It was my Nervous System (maybe)

January 18th, 2008 andrea

Last night some fellow members of The New York Society for Acoustic Ecology (NYSAE) cleared up something that happened to me in Antarctica that had been bothering me.

While I was in the Dry Valleys, I was looking for a very quiet place where I thought I might be able to hear the geological ‘keynote’ (as Murray Schafer describes it) of the valleys. At a couple of points, I thought I had found it, a very quiet high pitched hum, but when I tried to make a recording of it using the most sensitive mics I had, I got nothing on the recording except some rustling of clothing.

I thought that maybe this sound was my imagination, or that I was starting to get tinnitis, or maybe the sound of a light wind in my ear canal, but when I explained the sound to a group of NYSAE members, they almost all simultaneously responded with ‘it was your nervous system.’

Turns out John Cage talked about this phenomenon in several articles and his 1973 book ‘Silence’. He visited an anechoic chamber and, as he says: “heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.”

There’s some debate on the accuracy of this, some say Cage more likely had a mild case of tinnitis, and that the very high-pitched sound of the nervous system is usually inaudible to people over the age of 30, but I was happy for this more inspiring explanation. As Cage says: “The reason I did not expect to hear those two sounds was that they were set into vibration without any intention on my part. That experience gave my life direction, the exploration of nonintention.”

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Sonic Antarctica

January 8th, 2008 andrea

sonic antarctica concert
Last night was the Sonic Antarctica concert at the McMurdo Station Coffeehouse. We presented twenty sound recordings and compositions by 11 people, over 90 minutes of sound works total. The turnout was amazing, standing room only. By some estimates over 100 people came out to enjoy snacks, sangria and sound.

A vast majority of the works were created this season, most within the past two weeks (two compositions were finished within hours of the show!).

Some of the highlights were: the walkabout McMurdo station recorded and narrated by Anne Dal Vera, Phil Austin explaining the LDB balloon launch as it was happening, wind harmonics of the SSC stairwell recorded by Patricia Jackson, an interior binaural recording by Julie Katch that was so subtle and beautiful that it got the whole crowed quiet and focused, Tia’s recordings of late night Macops and whistling wind, an industrial noise mix of town machines by James Travis, Jason Seehafer’s Radarsat boom mic recording, Doug Quin’s Elephant Seals loudly complaining about being hauled out (it reminded some listeners of residents grumbling during a recent early morning fire alarm in the dorm!), Jean Pennycook’s Adelie calls, Douglas MacAyeal’s evocative B15A seismic sound and Bob Smalley’s ambient sonification of an Antarctic earthquake (20-minutes matching the real time of the quake). I was surprised to hear audience members reacting strongly to my recordings taken aboard the C-130, A-Star helicopter and on Taylor glacier, saying they actually felt their bodies moving while listening.

Although this wasn’t part of my original plan, Sonic Antarctica turned out so well, if I can edit everything down to 70-75 minutes and find a producer/distributor, I’ll do a commercial CD release of the project this year.

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More Weird Glacier Sounds

January 4th, 2008 andrea

commonwealth met station
Today Hassan and I went to visit a couple more LTER met stations, one on top of Commonwealth Glacier in Taylor Valley. If you put a mic right down to the surface, the sound of a glacier is incredibly reverberant, almost as sound was going into a giant hollow space with highly reflective walls or through a tangled matrix of hollow glass tubes. It was too cold to record any melting sounds underneath the surface, but I was able to scrape and otherwise manipulate the surface to get some interesting and weird sounds. What I find weird in this short mono recording is the kind of high pitched squeaking and clicking that occurs behind the main scraping sound.

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Adelie Penguin Chicks at Cape Royds

January 1st, 2008 andrea

cape royds
If you listen carefully to this very short recording, you can hear the tiny peeping of adelie penguin chicks:

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Skua Attack at Cape Royds

January 1st, 2008 andrea

cape royds
There are several skua nests around the penguin colonies at Cape Royds. This is what happens when you get a little too close (you can hear 2 skuas in this 30 second recording, the one that starts making noise sounds to me like a person pretending to be a skua, but I assure you it is the actual sound of one):

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