Scroungings Toward a New Acoustic Synthesis

In an age when so much experimental music is concerned with seizing upon exciting new effects of appropriate novelty and timelessness, it is heartening to hear the old “infinite world of the real” occasionally proffering impressive acoustic gurgles of its own, often in the dirtiest of places. Drains, industrial fans, subterranean inlets/outlets, and all manner of electromechanical street furniture, given favorable conditions, may produce noises to put our imaginations, not to mention commercial electronic audio equipment and its attendant fetishism, to shame.

Diagrams of various idealized control contrivances for acoustic actions upon vibrating surfaces. From a scrapbook of "dream mechanics" carried during dumpster-diving expeditions.

During an otherwise mundane train journey in 2004, I heard a fantastical mechanical sound. The train turned along a curved length of track, causing dense creaking of multiple loose panels, all modulated chaotically by carriage motion until an inter-carriage door slammed, obliterating the interactions that gave birth to the fleeting sonic marvel. Language doesn’t do this marvel justice. The experience compelled me to acoustically reproduce the sound—how difficult could it be? But after eight years it still eludes me. I call near-irreproducible acoustic flourishes like this miraculous agitations.

The aeolian harp—resonated by wind—has often been marvelled at in the same manner. In the late 19th century, a Scottish inventor named James Baillie-Hamilton attempted to build a mechanized, stringed instrument to replicate the aeolian sounds, but concluded that “all efforts that have been made to secure and confine these sounds have destroyed their sweetness with the very means that destroyed their freedom; and so this string became almost the symbol of what is most beautiful and most uncontrollable.” Similarly, the 18th-century poet James Thomson refers to the aeolian harp in his Castle of Indolence: “Wild warbling Nature all, above the Reach of Art.”

Ear-catching, unreplicable flourishes are more inevitable in an electro-industrial world of multitudinous vibrations. There is the theory that, given an infinite amount of time, an infinite number of monkeys operating typewriters will produce the complete works of Shakespeare. More interestingly, these monkeys will also author amazing new literary works. Surely, then, if you embark on a walk of infinite length around an antiquated factory filled with oscillators, vibrating elements, and resonators, you may hear all the greatest musical masterpieces and, more important, strange new musics. If we transfer this situation to a finite period of days or months, the works of Bach may not be evoked in the factory, but several seconds of interesting sonic material may be generated. Likewise, after several quadrillion train journeys around Britain, a semblance of, say, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” might emerge from the carriage noise for a few seconds. But auditory simulacra are of no value here; atypical strains of sonics that fall between semi-familiar and unfamiliar are what we seek.

Acoustic noises seemingly of electronic origin have always been of great interest to me. In the early 1990s, childish naïveté tinted with poverty compelled me to simulate synthesizer sounds using chopsticks clamped to the edges of desks. Back then it was a compromise, but now, a self-built “acoustic synthesizer” is, to me, a logical progression from the stagnated pool of presets and clichés comprising modern electronic music. Since these early chopstick pluckings I have built ever-more-sophisticated vibrating mechanisms employing springs, pulleys, jacks, enlargements, gears, etc. This is not mere bricolage, but an actual application of electronic music technique (with its attention to wave-shapers, filters, envelopes, modulations, etc.) to acoustic systems. It seems this philosophy may be entering the zeitgeist. For example, in 2011 EVOL released “Three Hundred Grams of Latex and Steel in One Day”—balloons vs. stainless-steel nuts—which asked the question, “Is it possible to use non-electronic systems to emulate computer compositions?” From the experience of my own exhaustive trials, I can state that the answer is yes, but the means of controlling acoustic systems require such intricate maneuvers that the whole endeavor appears maddeningly forbidding.

In January 2009 I supported Felix’s Machines at a “music-machine-art”-themed exhibition at the Gasworks Gallery in London. Felix’s Machines used a computer sequencer to trigger a system of solenoids that remotely struck an artful structure of instruments—bells, glockenspiels, etc. It was well received. My performance on the acoustic wave-shaping experimental apparatus, meanwhile, was drowned out by the audience’s talking. Nobody cared about the fruits of six years’ labor: moderating collisions at audible frequency rates, sculpting tonestuff from electromagnetically resonated dumpster-salvage! The event led me to curse the superficiality of gallery habitués. Whereas some art is effortlessly thrust from the springboard of privilege to be emboldened by the feedback-cycle of acclaim and funding, work born of true poverty is condemned to rot in obscurity. Alas, jealousy rankles. Sonic miracles are needed to disrupt this situation. The problem is twofold: First, the construction of “acoustic synthesisers” (or rather, sound engines) is fraught with insurmountable engineering conundrums (control and portability being the main issues), and second, the reception of experimental sound engine apparatuses is discouraging, to say the least. There are just not enough miracles per minute! Improving the rate of miracles (non-linear, complex, emergent effects, etc.) is a matter of accurately manipulating quantum perturbations: prickly engineering conundrums that, if implemented too strongly, may kill apparent miraculousness.

There is hope in the possibility of miraculous agitations occurring by chance. Given enough time, a sound engine will produce a wondrous sound, and for the past nine years I have been trying to increase the odds.

I have been aware of the environment’s potential to instill rapture aurally since about 1996. From 1996 to 2002 I carried recording devices with me specifically to capture unexpected, acoustically interesting events. (Of course nowadays everybody carries recording devices in their phones, but in those days it was very unusual.) Often I did this merely to capture various dramas, such as arguments and incriminating dialogue. However, it quickly became obvious that the real “dramas” were vibratory ones. Yet now, with a cupboard’s worth of recordings, I can count on one hand the number of interesting sounds obtained this way, and not one of them is remotely useful, owing to their off-mic nature.

Once, I heard an accident on an angle grinder. After approaching its operator and begging for him to “please do it again, sir, toward the microphone,” he told me in no uncertain terms to go away. (At the time I didn’t realize the gravity of the disaster.) This incident highlighted an important aspect of acoustical marvels: They almost always represent a moment of mechanical alteration—an instance of physical transition.

Obviously the most important prerequisite for producing acoustic marvels is some motive force, preferably involving multiple systems of vibration. Also important is a means to facilitate non-linear dynamic behavior. Essentially, this means “looseness” between objects in order to produce chatter. This is where entrainments and emergence can occur—a fertile ground for miraculous agitations. Looseness is an unusual quality for a device, being rather the antithesis of a “finished product” ideal.

I regularly salvage old televisions to remove the copper wire for recoiling around found magnets to form electromagnetic resonators. These actuators function as the life-giving elements—they feed vibration into the objects electromagnetically. Much like a guitarist’s EBow, when two magnet coils in a tiny amplifier configuration are held near a ferric object, the first coil “hears” and the second one agitates; a feedback frequency related to the natural resonances of the object is produced. Multiple resonator systems comprise the only “electronic” part of the apparatus, and obviously the resulting effects rely principally on the design of the structure.

During walks, I notice objects poking out from waste containers, objects radiating sonic potential, lying still, unscraped, unbowed, unstruck, unblown, and uninsonified. Under crooked looks from passersby, I carry out rescue missions to bring these babies back home to my bedroom, where I can insonify them freely, making them sing. Trial and error reveals fortuitous object combinations, like a kind of real-life acoustic circuit-bending, or—dare I say it—alchemy.

Bin-diving quickly became my primary means of obtaining modules for the sound engines. A good friend handed me a copy of Jeff Ferrell’s bin-diving study Empire of Scrounge—a document concerning survival, ingenuity, and perseverance. It struck me that the act of scrounging could be experimentally applied to sound and music, with fascinating results. Not only are the acoustic apparatuses built up from chanced-upon salvage, but the playing technique involves slow, intricate “scrounge-meditations” to allow the chance discovery of complex acoustic behavior.

Here, in the crevices around us, lie the not-necessarily-attractive discards capable of miraculous agitation. These are literal sound objects possessing unique acoustic attributes and clues pointing towards potential physical cohesions conducive to marvelous acoustic flourishes. It is with electromagnetically vivified object-combinations that new worlds of sound can be created.

There is a strong correlation between sound-art and thaumaturgy (miracle-working by secret means). Many artists are loath to divulge the exact workings of their devices in accordance with capitalistic self-preservation. As far back as the 1920s, the Futurist Filippo Marinetti was anxiously secretive regarding the workings of his acoustic noise intoners. Conversely, with miraculous-agitation devices built from scavenged modules, the method of insonification may be freely advertised, but crucially, the idiosyncrasies of the apparatus can be revealed through sound itself, through hearing their miraculous moments: their ultimate raison d’être. Here, the composer isn’t exalted to thaumaturge status, but, like the listener, in thrall to the wonders of nature and chance.

In the late 1950s, electronic-music composer Daphne Oram brought the now well-known “sound-houses” quotation from Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis to the nascent BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where it remained pinned to the wall for many years. The foresightful passage has since inspired many sound-artists and appeared in numerous texts on electronic music, including the preface to Peter Grogono’s 1972 user manual for the EMS Synthi AKS synthesizer—a synthesizer built inside a suitcase, Bacon’s sound-houses made portable.

We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation. We have harmonies which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and lesser slides of sounds; divers instruments of musick likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp. We make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds…We have also divers strange and artificial echoes reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it, and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller, and some deeper, yea, some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.

From the physicality of Bacon’s language, and the non-existence of electronic signal-processing in the 17th century, we can assume that Bacon envisioned mechanical instruments akin to those built by his experimenter-inventor contemporaries Salomon de Caus and Cornelis Drebbel. Nevertheless, the “sound-houses” passage has come to represent an anticipation of electronic sound-manipulation techniques.

In light of the modern tendency toward thaumaturgy, we would do well to quote a lesser-known passage from New Atlantis. Describing the “houses of deceits of the senses” a few paragraphs ahead, Bacon condemns the lowly “old magick” mentality of obscuring nature’s wonders for personal power:

And surely, you will easily believe that we that have so many things truly natural, which induce admiration, could in a world of particulars deceive the senses, if we would disguise those things, and labour to make them seem more miraculous. But we do hate all impostures and lies, insomuch as we have severely forbidden it to all our fellows, under pain of ignominy and fines, that they do not show any natural work or thing adorned or swelling, but only pure as it is, and without all affectation of strangeness.


Dan Wilson

DAN WILSON is a Hertfordshire-based, economically inactive mechanic and sonic arts graduate, resentful of society.