sábado, 4 de dezembro de 2010

Double Concerto for wiper and violin

I was driving my car on my way home and it was raining mildly. I was listening to Berg’s Violin Concerto on the radio and the wipers were moving at the slowest speed, producing a barely noticeable squeaking sound. The concerto was coming into its concluding moments. In the final bars the solo violin plays a very long high G.
As the note goes on I notice that its frequency was a sort of average of the frequency produced by my car’s squeaking wiper sound, a frequency bisector of sorts. The cyclical sound of the wiper was  brought into the score adding an unforeseen harmonic and rhythmic tension to the music.
The result was sometimes hilarious, other times profoundly and strangely serious. My reaction, as I went on driving my car, was quite vivid, I assure you.

I wonder if Berg would have had the humor to incorporate this into his score. I wonder if Cage, specially him, would have appreciated this chance version...

domingo, 7 de novembro de 2010

Edition of Contemporary Music

Manfred Eicher came to Estoril to accompany a presentation of the film “Sounds and Silence” by Peter Guyer & Norbert Wiedmer at the International Estoril Film Festival. The film — an extremely interesting play with time — is a sensitive and meticulously produced portrait of Eicher and his ECM project. 

Both deserve more than the sloppy, ill-prepared conversation with Eicher that closed the session. 

ECM and Manfred Eicher remain strong and ever inspiring symbols after many years in this changing and peculiar business. Understanding it is a challenge to both those who wonder how is it possible to successfully marry entrepreneurship with the arts, and those who believe in the value of musical content vis-a-vis pre-defined and often empty or misleading music categories.

quarta-feira, 3 de novembro de 2010

KISS 2010

I just uploaded some pictures of Kiss 2010, - Kyma International Sound Symposium, the conference on Kyma and sound design held in Vienna last September. It was a wonderful and inspiring event which gave me the opportunity to meet with some of the luminaries of the Kyma sound producing platform. 
Kyma is the brainchild of Carla Scaletti an Kurt Hebel (pictured above), the founders of Symbolic Sound. Its users include a group of quite remarkable people, from Joel Chadabe to John Paul Jones.
If the subject interests you, you can become a member of Philosophy of Sound to find out more about this conference and its theme. Just click on the banner on the right. 

Click here to see some pictures of the Symposium.

quarta-feira, 20 de outubro de 2010

Contemporary music (2)

I had a chance to listen to Terry Riley here in Portugal last October 23rd, at the Theatro Circo in Braga. I may have to swallow some of my remarks written in a previous post. Terry is a wonderful composer, a fantastic musician and singer and this little group he put together with Talvin Singh and George Brooks is everything but “the peppered cocktail”, the phrase I mentioned in my post with which Panikkar once characterized shallow inter-cultural relations.

It is possible to mix different musical cultures and create a new meaningful and profound reality. The music of this celebration of Terry’s 75th birthday tour is food for (musical) thought. I will try to return to this subject sometime.

sexta-feira, 8 de outubro de 2010

Noise control: the do-it-yourself approach

My friend Pedro D. S.  brought this into my attention. It’s called “Revenge Against Noisy Neighbors”. The title is self-explanatory, I think.  It’s a CD whose track selection includes precious gems such as the recording of a 200 guest party, an orgasm, walking with high heels, door slams, an unhappy dog, infant crying, violin scales practicing, etc. 
If you have noisy neighbors, tried to reason with them in a civilized manner, called the police or your local noise control authority, but the nightmare goes on, fight back: give them a taste of their own medicine. Here you have a “tool” for every occasion.
The complete track list with respective comments (in French) includes: 

01. Perceuse 
02. Fête (200 personnes) 
03. Orgasme (exceptionnel) 
04. Train 
05. Tambour (joué par un enfant) 
06. Cris inhumains 
07. Marcher (talons aiguilles) 
08. Scène de ménage 
09. Claquements de portes 
10. Bowling 
11. Chien malheureux 
12. Faire ses gammes (violon) 
13. Embouteillage 
14. Camion poubelle 
15. Nouveau né 
16. Sonnerie de téléphone 
17. Jeu de ballons 
18. Ménage (en grand) 
19. Cocorico !

This simple device may very well succeed where highly complex and technically evolved noise abatement regulations have failed. Believe me, I know what I am talking about...
This simple device is in itself a textbook on the philosophy of  noise pollution!

They even throw in a pair of ear plugs. Available here. Génial!

terça-feira, 28 de setembro de 2010

I am going digital!

Yesterday I was on a train to the Vienna airport. The twins in the photo sat next to me. The train stopped at a station and the train going in the opposite direction stopped next to us. The twins started waving to the passengers on the other train, yelling Allo!, Allo!.
The game went on more or less like this: one would yell Allo! and the other followed after a brief delay. The process went on at an increasingly faster tempo until their father told them to stop. 
The amazing thing about this is that I could not see the twins (I took the picture without actually looking at them). I just listened to their voices. It was as if you had a single voice and some sort of high quality digital delay or granulation process had been applied to it. Both voices sounded absolutely similar but their combination produced strange, wonderful, evolved and ever changing patterns. Almost as if produced by an artificial ... digital process. 
I was returning home after a three-day conference  where the latest digital signal processing techniques making use of Kyma were revealed and analyzed. I wonder if I could have had the ability to listen to the digital twins the same way, or have noticed them at all, had I not been immersed in this technology for so long. 

Am I listening digitally to an otherwise analogue world? Am I going digital at long last...?

terça-feira, 21 de setembro de 2010

Contemporary music (1)

In 1977 John Cage performed his Empty Words, a text piece based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau at Milan’s  Teatro Lirico. Halfway through the performance, the audience --mainly comprised of art students-- started to react to Cage’s exercise in the de-construction of Thoreau’s text and did so by clapping their hands, booing, yelling and whistling while Cage, undisturbed, went on with his performance. And he went on for 3 hours! 

Recently I listened to excerpts of a recording of this performance I had never heard before. A personal experience I advise you all to attempt.

Contemporary music is more than a label found on the CD bin of any, hitherto ubiquitous but now almost defunct, record store. Contemporary music is any music produced today. Even a recording or a concert of a viol consort made today with period instruments, respecting every performance and technical procedure of a particular musical age or a particular composer is contemporary music. And it therefore reflects the contemporary view of this age. Less so than perhaps an original composition written today, but a recording of music from yesterday, that respects the artistic values of the time it was written, teaches us a lot about today’s values.

Music died when it turned into a commodity. This is not a new and exciting novelty. It is rather an outcry for a situation that has become totally unbearable. On the one hand the proliferation of music or music-like products through every corner of human activity is a terrible nightmare. Instead of giving us, music professionals, a broader market to work with this proliferation turned music into such a banal activity that its value is completely defaced. The value of music —as an extra-ordinary act, as the exception,  but also as the rule, is lost. Listeners, in turn, lost their right to this value of music. As listeners, the only responsible solution is to shut our ears. 

Moreover, now it is possible to write whatever music you want, any sound, any trend is possible, there are no taboos. It is acceptable to use whatever language or mixture of languages available, whatever musical tradition or vocabulary from whatever musical period. But it is precisely now that the musical world has become more conservative and even reactionary than ever. There’s not even room for outrage. Where is the outrageous music for an outraged audience like the one that booed the first performance of The Rite? Where are the outraged art students that reacted to Cage’s Empty Words?

Music today is a repetition of known, trusted and accepted musical formulas, used individually or mixed with some video for the extra kick. The “peppered cocktail”, as Panikkar once characterized shallow inter-cultural relations. 

No risk, no chance taking. No deeper than your skin either. Just superficiality. No one dares to step outside these familiar grounds. Everything you hear today has been created decades if not centuries ago. Thanks to the wider communication between different cultures today, “mix and match” is easier but even that is usually based on something created or discovered decades ago at best. Again no risk.

On the other hand, the digitalization of all stages of musical production, while giving us unsuspectedly powerful tools, also brought blandness, conformism and redundancy. Click here for an interesting view on this subject that I subscribe.

We all have to conform to the rules of the software, if we dare being different —software  immediately turns it into something bland or adds its own noticeable and permanent petit arrière gout. And the new software is also a tool for redundancy because it is now possible to program computers with all the familiar and conservative formulas and do it repeatedly and effortlessly. The musical outcome is not even admired for its musical value but rather for the value of the programmer's accomplishments. Push a button and you can repeat the formula ad nausea. You can program chord changes into the computer and pretend that you are Charlie Parker’s rhythm section, you can “perform” a four-part fugue a la Bach by singing into the contraption. The computer will do the rest. You don't even have to investigate the foundations of your extraordinary musical accomplishments. In fact why should you? The machine outputs these great and convincing results, why bother...? 

Applications such as Improvisor or Improvox are great teaching utilities, but what they do really is to turn an act of labor, love and ingenuity into chewing gum. And they are destroying the students that they were supposed to serve. Ignoring how a four part harmony came about is as bad as ignoring that chicken don't come from the fridge. Even though the musical formulas used came to us from a strong tradition and after a long evolution, disregard for this tradition and for what it stands for has never been so obvious.
There still seems to be room for the unusually gifted, for some unexpected and spectacular musical discovery, that only real talent can produce, but this is becoming rarer and the whole (including the talented) of the musical world today is the picture of society: well behaved, conform to the rule, unadventurous, meaningless, unpalatable like nouvelle cuisine, disgusting like a frozen meal. 

And you get to hear all this unbearable cacophony people call music everywhere, in elevators, malls, restaurants, phones, concert halls, jazz clubs!! And iTunes and all others make it convenient and easier than ever to import all this trash into the intimacy of your own private and sacred ears. 

Music seems to have lost all its sense of purposefulness and its capacity to be a major driving force in all aspects of human endeavor. Big public ceremonies have no grandiose music written exclusively to accompany them. So grandiose that its grandiosity still survives today. Where are today’s Gabrieli or Haendel? Where are the mothers that sang lullabies to their children? The Philips pavilion for the Brussels World Fair and the German pavilion for the Osaka Expo in 19070 were designed for composers, by composers. Ask  any government or public institution today to allow itself to be projected to the world through the music of an iconoclastic composer. Would Germany let itself be represented by a music personality as Stockhausen? Would Philips care to invite a a composer like Varèse to help define the major theme of its pavilion? I doubt it...
The jingle is the sole monarch  in the kingdom of the absolute reduced attention span.

Is it really music's golden era, like I often hear people characterize this 21st century?

sexta-feira, 23 de julho de 2010


Just got back from Koli, Finland where I attended the Soundscapes 2010 conference. The Finnish organizers should be proud of this carefully planned and wonderfully produced gathering dedicated to the discussion of Ideologies and Ethics in the Uses and Abuses of Sound”. An event marked by a growing interdisciplinarity as Barry Truax noticed.

In my view the Koli conference marks a new era in soundscape studies. Hildergard Westerkamp and others have pointed out to the importance of listening and to the central role that the perceptual subject has played in soundscape studies since its very inception. 
Environmental, social and media studies have largely ignored the approach that soundscape studies pioneered. Listening is a part of feeling. Feelings is what is largely in need in these days of incertitude and of the unaccounted activity of the “markets”...

A promising future thus stays ahead of us, not only because soundscape studies have an edge that can and will undoubtedly be applied to other areas of research and scholarship, but also because, as further development of this model becomes necessary, new work will inevitably await us. Soundscape studies are heading towards the future.

The Koli conference also served another highly important and meaningful purpose. I don’t know exactly how many members the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology has. But I suspect that each one has particular reasons to belong to this unique  group. In this wonderful diversity however there is one key figure —also unique and consensual— that most probably drove us all into this area, that still bonds us and symbolizes the origins and strength of this movement: R. Murray Schafer. 
Leading soundscape studies into the future is the best homage to him and to his vision.

(the photo is by architect, soundscaper and friend Marc Crunelle to whom I thank.)

terça-feira, 8 de junho de 2010


I have been writing about ambisonics for a local professional magazine. Writing on this subject brought back thoughts on the problem of spatialization of electronically produced acoustic signals. It also made me realize how this has been a recurring theme in electronic music and how badly the problem has always been dealt with. It made me think again on how this eminently elegant solution —ambisonics—, conceived by Michael Gerzon (seen here in this ca. 1971 photo setting up his first tetrahedral Calrec microphone system) solved the problem, for electronic music but also for any field in which electronically produced or broadcasted sound is involved. And all he got in return was general undeserved indifference, I’m afraid.

Only financial determined factors have prevented me from having fully embraced this wonderful technology a long time ago, but this will hopefully change.

domingo, 6 de junho de 2010

Soudscapes of war (2)

The charge of the deaf brigade continues. Now it’s the “sound cannon”. Something called LRAD whose “shrill warning tones can be heard at least 1,600 feet (500 meters) away and depending on the model of LRAD it can blast a maximum sound of 145 to 151 decibels — equal to a gunshot — within a 3-foot (one meter) range,” MSNBC says.
At these levels the operators themselves may soon be saying: “Hear you LRAD and clear! Ay least I used to...”
“Originally designed for the U.S. Navy, LRADs can emit ear-blasting sounds so high in frequency they transcend normal thresholds of pain. While they are used everywhere from Iraq to the high seas for repelling pirates, LRADS are being increasingly employed as a crowd-control device.” the Star says. 
They should also try them on rating agencies... I say!
Sound cannons were used in Pittsburgh during the G-20 summit (see photo) and the Toronto police may be using them during the upcoming summit at the end of the month. 
If you‘d like to have an idea on how these things sound click here. If you are interested in finding out more about sonic weaponry read this.
The sound cannon is the only weapon guaranteed to backfire! 

Ps- here's an article on the subject of sound and war you might be interested in.

(photo by Brian Blanco / EPA)

domingo, 30 de maio de 2010

Soundscapes of war (1)

South Korea will be reinstalling powerful speakers in 14 different locations along the demilitarized zone that separates it from North Korea.  
The loudspeakers which are being re-installed now were deactivated by the South Korean authorities six years ago. North Korea, which used radio as a propaganda tool in the past to glorify Kim Jong-Il, the “sun of the 21st century”, now threatens to blast the speakers. South Korea claims that the goal of this gigantic operation is to spread propaganda on freedom and democracy. “One group of loudspeakers on the Seoul side can be heard more than 20 kilometers” into North Korea in the quiet of the night, AFP says.

The blast of the sun of the 21st century’s combat with democracy and the freedom to speak louder, here is the theme of this gigantic 21st century electroacoustic extravaganza. 

quarta-feira, 19 de maio de 2010


”What’s in a name?”, asked Juliet. “That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet?”
What’s in this name? That which they call a vuvuzela would it sound less dreadful or less  threatening by any other name?
The sound of the vuvuzela became a symbol of the football supporter’s enthusiasm for their teams. It’s being used as a sort of iconic sound of FIFA’s World Cup 2010 in South Africa.
A recent study by Dr. De Wet Swanepoel of the University of Pretoria's department of communication pathology, and Dr. James Hall of the University of Florida, however, found evidence that this sound turned symbol of this sport event can lead to permanent hearing loss. “A real risk of noise induced hearing loss.”  Another previous study, totally disregarded by the FIFA authorities, had already alerted to the inevitable consequences of the exposure to the vuvuzela’s high intensity sound level.
FIFA refused to ban the vuvuzela after finding out about these risks and supports it.

We’ll support our national teams until deafness do us part...

sábado, 13 de março de 2010

Au naturel

A recent article in The Telegraph describes the characteristics that separate “natural” from “un-natural” music and “explains” why audiences dislike the latter. This has raised some heated criticism. 
I didn’t know that there was such a thing as “natural” music. I always thought that there’s nothing “natural” about writing some symbols of sounds on paper and later have some musicians grab mallets, bows or use complex mechanisms such as a piano or an organ to recreate those sounds.
But according to these theories, certain types of music  may be  more “natural” than others...
This raises a personal and difficult to deal with question. Are we producing “un-natural” music, those of us who have been using electronically produced “un-natural” sounds or real sounds from our acoustic environment? Am I artificial? A cyborg of sorts...?
The title of the article is in itself an outrageous statement. We learn that audiences hate modern classical music. I always thought that audiences hated any attack on their aesthetic beliefs and on their culturally wired values. And I also thought that it all depends on the package and the wrapping. Audiences that may hate modern classical music, love it, accept it and fully understand it in the context of, say, a movie.
But I didn’t know this was “natural”. Otherwise I would have changed my musical lexicon years ago... 
Throughout the history of western music, scandal and outrage have surrounded a lot of “natural” music, that seem perfectly “natural” now, and the same scandal and outrage were present in many other forms of art.
What is “natural” music? Even if you can prove that there may be a common element that crosses different and seemingly opposite cultures, who would want to build an entire art form solely based on that? 
As Collin Holter puts it “Of course music with readily perceptible patterns is easier to grok. Crossword puzzles consisting of thematically related clues are, I imagine, easier to complete than the other kind.” 

So it is easier and more “natural” to let a patient die of leukemia than to replace that natural bone marrow... 

sexta-feira, 29 de janeiro de 2010


I just watched the movie Avatar. It is indeed an astonishing experience. The movie will most probably start a new trend in the industry. Great, revolutionary production, hot subject... totally disappointing sound and music!
It is incomprehensible that such a high profile work, so rich and adventurous in the visual techniques employed, tackling such an all-embracing and delicate subject, that constitutes such a challenging visual experience, should sound like his. Its use of music ranges from the totally banal to the scarily corny and some of its sound effects will probably trigger a 10-point Richter scale earthquake or speed up continental drift, if the theaters where this film is shown happen to stand on the right fault line. Often during the projection, I had to cover my ears.

Should we enforce higher musical standards for such tall characters? Yes, I don’t really see a 3 m tall Na’vi producing music of such a poor quality...