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Guest Blog – there are no earlids…


“There are no earlids…

The ear’s only protection is an elaborate psychological mechanism for filtering out undesirable sound in order to concentrate on what is desirable. The eye points outward, the ear draws inward. It soaks up information. [Richard] Wagner said, ‘To the eye appeals the outer man, the inner to the ear.’”

The above quote is taken from R. Murray Schafer’s book “The Tuning of The World” in which Schafer (who actually coined the term ‘Soundscape’) investigates our sonic environment, the complex nature of sound and how we perceive it.

For me, that unconscious aspect of how we absorb auditory information is integral when writing music. My latest album, “Shakkei”, (out in June – sorry – blatant plug) is based on this concept of using environmental sounds as a foundation or platform for the music.

Shakkei is a Japanese word which translates as ‘borrowed landscape’. It’s an approach that takes its inspiration from the existing landscape to inform the construction and design of a garden. So, for example, a distant mountain will become a feature, or a nearby river, or a tree…

I was about a third of the way through writing the album when I realised, essentially, the process I was going through was the same, only with sound. So, once I’d made the connection, the rest of the album kind of fell into place nicely. The opening track, “Impressions of Footfall” is comprised of two main features: recordings of me stomping around through the Autumnal detritus of Nottingham’s Arboretum park in the rain and Jim ‘The Joy of Box’ Boxall stomping around in Bulgarian snow near a waterfall in winter.

The track is driven by these recordings which, once edited, form the rhythmic structure of the piece. The background ambience of birds, waterfalls, human breathing, raindrops and wind, provide another aspect that forms the scenic backdrop for which the music – in effect – provides a soundtrack. It could be said that the background textures are the real focus of the piece. The listener may be unaware of this but, remove those textures, and it would soon become clear what the secret ingredient was. To be perfectly honest, the music in this particular track isn’t important to me. It’s intentionally uncomplicated to allow the scenery to take centre stage. Here’s a little teaser of it:

Impressions of Footfall – Teaser by origamibiro

I think the unconscious associations Schafer talks about happen so often and are so complex that to try and log or categorise them would be mean untangling hundreds of years of historical relationships between cultures and personal to person identities. One example I like to use is that of vinyl crackle. That nostalgic fuzz that used to accompany all music is now sometimes added intentionally by producers to supply a little ‘warmth’ or a slightly decayed rugged edge to an otherwise pristinely crystal clear recording.

For me, there is an inherent parallel between the spits, crackles and hisses of vinyl recordings and that of a log fire. Just listen to these two samples:

Vinyl Crackle by origamibiro

Log Fire by origamibiro

I don’t think that they’re the only unconscious associations we make, but it’s easy to hear the similarities and I think, helps illustrate the tip of the iceberg in terms of how many aspects are involved and inextricably linked with how we perceive and absorb sounds. Or it might just be my own personal association.

I love John Cage’s definition of music in this clip:

I’ve recently been exploring the effect of Binaural recordings and experimenting with the process for ‘Pipeline: They Came Running’, an installation I worked on with Trish Evans for Nottingham’s Light Night 2011 (18th Feb).

A binaural recording is quite simply a stereo recording whereby small microphones are placed – one in each ear – like headphones, but which point outward and capture sounds in almost the exact same way they are heard.  The difference between this and ordinary stereo recording is that the ear shape, head shadow, height, shoulders and movement of the person, all play a role in how the sound is received. When listened back through headphones (which is essential if the true binaural aspect is to be achieved) the listener can experience what was heard uniquely from the perspective of that person.

Have a listen to these recordings on headphones. They are experiments I conducted using binaural recording equipment. This first one is based around proximity. The idea was to see if a binaural recording could replicate the feeling of closeness and space as I moved through my environment.

Test 1 by origamibiro

This next one was to see how different it would sound to hear a recording of myself walking from one place to another very different space. The result is quite dramatic I think. Much more hectic than it felt at the time. Another indication of how we unconsciously filter out complex noises and busy situations. The first person to guess exactly where in Nottingham this recording was taken (or closest answer) gets a free album. The album’s not out for a while yet so I’ll check back and see if anyone’s got it closer the time.

Test 2 by origamibiro

For more of this kind of thing, check out Nature Space for some really high quality binaural recordings of natural spaces. Another interesting one is the London Sound Survey which aims to make an entire sound map of London. There are already some great recordings on there. And, for somewhat of an authority on binaural recording, a little closer to home, look no further than Nottingham’s very own Dallas Simpson who has already been kind enough to give me a few pointers.

Well, I hope some of that was of interest. I’ll leave with a quote that explains, better than anything, the reason why I continue to explore the kinds of sounds and music I make. It also however, renders all of the above completely meaningless.

“As soon as we start putting our thoughts into words and sentences everything gets distorted, language is just no damn good — I use it because I have to, but I don’t put any trust in it. We never understand each other.” – Marcel Duchamp.