Kookaburras! and the sonic topology of night....

We moved into our new place in Kanahooka, NSW, in the southern suburbs of Wollongong, in Feb. 2009.  Sometime in late winter (August, for you northern hemisphere types) we noticed that every morning some kookaburras were singing in a tree right outside our kitchen/bedroom windows.  What an alarm clock!  About 4 or 5 each morning, they would howl and laugh like crazy.  You might or might not know that the spectacular kookaburra shouting only happens when there is more than one kookaburra around.  It seems that a pair, at least, had set up home in one of the trees in one of our neighbour's back yards.

Every morning, as I woke up with the kookaburras, I thought, "I really should record that."  But, of course, I didn't.  I just rolled over and went back to sleep.  Finally, it occurred to me that my new Zoom H4 sound recorder should be able to record about 4 hours of sound with batteries.  So for a couple of nights I woke up at 3 am, placed the recorder out on the porch, and then went back to sleep.  After a couple of days of bleary eyes caused by sleep deprivation, it occurred to me - duh! - I could of course power the Zoom with a power supply, and since I had an 8GB SD card for the Zoom, I could record about 12 and 1/2 hours of sound in stereo 44.1 kHz quality.  I didn't have to wake up at 3 am.  I could set the recorder going before I went to sleep and turn it off in the morning.

Of course, by the time I got around to doing this, the kookaburras seem to have gotten more mobile.  They wouldn't always sing outside our window, but were sometimes in the distance, and sometimes not heard at all.  Finally, on Sunday morning, 15 November, in what I surmise can only be a burst of nostalgia for their old tree, they DID sing, loudly and long, just outside our window.  AND I was recording.  It's such a wonderful sound, that I have to share it with you.

Kookaburras, Kanahooka, NSW, approx 4:45 am, 15 Nov. 2009

(Pop Culture note: My first hearing of the kookaburra, like many of you who don't live in Australia or New Guinea, was in Tarzan and other jungle movies as a kid in the 1950s.  I especially remember one Tarzan movie, supposedly taking place in Africa, that was shot in South America, and to indicate that we were in the jungle, the sound track consisted of the sound of kookaburras!  Although I was aware of this anomaly before moving to Australia in 1975, once I moved here, the ludicrous nature of it became quite clear to me.)

There was an unexpected fringe benefit from all this recording.  To find the kookaburra cries, I would load up the sound files of the night's recording into my audio editor, and look for things that were a little louder than the background sounds (the Zoom conveniently divides up long sound files into manageable chunks).  This meant that I didn't have to listen to 8 hours of sound to find one 50 second kookaburra chortle.  However, I quickly found that there were all sorts of other sounds happening at night that were equally interesting.  Most obvious were other birds, and the very friendly big yellow dog who lives across the fence from us.  Less obvious were the sounds of traffic - distant traffic filtered by the night.  I soon found these incredibly beautiful.  And this "quick scan" listening to the sounds of the night made me aware of both the "sonic shape" of the night at our place, and of what I might term the "sonic topography" of our immediate area. 

We live on the side of a hill, facing inland, facing the Illawarra Escarpment, as the local section of the NSW Coastal Ranges are called.  Between our house and the escarpment (about 5 or 6 km) is a large valley, and in the centre of that valley is Princes Highway, the main north-sound freeway, and the South Coast railway line, used by both passenger and freight services.  But between our house and the freeway / railway line is a smaller, intervening hill.  So the topography is that behind us is the crest of the hill (beyond that is Lake Illawarra and the ocean), and in front of us is a downward slope, then an upward slope, then the freeway / railway line, then a large flat valley floor, and finally the mountains of the Escarpment.  There is no point where we have a direct line-of-sight view of the freeway / railway line complex.  However, we do hear both the freeway and the railway.  Sometimes.  It really depends on atmospheric conditions whether we hear them or not.  I recall one incredibly quiet morning in September.  Not a whisper of sound could be heard from the distance.  Since this was a Friday morning, about 9 am, I knew that the freeway would be chock-a-block with traffic, and was amazed that I couldn't hear it at all.  At other times, one can hear the freeway, and the trains, very clearly indeed. 

What impressed me about the long night recordings was how the sound from the freeway would change.  At times, there would be only the faintest hint of freeway traffic vaguely in the background.  Then, the wind would shift, or the atmospheric pressure would change, and for about 20 minutes, the sound would be very clear.  Then things would change again, and there would be no freeway sound.  So I find myself becoming very aware of the shape of the night sounds - as they change over time.  I know that Sarah Lloyd, in Tasmania is doing a similar project with long-time recording.  She's doing it as a means of assessing the bird populations of Tasmania.  Although I started this project just to get the sound of our kookaburras, I now find myself using the project to learn about the shape of the night soundscape at our place. 

As I said above, I find myself very attracted to the distant car sounds.  Filtered by the night air and the topography and atmospheric conditions, they can be very beautiful.  And with digital recording, of course, one can boost the level greatly, and hear detail that one couldn't hear at first.  What I find myself doing is listening to the timbral quality of these sounds for periods of about a minute each. Since for me, one of my main motivations for making art is to share my enthusiasms with people, I begin to puzzle how I can share these sounds with folks.  It would have to be some kind of situation where we could actually take our time listening to these sounds, without pressure - including the pressure of what we might call "the well formed composition."  At the moment I don't know how to do that, but just for fun, I thought I'd do something completely different - just to show how different these "night noise drones" can be, I selected 12 of them, pretty arbitrarily, and without thinking about it too much, grabbed bits of them and spliced them together to make a little noise melody.  Of note to suburban nature lovers - that repeating "woop woop woop" sound, just before the end is, I think, a distant owl.  This melody might be good sampling material, too.  We'll see.  Meanwhile, I continue to occasionally make my all night recordings, scan them, and occasionally find some sonic gems.  Watch this space - if I come up with something made from these sounds, I'll share it with you here.

Little Night Sounds Noise Melody



54 - A New Performance up on the Web

Over the weekend, we went up to Sydney, for the opening of "54" at SNO Contemporary Art Projects in Marrickville, Sydney.  SNO is a delightful small gallery run by Billy Gruner, with assistance from a number of other folks, such as Daniel Argyle and Ruark Lewis.  SNO stands for Sydney Non Objective, and the idea of the gallery is to promote works which are indeed, in some sense, not figurative, or representational, but deal with materials in a very straighforward way.  They're showing my video piece "Five Unconventional Realizations for Ruark Lewis" this month (see poster below, if you're in the Sydney region), and asked if I'd like to do a small performance at the opening.  I said sure, and thought that if they're non-objective, this is my chance to go completely formalist and have fun.  Since they don't name their shows, only number them, I thought that "54" would be an ideal topic for a piece.  Catherine, bless her soul, video-ed the whole thing (despite a very sore arm).  I was delighted with both the performance and the video, and I've now cut up both the performance and the Question and Answer session afterwards into the less than 10 minute chunks that YouTube requires.  Rather than imbed 4 videos on this page, I'll just cut and paste the YouTube links here, and you can put these in your own browser and explore from there.

54 Part 1

54 Part 2

54 Q&A Part 1

54 Q&A Part 2

Note: In the Q&A section I make several errors of fact, which I'd like to correct here.

1) I said that "Car 54, Where Are You?" starred two Yiddish theatre veteran actors.  This is not true - only one of the actors, Joe E. Ross, was from a Yiddish comedy tradition.  The other, Fred Gwynne, was an academically trained Episcopalian.  This made sense to me - I'm an academically trained Episcopalian, and three of my closest collaborators over the years, Chris Mann, Ron Robboy and Al Wunder, are all, if not from a Yiddish comedy tradition, at least related tangentially to it.  It seems to be a good synergy.

HOWEVER, I have recently (Nov 26) received an email from Ron Robboy, informing me that Fred Gwynne did indeed sing Yiddish.  He sent me a link to an episode of Car 54, Where Are You which is up on YouTube, which, at 1:19 in, has Fred singing not only with Joe E. Ross, but also with Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon (who apparently guest starred in 3 episodes of Car 54).  And for those of you truly interested in early 1960s American popular culture, here are the links to all four segments of the show, complete with, as Ron says, the boffo po-mo punchline.  Those of you interested in post modern architecture, or Prince Charles' take on the same, will be interested in the fate of the architect, one of the comic foils in this episode....

2) I said that Larry Austin was 75.  He is not.  He's 79 this year.

3) I said that John Cage was delighted with Larry's "Williams (re) Mixed", his computerization of Williams Mix.  Cage died in 1992, Austin started "Williams (re) Mixed" in 1997 and finished it in 2001.  So in fact, there's no way that John could approve or disapprove of Larry's work.  However, it seems so much in the spirit of what John was doing, that I think had he been alive, he would have been delighted, or at least pleasantly amused.

The problems of speaking off the cuff.  Historical accuracy goes out the window.  Tch, tch, tch.....I hope you find the videos as enjoyable as I found the performing.

Software note:  If you look at the score in the "walkaround" at the first part of the Q&A video, you might see the notation "Patch: Plogue 54 Alchemy."  That was from an earlier version of the piece.  Actually, for the performance, I used Ross Bencina's AudioMulch, with the Camel Audio Alchemy Softsynth, and everything controlled by Algorithmic Arts' ArtWonk.  All the texts I performed were generated with ArtWonk as well.


WB Video Piece on Display in Sydney, and Opening Performance

For those in the Sydney area this weekend, if you have a vacant Saturday afternoon (and it's supposed to rain, so probably going to the beach is out), come along to SNO Contemporary Art Projects in Marrickville and celebrate the opening of the current show with us.  My video piece from 2006, "Five Unconventional Realizations for Ruark Lewis" will be on show for the month, and I'll also be giving a live performance of a new work "54" at 4:30.  The work is for me on computer keyboard and voice - sound poetry with electronic accompaniment.  Thanks to Ruark Lewis for arranging this showing of my work, and to Billy Gruner and Daniel Argyle of SNO for having me.  I look forward to seeing some of you there.


A New Video Available on YouTube

I've been deeply involved in preparing the new Fractal library for Algorithmic Arts ArtWonk v4, which is due to be released for public beta testing any day now.  While doing this ongoing (sporadic) research, I encounted a patch I made back in March 2007 to implement a chaotic function called the "One Dimensional Chaos Game."  Once I had successfully made it work, getting the usual Sierpinsky Triangles and the like,


I thought it would be nice to make a patch which used it more poetically.  Which I did, and then the work stopped there.   I had made a nice sequence of images, and a nicely interactive patch, where I could change the kinds of OneD Chaos images generated in real time, but couldn't see any way to extend the work into a piece, or to document it, etc.  Suddenly, yesterday (Wednesday, 4 Nov.) I encountered the patches again, and saw that they worked really well, and that I could easily extend what the piece was doing into a small video piece.  Which I did.  

The sound was made with the same patch, using Camel Audio's Alchemy softsynth, which I continue to explore with delight.  I used an additive synthesis timbre, which features higher harmonics which come to the foreground after the initial attack of the sound.  This gives the sound that "feel" of a sustained higher changing sound which "trails" the initial attacks.  I also tuned Alchemy into a microtonal scale of my own invention - one based on ideas in Erv Wilson's "Scale Tree" papers. 

(Here are links to three papers, two by Erv Wilson, and one by David Finnamore about the Scale Tree. Wilson One. Wilson Two. Finnamore. A source of endless hours of amusement for those inclined that way.(And yes, one day I promise to post up here my own article on the Scale Tree and my afternoon-long work using it, "Pythagoras Babylonian Bathtub" from 2004.))

Using the same structure for sounds and images may be seen by some as just an extension of the old "'everything from a single kernel" idea that Western classical music has flirted with for centuries (Bach's motives, Beethoven's even more intense use of motives, Wagner's leitmotifs, total serialism, New York totalism, etc), but for me, seeing as how I'm developing these chaotic tools (hopefully for others to use), my impulse to do this is not motivated by "historical necessity" - I simply want to both see and hear the patterns they have the potential to generate.

It's a rather dark piece - and I mean that literally, not emotionally.  I was really attracted to the idea of chaotic images slowly emerging out of darkness, before they quickly faded away - fleeting visions, maybe.  The sound, on the other hand, is up-front, and continuous, although it, too, is changing the kind of gestures it uses continually.  This kind of change of gesture seems to be a lot more easily seen than heard, so the sound seems more mono-structural than the vision.  To my perception, anyway.  Yours may differ.  Here's the piece - I'm sort of pleased that I finally have the tools and abilities to be able to conceive a multi-media piece, realize it in one day, and then disseminate it on the same day.  There will be other pieces that I'll take a lot more time over, but for today, this new found ability is pretty neat.  Enjoy!


Foley for the next monster flick?

Mean Chihuahau Puppy - make sure your volume is DOWN for this one!



I've been learning the ins and outs of Camel Audio's marvelous new softsynth Alchemy - a sort of Swiss Army Knife for audio.  I'm especially interested in the Spectral Editor, where you can draw the spectra of a sound and hear the results.  Like Iannis Xenakis and Kenneth Gaburo, I believe that the hand can make gestures that are probably more complex than any mathematical function. When I've been teaching people about Spectral (or Graphic) synthesis, one of my standard jokes is "well, you can import just about any picture and get some kind of sound.  Why not a picture of a chihuahua, for instance?"  And I proceed to go on the net, find a picture of a chihuahua and load it in, and the result is usually undifferentiated noise.  Which allows me to then show people how to get more differentiated sounds with Graphic Synthesis.  However, I was testing out Alchemy's Spectral editor, and it said you could import pictures in .png format, so I decided that yes, I would import a picture of a rather disturbed looking chihuahua obtained off the web, and see what happened.  I did so, and erased all the material around the chihuahua so that one would hear just the sound that resulted from the chihuahua and not the background.  Here's what it looked like:


I then heard what this sounded like.  Naturally, for resynthesis, I chose to use Noise instead of sine waves.  And, of course, I decided, quite arbitrarily, to put the whole thing into a microtonal scale - 29 notes per octave - why not? - AND on top of that, thought I might time stretch the whole thing to about 17% of the speed of the original.  And of course, I didn't put the sound through any filters or effects.  That would be just too wimpy for words! (joke)

If you click on the sound above, you'll hear a 1:15 second sound clip.  The first 30 seconds is the chihuahua sound at "original pitch" (whatever that concept might mean for this!).  The next 45 seconds, I improvise a bit, layering pitches in several octaves to make a pretty appalling noiseband. 

When looking at sparrows, I frequently observe pretty aggressive behaviour.  What some of us hear as a cute, or at least innocuous "cheep" is probably, in sparrow terms, a really macho declaration of "I'm the biggest meanest sparrow they ever was!  Watch out for me, beak for brains!"  I think, listening to this sound, that perhaps I've penetrated to the true essence of chihuahua macho.