Low Residency: Day 4 – Sound Workshop



It has been some time since the Low Residency. Many thanks to Ed Kelly for condensing into a relatively short time frame a great deal of theory and making. I was already very familiar with Audacity but there is always something to learn and I have taken on board a number of ideas. The great usefulness was to clarify and formalise certain practices that I have followed either intuitively or uncritically. The principle one is the idea of cutting or editing at zero. This avoids clicks and pops producing clean edits. The other is more a concept, that of fragmentation or deconstructing sound into atomic elements which can then be used as building blocks. This ties in with the introduction to Musique Concrete in a Skype lecture a few weeks ago.

We spent time harvesting sounds from a variety of objects. I was particularly taken by a small music box mechanism that Ed brought along. He turned the handle in short bursts while I recorded. This broke up what would have been a familiar melody into fragments of sound. It is a fascinating approach to capturing sound, so much so, that I ordered a number of mechanisms over the web with which I have started to experiment. 

Ed mentioned Pure Data, a visual programming software which was, however, too much of a learning curve for the workshop. Although I have started using it, it is too early to say if I shall be using it in the final works, much depends on whether I can find work-arounds to my aims rather than spending too much making-time learning how to use it. 

After collecting the sounds, each one of us put together a short soundwork (below). I was particularly taken by the reverberation in the stairwells  (pictured above) running up the new building at Camberwell. 



The rectangular spiral staircase resonated in my mind with the spiral stairs at the Queen’s House we visited in Greenwich.



Pure Data

The previous post talked about sound and sculpture in terms of building blocks of non-verbal language. This is a fascinating area of theoretical practice that seems somewhat neglected whether because it is seen as irrelevant or the two areas are separated by a formal academic-professional gap I do not know. Artists have used sound and sculpture together, but as I have said before, one as the container or instrument of the other, not as equals. I do not presume to find a perfect balance between the two but I do approach them as having, at least theoretically, homological correspondences. Using basic units as the building blocks of each respective language, much as phonemes are the basic units of speech, I can perhaps meld the two together. Curiosity as to whether this succeeds is part of the impetus for the exploration.

I still maintain that sculpture is silent and sound disembodied. Sculpture primarily finds its place in my kinetic being, sound vibrates the corpus as an intangible organ sounding within me. Regardless of how they are interpreted they at least have this in common, that they inhabit the body as the closely related physical senses of touch and vibration. 

I have been looking at Pure Data as a means of generating sound, the basic components of it, vibration as frequency, pulse and volume. At last I have worked it out by following some videos on YouTube. The actual mechanics are simple, the syntax is straightforward enough. The learning curve seems to reside in understanding what each object does and how it interacts with other components. From this sounds can be generated without reference to outside associations. This seems the way, at least in great part, for crossing the boundaries between sculpture and sound in the purest sense; how sound can be shaped and moulded to correspond with sculpture… and vice versa, or perhaps even shaped synchronously. Sounds generated can then be edited in some other software or generated in situ and manipulated in real time.


Skype Chat 2.6 – Sound with Edward Kelly


The focus of the session was on different approaches to sound as a medium. What Ed means by this is the abstract conceptual manner of seeing sound.

He started with Walter Murch’s categorisation of sound, relating it to colour.



I always find it interesting how sound, music and colour are often correlated. Kodaly is another example of this idea as in his pedagogical work. I would leave the colour aspect out of this discussion and concentrate simply on the semiotic aspect which seems what this diagram tries to convey. There are so many ways of classifying sounds. I have to bear in mind that Murch is a film sound editor. However, the point is to think about sound in terms of its affect and the information it encodes: emotive, descriptive, semantic, associative, allusive, illusive and how these modes are conveyed. Fore example, are they conveyed through rhythm or pitch, distinctive or chaotic? There are so many ways of looking at the matter but in the end I feel the important thing is thinking about sound in terms of its affect, the reason for that affect, how the sound is made, and the context in which or for which it is created.

We looked at musique concrete, starting with Pierre Schaeffer and his first work Etude aux Chemins de Fer 1948, who attempted to categorise sound in his Traité des Objects Musicaux. Michel Chion wrote a guide in English where he lists sounds and their qualities as experienced: PDF.

Musique concrete treats sound as abstract objects each with its own qualities. Particularly intriguing was Bernard Parmegiani’s De Natura Sonorum from 1973 composed using the altered sounds of rubber bands using analogue tape, filters, real echo chambers, delays and altering the tape speed. 

Diagetic sound is almost the opposite of this. It is associated with a visual cue as though the situation portrayed is the source of the sound. Musique concrete decouples the corporeality of the sound for it to become the corpus of sensation itself. In a conceptual sense, it has no source other than its own sound. The way it is made may be a curiosity or of methodological interest but in its truest essence only a vehicle. It is as an Acousmatic experience in which the cause and origins of the sound are removed so one can concentrate on its sensations and qualities. 

Ed introduced the idea of copyright as a ‘spanner in the work’ and then goes on to give some examples of postmodernist sound collages where recording are appropriated to create mixes. Whereas in the case of John Cage’s 1953 mix, in which each situational element is recorded in his own house over a period of time, here we are talking about taking pre-existing recording and butting them either as live performance or recordings. The copyright situation is complex here depending on duration of play, recognisability of the segments taken and in the case of live performance, proof of actual appropriation. Perhaps that is why one of the people doing this uses discs. Ed describes each discrete segment as the ‘cultural grain’ of the whole rather than musique concrete’s sonic texture. It is interesting to look at it in those terms. 

Below are a list of Ed’s links 

Musique Concrete
John Cage: Williams Mix

Williams Mix used sounds recorded by Louis and Bebe Barron (of Forbidden Planet fame) in 6 categories, organised according to the I-Ching using a 193 page score.  

Acousmatic Music

Note: see the notes below the Youtube clip for the track listings, as these are entire albums of work!

Culture Jamming / Appropriation of Recorded Media