MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Lethal Soundwaves

In her article “The Loudest Sound In The World Would Kill You On The Spot,” science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker describes the frightening power of extremely low-frequency soundwaves (infrasounds):

Humans exposed to infrasounds above 110 decibels experience changes in their blood pressure and respiratory rates. They get dizzy and have trouble maintaining their balance. In 1965, an Air Force experiment found that humans exposed to infrasound in the range of 151-153 decibels for 90 seconds began to feel their chests moving without their control. At a high enough decibel, the atmospheric pressure changes of infrasound can inflate and deflate lungs, effectively serving as a means of artificial respiration.

But at least humans are spared from hearing such massively loud infrasounds. Koerth-Baker quotes soundwave researcher Milton Garces on how humans evolved a way to cope with infrasounds that are pervasive as natural background noise (though thankfully not lethally loud). Such infrasounds include microbaroms from marine storms and the sound of wind: “We developed our hearing threshold so we don’t go nuts. If we had hearing perception in that band it would be difficult to communicate. It’s always there.”

Filed under: acoustics

Seattle Chamber Players and Their Ice-Breaking Festival of New Music

Seattle Chamber Players

Seattle Chamber Players

Seattle Chamber Players (SCP) just concluded Icebreaker, its biennial two-day festival of new music. This year’s edition, the seventh in their history, was titled open source, with a focus on high-tech music-making.

Artistic director Elena Dubinets — a key figure responsible for the Seattle Symphony’s smart programming — organized a stimulating and provocative program of five compositions spread over two evenings at Seattle’s terrific On the Boards space. SCP’s core members consist of Laura DeLuca (clarinet), David Sabee (cello), Mikhail Shmidt (violin) — all members of the Seattle Symphony — and Paul Taub (flute).

Their ranks were supplemented by a chamber orchestra of fine colleagues, with Alastair Willis conducting for the majority of the two concerts. (The requirements for some of these pieces should count as training for a certification in air traffic control — that’s how nerve-wrackingly intricate they are.)

open source ranged far and wide in terms of ambition, scope, and attitude. There was room for pieces featuring cheeky allusions and playful “rewiring” of musical codes as well as epic-scale updatings of the Gesamtkunstwerk meme and its goal of a total-immersion experience.

Pieces like Spam! by the Portuguese composer Luís Tinoco (on hand as this year’s guest composer) offered a sardonically comic take on the flotsam and jetsam of spam email in our procrastination-information culture. Another type of saturation provided the impetus for a music-and-video piece by the German composer Michael Beil, the title of which did double duty as the name for the festival itself.

The ideal of “open source” culture touches on utopian attitudes of sharing and pooled creativity. In Beil’s retooling of the hypnotic barcarolle from Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, it also suggested a new angle on Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “aura” for this era of hyper-reproducible artifacts. In practice, though, open source turned out to be rather less fascinating than in the abstract, on paper.

The Greek composer Yannis Kyriakides also started with a promising concept in his recent Karaoke Etudes, to which this observation by Douglas Coupland serves as an epigraph: “21st-century life is karaoke — a never-ending attempt to maintain dignity while a jumble of data uncontrollably blips across a screen.” And this time, in practice, the interplay of pop-culture artifact, memory, improvisation, and oblique visual cues — with its mix of beguiling innocence and bemusement — cast a charming spell.

The two highlights of open source — a concerto-with-film by Michel van der Aa and a psychedelically tinged “video-opera” by Fausto Romitell — were substantial, visionary pieces featuring extremely complex and sophisticated media synchronizations. (The once-ubiquitous “multi-media” really has started to sound like a quaintly old-fashioned term — something like “mimeograph” or “xerox.”)

And both of these therefore represent one-of-a-kind works. It was a real coup for Elena Dubinets and SCP to score the Northwest premiere of the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa’s Up-close, which had its West Coast premiere in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series just last month. I’ve recently written about Up-close — scored for solo cello, string ensemble, and electronic soundtrack — and its radical reimagining of the concerto format as a hybrid of film and live theater.

Simply put, it was thrilling to experience this significant new composition in live performance. As the solo cellist, Julie Albers also had to perform a scripted part in tandem with the images from van der Aa’s filmic counterpoint — a mysteriously never-explained narrative involving an older woman and her traumatic memories (having to do with coded messages, communication, and an implicit backdrop of the Dutch Resistance in the Second World War).

I found Albers’s stern, grainy, edgy sound extremely effective and dramatically compelling. Her phrasing captured the desperation of her “character” with a deeply felt immediacy. I also admired how alert she was to the amazing spectrum of nuances van der Aa has written into the part.

To be able to present a contemporary composition as significant, as cutting edge, and as emotionally engaging as van der Aa’s Up-close underscores the value of SCP’s Icebreaker festivals. Seattle audiences would benefit from more of this kind of boldly planned and executed new work — an undeniable peak of this edition of the festival.

So, too, was the big work on the first night: An Index of Metals by the Italian composer Fausto Romitelli, who died a decade ago (only in his early 40s). Romitelli’s video-opera for soprano and ensemble turned out to be case in which what’s “on paper” pales by comparison to the live experience in real time.

Fausto Romitelli in 2001

Fausto Romitelli in 2001

Dubinets neatly summarizes Romitelli’s part-sculptural, part-industrial preoccupation with sound, which he thought of as “material to be forged”:

Anything but a formalist composer, Romitelli did not shy away from hybridization, breaking down the barrier between art music and popular music. Distortion, saturation, psychedelic rock-inspired compositions and “dirty” harmonies were part of his musical universe…”

Romitelli’s final work, An Index of Metals, has been characterized as an artistic final testament that synthesizes everything he had developed in his process of treating sound as malleable matter. Remarking on the starting point for his compositions in general, Romitelli wrote: “The grain, thickness, porosity, density, brilliance, and elasticity are the main aspects of these sound sculptures resulting from amplification and electroacoustic treatment as well as simple instrumental writing.” He explained the guiding idea behind An Index of Metals as follows:

The aim … is to turn the secular form of opera into an experience of total perception, plunging the spectator into an incandescent matter that is both luminous and sonorous, a magma of flowing sounds, shapes, and colors, with no narrative but that of hypnosis, possession, and trance. It is a lay ritual, rather like the light shows of the the 1960s or today’s [i.e., at the millennium] rave parties in which space, having assumed a solid form through the volume of sound and visual saturation, appears to twist into a thousand anamorphoses. Rather than calling on our analytical ability, like most contemporary music, “An Index of Metals” aims to take possession of the body with its over-exposition of senses and pleasure.

Granted, that could merely amount to a lot of gobbledegook signifying nothing. But the incredibly meticulous planning that went into this realization paid off: the SCP and their collaborators succeeded in conveying the re-enchanted performance dynamic that has to be there for Romitelli’s magic to work.

In one sense, you could say Romitelli’s rejection of the “analytical” in favor of Dionysian immersion and sensory overload — what the composer calls “the fusion of perception” and “the henceforth limitless body in the furnace of a ritual mass of sound” –makes for a contemporary reincarnation of Romanticism.

Certainly Index recalls the psychedelic Romanticism of groups like Pink Floyd (whose “Welcome to the Machine” from their 1975 album Wish You Were Here gets sampled at the start), but aspects of early-20th-century modernist fusions enter the mix as well. On top of all that, Romitelli uses high tech to fuse sound, image, and spatial perception into a delirious feedback loop of continual “translation.”

The video elements comprise three separate films (created by Paolo Pacchini and Leonardo Romoli), while a solo soprano, accompanied by 11 amplified instruments, sings a text by the Solvenian writer Kenka Lekovich (translated into English).

As the soloist, the Polish soprano Agata Zubel was mesmerizing and indeed “elemental.” (Zubel and SCP have recorded an album together — Cascando — which took a prize in the Polish equivalent of the Grammies in 2011.)

And what an assignment the soprano is given — to project musical-emotional sense from the foggy, twilit timbres of Romitelli’s soundscape. To the fluid stream of video images she sings Lekovich’s texts of “Hellucination.” It all induced a state of awe — an awe both majestically terrifying and ecstatic.

As Romitelli writes, he wanted Index to present “a violent, abstract narrative, denuded of all operatic artifice, providing an intiaiton rite of immersion and a trance of light and sound.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: acoustics, aesthetics, new music

Testing the Sound of Silence

The anechoic test chamber at Orfield Laboratories in South Minneapolis holds a Guinness Book record as “the quietest place in the world.” Used to test the amount of sound generated by an amazing variety of products (Whirlpool, Harley-Davidson, etc.) and to determine sound quality, the chamber has generated a meme about the psychological limits to enduring an unnaturally quiet environment. It has a reputation for being “so quiet it becomes unbearable after a short time.”

Justin Glawe over at The Airship casts doubt on all the publicity. Is it really a matter of gullible journalists repeating the brand hype?

It’s much less impressive in person than in the photographs you can find online. What you can’t see in image searches is the dust coating the fiberglass fins that cover the walls and sit below the chicken-wire floor.

…[David] Berg, lab manager for the last 22 years, said the claim that no one could last in the anechoic chamber for more than 45 minutes is a result of shoddy journalism.

According to George Michelson Foy, author of Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, the legendary 45-minute limit wasn’t a problem when he tried it, despite the chamber’s ability to absorb 99.9% of sound:

In an attempt to recapture some peace, I decided to go on a mission to find the quietest place on Earth; to discover whether absolute silence exists…

When the heavy door shut behind me, I was plunged into darkness (lights can make a noise). For the first few seconds, being in such a quiet place felt like nirvana, a balm for my jangled nerves. I strained to hear something and heard…nothing.

Then, after a minute or two, I became aware of the sound of my breathing, so I held my breath. The dull thump of my heartbeat became apparent – nothing I could do about that. As the minutes ticked by, I started to hear the blood rushing in my veins. Your ears become more sensitive as a place gets quieter, and mine were going overtime. I frowned and heard my scalp moving over my skull, which was eerie, and a strange, metallic scraping noise I couldn’t explain. Was I hallucinating? The feeling of peace was spoiled by a tinge of disappointment – this place wasn’t quiet at all. You’d have to be dead for absolute silence.

Then I stopped obsessing about what bodily functions I could hear and began to enjoy it. I didn’t feel afraid and came out only because my time was up; I would happily have spent longer in there. Everyone was impressed that I’d beaten the record, but having spent so long searching for quiet, I was comfortable with the feeling of absolute stillness. Afterwards I felt wonderfully rested and calm.

Filed under: acoustics, silence

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