Frontier Fellowship Report: Jordan Topiel Paul

“We live most of the hours of our lives in enclosed spaces; thus our acoustical lives are governed by the effects of these large resonators.”

I read this quote in Everett & Pohlmann’s Master Handbook of Acoustics (p. 223) this past week as part of my ongoing acoustics brushing-up. It was a welcome and serendipitous passage considering recent thoughts I’d been exploring on the train ride to Green River from Denver, theorizing freely about the relationships among topography, acoustics, and language. This is how I started:

It occurred to me working with certain architectural features on a rooftop that different types of topographies and architectures can be associated with spectra of sound, and similarly, with phonemes. A miniature experiment in this concept can be done with a simple white noise source– a speaker playing white noise (or in my case in Mexico City, the opening onto the roof of a PVC pipe that functioned as a type of air duct). The frequency spectrum of this source is naturally full until the opening is limited in some way: a microphone placed inside the pipe will pick up a different spectrum of sound compared to one placed just at the opening; the shape of the pipe resonates certain lower/mid frequencies more than the highest. The same phenomenon is observable if you cup your hands around the sound source– close them and the spectrum is limited, open them and the higher range returns. Very simply, the shape of a space filters its sound.

Human mouths and ears are very sensitive to this– we can produce and hear the slightest variations in this type of filtering, which is the basis of vowel sounds. The only difference between “ah” and “oh” (as we say them in US English) is precisely this phenomenon.

I’d like explore the proposition that topographic and geographic features exercise some influence over the way we express space through language, architecture, and perhaps music. The open and sparsely populated topography of the American West, for example, not only creates the conditions necessary for a more expansive architecture than its predecessors, but also manifests spaciousness in more abstract aesthetic or even spiritual characteristics. Analogs can be drawn to the way US English pronunciation has developed in the West: longer, more emphasized vowel sounds; slower prosody; even the iconic retention of the sound of wind in words like “white” “which” and “whip” (though this is prevalent in the southeast US as well).

The writing exercise went a bit further out than intended, and sharing it might take us too far off track (I digressed into the history of US and Canadian dialects/accents and got increasingly speculative, as the end of the above passage suggests). And for the record, I wrote all this assuming it would never leave my personal notebook. So returning closer to the point:

…I want to focus on the incontestable idea that space and topography influence culture on subliminal, liminal, and surface levels. Every place on the earth has a sonic ambiance consisting of its unique sources of vibration and the specific shapes that filter those vibrations. As I settle for a month in an historically and geographically “open” space, I am imagining a drastic departure in ambiance from the metropolises where I’ve lived the last decade.

Almost a month later, I can say that that’s true and not true. Using the language metaphor, I came from tight “oh” places expecting to enter an open “ah” space. But my generalization turned out to be pretty weak. For example, there is plenty of full-spectrum white noise (representing openness) on the east coast and even in New York City– we need only travel to the river banks or beaches to experience this acoustic openness. And Green River, not surprisingly, features many of the same suburban sounds to which I’m accustomed: lawnmowers, crickets, air conditioners, traffic, trains, kids playing in a schoolyard, etc. Here are some of the everyday field recordings I made in and around Green River:

The big acoustic surprise for me was the gradient of openness and closure in the desert, specifically the contrast between expansive, flat, desert and narrow canyons and cliffs. Black Dragon Canyon, about a 20 minute drive from town, demonstrated a wide variety of strange acoustic patterns, from enormous “whispering corner” effects due to the smooth and curved cliff face, to the canyon openings and closings that produced irregular and prolonged reverberations. In the midst of this special and monumental natural place, the idea of even the most solemn and powerful artwork seems a little silly. Accordingly, I first had a number of quixotic project ideas. My favorite: modifying (“normalizing”) canyon acoustics by building and placing large absorbers and diffusers. And then instigating a dance party in this acoustically treated canyon area. Physical constraints made this idea impossible to implement. Instead, probably a more wise and characteristic choice for me was to spend time listening in the canyon– projecting test tones and noise impulses, walking around and clapping a lot, etc.– and then compose a site-based piece to perform from my laptop at a specific point in the canyon. Unusual as it sounds, this type of site-sensitive laptop performance has become a hallmark of my practice. The form of the piece is developed through a combination of scientific/systemic and intuitive methods, using synthesized tones, tone sweeps, and filtered noise. It can be considered a type of listening aid for the canyon environment.

This is the sound of some hawk-like bird flying and calling in Black Dragon Canyon.

Anyway, this is the evolution of my performance project in Green River. I’ve experienced many other notable things here, such as:

-rock formations and colors
-melon (so far: watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, Israeli, canary, Lambkin…)
-group cohesion and cooperation (the Epicenter/PACT crew)
-Risk (the game)
-freight trains
sunrises, sunsets, a double rainbow, the sky in general
-solar radiation (I think the sun is hotter here than any other place I’ve been)
mourning dove calls
-alternative pronunciations of “pecans”
-cooking for five to twelve people
-Utah Budweiser (4% alcohol)
-small town kindness
-a generally slower feeling of time
Lower Gray Canyon beach at all times of day
-prolonged goodbyes and birthdays
-the inimitable local band “Church Camp”
-impressive commitment to the local and rural
-movies on VHS
-listening (and dancing) to a ~50 minute loop of mostly Beyonce and Rihanna songs
-my laptop having an out of body experience (near death)

As intended, my time in Green River has been two-sided: one being immersion and surrender to the new, unfamiliar context (as in the bullet points above); the other doing serious woodshedding in areas that are important to me. I had plenty of time and space to practice kung fu. My bi-weekly public workshops here was unfortunately at the wrong time of year to get a bunch of town kids involved, but some of the Epicenter and Bike & Build crews did join me at times.

Through some frustrating and time-consuming computer challenges, I made great gains in understanding my own laptop’s software and hardware. I have no doubt that this knowledge will come in handy as my creative work gets into more technical territory. For instance, last week I wrote these two “pulse pieces”– online sound installations that change depending on local time. This one is a random, irregular pulse that becomes regular on the -3 and -8 of every ten minutes (2:43, 2:48, 2:53, 2:58). This one is a similar random pulse that becomes more or less active depending on the hour of the day (with peaks in activity at 2-3 PM and inactivity at 3-4 AM). These two very simple pieces based on local, real-time conditions are just the beginning of a longer exploration of these concepts. A collaborative piece in progress with friend and composer Bryan Eubanks will soon use similar strategies to determine sound playback from local weather patterns. I’m excited that I can now get into an unexplored area of music that deals with absolute/clock time as opposed to only musical time (relative only to a piece’s beginning and end). Like the Indian raga system that specifies certain sets of tones for different times of day, I can begin to develop more dynamic, condition-sensitive work.

I also began developing in Green River this piece, which I performed a week later at a gathering in Oakland CA. Using two field recordings from Solomon Street, the piece combines both variable and metronomic pulse (as above) and two ubiquitous forms of compression: dynamic range and MP3/lossy data compression. These elements unfold in a pretty systematic way, but it’s probably more interesting to hear this structure than to read about it. Just be aware that Chrome doesn’t like to deal with these audio files, so Firefox will read the piece more stably (or try other browsers if you dare– I haven’t).

I think that covers a lot of my Green River experience. The truth is, I could write much more about the mysteries of the town, the Epicenter and Fellowship models, Green River culture, the interesting and generous people here, the landscape, on and on… Many thanks to Epicenter and the crew here for offering me this opportunity, and then making it so rich for the entire month. I’m grateful to have taken in the unique resonances of this place. No doubt they’ll remain with me in one way or another.