Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Northern New-Wave

As part of my residency, I also led weekly music and sound art workshops, during which youths between age 13 and 16 were taught outdoor field recording techniques. Each youth was given their own digital audio recorder (H2 or MiniDisc) as I wanted them to document their own interpretations of their sonic environments. They learnt how to import these field recordings onto a computer and perform basic editing and processing. I wanted to convince them that musical sounds are hidden all around us and that active listening is required to appreciate them. I've included portions of the kids' field recordings in my sound installation Soundscapes of Inukjuak so as to juxtapose their sonic perceptions with those of his own.

Here's a stereo-mixdown excerpt from my installation. All the sounds heard in this sample were recorded by the kids.

We also started our own band. The kids learnt the basics of guitar, drum, and synthesizer playing. I exposed them to older bands whom they had never heard of like Bad Brains, Neu! or even Jimi Hendrix. I was trying to teach them about artists who experimented with the inherent properties of sound, not always concerned with melody or harmony.

We also created a few original songs. Below is a video clip of us rehearsing "Hudson Bay Rap". It's hard to hear Noah rapping on this recording, but he wrote his own rhymes in both Inuttiut and English. This jam definitely had a BodyCount / Public Enemy vibe going on. Tommy is the one running the mixing board and Adobe Audition.

Tukai and I working on "Wild Thing":

We even played a couple of concerts for the community. This is some footage of a gig we did at the Inukjuak Recreation Center that was broadcasted live over the radio. It's a cover tune from krautrock legends Neu!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Radio Spirits

Alright, so I lied when I said I'd be updating this blog regularly while I was up North. But I'm back in Montreal and will continue to share interesting sonic events I experienced in Inukjuak, Nunavik.

One of my favorite field recordings was taken outside the Pigiursavik school where I was holding the workshops. During one extraordinarily windy week, I stood outside the school at night and heard these really eerie sounds. Sort of a varying melodic motif sung in a minor key. These wind songs would go on for hours. To add to this, the aurora borealis was starting to form in the skies that week. So this was quite a cinematic experience. I was reminded of Jim O'Rourke's haunting soundtrack to the Peter Mettler film Picture of Light:

So I went to speak to a local about these wind songs. Apparently, Inuit folklore claims that the Northern Lights produce sounds that shamans were once able to manipulate in order to create their own songs. The sounds of the Lights represent the spirits of the dead, either playing games or trying to communicate with the living. Although this story greatly inspired me, I discovered the source of these sounds the next day. There were intricate geometric formations of hollow metal bars outside the school used for the stairs and ramp. For some reason, holes were drilled into specific locations along the poles. Hence, they acted like wind instruments. As the wind passed through the poles, they would emit different tones depending on their lengths. So the tones from different poles would interact to form harmonies. I wonder if the architect who designed this building knew in advance that s/he was creating a musical instrument or hidden sound installation.

Here is an excerpt from these beautiful wind songs
(This excerpt is taken from my multi-channel sound installation Soundscapes of Inukjuak that is currently on display in Montreal at L'Envers Gallery - 185 Van Horne)

But back to the Aurora Borealis.....

Sound recordist Stephen McGreevy has proven that the lights do actually produce sounds. He refers to them as "naturally-occurring radio signals" or "whistlers". Many witnesses compare these sounds to radio static, a small animal rustling through dry grass and leaves, or the crinkling of cellophane wrapper.

McGreevy writes:
"Natural Radio," a term coined in the late 1980's by California amateur listener and researcher Michael Mideke, describes naturally-occurring electromagnetic (radio) signals emanating from lightning storms, aurora (The Northern and Southern Lights), and Earth's magnetic-field (the magnetosphere). Conditions within Earth's magnetosphere and between the Sun and the Earth are called "space-weather."

The majority of Earth's natural radio emissions audible with ground-based radio receivers occur in the extremely-low-frequency and very-low-frequency (ELF/VLF) radio spectrum - specifically, at AUDIO frequencies between approximately 100 to 10,000 cycles-per second (0.1--10 kHz). Unlike sound waves which are vibrations of air molecules that our ears are sensitive to, natural radio waves are vibrations of electric and magnetic energy (radio waves) which - though occurring at the same frequencies as sound - cannot be listened to without a fairly simple radio receiver to convert the natural radio signals directly into sound.

Whistlers are magnificent sounding bursts of ELF/VLF radio energy initiated by lightning strikes which "fall" in pitch. A whistler, as heard in the audio output from a VLF "whistler receiver," generally falls lower in pitch, from as high as the middle-to-upper frequency range of our hearing downward to a low pitch of a couple hundred cycles-per-second (Hz). Measured in frequency terms, a whistler can begin at over 10,000 Hz and fall to less than 200 Hz, though the majority are heard from 6,000 down to 500 Hz. Whistlers can tell scientists a great deal of the space environment between the Sun and the Earth and also about Earth's magnetosphere.

The causes of whistlers are generally well known today though not yet completely understood. What is clear is that whistlers owe their existence to lightning storms. Lightning stroke energy happens at all electromagnetic frequencies simultaneously--that is, from "DC to Light." Indeed, the Earth is literally bathed in lightning-stroke radio energy from an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 lightning storms in progress at any given time, triggering over a million lightning strikes daily. The total energy output of lightning storms far exceeds the combined power output of all man-made radio signals and electric power generated from power plants.

Whistlers also owe their existence to Earth's magnetic field (magnetosphere), which surrounds the planet like an enormous glove, and also to the Sun. Streaming from the Sun is the Solar Wind, which consists of energy and charged particles, called ions. And so, the combination of the Sun's Solar Wind, the Earth's magnnetosphere surrounding the entire Planet, and lightning storms all interact to create the intriguing sounds and great varieties of whistlers. (

This video gives a good explanation of McGreever's work along with sound clips:

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Silence of Inukjuak

Just to start off...I'm not kidding when I say that the mosquitoes here are brutal. At first I assumes that the locals have learnt to adapt, but they hate those bugs as much as any city-slicker walking around town. But after being here for a couple of weeks now, I've realized that mosquitoes actually play quite an important role in these people's lives. Why?

Canadian composer and sound theorist R. Murray Schafer defines two important elements of any landscape in his book The Tuning of the World:

Keynote Sounds: those sounds created by its geography and climate: water, wind, birds, insects. These sounds may have imprinted themselves so deeply on the people hearing them that life without them would be sensed as a distinct impoverishment.

Soundmarks: Community sounds that are unique or possess qualities which make them specially regarded by the people living there. Once a soundmark has been detected, it deserves to be protected, for soundmarks make the acoustic life of the community unique.

One example of a keynote sound in Inukjuak would be the wind. The song of the wind shapes daily activities and culture. It's pretty simple.....when the wind is strong, the mosquitoes are gone, and everyone in the community drops what they're doing, gets into their canoes, and goes hunting or fishing. When the wind is low, and the sun is shining, everyone here stays inside. That means no delicious Arctic Char on the dinner table that night. So i've decided to just slap on the DEET and press the record button. The deafening buzzing of mosquitoes in Inukjuak definitely makes its soundscape unique. (I'll post some of my bug sounds soon)

Another common sound up here is the steady drone of ATVs whizzing by. However, the soundscape here still remains sparse. Unlike big cities in which dense sounds mask each other, here, you almost have to wait eagerly for the next sonic event to occur. You can usually hear each sound very clearly. Also, people speak very softly and nobody honks. I also noticed that you never hear music playing outside, unlike the thumping subwoofers of cars in the cities. Here, the only music you will hear comes from the one local radio station that everyone keeps on in the background at a very low level. Even the radio announcers are very quiet!

Here's an example of this sparse soundscape. You can even hear the howls of the Huskies echoing across the entire town. This was recorded on top of a hill overlooking the town and Hudson Bay:
Outside Pigiursavik School (MP3)

Here's a recording of some of the local kids chatting and singing for me on the beach
(notice my nervous laughter at certain points):
Kids on Husdon Bay (MP3)

Interesting fact I recently read...

The Loudest Sound in Recorded History

On August 27, 1883, just off the coast of Jakarta, Indonesia, a volcano on the small island of Krakatoa was undergoing the cataclysmic stage of its months-long eruption. At 10:20 AM the volcano exploded with a sound heard, literally, around the world.

Scientists estimated the explosion's sound to be around 180 decibels, which is a great enough force to instantly kill all hearing tissue within a human ear. For comparison, 180dB is about 13x as loud as a jet engine from 100 ft, or as loud as a rifle shot at point blank range. People 2,200 miles away in Perth, Australia could clearly hear the eruption immediately after the explosion.

The pressure wave from the final explosion was recorded on barographs around the world, which continued to register it up to 5 days after the explosion. The recordings show that the shockwave from the final explosion reverberated around the globe 7 times in total.

Tsunami waves reached the coast of South Africa over 8,000 miles away, and smaller waves registered on tidal meters as far away as the English Channel. However, the English waves occurred too soon after the explosion to be remnants of the tsunami. Scientists believe these disturbances were instead a result of air displacement caused by the sound of the eruption.

Another noise link

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Tuning of the World

This is my first blog ever so i guess i'll start off by introducing my work. I've been a free-jazz & hip-hop musician for over 10 years now but have more recently developed an interest in sound art. I just graduated from Concordia University's program in Electroacoustic Composition. If you are not familiar with this form of composition, here's my definition of it (mind you nobody has been able to come up with a concrete definition so far):

The arrangement of purely synthesized sounds and/or environmental sounds (that may be processed) into a musical composition. Unlike most Western musical idioms (popular or classical), there is much less of a focus on rhythm, harmony, and melody. Instead most Electroacoustic (EA) compositions attempt to study the textural and timbral properties of sound itself as well as experiment with techniques of diffusing sounds within a listening space.

This is a very general summary of EA music. So for more info I would suggest researching some of the major figures in this field such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer, and Iannis Xenakis.
However, its more important to mention why I decided to get involved in Electroacoustic music. It all started when I was finishing up my Electrical Engineering degree at McGill University about 5 years ago. I was taking one of those introduction to classical music courses called "The Art of Listening" (AKA "Clapping for credits" by most McGill-ites). I personally enjoyed the course. But the moment of realization occurred when my prof introduced us to one of the most important and innovative composers of the 20th century, John Cage. In particular, we discussed his most famous piece 4'33 that was composed for any instrument. During the 1952 premiere of this three-movement piece in Woodstock, New York, David Tudor calmly sat down at the piano and opened the sheet score. Cage instructs the musician to play nothing for the entire duration of the piece. To mark the beginning of the piece, Tudor closed the keyboard lid. Some time later he opened it briefly, to mark the end of the first movement. This process was repeated for the second and third movements. Tudor timed the three movements with a stopwatch while turning the pages of the score. The outcome: the audience gasped and almost broke into a riot. However, what Cage was trying to imply is that there is no such thing as silence. Although, no piano notes were being played, one could hear the sounds of the concert hall (people whispering, piano bench squeaking, footsteps leading to the exit of the concert hall etc...). In some performances the front door of the hall would be left open so as to let the traffic sounds outside seep in. Cage wanted his listeners to realize that if we listen carefully to our environment, we realize that all sounds are interesting and unique. It makes us challenge the definition of music. He once questioned, "which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?" For cage, the sound of a kettle whistling has as much musical worth as a legato played on a violin.
Cage performing "Water Walk" in 1960 on popular TV show I've Got A Secret)

4'33' reminds me of Jackson Pollack’s paint-drip works. Even though these paintings are so chaotic that it seems as if nothing is happening – and they might as well be painted black, if you concentrate long enough you will realize that this giant abstract mass actually contains subtle gestures and textures.
What lead Cage to this philosophy? So the story goes...In 1951, he visited the anechoic chamber (a sound-proof room that absorbs all sound made inside it) at Harvard University. He entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but he claimed to have heard two sounds, one high and one low. When he described them to the engineer in charge, he informed him that the high one was his nervous system in operation, the low one his blood in circulation. True, this could have just been caused by a mild case of tinnitus or maybe Cage was finally losing his mind, but I think his message it what matters. To quote him,

"Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."

So how has all of this affected my sound art? My current artistic research-creation practice is focused on soundscape composition that involves the re-contextualization of man-made or natural sounds within an studio setting. Using a microphone, I am able to perceive the timbral and musical content hidden all around us. My sound-walking technique is primarily influenced by Vancouver’s World Soundscape Project in the 1970s, led by R. Murray Schafer, who researched how sonic environments are being effected by urban development. With the noise pollution of cars and construction plaguing our cities, I find it important to preserve the more fragile and subtle sounds that are nearing extinction. I use software tools (filters, time stretching, pitch shifting) to help isolate and accentuate the field recordings I gather. These sounds are often complemented by purely synthesized sounds that I create in order to form a harmony. In my work, electronic sounds interact organically and "play" along with natural sounds as two musicians would.
This has lead me to to my current project, Tusarnituq: Soundscapes of Nunavik. ("tusarnituq" is the Inuttitut word for "beautiful sound"). I was recently awarded a grant from CALQ (Conseil des arts et lettres du Quebec) to travel to Inukjuak, Nunavik as part of an artist residency. I have been here for a week now and the main objective of my project is to study the Northern soundscape to create a large-scale sound installation that will include natural sounds (Hudson Bay, birds, dogs, insects) and cultural sounds (Inuttitut language, story telling, throat singing). I will also create the Inukjuak Sound Map. This interactive web site will provide a browsable satellite map of Inukjuak on which users can click on different geographical co-ordinates to hear their respective sounds. This idea was largely inspired by the amazing work of my friends and collaborators, Max and Julian Stein, who started up the Montreal Sound Map last year. So for the next month, this blog will focus on my daily perceptions of the seemingly silent environment up here. I'll also try my best to upload some interesting field recordings of Inukjuak on a daily basis.

For now, here is a sample of a soundscape composition I recently created using field recordings gathered in the temples and rainforests of Malaysia and Singapore:
The First Spot of Sunlight