02 December, 2008

The Auditory Camera



As I think I mentioned before, some natural sources of modulated light, when sonified, sound remarkably like their normal sonic correlates. This is both slightly disappointing and oddly comforting, in so far as it's a sort of confirmation of what our ears are already able to tell us - a kind of belt-and-braces school of information gathering. And so it is with flying insects. So far I've succeeded in recording honey bees, a cloud of midges, and short snatches of assorted unidentified bugs. The midges recording is remarkable for several reasons, which I won't go into - the reason being that the recording is too poor for public consumption, and so I'd be pontificating on something nobody can get to hear.
One of the problems with recording flying insects is getting the little sods to stay still enough, or at least to predict where they might be going next. With bees, you know where they come and go from. This recording is of bees leaving and entering a hive that I made in 2006, which currently rests on the roof of the Royal Festival Hall on the south bank of the Thames in London. The reason it's there, and is also the same shape as the R.F.H can be found at the Royal Festival Hive blog.
Listening to this recording, I'm struck by how nicely it describes one of the peculiarities of photophonic sound capture - that there is a very sharply defined zone of events. A volume of space in front of the photocell acts as an area of influence, or an event space defined by the characteristics of the light source and the angle of incidence that the photocell's lens dictates. With this recording, it's the sun, who's rays are effectively parallel, and probably a 120 degree capture angle. The bees pass through this volume and modulate the sun's rays with their beating wings; anything going on elsewhere is inaudible because it's out of the frame. I avoid the term 'image' here because that's not what it is - any images generated are mental. But we still have an auditory frame, or, optical properties shunted into the auditory sphere; an 'auditory camera' if you will.
I'm reminded of the discoveries made by the early Concréte exponents in the truncating of sonic events, and what this did to the raw materials. These bees have become natural oscillators, triggered by the existence of their bodies within the frame of influence generated by the photocell. Outside of this frame they become simply bees again...

Update - Since writing this post, I've been pointed in the direction or Eric Archer's sound cameras, which are just beautiful. There are some fantastic photophonic recordings on his site; particularly ingenious is one of an oscilloscope feedback system. Wonderful idea...