Musical roads of the world.

January 19, 2009

Steen Krarup Jensen and Jakob Freud-Magnus building the Asphaltophone

Steen Krarup Jensen and Jakob Freud-Magnus building the Asphaltophone

back in the seventies novelty cereal packet gifts reached a zenith of inventiveness and surreality.My particular favourite was a sound player ‘toy’ – basically a strip of red plastic, shaped like a cable tie, with audio samples encoded into grooves in the strip. The idea was to fit one end to a hole in the empty cereal packet and run your fingernail along the strip at a constant speed. the cereal box acted as an sound box, amplifying the vibrations delighting the astonished breakfast audience with audio clips from history, if my memory serves me correctly, Chamberlain’s “…and here is the paper” and Churchill’s ” some chicken, some neck” amongst others.
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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:

Image: Street advert in Hoxton, London, displaying real-time decibel level. March 2008.

“Let us cross a great modern capital with our ears more alert than our eyes, and we will get enjoyment from distinguishing the eddying of water, air and gas in metal pipes, the grumbling of noises that breathe and pulse with indisputable animality, the palpitation of valves, the coming and going of pistons, the howl of mechanical saws, the jolting of a tram on its rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of curtains and flags. We enjoy creating mental orchestrations of the crashing down of metal shop blinds, slamming doors, the hubbub and shuffling of crowds, the variety of din, from stations, railways, iron foundries, spinning wheels, printing works, electric power stations and underground railways.”

Luigi Russolo excerpt from “L’arte dei Rumori” 1913

Russolo’s eulogy to the sonic city was inspired by the urban clamour of turn of the century Milan.  “L’arte dei Rumori” betrays a fascination with novelty of noise, the signature of modernity and the promise of the future in the form of the industrial city. Russolo argued that music has reached a point where it can longer excite when pitted against the real world sonic complexity of new metropolis. In turn, this statement led to the formation of a new type of music based on machine inspired atonality and stochastic composition.

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The much anticipated Noise Maps version 2 was released by our favorite government agency, DEFRA, last week. This version includes a noise source filter (road, rail, industry and air) – which ‘kind of’ works – and day and night switch. The maps spread beyond London to ‘agglomerations’ of over 250,000 people…everyone else will have to wait until 2012  for round two  – or make do with pdf of ‘major roads’ and airports.

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Ubuntu is the Linux distro ‘for human beings’. This means it’s easy to install, maintain and use by ‘real people’ for everyday tasks. It’s available free and supported on an open source license by a global community of developers (and commercially supported by Canonical Ubuntu’s founders). In practice it’s a joy to use – lightweight, responsive with an uncluttered GUI, it genuinely works ‘out of the box’ on even the most obscure hardware (almost), and, importantly, doesn’t further line the pockets of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. I’ve been using Ubuntu for about a year with the aim of eventually liberating myself from the tyranny of Windows and OSX – yet however good the OS is, it’s only as useful as the software that runs on it. I would like to see a free, open-source professional set of music tools running on a freeopen-source professional platform; The latest version of Ubuntu (8.04 Long Term Support) has just been released so it’s a good time to review the feasibility of music making with open source only software. Most of the applications detailed here are bundled with Ubuntu Studio a ‘multimedia’ dreivative of Ubuntu – or can be installed separately via Synaptic Package Manager.

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Tintin and Infrasound

January 15, 2008

tintin

Curious blog synergy: An article based on the Stalker ‘Early warning/Acoustic radar‘ post from our Portuguese comrades at Anauel, involves acoustic radar, Tintin and, unknown to them, relates back to the new Stalker post on Infrasound. Herge’s drawing of the German sound weapon is actually taken from a photograph of the ‘Luftkanone’ at the Elbe river in 1945:

luftkanon_01

The book illustrated is Leslie E Simon’s real and much sought after post war research into German WW2 experimental weaponry “German research in WW2”

Full article (in Portuguese) is here: http://anauel.blogspot.com/2008/01/oh-capito-isso-extraordinrio.html

gavreau

(image: Vladimir Gavreau)

Infrasound is low frequency audio beneath the human range of hearing. Infrasound constantly surrounds us, generated naturally; wind, waves, earthquakes and by man; building activity, traffic, air conditioners and so-on. Low frequency sound is used by marine mammals to communicate over vast distances and by birds to determine migration patterns.

At higher volumes infrasound of around 7-20hz can directly affect the human central nervous system causing disorientation, anxiety, panic, bowel spasms, nausea, vomiting and eventually unconsciousness (supposedly 7-8hz is the most effective being the same frequency as the average brain alpha wave). The effect is unintentionally (or not?) generated by the extreme low frequencies in church pipe organ music, instilling religous feelings and causing sensations of “extreme sense sorrow, coldness, anxiety, and even shivers down the spine.”(1) in the unsuspecting congregation. Low frequency sound generated naturally or by building work and traffic is said to be the cause of reported apparitions and hauntings (2) – blamed on the ghostly 19hz frequency which matches the resonating frequency of the human eyeball:

Frequency & effects:

7 Hz: Supposedly the most dangerous frequency corresponding with the median alpha-rhythm frequencies of the brain. It has also been alleged that this is the resonant frequency of the body’s organs therefore organ rupture and even death can occur at prolonged exposure.

1-10hz: “Intellectual activity is first inhibited, blocked, and then destroyed. As the amplitude is increased, several disconcerting responses have been noted. These responses begin a complete neurological interference. The action of the medulla is physiologically blocked, its autonomic functions cease.” (Gavreau )

43-73hz: ” lack of visual acuity, IQ scores fall to 77% of normal, distortion of spatial orientation, poor muscular coordination, loss of equilibrium, slurred speech, and blackout”.(Gavreau )

50-100hz: “intolerable sensations in the chest and thoracic region can be produced – even with the ears protected. Other physiological changes that can occur include chest all vibration and some respiratory rhythm changes in human subjects, together with hypopharyngeal fullness (gagging). The frequency range between 50 and 100 Hz also produces mild nausea and giddiness at levels of 150 – 155 dB, at which point subjective tolerance is reached. At 150 to 155 dB (0.63 to 1.1 kPA), respiration-related effects include substernal discomfort, coughing, severe substernal pressure, choking respiration, and hypopharyngeal discomfort.” (Davies)

100hz – At this level, a person experiences irritation, “mild nausea, giddiness, skin flushing, and body tingling.” Following this, a person undergoes “vertigo, anxiety, extreme fatigue, throat pressure, and respiratory dysfunction.”(Gavreau )

infra_02

damage

(images: tables from “Acoustic Weapons—A Prospective Assessment: Sources, Propagation, and Effects of Strong Sound” Jürgen Altmann)

The first documented attempt to reproduce the infrasound effects was by the much mythologised Russian/French physicist Vladimir Gavreau in 1957. Gavreau became interested in infrasound when he was asked to cure a case of ‘Sick Building Syndrome’; Staff at a research plant in Marseilles were mysteriously falling ill. Chemical or pathogen poisoning was suspected but Gavreau eventually traced the origin of the illnesses to an air conditioning units rotating fans that were generating low frequency sound waves. Gavreau began to experiment with low frequency acoustics with the intention of creating a viable audio weapon for the French military. Several prototype designs of various sizes were produced christened ‘canon sonique’ consisting of piston driven tubes and smaller compressed air horns and whistles. Gavreau and his team tested the instruments on themselves at the Marseilles plant with unexpected success as apparently one of the team died instantly “his internal organs… mashed into an amorphous jelly by the vibrations”:

“Luckily, we were able to turn it off quickly. All of us were sick for hours. Everything in us was vibrating: stomach, heart, lungs. All the people in the other laboratories were sick too. They were very angry with us.

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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’.

noisemap
(Image: London Noise-map. The arrow points to my house)

” Noise can cause annoyance, interrupt conversation, disturb sleep and, in extreme conditions, cause physical damage to those affected. The types of noise that are experienced can be classified into some fairly broad categories. For example, occupational noise which is experienced at work, neighbour or neighbourhood noise and environmental (aka ambient) noise caused by transport and industry.”

My cousin does this – standing on a street corner all day in some bland suburb of London, microphone in hand, recording the average volume of environmental sound. The data is collected and projected over a London street map to form a graphic visualisation of the changing volumes throughout the city. this is part of DEFRA’s “National Ambient Noise Strategy” who’s aim is to provide us and ‘policy makers’ with a source of sound data for the whole of England.

The map, though fascinating, seems to me to be of little value because volume is not the only parameter in determining the annoyance factor of ‘noise’. Equally relevant are duration, repetition, pitch, timbre, time( the noise of the city animated over one day), and frequency. And, DEFRA assume that all noise is inherently annoying. My thesis is that the map should become a tourist map of London defined by it’s unique sound as much as by it’s geography, architecture and so-on. At the same time as capturing volume data, all other aspects of noise can be measured and visualised giving an invaluable and unique ongoing audio-visual symphony of London.

London is noise:For instance where i live in east London ( marked a dark brown on the map for ‘reasonably quiet’ ) is bathed in an ever present low volume but high pitched susurrus generated by traffic on the A12 – the sound spill from the motorway gives this area a unique feel and interestingly where the noise peters out, the social demographic radically changes. Time plays it’s part: in the morning the low almost inaudible mumbling of the underground trains at 6am in Whitechapel and the sounds of the first aeroplanes circling the city, a descending tone as they drop down to Heathrow (Sarah says the sound of the banking planes changes from summer to winter and that the winter sound she finds depressing – i had never noticed the difference). Each city has it’s own audio fingerprint: the time i spent in Lisboa had the backing sound of the Ponte 25 Abril (inaudible to the Lisboans), the sound of angry bees made by cars on the resonating bridge (i heard this sound again later in Oxford where the noise from the unusually corrugated surface of the a34, several miles away, drove my friend from his rented, supposedly tranquil rural bolthole). Hanoi is the scooter horn and the early morning rumble of a single advancing tidal wave of noise as the traffic en mass, enters the the sleeping city.

London Noise Map Link here 

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.”