In search of sound

A
native of Seattle, Daniel Miller is a composer, programmer, instrument builder,
and field recordist. His creative practice centers on perceiving and responding
to the vitality latent in simple processes, materials, and technologies. Recent
creative interests have included explorations of found objects, live animated
interactive scores, and feedback cycles between performers and stochastic
processes or acoustic automata. In 2013, he was a recipient of a Thomas J.
Watson Fellowship, a grant that made possible twelve months of research on
music and technology in seven countries. This article is the trail of all the
sounds he covered in four continents.

More
recently, Daniel was a Fulbright-Nehru research fellow based in Mysuru, India
from 2017-2018 where he collaborated with Indian musicians and sound artists at
Srishti School of Art Design and Technology and was advised by Dr. Mysore
Manjunath at the University of Mysore.

By Daniel Miller

The glass terrariums
by my bedroll were covered, but not as securely as I would have liked
considering that they contained a diverse collection of Australia's venomous
reptiles. My host was an affable professional snake catcher with a genuine admiration
for scaly creatures of all kinds. He took in strays, both reptilian and human;
his house, a suburban pad on the outskirts of Brisbane, was a menagerie.
Besides the snakes, there were crayfish in a former swimming pool, bearded dragon
lizards in a pen in the garden, and a rotating roster of human guests who
seemed to stay anywhere from a few days to a year. Among this small community
of geeks and students, itinerant circus artist and wandering buskers, my
obsession with recording the sounds of Australian frogs doubtless seemed only
slightly out of the ordinary.

          At night my host took me out into the
abandoned quarries near town, where he taught me how to spot the glint
reflected by a spider's faceted eye, catching the glare of a flashlight beam
even from its hiding place in deep grass. It was here too that I first heard
the bizarre chorus of "barking" frogs, attempting rather
unsuccessfully to capture their distant jeering cry on my tiny Zoom H4n digital
audio recorder.

*    *   
*

          The year 2013–14 was one of the most transformative
experiences of my life, both as a person and as a sound artist and composer.
After graduating with degrees in music composition and philosophy from Lawrence
University, a tiny college in the rural American Midwest, I had the astonishing
honor and privilege to be granted a Watson Fellowship. Established by the heirs
of the late IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, the grant funds a year of
self-directed research overseas for selected graduates of 40 of America's
small, liberal-arts colleges, irrespective of the graduates' countries of
origin or citizenship.

          My thesis—which I ultimately pursued
in seven countries on four continents—was that sound artists, musicians, and
composers are particularly perceptive to the sounds of their immediate
environment. Whether urban or rural, classically trained or self-taught, the
practice of listening deeply to sound changes a composer's perception of the
act of auration itself. Inevitably the sounds of one's surroundings influence
one's music, and this is particularly true of artists who work with
microphones, the surrogate ears through which we attempt to copy, emulate, and
even distort the object of perception.

          A condenser microphone is a fortress
built to protect an almost indescribably delicate membrane. At the microphone's
heart is a minute drumhead, like a tin-man replica of the human inner ear, just
half the thickness of cling wrap and stretched under fearsome tension. Through
this delicate skin, perhaps covered in a fine lamina of gold, a fleeting
electrical charge courses, fluctuating with the vibration of the air and
passing on the barest tickle of current to circuits that will capture and
amplify the signal.

          The field recordist is an artist with
the almost foolhardy task of pitting this feather-light stylus against all the
violence of sound in its natural habitat. We go to absurd lengths to protect
the tiny metal grill from the barest breath of wind, cupping our body around
the mic, or encasing it in blimp-like fuzzy nylon "socks." Though some
prefer the gonzo thrill of hearing even the physical body and movements of the
recordist in the recording (a reminder that no human-made record is ever free
of the particular auration of its creator), if we are to truly listen deeply we
must practice being still—very still. One becomes aware of even the tiny
creaking of the bones in the hand or the sound of one's own breath. Recording,
and listening through a microphone, becomes a kind of contemplative practice in
itself.

          Dorothea Lange—the iconic photographer
of America's Great Depression of the 1930s—is quoted in a biography by Milton
Meltzer: to take her camera with her in the morning, she said, was like
"putting on her shoes." Tellingly, she goes on to emphasize the
importance of the camera as a tool for learning to "see without the camera."
Similarly, field recordists commit themselves to using the microphone as an
instrument for learning to listen, with or without its mechanical assistance.

          But while a photographer has
significant leeway in how they frame a scene—deciding what objects to include and
which to cut from the frame—most microphones are less directional. What the
field recordist can hear, the microphone can generally hear with even greater
sensitivity. To listen through a microphone is not to ever hear "the"
actual sound but rather a sound which is mechanically enhanced or attenuated.
We cannot escape intervening in that record, but neither can we ever entirely
control the outcome of a recording.

          I found that these competing themes of
control and intervention versus exploration and discovery reappeared in
countless ways in the work of artists I met, collaborated with, and interviewed
during my twelve months on the road. But to understand the context, both
cultural and acoustic, of the musicians I met along the way, I first had to
engage with the environments I traveled through on my own terms.

*    *   
*

          Starting my journey in Perth, Western
Australia, one of the most isolated cities on earth, I hiked part of the
Bibbulmun Track, a 1000-kilometer-long trail that snakes down the coast through
dense Jarrah forests conspicuously inhabited by flocks of wild cockatiel birds.
My soundtrack, for the first time in my life, was the creaking of my heavy
pack's straps, the bright red, iron-rich earth underfoot scarred in places by
tumultuous subtropical rains. In a rite of passage for any young field
recordist, I clamped little copper contact microphones (a simple microphone
that records vibrations in solid surfaces rather than in the air) to metal cattle
fences along the trail, listening to the reverberant hum of metal vibrating in
the wind. Laying the contact microphones face up on anthills, I listened to the
sound of tiny desperate footfalls as the insects investigated the intrusion of
this alien copper disc. One night, in my tent, I heard, from very close by, the
growling hiss of a goanna, a giant carnivorous monitor lizard that can grow to
two meters long.

          Flying to Brisbane a month later, I had
the pleasure of meeting Lawrence English, the Johnny Cash of field recording,
as dapper and distinguished in person as he is in promotional photos for
Room40, his well-respected record label. English is a keen listener with a
penchant for philosophical contemplation, and his recordings are as extraordinary
for their clarity and complexity as they are for the creativity of their
environs. A recording which I always return to is his 2011 recording of a toy
store in Tokyo (Toy Store Ueno Japan.
"And the Lived In." Room40, 2012)—a rich tapestry of electronic
warbles like a field of cicadas at dusk, a bizarre mimesis, the synthetic
masquerading as the biological.

          Another Australian field recordist who
influenced me a great deal was Martin Kay. More abstract and interventionist in
his aesthetic, Kay has largely focused on "prepared" field recording.
A typical experiment for him is to place a microphone deep within a storm drain
or culvert to record the distant crowd noise some kilometers away from a major
sporting event.

          In prepared field recording,
"composition" becomes explicitly about composing the placement of
microphones. Microphones may be placed inside enclosed or resonant vessels, the
vessels partially submerged or subjected to wind, ice, or steam; or the
microphone may be located in a generally inaccessible place, such as on the
roof of a moving elevator. (Japanese sound artist Toshiya Tsunoda once famously
recorded birdsongs with a microphone placed in the tailpipe of his car.)

          In mid-October I flew north to the Indonesian
island of Java through white-knuckle turbulence that rocked the Airbus A330 as
we passed over the sultry beaches of Darwin. The former capital of the Mataram
Sultanate, Yogyakarta, has long been a cultural hub for Javanese traditional
arts and is now at the center of a new kind of artistic revival. Many of Yogyakarta's
young artists draw on classical Javanese arts as well as the contemporary
concerns of their community to create work that is at once fresh and culturally
aware. Two artists who exemplify this trend are Rully Shabara and Wukir
Suryadi, who together form the band Senyawa.

          I first met Suryadi at his farmhouse
at a distant edge of town. With little more than a GPS coordinate and a cell
number, I walked through shaded lanes and lush farmland, past feral chickens
and children who inevitably stopped to stare at the obviously quite lost
American guy who would have had to stoop to fit through any normal-sized doorway.

          Suryadi's house at that time was
filled with traditional farming tools, all in various stages of being converted
into electronically amplified musical instruments. In pride of place was an
enormous wooden plow, which dominated his front entryway, strung with taut
wires like the rigging of some shipwrecked vessel. A backroom contained dozens
of objects in various stages of modification: bamboo rice winnowing baskets
with attached contact mics, lutes made of hoes and spades, and a bamboo spear
strung around its circumference with amplified wires.
          Like Senyawa, the community arts
collective LifePatch draws on environmental and agricultural concerns of the
community, staging workshops on water quality and fermentation, and creating
works of art that electronically sonify environmental processes. Its model is
deeply interdisciplinary and idiosyncratic; its core members include artists
and musicians, a biochemist, and a farmer. I spent many evenings in their
cluttered but creative clubhouse, the smell of tobacco smoke and hot electrical
circuitry richly accenting workshops on the open-source programming platform
Pure Data. Not to be outdone by Senyawa's heavy metal aesthetic, LifePatch
members once placed flags with embedded electronic synthesizers and speakers
near the summit of Mt. Marapi an active (and very lively) volcano. Each flag’s
motion sonified the fickle and ash laden winds on the summit. (Sadly, the
installation was perhaps destroyed in an eruption shortly thereafter.)

*    *   
*

          In the months that followed, I
wandered from country to country, savoring the changing soundscape in each new
place, always in awe of the artists I met and the generosity of the musicians
who let me sleep on their couches.

          I moved on to Taiwan and Japan,
hanging out evening after evening at SuperDeluxe—Tokyo's legendary noise-music
dive famous for hosting the likes of JapaNoise idol and art-house heartthrob
Masami Akita (aka Merzbow). Immersing
myself in Tokyo's vibrant underground noise music scene, I heard and met
artists such as free improv collective Marginal Consort and, on one
particularly memorable evening, "Zombie Music," a recorder-playing
pneumatic robot designed by eccentric Japanese composer Yasuno Taro. My
reluctant departure from Japan in January was briefly delayed by a historic
snowstorm that stranded me in Narita Airport for three nights, sleeping in the
airport's public observation deck and waking each morning to the unusual sight
of deserted, peaceful runways.

          I spent the spring of 2013 in
beautiful, perplexing Buenos Aires, jamming in the eclectic
folk-instrument-strewn apartment of Alejo Duek, a member of the Argentine freak
folk band La Suena de los Elefantes. His workshops (Experimentación Sonora) draw an eclectic crowd of porteños: cynical
studio guitarists, New Age spiritualists, folk musicians, and painters. The
results fall somewhere between avant-garde and freestyle meditation.

          Weekends I would often spend at cheLA,
a former asbestos factory turned center for media art and technology, which
hosted, among other things, a practice space for circus performers. Here I met
the charismatic Luciano Azzigotti who runs ConDiT, an experimental music
project founded in 2011. Since its inception, ConDiT has staged more than 60
events, many with an international scope. ConDiT composers have drawn on a
pre-Columbian tradition of cooperative labor and community service known as
Minka, reinterpreting this tradition through a method of communal artistic
creation, composing a musical work collaboratively over the course of a day.

          Sonic coincidences—fortuitous moments
of overheard beauty—were everywhere, from my kitchen in Tokyo, to the cold
mountains of the Atacama Desert. One day, standing on a ridge high above the
town of Tupiza, in Bolivia's arid southwest, I recorded a school band and a
military parade echoing in simultaneous oblivious counterpoint from different
parts of the little town, fading in and out of background noise of the dry,
dusty little town at the edge of the desert. Music is where you stop to listen.

          Shortly before the end of my
fellowship, my trusty hydrophone (underwater microphone)—which had served me
well recording the cacophonous creaking of ice in the glacial lagoons along
Iceland's south coast—met its untimely end in a boiling pool of geothermal
water along Iceland's Laugavegur trail. Yet for the brief time during which the
hydrophone was able to record, I captured the most amazing soundscape, one
which none of us will ever hear with our unaided ears: the thunderous growl of
geothermal water boiling up from deep beneath a volcano, and at one point a
long, loud wail of escaping gasses, which scared me so much (listening in
through my headphones) that I scrambled back up the trail, leaving my recording
equipment behind, expecting at any moment that the hot volcanic crust around me
would give way to a freak geyser of boiling sulfurous effluent.
          In my twelve months of
wandering, the only place I struggled to find any sound at all, was deep in the
Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats that cover 11,000 square kilometers of Bolivian
highlands. Here, on salt as hard and flat as ice stretching as far as the eye
could see, not even insects relieved heavy silence. In the occasional pools of
shimmering brine, no bubbles disturbed the soft hiss of digital silence in my
headphones. American composer John Cage talked frequently of hearing his own
blood rushing in his veins when he visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard
University in 1951. It was an important moment for him, a realization that we
are perhaps never without sound (save perhaps, as Lawrence English has
suggested, in the moments just before death). I can't say that I heard my own
blood pulsing in the Salar, but I can say that I felt very strongly the
fragility of life in that moment and the great importance of sound for most
people even in the most mundane moments of our lives.

*    *   
*

          From a sociological viewpoint,
musical traditions can be classified according to how one participates in the
music making: participatory music, in which the community collectively acts as
both the performers and the listeners; presentational styles, in which the
music is presented by a group of expert performers before a quiet receptive
audience; music disseminated primarily through audio recordings; and even works
of experimental sonic art that originate entirely in the synthesizers and other
alchemical sublimations of the recording studio.

          My own experiences suggest that we
might understand a global community of musicians in a different way, defined
instead by the object of their curiosity. In particular, I am interested in the
community of artists working outside of the limelight, perhaps with little or
no formal institutional backing. Their work may seem to be an obscure hobby,
but without the pressures of sluggish institutional support, their work can
connect with communities in new and interesting ways; their music is as
influenced by their environment as they choose to let it be. They are lovers of
strange sounds, tinkerers, and inventors. They are not exclusively of any
particular musical tradition, although they draw on and thrive alongside
classical, vernacular, and contemporary traditions in many countries. They
embody the spirit of do-it-yourself/do-it-with-others, open source, acoustic
curiosity.

          Now more than ever the acoustic
eccentric thrives, ridding a resurgent interest in presumed "authenticity."
The cool new gadget is the collection of wires, speakers, and circuit boards
hand-soldered in a garage somewhere. The sophisticated audio software that
processes the signal from a mic can be downloaded free from freeware repository
GitHub.

          Of course we must not overstate the
accessibility of this music or the community that nourishes it. To participate
in an international community still requires some resources. While open-source
software may be "free," it still requires the resources of a computer
to download it, and in many cases one must have some understanding of English (or
at least a programming language) in order to use it. Though DIY hardware
hacking can produce electronic instruments of great beauty from cheap and
available parts, these components are not free, and one must have the time and
knowledge to learn to solder and assemble them. Though contact microphones can
be made or found within discarded consumer electronics, the best condenser mics
are unaffordable for many. Experimental music, regardless of its providence,
still remains most accessible to the middle class in most countries, and there
remain important questions about "experimentalism," an ideal that has
historically been valorized alongside colonialism.

          Nevertheless, the internet and the
cheap availability of digital recording equipment have somewhat democratized
sound art. Whereas in the 20th century the heartland of electronic music
experimentation was in the large government-supported sound studios of Europe
and the mainframe computer labs of America's Ivy League universities, today
with the resurgent interest in small-scale analogue circuitry and
"maker" culture, tinkering has become the new standards for
uncompromising creativity. Perhaps this trend will help to replace the
troubling concept of a monolithic and static "authenticity" (so often
implying latent exoticism or orientalism) with a recognition that most artists
draw on complex and evolving influences within a rapidly globalizing artistic
community.

          As Rana
Ghose—a New Delhi-based concert promoter and organizer of the Listening Room
concert series, which presents noise music shows in several Indian
cities—recently told The Hindu Business Line reporter Bhanuj Kappal, Indian
artists have always been experimenting with DIY sound and noise "in the
privacy of their own homes." (Kappal, Bhanuj. ‘Signal to noise.’ The Hindu
Business Line, May 27, 2016).  It is an
encouraging sign that such music is increasingly receiving press attention in
many parts of the world; shows, often organized by the artists themselves, are
finding an audience outside of the small vanguard of audiophiles who themselves
produce or perform the music.

          If my experience is representative,
chances are there are artists near you who are doing something unimaginably
strange and exciting with sound. But if not, you could always do it yourself.

(Daniel’s
music has been performed in North America, Europe, and Asia. Past collaborators
include Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, ensemble mise-en, the International
Contemporary Ensemble, Ensemble l'Itinéraire, Sound Energy Trio, the NOW
Ensemble, Ensemble MotoContrario, and folk duo Undlin & Wolfe. He was a
recipient of BMI Student Composer Awards in 2016 and again in 2017. A former
student of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, Daniel is a recipient of degrees
in music composition and philosophy from Lawrence University. Most recently he
completed a master degree in the Digital Musics program of Dartmouth College.
Daniel is currently a Fulbright-Nehru research fellow based in Mysuru, India,
where he is advised by Dr. Mysore Manjunath at the University of Mysore.)