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March 2005

Technology as tool

Sound use is pervasive in human culture across time and place. Each culture has directed technology towards a deeper understanding of sound, a closer touch with the sonic landscape. Instruments, carefully tuned and calibrated; special locations, either temple or stadium. This sonic landscape includes the sounds of living, working and playing; it measures the pulses of our life forms, and it registers the immensity of the divine as reflected in cosmology. Human sound use is a mediation of our connection to both extremes of perception and thought.

Space art, in the medium of sound, is part of a broader modern aesthetic based on digital representation of sound. In this context, music is not limited just to music inspired by the stars - by the cosmos as metaphor, but rather a craft that uses the structures and meaning inherent to scientific data.

But to view this as a solely modern phenomenon is to miss a body of work from medieval times that is as technologically evolved as a contemporary digital sampler, and rich with meaning for the modern aesthetic of space art. If the digital sampler allows us to interrogate the sonic event at a microscopic level, then the cathedral expands the sonic event against the measurement of time. The digital processor refines our perceptions and places our ears on the same level as transient, quasi-subliminal partials. The cathedral amplifies, echoes and expands those same sonic elements until the are on par with our unmodified ears. Both technologies place the sonic event outside of the unmodified perception of chronological time.


Cosmic Counterpoint

Following the ESA conference, I was interviewed by Jeremy Grange for a radio documentary entitled First Impressions. The documentary addressed issues of culture, science and technology in the question of communication with extra-terrestrial cultures.

'Voices' explores the idea that research into sound use can derive some generic information about what it is to be fundamentally human. I used the sound of a didgeridoo as a source sample, because the partials and drones of that instrument seem to map intuitively to the rhythms of the body. Breath, pulse, eyeblinks, synaptic twitches, eat and sleep, birth and death.

A software patch written in cSound used granular synthesis and the envelope information from the didgeridoo combined with a sonicisation of data received from a pulsar. This generated an audio output file ( as presented at ESA - see publication list for link) that could in turn be represented in the magnetic spectrum and transmitted outbound to target stars. Perhaps instead of a pre-recorded representation of a pulsar, there could be live feed from a receiving antenna. Mixed with the improvised, creative envelope of the didgerido, this outbound transmission would be a gesture of complex beauty, one that would be strikingly different from the universal background noise.

I envision a second culture receiving this message, and perhaps distilling our content from the astronomical baseline. Maybe they would experience something like inspiration, and reply in kind with a gesture that uses our first voice as a counterpoint to some newly constructed material. Communication would be established between two cultures that begin with a respect and appreciation for the voice of the other, an affirmation of our ecstatic connection to the cosmos.

For further research, I'm looking to use Humdrum (software from CCRMA) to provide algorithmic analysis of musics from across the global library. As an initial sampling point, I choose music that is liturguical, and that has been used to describe a relationship with the divine. Ultimately, this kind of research into shared patterns and gestures could provide abstract data on the mapping of sound use to physiology.


program notes for "some of these things are real"

The 5 pieces grouped together as "some of these things are real" were composed in early of 2003. (Follow link for ZenGlop at left to download from soundclick.com).

Sampling technology allows us to interrogate the sonic phenomenon in ways that expand the sense perceptions generated by evolution. We can use software to derive partials based on a sampling window smaller than the perceptual limits of our ears. Suprising the expectations of the cochlea, the recently emerged sonic event sends shivers through the nervous system: physiology intersects cosmology in sound.

"some of these things are real" takes as a starting point some fragment of remembered music, from childhood, from places or people now wrapped in a network of emotional, trigger driven responses. This network holds the meaning, for me, as composer/designer. the craft of these pieces is to recreate that mesh of individual past and common human experience. It is not necessary, and may not even be all that entertaining, to try and recognize the original sound source (often just a couple of seconds). The source becomes my window to the sub-heard sound, sonicisation of emotion, spatialization of physiologic events.


Voices of the Noosphere

Abstract for SPACE: SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND THE ARTS: THE 7TH WORKSHOP ON SPACE AND THE ARTS May 2004 (http://www.congrex.nl/04c20/)

VOICES FROM THE NOOSPHERE


Voices from the Noosphere is a sonic sculpture intended both for appreciation by human audition, and for interstellar transmission across electromagnetic frequencies. The source material for Voices from the Noosphere is derived from the radio signals of cosmic phenomena such as pulsars or solar flare activity. At the compositional core of the project are code components written in cSound that extract envelope information from the radio signal sources. This envelope data can be used as a base for physical modeling of new sounds, related to the original but undergoing progressive sequence of morphing. This new material plays as counterpoint to the source, creating a polyphony of human and interstellar gestures.

Once complete, the two distinct but related voices can be transduced into electromagnetic frequency. This process is to reflect the relationship between frequency, duration and amplitude, shaping the body of an actual transmission. The outbound signal is not a carrier with frequency modulation encoding data. Rather, Voices from the Noosphere is a silent recreation of our audible constructs.

The heavens have inspired music for as long as homo sapiens has made note of the powerful resonance between our body, our environment, and the sounds created by each. The aboriginal didgeridoo is used to contemplate Dreamtime, a place modern science is cautiously approaching through quantum physics. Medieval European theorists posited the Music of the Spheres as a mode for creation. Into this new millennium, composer Terry riley and the Kronos Quartet have incorporated NASA recordings of space artifacts into recent performances.

Voices from the Noosphere lies within this tradition of exploration, contemplation and representation.
The representation of electromagnetic frequency in the sonic spectrum is not unusual: recent results of helioseismography (http://www.spaceweather.com/glossary/farside.html ) have been transduced into audible spectrum. Indeed, the lowest sound wave has been identified - as a b flat - , suggesting that although sound will not travel through the vacuum of space, our universe resonates with meaning ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3096776.stm ).


A future phase of the project will be to allow for this process – in code and in performance – to occur in real time. This envisions a scenario in which received radio signals – perhaps from solar flare activity – are incorporated into a sonic configuration that is then re-transmitted as a companion signal to the original stellar event.

The concept of the Noosphere incorporates all mindful, reflective and expressive gestures of intelligence that accrete around the Gaian substrate. The Noosphere includes all terrestrial voices if intelligence – Homo sapiens and others. With the development of broadcast technology, the web of our expression now extends to space. This project allows for a gesture of intent and beauty to be raised as counterpoint that is reflective of a human response to the cosmos.