of the horn protruding from the ground at the site of the sound installation project Score for a Hole in the Ground, which was built after Jem Fines’ proposal won the PRS Foundation New Music Award in 2005. The installation was constructed and can be found in Kings Wood, Kent, England. It is set inside a very deep hole in the ground, suspended in which are a series of metal bowls of varying widths and depths. As natural precipitation occurs in the forest, water drips from slits in the metal grate above, and in striking the bowls, makes a chiming sound that changes as the bowls fill and eventually overflow into others below, making different sounds in turn. These sounds are amplified by a gramophone-style horn, constructed for the installation, that has its own artistic presence, and which quietly projects the sounds from underground out into the forest, to be heard both by those who have sought it out and those who come upon it unwittingly.

The idea is based on the Japanese suikinkutsu, an overturned metal bowl with a hole in the top that allows water to pass through and chime against the metal, and on John Cage’s ideas about silence as unlimited soundscape.

I like the way that the goal of something like this is to help the listener to hear not only the sounds produced by the work in question, but also to become more aware of what is ambient. It reminds of the Jeanne-Claude and Christo wrapped series, in which a larger goal of the art seems to be to help us to look beyond it and at something more interesting and impressive.

On the homepage linked above there is a nice audio clip of the sound the installation makes as the water drips into the bowls below the ground.

This is somewhat of a departure from the idea behind ambient sound, which Cage points out is so nice because it makes no effort to communicate emotion or insist upon an idea, but here is the Debussy piece my professor played this morning in my Paris VII class, Les avant-gardes musicales et poétiques.

Debussy Preludes, Book I: X. …La Cathedrale Engloutie (Profondement Calme)

I love when my professor plays piano in the mornings during my classes. She plays flawlessly and with this nice earnest look on her face that is soothing to see. She held the score of this piece up to the class and pointed out the way in which the tall, weighty chords, made up of at least ten notes each, resemble the sturdy structure of a cathedral. The piece sounds so architectural to me, with its heavy foundations and light top parts like stained glass.

what silence?

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The other day I came across a recording of John Cage speaking about haiku, followed by a short excerpt from his book Silence, which I’ve been reading recently along with a smattering of other things. His voice is calming and has one of those hard-to-identify American accents that makes one nostalgic, usually for things one was never actually a part of in the first place. Cage redefines silence in music as not in fact the opposite of sound, but instead as a moment in which doors are opened between sounds that can be notated and those that cannot; that in fact a silence is an openness in music much in the same way that a glass wall that “presents to the eye the images of clouds, trees, or grass, according to the situation” is an openness in architecture. There is something about the pacing and timbre of his voice which makes it easy for us to hear just as much life in his silences as in his sounds: his speech flows with as much intention as the notes and rests of a musical score. He is also funny.

John Cage – Mushroom Haiku, excerpt from Silence

More on haiku later. For now, I am coming down with a nasty rhume and it is time for bed.

“We are having the pleasure of being, slowly, nowhere. If anybody is sleepy, let him go to sleep.”

Simon & Garfunkel – The Sound of Silence

Written by bellaheureuse

January 14, 2010 at 10:04 pm