The Mouse That Roared

Greetings from Los Angeles! With both the increased fat deposition and abundance of zugunruhe that precedes most aviary migrations, the peripatetic Carl has landed for a summer roosting in the USA. Apologies that while in transit last week, travels through the upper atmosphere kept me off the blogosphere. Good to be back with you this week.

My last week in Japan before heading east included a three-day series of workshops for undergraduate students at the Tokyo Fine Arts University with a title that translates best as “Study Sound Expression”. We selected 14 students from the music department, but a couple of art and design students joined as well, despite official prohibition from the administration. I could not help but be moved by their determination and motivation, so I slipped them in sideways.

I divided the sessions into several components:

  • Listening
  • Sound Hunting
  • Practical Patching
  • Composing

As I have come to understand, most young people (in Japan at any rate) these days simply won’t make the commitment to listen to music longer than five or ten minutes. So I decided to challenge them each morning over the course of the three days, with some CD-length works such as Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room and Luc Ferrari’s Les Anecdotiques, and so on. I feared ennui would set in, or worse, but was rewarded by their willingness to listen deeply, calmly, quietly, and one could even say thoroughly. Several thanked me later for giving them a chance to listen to music they never would have attempted to listen to on their own.

On Day One, the morning listening was followed by a crash course in field recording, and then each student was dispatched into urban Tokyo with their very own portable flash recorder, stereo microphone, and headset. The challenge: To use the next 24 hours to compete with each other to catch the most interesting sounds they could find. Then we all would meet back on Day Two to present them to each other for comment and critique.

Several returned with characteristically Japanese sounds, such as coins being tossed into the collection boxes found in front of temples and shrines. One student brought in a magnificent recording made while riding a roller coaster in a small amusement park tucked in a downtown neighborhood. Another traveled relentlessly up and down the escalators of a department store, her recording a fine blend of mechanical rumbles and squeaks, paired with sales announcements and conversation.

The most austere, and arguably most beautiful of all, was the recording one student made of the sound of tobacco being slowly consumed by fire as he lit and smoked a cigarette—the tiny sounds an excellent test of the recorder’s signal to noise ratio.

Each student was tasked to use their final 24 hours to create a sound composition of 3-5 minutes length, with the sole rule that it should be created entirely out of the sounds recorded in the previous days. The final product was to be a stereo AIFF file, suitable for CD. I call this process “Lightning Composition”.

All students selected for the course were at an intermediate level for Max/MSP and so I spent time counseling them with reasonably advanced tips, tricks, techniques, all in service of the overall workshop goal, which was their final composition. I have to say, the whole process was a lot of fun and, as usual, I managed to learn as much from the kids as I taught them. I’m really tickled by the results, and many of the pieces merit further exposure. I’m thinking of asking them for permission to post the best compositions on my website. If it all works out, I’ll let you know!

One brutal moment for me came when the students were presenting the results of their sound hunting, and one offered up a recording made on the street in front of the entrance to a department store, where an ultra high-frequency tone was being transmitted to ward away mice. As playback started, everbody in the room quickly and instinctively slammed hands over ears to dispel the unpleasant signal—all the students that is, not their 50-year old teacher who was blissfully unaware of anything other than some normal street sounds. Quite a shock for me, for while I never felt the need to compete with rodents for hearing acuity, I didn’t like having that much of a gap between myself and these twenty year olds in my care. Later we did some testing and found the frequency of the mouse-warding signal to be about 16.8kHz. I guess I shouldn’t be confessing this on an internationally read forum, but it just wasn’t there for me, at all. Nothin’.

When was the last time you tested your hearing? Any idea what the upper limit for your ears might be? My students and I built a little Max patch to test everyone, within the limits of the speakers and other audio components in the lecture room, and while not scientific, I found I could hear a bit above 15kHz, and most of the kids had at least 2-3kHz above that on me. Curse you Jimi! I knew I should never had stood right in front of those speakers during your concerts at the Shrine Auditorium in 1967.

Next week I plan to be writing you from a cabin alongside the Hudson, as I camp out to participate as a performer in the New Albion At Summerscape At Bard College Festival. Forgive the shameless plug, but this festival has all the earmarks of a terrific event, as Steve Smith has noted in both his New York Times piece and on his blog. A full schedule is here. Come on up, and if you do, please say hello! I’ll be the one there not holding his ears.

2 thoughts on “The Mouse That Roared

  1. pgblu

    Thank you for sharing, Carl.

    I like the idea that listening has to be taught, but not by saying how to listen, but by just creating an environment in which to listen to unaccustomed (in this case unusually long) pieces.

    Reply

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