Posts archived in Artworks

The third installment of the ongoing podcast series, Bangkok is Ringing, is up now at Triple Canopy.

Or listen to it right here:
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Give it enough time and attention, and anything will become musical.

The same sounds, repeated again and again, compel us to hear melodies and rhythms we usually ignore. Say the same word the same way fifteen times out loud – cookiecookicookiecookiecookiecookiecookicookiecookiecookiecookiecookicookiecookiecookie – and you’ll begin to hear it in new ways. It will seem both more and less familiar, more and less strange. You’ll notice pitch and texture irrespective of meaning.

A visit to the Bangkok Metropolitan Electricity Authority reminded me of this effect two weeks ago. You can usually pay your electric bill at the nearest 7-11, but if you’re delinquent like I was this month, you have to brave the buses on busy Rama IV Road and haul it over to the central office.

When I went, there were at least one hundred people chatting and killing time in the waiting room. I took a number. The process was so efficient that the automated voice was calling numbers in direct, almost uninterrupted succession for minutes at a time. I made this recording while waiting for my number:

For each announcement, the automated female voice began by saying Maai Laehk, which means “number.” Maai has a rising tone; you say it by starting from a low pitch and ending on a higher one. Laehk has a falling pitch; you start with a high pitch and end on a low one. Next, the voice announces the number, and since different Thai numbers have different tones, this introduces some variation. Then she says Deern Tawng, which means (roughly) “walk to.” Deern has a middle tone; you say it without any special inflection. Tawng has a falling tone. Finally, the voice announces the number of the desk that’s just opened up. Then back to the beginning.

The sameness/predictability of the announcement brings out the music in the automated voice, especially if you listen for it. In the middle of a tremendously boring situation, this kind of hearing can be a defense mechanism, a way of stepping away mentally for a moment.

Fashioning political analogies out of allusions to local religion, cycle and repetition have become a trope in recent reports from Bangkok. The reporters ask: is any of this really new? Is this place trapped in a cycle of suffering?

I’ll ask a different question: Are people hearing music here now? And answer it: yes, but music is not always beautiful.

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Wat Dhammakaya, just north of Bangkok, is one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world. Built in 1970, it is the epicenter of Dhammakaya Buddhism, a large, rapidly growing, and at times controversial sect. Architecturally, Wat Dhammakaya is a palace for the age of mass media.


The UFO-like Chedi (inner memorial hall)

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We hear many voices when we’re in public. But the logic between which ones we engage, ignore, or get frustrated by isn’t always apparent, even to ourselves.

One of the most perplexing examples is the cell phone conversation. To wit: if we’re sitting in front of two people on a bus, and they’re talking in a reasonable tone of voice, it’s very unlikely we’ll care at all. But if it’s only one person, and he’s talking at the same hypothetical volume on the phone, we might think bad thoughts about him, or have trouble concentrating. Why are we bothered by the latter and not the former?

We develop and adjust auditory filters throughout our lives. Our annoyance with overhearing cell phone chatter suggests that we’ve become accustomed to telephone conversations – however innocuous – being private. And so the sound of them in public space registers as a breach of etiquette, even if it’s no different in pitch, volume, or timbre than an old-fashioned, in-person conversation. This may change over time, perhaps after we’ve spent years and years confronted with the practice. For now, the memory of landline custom still obtains.

The following recording is a good example of this phenomenon, starring one of those much-despised Motorola walkie-talkies. As the F train went above ground during a snowstorm that had severely delayed train traffic, a man got a page (presaged by the famous tone) from a friend, and commenced telling him where he was, how long he expected to be there, and so on. There was a whole lot of eye-rolling on the busy car. The tones kept coming, and the voice of the man on the other end came through covered by a harsh, almost mean-sounding distortion. This mixed with the sound of train announcements which, as you might expect, were filtered into the normal bin.

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Few frustrations match the one that involves lying in bed, dead-eyed in the night, as the neighbor dog’s ten-billionth bark pierces the thin psychic veil between sanity and bloodlust.

People kill other people distressingly often over noise.

Plenty of evidence implies that the planet is noisier than at any other time in human history. What now?

Noise

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Chris DeLaurenti, field recording specialist and member of the Phonographer’s Union, was on KUOW‘s “Weekday” program yesterday to discuss many of the most important issues around the study of sound. This post is a listening guide to the discussion, and serves also as a pretty decent primer for understanding how and why sound is useful as a type of analytic material.

“Sound Studies,” while increasingly common in the academy, still lacks basic definitions. This post is part of an ongoing effort to provide clear, descriptive expositions of what the study of sound encompasses – as an art form, as a humanistic science, and as a general philosophy.

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One of the buzz safety issues this holiday shopping season is toy volume.

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Last week, the New York City Police Department began outfitting patrol cars with a device called The Rumbler, a pair of subwoofers that serve as an alternative to sirens.

Rumbler

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Greater quiet has long been a major focus of consumer product engineering. Cars, computers, air conditioners, and almost any other gadget imaginable has been analyzed and refined in the name of drawing less attention to its operation.

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Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture
by Frances Dyson
University of California Press, 2009
262 pps., $24.95

There are, today, somewhere on the order of 1.67 billion internet users in the world. Staggeringly, about 1.65 billion of these are new since the mid-90s. Today nearly a quarter of the world’s population has a degree of internet access. Just over a decade ago, that figure was a fraction of a percent.

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