Maggi Payne – Ping/Pong: Beyond The Pail CD-R (and/OAR, 2003)

“I wanted listeners to immerse themselves in this unusual listening environment, experiencing detail not usually apparent.”

whatever you record will be broadcast
just as it is
in london between 2330-000

Chris Cutler

From July 1, 2002 to July 1, 2003, Chris Cutler produced a radio program for Resonance FM from 11:30pm to midnight, Greenwich Mean Time, every night. To fill that time, he put out a call to sound artists to provide 30 minute recordings of “whatever you want.” The only catch was that submissions had to be recorded “in real time” during the half-hour period that Cutler was airing them.

Maggi Payne, a sound artist living in California, was forwarded the request via email. An accomplished composer and recording engineer, she was the Co-Director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, and was teaching full-time. Around then, one of her main gigs was doing historical remastering for the Music and Arts label.

She tells me, via email, about that rewarding work. “[I was] bringing classical music recordings from as early as the 1920s back to life by reducing noise, hum, hiss, etc., adjusting pitch so the works were on pitch and stayed on pitch, eliminating ticks and pops, repairing incorrect editing done before I received the source tapes, equalizing the recordings to improve the sound, and filling in gaps where sections were damaged or missing. It’s meticulous, though very rewarding, work. It pulled me back into a mysterious unknown past world I’d not experienced myself.”

After receiving Chris Cutler’s request, Payne knew she wanted to record something for his show, but wasn’t sure how to pull it off. She lives in northern California, and so hoped to record a local redwood forest, to immerse the listener in that beautiful environment. But intense rainstorms — usually a welcome event, given the area’s frequent droughts — made this impossible. “The rain came in waves that would destroy my condenser microphones,” she recalls.

Fortunately, she owned two hydrophones for making underwater recordings. “I’ve been fascinated with transmission of sound under water since I was a child. I’d been looking for high quality hydrophones for several years, but it took me almost a year to convince the wonderful people at Offshore Acoustics to sell me their last two very special hydrophones that were made for the Navy.”

Armed with this gear, she hatched the idea for “Ping.” She had always kept a metal pail on her front porch, which she used to catch water for her plants. Drawn to it because she liked the sounds it made when it rained, she let the pail fill with rainwater and then placed the two hydrophones inside. “I started recording on my DAT machine at precisely 3:30 and turned it off at 4:00. I wanted listeners to immerse themselves in this unusual listening environment, experiencing detail not usually apparent.”

“There are many layers of activity, including some very sharp high frequency sizzling sounds as the raindrops struck the water’s surface, combined with the deeper tuned resonances of the pail as the larger droplets hit the rim and sides of the pail and others drove deeper below the surface. Beyond these layers, the rhythmic interplay is of main interest.”

The program for “Ping”

She recalls being fascinated by the “variability of timbre, rhythms, activity, resonance, and differentiated sonic layers.” She was also reminded of her childhood. “Recording under water reminded me of hot summers in the panhandle of Texas, where I spent many hours each day swimming under water in a local swimming pool. The sounds were utterly fascinating.”

Payne recreated the bucket-and-hydrophone set up she used to produce “Ping.” (Image courtesy of Maggi Payne)

Accounting for time differences between Pacific Time and GMT, the recordings took place between 3:30 and 4:00pm in California.

It was still raining the next day, so she decided to try something different. For “Pong,” she flipped the pail over and placed two condenser mics inside, protected from the rain. The resulting 30-minute recording captures the sound of raindrops pattering the pail. “The rain became the percussionist, and I love the spaces in between drops where the listener can experience the low resonant frequency of the pail as it resonates with the rumble of the nearby freeway and trains, as well as the percussive strikes of the raindrops, ringing at several different frequencies. During brief breaks in the rain the richness of the resonant frequencies of the pail, which acted as a Helmholtz resonator, are very clearly heard.”

Prior to these recordings, Payne was no stranger to using natural sounds in her soundscapes. However, “in the noisy world I inhabit, I frequently must use extensive equalization and noise removal software to clean up the sounds so that they can be heard without distractions,” she points out. In order to do this, she draws upon her sound engineering skill set. Remarkably, however, “Ping” and “Pong” required no processing whatsoever. Perhaps due to the time of day, there are few intruding extraneous sounds in these recordings, though Payne notes that a faint horn and siren can be heard during “Ping,” and a “beautifully resonating” plane enters into “Pong” at the two-thirds mark.

Volume one of the phonography.org compilations. (Source: Discogs)

In January 2003, after her recording had been aired, she sent a seven-minute extract of “Ping” to Dale Lloyd, who was assembling the latest chapter of his phonography.org compilation series, which collected field recordings by international artists. Those compilations are worth exploring. In a 2006 interview, Lloyd described “phonography” by explaining that “as photography is to the eye, phonography is to the ear.” Phonography.org emerged from a message board specializing in field recordings, and ended up growing into nine fulsome volumes of work.

But Payne’s recordings never ended up on a phonography.org compilation. Shortly after she submitted it, Lloyd called her and said he wanted to release “Ping” and “Pong” in full on his and/OAR label. Ping/Pong was released on CD-R in 2003, and is now long gone.

Payne still creates music, including projects with analog synthesizers and some acoustic work. But she often finds herself making field recordings. “I still constantly record sounds that I find fascinating in a variety of usual and unusual ways… I usually process sounds beyond recognition because I’m attracted to an abstract world, both visual and aural. Some sound sources are so unidentifiable that I don’t process them at all. This is in an effort to create an abstract world in which listeners experience the sounds immersively from the inside out, each listener creating their own narrative in their imagination without touching down to ‘reality.'”

Image courtesy of Maggi Payne.

Thanks to Maggi Payne for the interview. Her most recent releases include vinyl reissues of her 2012 LP, Ahh-Ahh (Music For Ed Tannenbaum’s Technological Feets 1984-1987) and her 2010 CD, Arctic Winds, which both came out on Aguirre Records in 2020. Payne’s recordings also feature on two 2020 compilations: San Francisco Tape Music Collective (sfSound) and Air Texture VII (Air Texture).

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