Sonic Psychogeography

Static and Noise: or, What is Random?

I use Static as source material for electronic music.  When I say Static, I'm referring to a subset of Noise. 

Noise could be interference in a signal (solar flare activity disrupting communication, animals chewing on a telegraph wire).  Noise can also refer to highly variable statistics.  I can create trend lines in Excel to remove the 'noise' from outlier elements and create a smooth chart revealing general characteristics that were distorted or disguised by the original data.

I use Static to refer to White noise, a sonic phenomenon.  White noise has the characteristic of equal energy across the full spectrum.  Every frequency is equally active.  But I think here we run into a paradox, or at least a measuring puzzlement.  If I define two frequencies (say 440Hz and 441Hz) , there is obviously a frequency that can be defined between those two - something like 440.5Hz.  This is also obviously true for any pair of frequencies, no matter how close (440.5Hz and 440.6Hz)

At some point, our human ears no longer can perceive the distinction, so for practical purposes, the wall of sound is complete.  But the reality of it is different.

For equal energy to be equally distributed across all frequencies, there would have to be a single frequency band for all activity.  True white noise would be a single frequency  that vibrates everything.  Such a frequency may exist (Nada Brahma)  - perhaps the period of our human life is one of many overtones to this fundamental frequency.  Is there a fundamental frequency with a period of 1, a standing wave outside of time?

But all I want to do is set down some characteristics of Static.  In place of an increasingly frantic disquisition on the nature of infinity, 'White Noise' is typically generated using the random number generator in a computer.

So what is random?  Is random a series of values where the latest entry has no relationship to the prior sequence?  Or is it a sequence where the next number cannot be calculated based on the previous values?  A computer gives a close approximation of the second.  The numbers generated by a computer random number generator are the result of complex algorithms.  Highly complex, extremely difficult to reverse engineer.  Extremely difficult but not unmanageable.   These sequences are referred to as Pseudo-Random.  Other results - defined as True Random systems use values from chaotic systems like the earth's atmosphere as a seed to generate sequences.

Perhaps this atmospheric system is complex beyond the ability to calculate, but is that the same as  'Random'?  On the site, they ask whether the laws of physics are inherently deterministic...if so, then all that prevents a calculation of the next number is sufficient understanding of the current state.  That understanding may be beyond our measuring capacity, where we end up with values beyond our predictive capability expressed as frequencies beyond our perceptual limits.

As  our capacities are enhanced, then our understanding of Random has to evolve. Think of all the natural phenomena that we now understand as part of large cycles.  With Studies in Static, I start to define a sonic object, beheld outside of time, to be stretched and manipulated in one of the 3 species of spectral compositionThis object is liminal, interstitial - in part because the natire of the sound is subject to randomness and perplexity.

We end up with Borges On the science of Exactitude.  In that story, the science of cartography becomes so sophisticated that only a map on the same scale as the empire will suffice. Perhaps "Random" is the output of a system where the only system capable of generating the next sequence is the system that generated the previous sequence. 

Sonic Psychogeography: the shape of Pittsburgh

Train whistles keep me company, at night, suspended in sonic glop, massaged by an awareness of the landscape.   Long ago - longer than I can count - Pittsburgh was part of a large, flat plain extending from the Alleghenies to the end of the world.  The Garfield Water tower and the section of Forbes avenue running through  Squirrell Hill are reminders of this original level, when the Allegheny and Monongahela flowed broadly across the plain.   

When the glaciers receded, the flow of water increased and the rivers settled in to the deeper and narrower paths followed today. The Point is the confluence of the two contemporary rivers. If you walk down Murray avenue from Forbes, you are walking in to the vestigial river bed of tributaries that were cut off as the rivers sank further in to the bedrock.

The landscape promotes (provokes) sonic phenomena - the region is shaped like an ancient greek theatre with the Point as the proscenium.  The Point is recognizably significant.  Martin Aurand writes  in The Spectator and the Topographical City:

"Many cultures represent the center as the sacred mountain and axis mundi, the place of connection between the cosmic realms of heaven, earth and the underworld, or as the omphalos, the navel or point of creation.  Pittsburgh is, by its topographical nature, a place of differentiated space, prone to centering." (p12)

Greek theatrePittsburghGrant Street is a rapid ascent, and forms the lip of the orchestra:  interesting to note that Grant's Hill was perhaps an ancient burial ground and in the late 19th century was lowered significantly to allow smoother roads from the water to the main section of town.

From the stage, two hills on the left (Troy and Observatory) form a wall moving East that is mirrored to the right by Mt. Washington.  Together, these diverging lines are  the walls of an auditorium ending with the back wall at the rise of Penn Hills several miles along the East Liberty plateau.

In an ancient greek theatre, the Parados was an entrance reserved for the chorus to enter the proscenium. Panther Hollow serves as parados for the Pittsburgh auditorium, rising from the Monongahela up in to Oakland and joining with the gullies around Squirrell Hill. 

The landscape modulates sound in two ways.    First, frequency appears to change as an object moves closer or farther.  We are all familiar with the sound of an emergency siren approaching at a higher frequency and then appearing to dropp as it passes.  This is a result of the Doppler effect.   

Second, the shape of a chamber affects the resonant frequencies.  Consider the didgeridoo, which is played by creating a standing wave of air inside a hollowed piece of wood, traditionally Eucalyptus.  Variations in the interior surface cause complex harmonics and overtones. A skilled player can also manipulate the harmonics by changing the shape of their mouth, moving lips and toungue to create a changing cavity.  The same technique is used to Khoomei in the Himalayan polyphonic style.  (Also the basis for a good impression of Marvin the Martian (hat tip to Earrach...))

Trains enter Pittsburgh from the East.  The sound of the engines and the sound of the whistle swirl through Panther Hollow and emerge in to the auditorium of East Liberty.  Machines in the distance are enormous drones:  bagpipes, didgeridoo or wandering throatsingers.  When we hear them sound at night, we are hearing the original noise modulated by movement through the changing resonant chambers created by the landscape.

A few years ago, friends circulated a christmas email that included a recording of a Pittsburgh  factory whistle.  The operator was manipulating the control to play christmas carols.  It must have filled the air for miles, with the same effect that a church bell would have had a thousand years ago before we filled the sonic landscape with other noises.

The recording was made by Tony Schwartz for the Smithsonian Folkways collection.

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.