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Studies In Static: Basic Building Blocks 2

[full Studies In Static]

To speak about the different species of spectral composition (sonic, gestural, metanoic) requires a language of sound as shape.    In Basic Building Blocks 1,  I began the idea of a descriptive language of sound that is gestural, architectural, shape based.  W e looked at circles and squares, in outline and filled in. The idea is to become familiar with conceptualizing sound not as a harmonic progression, or as a series of notes, but as shapes in space.  Objects unfolding in time.

My understanding of Spectral Composition is very sculptural. The manipulation of a sonic material.  That material is Static.  Noise.  So I see a line - and I don't mean 'see', I mean 'apperceive'.  Or whatever.  I certainly don't mean 'hear' - a  line is a very small filter on static.  Think of rolling out a piece of play-dough until it is as thin as a filament.  What is the sonic equivalent of that action?  How to 'roll out' sound into a thin filament.  In Flatland, we learn that a Line is the Point in motion (unawares - as we all are).  I start to write about that, here...   

In these early Studies,  amplitude is binary.  Later, amplitude will play an important role, when we consider how to subtract one spectrographic shape from another.  For now, it is either loud or soft.  The value is irrelavant, and can be removed from consideration - as long as it is constant.

A vertical line , a sine wave turned 90 derees, is a burst a full spectrum activity...what we have been calling noise.  The vertical line is also the first side of a square.  

I  mentioned Square Dance, a piece made up entirely of different sized and filled squares in the spectrum.  Another piece is "Sticks and Stones", made up of lines and balls.  Because of the line, the temporal relationship is exactly clear.  It is the visualisation that makes this evolving relationship between the stick and the stone.  


I use Photosounder and Sonic Visualiser.   I haven't written yet but will in detail on the implications behind even something as straightfoward as deciding what the scale of the axis will be (time or frequency).

The visual relationships between objects is like the language of counterpoint.  Instead of refering to themes and statements, I can say things like 'the ball is rolling along the line'.  Each iteration is like a page in a flip book.   Objects, 'moving' in relationship to each other. 

This reminds me of how I composed the first movement of my second string quartet.  Here's a picture of the sketch used to figure out the relationships between each instrument.


String quartet first movement sample sketchEach instrument has a set of melodic material which increases or decreases in length  by each iteration.  The sketch here shows roughly the middle third of the boxes used to calculate duration:  shaded boxes represent silence . Each box is set in millimeters, each millimeter representing a 16th note duration.





The fundamental disclosure of the spectrographic line is that width is duration.  Distance is time. 

The width of a line is important, because the width of the line represents the frequency bandwidth.  So there's a mapping between the pixel size of the line, and the window of Fourier analysis.  

However,the  essential characteristic of the line is it's length.  The simplest form of the line is a sine wave.  A line is defined by it's length, a sine wave by frequency and duration.  It is the purest fundamental, this line that waits for vibration to evolve in to complexity.  



Invisible Art - exhibit at Hayward Gallery

In a couple of weeks, we'll be off on vacation spending two weeks in England.  Towards the end of the trip, there will be a few days in London.  I hope to drink some beer in important pubs, check out the Harry Potter studios, and recite  a bit of Wordsworth.  

Many people seem to have been appalled by the BBC coverage of the recent Jubilee River Thames Pageant.  I had no quarrell with the inane commentary - America! - but I did resent the wanker who came online to make a big fecking deal out of reading Wordsworth Upon Westminster Bridge.  Google (and the Daily  Telegraph , jeebus forgive me) tells me that this wanker  is someone called Richard E Grant.   I don't know who he is, and neither apparently does Youtube.  At least if I query for Wanker and Wordsworth and Jubilee.  The point being that the poem, it's  not that long, it's something every child should know, and yet he had to read it from his wanky spanky Union Jack iPad.   

 Regardles of that travesty, I also hope to convince Kathryn and Arwen to take in a show at the Hayward Gallery.   The show is called Invisible Art,  and there's a good write up in The Observer .  

The Hayward Gallery is part of the South Bank center.   I have fond memories of the South Bank.   When I was a youth (before I met your mother, my child) , my first maybe second day as a student abroad for a year in London - I walked from the Kings College music building (still on the strand somewhere) over to the South Bank.  The girl I walked with was from Australia, and had come to London to write a masters degree on the Schenker editions of Beethoven.  In those editions, Schenker recommends specific fingering for difficult passages, and her idea was that his recommendations had more to do with his analytical interpretations, and less to do  with his understanding of the challenges a pianist experiences in  moving hands around the keyboard.  This is a base simplification of her work, which has probably been published and well received.  She is probably faculty at a prestigious university, and I can't remember her name.  This speaks poorly of me, but in my defense I have the intoxication of the South Bank centre, which is one of the marvels of British architecture.  Prince Charles likened it to a nuclear power plant, which I think he meant as a criticism.  This pains me.  Charles is an unrecondite wanker, worse than the wanker who wanked Wordsworth up above.  But he is the kind of watercolorist that I admire - which is to say a bit of a wanky watercolorist. 

Invisible Art.  Art created by means that cannot be perceived.  Art in media that are beyond our sensory perceptions.    The Observer article lists 10 pieces.  Some of them  seem quirky,  a bit of nonsense, I suppose surreal  and charming if you like that kind of thing.  I don't. However.   I think the Asher piece "Vertical Column of Air"  is spot on.  The Claus Oldenburg "Proposed Underground Memorial for JFK" is magnificent.  He suggests a hollow casting of JFK, buried upside down, to the scale of the Statue of Liberty.  Bloody hell that's hard to ignore.  

I didn't know any of this stuff before reading about the exhibit, and I expect there are many other pieces that will hit hard.  Artists talk about the void.    Robert Barry has Radiation Piece .  A (very) small piece of radioactive cesium has a half life of 30 years.  So what is this, now over 40 years later?  It's an echo, but an unfeel-able echo, an echo without sensation.  Or an echo in a realm of sensation that is not habitually accessed.  The Observer reviewer says:

For Barry, who found ideas of nothingness and the void to be extremely potent, radiation was a means of evoking something immeasurable and without limit – the sublime realm of the unseen.

 In another piece, Barry  uses the carrier wave of an FM  radio broadcast station for specific time and duration.  What is that?  What was it when it happened?  Our usual senses could not have perceived the wave  -  we may be impacted by electromagnetism in ways we don't understand (molecular and homeopathic, animal and mineral) but we aren't migrating birds.  And now, our interface to the experience is only through  the documentation.  The wave stopped long ago.  It really is a step outside of time, a breach of normal thinking.  

It's all so heartbreaking and impermanent.    A simple taste before the wire is pulled away.

I've spent a lot of time in the past few years thinking of ways to 'Erase' sound.    I got the idea originally from the Rauschenberg Erasure of De Kooning , what would something like that sound like, I wondered. Pondered.  Erasure is not the same as Invisible, as silence is not the same as unheard.   The erasure of sound is not silence.  I continue to struggle with the technology behind a synthesis process that erases sound.  I define  'erasure' in this context as 'the last vestige of meaning'.  I recently started to consider the term Adumbration rather than Erasure, but that may just be a cop out.

In the meantime, I wrote an 'unhearable' piece (Music that is Impossibly Loud and Unbearably Silent.  Unhearable is not the same as unheard, but it did get to the idea that there's a void in the center.   

Anyway. If you ask, I will send you a(n invisible) postcard from London.  Cheers!

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.





The Scratch Pieces.

1.  Scratch This

2.  Scratch That

3.  Scratch These

4.  Scratch The Other



To Adumbrate is to cast a faint image, to partially conceal, or to prefigure and suggest a new pattern in the shadows of the old.  The Scratch Pieces  are four pieces of music, each based on a visual image,  where the image represents a gesture, an object that is realised by sound in time.

The duration of each piece is the same (6 minutes, 18 seconds). 

In medieval heraldry, 'adumbration' refers to the outline of figure, or an image painted in a darker  shade of the same color as the background.   I find it  powerfully affecting, an  idea of erasure.  The center vanishes, leaving only the peripheral, the aura.  If I looked up from the computer screen where I am typing this entry,  and and if I realised that there were 4 minutes left before I died:  the efforts and ambition of metabolic life  would leave me.  What remains  is this frisson of the real, the imagined, the strong  connections, the half deluded dreams.  Now frozen for these fast remaining minutes.    

A mug of tea breaks.  The china is fractured, the structural integrity gone.  But for a moment, the form remains.  

Monks spend weeks creating sand mandala.  And then the pattern is swept up.  But there is a moment between the dispersal of the materials and the gesture of disruption.  

The process of adumbration.

ScratchThis   ScratchThat   ScratchThese   ScratchTheOther



There is no Random here.

There is no such thing as chance.  Yesterday, I wrote about white noise, sound generated by computer synthesis.  The nature of computation makes it inevitable that predictable patterns will emerge. 

If I throw  the I Ching, is it non-determinist?  Is it a Chance operation?  

Having started out by saying that there is no such thing as chance, I've probably pre-determined the response.   The throwing of the I Ching is precisely the surface that the bones land on, by the shape and density of the different staves, by the angle of my hand when I throw them, the subtle difference in force applied from each finger and by 86,000 conditions of karma.  There is no stage along a throwing of the I Ching that is not determined by the previous.  No doubt it is hard to recreate, and harder to anticipate the result.  

I end up suggesting that a Chance event is one that could only be recreated by the system that created it in the first place.  Something like the I Ching depends on the variables of a given moment .  All moments, all phenomena are dependent on the criteria that created them.  

Randomness is an intuitive algorithm, a process that is best understood in the fluid sense of Mind.  Mind resides between the physical senses.   Each Chance operation is the result of a limited definition of the system.  Define the limits differently, and the operation is part of a known sequence.  Mind is  the unlimited system.

It's unclear to me how John Cage actually applied the I Ching to his musical process. It does seem that he used the I Ching to generate sequences of numbers,  perhaps applied to pitch, duration.  But did the I Ching also provide guidance on broader issues?  Could the wisdom texts associated with each hexagram have provided answers to  structural questions?

Merce Cunningham was a choreographer who collaborated with Cage and also allowed Indeterminate actions to create the piece.  They would work separately, with the music and dance coming together for the performance. 

It is in our nature to see patterns when events occur simultaneously.  The motion  of a tractor mower in a park across the river seems to move to  the same beat as the pulsing engine of a passing barge.  Maybe they do.  Maybe they don't.  Maybe then again they really do, and it is only the tenuous membrane  of linear chronology that keeps things  in order.

Static is a form of noise that lends itself to pattern seeking.   Recall the scene in the movie Contact where Jodie Foster  listens to the output of the telescope  array through headsets.  I've started a series of pieces, 9 in all, based on a  sample of computer generated white noise.  I use visual filters to enhance patterns, each of the nine revealing a different emphasis.   The effect is long, sustained, biological.  

This is an engagement with complexity and liminality rather than randomness. 

R Murry Schafer is a composer who has written on the idea of the Soundscape.  In his book The Tuning of the World, (1977), he identifies the physical connection of the human body, and the natural sounds of the environment, using a quote from Thomas Mann The Magic Mountain:

“ 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”

It would be interesting to bring a choreographer in, perhaps show the spectrogram of each of my nine pieces.  Or perhaps simply give a score with the text  "9 pieces each 20 minutes derived from White Noise"  Or maybe just "9 x 20 minutes".