Sonic Psychogeography

145: New Years Eve, Notre-Dame and Jean-Michel Jarre

Welcome back to a new season of the podcast.  On New Years Eve, Jean-Michel Jarre broadcast a concert set in a Virtual Reality Notre-Dame Cathedral.  It was a wonderful show and resonated with the ancient, mystical architectonics of the space.  

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133: thoughts on electromagnetic art

Some thoughts on a project I'm create a map of  the Very Low Frequency (VLF) electromagnetic forms on Penn ave ( Pittsburgh).  My initial curiosity; the interesting challenges of archiving and organizing information; and some speculation on the final output.

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112: looking for leys in all the wrong place

Ley lines are visual alignments of neolithic monuments; mystical earth energy; deliberate alignment of occult architecture; any/all/other/none of these.  Either way, in the modern city the natural ley line is overwhelmed by the electrical grid.  In this episode, we listen to  and comment on a recent field recording where I am walking down by the river sampling the VLF electromagnetic hum of the city power grid.

Listen to 112:  looking for leys in all the wrong places from ZenGlop The Podcast on Apple Podcasts.


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Johnny Cash in Peterborough (a poem)

I was on the train from Kings Cross to Berwick, up the East coast of England passing through Cambridge, York and Newcastle.  

It must have been around nine the morning when I'd arrived at St. Pancras from Paris after a great weekend speaking at UNESCO .  I had a hangover  behind and a five hour train ride ahead of me.  My American debit card didn't work in  an  English point of sale machine at the liquor store so   I left the bottle behind and wandered around the station until I found a Tesco express.  Tesco Express sells booze, and they also handled my card just fine so I bought  a bottle of Famous Grouse, a liter of Perrier and some digestive biscuits.   

If the cost of Bourbon is astonishing in London, it  is prohibitive in Paris - I put 23 euros on the UNESCO charge for each of several glasses of Jim Beam on the rocks.  There's no alternative anywhere though, except an occasional Jack Daniels.  No Wild Turkey (my first choice).  No Makers Mark, no nothing.  No Bulleit.  No Bookers.  No Basil Haydn, Woodford Reserve  or Pappy Van Winkle.  Old Crow? No. Old Grand Dad? Nope.   No Blanton's , Buffalo Trace nor Eagle Rare. 

No Rye, neither, but that's not much to miss for.  I'm OK with Jim Beam, but I chose Grouse and I'm glad I did.

So I sat myself down at  the corner of a platform with a scalding cup of tea and a hip pocket full of whiskey.  Nobody likes a dirty old drunk, mid-morning.   I still don't know what the open container laws are in London, but people do tend to see what they want to see.  They want to see a quiet poet, waiting for the train, sipping from his cup and filling up with Famous Grouse.   If only I'd known, I'd have worn a beret.

The line goes north through Peterborough, where I was halfway through the pint.  I had some music on my laptop, but something about the morning caught me on a repeat loop  and I listened to Johnny Cash sing 22 times,   "He Stopped Loving Her Today".   A song like that, a song listened like that, the lines start to merge.  The first line of the first stanza and the first line of the second stanza create a standing wave with the first lines of stanzas three and four.  Same  with the second, third and fourth lines of each stanza.  The song becomes one verse,  outside of a sequential performance.  The music stands isolated, shining against the lush flatness of the Fens. 

Words are like the breaking point of a wave, the moment where all possible meanings collapse in to one.  Scansion  interacts between lines  like waves, adding  to the peaks, deepening  the troughs,  cancelling out.  What remains are the offbeat  single exhalations, the momentary gaps, or the catch in the voice.  The song becomes a hieroglyph, the moment it was recorded etched in to the moment that I heard it.  

Leaving Peterborough, I wrote a poem, and here is that poem:

there’s an instant when you know that you will die
there’s an instant when you know there you will die
there’s an instant when you know when you will die
there’s an instant that you know when you will die
there’s an instant that you know there you will die
there’s an instant that you know that you will die
there’s an instant there you know there you will die
there’s an instant there you know when you will die
there’s an instant there you know that you will die
that an instant that you know there you will die
that an instant that you know when you will die
that an instant there you know when you will die
that an instant there you know that you will die
that an instant there you know there you will die
that an instant that you know that you will die
that an instant when you know there you will die
that an instant when you know that you will die
that an instant when you know when you will die
when an instant that you know there you will die
when an instant that you know when you will die
when an instant that you know that you will die
when an instant there you know that you will die
when an instant there you know when you will die
when an instant there you know there you will die
when an instant when you know when you will die
when an instant when you know there you will die
when an instant when you know that you will die






Imaginary Music

I wrote something yesterday where I was talking about the intimacy of an unheard, only imagined piece of music.  What did I mean by intimate?  I meant that the imagined music is a present companion to thoughts and experiences, it is an unheard guide to the shaping of experience.  Looking at reflections of light on water, I am surrounded by the memory of Ravel, and the memories around those thoughts.  Which of these  is the experience I'm having now?   My senses are gently instructed in the viewing of that light by the emanating record of the sound-memory/ memory-sound. 

I also enjoy, but that's different, yes, from looking out the window with my iPod playing. But I've heard the Ravel Jeau d'eaux.  I've mangled my fingers through the score at the piano a couple of times.  In those ways, I already know the piece - although each listening is in counterpoint with the time and place.

But what I was talking about mostly yesterday was a piece of music I had never heard, may never hear, have only been informed about by second hand.  I'd like to hear Symphony of Sirens, composed for the factories, shipyards, artillery and sirens of the port of Baku in 1922.  When I go out for walkies with my dogs in the early morning light, I can hear the sound of trains moving along different lines in each direction, crossing through Pittsburgh.  I imagine what it would be like to shape those sounds, to create a symphony that generates this same response.  Distance, time, persepctive.  I've never heard the piece - I think there's a reconstruction recording available and I imagine with some excellent sampling and a big enough performance space you could put together something  impressive enough.  But Symphony of Sirens exists only in my imagination, only in the quiet time between dog sniffs and pooh where I can feel the sinews of my body reconstruct the quotidien traffic sounds into a musical structure of  breath, body, environment, idea, memory, anticipation.  

Pittsburgh Field Recordings: Blvd of Allies and Wood Street 011313

I walk through this intersection each morning from the bus stop over to my office building.  The pedestrian walk signs have an associated alarm sound.  I'm not sure how to interpret the beeps.  I would expect that the signal would beep when there was a green "walk" sign, but each signal seems to be beeping all the time.  Although I'm confused whether or not to cross the street, this does create an interesting soundscape.  Overlapping patterns change intensity with  my position in the street.  
I set out to record this on Sunday morning a few weeks ago.  Here's the video and soundtrack.  

It's possible that I'll manipulate the source recording, perhaps call it Field Recording with Unfolding Sonic Manipulations.  That would fit with other pieces, like Impossibly Loud and Unbearably Silent (for singer, automobiles and the 16th street bridge) or Hurdy Gurdy and Freight Train (for Hurdy Gurdy, East Side Parking Lot and the  Norfolk and Southern Railroad).  Pieces where the landscape is a counterpoint for the composed bit.  Part of the larger exploration of Pittsburgh sonic Psychogeography.   
But for now, this is the sound of a street corner, with waker.

The Larkin Project: secret pre-release video

The Larkin Project is music inspired by the recorded voice of poet Phillip Larkin.  "Cod Poetics" are 5 pieces on the album that are the most removed from his voice.  They retain only the outline of the recitation, the cadence of fragments.

Free album to anyone who can tell me within 100 feet where I'm standing when the video was filmed.


Release scheduled for early February.  I'm also working on an Amazon storefront, where you'll be able to get ZenGlop fridge magnets.

Happy Christmas, from Pittsburgh


I was on someones  holiday email list a few years ago,  and received this soundfile.  It's a recording  of carols played on the whistle that would have announced changes in shift at one of the steel mills around here.  

The file came without attribution, so I called up the Doctor and together we figured out that it was a Smithsonian Folkways album, Calls and Whistles , field recordings by Tony Schwartz. This selection is under the track called  "Improvisation of Instruments").     I don't know  anything about the recording  circumstances , whether it was a staged event, whether Schwartz   happened to be in the right place.  There is a spoken introduction where Schwartz refers to an imaginative factory operator, but beyond that ...

I assume that at some point during the year, the engineer has to practice.  Does  he practice off-hours, maybe during the night shift?  Does the community around the factory grow accustomed to the sound of  mistakes, missed notes?  The same frustration that a church organist feels, practising in an open building.  I imagine the technique involved is  similar to making a tune with a bicycle pump, or with the same skill required to play a Theremin.  

Is  this something handed down, from senior to apprentice?  Is  it the bailiwick of one visionary, someone who will eventually retire?  Does  each factory have their performer?  Could  there ever be combined performances, a Pittsburgh Symphony of Sirens?

All the machinery, all the noise, the grime and pollution  - all gone now.  What's left is this recording. That factory whistle is a carrier wave, modulated by the landscape, captured in stasis by early  recording technology.  Now an artefact, laden with human activity.  

The picture is Steel Works in Winter, by Roy Hilton.




Waves and wavelets in the Wash


There splashed about our ankles as we waded
  Those intersecting wavelets morning-cold,
And sudden dark a patch of sky was shaded,
  And sudden light, another patch would hold
The warmth of whirling atoms in a sun-shot
  And underwater sandstorm green and gold.

                             from John Betjeman East Anglian Bathe

My usual view of the cliffs at Hunstanton is to walk out along the beach and turn to see the red striations as a backdrop - well behaved dogs or persistent kite-surfers in the fore.    This morning, I  turn left instead and pull myself on to a good ledge maybe 8 feet off the ground.  I scrabble into a cross legged position, my bottom is stained red with the dust (there have been worse things).   I sit and watch the waves.  

I like it here tremendously.  The wind is strong, the tide is coming in.  I imagine that in all but the highest tide I could sit here, splashed and buffeted but essentially comfortable. This is the  the kind of thing that a braver person would test out. 

I have become invisible, seated here with my whiskey and notebook.  I hear a young boy calling to his father on the beach and only when he is 6 feet from me does he jump down, half a step off balance.  Neither of them had seen me.  

A Norfolk constabulary vehicle comes down the beach.    Am I violating common sense and local ordinance by sitting on the cliff?  I have no intention of climbing, officer (I rehearse my defense).  My flask is small, concealed and dignified... but there are empty beer bottles laying around and although they aren't mine will still require the right tone of indignation.   The beach turns rocky just a bit further down,  my Jedi mind tricks are powerful enough to sustain the illusion,  and the constable goes back the way he came.  Routine run, I'm not the droid he's looking for.

Bright lines of shells mark the sand.  When I walked up to the ledge, my footsteps sank and were lost quickly in the wet sand.  I stopped to take photographs and my shadow was a constant above the moving patterns of wind, water, sand.  I lost a sense of horizon in some of the close up photos, and had to use my stick to catch myself before falling.

The hardened sand has captured the gestures and reactions of the earlier ebbing tide.  The spent waves of the flowing tide create a veneer,  the surface of the water is mottled with remnants of white froth settling over ridges that have formed in curved parallel, extending past the edge of my vision.  Looking straight down between my feet, a shallow eighth of an inch of water moves in concentric circles, standing waves created by the wind, pushing in to a localised center.  If I raise my eyes a fraction, but let the focus fall to a greater distance, this localised activity becomes a band of shimmering summation, a feather brush rushed across the waters surface.   

Small lines, not yet waves, more like long strings shaken between two children, crossed over each other one lined up to catch the wind, the other floating on the rushing tide. The tide is pushing straight, the wind presses against the crests.  The tops of the waves curl in on themselves about 50 yards out.   These are close phenomena, before the breaking foam, where I can walk without my ankles getting wet. 

In The Tuning of the World  , R Murray Shafer quotes Thomas Mann  ("The Magic Mountain") .  The Strand refers to a beach, probably very similar to this one on the English North Sea.

"Day after day one walks along the strand, listening to the indolent splashing of the wavelets, gauging the gradual crescendo to the heavier treading and on to the organized warfare of the breakers.  The mind must be slowed to catch the million transformations of the water, on sand, on shale, against driftwood, against the seawall.  Each drop tinkles at a different pitch;  each wave sets a different filtering on an inexhaustible supply of white noise.  Some sounds are discrete, others continuous.  In the sea, the two fuse in primordial unity.  The rhythms of the sea are many;  infrabiological - for the water changes pitch and timbre faster than the ear’s resolving power to catch it’s changes;  biological - the waves rhyme with the patterns of heart and lung and the tides with night and day;  and suprabiolgical- the eternal inextinguishable presence of water”

Sitting, listening, the ocean is  mantra.  I add one of my, comfortably perched on the ledge.

Appearance is flat.  Above the sand and shells,   I don't have the sense of waves breaking towards me but instead of discrete horizontal bands of activity.  At the farthest distance, crests of waves are merged together so that they appear the same scale as the concentric ripples by my feet.  Water rushes  in from the North sea, along the Lincolnshire coast, until rubbing up against the square end of the Wash and rebounding down to hit the shore here by Hunstanton.  A graceful sweep.  Tomorrow morning, I will still see the tracks where the police car turned, a line that mirrors the current, answering my question how high the tide comes in on an evening.   

I will have to lose the image of my ledge surrounded by the high tide while I sit, deep enough in to not worry about slipping even if I fell asleep, maybe chilled by an odd wave.  Lights on offshore turbines, distance, trawlers.  None of that, the water doesn't come in enough.

The sky moves in counterpoint to the waves and wavelets.  The image rests flat behind a heavy pane of glass. A small flock of birds, passing notably above this plane, settle to the side.  I think they are Egrets.

They are probably gulls, the only reason I say Egret is because I have a friend with a birdwatchers Day By Day picture calendar, and for the past few weeks has been heavy on the Egrets. The good ones, he sends me copies.

walking the adumbrated line

I recently got hold of a map of the PIttsburgh trolley lines, map created in 1957.   Trolley lines are categorized as single, double, running in the street or beside, planned, or decommissioned.

We would today see this map as a thing of singular obsession.  It is executed by hand, drawn with ink, ruler and compass.  In the day, those were skills routinely taught.  Today, I would map the terrain on Google.  Except that today  most of those lines are gone.  If  they appear on a satellite photo it  will be like the echo of a neolithic ruin, the tracing of a bronze age fort's foundations unseen except from an aerial examination of the land.  

 In  2012, the trolley system extends to the South, travelling under Mt. Washington.  None of the East lines remain.  In March  a new extension opened beneath the Allegheny River to join  downtown and the sporting  stadia.  Ongoing plans remain open for discussion to create a useful  Spine Line connecting Oakland, downtown, and the airport.  

This map shows the peak of trolley lines.  When people began to move out to the suburbs - especially our northern ones - the effort to convert/ create bridges with both traffic and trolley capacity was too much.  A bus system began to be developed, and in 1964 the Pittsburgh Railway Company (itself a conglomeration of many smaller lines) was absorbed in to the Port Authority of Allegheny County.  From then, and to this day, has been a process to diminish the public transit infrastructure.

Some things make money.  Some things cost money.  Transit costs money.  It is one of the signatures of a civilised nation that the citizenry can move easily and reliably for work and pleasure.

In Parallel Lines, Ian Marchant talks about trains. ( I've written about trains, especially the sounds they make. ) One of the lines referred to in Ian's  book title  is the painful, expensive, tiresome notion of modern rail travel in Britain.  

Mind you, I live in America, where there's one train a day between Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.  If Obama really were the tyrant socialist we keep hearing about, there'd probably be a bloody fast train every 90 minutes. But so:  I left England when there still was such a thing as British Rail and for sure it had it's flaws but I was just a boy and took the 16:08 each day home from Manchester to Glazebrook.  In winter, when the dark came early, I could see red lights on top of pylons criss-crossing fields, distant and in the distance to become enchanting.  I didn't know Spender's poem Pylons, but I think I held an intimation of Auden's Watershed. ("...snatches of tramline running to the wood...."),  the Psychogeographic stance

This is closer to the second line, the parallel one, that's just a step outside the day to day, and stays  a little fey .  A love for trains:  to ride, restore,  to sing, or to wait  about  for.  National pride, personal memoir. Bucolic, rocking branch lines, noble steam,  mighty diesel.  Bit of Elgar in the background.

Building a model rail set is one way to interact with this romantic image of the train.  Literature and movies are filled with images to settle our subconscious in a love for trains.  Another is to 'Bash'.  Marchant puts it this way:

"I knew that I wanted to try my hand at bashing, and I felt instinctively that I was by both inclination and disposition a line basher at heart.  I did not want to travel for 1,000 miles behind a Class 37 Diesel.  I did not want to sit on a train with a stop-watch and a calculator trying to work out how fast it was going.  I did want to colour in a map.  I like the idea of colouring in maps.  Much more than actually going places.  When I am old, I don't want to say to my grandchildren, smiling up at me with Vaseline eyes, 'Look, children.  Here are all the places I've been.  Here are the sketches I made of all the wonderful people I met along the way'.  I don't want all that Werthers Originals shit.

I want to say, 'Look, children.  here are all the maps I've coloured in.  And I didn't cheat; I really had to go to these places before Iwas allowed to colour them in.  Wellm pass through them anyway'".

("Vaseline eyes".   Beautiful. ) Ian attempts to bash the London Underground in a single day.   I give nothing away except the result  to say that he fails.  

I also like this idea, of bashing.  I like the idea of taking my old trolley map and using it to recreate pathways through the town.  In some places I can walk and see the remnant of a track paved over.  Tracks and cobblestones, covered then revealed after a decade or two of winter buckles the tarmac.  To Bash lines that aren't there anymore.  The word for this is Adumbration. 

Adumbration (which I started to get in to for the aesthetics of The Scratch Pieces) can mean to mark out a pattern in a color only slightly different from the background field.  To adumbrate is also to partially reveal.  Walking those removed trolley lines feels like it will be entering in to a different relationship with the road, with the shape of human development in this place.  I expect I'll see dramatic relics of a bygone transit infrastructure.  Also  delicate bits laying around,  with  plenty of slogging up and down busy streets that have  no sidewalk.  Pissing in the rivers.   Sexy is, this psychogeography of adumbration.  

Some of this reminds me of Richard Long and his documented walks. Some  reminds me of Andy Goldsworthy and his rain shadows - adumbrated figures.

I will define some logic to create a subset of tracks.  Perhaps all tracks that pass within 5 miles of my home?   Then I'll take a copy of the trolley map, 1957, and color in the lines that aren't there anymore.