Sonics in the Wildernesses—A Justification

Heavy-laden with electromagnetic clamps and batteries, I am often interrupted by suspicious passersby during my acoustical experiments in tunnels, industrial estates, and multi-story car parks. Questions hang awkwardly in the air: “Excuse me, what’s this all for?” Such questions are difficult to answer. What is it for? In truth, I am looking to uncover novel sounds and trying to create “interestingnesses” with them. I am not affiliated with any institution (although I wish I was)—this is my own personal work conducted on my own for the good of whoever happens to be interested. The reactions to this truthful answer are often hostile: “Get away from here or I’ll call the police!” or “What the hell’s wrong with you?” To avoid such unpleasantries, it is better to lie. I always pretend to be a “sonic arts student.”

Self-portrait of the author at work.

Some may think it absurd, but there is a genuine course of study in “sonic arts”—a field that has gained some attention in the last decade. There are many mortally offensive jokes in circulation amongst snobs, such as: “What do you call a musician who can’t play an instrument? A sonic artist!” It was expensive, but I did actually study sonic arts, gaining a distinguished master’s degree some years ago. I enrolled specifically to give credibility (and hopefully employability) to the sonic contemplations that have dogged me like some kind of autism. Sonic art practices often strike people as odd, but if you claim to be studying them in an official capacity, it gives your work a sort of innocent legitimacy to these non-believers.

Recently, when I was exploring the resonances of some railings, a car pulsing with hedonistic clown party-music pulled up. Its bald occupant screamed, “I own all these properties! Now fuck off, you nutter!” If he did indeed own all the premises, there is something very wrong with society, but I was inclined to think he was merely flexing his bluster. He evidently scorned the classically tragic element in railing resonances, and this aroused his dominant instincts. When two opposing polarities meet, there are bound to be sparks. Beneath all that hostility, I did wonder if he had a point: Are such sonic investigations a kind of madness? Certainly it seems I’m courting madness to be forced to pretend I’m still a student, when I’m in fact not employed in the official sense, instead working on my own personal studies, unacknowledged and unpaid.

Sonic art is one of the most misunderstood areas of study. The ignorance and fear surrounding acoustical matters was made apparent last year when some gullible newspapers worked themselves into hysterics reporting a spurious “new craze” called iDosing, where “digital drugs” are taken (or rather, listened to) in the form of downloadable sound files. Videos had been circulated of headphone-clad teenagers supposedly in hallucinatory states triggered by MP3 sound files. The iDosers were in fact merely purchasable applications facilitating the playback of meditational drones. Their placebo-like effects were derived from the expectation listeners had. The company selling these applications was thereby capitalizing on the general lack of knowledge in acoustical matters.

As an “official” course of study, sonic art is popularly viewed askance and derided as a prospectless inanity—neither a worthy nor worthwhile course of study. Naïvely hoping for employment in sound-effects design, when I graduated from the sonic art degree I instead found obstructive prejudices in the wider world propelling me into orbits unrecognized by polite society. (I now forage through trash, pick out old electronic toys, circuit-bend them, and sell them on eBay to people who can’t be bothered to do this themselves.) How many other disappointed souls took my university’s “Be anything you want to be” tagline literally? Despite this catastrophe of education, I would argue that sonic art has a supreme importance and far-reaching demesne encompassing history, electronics, acoustics, mathematics, music, architecture, geography, geometry, ecology, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, physiology, design, computing, ergonomics, semiotics, cryptography, engineering, physics, astrology, therapeutics, dancing, and metaphysics. “Sound,” whether audible or inaudible, is everywhere. Arguing this point with Job Centre officials is sadly futile, and an irrelevant course of retraining is usually advised. What could be more soul-crushing, after gaining insight into such fantastical things, than to be rendered toxically unemployable? Poverty unchecked leads towards criminality, as I am slowly discovering. Yet I’m a bloody scholar! (Or am I?) There is a sense that if the taxpayers cannot get their “return” from a student loan, they will fume whilst thirsting for blood. They insist on this retraining, remolding the mind—an annihilating prospect to the postgraduate, as it spurns a decade of hard work and study. Idiotic cow-people moo via cyberspace, “Let’s DUMP all these so-called ‘artistic’ talents. Let them look for REAL work just like everybody else.” (This stupid comment is from the Daily Mail’s online reportage of a wonderful lottery-funded musical sculpture.) Such assertions are truly ignorant and impractical, as I shall illustrate. Shouting “Grow up!” or “Get into the real world, you pretentious twat!” is like urging an amputee to regrow the missing limb.

It seems that the harder you work in the field of sonic art, the more abstracted you become (especially if you live in a small town). Your hard efforts appear invalid, remote, and unreal to bovine eyes. A perceived dissonance is gained with every endeavor. You eventually become seen as a foreign entity to the non–sonically aware—to those unable to shift their viewpoints. Let’s imagine a scenario: You may notice, say, an abandoned metal trolley—a simple shopping cart. Investigation reveals it to be a Buko SES70R built for Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Ltd. in 1999—now nested in foliage. The angles of the grilles on each side present sets of ascending musical scales as each rung becomes smaller. This trolley’s hitherto hidden musical scale has its own temperament. You take the trolley home, isolate the side grilles, clamp on resonating bodies, and acquire violin bows or electromagnetic insonifiers to apprehend the microtonal intervals. Contrary to expectations, you discover that the scale does not uniformly ascend as its construction suggests, and the pitches on each side do not correspond. The scale is arbitrary, and the trolley was never intended to maintain fixed pitch—it is not a musical instrument of exactness. You wonder at the inaccuracies of welding, the collisions, joy rides, resonances, and natural weatherings that have all conspired to slowly retune the trolley over the years into its present state. Before you know it, you’re contemplating microscopic blemishes, sodalities of sonority, music of the spheres, Druidic perpetual choirs, corpuscular sound, the Tetragrammaton, the “bundle of electro-magnetic forces of maya”! It is near-impossible to reconnect with everyday people after such epiphanic ordeals. Accusations of “being weird” cling like crap on crêpe. Your parents say, “Get this trolley out of the lounge now!” You are 40 years old.

Thoughts of trolleys/carts were energized recently when a document unearthed from the Resonance FM bins fell into my hands. A meticulously handwritten nine-page letter from a Manchester artist named Stephen Bleasdale (of the Academy of Facile Achievement) outlined his own “Metal Pig” instrument: an adapted shopping trolley. In this fascinating document, Bleasdale goes into great detail about his instrument, which he plays under the alias the Capsize Orchestra. In 1987 Bleasdale discovered a trolley outside his house; someone had clearly gone to great pains to deposit it there, as there were no supermarkets nearby. In his letter, he emphasizes how he felt obliged to drag the trolley indoors. Stretched across the bars of the trolley there happened to be a “thick metal coil spring”; Bleasdale accidentally struck it and was instantly enamored of its sound. Inspiration came quickly; he fitted it with extra springs and clatterers. The instrument had seemingly “built itself” and now made an “incredible noise.” Bleasdale admits, “Okay, so I had taken a LOT of drugs, and was more than likely in a state of clinical insanity.” The Metal Pig has since undergone a number of incarnations, but is always built around a shopping trolley, an “anti-shrine to capitalism.” Bleasdale admits there is a discordance in the voice of his Metal Pig, which is often used in the context of politically motivated protest. Elsewhere, he mentions that no radio station has ever interviewed him, although many “Restart advisers” had interviewed him (a Job Center scheme to “help” the long-term unemployed).

Stephen Bleasdale’s work is a perfect example of how eccentricity and interest in sound are inexorably linked. There is a sense of obligation, or of being drawn into action, to investigate sounds. In unraveling the connection between “eccentricity” and sonic art, it is useful to consider what kind of person is compelled to study sonic art. Interest in music is a fine foundation for sonic contemplations, but this isn’t strictly necessary. There are those whose studies are propelled by an obsession with a “pure aesthetic of sound” and its philosophies, or romantic attractions to certain kinds of not-necessarily-musical noises admired for their “suchness,” or a desire to be challenged by new and confusing things. They have a general inclination to deeply meditate upon all kinds of acoustic radiations rescued from neglect; a slow and distracted process at odds with the urgency of economic hurly-burly.

Research suggests that those labeled as dyslexic are well-suited to visual art. It would be interesting to similarly investigate whether auditory art/awareness skills are more pronounced in certain demographics. There are very few studies of this nature, as sonic art, due to its arcane devices, is not as widely recognised as visual art. Any study of this kind would be fraught with correlational nightmares because sonic art (and its wider reception) can itself encourage introspection and its accompanying outgrowths toward clinically designated victimhoods.

During my sonic art degree, I suffered frequently from panic attacks in lecture halls, where I’d be compelled to escape to breathe fresh air outside. These attacks seemed to arise during silent interludes, or those awkward moments at the start and end of lectures when there were obligations to socialize or make small talk. It was an oppressive, breathless feeling. There seems to be a correlation between sonic experimentation and loneliness—a kind of pulling apart from the crowd. The head of department confided to me that nervous disorders are common among sonic art students.

The head of department’s comment reveals something interesting about the psychology of the typical sonic art type. From my observations, there is certainly a pronounced degree of social awkwardness amongst sonic art people. (I’m no exception.) Yet shyness may also be tempered by defensive blasts of hot air. Stockhausen is said to have visited the sophisticated EMS studio in Putney (London) in the late 1960s and arrogantly declared to know how to work all the devices—yet he couldn’t, and perhaps he secretly knew this. Years later, Stockhausen’s insensitive comments about the 2001 World Trade Center attacks (which he later recanted) betrayed a lack of human empathy suggestive of autism. However, it is improper to use this one figurehead as a yardstick—though his influence can be gauged from the fact that his birth date was the security keycode on the sonic arts department’s door at my university.

One day I was sitting eating my dinner, watching the BBC One evening news with my dad. Suddenly, there appeared on the local London news a segment featuring someone with whom I had studied sonic art at university. It was somebody I had never spoken to due to his hot-air force-field. He had organized a kind of “sonic art fight club,” or “scrap club,” where people would bring objects to smash up with sledgehammers, chainsaws, etc. My dad waved his fork at the TV, shouting “What a load of old toss!” (It reminded him of traumatic piano-smashing contests of the 1970s.) I choked on my beans-on-toast, but remained quiet, wondering how on earth this pitiful crisis of masculinity managed to get airtime.

Many sonic art people seem to modulate varying gradations of protest onto their activities. It is possible to historically trace a sonic art mentality, and one notable manifestation of this mentality is seen with the Fox sisters’ “spirit rappings” of Hydesville, New York, in 1848, where mysterious knockings were attributed to spirits of the dead, and became a means of communication with departed souls. The Hydesville rappings were believed to be genuine for many years, even after Maggie Fox’s confession of fraud in 1888. Spirit rapping instances grew more common, and this started the Spiritualism movement, predominantly led by women—opening avenues of self-expression previously denied to womankind by a repressive patriarchal society. The sonic artistry behind the spirit rappings can be interpreted as being loaded with protest against a humdrum existence. The rappings were chiefly joint clicks and shoe movements artfully sounded upon choice resonant surfaces, but performed under such emotionally charged conditions as to imbue the sounds with deeply moving potency: they fostered deep introspection. Elsewhere, poet and mesmerism enthusiast Chauncy Hare Townshend noted the connection between spirit rapping and madness, asserting, “It is not so much that spirit rapping produces madness, as that madness produces spirit rapping.” Bizarrely, Townshend believed rappings were not spirits of the deceased, but the results of nervous energies radiating from “persons of disordered health and unstrung nerves” in the form of mesmeric rays capable of producing percussive noises. He noted that many rapping mediums end their days in madhouses. Were those mediums deemed by Townshend as “unstrung” driven into agitated, paranoid states by the stifling (and often confrontational) scrutiny directed at their delicate “sound worlds” built on guilt? Spirit rapping percussionists were frequently toying with the emotions of bereaved persons, so it is feasible that wrestling with guilt and denial caused mental imbalance.

Is there a similar guilt that comes with sonic art activities in modern society? In England, university tuition fees may be paid for through student loans. Primarily used by poor undergraduates, student loans are taken from the taxpayers’ purse. Is it possible that there is also a dangerous guilt festering within sonic art graduates when no paid employment is forthcoming upon graduation?

Sonic art is all about making known what is hidden, or vice versa: performing tricks by hiding what is known. For example, one postgraduate student believed hospital radio should solely broadcast the interior sounds of the human body. Another student was sacked from his job at a key-cutting shop because he kept a secret book where he traced a continuous outline of the hundreds of Yale keys he handled—the teeth and notches on the keys created a waveform when digitised, showing some periodicity when converted to noise.

Many who claim to be sonic artists by profession are now compelled to conceal or even patent their techniques to preserve their mysteriousness. The toxic combination of capitalist self-preservation and hostile receptions from strangers propels them to become magicians, or hermit magi—anxiously secretive sculptors of an unseen medium.

During my own studies, I found that most sonic art students are from rich families, but these were almost always arty dilettantes whose interests in sound were only ephemeral.

It is a tragedy that the most ardent sonic practitioners are forced into poverty. If the subject of sonic art is significant enough to warrant university courses of study, there should be corresponding inlets for its graduates in society, yet this is not the case. Poor graduates are forced into street-level acoustic sonic contemplations (see my article “The Emergence of Acoustic Spasm” in the June 2009 Rail), far removed from the flashy technologies they had trained with in university studios. Subsequently, they are rendered utterly awkward by obsessive clappings, wheelbarrow-flickings, and other impromptu resonance-testings. People in the street ask themselves, “Is he/she safe?”

To the unacquainted, there appears to be a vague illicitness surrounding the subject. There is sometimes a temptation to collude with this sense of illicitness: When I was at university, a student once proposed a frivolous piece called “WTF?!” in which he would intone every conceivable inflection of the popular outcry “What the fuck?!” permutating this phrase aloud in public for hours on end. Swearing is a bit uncouth, and the tutors vetoed this student’s proposal. I quietly shed a teardrop when I later saw a CD-R labelled “What the Dilly Yo?” in the department. If the “What the fuck?!” project had been executed by somebody not officially studying, it would surely be seen as being a sign of mental illness or drug use.

Looking back at the reports of the iDosers—the spurious “digital drugs”—there does seem to be some unconscious association between experimental/unusual sound and illicit drugs. In the provinces where I perambulate, it does feel as though a “sonic art person” is on a par with drug dealers, whereas somebody who merely listens to experimental sound may be comparable to the addict—potentially rescuable. I have never taken drugs, not even tobacco, and my only alcoholic drink was foisted on me by my dad at my 21st birthday, yet outrageously I am often mistaken as a “drugs person”! Maybe it’s my disheveled appearance. During my walks, various architectural quirks often present their sonic possibilities to me—perhaps eliciting distracted facial expressions. Maybe I am an exception, as in Stephen Bleasdale’s case, his “Metal Pig” sonic-trolley instrument was certainly born of a drug binge. It would make a very intriguing study to question sonic art students on the varieties of drugs they have taken (if any), compared to students of, say, economics. Yet I do not believe sonic art can be associated with hedonism—it pushes instead toward the transcendental, the tragic, and the wonderful.

The states under which experimental sonic work is produced remain a matter of controversy; whether people stumble into or are propelled into sonics, either by pathological predilections, lonely contemplations, semi-autistic conditions, bloody-minded contrarianism, or a desire for uplifting harmoniousness is a matter requiring further research. My own opinion is that one only needs a small degree of open-mindedness to entertain novel sonics, and a chance acoustic effect may resonate the enthusiasm—as in a feedback loop—fuelling sonic investigations with subsequent discoveries reinforcing these interests until one’s life becomes entirely dedicated to sonics: a snowball effect. And there are certainly countless interesting acoustic effects all around us, ready to capture our attention.

Contributor

Dan Wilson

Dan Wilson is the creator of The Exciting Hellebore Shew (Resonance FM). His CD Tongue Under a Ton of Nine Volters (released under the name Meadow House) is available from Resonance FM's online shop (www.resonancefm.com). He recently set up the Post-Electronic Sound Harvesting Initiative (twitter.com/postelectronics) for the collection of acoustic noises, recorded with microphones, yet sounding of electronic origin.

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