Archive for the thoughts Category

Fear of Silence

Sunday, 03 March 2013

Fear is on my mind.

The composer Jonathan Siemasko said this on twitter the other day:

Siemasko says this fear may be a reason he’s tended to employ segues between pieces on his albums. Alan Licht, in his book Sound Art, Beyond Music, Between Categories hypothesizes that fear of silence is partially related to the fact that the human voice can’t hold a note for long before running out of breath, he then goes on to suggest that the popularity of long delays and long reverbs in contemporary music is a manifestation of a fear of running out of breath, of dying. Perhaps the current vogue for digitally stretching durations is another, to wallow in an illusion of eternity.

A day or two after the tweet by Siemasko, I was getting some books together to trade in at the used book store, and I opened up a dog-eared page of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great to find this quote:

Le silence eternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie
-Blaise Pascal

That translates to ‘the eternal silences of these infinite spaces make me afraid’.

Coincidentally, that same day I found that quote in Hitchens’ book, I came across the very same quote by Pascal in the book I was reading by R. Murray Schafer The Soundscape: Our Environment and the Tuning of the World (which is a fun read, despite Schafer’s preachy, conservative stance (it might better have been titled The Way Things Ought to Sound))

Schafer describes the fear of silence, comparing silence to death. He says, “Man likes to make sounds to remind himself that he’s not alone. From this point of view, total silence is the rejection of human personality. Man fears the absence of sound as he fears the absence of life. … Since modern man fears death as none before him, he avoids silence to nourish his fantasy of perpetual life.”

There certainly seems to be a Western cultural aversion to quiet, that much is certain (quiet is often equated, but distinct from silence). Every individual and every business seems to want to fill every sound space with music. I wonder if our culture’s definition of silence is ‘the lack of music or conversation’, rather than the absolute silence that so frightens Pascal and Schafer’s modern man. That amended definition might dovetail with John Cage’s occasional definition of silence as those sounds that are not intended.

It’s also easy to argue that there is a Western cultural aversion to thinking about death. So strong is our aversion to thinking and talking about death that if we are making this connection between silence and death, it must be an almost entirely subconscious thought.

There are other complicated matters of class & identity intertwined in the disquieted reaction to quiet. The wealthy elite have always sought to separate and distinguish themselves by developing tastes in activities and possessions that are out of reach to the lower classes due to rarity and costliness. At one point in our not-distant history, recorded music was a luxury item. The poor had to find someone with an instrument to scratch out some music for them, if they couldn’t buy or make an instrument themselves. The well-to-do were able to comfort themselves with high-class recorded music delivered on-demand by expensive playback equipment, they could even listen to the music of the poor as an anthropological entertainment without having to bear the indignity of associating with them directly. Recorded music is now ubiquitous, but I wonder if music doesn’t still bear the vestiges of its use as a symbol of wealth. Fear of quiet may still be a fear of lack. Side thought: the fear of distortion mentioned at the outset of this essay, (specifically the fear of low-fidelity) fits here too, the elite can afford to separate themselves with ever finer playback equipment, ever higher-fidelity recorded media, users of music can signal their class(iness) by grousing about unwanted noise or low bit-rates. </tangent>

I’ve mentioned in other writings that music is used as social marker, a way of distinguishing and separating one person from all others, a way for a person to say “I am like this, I like this set of things, I am unique” – a way, in short, to reinforce the self – an increasingly urgent necessity in a culture where individuality is valued over and above everything, and on a planet where the booming population growth is rendering this sense of uniqueness harder and harder to achieve. Music is used like clothing. It is a reminder of who one is, and also as a marker of what social groups one belongs to. Music constantly reminds its user of her place in society and in the world, and, also broadcasts these distinctions to others. Music is used as a marker of sexual territory: consider people with expensive sound systems in their cars. Someone booming bass out of their car is filling the area with an expression of “I am here, this is who I am” as surely as a dog does the same by pissing on a hydrant.

Could this impulse be boiled down to death-fear: the need to feel separate and unique? The needs to broadcast one’s taste in hopes to become associated with desirable social groups, to attract sex partners and to intimidate sex rivals… are these expressions of fear too? Is it as simple as trying to assert self-ness in fear of not-self-ness?

I’m thinking now of some kinds of music… certain kinds of heavy metal, harsh noise… these kinds of music that sometimes use overt symbols of death itself as a social bonding, identity-reinforcing solvent of the subculture. I sometimes think about this in terms of what Immanuel Kant says about the sublime, how if we can perceive the terrifying forces of nature, and not be harmed by them, we feel powerful. The average fan of these kinds of music confronts and becomes accustomed to death imagery, knowing it still invokes fear among the uninitiated. They themselves have, up to a certain level, overcome this fear, and therefore they can feel separated from the horde, and privy to rare tastes. They can be of a higher class than those over whom the imagery still holds its fear-power. It is a very interesting subversion (I wonder if Amelia Ishmael might identify this as “inversion”) of the paradigm. And yet this music pushes away the quiet even more vehemently than pop music does, is it truly unafraid?

As people constantly feel the need to re-mind themselves of who they are with their own personal soundtracks, capitalism fills the spaces it controls in a cynical (at least I see it that way) exploitation of these identity functions of music. Highly tailored corporate soundtracks to retail experiences are a ubiquitous phenomenon, these soundtracks seem to say to the consumer: You belong here, there is nothing to fear. You are a part of something. You will spend more money if you feel a part of something bigger than you, and if you can relate to the corporation as having a personality that resonates with yours, if you have… chemistry. Muzak Corporation’s pioneering advances in the use of tepid, un-challenging music as ‘air freshener’ has been much refined through marketing research… people used to complain about elevator music, I don’t hear many people complaining about the current abuse of music in public space. Is it because it drives the fear away?

My life doesn’t need a soundtrack.
– Jeph Jerman

If you remove the soundtrack to your life, if you sit with the quiet, sit with unintended sounds, do you stop being who you are? Do you stop existing as this temporal material process that you keep insisting to define as you?

There is nothing to fear: everything has a sound. John Cage brought to our attention that the term ‘silence’ cannot mean the total absence of sound, everything is vibrating. Everything has a sound. One thing I like to do is go around touching things to feel for sound that I cannot hear, listening through flesh and bone conduction. In some louder environments, I can feel the sound ebbing up through my feet. When I saw Sunn O))) in concert I felt like the liquid in my body was making cymatic patterns in sympathy to the sound of the amplified guitars. Sound isn’t just in the air, not only in the ears.

Touch something. Do you feel sound? Even if you can’t feel any vibration, it doesn’t follow that there is no sound, so many sounds are out of our limited range of perception. Many sounds too quiet to perceive. Cage talked about atomic music, and hoped that someday we would be able to amplify the vibrations of atoms and subject that sound to our aesthetic appreciation. Other sounds are so loud they become painful or deadly, the windows in Chelyabinsk were blown out by a sound. (The pain threshold of sound in humans is subjective and depends on frequency, but usually falls between 120 & 140 decibels, over 194 decibels sound is registered as a shock wave.)

Many sounds lie outside of the spectrum of wave frequency we know as sound: some seismic infrasounds, for example, can be recorded, viewed as a waveform in a computer sound-editor, but would have to be pitched up many hundreds of times to fall within the frequency range that we can hear. Sound is energy within a certain wave spectrum.

Everything in the universe is . . . is . . . is made of one element, which is a note, a single note. Atoms are really vibrations, you know, which are extensions of THE BIG NOTE, everything’s one note. Everything, even the ponies. The note, however, is the ultimate power, but see, the pigs don’t know that, the ponies don’t know that.
– Spider Barbour

Pascal’s fear of silent infinity came to him upon considering the incomprehensible vastness of outer-space first suggested by Galileo’s discoveries with the telescope. Outer space is full of energy waves resonating in all directions, bouncing off masses of matter. These are electro-magnetic waves, not air-pressure waves (as sound is), but they act, physically, in very similar ways. Light, for example, can be effected by the Doppler shift.

What about inner-space? The Buddhists talk about how, through an awareness practice, one can glimpse what is described as a great void, a vast hollowness at the center of experience.

The word “sunyata” is one that refers to this void, there are other words. I’m not a Buddhist scholar, but I do find this concept quite intriguing, I need to do some more study in this direction. The first paragraph of Wikipedia’s entry for Sunyata is a pretty good thumbnail sketch: ” Sunyata is a Buddhist term that is translated into English as emptiness, openness, thusness, etc. Śūnyatā refers to the absence of inherent existence in all phenomena, and it is complementary to the Buddhist concepts of not-self”

ETA: above is a quote from Rebecca Solnit

If there are no frames, no center, is there sound?

How could I react to great emptiness? Do I fear it? Perhaps I am in awe, perhaps I am confused and don’t understand, so I put it out of my mind. When I was young, I was told that sinners have a great hollowness that could only be filled with Jesus. Jesus didn’t make a sound.

If I listen to sound, I fear no sound. If I listen to no sound, there is no I to fear.

I’m not really sure how to neatly tie up this essay, it’s obviously a huge subject with threads going in every direction. It is above my level of discipline to address it as an academic might, nevertheless these are the directions my curiosity is leading me. I will say this: It’s natural and healthy to fear death, less so to deny it, to pretend it away. It’s not necessary to fear the quiet. We have the chance to listen for the universe, let’s do it while we can.


Saturday, 03 March 2013

I’m having some suspicion about being a ‘fan’ of anything.

I have big fascinations with some certain artist, that artist’s work resonates with me, perhaps the work will continue to resonate with me, but…

When I come back to the work, is it nostalgia that drives me back, a desire for that feeling I had when I first connected vigorously to the work? That feeling that is now lost? Nostalgia is a longing for something lost. It is a kind of suffering. I don’t want to live while longing for something I cannot have.

If I am coming back to the work because “I am a fan of this”, then that’s just a re-inforcement of identity, is it necessary? Do I cease to exist if I don’t remind myself that I am a fan of this?

Do I need to identify myself as a fan of anything?

Ignorability and inclusiveness

Tuesday, 02 February 2013

I’ve been considering this term “ambient music” recently. In brief, the term and idea is usually credited to Brian Eno, with (sometimes) a nod in the direction of John Cage and also Erik Satie’s “Musique D’Ameublement”. The well-worn legend is that Brian was incapacitated in hospital and someone put on a record of some harp music but the volume was too low to properly listen to, and he was fascinated by his experience listening to the very quiet sounds and inspired to make music… um, intended to be backgrounded? I don’t know, I’m with him enthusiastically all the way up until he decides to make music that you are able to ignore, and then I wonder, okay, what’s the takeaway from that?

If you take at face value the idea that ambient music was designed to be backgrounded and ignorable, there is not very much of what is classified as ambient music that would fit the bill. Much of it virtually pounds you over the head with either feel-good, treacly vaporousness (sometimes with “ethnic” drums!) or overbearing, longing melancholy or with porn-soundtrack-ish techno (“chill out, beat off”).**

So there’s this whole body of work built on an original idea that apparently few of its contemporary practitioners agree with or adhere to. Fine.

I am not at all someone who wants my sound work to be ignored, but then I don’t call it ambient music.

In tune with some of my other thoughts about sound, reminiscing about the above stuff got me thinking that maybe a couple of newer terms might be helpful. I’d offer these not as potential ‘genre’ names but just as something to consider. Categorizing music by genre is no longer useful anyway.

The terms I’m thinking of are “inclusive” and “insular”.

Inclusive sound would be that which combines easily with the surrounding sound of the listener. It’s not for ignoring, it’s for listening to – along with the naturally occurring, uncontrolled sound at the location of the listener. Headphone listening is not ideal with inclusive sound for obvious reasons.

Insular sound is that which is its own sound world, capable of removing the listener from their surroundings, when you listen to it, the rest of the sound world dissolves away. Isolationism was a word that was kicked around in the 90s as a genre name, but I’d suggest that ~most~ music is intended as, and is used as insular sound in an isolating way.
Sound canceling headphones are probably most ideal for insular sound, it gathers and amplifies the insulative properties of the music, buffering the audience against exposure to outside influence.
A gathering of people might together inhabit the bubble that insular sound would provide, at a concert or a dance or something similar. The audience is collectively removed from the outside world by the music.

Since I started of ruminating about the frustrating term “ambient” I’ll bring it back up again. If ambient is your thing, this might be an interesting metric to consider, since examples from this music seem to fall along a spectrum between the two poles. Noise music and many other ‘out’ varieties of music seem more likely to have examples that would fall into various points along a spectrum, rather than being conclusively one or the other. On the other hand, at least from my point of hearing, most rock, pop, blues, techno whatever – most explicitly rhythmic / melodic music primarily is of the insular category.

I think it was Salome Voegelin who said that noise is sound that cannot be ignored. Because rock/pop/blues and other forms of popular music pulls the listener away from the real world into a pre-constructed reality, it could be said to be less ignorable. It’s probably more apt to be considered as noise by someone who doesn’t want to hear it. A lot of this kind of music is “noise” in the pejorative sense from my perspective: it’s hard to tune out. It wraps you into its sound-world, and I don’t necessarily agree to being enwrapped into that place. This is particularly problematic (at least in my view) when this type of music is encountered in so many public places that it could be counted as virtually ubiquitous.

Whether something is ignorable or not might be an interesting thing to consider about inclusive or insular music, but ignorability cannot define them: these descriptors base themselves on active listening.

I could envision an x-y graph with ignorable / unignorable at the poles of the x axis and inclusive / insular at the poles of the y axis. Attention slides up and down the x axis, at the ‘ignorable’ pole, there’s no attention, at 0 where the y axis intersects there is full attention, and at the ‘unignorable’ pole there is involuntary attention.

These are really just ideas borne of idle contemplation, and not a manifesto that’s been thoroughly thought out… so if you have some criticism or suggestion (maybe better terminology?) and/or want to point out that someone else has already said all of this and way better than I have… then feel free to comment. These terms are subjective (maybe this is obvious.) Composer(s) may or may not have intended their music to fit into one category or another, and listeners may have differing thoughts on that matter.

** Blixa Bargeld said once that Basic Channel sounded to him like music to play at an expensive furniture store.

Postscript: The fact that popular music forms such as pop / rock / blues / rap and others are commonly used as background music really needs to be integrated into this framework of thinking about how music is used.

The Cure for Listening

Wednesday, 01 January 2013

This morning I emailed this quick little note taking issue with Colorado Public Radio regarding a segment on their show Colorado Matters:

Dear Colorado Matters team,

Thank you for your segment “Preventing Schizophrenia in Utero” wherein Ryan Warner interviewed Psychiatry Professor Randy Ross. I believe the study of this disease that causes so much suffering is very important, however, I found many things about this report very disturbing.

I happen to think that the appreciation of sensory input from the surrounding environment, especially sound, is a very important and healthy thing. The implication and tone of the segment were that listening to background noise is somehow bad or wrong, and might lead to illness. There was no distinction between the ability to ignore sound and the ability to direct attention at sound, both of which are important to human development. I can imagine parents hearing this report and discouraging their children from listening to background sounds. This would be awful, I think we already have a cultural tendency to ignore our surroundings. Listening to background noises is not something that needs to be “cured”.

Further, the segment did not do a very good job at all in firmly establishing an evidential link between the presentation of this specific reaction to sound in infants and later development of schizophrenia in adults.

C. Reider

Masked Hunter on G

Monday, 12 December 2012

Masked Hunter on G

Reduvius personatus

I am imagining Cage writing ‘Music for Piano‘ and wondering why one of the paper imperfections keeps moving around.

(photo by Carrie)

Sound memory

Saturday, 10 October 2012

I’m going to be trying to collect a lot of my short stories/memories about sound into a longer piece of writing. This is one of the stories that might make it in, it just happened today:

I was at the farmer’s market at the Boulder County Fairgrounds. I had to pee, but the only restrooms are in the buildings which are a ways away from the place where the farmer’s market was held, so I drove over there. The buildings at the fairgrounds are used for various gatherings, auctions and trade shows and so forth, something different all the time, so I wasn’t surprised to see some event happening as I walked in the doors. What I found inside was that the large gymnasium-like room was full of hundreds of elderly people, but the room was hushed, almost completely silent. The people were seated at small tables distributed regularly throughout the large space, and I noticed that they were all playing some sort of card game that required some accoutrements I didn’t recognize. I walked across the space to the restrooms, did my business and came back out, the only sounds I heard was the occasional slight shuffle of a chair or a cough. People were milling up to a table and getting drinks from bottles of Coke and eating chips and dip, but no one was speaking or making any of the usual sounds people do when they’re gathered together. Near the door, I noticed a young woman seated by herself at a small table, apparently engaged in some function of the game, but not busy at the moment. I asked her “What game is it being played here?” She said “It’s bridge,” and told me a thing or two about the game’s workings. I mentioned that it was striking how quiet it is in the room given the number of people. She told me that she performs a function in the game, but that it’s only every now and again, and that she knows when it is time for her to stand up and be ready to act by listening for a change in the way the room sounds. “It’s almost like you ‘feel’ when you are needed” she said.

Not knowing… knowing.

Thursday, 07 July 2012

Jeph Jerman sent me his CD album in collaboration with Albert Casais, titled “And This“.

I played it at work today. It struck me as a collection of very quiet sounds.

For some reason, by a quirk of technology acting against its design, every time that the CD reached the 1 minute 20 second mark, it skipped back to the 30 second mark, and resumed playing from there, until it came to the 1:20 again.

Forty five minutes elapsed before I realized that this was happening.

After I realized what was going on, I listened to this same fifty seconds again and again for yet another forty five minutes.


Tuesday, 07 July 2012

“Reduction” is what I’ve been calling a certain process I use when processing sounds during composition. I’m probably not the only person to do this, I just don’t know of others. It involves a certain kind of noise reduction DSP. The audio editor is my main tool, where I do the vast bulk of work. The specific one I currently use, Amadeus Pro has a noise reduction function to it that can sample a selected sound. It’s usually used for, and was presumably designed to be used for, a hiss or rumble that runs through the entire track, but is isolated in one spot so it can be sampled. After sampling, the algorithm would scan the entire audio file for that sound, and attempt to remove all instances of it while leaving the rest of the audio mostly intact (but it does leave plenty of artifacts, when used as it was intended).

Not long after I first started to use this audio editor a number of years ago, I experimented with what might happen when you use the “desirable” signals instead of the “undesirable” noise as the sample that the noise reducer works on? What might happen if, for example, you sampled the entire audio file, and then removed that noise from itself?

The answer to that question is that, surprisingly, not all of the audio file is removed, there are some artifacts that are left over. For a piece called “Erased Silent Night (after Rauschenberg)” (sorry no sound clip), I had to subject the original recording of “Silent Night” by Simon and Garfunkel to about fifteen or twenty repeated noise reduction passes before I got the result approaching silent. Even so, it is still not completely silent. As Robert Rauschenberg‘s “Erased De Kooning” is not completely blank. (Rauschenberg’s Artsy page:

A more satisfying use of this effect has been when I am working with a set of sounds instead of a single sound. One sound set I have used so far was the first twelve numbered “Constant” drones released on various netlabels and by various artists, the result of that work was my 2008 release “Inconstant“.

Another sound set I’ve used was a selection of five recordings of Thomas Park blowing on bottles, as the provided samples in one of Marc Weidenbaum‘s Disquiet Junto series of creative challenges for sonic practicioners.

The most recent set of sound sources that I selected as the subject for this process were the loops that were included on the FM3 Buddha Machine and Buddha Machine 2.

In each case there is a collection of sounds which have a numerical order, there were chronologically 12 Constant releases at the time I composed “Inconstant”, there were 5 numbered bottle sounds in the provided sound sources for the “Palindrone” Junto, there are nine loops in both the Buddha Machine and the Buddha Machine 2, featured chronologically one can presume that there is a 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on.

The process I normally use in reduction with a numbered sound set is to begin with an audio file set as the target file, and then take the next audio file in sequence and use that as the first sound sampled and used to remove ‘noise’ from the primary target file. Then I’ll go on in sequence using the next sound file as the sample base for noise reduction, and the next, and so on… eventually using all the sounds in the set in order. What I’m left with in the end is a ‘reduced’ target sound that one might say is elementally different from all other sounds included in the set, given that all other sounds in the set were subtracted from it. Then I’ll move on, making the the next file in the sequence the target sound, and I’ll use the sound that follows it as the first basis for noise reduction, and I’ll continue moving around the sequence in order sampling and removing that noise, on and on and on until complete.

In the case of the most recent release “Buddha Reduction“, I first went through this process for all nine sound files, then I did it again in reverse order, leaving me 18 reduced files for both the first Buddha Machine and the Buddha Machine 2. Simple math tells me that there were 81 forward processing sessions, and 81 backward processing ones for each reduction, so in total for this release there were 324 processing sessions, not including processing for reverb and delay.

“Buddha Reduction 1” uses the sounds reduced from the Buddha Machine. The files processed in forward order were treated with reverb, to make the rather ‘denuded’ sounds more palatable to listen to. The files that were processed in reverse order were treated with a delay. The tempo of the delay was based on the perceived tempo of the original unprocessed sound file. Each file is introduced one by one into the mix according to its number in the set, and as each file is introduced, its tempo becomes the dominant one, affecting the delays of all other audible files in the mix at the time. “Buddha Reduction 2” follow exactly the same process, but uses the nine Buddha Machine 2 loops as its sound set.

This is, as you can imagine, a somewhat tedious process to work with. I actually think that tedium and process music ought to be bedfellows, so this is acceptable to me.

I hope this describes the process well enough. Feel free to ask for clarification if my description was too confusing. Knowing the way I write, I expect that it is likely!

Here’s the most recent example: a straight reduction, with no further processing.

It is blurry

Tuesday, 11 November 2011

I’ve got to be careful, I’m reading some very thought provoking stuff lately, and this blog could just become a compendium of choice quotes without context.

IT, it turns out, is never simply it. This is true no matter what it is. Pointing at it only obscures it. If it is sound art, it must be distinguished from music on one side and from the gallery arts on the other. The borders are blurry, which means that it is blurry. Nevertheless, it might prove illuminating to try to find it, to identify it, to say — even provisionally — where it begins and ends.”

— Seth Kim-Cohen, from “In the Blink of an Ear”


Monday, 11 November 2011

When I was younger, mainstream music used to really bother me, it was an affront, and insult that this inferior product was so widely revered.

Now I wouldn’t know the mainstream if it burst through the windows & ran through the room naked and farting. I’m completely unaffected by it, in fact, I know nothing about it. It might seem exotic and exciting to me now, this naked, farting trespasser.

John Cage once said this: “We live in a time not of mainstream but of many streams, or even, if you insist upon a river of time, then we have come to delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies.”

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