17 July 2014

Blogging my way through Grosz's "Chaos, Territory, Art": part 2, more thoughts on 'music' and (algo)rhythm

Signal & Noise

Why does a chapter nominally about “vibration, animal, music, sex” begin with a long discussion of philosophy, what it is and what it does? Is this evidence that “music” is really just philosophy’s other, its negative? Are the “outlines of an ontology of music” (25) she provides really an alternative ontology for philosophy, or an alternative concept (insofar as philosophy = production of concepts in EG’s Deleuzian universe) of ontology? This isn’t an “ontology OF music” so much as an ontology grounded in a specific concept of music as a dynamic, emergent system. “Music” here doesn’t tell us much about, erm, music--which isn’t surprising because Grosz doesn’t examine any; there’s nothing resembling music analysis or musicology in this book. “Music” is just a metaphor for “a practice the living perform on chaos to extract some order and predictability” (26), that is, for an evolutionary ontology premised on finding the signal in the noise.

What Grosz calls “chaos” is the background conditions of existence. Chaos is full on, unmediated, undifferentiated noise:

Chaos is not the absence of order but rather the fullness or plethora that, depending on its uneven speed, force, and intensity, is the condition both for any model or activity and for the undoing and transformation of such models’ (26).

Or rather, chaos is the unfiltered listening situation in which all signals are vibrating in competition with one another, everything is out of phase and nothing locks into phase. It’s chaotic because nothing is recognizable as signal.

“Life” is the dynamic emergence of signal from this noise. Left to run their course, eventually some frequencies will fall temporarily into phase; life is the practice of maintaining this phase-pattern (a pattern of “consistency, intensity, predictability” (28)), of filtering out what would put this signal out of phase.

Vibrations, waves, oscillations, resonances affect living bodies, not for any higher purpose but for pleasure alone. LIVING BEINGS ARE VIBRATORY BEINGS: vibration is their mode of differentiation” (33).

Life, for Grosz, is sound, vibration. Life is signal. Which begs the question: if life is signal, the location of predictable, consistent phase patterns amid infinitely complex and deafening noise, what does this concept of life as signal do for a theory of biopolitics? If biopolitics is the governmentality that takes ‘life’ as its object, how does thinking about ‘life’ as signal flesh out how biopolitics works in conjunction with contemporary data technologies? What does it mean to think of biopolitics as the style of government that maximizes some kinds of signals by filtering out other, more noisy ones?

If musical becoming-other is a means of harnessing individual variability, how does this relate to contemporary political economy, which seems premised on harnessing individual variability as a means of surplus value extraction? Moreover, is “music”’s dynamic emergence comparable to the adaptability of algorithms, which can always adjust to find signal as the noise changes? I mean, algorithms are the way we mathematically represent vibrations, right? When Grosz talks about “rhythms, regularized patterns of vibration or resonance” (55), it seems more accurate to call these algorithms than musical rhythms (mainly bc musically/sonically this would be more like meter or frequency?). “Vibrations are oscillations,” that, in their periodicity from apex to nadir, mark out a pattern; from this pattern we abstract “the promise of a future modeled in some ways on the rhythm and regularity of the present” (55). Insofar as we currently use algorithms to model future behavior on past performance (“customers also purchased…” or “Germany should beat Brazil by X score”), then Grosz’s account of vibratory rhythm sure sounds a lot like an account of contemporary data culture/capitalism. (This also makes me wonder: is her reductio ad vibrato a parallel to neoliberalism’s reductio ad financialized market? Both see things in terms of algorithmic models…).

Grosz’s Darwin on music = Rousseau + sexuality?

Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages (which is really about the co-emergence of music & language from the state of nature) seems, at least philosophically, to be the unthought background of Grosz’s discussion of the evolution of music. I have no idea if Darwin read Rousseau or encountered his ideas through someone else, BUT, Rousseau’s essay predates Darwin’s Origin by a century, so it’s entirely possible and likely that Rousseau’s ideas were a direct or indirect influence.

In the Essay, Rousseau argues that in the “north,” music and language arose out of need--life is hard, and people needed to communicate to survive. In the “south,” on the other hand, music and language arose out of pleasure and excess--life is easy, so people gathered around the watering hole began speaking/singing out of the desire for all sorts of intercourse. Northern language is accurate and precise, because that maximized survival; southern language is affectively and sensorially moving, because that maximized pleasure. That’s ROUSSEAU’s argument….which sounds a lot like Grosz’s gloss on Darwin: arguing “music...belongs more to the order of sexual than natural selection” (32), Grosz echoes Rousseau’s distinction between northern necessity and southern pleasure (which, to be sure, is a totally racist distinction). And, just as Rousseau thinks that southern language’s origin in pleasure and social intercourse makes it is more affectively powerful, Grosz thinks that “it is the sexual origins of language that explain its affective force, rather than its descriptive or designatory capacities that enable it to refer and transform affects and emotions” (31n7).

So, I wonder: is Grosz’s Darwinian account of music Rousseau plus the then-newfangled (i.e., in Darwin’s time) concept of “sexuality”? Or at least Rousseau plus sexual difference?

Tired Old Stereotypes

Grosz argues: “of all the arts, music is the most IMMEDIATELY moving, the most VISCERAL and contagious in its effects, the form that requires the least formal or musical education or background knowledge for appreciation” (29). I’m very concerned by Grosz’s claims that music is more immediate and primitive. First, this plays into old and sexist/racist stereotypes that music’s capacity to do be more primitive and immediate results from its femininity and its racial non-whiteness. Second, Grosz’s claim here isn’t even really about music as such. It’s about dynamic emergence or algorithmic patterning--i.e., about the practice of signal-finding. Is that really more primitive and immediate than propositional epistemologies? Are algorithms more primitive than symbolic/propositional representations? (Um, no.) What is Grosz’s--or rather, what is her ontological program’s--investment in positing dynamic emergence as more primitive and immediate than representation/propositionality?

From this perspective, ethnomusicology looks positively empirical & decolonial :/

I’ve already discussed some of the problems with Grosz’s extremely poor and offensive handling of Aboriginal “music” in this post. I want to flesh out some further thoughts on the role of Aboriginal sound culture in Grosz’s text. She uses Aboriginal “singing” as the quintessential example of the ontology she’s theorizing in the book. However, the text on which she bases her discussion of aboriginal ‘song’ is Bruce Chatwin’s songlines--which is not an ethnomusicology text, but a quasi-fictional memoir. Ethnomusicology, like all ethnography, isn’t innocent of orientialism or coloniality. BUT, it would definitely give a better account of Aboriginal ‘musical’ practices that some untrained white dude’s half-fictional memoir.

Even though ethnomusicology can, at its worst, be an ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ version of the same racism than underlies Chatwin’s and Grosz’s accounts, at its best it locates musical/sonic practices in thick cultural context and accounts for these practices (as much as possible) in  their own terms. Ethnomusicology, in other words, wants to figure out the music. Grosz’s avoidance of ethnomusicological methods or research suggests to me that she’s just not interested in actual music. “Music” is a metaphor for something else: an ontology.

Except here, in the case of the Aborigines, their actual musical practices literalize the metaphor Grosz uses to theorize (“Western”?) ontology….sorta like how all those Native Americans literally existed the state of nature that the European social contract theorists treated as merely a metaphor for the origins of (European) civil society (Rousseau, for example, doubted the state of nature ever really existed...except in the Americas). This split between the literally musical Aborigines and the metaphorically musical philosophical ontology “we” all experience is most evident in this odd passage:

Lest this be construed as a romantic ‘orientalism,’ a story that refers only to a
romanticized native other, it needs to be made clear that the occupation of territory...requires a kind of binding of bodily forces to the natural forces of a territory that music best accomplishes: music has led troops into countless wars and stirred numerous past and present patriotic, as well as resistant, hearts...Every people sings the earth and their own bodies into existence only by identifying those earthly elements that tie into or counterpoint their bodies and bodily needs...It is because the earth frames and engulfs the boy that the body can sing the earth and the stories of its origin (51).

Grosz defends her project against accusations of “romantic orientialism” by arguing that it’s the ‘music’ that’s primitive, not the people. But oddly here is the one place where the literally musical (war songs, marches) and the metaphorically musical (territorialization) collapse into one another. Why does Grosz think the best, most immediate representatives of the metaphorical musicality of territorialization are the literal practices of Australian Aborigines? If we are all ontologically musical, why are the Aborigines the ones who do it literally, in primitive form, rather than in the more complex and opaque ways ‘we’ do it?

A few remaining questions
  • Is EG anthropomorphizing birdsong, sorta like how people anthropomorphize animal ‘sexuality’ (I’m thinking of Jack Halberstam’s discussion of such anthropomorphism in The Queer Art of Failure)?’
  • This seems like it is equally a problem with Deleuze & Guattari as it is with Grosz: When artsitic deterritorialization happens in uneven power relations, isn’t that just cultural appropriation? Deterritorialization rips a practice out of the material/social context in which it emerged, defunctionalizes it. By “defunctionalize” I mean: these practices are both informed by and  function as a conduit of implicit, non-propositional knowledge. Ripping a practice out of context means it can no longer function in this way. It’s just affect. Think about white appropriation of black aesthetics: how many musical practices--from blue notes to swung notes to signifying to sampling to antiphony to “into the red” to cutting and looping to dub...how many lose their critical punch in “translation” to mainstream white aesthetics? Not only does this account seem ignorant of the politics of deterritorialization, it also seems to imply that originating cultures can’t be musical or artistic. If a cultural practice becomes affective/expressive only when it is detached from its work as implicit knowledge, then those who use it as implicit knowledge (ie for survival, not just for pleasure) aren’t making ‘art’?

  • Is the organism the little entrepreneur of the free market that is its milieu? “Its milieu is not a determinant in the elaboration of the qualities of the organism, which emerge randomly; rather its milieu is an ongoing provocation to the organism to utilize its randomly emergent qualities maximally...It is not an effect or product of its environment, but is a master of its Umwelt, through which it can occupy and be part of an environment...the milieu is a pregiven counterpoint with which the living being must harmonize if it is to survive” (44).
  • Does Grosz understand evolution as a Reichean ‘gradual process’--one in which the ‘note-to-note’ details and the overall form are co-emergent? “If nature can be seen as the contrapuntal relation between at least two biologically connected musical themes, the harmonious note-by-note connections between at least two different melodies, then milieu or environment is not entirely separate from our outside the living organism: it is already mapped or composed in terms of the musical cadences available to that body” (45); “the operations of evolutionary elaboration entail that the organism of individual variation already contains within itself something of the score or resonance the milieu has chosen to highlight and perform through this organism” (46).
  • For Grosz, it seems like ‘music’ is actually the making of signal into noise (and ‘life’ the making of noise into signal): “Music, whose vibratory force is perhaps more immediate, more visceral, more neural than all of the other arts, consists in deterritorializing the voice, deterritorializing sound, making each resonate with a different set of vibrations than those (chaotic forces) the refrain attempts to ward off” (53).

11 July 2014

Sexual Difference, Indeterminacy, & Open Works: a few thoughts on Grosz

I’m starting work on my third book, which I am tentatively calling “Signal & Noise”. This involves a lot of reading; I am going to try to post short reflections on what I’m reading as I work my way through the material. So, this is the first post in the #signalnoise series.

Right now I’m re-working my way through Elizabeth Grosz’s Chaos, Territory, Art. (It’s for the role of sound and music in feminist new materialism chapter). From my last reading of the book, which was a few years ago, my sense is that her reworking of ‘sexual difference’ as a kind of indeterminacy, a protocol for chance processes is actually the production of a post-identity sexual difference. It’s a sexual difference grounded in the ‘flat’ and ‘deregulated’ ontologies of neoliberalism.

Traditionally, sexual difference is a binary and teleological discourse: this is the whole point of Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of becoming-woman. ‘Woman’ is the constitutive outside of patriarchy, so patriarchy courts but ultimately reterritorializes ‘woman.’ (The reaffirmation of patriarchy, the One, is the ultimate telos of patriarchally-differented sexes; that’s Irigaray’s point.) As Grosz sees it, however, sexual difference

is not a homeostatic relation of stabilization, the build-up and expenditure of lidbidinal energies that Freud sees as the foundation of orgasmic sexuality [McClary, tonality], but a fundamentally dynamic, awkward, mal-adaptation that enables the production of the frivolous, the unnecessary, the pleasing, the sensory for their own sake” (7).

Dynamic and aleatory, sexual difference is, in Grosz’s model, the chance process par excellence:

sexual difference...the very machinery for guaranteeing the endless generation of morphological and genetic variation, the very mechanism of biological difference itself--is also, by this fact, the opening up of life to the indeterminacy of taste, pleasure, and sensation (6).

In other words, sexual difference is the protocol that turns life, biological life, into an open work...A composition more Cagean than Mozartian. Given the Deleuze & Guattarian framework in which Grosz works, this should be no surprise--they explicitly reference Cage and Boulez and other post-tonal, avant-garde art music composers.

Sure, “sexual difference” makes life into an open work. But isn’t this ‘open work’ style governmentality precisely the mechanism by which post-identity MRWaSP operates? Gender is deregulated; race is mixed; society is diverse and multi-. Sure, there can be 50+ genders (as Facebook suggests in their drop-menu), but everybody has to pick one because that’s how you become productive for capitalism and for MRWaSP.

Her concept of “art” seems similarly informed by the same metaphysics and ontology that grounded mid-century avant-garde art music composition. Art (which is also life), for Grosz, is the speeding up of the gradual process of phenomena coming into (and going out of) phase. She explains:

‘In the beginning’ is chaos, the whirling, unpredictable movement of forces, VIBRATORY OSCILLATIONS that constitute the universe. Chaos here may be understood not as absolute disorder but rather as a plethora of orders, forms, wills--forces that cannot be distinguished or differentiated from each other” (5).

The universe is noisy, full of infinite vibrations each with their logic but none perceptibly in phase. Art and life hone in on the signal in this noise, find the rare moments when things lock into phase. If left alone, these vibrations will eventually fall out of phase. Art and life intervene by separating out the noise that would dissolve this signal back into chaos: they “bracket out or cast into shadow the profusion of forces that engulf and surround it” (6), the signal.

This passage clarifies that “art” is the finding of signal--resonance--in noise--the fluctuating universe:

The artistic release and propagation of sensation...is always a mode of resonance or harmonious vibration, an oscillation extracted from the fluctuating, self-differentiating structure of the universe itself used to pace, measure, and provide discernment in a universe in which nothing is self-identical, all substance is movement...and generates...above all rhythm (19).

I don’t know if ‘rhythm’ is really the right word here so much as frequency...frequency is the regular pattern of oscillations in a signal, the regularity of its phase.

The thing is, as Reich rightly points out, these ‘rational’ patterns, the patterns we perceive to be ‘in phase’--these are patterns we’re already attuned to by force of acculturation and habit (a round and a quarter seem rational because we’re habituated to recognizing these intervals). Grosz recognizes as much, at least nominally: “we perceive only that which interests us, is of use to us, that to which our senses have, through evolution, been ATTUNED” (6).

I guess what I want to argue is that “sexual difference” is itself a type of attunement. It’s a culturally-specific pattern to which our material/historical/ideological context habituates us. Things seem ‘in phase’ when they lock into established gender patterns (which encourages an understanding of queer as out of phase).

I also want to ask: so, if art is finding the signal in the noise, “art” sure sounds a lot like Nate-Silver-style big data. I’m concerned that Grosz’s project naturalizes the metaphysics and ontology that makes something like big data (the statistical, computational forecasting based on a particular kind of sniffing and sifting) possible. My question is thus: does the politics she finds in this metaphysics & ontology provide a sufficiently critical alternative to the politics that generally informs and is reinforced by big data?

I also have a totally underdeveloped question: why in European thought would sexual difference be what opens up materiality/life to indeterminacy? Is this the becoming-woman of post-tonal music? Post tonal music doesn’t necessarily rely on the logic of abjection, the hierarchical logic of constitutive exclusion, that tonality does. Post-tonal works include all pitches, sometimes even all sounds. Such works can’t be disorganized or disrupted by too much feminized dissonance. So how do post-tonal works “become-woman”? What’s the relationship between post-tonal compositional techniques and post-identity governmentality?

09 July 2014

Is neoliberalism’s becoming-woman also a becoming-sound? (and some thoughts on listening, social media, and feminized labor)

This will be cross-posted at Cyborgology later this week.

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari argue that “music is traversed by a becoming-woman” (272). By this they mean that Western systems of musical organization evoke and confront the very phenomena that serve as these systems’ constitutive exclusions.  For example, while tonal harmony was a hierarchical system of consonances (i.e., chords), it nevertheless relied upon the introduction and resolution of (as the nineteenth century progressed, increasingly jarring and destabilizing) dissonances. Similarly, the abjection/rejection/marginalization of “woman” (or better, “girl”) is what solidifies and guarantees patriarchal orders: maleness/masculinity become the “norm” or the “absolute” only insofar as femaleness/femininity are circumscribed as abnormal, unthinkable, and invisible (or, to use Irigaray’s terms, insofar as “woman” is the sex which “is not”). Thus, to claim that “musical expression is inseparable from a becoming-woman” (Deleuze & Guattari, 299) is to posit that [Western, tonal] music works by “confronting its own danger, even taking a fall in order to rise again” (Deleuze & Guattari, 299).  As Susan McClary and Catherine Clement have famously argued, the logic of tonality turns upon the evocation and ultimate containment of “feminized” musical elements (e.g., chromaticism, actual female characters in operas, etc.). To say that “musical expression is a “becoming-woman,” then, means that femininity is the danger a musical work confronts, only to rise again. Traditionally, patriarchy has treated femininity as a deterritorializing force, something whose destabilization is necessary and even pleasurable.

But plenty of feminist and non-feminist scholars have pointed out that neoliberalism co-opts and rebrands traditional (white) femininity: the Young-Girl is the ideal model for human capital, just as feminized work--flexible, care-oriented, informal/unpaid--is the new model for labor. As Natalia Cecire puts it, “neoliberalism operates through hypertrophied forms of femininity.” Femininity isn’t deterritorializing, but the mechanism of reterritorialization.

So, in the same way that neoliberalism co-opts femininity and has it lead the charge to “creative destruction,” does it also co-opt “sound” or “music” as the primary medium of and/or metaphor for this work?

Why might we think this? Kate Crawford’s paper on listening and online interaction, which I really like, argues that listening is a better conceptual resource for metaphors to describe the kinds of attention, relation, and interaction naturalized in more-or-less contemporary social media. There, she cites Nick Couldry’s argument that the “‘reciprocal, embodied nature of listening; its embeddedness always in an intersubjective space of perception’” (cited in KC 525) is what makes it particularly appropriate to describe online environments. But think about it: reciprocity, embodiment, embeddedness, intersubjectivity--all these sound a lot like the stereotypical attributes of trad white femininity. It seems like sound’s femininity is what makes it so well-suited to theorize and describe digital, socially-mediated life.

This connection between sound and femininity suggests a connection between hyperemployment and communicative capitalism. Though Crawford doesn’t explicitly argue this in her article, her analysis easily lends itself to the following interpretation: “background listening” is the traditionally feminized work--the un/under-compensated care work usually tasked to women as both consequence and cause of their marginalization--of the social media economy.

The kind of attention required for background listening is what we might call, after Sandra Bartky, a “feminine discipline”--the practice of this discipline is what makes one legibly feminine. “Background listening” is similar to the “distracted” listening that characterizes radio and/or ubiquitous music listening, the very kind of listening, she points out, that got Adorno in such a tizzy. But, if you read Adorno more closely, this distracted or “regressed” listening is thoroughly feminized. As I show in this book, just about every time he talks about this kind of listener, he makes reference to (sexualized) female body parts shortly before and/or after. In Adorno, distracted listening is femininized. But, as Crawford shows, this is precisely the skillset one needs to navigate Twitter. Women’s work involves knowing exactly when to tune in and hear everything in full detail, and when to tune out irrelevant noise. For example, isn’t this what moms do with kids? They lurk around, tuning in when needed but also letting kids have space. This is what my mom referred to when she said she, like all moms, had eyes in the back of her head.

This ability to tune in (and out) is also the same skillset that we require of care workers: they must be intimately and personally attentive to the unique and distinctive needs of others. Just as it’s difficult to outsource the work of a babysitter, a housekeeper, or a nurse, “it remains difficult,” Crawford notes, “to outsource the act of listening” (531). Both involve addressing specific, materially-rooted concerns that can’t be uprooted or abstracted from their context. And because of this, such labor is extremely inefficient. And that’s why it is “of low value…[and] difficult for it to be recognized as an important and value-generating form of work” (531). [1] The kinds of listening that are least efficient, the kinds of listening that can’t be made to “Lean In,” but are doled out to the least advantaged members of society. They’re the kinds of listening that produce hypotrophied, rather than hypertrophied, femininities, femininities that keep you at the margins instead of shooting you to the center.

A caveat: these are all modernist accounts of sound and femininity that neoliberalism appropriates. What was marginal to modernity is central to neoliberalism (in general). This begs the question: so what about neoliberal accounts of sound and femininity? I’ve talked a bit about the latter in my post on the financialized girl. There I argue that patriarchy still feminizes--that is, it structurally produces some kinds of people/phenomena as women, as neither included nor potentially included in society/capitalism/humanity. But what about “sound”? What kinds of sonic, acoustic, and auditory phenomena get, perhaps we can say, phased out of this normalized and normalizing account of sound? What sonic phenomena don’t sync up with it, produce either dissonances in need of domestication, or sub/supra auditory frequencies we can’t even hear?

[1] “However, a commitment to background listening comes at a cost – the cost of human attention. A senior executive at Dell may underscore the importance of listening to customers, but in practice this means that more than 130 Twitter feeds emanate from Dell Corp., and each is connected back to a staff member who must personally maintain that account while adhering to corporate communication protocols (Soller 2009). This is the labour of listening. But how is this labour to be quantified? As long as listening is not considered to be an important part of online participation, of ‘low value’ in the process of online engagement, it is difficult for it be recognized as an important and value-generating form of work” (531)

07 July 2014

Resilience & Melancholy update

Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, neoliberalism is my forthcoming book with Zer0. I've finished writing it, and now I'm working on the formatting and all the other mechanics of preparing it for press. That includes writing back cover matter (aka, an abstract). Here it is:

When most people think that “little girls should be seen and not heard,” a noisy, riotous scream can be revolutionary. But that’s not the case anymore. (Cis/Het/White) Girls aren’t supposed to be virginal, passive objects, but Poly-Styrene-like sirens who scream back in spectacularly noisy and transgressive ways as they “Lean In.” Resilience is the new, neoliberal feminine ideal: real women overcome all the objectification and silencing that impeded their foremothers. Resilience discourse incites noisy damage, like screams, so that it can be recycled for a profit. It turns the crises posed by avant-garde noise, feminist critique, and black aesthetics into opportunities for strengthening the vitality of multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy (MRWaSP).

Reading contemporary pop music--Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Calvin Harris--with and against political philosophers like Michel Foucault, feminists like Patricia Hill Collins, and media theorists like Steven Shaviro, Resilience & Melancholy shows how resilience discourse manifests in both pop music and in feminist politics. In particular, it argues that resilient femininity is a post-feminist strategy for producing post-race white supremacy. Resilience discourse allows women to “Lean In” to MRWaSP privilege because their overcoming and leaning-in actively produce blackness as exception, as pathology, as death.

The book also considers alternatives to resilience found in the work of Beyonce, Rihanna, and Atari Teenage Riot. Updating Freud, James calls these pathological, diseased iterations of resilience “melancholy.” Melancholy makes resilience unprofitable, that is, incapable of generating enough surplus value to keep MRWaSP capitalism healthy. Investing in the things that resilience discourse renders exceptional, melancholic siren songs like Rihanna’s “Diamonds” steer us off course, away from resilient “life” and into the death.

30 June 2014

Music For Drones: part 3, pickup test

C had a telephone pickup lying around his studio, so we decided it would be interesting to hook it up to the drone. Telephone pickups (like guitar pickups) listen for electronic signals, not sound waves. So, what you're hearing here is (mainly) the battery) and (some of) the quadcopter's circuit board.

Unlike many of the other sounds, which are mainly pitches (alterations in pitch when we change the motors/rotors, or the steady buzzing of motors and rotors), this pickup has a perceptible rhythm. If you listen carefully, there's a high-pitched pulse that runs around 222-227bpm.

This weekend, we flew Pauline (with the green stripes) with the pickup (we also few her, in a separate sortie, with a contact mic). We don't have video, but we do have audio; once C processes those, we'll post them.

Updated my articles on PhilPapers

I just updated my PhilPapers profile to include full-text versions of all my recent publications. There's a widget on the lower right of the blog that takes you to PhilPapers, or you can find my profile page here.

26 June 2014

Music for Drones Week 2: getting some sounds on tape

This is crossposted at stardotstudio.

This week we decided to record the drones as they flew by a stand mic. We wanted to get a sense of how they sounded, what specific moves (e.g., fast breaking, rotating on the yaw/ around the vertical axis (like a ballerina spinning in a tiny jewelry box), etc.) correlated to what specific sounds, and so on.

We connected a mic to an iPhone, and mounted them on a tripod about 6 feet from the ground. We put the tripod in the middle of Fretwell/Cato/Denny/Storrs quad, and then C flew one battery-long flight, and R flew another. C synched the sound from the mic with the sound from the iPad we used to make the videos. Here are the videos:



Especially when the drones hovered near the mic, there was something gradual-process-y about listening to the slow, subtle changes in pitch, in harmonization, in rhythmic patterning. Listen for this in DS_1 around 1:33-1:49.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there weren’t a whole lot of different sounds. There were basically two variables: (1) distance from the mic, & (2) the speed or intensity of the motor. We could get staccatto motor sounds, and we could definitely hear the harmonization of the rotors, which would fall in and out of something resembling a choral unison (maybe this is the equivalent of windshield wipers falling in and out of phase?).

Now, this may be because we were using a small mic that couldn’t pick up the level of detail we needed to distinguish more finely among different motor combinations, rotor speeds, etc. We’re going to use a better mic this coming weekend.

You’ll notice that the drones look a bit different: they have rotor guards, and they have a lapel mic transmitter attached to their undercarriage. (It took us a while to figure out the best way to attach that transmitter. Ultimately we screwed the lid directly to the body of the drone; that way we wouldn’t have to mess with/around the circuit board.) This reduced battery life to about 6-9 minutes, depending on how hard we flew them, how windy it was, and other variables. These extra attachments also made the drones somewhat harder to control; there was a bit more drift.

This made us wonder: What is a “tuned” drone? As we were discussing it, we thought that a ‘tuned’ drone is like an aligned car--it hovers in place when it’s in neutral. C is working on tuning the drones.

We’re happy to report that all four drones are now assembled: (L-R) Pauline, Delia, Laurie, and Wendy. We’ve been flying Laurie and Delia; they’re in regular configuration (GPS mode). Pauline is in IOC/manual, and Delia is in IOC/failsafe. We’re thinking of them as a nest of drones, like a ‘suite’ or ‘family’ of instruments.


This coming week we’re going to record with the onboard mics, and we’re going to build a contact mic. C found a telephone mic, one that amplifies and records electric signal (not sonic signals), so we want to experiment with that, too.

We’re also going to record with a better fixed mic. R developed a list of specific moves (maybe equivalent to a fingering chart?) so that we can get a bank of sounds to use in a concrete-style composition. We’re going to do a dry run of that chart to then prepare to make some high-quality, indoor recordings.