19 February, 2011


This is perhaps closer to the visual music genre than the other videos I've posted on this blog. That said, unlike most visual music works, it's rather a static piece, and conforms to some of the ideas of 'structural' film as outlined by both Malcolm Le Grice (it readably attests to the mechanisms and principles of it's own making), and P Adams Sitney (its structure is simple, hermetic and pre-determined)... even though it's a video.
Like much of my work, the sound and image are generated from the same light sources, and recorded simultaneously. What you see/hear are shop windows along Regent Street in Central London, with their various digital lighting systems buzzing away. The cross-fades in the audio coincide directly with the cross-dissolves in the image, mimicking each other.
This was shot in the spring of 2008, and edited with the assistance of Nick Phillips shortly after. Incidentally, the insects you see near the beginning are green lacewings, and that was the only window they swarmed on. Who knows what attracted them to that particular one... was there a strong UV element in the light? Was it the particular frequency of the modulations we hear? Maybe they just liked Laura Ashley's summer collection...

21 November, 2010

Voice Figures

Quite a lot has cropped up on the web about Margaret Watts-Hughes's 'Eidophone' in recent years. The Cymatics crowd talk a lot about it (it kind of is Cymatics, but from the late 19th Century). Louise O'Connor and Nick Laessing have made some and performed with them. What you won't find, however, is any more than a very few images of her 'Voice Figures' - that is to say the ones that were available from the 'Making of America' archive, but which now seem to have disappeared (unless of course I've got that wrong - quite possible). This does her work a disservice, so here are some scans from the 2nd edition of her 'Eidophone Voice Figures' pamphlet, which is the better of the two. Sorry about the British Library's watermarks, but hey, you can't have it all...

Watts-Hughes was a Welsh soprano who gave up singing when she married, to concentrate on philanthropy and scientific research. It was during an attempt to measure the power of her voice that she discovered by accident the Chladni-style patterns that she has become known for. Using seeds placed on a rubber membrane stretched over a container into which she sang, she reasoned that by recording how high the seeds leapt, some kind of measure could be got of the voice's health and sonorousness. Although she wasn't expecting patterns to emerge, her inquiring mind drove her to experiment into all kinds of formulations of powders, mixing them with fluids to produce various effects, and eventually hitting on the idea of using pigmented paste smeared on glass plates to record what she produced.

Watts-Hughes ran an orphanage for boys (yes - she was that amazing) and hung her work in the windows around the house:

Instead of blinds or curtains drawn across the lower panes of the windows, there are wonderful designs in colour, strange, beautiful things suggesting objects in nature, but which are certainly neither exact repetitions or imitations of anything in it. Perfectly drawn designs of shell-like forms, of trumpet and snake-like designs, twisted and involved in complicated curves… strange and suggestive indeed are these window panes that the little boys at Islington have to look through. They see weird caverns at the bottom of the sea, full of beautiful beautiful coloured sea anemones and mussel shells, headless snakes, entanglements of leaf-like forms, all seemingly vital with the same laws of growth as those which inspired the creation of the designs in Nature which they suggested.
Quote from Isabel Barrington in The London Spectator, October 26, 1899. In: Curtis, H.H (1919) Voice Building and Tone Placing: Showing a New Method of Relieving Injured Vocal Cords by Tone Exercises. London: Appleton and Co. pp.225-227.

I haven't included the images of natural shapes described in this account as they're well represented elsewhere. These plates are more interesting, I think, because not only do they point to a scientific methodology in what Watts-Hughes was doing (particularly the last one), but also they are time based media, produced by dragging the Eidophone's membrane across the glass as she sang. In that sense, they are kind of proto optical sound recordings; although admittedly not in an analytically useful sense like the 'Phonautograph's', but rather more beautiful.

17 November, 2010

Tethered Objects

...an attempt at a couple of thermo-acoustic oscillators. I didn't manage to get these tuned properly, so there's no sound to accompany the photos. But I will. They were produced for 'Works with sunlight' at Meantime Arts in Cheltenham earlier in the year, and require a decent amount of sunlight, so they'll remain silent until next summer I should think...

21 September, 2010

Said Object

It's been a long while since the last post, so there'll be another one shortly. This is a piece i've just completed the edit for (this is an excerpt), and which is to be shown at Seth Kim-Cohen's 'Non-Cochlear Sound' show at the Diapason gallery in New York. There's so much I could write on this, that its difficult to know where to begin. However, sometimes it's better to let something speak for itself... this work asks that people bring their own ideas to it, I think.

08 March, 2010

Two Simultaneous places - or How To Fold a Vibrating Wire in Three...

The setup here is this: four lengths of fine piano wire, strung from one end of a room to the other (about seven or eight metres). A piezo transducer picks up vibrations at one end, which are amplified through a speaker at the other. This has an old super-8 film canister lid on top of the cone, over which the strings pass, and which acts as a bridge. Several cheap laser-pointers shine across the strings to the opposite side of the room onto some photodiodes, which convert the flickering light into a voltage, which is then treated as sound. The sound in this video is a mixture of the photophonic and acoustic outputs from this mechanism.
I'd been wanting to buid a long-string instrument for quite a while, but hadn't got around to doing it. The original plan was to play the strings with rosined fingers Paul Panhuysen style, but it quickly became apparent that the pressure you need to exert on the string to get it to sound deflects it by around 20 to 25mm. This meant that the lasers I'd set up would miss the thing almost entirely. So I said goodbye to Panhuysen and hello to Alvin Lucier with the aforementioned speaker/piezo setup; somewhat crude, but it got things buzzing nicely.
Using the lasers in this way, it's possible to isolate points and amplify them independently and with no effect on the string, in a way that is impossible with mechanical methods. You might then surround a listener with these sources, wrapping the vibrating string into a circle. It doesn't sound like a string for the most part; it just is what it is, but I like that.
This particular piece is the result of a week's residency I've just finished at PVA MedliaLab in Bridport, Dorset. Thanks must go to PVA for inviting me, and to Duncan Whitley for his support - both moral and practical - and also to Andrew Hinton.

17 October, 2009

Fever Dream

Copied from handwritten notes found in a copy of "Phylogenesis of the Ear" by Louis Guggenheim MD. Author unknown.

*Tropical – S.E Asia, Borneo, Sumatra etc. Consult Howard. Re. cases in urban centres. Europe.…

[The parasite] insinuates itself between two of the tiny bones that connect the tympanic membrane and the cochlea by latching onto the ligament connecting two of the bones with its mouth parts, and consuming the ligament tissue - eventually substituting itself. In placing itself interstitially within the ossicular chain, it becomes an integral part of the hearing process – a sensorial mediator and gatekeeper.Verto Parbulus’s exoskeleton is telescopically articulated, with a powerful cartilage / muscle composite girdle connecting [the] segments, which sit in a naturally contracted state. [The muscle] acts to keep the cartilage with which it is intertwined under intense compression… When the parasite detects a sudden transient vibration of above a certain amplitude threshold, it responds with an almost instant relaxation of its exoskeletal muscle system, thereby increasing its length by typically 170% (check figure). This acts to restore the integrity of the ossicle chain in an almost perfect inverse of the tympanic reflex, which has evolved to protect the inner ear from damage due to sudden loud events. It then winds back (wrong term.?) the muscles after a few milliseconds, thereby dislocating the stapes from the oval window in the cochlea, and attenuating the transmitted vibrations by as much as 98%. This entity, like many parasites (?), seeks to maximise its own chances of survival and reproduction by modifying its host’s behaviour (supposition? Check). In an attempt to mitigate the traumatising gunshot dynamics bestowed upon him / her by the parasite, the host will eventually gravitate toward dynamically bland sonic environments – where he or she may make contact with similarly afflicted individuals. The mating processes of Verto Parbulus are as yet undiscovered - due in part to its rarity but also to its size and location within the body. Removal would bring on certain and irreversible deafness and studied specimens have all been acquired post mortem – usually following suicide.
*talk to tropical deseases in Dulwich. h.o.d may have some data on epidemiology. also cochlear implants...can we get output?

Also, for further reading see:

Cattermole-Tally, F (1995) The Intrusion of Animals into the Human Body: Fantasy and Reality. Folklore, Vol. 106, pp. 89-92.

18 July, 2009

The Haptic Optic

How do you record an object properly? Is it always pertinent to photograph, or draw something, for example? How about something which is similar to both, but is really neither?
A while back I began to explore the possibilities of making rubbings of three dimensional objects. These images are of one I made of the adapted cabinet that Daphne Oram used to house the oscillators and wave-shaping units in the Oramics system, working on it with the lid and doors open, and as carefully as I could to avoid any damage of the circuitry. I developed my own materials which would mark without the need for graphite etc, so that I could use just my fingernails and a specially made tool. The finished piece is painted black on the reverse to bring out the marks...

For some time I've been mulling over the sort of world the Atomist/Epicurian theory of vision conjures up - where seeing consists of the apprehension of a succession of 'skins' which fly lightning fast from the surfaces of objects and into the eye - ancient cinema. As I've mentioned previously, this fantastical space seems to me to somehow articulate the in-between-ness, or irrationality of transcribing light into sound. So I've begun to make 'spectres' (eidola, simulacra) from machines which deal with light and sound as materials. You could even call them wave-fronts perhaps...
The finished piece is redolent of a technical drawing, dislocated and contaminated with noise, or a map of a war-torn installation produced by proto-photographic means. Every fold in the material shows up as a white mark as it is manipulated into position, so an odd record of movement and registration is generated, all by intimate touch.
Next, will be the contact printer that used to belong to the London Filmmakers' Co-op.

13 May, 2009

Light Traps

It's all been done before in all sorts of ways you know - by the structuralist/materialist film makers in the '70's, people like Guy Sherwin and Liz Rhodes (not that I'd compare myself to them of course), and using video, the Vasulkas amongst others. Nonetheless, it can be satisfying to discover you've made a video that has the camera in it as an explicit and essential ingredient.
I was attempting to synthesize some audio by pumping it through an LED, and then burning some wood to produce smoke and heat-haze noise in the sonified signal (see a much earlier post below). Of course, there was a breeze and it just drifted either onto me, or in fact anywhere but in between the LED and the lens. But then I noticed this as I was fiddling with the tripod...interference patterns generated by the high speed flicker of the LED heterodyning with the scan rate of the CCD chip in the camera. At least that's the best explanation I can come up with. I ought to (will) try this with a few different cameras, and eventually come up with an installation.

The audio being pumped is itself from light signals - emanations from a shop window on Regent Street (I forget which), which rather oddly, was covered in lacewings...

14 April, 2009

Spectra (Signalling Hut component)

They were hot there, and cold there, and some had been born, and most had died. Their houses were boxes, tents, scooped out dogs, brick towers, and actual houses. Some dug into grass; others camped in shadow; many worked in the house dispersing rice and books and were not permitted to sleep on the floor. There was to be no unfolding of blankets or spreading of sheets. Never could a barrier or blind or corner be erected in the house, nor could cloth be clipped or crimped or hung. They sheltered off of one another and slept in heated chains of body. No one could sleep for more than one dream. The dream happened during the day, and the dream was the storm, and the storm was whatever you could name.

MARCUS, B. 1998. The Age of Wire and String. London: Flamingo. pp.81

19 February, 2009

Two Machines: 2 - Oramics

The Oramics system is currently residing in my workshop, until it gets moved to a permanent home. As you can see, it's in a bit of a sorry state, having had several owners since the passing of Daphne Oram, and having spent the last few years in a barn. My reason for posting these images was partly so that I could talk about patina; and I use this word in its broadest sense. The Oramics system (it is in fact two machines, a rack of amplifiers and two speakers) wasn't designed in the normal sense of the word, it is an agglomeration of small inspirations and problem solving, tweaks and bodges. As such it has an aura of endeavour and complexity which is impossible to fake or design - a patina of many, many meaningful decisions and actions effected over years.
This patina is not about surface and age (as the dictionary would have it), but rather it is a composite of visual noise, manifest functionality and guessed-at heuristics; a personality transmitted as though a radio signal, or more pertinently, modulated light.

As with the ANS, there were things going on with Oramics which will most probably remain unsolved - small modifications, planned but never realised features. Amongst the odds and ends that have accompanied the main instrument is a rather mashed up Ondioline. Why was Oram planning on adding a keyboard element? It's been retro-fitted with a lot of wiring, terminating in multi-pin sockets, so this part of the project got to a reasonably advanced stage. Odd, considering the incredible amount of ingenuity and resources directed toward producing a sound who's every parameter could supposedly be altered with a paint brush. Perhaps Oram got bored with having to define pitches with carefully placed little squares of electrical tape stuck to film, and just wanted to tickle some ivories... We may never know.