In the auditorium

I took pictures of the first concert I attended: Steppenwolf at the Civic Auditorium in Bakersfield California sometime in 1975. I scanned some negatives recently, and was trying to isolate the date it happened and oddly enough the best source I’ve found is myself, nineteen years ago. The internet is a strange and wondrous place. It’s curious that I haven’t found the negative for the photograph I used then, but I found many others. Research has turned up things like another show from that tour filmed for Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert, but no precise dates. I have identified the bass player as George Biondo, and the lead guitarist as Bobby Cochran, a nephew of Eddie Cochran.

This was the moment that I discovered that photographing music was hard. I feel sorry for the oceans of people I see in videos that are watching concerts on their phones as they attempt to film them. I do not think, as many do, that photographing a scene removes you from the experience and makes you miss out. Instead, I think what happens is that your reflexive version of the experience concentrates on a different sort of rhythm– visual rhythm rather than musical rhythm. Both are interesting in their own way, but to photograph a scene “others” you from the crowd who have gathered to share an experience. Visual experience is a more solitary thing, I think. No one sees what you see, even if they feel what you feel. By trying to present your visual diary page, a lot is left off the edges. I forgot, for example, that Cochran used a a voice box like the one made famous by Peter Frampton.

Revisiting my old photographs for the first time in decades reminds me that I mostly took pictures for myself. Photographing bands, babes, or babies is an attempt to create a shared basis for conversation born from common desires. Photography was always, for me, first a method for making sense of the world. It’s a way of hanging on to things so that you can study them more closely, to deepen your appreciation and fascination with things that are traveling past us so fast that we barely have time to make sense of them, let alone find meaning. The change in the intervening twenty years since the last time I looked at some of these old images is the ability to research them more fully, and isolated details that I didn’t know at the time.

What I remember most about my photographic practice of the ensuing 1980s was that I put things up on my walls to look at them for a long time before I let them go. Somethings left the wall quickly, and others stuck around, becoming a theme for me. Bands, though I’ve photographed a lot of them, were never really the main reason I took photographs but instead a nicely distracted environment in which to work and think about what I could see instead of any sort of shared emotive experience. Instead, for the most part, I went to concerts to listen and feel the people around me rather than to look. It took me many years to figure out how to do both.

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The Rationalization of Sound

Mall mural, Shoreview, MN © 2006 Jeff Ward

On the wall beside the drugstore, across from a Parisian style cafe, inside a dying enclosed mall in Shoreview (a northern suburb of the Twin Cities) this musical apparition caught my eye. It was a space I loved; murals covered every wall of this tiny mall and the air was filled with muzak instead of the rush of people. There was a soundscape to these suburbs that I was captivated with. I’ll never forget going to the Shoreview Target store in the dead of my first Minnesota winter. It was like entering into a scene from The Shining set in a store like the one in One Hour Photo: white, spare, oddly menacing and above all incredibly creepy. It was visceral— a three dimensional experience—not a movie.

Mall mural, Shoreview, MN © 2008 Jeff Ward

The mall, located over a set of railroad tracks and across the community marker on a wall that was always vandalized to read “horeview” actually seemed warm and inviting to me. It was like walking into a make believe town where the empty shops had been replaced by paintings of shops, and the people with likenesses permanently enjoying the space looking outward from the walls. The scenes were intelligible, and fitted well to the space, complete with flâneurs peeking from behind the sculptural plastic trees.

Mall mural, Shoreview, MN © 2006 Jeff Ward

In the beginning, Victor Gruen saw the architectural space of the modern shopping mall as a substitute for the plazas and promenades of old world cities. I suspect the muralist who created that odd environment inside that mall in Shoreview, MN, wasn’t thinking of that. It’s an interesting cultural and aesthetic confluence, but the soundscape simply didn’t match up.

Emily Thompson, in The Soundscape of Modernity, uses the term soundscape to be inclusive of the cultures that create them.

Like a landscape, a soundscape is simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving the environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world. The physical aspects of a soundscape consist not only of the sounds themselves, the waves of acoustical energy permeating the atmosphere in which people live, but also the material objects that create and sometimes destroy those sounds. A soundscapes cultural aspects incorporate scientific and aesthetic ways of listening, a listener’s relationship to their environment, and the social circumstances that dictate who gets to hear what. (1-2)

The narrative Thompson arranges is the emergence of a “modern soundscape” from 1900-1933. The centerpiece is a transformation of sound into signal roughly analogous to William Ivin’s suggestion of a movement from image to report in print illustration. And like the term legend, it replicates both a sensory experience, and the means to make sense of it. Architectural acoustics seeks to replicate the conditions of “good sound” in a repeatable fashion; just what qualifies as good is socially negotiated.

Reasoning about the nature of sound requires models. There were two important perspectives that interfaced in dramatically in the nineteenth century that lead to the modern soundscape.  Hermann von Hemholtz was a towering figure in  acoustics. Seeking to promote psychophysics, founded on the model that there was a direct relationship between perception and reality, Hemholtz discovered that vowel sounds could be replicated using tuning forks or resonant chambers that matched their frequency. Heinrich Hertz, a student of Hemholtz succeeded in tying things together for a wave model of electromagnetic activity using James Clerk Maxwell’s equations. It’s easy to adopt the enlightenment/scientific method paradigm for progress, as typified by Galileo in 1623:

Philosophy [i.e. natural philosophy] is written in this grand book — I mean the Universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.

However, it would be a mistake to believe that acoustical science was based entirely on Newtonian materialism. The first textbook on acoustics from 1877, still in use today, was written by a staunch idealist who proclaimed “I have never thought the materialist view possible, and I look to a power beyond what we see, and to a life in which we may at least hope to take part. ” Lord Rayleigh, who also provided a material explanation as to why the sky is blue, follows a different philosophy of science than Hemholtz, and rather than pursuing psychophysics, maintained an interest in parapsychology as a member of the Society for Psychical Research.

Thompson’s survey of soundscapes begins in 1900, summoning an epigram from a plaque in the lobby of Symphony Hall in Boston dedicated to Wallace Sabine:

Symphony Hall, the first auditorium to be built in known conformity with acoustical laws, was designed in accordance with his specifications and mathematical formulae, the fruit of long and arduous research. Through self-effacing devotion to science, he nobly served the art of music. Here stands his monument. (13)

Sabine is still famous for the Sabine Reverberation Equation, used to measure the effects of the absorption of sound by material in the sound field. He found that the strict mathematical formulae of Hertz, when applied to sound, did not successfully predict the level of reverberation in actual environments. He used instruments developed by Lord Rayleigh for creating visual representations of sound waves to measure the absorption of sound waves by different materials, arriving at a mathematical relation that could be used to predict reliably how architectural environments would sound, at least as far as reverberation at different frequencies was concerned. Eventually, less reverberation was to be preferred for maximum intelligibility.

Part of the reason for this had little to do with music; it is speech that is most frequently rendered unintelligible by reverberation. Research into sound has been driven more by the mystery of voice than the requirements of environments, though with the increased demand for large public meeting spaces, emphasis on architectural acoustics becomes especially important.

The success of Symphony Hall in Boston was initially mixed— it was a “controlled” hall, compared to other venues. Some felt it sucked the life out of the music played there, but now it is revered as one of the finest sounding music halls available. In 1902, Sabine began to study “The Accuracy of Musical Taste in Regard to Architectural Acoustics,” declaring that the fundamental problem was a lack of understanding both of physical phenomena and musical effect. Judgement and taste necessitated the development of more refined authorities adjudicate disputes.

Thompson makes the argument that until the advent of electronic sound reinforcement (in 1933) architectural acoustics was a fertile field of negotiation regarding the definition of what constituted “good sound.” There was a tension between mathematical modeling and more human standards of perception that was fundamentally altered by the transformation from sound to signal.

Signal works here on two levels; on one hand, it is the waveform approach to sound versus material vibrations. On the other hand, signal also has an equivalence with message, or spoken word, which reaches its logical culmination much later in the Shannon-Weaver model for communication (1948). Lord Rayleigh’s desire for visual representation of speech was also taken up, in a non-mathematical way, by an elocution teacher,  Alexander Melville Bell.

In 1867, Bell attempted to create a symbolic language for sound, Visible Speech, which was based on the shape the mouth made while making sounds. It was an attempt at a universal language that would reproduce not only the symbolic content, but also the sound of dialects and variations between speakers. The modern equivalent exists in the form of the IPA, first discussed in 1886.

In a profound sense, the “report” of speech by standard symbolic alphabets strips away the richness of the experience of speech in material environments. There are two tracks here worth highlighting. Sound as electromagnetic signal appeals to mathematic rationalization of material properties. Sound as a uniquely situated event appeals to the philosophical idealist mode of rationalizing it within a human context. Bell’s Visible Speech is a legend for the material realities of the body that produces speech.

It’s worth noting that these factors do not operate in isolation. They interact in curious ways. Alexander Graham Bell’s development of the telephone was grounded in his father’s work on Visible Speech, but also in a fortuitous misreading of Hemholtz’s scientific paper on the reproduction of vowel sounds. How sound gets rationalized is cultural, aesthetic, and not entirely scientific.

Deep Cuts

Sun Studios, 2006. Record cutting lathe & tape recorder

Speech and music are best considered as events. They happen. In fact, the descriptive term for words which convey action or a condition of being is verb, which is taken from the Middle French word for speech. Recording events to make them repeatable is a function of technology, either as writing (symbolic memory) or as a way of recreating the sound waves associated with an event already past through a variety of technologies

Non-symbolic analog or digital technologies for producing repeatable sounds began from forms of cutting or extruding. Bumps raised on the cylinders of a music box or cutouts in a piano roll can replay sounds with great precision, but these digital technologies lack flexibility when compared to the analog recreation of the Edison wax cylinder. A stylus impresses the mechanical motion of a diaphragm into a spiral groove created in wax. There are problems with fidelity and permanence, though.

In the early twentieth century, cutting won the day. A variety of formats of shellac discs, at first, and finally vinyl records emerged with varying standards. They were cut on record making lathes directly and replicated as stampers (molds) used to press multiple copies for reproduction. Fidelity to the original speech or musical event has been a concern from the start; recordings, like sense data, are processed in different, media-specific ways in each new technology. Progress has been largely contingent on socially negotiated agreements rather than clear-cut engineering reasoning.

Cutting provides specific challenges to the material aspects of a recording. First, there’s the speed at which the stylus passes cuts a trough, as well as the amplitude (depth) of each groove in two planes. This leads to necessary compromises regarding playing time, distortion (both amount and type of distortion), not to mention the transition early on from a 3-d cylinder to a 2-d planar surface (disk). Standards were hard fought and not adopted universally. RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) standards for signal processing in long playing recordings were adopted in 1952, but not embraced by the rest of the world until 1970. By 1940, more than 100 competing standards had emerged to meet the challenges of encoding analog recording.

Digital coding (as in music boxes and piano rolls for player pianos) was contingent on a single on/off state for each individual note (frequency bundle) and very specific to each device. Analog recording offered a unique potential for encoding voice instead of simply musical notes, and saw wide adoption. Remember that Edison thought the primary use of his recording instruments was dictation.

The reproduction of classical music and hymns was reliant on symbolic notation of scores, which emerged in parallel with the symbolic recording of texts. The conventions for musical scores evolved within the social structures of the Church. Songs combine elements of both score and text, and after 1949 it was commonplace to refer to a song as a “cut” due to their primary means of storage and transmission, the inscribed disc. The song as an event was nominalized from the verb describing the action of recording it.

Deep cuts refer to songs buried with an artist’s catalog of recordings that have escaped notice; what I’m really trying to highlight here is that even when a recording has a metonymic connection with the original event (as with analog recording), that connection is mediated through the conventions as to what is considered significant in the truest sense (transferred as signifier, not as a symbol) in a sonic event mediated by material constraints, which are negotiated politically. This frequently escapes notice. When we talk about “high fidelity,” the question of fidelity to what or who is never really mentioned.

The opposite of a “deep cut” is of course a hit. A verb taken from Old Norse, hit became nominalized as popular success in the early nineteenth century. High fidelity, from Alexander Graham Bell forward, was mostly thought of as a function of intelligibility.  The relationship between mathematically engineered models of sound and consensus about intelligibility derived from testing systems with groups of people diverged significantly. It became easy to test for frequency and amplitude, but the relationship between them—what might genuinely be labeled as the syntax of sound— was more elusive.

Psychological models and psychological testing are the basis for much of acoustic science. In 1933, Fletcher and Munson tested a group of people with headphones to determine when two frequencies were determined to be at the same volume, generating what we call the equal loudness contour. This is especially important in telephony, because it measures perceived loudness (intelligibility) rather than signal amplitude. How loud does a sound have to be for us to identify it as such? It turns out that this changes with frequency.

The experiment was flawed, and repeated in 1937. In 1956 a new version of the experiment, again with significant deviations from previous findings, was published and became the basis for a new standard. This was also widely seen as flawed, and it wasn’t until repeated experiments in 2003 that a new ISO standard for loudness contour was agreed upon. It’s hard to have a hit, and difficult to stay on the charts you might say.

Our understanding of music and speech as events leaves much room for exploration. Key to this, of course, is the repeatability of experimental results. This is only possible through the use of increasingly precise methods of reproduction, the very technologies subject to improvement.



Pure, Perfect Sound–Forever

My wife is profoundly deaf in one ear and severely deaf in the other. What this means, from a practical standpoint, is that without electronic signal processing she cannot parse anything. This was strange to discover, partly because I met her in classes where conversation was a central feature of the class. She doesn’t speak with any sort of an accent, to my ears at least, and understands most everything (apart from the normal marital deafness, that is) that I say. We don’t talk about deafness much, and haven’t over the last 17 years or so, until the last few years where it’s been a topic of theoretical consideration.

This might seem odd to some, given my history of being a bit of an audiophile and music lover. My wife loves music and has a broad musical knowledge— in fact, we spend a lot of time talking about it. In the early days of our relationship, I did spend some time trying to figure out the sensual differences between us. She doesn’t hear in stereo, and until digital hearing aids (about 4 months before we met) she didn’t have any access to high frequency information. Obviously, her experience of music should be different from mine. Not exactly. We share more than you might think. From my years as an audio salesman and equipment trainer, I have been aware that even people with perfect hearing simply don’t hear subtle differences unless they learn how.

Music, like most human interactions, depends on a high degree of intuition to decode into meaningful content. Some folks don’t get it, or don’t give it much thought. Part of what really made me fall in love with my wife is her incredible intuition, learned in part I think from having to operate on less information than other people. She became deaf as a small child and has virtually no memory of standard hearing. Because of this, she has adjusted to technology fairly seamlessly. Each new generation of hearing aids brings greater information, making it easier to understand and interact with the world around her with less mental effort in filling in the gaps.

George Berkeley argued that the universe exists only in our minds because sensual information is incommensurate. Everyone perceives and processes the world differently, largely through the comparison between things which looks for difference. James Gibson’s big revelation regarding visual perception is that we are bodies in space and movement (both our own and of objects in the world) plays a large part in the way we mentally construct images. It’s not just the data, it’s how it changes as we interact with the world. In short, all perception is processed.

Attempts to transfer this processing to machine algorithms have given us socially agreed upon constructs as the JPEG, the acronym for Joint Photographic Experts Group, in 1992. Prior to this in 1980, the compact disc format was loosed upon the world by agreement on the Red Book standard. The promise, as promoted on a 1982 sampler recording from Philips, was Pure, Perfect Sound–Forever.

The slogan was met with almost immediate ridicule, with good reason. I remember the first CD machines we received at Sun Stereo in California– they were the size of a large toaster, and sounded downright strident and hard to listen to for long periods of time. Pure is not an adjective anyone could reasonably apply to sound except in the form of sine and square waves, certainly not music. And these machines did not sound like music. Nonetheless, the machines continued to improve and eventually took the world by storm. The consensus was that digital was convenient and “good enough” to satisfy our music recording needs.

The ironic part of the Phillips marketing strategy was the “forever” part. Early digital disks degraded quickly, becoming unplayable in 10-15 years. It was a bit like the early days of mass color photography; there’s a gap in the historical record because the dyes used were not permanent and present a jaundiced view of what colors in the 1950s and 1960s actually were. Natural degradation is a part of any artifact, usually a slow fade or a deposited patina on objects like oil paintings from atmospheric contamination. Digital did not repeal the laws of entropy.

Perfect, of course, is a matter of degree. People have long argued that the Red Book standard saddled the world with an imperfect musical product. Digital devices quantize sound in terms of the rate of samples and the number of discrete steps measured in those samples. The sample rate of Red Book is 44.1khz  with 16 bit steps. There are more choices available now, with more information, but not everyone cares or can be bothered to seek out better sound resolution.

The jury is still out as to whether more information (and larger digital files) really improve the subjective experience of digital audio. As my wife is quick to point out, having more information doesn’t always lead to greater understanding; for example, she still has difficulty appreciating early Joni Mitchell, or most all Joan Baez, because their vocal ranges are high and even when the frequencies are transposed down to the range she can hear she finds them painful to listen to, even though she can appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship of the songs and lyrics.

A better example, though, is her listening difficulties in large groups, particularly in noisy environments. She makes sense of situations by reading a variety of cues, body language and lip movements (though, no, she cannot read lips). When there are more people and more sounds tossed in, it becomes harder to discriminate between what is important and unimportant. She can handle four people at a time these days, but five is pushing it. I have another deaf friend who works well when in close proximity with one person and can direct his attention solely to them. There is a human labor in all this beyond algorithmic signal processing.

Which brings me to the real difficulty, as I see it, with digital sound and picture files— the way they will endure through time. The only real answer to the problem of “forever” with digital files is to continually copy them to new media as it becomes available, and digital copies cannot be perfect. Dropped bits, in small or large quantities are replaced using CIRC error correction, and when this fails to live up to the “pure, perfect” hype, artifacts are the result. Machines interpolating missing information are not the same as humans reconstructing a sense of the world. There is an alien DNA wedding itself to our cultural memory

As time goes on, our world is increasingly digitally smoothed. In a profound sense, analog records (non-biodegradable petrochemical discs) are made when breath (aura) is transformed into motion incised in the world. They degrade, generally through clicks and pops and shadows from adjacent grooves. Digital files don’t degrade, they simply get interpolated out of existence.

Analog recording is metonymic in that air pressure is transformed into incision and then back to air pressure through transformation. In each groove, there is a part of the musical experience directly connected with the moment. As it degrades, the analog recording’s original vibrations disappear in a sea of random sounds: white noise.

Digital recording starts with a sample of the musical moment.  As it degrades, the algorithm will interpolate data until no original data exists. Then it will interpolate the interpolations until the sound that emerges has no direct connection with the original event. It will survive forever, but only as a metaphor for something that once existed.

There was a short piece that my wife wrote long ago in Arkansas about the time just after we met. I was trying to explain what boiling water sounded like (she couldn’t hear it). I put some dry beans in some water in a jar and swirled it around, thinking that the rattling of the beans against the glass would be more within her range. It worked, this argument by analogy. Communication longs to succeed.

The recording angel has labored long across the twentieth century. I often think about Edward Curtis’s efforts at recording North American native tribes, both in sound and image. The images were designed for photogravure and broad circulation rather than as artifacts for a museum. And there were sounds, on Edison wax cylinders, mostly lost to degradation and accident. But some survive, as digital samples lurking on the internet. I think it’s important to keep emphasis on the human aspects of songs. Above all, humans fade.

I heard a perfect echo die into an anonymous wall of digital sound

I am reminded of the story of Echo and Narcissus. They failed to communicate, so he fell in love with himself.