Whale Song

Sir John Tavener

Sir John Tavener died last month.  I was lucky enough to have met him  in April.

Sir John and Andrew

My father sings in the City Choir of Washington, led by Robert Shafer.   These pictures were taken at a reception following the world premier of "Three Hymns by George Herbert".  The City Choir partnered with  Legatum  (some oddball think tank, I don't know) to commission and perform  music ostensibly as part of a trans-atlantic celebration of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012.  Here's a rare shot of the both of us together - me and my Dad, not me and the Queen.  Don't be distracted by the awesome Lincoln chin strap I was sporting.  

Andrew and Dad Tavener

Sir John had been quite ill for quite some time, and the trip must have wiped him out.  But he was generous with all of us in the handshake line and  I tell everyone that when we met,  he spoke of angels and ecstasy.  The reality is prosaic, more to do with  ambient background noise and misunderstanding where Pittsburgh is.  But there you go, worked for me. 

Anne Midgette wrote a good review for the Washington Post, describing the music 

"The “Three Hymns,” though, were the main focus. The first, “Heaven,” made some simply ravishing sounds; each line was sung out in a shining arc and left suspended in the air, punctuated by an echo from the chorus in the balcony and then nudged by the gentle plosive chimes of bells. The final hymn, “Life,” was touched with a bittersweet hint of dissonance, like frost petals. It ended with a postlude in which instruments tangled, slightly chaotically, at a distance, perhaps to evoke the withered bouquet of flowers the poem describes — though again, that comparison is more facile than the music sounded."

She makes the point throughout her review that the simplicity of Tavener's writing - especially these later pieces - shouldn't let the listener of the hook for attending to some pretty rigorous composition.

Shortly after Tavener died, Bob Shafer sent out a note to the choir members with a link to a recent radio broadcast by Andrew Marr on the works of George Herbert.  Sir John appears in the interview. 

Andrew Marr, who I always confuse with Johnny Marr.  In the same way I confuse Lord Bragg (Melvyn) with Bragg (Billy).  And I suppose other inexcusable conflations.  

So let's listen to some music.  Check out  The Whale, Tavener's  first big piece, which was famously picked up by John Lennon and published on the Apple label.  Even is this early, angrier music, there's a  spaciousness created by select textures (voice, bell, breathy drone).



A lifetime later, Tavener's  music is distilled to an essence.  The Protecting Veil  is good to start with, but check out some of his more orthodox pieces as well.


I can't say that I'm influenced as a composer  by Tavener his music.  I have too much twitchiness in my fingers.  But I am powerfully motivated by his thoughts on sound as a religious mechanism

In notes on The Moon Ikon, I wrote that the piece was the poetry of the moon exposed  by sound.  This is heavily influenced by what Tavener has written elsewhere:

"To me, [the icon] is the most transcendent form of art that exists in the west  - that is, if you call it art in the conventional sense.  Whether you can write music that is truly like an ikon, whether you can prostrate in front of a piece of music, I simply do not know.  I suppose the closest you get to it is in the chant that goes with the ikonography of the church.  I might also say that an ikon dissects us, and I think truly sacred music should do the same."



Fourier, Transduction and Alien Composers.


One of the principles of Sonicism is:

“A Waveform in one medium holds meaning in second”

A wave is the movement of energy through a medium.  We are most familiar with 'sound', which is the motion of energy as waves in air.  A wave can be analyzed mathematically through a process called Fourier analysis.  Those results can be visually represented in a spectrum.  A spectrum is an analytical artifact, a visual representation of the results of Fourier analysis.  It is also a tool that allows for intuitive reckoning with the structure of the wave. 

This is a spectral analysis taken from a fragment of whale song. 


I use Sonic Visualiser, because it is awesome and because it is free. I remember seeing pitch analysis of whale song as an undergrad in a music theory lecture. Later reading of Robert Cogan showed how spectral analysis could be used for musical thinking.

The Y-axis of a spectrum (whether music or any other wave) represents frequency - think of it as the keys on a piano, with 'up' being 'higher'.   The width of these buckets is an important consideration.  On a piano, each key represents a half step.  There are obviously an infinite degree of smaller steps in between each recognized pitch, and the same is true of the frequency buckets used for Fourier analysis.

[Now is not the time to get in to details about the well-tempered systems, plural, used on the piano over the past 4 centuries.  Suffice to say that the above statement referring to equal half steps is incorrect by ommission.  ]

So we define the granularity of the frequencies that will be represented in the analysis.  A standard default is 1026 across the audible spectrum, roughly considered 20 - 20,000 hz.  That math is beyond me, but it means that some equal distribution of frequency is assumed.

The X-axis represents time.  Just as we broke down the frequency range into buckets, so we break time into discrete windows.  Each window of time captures the frequencies present in each bucket at that instant.  From this information, our analytical tool paints a pretty picture.

Fourier analysis is based on the insight that a complex wave can be represented as the sum of many sine waves.  A complex form is revealed as a series of discrete waves, each represented at a particular frequency.  The width of the Y-axis frequency buckets in the spectrum  determines how precise we can be in isolating each discrete wave.  If those waves were added back together, the peaks and troughs would enhance or cancel each other, and the original complex waveform would be re-calculated.

Fourier analysis assumes that the wave is unchanging after the first period. Music obviously *does* change over time, as do most complex wave patterns. Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) performs Fourier analysis on each window of time, and then sequences those slices of time together. 

The results of Fourier analysis can be reversed to generate the original sound. They can also be manipulated before engineering the sound.  Visual forms can be constructed to create new waveforms.This is a particularly rich source of compositional inspiration.

Back to Sonicism. It matters not if the wave under analysis is taken from sound (energy vibrating in air) , from ocean (energy vibrating in water) from the sun (energy vibrating in the electromagnetic spectrum). If the wave can be represented mathematically, it can be engineered in any other medium.

When NASA releases ‘The Sounds of Jupiter”, we should not imagine a giant booming noise emanating across the solar system. Well, we should imagine that, because that would be cool. But what has really happened is a representation of the electromagnetic wave as a sound wave. This process, moving waves across medium, is called Transduction.

There’s a bit of coinage going on there, I use the term very loosely. A very familiar transducer is the mechanism in the human ear that takes energy waves in air and reforms them as electrical impulses in the human brain. The HiFi speaker does the same thing, taking electrical impulses from the piezo mechanism on the LP needle and groove, transferring them into vibrations on the speaker cone which then activate energy in the air.

If we were to take the direct values of the electromagnetism of the sun and represent directly as sound, it would be outside the audible spectrum. The values need to be mathematically modeled so that they appear within the desired range of the target medium. This process, we call Transposition ( a solid musical term). The maths are complex because an octave is exponential not linear: always twice the frequency. So 800 is an octave above 400 (difference of 400). 8000 is an octave above 4000 (difference of 4000).

And the octave is a relationship worth preserving in any medium.

Transduction and Transposition gives the artist a powerful set of concepts and tools.  I write ‘music’ that is ultimately intended for electromagnetic ‘performance’. It is not ‘heard’.   It is not really experienced . The musical forms exist only within the electromagnetic spectrum.  (See notes on Voices of the Noosphere, for radio telescope and didgeridoo as well as Keynote Address on Music as Cultural Dialogue, which I presented at UNESCO in 2010

What if we create waveforms that would be 'played' within the Earth, a controlled seismic event?  Or establish and control standing waves on the surface of a lake - like an enormous chinese water bowl.  Light patterns that are the direct corrollary to a piece of music - not just a laser show, but the actual transposition of sound to light?  The process is like some geomantic matrix, rich in the capability to psychogeographically manipulate the environment/noosphere. 

I imagine this is how we will identify ET culture. Their ‘instruments’ will be galactic, manipulation of gravity waves, structures of electromagnetism, formulation of time.