Archive for Found things that are cool

Frozen sounds

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 24, 2010 by Jack

On my old blog I wrote a longish article looking at how climate change was changing the Arctic, and the new strategic importance of the newly uncovered fossil fuels and shipping lanes in places once covered with ice to the countries surrounding the North Pole.

Now two different sound art/music projects have caught my attention for highlighting the ways that the role of the Arctic and the Antarctic are changing in our collective imaginations. The polar regions have always held a strong fascination, especially in Britain. Many writers have highlighted the ways that they provided a “white space” on which countless explorers, artists and writers could project their own ideas about masculine heroism and nation building. The races to the poles embody the idea of the national importance of conquering this environment, which for nineteenth century British imperialism provided one of the few limits on the reach of their global power.

Indeed, near where I grew up a whole city has attempted to brand itself in reference to a proud Arctic past. Dundee dubs itself “The City of Discovery” after the ship used in a pioneering Antarctic exploration mission led by the ill-fated Captain Scott, and the ship itself forms the basis for one of the city’s main tourist attractions, in whose visitor centre I briefly worked. The ship was built in Dundee, with the expertise that came from building ships capable of penetrating ever further North, the better to slaughter whales.

The desire to tame the Arctic, to make it useful and part of the imperial world system can perhaps be demonstrated by the centuries long quest for the North West Passage. Ironically, this legendary path may in the near future become a major shipping lane, as climate change opens up a faster route between Chinese near-slaves and Atlantic consumers through the once-frozen North.

The massive impact of human activity represented by the melting ice was not always so evident. In the face of one of the few remaining environments that resisted human control, many responded with horror. From Frankenstein to H. P. Lovecraft to The Thing, the ice has often been the hidden home of monsters and horrors.

But now the Arctic and the Antarctic demonstrate a very real horror, a palpable threat that many can’t bear to face. Ice which represents millenia long eras of freezing is disappearing at an unbelievable rate, melting which is worse than many climate change predictions had warned. One of the greatest causes of polar exploration in recent decades has in fact been the drilling of ice cores, cross sections of ice that are the hidden history of the world’s climate over huge stretches of time. The process of fossilisation that gave us the fuel to do i

t took millions of years, and now we have burnt a significant proportion of that accumulated time in about 200. Looking at the expanses of time recorded in the ice gives us an insight into just how rapidly we’re unmaking the conditions on Earth that allowed the evolution of civilisation.

As has been pointed out by the Arctic’s indigenous inhabitants, the first place we can see the changes which are going to affect all of our lives is in the Arctic. The immense quantities of water, if not locked up in ice, are going somewhere else. Contemplating the destruction we’ve brought to the ice and its consequences for any length of time is pretty terrifying, and it’s something that many people, including apparently the heads of government of the world’s powerful countries, would really rather not confront.

Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica is a new work by turntablist, artist and academic DJ Spooky. He travelled to Antarctica and set up a mobile studio to make sound recordings of the changing ice-forms, put under stress by global changes. These sounds were then incorporated into a seventy minute multimedia performance featuring the sampled sounds coupled with a special score, alongside visual information conveying scientific and geographical information about the frozen continent. Below is a pretty amazing short film showing some of the sounds and sights presented in the performance:

From DJ Spooky’s site:

“In 1949 the British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams created a metaphorical portrait of Antarctica entitled Sinfonia Antarctica that he began with a poem adapted from the poet Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite.
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night,
To defy power which seems omnipotent,
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent:
This… is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free,
This is alone life, joy, empire and victory.

As the only uninhabited continent, Antarctica has no government and belongs to no country. Various countries claim areas of the landmass, but essentially, the area between 90°W and 150°W is the only part of Antarctica, indeed the only solid land on Earth, not claimed by any country. In the era of satellites, wireless networks, and fiber optic cables, its ever harder to see the vision that Vaughn described for his orchestral work. What DJ Spooky’s Antarctic Suite: Ice Loops portrays is a land made of complex ecological interactions. Instead of a metaphor, the composition aims to go to Antarctica and record the sound of the continent. More than 170 million years ago, Antarctica was part of the supercontinent Gondwanaland. Over time Godwin broke apart and Antarctica as we know it today was formed around 25 million years ago. Using digital media, video, and high tech recording equipment, DJ Spooky will go to Antarctica and paint an acoustic portrait of this rapidly transforming environment. . .He aims to bring Antarctica to the contemporary imagination by digitally reconstructing it: historical maps, travelers journals over the last several centuries, crystalline ice’s resonant frequencies, and the Earth’s magnet poles – will all be paints for the audio palette he will work with. Essentially, he will go to the continent and create a recording studio that will be portable enough to move all over the territory. Think of it as sampling the environment with sound – something that Vaughn could only do with metaphor in 1949. The difference Is that Miller approaches the task with a technological background that fosters a direct interaction with the territory that inspires the composition. . .

For most people, thoughts of exploration in Antarctica typically center on dogs, skis, snowshoes, and people in fur, not paintbrushes or sketch pads. Actually, art has always had a prominent place in the exploration of Antarctica. Photography began in the 1830’s and only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was it possible to take photographs in cold environments. Therefore, it was common for explorers of polar regions to be accompanied by artists to visually record the sights and phenomena for research and for popular distribution in books and articles. In the modern era, artists continue to venture to Antarctica. Their intent is not simply to record but to provide visual interpretations of the continent, based on direct observations combined with artistic talent. . .

Miller creates a separate scenario from those envisioned by these artists by focusing on the acoustic qualities of ice and its relationship to geography.

In another film showing the project, DJ Spooky emphasises the idea of music as information, implying that his Sinfonia Antarctica communicates essential, but hidden, knowledge about the processes at work on our planet:

On the project’s page on DJ Spooky’s site there’s also a lot of Antarctic images, including posters he made to represent an imaginary Antarctic revolution.

But another project, by artist Katie Peterson, puts an even stronger focus on the melting ice. In 2007 she laid a microphone in the ever-expanding Jokulsarlon lagoon, which has been created by meltwater from Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland, and one of the largest in the Northern Hemisphere. During the time it was there the sound input from it went through to a telephone line, so that people could call a number and literally listen to the sound of the Arctic melting.

But after this process of recording she then took the process a step further. The sounds made from recordings at three other Icelandic glaciers were pressed into records that were made from frozen water from the lagoons. These records were then played continuously on a trio of turntables, creating a new sound, combined from the original recordings of a melting glacier and the actual sound of those recordings melting. The result is a powerful recreation and re-enactment of the hidden destruction created by humans in the northern part of the world. The sound itself is, especially in context, really menacing:

Sound of ice melting, on a record melting

The records that were made no longer exist, but they are preserved in the form of three DVDs, and there are clips from the original sounds on her site.

What these projects highlight for me is the changing role of the polar regions are coming to play in our culture, as they morph from the arenas for displays of heroic human achievement, to a testament to our unwitting destruction of the Earth. The fact that these two artists have used sound to allow the environments to speak for themselves, as opposed to the stock wind sound effects that once would have stood in countless Arctic-based films, is really interesting, and tries to make our intellectual engagement with what’s going on there that bit more real. The fact that at least some people, culturally, artistically and politically, are willing to engage with the scientific facts of what is happening to the Arctic and Antarctic is a source of hope in the face of the new terror: the destruction of what was once endless white.


Sounds of the Planets

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 11, 2010 by Jack

Here’s something pretty cool I was shown over the holidays. Youtube has several different clips of sounds that have been recorded by NASA probes in proximity to several different planets of the Solar System. These aren’t sounds that you would hear by sticking a microphone out in orbit, but rather are the electromagnetic “sounds” given off by the planet, recorded and then translated into a frequency audible to humans.

Here’s the Earth first of all:

But if you’d like to compare how we sound, a small rocky world covered with oceans of liquid water, to Jupiter, a gigantic world of gas with no solid surface, where hydrogen is eventually compressed into liquid then plasma, where winds traveling at thousands of miles per hour are part of centuries old storms which are bigger than Earth, then here’s 10 minutes of its full creepy glory:

Interestingly, these sounds all seem to originate on the site of a sound therapy guy, Dr Jeffrey Thompson, who claims to be able to use them to improve people’s health. He’s got a big archive on what I suspect is an old site of his here.

More free advertising

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 15, 2009 by Jack

I was searching for musical maps this morning, and came across this. It’s a map of the world where you can click on lots (but not all) of the countries and see their top artists and albums.

It’s not quite as good as I thought it was originally, because it isn’t the actual charts. It’s a map produced by the company Gracenote, who have an extensive online database of music that people can search for. From what I can see this is where the information for the top artists and albums is compiled from. However, if you give it a go, you’ll find that clicking on a place you’re not familiar with does produce artists you’re not familiar with, even if most countries also include a fair share of your Michael Jacksons and Britney Spears. (Apparently Ministry of Sound are a top artist for Saudi Arabia, so there you go.)

As an example of finding out about new stuff, here’s someone I’d never heard of before that I got by looking at Hawaii (in the US you can break it down by state.)

I have spent ages seeing if there was a way I could embed the flash app on my blog so you could just look at it here, but I don’t think there is. So yet again, here I am sending more free advertising traffic over to a private company’s site. Oh well.

Shamisen vs Taiko

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on October 14, 2009 by Jack

As part of my ongoing effort to bring you things found by random youtube searching that I think are great, check this out:

I found this a while ago, and I’ve been trying to find out more about the performers so I wasn’t just posting them blind and out of context.

The shamisen is a traditional three stringed Japanese instrument. The specific form of the one in this video is tsugara-shamisen, which originally came to Japan as an import from China 500 years ago, at which time it was considered a poor man’s version of the more traditional instrument. It was often used by blind minstrels travelling door to door to beg for alms.

Shinichi Kinoshita

Shinichi Kinoshita

The guy playing it is Shinichi Kinoshita*, who is a leading modern interpreter of the instrument. He’s known for really experimenting and collaborating with others, including DJs and electronic artists.

Hiroshi Motofuji

Hiroshi Motofuji

In this case it’s a collaboration with Hiroshi Motofuji, a master of taiko drumming. I’m sure many readers will be familiar with taiko, I’ve been lucky enough to see an ensemble perform myself.

What I didn’t know until I started writing this article is that, although it does have much older roots in traditional court music, what we in the rest of the world now know as taiko started in 1951. In Japanese (apparently, I can’t speak or read it) taiko only means “drum”. In the 50s a drummer called Daihachi Oguchi, who had a background in jazz basically took traditional forms and created the first large taiko performance ensemble of the kind that is now familiar around the world.

Hiroshi Motofuji has been playing taiko since he was 10, and has studied and performed percussion around the world. In the late 80s he also helped form Musashi, the first rock band using traditional Japanese instruments. Today he’s in what’s described as “a cutting-edge and urban taiko group”, daKT. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a site for them (yet) to link to.

The name of this song is ‘thunder light’-Rai no Hikaru, and it was composed by Shinichi Kinoshita. The taiko part is meant to evoke thunder and storms.

I had originally just intended to post the video as an example of a cool wee tune, but in fact looking into it both these performers fit a lot of the themes I’ve tried to explore on the blog. The fact that what most of the world would consider straight up traditional Japanese music is actually modern fusions influenced by jazz and DJ culture I think is very interesting. And both these artists are clearly very open to collaboration and experimentation. Here’s some more videos of Shinichi Kinoshita doing just that:

Shinichi Kinoshita collaborating with former DMC World DJ champion DJ Kentaro.

. . .And with DJ Krush.

*This is the best site for him I could find for him in English. If you’re lucky enough to be able to read Japanese, his own site is here.

Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ remixed

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 13, 2009 by Jack

My girlfriend’s stepbrother brought this to my attention and I liked it very much. From the info on youtube:

My own musical tribute to two great men of science. Carl Sagan and his cosmologist companion Stephen Hawking present: A Glorious Dawn – Cosmos remixed. Almost all samples and footage taken from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Stephen Hawking’s Universe series.

RIP Dr. Sagan, you will be missed!!

Please, click HQ to watch in better quality.

Go here to download the track.

And here for another scientist remix.

And my website for more original music.



For those that don’t know, Carl Sagan was a great astronomer and author, who did a huge amount of work to help ordinary people to understand science. He also pioneered exobiology and helped build suport for the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. He also wrote the book Contact, which the film of the same name was based on. He was a bit of a childhood hero of mine.

Sorry, but this is pretty amazing

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on October 9, 2009 by Jack

I feel really dirty promoting an advertising campaign on my blog. It’s exactly so people like me would write about it and generate traffic online that this was done. But nontheless, it’s pretty cool.

For three days, starting at the end of September, Sony’s ad agency transformed the Icelandic town of Seyðisfjörður into a giant soundsystem.

With the consent of the townspeople, they installed a massive array of speakers allowing you to hear music pretty much anywhere you went in the town.

The point of all this is to get people on to the Sony site and reading about their passion for sound and building incredibly good speakers. Well, pain me as much as it does, it’s worked, here’s the Soundville site where you can find out more about the project.

The point about mentioning it for me is that, firstly, it is a worthy aim to be building ever better and more powerful speakers, even if done by a for-profit multinational.

But more importantly, this is a really inspirational project. Imagine the concept applied in other contexts. I don’t think you could have a permanent community organised on this basis, but what about temporary towns flung up for week long parties? Or a village where you had to opt in or out to live there? Or a nomadic group of people that were able to take this kind of setup around the place to give a town a period of total music?

If you got some cool design people working with you to create easily put up and custom built buildings for a sound town imagine how cool a space you could create.

Basically I’m just itching to see people take this idea further. In the meantime, here’s the video they made of the project: