Photochemical Soundmaking: Optical Soundtrack Tests

My past experience was not to "meddle" with the material, but use my concentration as a guide to what might transpire. I mentioned this to Stockhausen once when he had asked me what my secret was. "I don't push the sounds around." Stockhausen mulled this over, and asked: "Not even a little bit?" [M. Feldman, 'Crippled Symmetry', 1981]

Post-production sound work I think is a business of pushing sounds around in the context of moving image. The pushing often has to happen at speed to meet the demands of shrinking budgets and shifting schedules. For this we have available to us a vast range of commercial sound libraries from which sound files are taken and placed on the timeline. Is there time, or any reason, for one to stop and consider these sounds beyond their pure utility? The physical place of a sound in the world, its inner sonic properties, its potential sacredness?

 James Holcombe's Auricon 100 camera, amp and chunky mic.

James Holcombe's Auricon 100 camera, amp and chunky mic.

Time slows down when the technology stubbornly refuses to keep up. Through these unfamiliar temporal gaps emerges new creative possibilities, new perceptions and meanings. This is how I felt recently when attending an immersive 1-day introductory workshop on 16mm optical sound with filmmaker and artist James Holcombe who I first met at no.w.here in late 2017.

Over the last few years I’ve been developing an interest in 16mm film and have wanted to learn more about the recording, manipulation and playing back of optical sound. Aside from the actual creative possibilities as an audiovisual medium, photochemical filmmaking strikes me as an incredibly ‘deep’ artistic practice involving patient skill, direct engagement with technology, chance, high value risk-taking (money and time), and a generous spirit of shared knowledge and resources through its community. While I can also identify these attributes in the digital realm, what particularly attracts me to this way of working is the difference in how one engages and interacts with the material over time.

 Hanging out to dry before projector test.

Hanging out to dry before projector test.

The embodied, tactile process of photochemical filmmaking involves a radically different perspective on how one engages with the material in time and space. An experience, a way of encountering the world, that feels far removed from the digital environment I regularly operate in as a sound designer. The efficient, precise and total control of the computer is replaced by a sense of experimentation (in the truest sense of the word) and adventure, through an interplay of human skill, technology and chance.

Before me a magical process of energy transference unfolded: acoustic energy into optical, kinetic, chemical and back again to re-produce an audible sound signal. It felt like all aspects of the audio chain - recording, developing, editing, treating and playback - were suddenly resonating with a renewed sense of meaning and mystery. In moments like these our private feelings of awe and wonder are stirred as we rediscover the magic inside phenomena we think we are familiar with.

Special thanks to James Holcombe

Masses and Parts [2018] - the end of a chapter

Inspired by the dense textural work of Penderecki, Ligeti, and the American minimalist tradition, Masses and Parts is a collection of sound pieces that mark the end of a long period of experimentation in computer-based music stretching back to 2002. These ideas were first explored in ealier work for shamisen and computer [2005-2010], and then later through the Otoplexus project [2009-2011] and Systema Naturae [2012-2017]. Other sketches and ideas can be heard in the Signal and Noise playlist. A work-in-progress text here attempts to outline some of the thoughts and ideas surrounding this body of work.

My favoutite piece of this four-part collection is Emerging Lines from Just Intervals which uses a just intonated tuning system for melodic and harmonic exploration. This is inspired by and dedicated to two greats of the American experimental tradition: Pauline Oliveros [1932-2016] and Glenn Branca [1948-2018].

Some thoughts on sound, world and understanding

"Any understanding has its being in an act of understanding" (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, p.118-19)

Alan Lamb is a sound artist and scientist who for the past 30-years has been exploring the vibrating properties of long telegraph wires. I recently acquired a copy of his Primal Image release from 1995 that captures the beautifully evolving textures of long wires in Australia. His engagement with the physical world seems to me to nourish a fascination for the mystery of sound in nature, that invigorates his scientific and artistic activities with purpose and meaning. This spirit clearly comes across in this excerpt from a 2016 BBC Radio 4 documentary with sound recordist Christ Watson:

Primal Image is a stunning set of recordings that documents only a small portion of Lamb's ongoing sonic explorations. Aside from the sheer beauty of the listening experience, what greatly interests me with Lamb is how he encounters the world through sound. How the world is disclosed through his engagement with it in his particular practice.

Jerry Thompson worked as Walker Evans' principal assistant from 1973 to Evans' death in 1975. In 2016 he released a small book called Why Photography Matters. The following few extracts are striking in that they are applicable to sound and sound recording technology:

"Fox Talbot, and the cohort including Evans and Cartier-Bresson seven decades later, proposed a new kind of epistemology, a new, hitherto impossible way of learning about the world [...] The opposite of Mathema (a model projected to enable understanding), Pathema is an experience passively received: acquiescence to what is seen [...] When a pathema holds sway, the artist will no longer be Master of the Universe. He or she will be instead an attentive observer, a willing participant in, perhaps a servant of, a system larger than that artist's individual, personal, particular needs." (Jerry L. Thompson, Why Photography Matters, p.14-15)

Thompson goes on to speak about how photography is "at its best" when the inner world of the artist and the outer world of the material environment exists in balance, cooperating as in a dialectic: "one side presents a proposition, the other counters in a similar fashion, and on and on as a progressively refined result appears, something neither partner in the dialectic could have produced alone" (p.19).

 Alan Lamb - involved in the world through sound, cooperating in a dialectic.

Alan Lamb - involved in the world through sound, cooperating in a dialectic.

Sound is an expression of space, of the physical world we are thrown into. It remains, as Lamb's work demonstrates, an expression of mystery and reverence for all that surrounds us. Bringing together Thompson's description of photography and Lamb's deep sound activities, we remind ourselves of the kind of meaning and value in work that emerges through our engagement with and in the world. A world not only made from nature, but one populated by people and all their social and creative affairs.

Often physically isolated from others in our expanding global village it's easy to neglect the importance of our worldly engagements. While convenience makes economic sense, it can at the same time weaken the sacrifice and so diminish the meaning. Consider recorded sound as one example: Commercial sound libraries provide sound editors access to a vast array of high quality recordings from around the world. Together with computer software, these sounds can be selected, edited and arranged to create a working soundtrack, quickly. In our anxious haste, we demote sound to the status of mere fodder. Reduced to pure utility, all preciousness is gone. All worldly engagement removed and understanding denied. This couldn't be further from the deep practices of Alan Lamb.

As practitioners of sound, passionate about all its forms and modes of sonic and musical expression, we would do well to listen to what Lamb's work teaches us about the world and the potential for our involved engagement in it. If nothing else, a trip outside every once in a while is always a good thing.

Further information about Alan Lamb: http://www.abc.net.au/arts/adlib/stories/s873159.htm

Signal and Noise: Clock

The Signal and Noise playlist continues into 2017. At #52 we have a recording of a 19th Century clock made by the Spanish clockmaker José Rodríguez Losada.

Photography: Credit of The Foundling Museum, London (c) • Special thanks to Alison Duke for providing me with this information.

Sound library now available

Pulsing pistons, creaking cogs, bright hisses, funnel blasts and evolving mechanical rhythms, the Traction Steam Engines sound library is a collection of engine sounds straight out of the industrial age.

John Cohen and I have finally completed our Traction Steam Engines sound library. It's now available online at Sonnis. More information about the library at the earquirks homepage.

Multiphonic Garbage Truck

I recently setup a playlist of short sound and music excerpts from past and present projects called Signal and Noise. An online home of sorts for sonic odds and ends recovered from the digital archives.

The latest upload is an excerpt from a recording I made in London in 2015 of a crazy free-jazz overblowing garbage truck in West London. Somewhere between the sound of the 1954 Godzilla and the outer-planetary sax explorations of Pharoah Sanders.

Steam Engines

Thus we are approaching noise-sound. This revolution of music is paralleled by the increasing proliferation of machinery sharing in human labor. In the pounding atmosphere of great cities as well as in the formely silence countryside, machines creat today such a large number of varied noises that pure sound, with its littleness and its monotony, now fails to arouse any emotion. [Art of Noise, 1913 - Luigi Russolo]

Every once in awhile I'm able to flee the isolation of the studio and venture out into the real world in search of new noises. Last week was one such an occasion when sound designer John Cohen and myself travelled to Wanborough village just outside Swindon to record the sounds of several Victorian and Edwardian-era traction engines. We managed to capture a whole range of hisses, creaks, clangs and chugging mechanical rhythms that would have made Russolo proud - a soundscape of an altogether more industrial age.

Many thanks to Colin Hatch at Hatch Heritage and Steam Engineers for allowing us to record these fascinating machines.

 John Cohen excavating the sonic innards of a traction engine

John Cohen excavating the sonic innards of a traction engine