opening the ears to thought – April 15, 2014

The April 15th show at Motorco Music Hall was vibrant, interesting and witnessed by a small and attentive audience. I am so appreciative of Xopher Thurston for his playing and the sweet fidelity he brought to the space with his sound engineering. This fledgling outing for -the idiosyncratic beats of dejacusse celebrates “In C”- was just as I had hoped it would be. Xopher Thurston, Susanne Romey and Chris Eubank did the heavy lifting of playing the piece in the moment. They were fantastic! Susanne made the decision to play the recorder on the first set of patterns and the toy piano on the second set, which was brilliant as a new voice in the second set of patterns added interest. Chris really drove the first set by staying with the two sixteenth notes in Pattern 10. Then we all settled into a rather mournful staggering of the long tones in Pattern 14. The second slice was Pattern 48 to the end (53). This got going with such driving polyrythmns that I felt the underpinning of an African dance. A djembe solo would have been really nice there! Here is a short audio clip of a moment from each section we played:

I was very happy with this first big acoustic space outing of slices of “In C”. Plus we were sandwiched in between The Empty Sound (Xopher Thurston – Bass, Percussion and TJ Goode – Drums, Percussion) and about a dozen musicians free improvising as Triangle Improvisational Music Exchange or T.I.M.E. The Empty Sound were phenomenal as they embodied groove and free form with whimsy and solid musicianship. I loved their set. Listening to the recording of T.I.M.E. results in more kudos for Xopher as he really shaped the improv through his mixing. Mixing as an improvisational art form is where he is at!!

In addition to all of this – we have a great video of the whole thing filmed by Bill Romey who was all over the place getting interesting angles. He got the vibe of the evening!

I did walk around Motorco before the show and do some spectrum analysis. I was not able to make much of it and evidently the analyzer needs web access. Who knew? So not much to report on that front. I am studying the recordings made with the Zoom H2n which was placed on a mic stand on the lowest side step of the bleachers on the right by the hall to the bathrooms. The low cut filter was enabled and auto gain on concert. A spectrum analysis of the recordings may yield interesting information.

As Xopher said, “A good time was had by all!”

And a special thanks to Terri Murphy, Eleanor Mills, Jody Cassell and Jim Kellough for listening and giving feedback. Appreciations!

The Frequency of Things

The world of frequencies and harmonics is an amazing realm. “In C” is a score that contains a phenomenal depth of frequency potential as we have seen in our short time with the piece. And what about the power of frequency in a world made up of vibration and spin? Once, when I participated in a guided meditation, the guidance was “you are ALL of sound!” and I balked because I felt the awesome power of that identity. Vibrating air molecules may be the simple gesture that is the great resonant bridge between the physical realm and the quantum realm.

It makes sense that sound can impact the vibratory molecular make up of the entire Universe, as we know it. First, we know that certain frequencies can alter our physical realities. The most common example is a singer shattering a crystal glass with her voice. What happens is that the singer sings a pure tone that matches the resonant frequency of the glass at such a powerful amplitude that the violent vibrations cause it to break. There usually needs to be a small flaw in the glass and the singer must belt the tone at around 100 dBl SPL. So we know that violent vibrations can wrend the integrity of already flawed material. This may be some kind of cosmic law regarding the vibration of resonant frequencies. But what about sounds that are softer and soothing, or bubbly and staccatto? And more varied frequencies played with the dynamic intention of love? Does material existence become diseased and decayed when it loses its resonant frequency? Can healing happen through entrainment with root resonant frequencies?

The law of entrainment is one of the most beautiful laws of physics. The law was first noted by Christiaan Huygens in 1667 when he observed two clock pendulums set in oppositional motion come into alignment with each other. The principle comes from energy seeking the most efficient means of expression. More energy is used unnecessarily when things are out of sync. So, ultimately, the whole of vibrating reality seeks the highest vibration available in the moment. If we must have laws, that is an awesome law to have in operation.

In this world of vibrant frequencies, each object and event will have a resonant frequency that is stabilizing or shifting it in this moment. Trudie said today she found it “scary” to think that everything is in a constant state of flux and we are not aware of the movement. Things appear stable and solid, but this is merely an illusion created by vibrating molecules of trapped photon light in motion interacting with our marvelous earthsuit- the body. It is scary and sacred at the same time, or, as Grace Jones put it, “scary, but fun.”

My thinking on all this is still a hodge-podge as the Universe brings new information in everyday. Brian Greene explaining the Theory of Special Relativity, where I learn a concept called “justified.” I am justified in my conclusions based on my assessment of the data at hand. This is part of The Observer Effect. As example, Greene said we would be “justified” in concluding that the sun revolves around the earth based on what we can observe from this earth-bound vantage point. Then, Dr. Robert Lanza makes a case for a theory of the Universe that asserts that, without our earthsuits and the perceptions allowed by our senses, there would be no Universe. The Universe is an orchestrated light and sound show that cannot manifest without consciousness aware of it through perception. When I close my eyes, the room disappears. And the only way to wrap your mind around that is to be able to remove yourself from the equation. Which sounds like it would be the opposite of Dr. Lanza’s hypothesis called Biocentrism. So, I am sure I made a few quantum leaps and possible misrepresentations here, and I have presented my current sense of these ideas to the best of my understanding. The highest vibe simply says your work is to know the sounding world and share it with others.

This concept of reality, this ever moving, constantly changing framework for the world I live in is difficult to embrace in its totality. In other words, I don’t get it. Not really. And I really want to get it. At this point in my life, I am a devoted seeker of a deep understanding/knowing of the divine essence of reality that is audio vibrational frequency. Probably beyond audio frequencies, but that is a good place to start for me as I am very at home in my ears. And “In C” is my resonant template and frequency generator. I am using “In C” like a person without sight might use a cane and her hands to know a world she doesn’t fully comprehend.

Our second attunement happened yesterday with Xopher, Susanne and Chris Eubank in attendance. we focused in on two sections of “In C” that are interesting and accessible. Playing Patterns 8 through 14 allows us to begin and end with long tone phrases. The long tones are a nice beginning and ending place for all the players. Then we worked with Patterns 48 through to the end, which begins with long tones and ends with eighth note patterns swirling around the sonic space. We are taking the tempo at 60 pulses per minute, which is signifigantly slower than most recordings of “In C.”

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am developing ensembles of voices that I like and that showcase the harmonics of “In C.” For the fledgling outing of this year long celebration of “In C” at 50 years, I will feature the Music Box Ensemble. This group of voices tends to be high and shimmery with lots of harmonics spinning around. Here is a snapshot of the frequency curve when all the MBE voices were playing Patterns 8 through 14 in the Sun (Ra) Room.

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The first thing I thought of when I saw this image was that it looked like a bowl or a pregnant belly. The acoustics tonight will be different as we are in a larger space with more people and competing frequencies. I plan to analyze the frequency spectrum at different places in Motorco during sound check in order to make comparisons and learn a bit more about the frequency of things.

Meditating with Xopher

This week the Universe said to me, “Jude, you need to get your ears out of Ableton and out into the world.” So the User Profile Service service failed at log in and my computer is in the shop. Alright, then, no playing with “In C” for a while. On to other things I want to spend time with. I am so immersed in my own sculpting of this piece that I am in danger of losing perspective by getting too close in.

So, after dropping the computer off at Intrex, rehearsing with Jody Cassell for our ADF School Target Grant Program, and shampooing the carpets, I headed over to Durham Central Park to meditate with Xopher. Christopher “Xopher” Thurston has been a great inspiration to me both musically and spiritually since we met playing with the Triangle Soundpainting Orchestra. Xopher has shown me the basics of sound reinforcement, counseled me about playing live and was, thankfully, my sound man when I first played original tunes through a sound system at The Pinhook a few years ago. In addition to being a sound engineer, Xopher is an in demand bass man and a Buddhist teacher in the Dharma Punx tradition. He has been gathering a group of us together in the leaf shelter at Durham Central Park for meditation since summer 2013.

Tonight four of us sat under the starry sky with Jupiter and the moon shining brightly above. Xopher lead us through a body scan and then we settled in and opened up to the huge space we inhabit both within and without. I enjoy meditating outside because the environment is so distracting-just like life. It is such a great practice to observe the movement of awareness from breath to perception to story to waking and back to breath. Xopher rings a bell and gives appreciation for our time and attention. We stretch and move on into our respective evenings.

Xopher tells me he cued up “In C” following a local punk show and the rapid eighth note pulse that begins the recording turned a lot of heads in the bar. We talked about how “In C” moves and breathes like an organism. I would love to do an attunement at Motorco one Sunday afternoon. X thinks that would be possible. We talk about how he goes about tuning speakers in the venues where he works and how he has met some sound engineers who can listen to speakers and tell you which frequency to adjust on a parametric equalizer, just by ear.

Then Xopher told me how he came to play bass and that he played in symphonic orchestras in college. He attended a Land Grant school in Georgia, which meant the arts departments did a lot of community outreach. One night, the orchestra had a gig in Rome, GA, pop. approximately 30,000. The orchestra would play in the local armory, which -as it turned out -had been skillfully treated acoustically. As the orchestra played, they could hear perfect sevenths and ninths popping up in the room. These harmonics were not part of anyone’s score, they were being elicited in the room itself by the composition and voices. Xopher said he knew this was possible, but this was his only experience with this phenomenon.

This story reminded me of an experience I had last year that has been shaping my ideas about my sound practice. We were in Griffith Theatre at Duke where Alexander McCall Smith was accepting the Duke LEAF award. The theatre was packed and abuzz with people chatting excitedly. A man was on stage playing the kora (a 21 string harp-lute from West Africa) to honor McCall Smith and the light he has shone on Africa. Our seats were about 3/4 of the way up sort of in the middle. I sat and listened to the wash of human voices with the kora tones floating over them. The sounds merged together in my ear body and I started humming low and slow to myself. I reached a pitch that resonated more powerfully than the other pitches I had hummed to this point. Then moving beyond that pitch, the resonance dropped. So I went back to the resonant pitch and hummed it over and over to myself. It vibrated deep into my chest and I wondered what could happen if I had amplification. This tone seemed to be the resonant frequency of this room, these people talking, and the tones of the kora all meeting together.

Since I had this experience, I have played two soundscapes in rooms full of talking people. The first performance suffered from unusual room acoustics and poor speaker placement. The second one was more successful with improved speaker placement, a rectangular room and the addition of Steve Cowle’s sax and flute. I heard myself, and I heard from others who were present, that harmonics were singing in the room. Some heard chanting, some heard sweeping high tones. Now I am interested in orchestrating this type of aural experience with greater intention.

My plan is to couple room analysis with frequency spectrums to heighten the resonance amongst “In C”, the musicians, the listeners and the room being played.

This should be fun and a challenge!

The Sun (Ra) Room Experiments

So it’s snowing in Durham, and snow’s what we’ve got.* And power, too! And as it happens, we have exciting ideas regarding a deep curiosity about sound vibrations. One of the ideas I am interested in exploring is sculpting sound in relation to the acoustics of a room. Sound engineers use acoustics when producing live or recorded sound to make sure that each musical voice in the room is heard, that the voices don’t get in each others way, and that each voice is in the optimal sonic relationship to the other voices. I don’t know how deeply sound engineers get into the actual mathematical analysis of the resonance of each room they set up in. It seems that most of the work is done by ear as opposed to an analysis. I am curious how a combination of these methods might impact the choice of voice combinations and pattern arrangements when performing “In C.”

With sound and acoustics there are so many variables because sound is a measurable phenomenon as well as a perceptual phenomenon. So, if a tree falls in the woods, molecules of air will be excited (the measurable phenomenon) but then a reciever needs to percieve the excitation and turn it into what we call “sound” (the perceptive phenomenon.) The answer to that age old tree falling question actually depends on how you define sound. I lean toward the “someone needs to be there to hear it” answer because of the way the ear and the brain create our experience of sound.

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I am amazed at the process of human hearing. How the outer ear is round and curved to catch the excited air molecules that ARE sound, and filter them so that we can sense where the sound is coming from. (That little triangle of cartilage that sticks up in front of the opening to the ear functions as a sound reflector.) How these molecules are resonated down a perfectly formed canal that vibrates the eardrum at specific frequencies so we can hear pitches. Then this Rube Goldberg contraption made up of three small bones translates the vibrations of the eardrum into vibrations that are picked up in the fluid basilar membrane curled inside the cochlea. This membrane allows for greater distinctions of loud/soft and more pitch information. And from here, the vibrations are translated into electrical impulses that are carried to the brain where we say, “I hear you.” What happens in the brain is a mystery, but many explorers are investigating this magical process. This where we get into the arena of psychoacoustics.

In Daniel Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music, he describes the perception of sound as “psychological phenomenon.” Levitin, a neuroscientist, musician and sound engineer, asserts that the qualities that define sound, such as pitch and timbre, are all in our heads. The reason he can say this with such assuredness is that neuroscientsts have identified several tonotopic maps within the pathway from the outer ear to the brain. The basilar membrane contains hair cells that fire only in response to a specific frequency. These hair cells (called stereocilia) are spread out over the membrane from low to high much like a piano keyboard. The auditory cortex has a similar tonotopic map spread across the cortical surface. Even the brain itself is a tonotopic map. According to Levitin, pitch is so important that “the brain represents it directly; unlike most any other musical attribute, we could place electrodes in the brain and be able to determine what pitches were being played to the person just by looking at the brain activity.” In other words, playing a pure tone at 440 hz will fire neurons in the brain at that exact same frequency!

I find this information exhilarating and daunting and, for the moment, I feel the need to focus, so I am going to start by exploring measurable acoustic phenomenon. A few years ago, Trudie had a sun room added to the back of our house. One of the major reasons for this addition was to house my music buddies who would come over to play and improvise. (She is so lovingly supportive of my passions!) As it turned out, due to the small size of the room and the multiple glass windows and ceramic tile floor, it is ALIVE acoustically speaking. Recordings come out really great, but it is hard to play live in the room because it is a wash of sound. It occured to me that this room could be my laboratory to explore acoustics. I can measure the audible spectrum of the room as a baseline and then formulate questions to explore as I go.

First, to analyze the room. It is a small rectangle with an alcove. I am aware that the alcove will throw my calculations off a bit, but I am going to treat this as a 12′ x 13.5′ rectangle. There is an algebraic formula that gets at the resonant frequencies of a rectangular space. The factors in the equation are the room measurements, the room volume, the reverberation time and the lowest frequency range of the room. The lowest frequency range is determined by dividing the 1,130 ft ( the speed sound travels per second) by 2 x the length of the longest wall (13.5′). In the sun room, the lowest frequency range is 49 Hz. This is the cut-off frequency for the low end sounds in this room. The volume of a 12′ x 13.5′ x 8.25′ room is 1,336.5 cubic feet. The reverberation time will be my first experiment as this will take some time to complete.

*I started writing on Wednesday, February 12, when we had a winter storm that included 4″ of snow and some icy freezing rain.