What does death sound like?

October 13, 2008

“A truck rear ended my car and I died instantly. All the traffic was at a stand still and a truck not paying attention to traffic, blasted into the rear end of my car. Not wearing a safety belt, I was thrown against the windshield and all of a sudden I was in this white silver light. A man’s voice, whom I couldn’t see, said to me “You can either come with us now, or you can go back.” The next thing I knew, I was back in my injured body. the music started pouring through me like Niagara Falls…”

In the film  ‘Touching the Void’ as Joe Simpson descends the mountain close to death and in the grip of delirium, he realises he is about to die because he is plagued  with the sound of  “Brown Girl in th Rain” going round and round in his head; “I was so pissed off… because i realised I was going to die to Boney M”. This post explores the audio experience before and during death – an event of importance perhaps, but little researched. Descriptions seem to have some commonality across cultures but of course come from either survivors of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) and therefore compromised by memory and suggestion or from religious/cultural texts  – compromised by cultural values but perhaps a store of a cultural memory of death…

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“I hear singing and there’s no one there,
I smell blossoms and the trees are bare. . . .”
From ‘Call Me Madam’ Irving Berlin 1953

Earworms:The Cognitive Itch Theory

97% of us have the capacity to trigger simple audio hallucinations; For instance the sentence “brown girl in the rain” will for most of you cause an involuntarily re-occurring audio hallucination which can only be stopped by the words “Do you know the way to San Jose”. Commonly called  ‘Earworms’, this disorder is thought to be the result of specific musical properties of a song that trigger the brain to uncontrollably repeat the song in an attempt to resolve some logical musical anomaly. The most successful Earworm songs have a repetitive rhythm, bright catchy melody but importantly some unusual, unexpected musical aspect. For instance the BaHaMen’s “who let the dogs out” has an offbeat repetitive  “Who,Who” chorus making it ripe for repetitive neural analysis and keeping it high in the Earworm top ten:

SE London 1986(Not really a sound from memory more the memory of an imagined sound…)

The ideal city is a city with mountains – Naples, Lisbon, Sarajevo, Phoenix Arizona even. The flat and claustrophobic city of London lacks this topological quality but tries to make up for it in the form of council tower blocks (not quite the vertical exuberance of Hong Kong or Shanghai but it will do…) and it was to these buildings that i was drawn in a skyward search to try and ‘understand’ the city and the London landscape.

In the early Eighties council housing was in chaos and these blocks had been more or less to fend for themselves; the original tenants had moved out (except for a few aged ” i’ll only leave here in a coffin” types identifiable by heavily armored front doors) leaving the run of the place to a colorful mix of smackheads, the smackhead’s drug dealers, ‘antisocial’ families and the dregs of the squatter population.

(a friend of mine who lived in the top flat of a fourty storey building, hacked a head sized hole through his bedroom wall so that when he was lying in bed he could remind himself that the only thing between him and the void was a thin layer of breeze blocks. His occupancy of the flat was cut short when a pirate radio station gang persuaded him to leave by dangling him out of the kitchen window…)

Access to the buildings was unrestricted, I spent happy hours exploring and climbing these imitation mountains – walking up the stairwells, climbing scaffolding or directly up the exterior of the building, balcony to balcony to sit, dangling my feet of the top. Much of the mid-period bourbonese qualk imagery derives from this architecture (not as commonly supposed an ‘industrial’ affectation but a search for the echo of a more rural landscape) as video, album covers, posters and photographs. But more and more the focus of my climbs became the attempt to record the fall from a high building; Sitting on the edge of the top of a tower block caused me an almost unstoppable physical urge to leap off – i was sure the falling sensation would be worth it, however brief. I decided to try and capture a simulation of falling by dropping microphones and video cameras off high buildings creating a series of short, very short, films and audio recordings (and smashed equipment). I never came close to matching the imagined sound, a sound which has to be experienced to be fully appreciated: in a short six seconds the sound of televisions, and children crying changing pitch though doppler distortion as i drop past the balconies, the noise of the city – traffic, car alarms, sirens fading as the range decreases to a single point of impact on a concrete surface bringing the short journey full circle from solid to void and back again.

Some tips on falling:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2004/may/20/thisweekssciencequestions2

http://www.wikihow.com/Survive-a-Long-Fall

Sounds From Memory #3: Riot.

December 12, 2007

The intention of these series of posts is to document sounds that have remained in memory. Not sounds that are particularly pleasant or trigger ‘Proustian Resonance’ but unique sounds that once heard are never forgotten (therefore impossible to reproduce or record). If i get enough – and please add your own – i’ll organise them into a top ten ‘mnemaudio’ chart.

poll tax riot london 1989Miles was the first casualty, and, I always maintain, the inspiration for the violence that took place at the Trafalgar Square Anti-Poll Tax protest in 1989. During what was an admittedly tense but peaceful sit down protest in front of Downing Street, Miles charged at the Police brandishing a metal pole. He was immediately floored, struck on the head by a brick thrown from the police lines*. Seconds later the police panicked and sent mounted riot squads charging into the unarmed protesters, this event ignited a day of fierce fighting in the centre of London. For six hours the police held protesters in the square: The sound that fixed in my memory is the combined roar of bottles and bricks being thrown, burning buildings, screams, police sirens, helicopters, horses, whistles and ambulances which, after six hours, merged into one high pitched continuous distorted scream. This noise stayed with me for weeks, day and night -a kind of hysterical tinnitus.

trafalgar square 1989

*I dragged miles to an ambulance which took him to hospital. A few hours later he discharged himself, concussed, dripping blood from a head wound he returned to the battle pressing home his assault on the forces of ‘law and order’.

Location: Outside the Odeon Cinema, Oxford UK.

Walking out of a cinema in that familiar post film haze, the man next to me stepped out into the street and was hit by a taxi. The sound was a short but very loud bang followed by the smashing of glass (was he carrying bottles or was it the car headlights shattering on impact?). I was surprised by the solidity of the bang considering the softness of a human body against a metal surface and confused, the man had disappeared right in front of me. Where had he gone? was he under the car or had he bounced off the vehicle bonnet into the street? The taxi had come to an immediate halt some distance away (film sound effect of screaming tires) the driver gripping the wheel with both hands, staring straight ahead.

The intention of these series of posts is to document sounds that have remained in memory. Not sounds that are particularly pleasant or trigger ‘Proustian Resonance’ but unique sounds that once heard are never forgotten (therefore impossible to reproduce or record). If i get enough – and please add your own – i’ll organise them into a top ten ‘mnemaudio’ chart.

mri

The MRI Scan

Andy (Wilson) and I regularly cite the MRI scanning machine as a prime influence on sunseastar’s music having both been fortunate enough to witness the machines unique timbre up close (…are sunseastar the only group where all members have had brain scan?). The Magnetic Resonance Image Scanner is a medical device used to generate images of the soft tissues of the brain for the diagnosis of illnesses. The unfortunate patient is strapped to a horizontal bed which is introduced slowly into the small cavity of a large metal wheel – a very claustrophobic and alarming experience – you are allowed a view of your feet via a mirror near your head but apart from that you can see nothing. The staff switch the machine on and leave the room with unsettling haste.

The sounds come in a series of about six sequences ( different angles of the scanning device through the head?) of a few minutes each over a total of thirty minutes (in my case). The noise is very impressive due to it’s volume and unexpectedness – It’s very loud and very close and, because you are strapped in to a small space, there’s no way to get away from it:

“Due to the construction of MRI scanners, they are potentially unpleasant to lie in. The part of the body being imaged needs to lie at the center of the magnet (which is often a long, narrow tube). Because scan times may be long (perhaps one hour), people with even mild claustrophobia are often unable to tolerate an MRI scan without management.”

The noise can be described as a high volume grating mechanical ‘GRRRR’ of regular but varying tone on each pass. If this sound came from any other machine it would be an indication that it was about to fail with catastrophic and lethal effect – which is quite alarming considering it is inches from your unprotected face:

Acoustic noise: Loud noises and vibrations are produced by forces resulting from rapidly switched magnetic gradients interacting with the main magnetic field, in turn causing minute expansions and contractions of the coil itself. This is most marked with high-field machines and rapid-imaging techniques in which sound intensity can reach 130 dB – equivalent to a jet engine at take-off.”