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Symphony of Sirens

I recently came across this publication, which includes documentation and a reconstruction of the Symphony of Sirens.  This piece was written in 1922 and performed in the city of Baku.  Not just 'in', but 'with' and 'by' the city:  the piece was written for the factory sirens in Baku, supplemented by ship horns in the harbor, various locomotives and engines.  Additional resources came from artillery, infantry and massed choirs of inspired workers.

The composer, Arseni Araamov, conducted the performance and the publication includes a newly translated essay written by the composer about the piece.  I haven't seen the score, but I imagine it to be a series of time based instructions for each location.  Instructions like Factory 5 at minute 15 make this series of siren gestures for 10 minutes, while at minute 20, explode a battery of artillery shells.  I'm eager to hear the reconstruction on the CD, and to hear some of the other  pieces from the same era.  I am then also eager to marshall resources in Pittsburgh for our own reconstruction.

The Symphony of Sirens is a monumental piece, enlivening a landscape in the same way that neolithic stone circles highlight the energy ley lines of a place.  What is a 'sonic monument'?  It is something that exists in time, but the primary imprint is in memory, and  in meaning.    We are talking about Baku now as a 'memoried' place, a place where Quiddity has been enhanced, because of Araamov.

(We could also be talking about Baku as the host city for 2012 Eurovision Song contest, but that is best left for another posting). 

An analogy in the visual arts would be the work of Richard Long.  Sometimes, Long leaves a trace.  Sometimes the art is in the remembering.

New artistic structures (sound, object, gesture)  capture memory and meaning (Quiddity) , but also suggest new ways to interact with the present.  What really are we seeing as the most notable features on the landscape?  What really is the sound outside?  Traffic, electrical hum, pylons, water towers - consistent presence that gets filtered out. 

I will wake in the middle of the night, and I can hear trains moving through Pittsburgh.  There are several major lines that carry freight, each a couple of miles from our house.  During the day the ominpresent buzz covers up the train sounds, but at night the trains own the city, lay down a blanket of sound.  Of course the whistle is mournful, and speaks of distance, journey, history. Sometimes a series of connected bursts share linguistic characteristics.  Other times, the whistle  will break up into discrete pitches, counterpoint contained within the single line like Bach's solo partitas.

The rumble of the engines, the clatter of the rolling stock becomes a drone, a didgeridoo or hurdy gurdy.   The drone is modulated  by the movement through the idiomatic shape of Pittsburgh.  What changes, what I'm hearing,  is the resonance of the landscape. 

Floating in that hypnagogic state, the envelope of sound feels like a warm rush of air  holding me suspended above the shape of PIttsburgh.  I can feel the flat East Liberty plateau support my spine and begin the slow curve to river level downtown at the Point, roughly contiguous with my left ankle. The Allegheny runs beneath my right elbow.  The Monongahela is just out of reach of my left fingertips.  Panther Hollow, 9 mile run, various other vestigial tributaries press in to my left side.

One day, I thought that perhaps the trains weren't real.  I hadn't heard them in the morning, and perhaps the 'hearing' was an episode now closing.   Perhaps Train-Awareness is a state of grace, and I was slipping out.  

Kathryn told me that she had heard them, I could have  been asleep, and that anyway there's probably some atmospheric conditions that either amplify or dampen the city sounds.  This makes more sense.

Disavow the Futurists!!

In an earlier piece (Music that Is Impossibly Loud and Unbearably Silent) I made reference to the Futurist Manifesto, specifically the following:

”We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals: the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons: the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents; factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon; great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for bridle, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propeller sounds like the flapping of a flag and the applause of enthusiastic crowds."

 There’s a giddy sense throughout the manifesto that the artist is propelled forward by the force of creativity, and that this psychic movement is well represented by the movement of machines.  Machines are big and powerful, they are also fast:  intoxication with speed, the audacious italian automobile, is littered  throughout the piece.

The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism was written in 1909 by Filippo Marinetti.  There are  11 points (the one quoted above is #11),  framed as a declaration of intent following a debauched night ending in a ludicrous car ride and culminating  wreck.  The young futurists are propelled from their "atavistic ennui" by the "...mighty noise of the huge double-decker trams that rumbled by outside...".   (Who wouldn't be?  Early sketches "Impossibly Loud" came directly from my experience with a Pittsburgh Port Authority bus.)  

I sense trouble early, though, and worry that we may not be companions  much longer in this trip. Everything is an animal for our inspired friends - the young men are lions, the car is various types of dogs, eventually a shark after driving in to a ditch. The car is also a ‘cruel queen’ with ‘torrid breasts’ and the ability to call Death itself into the streets. Women appear either as whores or  as the ‘maternal slime’ , and later are dismissed along with the ‘smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni, and antiquarians”.  

It all  begins with

1.  We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.  

 moving along to 

6.  The Poet must spend himself with ardor, splendor and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervor of the primordial elements.  

Fine sentiments, a little harder to take this morning  than when I was an unwashed youth, but still.  Stirring stuff, ardor and all.  Thought provoking material next,

8.  We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!...Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible?  Time and Space died yesterday.  We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.

 Except that after all, it’s just an excuse to be a bit of an asshole. 

9. We will glorify war - the world’s only hygiene - militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.

It’s proto-fascist bullshit, and I should have read it more carefully before quoting from it. There’s nothing ironic, no easy retreat, no way to provide a forgiving frame for the language.   This article does a good job showing the connection between Mussolini and Fascism, but ends up letting the Futurists off when it comes to the actual political impact of their artistic gestures.  As if the arts were always read with enough detachment to recognize intentional provocation, as opposed to demagoguery.

But I was familiar with The Art of Noises (and fond of The Art of Noise). Russolo presents a palatable document, one that  speaks the language of music theory and posits an orchestra of expanded sonic potential.   He begins to define a morphology of sound, initially grouped as  ‘6 families of noises’  made up of explosions, screeches, whistles and various guttural ejaculations from man and beast.  The young and talented are called upon to research additional sounds.  

Futurist musicians must substitute for the limited variety of tones possessed by orchestral instruments today the infinite variety of tones of noises, reproduced with appropriate mechanisms.

Written in 1913, The Art of Noises is an adumbration of 20th century music.   But the political and moral context is all wrong. Frustrating, for sure.   At the core of the Futurist movement is solid insight to the potential for sound.  Intuition, new senses, synesthetic experiences all get good play with futurist musicians, painters and writers.   Composers want to  tear your head off.   Like thisthis, and this.  Can’t forget this either. 

Let’s rather look to Shelley hanging on the rooftop in a lightening storm.  A pre-victorian cocktail of science an poetry.  Perhaps find guidance in the techniques of ecstasy, those described by Mircea Eliade as shamanic prescription for the application of drone and pulse.  Or even read in William Blake, with his visions of mechanics, physics and dark satanic mills shaking everything down.  






What's that noise?


Words like ‘Sound’ and ‘Noise’ get used interchangeably, but it's worth making some distinctions. 

When we say that a room is ‘noisy’, we aren’t necessarily referring to the energy distribution across frequency  - or even to the amplitude/loudness/volume of the place.  Noise is contextual.  If I’m trying to hear  a call on my phone, the string quartet playing at the front of the room is too noisy.  So  would be the shushing of the other audience members, who are irritated by what they hear as my noisy conversation.   We are both hearing noise as a distraction, regardless of the physical characteristics of the event.

‘Sound’ is one medium that can be ‘Noisy’.  ‘Noise’ in turn can be defined as  a subset of sound, a very particular phenomena where all frequencies are active with equal energy.  The opposite of Noise - now there’s a question to ponder.  What about a single sine wave?  A single frequency, played for infinite duration at consistent amplitude?  

The opposite of noise could also be silence, but silence is not the absence of noise.

The loudest thing we call The Big Bang, the beginning of the universe conceived as an expansion from a singularity.  But there was no sound at the big bang, because there was no air and sound cannot travel in a vacuum.  There would have been highly complex waveforms, emerging from quantum froth as the fundamental particles established themselves and the relationships that shape our current universe.   It is true that a waveform in one medium can be represented as a wave in any other medium, which would allow a sonic model of the early moments to be produced, in theory.  Who knows what that would sound like....

Humans have developed the ability to perceive electromagnetic activity within the narrow frequency band the we call Visible light.   There is a similar privileged frequency range for energy transmitted as waves through air - what we call sound, which is intercepted by the refined mechanics of the human ear, transduced into electrical impulses and interpreted by our brains to provide an understanding of the environment around us.  We call Noise anything that interferes with this process.

When I think of the noisiest things I’ve ever heard, I don’t think of message interference or cultural intrusion.  I think of the loudest sounds I’ve been exposed to.  I remember  one morning in Paris, tired and still a little drunk, unable to find a cup of coffee but finally able to board a train.  I walked down the platform and on either side were gargantuan diesel engines each about 300 feet high and half a mile long.  Walking between them was like edging through a narrow gorge, where the air itself had a viscosity created by the manipulation of the engines.   I couldn’t call it the ‘sound’ of the engines, just as I can’t call it ‘hearing’.  I felt that with each step I was rising just a few inches off the ground, that the air was sufficiently dense that I could float just a little bit.  Maybe how I imagine floating in the dead sea would feel.    The moment was a combination of the physical reality of the sound, the human attunement to sound waves, and a fluid state of mind consistent with irrational interpretations of the moment.  


Sound Considerations

St pancras diesel

I want to start talking about sound.  I’m starting a new series of essays, with three central concepts:  Noise, Frequency and Meaning.  Each of these focus a discussion of sound - some of that will be about music, some of it will be about physiology.  Some of it will be about memory.  Some will be about communication, resonance, connection.  

Noise is essentially creative.  It is a firmament from which all other sounds can emerge, like the forms created from a three dimensional object.  But early discussions about what is noise, how do we define and experience noise, leads into a complex of ideas that include randomness, the limits of perception, perhaps even the limits of physics.  If noise is the equal excitation of energy across a spectrum, don’t we run in to a form of Zeno’s paradox ( the one where the distance to the end point is always half the previous distance, and therefore always a step further away)?   Between each measured frequency, isn’t there always another frequency?  Is such a thing as an infinite bandwidth signal even possible, and if it is can we necessarily perceive it?  What is noise in different media?  We use terms like noise, volume, sound, interference interchangeably in daily usage, but they are quite different phenomena and artifacts.  Perhaps we think of a sound when we first hear the word Noise.  But in my work at the bank, I am often called on to remove outliers, smooth the trend:  to remove the noise from the source data.

 Noise is sonic, it is cultural, it is data.  There will be time to dig in to each of those ideas.

 Frequency is a function of a wave.  Any wave.  A wave may change in amplitude without changing frequency:  we can speak of the amplitude domain and the frequency domain.    A single string vibrating consistently is given a frequency, measuring the time it takes for the waveform to be repeated.  In simplest form this is a sine wave.  Complex waveforms generate complex frequency spectrum.  A spectrum represents the harmonic content of a waveform, changing over time.  Here, there be mathematics.  The frequency spectrum is a means of analyzing wave phenomena.  A spectral analysis of sound removes the content from the cultural:  but also from the temporal.  A linear unfolding of a sonic event can now be viewed as a single architectural object.  It gives us the vantage point of the cube, as told in Flatland.    (More on that also, in the blogs to come.)  Because for sure if we can learn to listen to a piece of music as a change in perspective on a single object (rather than as a series of changing moments) then we can do the same with our mortal  coil.  

If Noise  is creativity, Frequency  is mortality.

Meaning.  Why does music mean?  Why does sound hold such a privileged position in our culture.  What is culture? What has Culture been and where will it mean as we contemplate off-earth?   Culture is held within the Noosphere, and sound provides an interstitial space for consciousness and physiology.  We can understand things - as humans - in sound.  And we can model phenomena in sound that exist beyond our sensory/sensual awareness.  So sound is a tool for experiencing many different levels of meaning.  I wanted to write ‘dimensions’ there, but I mean more than just extrasensory perception.  Sound seems able to capture memory inside our brains, that holographic network of synapses.  I hear the saxophone from Careless Whisper, and 20 years compress into one sensation.  What is that?  What is that aura of meaning - I taste the same frisson when I read the poetry of Sylvia Plath, or look at Rauschenberg’s Erasure of De Kooning.  It is as  if those pieces leave only the vestige:  how much of the sonic structure needs to remain in order to hold the memories, and can those memories be experienced independently from the sound itself?   This is a challenging compositional task.   

This blog is a working area for those ideas.  I’ll take a few minutes each day - or each every other day, but more frequently than once in a while - and post.   I’ve used the blog so far to capture longer form pieces, and I’ll certainly refer to those as I go along.  But what I want to create here is a mastery of the index, 500 - 1000 words at a time.