Éric La Casa – AIR.ratio CD (Sirr, 2006)

“I sincerely believe that every ventilation system becomes, or is, a wind instrument.”

In 2006, Éric La Casa put out a collection of recordings with an unusual concept. Fascinated by the ventilation systems that circulate air through modern buildings, he set about collecting audio from air ducts around town. He recorded thirty different samples, adjusted their volume levels to keep their loudness standard, and collected them on this CD in two minute intervals.

In the process of producing AIR.ratio, La Casa became an expert in the very contemporary phenomenon of mechanical air circulation. Via email, he tells me about how he developed his obsession with ventilation — and what went into creating AIR.ratio, which I suspect is the first album made entirely out of air duct recordings.

“Since my arrival in Paris in the early nineties, I lived in a Haussman-style building,” La Casa explains, referring to the big, cut-stone edifices created in the mid-19th century. “My daily life was that of a Parisian citizen whose indoors life was not governed by the standards of the end of the 20th century. The insulation in my apartment was as uncertain as the ventilation. The window was my only access to outside light and air. But the walls themselves seemed to breathe.”

But one day in 1994, he found himself in a friend’s modern bathroom, where his attention shifted to the air vent above the bathtub. “One of my friends had just rented an apartment in a building built in the eighties,” he tells me. While visiting that friend, he realized how much of everyday life is governed by industrial design. “The door code, the elevator, and even mechanical ventilation had become germane to life in Paris. All of this had become the standard of living,” he says.

Source: Éric La Casa

“The elevator and the ventilation caught my attention very quickly. I have always appreciated the relationship between sound and space: how sound is diffused and how it informs me about the design of the environment. My awareness of mechanical ventilation in someone’s home was like a brutal shock. I was discovering that architecture could allow rooms to exist that don’t have windows. And in my friend’s bathroom, when I closed the door for the first time, I’m in the dark, with a constant sound that I don’t immediately think of as mechanical ventilation.

“And then, I rapidly became interested in all those Parisian rooms, public or private, without windows, which owe their survival to ventilation. And I was struck by the fact that each room has its own sonic identity due to the sound of the air extractor and the aeraulic system.”

That was in 1994. In the year 2000, he decided to start recording these vents. At the time, he didn’t have a final project in mind. “By dint of recording, and constantly being drawn to these air devices, I ended up with my final project. For over a year I did nothing more than that.” Today, he figures he created AIR.ratio to expunge himself of his air duct obsession; he figures he could have become pigeonholed as an artists who focused exclusively on ventilation systems. “But this is not my artistic endeavor,” he reflects.

La Casa’s boom and two condenser microphones, capturing the sound of an air vent. (Source: Éric La Casa)

Making the recordings in public spaces posed its own challenge. He attached two condenser microphones to a boom and held them up to vents and air conditioning conduits. They had to be suspended in the air, not quite touching the vents.

It turns out that it wasn’t easy to convince everyone about the goals of his recording, though many did seem receptive. “I often received a warm welcome when I explained the importance of the sound dimension in their interiors,” La Casa recalls. “But most of the time, I didn’t have permission to record, and had to sneak in with my equipment. Fortunately, the world was not as safe as it is today… I often arrived with my equipment completely dismantled and had to put everything back together quickly without attracting outside attention. And when you are in a toilet, installing equipment, quietly, it creates a bit of a weird situation with ordinary public toilet users. I often found myself in a washroom listening to a ventilator that sounded astonishing but but barely perceptible, while people waited to get in… before giving up.”

The disc collects two minute samples of each recording, each one identified by its specific location. Locations include a hospital, library, art gallery, and apartment. La Casa explains that bathrooms were often the easiest places to record to avoid drawing too much attention.

La Casa has thought deeply about ventilation systems. At one point, he hosted a radio show where he met professionals in the interior design industry, including architects, engineers, acousticians, and a sociologist. He worked with an organist, Jean-Luc Guionnet, which led him to draw a connection between the organ’s pipes and the air conduits in buildings. “I sincerely believe that every ventilation system becomes, or is, a wind instrument,” he tells me. “A continuous breathing system. As with an instrument, what happens in an air network is linked to the complexity of its architecture.”

Schematic of a ventilation system, demonstrating its complexity. (Source: Éric La Casa)

The curves and twists in a building’s air ducts are analogous to the turns and valves in a musical instrument. This is why the vents he recorded all sound different. And much of the differences and sound have to do with imperfections in the system, which can occur for many reasons.

La Casa explains that, when buildings are being designed, the ventilation ducts need to be planned via sets of complex calculations. If those calculations are off, you’ll get turbulence — which produces noise.

Then there’s wear and tear. These networks of ducts must be kept in good, clean order. “A system that plays with forced air always ends up producing unforeseen effects if you didn’t have any maintenance,” he warns.

Diagram of air currents within a vent — highly susceptible to turbulence! (Source: Éric La Casa)

And lastly, there is basic user error. Since few people know why ventilation systems exist, many will unwittingly disrupt the system’s flow, for example by putting furniture in front of a vent. This one indiscretion can throw off the entire building’s ventilation network as a whole, causing turbulence and noise.

La Casa explains that mechanical ventilation was developed by engineers to solve a technical problem — circulating air in rooms that don’t have direct access to the outdoors via windows. But those engineers didn’t consider how users were adopt their system; those answers, instead, would have lain within the fields of anthropology and sociology. For example, cultural beliefs about the purpose of ventilation — and its adverse effects — have emerged over time. “Depending on the period, theories have spread in our societies to make mechanical ventilation responsible for benefits (filtration of fine particles …) or, on the contrary, for problems (mainly on health, instead of sound).”

La Casa explains that engineers are keen to develop technical solutions to human problems. And, La Casa points out, “mechanical ventilation technically meets new interior standards for human habitation while preserving the building.” As a consequence, it has been implemented universally.

Air conditioning conduit in a hospital. (Source: Éric La Casa)

“Living in southern Italy and northern Scandinavia is not at all the same. But in the end, it becomes the same in terms of normalizing indoor comfort. Architects seized on the fact that one can use the mechanization of the air in a building to expand their vocabulary. Thus, the interior space today is more and more equipped and governed by increasingly sophisticated techniques to guarantee and meet the standards of comfort of human life.”

The architects and engineers who design air conduits do take their sonic properties into account, but in a highly technical way. “Each object is defined by its sound level, which now meets strict specifications and noise standards. I went to a building measurement center to understand how these exhaust air measurements were made. In an empty building of typical dimensions, measurement microphones record the sound level. Here, no one cares whether the permanence of this noise in a space is desirable, or whether the user really wants it. The technical obviousness of a mechanical air system is something everyone now has to accept. In fact, the issue of noise is completely peripheral, even secondary. Engineers are more concerned with the flow of air in space. They don’t like people asking about noise.

“For AIR.ratio I put them face-to-face with this question while inviting them to be creative in their way of arranging their systems: why not call on musicians from the design stage to get out of the strictly technical culture and try to instead deal with the ‘musical’ question beyond noise? Let’s get out of this noise culture to see that we live in a complex sound world that could also have hidden musical goals.”

Cover for original Sirr edition of AIR.ratio. Image depicts close-up of a dusty surface. (Source: Discogs)

La Casa, who has produced an extensive discography, still looks back on AIR.ratio fondly. “I find that what ventilation tells us — about contemporary architecture, our relationship to the exterior, our need for control, our society, its relationship also to noise, and to the continuous, therefore to time, etc. — is particularly rich in teaching and expressiveness, and therefore artistic potential. I could continue to work on ventilation to this day. But because I don’t want to become an expert on this at all, I’m not sure I should. It seems to me that AIR.ratio allows us to enter into this topic of ventilation through our listening – which is quite an original way to address this question.”

Since creating AIR.ratio, La Casa hasn’t stopped thinking about ventilation systems. “Ventilation is at the center of our new strategy of living indoors, bringing to us the vital elements of our survival: water, air, electricity, and now food… This is the gradual establishment of an internalization of our society. The inside has now taken on more importance in our lives than the outside. Everything seems to indicate that we are spending more and more time indoors, and that goes through the elevation of indoor comfort. Ventilation is clearly one of the essential components of this strategy. Air is now an important building issue.

“To sum up: we have moved from the fields to the offices, and for that we had to increase the comfort of life and accentuate our technical and even technological efforts. And this is a process that accelerated at the end of the 20th century. It is a constant thought of engineers, and an increasingly growing demand from residents, to meet the new challenges facing the city.”


Thanks to Éric La Casa for the interview. Visit his website here, and his Bandcamp here.

The Rita – Thousands of Dead Gods CD (Troniks/PACrec, 2006)

“I spent many hours down there staring into the abyss.”

Sam McKinlay likes sharks. He also likes ballet. And when Sam McKinlay — who is better known as the harsh noise artist The Rita — likes something, he gets deeply into it.

The Rita’s 2006 CD, Thousands of Dead Gods, is one of McKinlay’s most well-known records. And that’s for good reason. It combines recordings of actual cage dives, in which people submerge themselves underwater in a cage to get close to sharks, with McKinlay’s signature layers of harsh noise.

Source: Discogs

“Sharks are easily my longest life obsession,” McKinlay tells me via email. “I got a large rubber shark from my parents when I was a toddler. I still actually have the shark. I think the key manifestation of the interest was the media around me at a very young age in the mid seventies. Grocery store magazine racks had sharksploitation magazines like Killer Sharks and Jaws of Death, articles about Jaws and eventually Jaws 2 were everywhere…  As a kid, I used to repeatedly draw long comic books about shark attacks. To this day I have been collecting rare book editions about killer sharks, mostly from the sixties and seventies, as the Great White Shark was garnering more and more media attention as cage diving became more common.” 

Killer Sharks magazine. (Source)

McKinlay’s obsessive qualities often get incorporated into his art; unlike some enthusiasts, he doesn’t get off on, say, just collecting shark memorabilia. For him, it seems to be a more dynamic process. “I really like to immerse myself in the material, actually live it in most cases. I love the idea of the life obsessions being translated directly into the creative processes – the material then has a real sense of sincerity to it. So when I have life interests such as sharks, it means a lot to me personally that I can use it directly for sound.”

The genesis of Thousands can be traced back to a trip McKinlay took to go cage diving. “My girlfriend at the time and I made plans to go on a week long — never leaving the boat — trip to the Isla Guadalupe to cage dive with great white sharks. Obviously a life long dream of mine, so it was amazing that we had the opportunity to make it happen. My brother who is a videographer and nature film documentary-maker lent me one of his cameras to document everything. The footage that I managed to get from the deck of the boat had resulting audio that was perfect for processing.”

McKinlay’s description of time in the cage seems like the physical embodiment of harsh noise. “Being in the cage was surreal. We had onboard air supply with hoses going through the top door of the cages. You couldn’t see the bottom, so you were constantly anticipating something appearing out of the darkness.”

He explains that the source audio for Thousands was a combination of recordings of his own dives (taken from the surface), as well as recordings of other people’s dives. “My personal recordings with the video camera were from the deck — the shark’s approach to the cages, taking the bait, the reactions from the people on the deck, the splashing of the cage floats on the surface. There’s also documentation of myself coming in and out of the cages. I spent many hours down there staring into the abyss. 

Source: Wikipedia

“The rest of the sounds were from my personal collection of vintage late sixties and early- to mid-seventies shark cage footage gathered through the years.” These include old VHS tapes of shark documentaries from the seventies and eighties. Among those tapes is footage of great white sharks done by classic divers like Rodney Fox and Valerie and Ron Taylor. “I have a great grey market copy of the masterpiece Blue Water White Death that was transferred directly from a rough 16mm print, years before the DVD eventually came out,” he tells me.

Using those VHS tapes, McKinlay carefully selected the portions of the footage with audio he wanted, then processed it “directly to taste from the various audio sources via various analog distortions and custom fuzz effects.”

At the time this record came out, The Rita was an established name on the noise scene. His earliest releases date back to the late nineties, though most of his music came out in 2004 and after. “I had gotten back into recording harsh noise after my BFA at the University of British Columbia. One of my more significant releases post-2000 was Bodies Bare Traces of Carnal Violence for Troniks which made full use of Giallo film murder sequence samples from various rare Giallo films. For my second CD on Troniks, I wanted to dig even deeper into the idea of life long interests, hence the great white shark as source.”

Thousands has since resonated with many noise heads, and McKinlay considers this an honour. He points out that a prominent Brooklyn noise store has adopted the name of the album for their storefront. “They reached out for my approval to use the name and I was honored to say the least. They still regularly stock merch from me and I got to finally visit the store in March of this year when they put on the Brooklyn show with myself, Black Leather Jesus, Vomir and JSH.”

I ask him how he feels about this often-discussed release, fourteen years later. “I still think it makes a strong harsh sound statement in terms of my lifelong obsession with sharks,” he modestly concludes.

Cover of The Voyage Of The Decima MAS (Source: Discogs)

Since Thousands, McKinlay has explored nautical themes in other releases. One such release was The Voyage Of The Decima MAS, a 2009 CD released on Troniks that references an Italian flotilla from the 1940s, active during the Fascist regime. On this album McKinlay combines noise with recordings of him snorkeling. To capture this audio, he used a custom contact mic designed to be used underwater, which was built for him by Traumatone, a.k.a. Ryan Bloomer. “The mic had a heavy-duty plastic and resin enclosure so I could rub it against rock, coral, the deep underwater cliffs where I snorkeled for the recording. The mic was still also sensitive enough to pick up the surface splashing when I came up for air.”

McKinlay snorkeling while wearing his vintage italian full face mask — and contact mic. (Source: Sam McKinlay).

The noise artist Crank Sturgeon later designed a similar contact mic for McKinlay to use during live shows, which he adapted to simulate the Decima MAS experience. At live shows in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Dayton, he filled a large water basin and submerged the upper half of his body underwater while wearing a vintage Italian full-face diving mask. He put some rocks in the bottom of the basin and scraped the contact mic around among the rough surfaces to generate the performance’s audio.

The nautical story continued in 2017, when McKinlay released a seven-inch record called Journey Of The K-Verband (Throat Lure) — an audio document with an even more unusual premise. For this record, he rigged another Traumatone contact mic to a fishing lure, running its cable along the fishing line. “I have lots of experience fishing in the Pender Harbour area for lingcod, rock cod and dogfish, so I knew that it was inevitable one would take the lure in their mouth and catch some sort of sounds.”

His first catch was a rock cod, and he was overjoyed to discover that the microphone had caught it all: both the underwater “take” sounds and the sound of the ocean’s surface splashing as the fish was pulled up onto the deck. “I knew that when a large lingcod finally took the lure and mic I’d get even more aggressive sounds,” he says. “The plan went perfectly — large Lingcod, lines of underwater thrashing sounds, the surface splashing, and the eventual flopping on the deck before release. The mic held up beautifully.”

Original color photo of the mic being pulled out one of the lingcod’s mouths as it surfaced. (Source: Sam McKinlay)

Those sounds — the sounds of the ocean resonating from the inside of a fish’s mouth — made it onto the eventual record, mixed in with McKinlay’s noise.

Thanks to Sam McKinlay for the interview, and for sharing his photos. McKinlay’s website is bakurita.blogspot.com. His latest release is a split C30 between The Rita and fellow noise artist Bacillus, on McKinlay’s own Lake Shark HN label.

The Beige Channel ‎- The Nail House Of Yang Wu (Stasisfield, 2011)

“The hum of a refrigerator, the whirring of a ceiling fan, the clicking sounds of a cat eating dry food from a metal bowl, or acorns falling from a tree.”

In 2011, a curious digital release popped up on the digital archives of Stasisfield, an online sound art label run by John Kannenberg, who now runs the Museum of Portable Sound — a mobile “museum of sounds” that are contained in digital form on his cellphone. (You can visit the museum by emailing him and and arranging to meet somewhere in London). Though Stasisfield has since been shut down — and all its digital releases lost to the annals of time — it was, at the time, a highly-regarded label, considered by some the gold standard of avant-garde net labels.

The interesting release in question was entitled The Nail House of Yang Wu, and was advertised as being “sourced from a field recording of the artist pulling up carpet tacks.” It was by The Beige Channel, the project of Michael Farley, a sound artist from a hamlet outside Albany, New York, called Delmar. Besides his audio work, Farley has worked full-time as a librarian for the past 37 years.

The cover of The Nail House of Yang Wu. (Source: Stasisfield website via archive.org.)

In touch with me via email, Farley tells me he hasn’t revisited this piece for years. “I listened to it tonight for the first time in nine years, since I never listen to anything again once it’s been released, because by that time I’m already well into my next project. But it was pretty obvious to me what I was getting at.

“I actually started it in July of 2008. It was a summer weekend, and I was involved in a particularly tedious task one Sunday afternoon — removing old shag wall-to-wall carpeting from the master bedroom of our house. The house was built in 1966. Apparently, the custom in those days was to put in beautiful hardwood floors, and then completely cover them in hideous shag carpeting, in this case they had chosen a vomit-y pink orange carpet. The upside was, when I was finished, we suddenly had pristine hardwood floors in our bedroom, virtually untouched since it was built! But it was a lot of work, pulling up the carpet, ripping it apart by hand, and pulling out all the nails with pliers.”

Farley explains that one of his philosophies as a sound artist is to find beauty in “ordinary” sounds that are often taken for granted. It’s an idea he described in a brief 2007 interview for the Some Assembly Required blog:

I like to deal with disenfranchised sounds, that is, sounds never meant or expected to accumulate significance with repetition or diffusion. By recontextualizing fragments of recuperated audio, I hope to reveal unexpected meanings inherent to the originals. I believe the listener makes the music into art, not the composer. My intention is to present discoveries for individual contemplation, not to express my feelings, nor to symbolically represent ideas that would be better voiced with words.

Michael Farley, interview with Some Assembly Required

“As I was making all this ugly, mundane racket, pulling up nails and dropping tools, I noticed the noise I was making in the room was fairly consistent, with a degree of slight variation, but always the same kind of texture of incidence.  I quickly got my Minidisc recorder, and let it record this sound world, thinking I would listen to it later to see if there was anything of interest there.”

The mini-disc recorder used to record the source audio for The House of Yang Wu. Image supplied by Michael Farley (The Beige Channel).

“Ordinary sound out of context often presents a fascinating aural document, and it was the case in this instance.  The recording came out well (Minidisc recorders were truly an incredible invention) and I was really excited by the potential of using the sounds for a composition.”

I ask Farley to tell me more about his idea of “disenfranchised sounds,” and he is quick to point out that he is not the only sound artist to think this way. He cites the phonography movement, and the scene surrounding the phonography.org collective in the early 2000s, as embracing the same concept.

In order to contextualize the idea, he separates sounds into three categories. There are sounds that most people find pleasant. “Birdsong, babbling brooks, wind through leaves,” he provides as examples. And then there is noise, a judgmental term. “Noise is thought to be an annoying nuisance, chaotic, an interference, unnecessary, and barely tolerable.” Apart from those extremes, he identifies a third category of sound — the everyday sound that we take for granted, that exists on the fringe of consciousness. “It’s not confrontational enough to demand attention, or pretty enough for anyone to make an effort to enjoy. It’s just kind of ‘there’ in the background, easy to ignore, if it’s even noticed at all. Those are the disenfranchised sounds I found I was attracted to, like the hum of a refrigerator, the whirring of a ceiling fan, the clicking sounds of a cat eating dry food from a metal bowl, or acorns falling from a tree. I call them disenfranchised because they’re too mundane to be considered worthwhile, and not aggressive enough to demand attention.” He points to other recordings he has done in this vein, including compositions that incorporate the sound of acorns falling, or the audio from a tennis match.

The EP’s title, The Nail House of Yang Wu, is a reference to the Chinese phenomenon of “nail houses.” These are buildings whose owners refuse to move when property developers are razing an area. Yang Wu, one famous example, was someone who refused the money of a developer for many years, even after all his neighbours had sold their properties. As a result, Wu’s entire neighbourhood was demolished, leaving just his house alone on a mound of dirt, surrounded by a trench. Even the electricity and plumbing were disconnected.

Yang Wu’s nail house, as pictured in the EP’s liner notes. (Source: Stasisfield website via archive.org.)

“Between the beginning of recording, and its release on Stasisfield, I had been to China a second time. China was certainly on my mind a lot in those years, and I think it was natural to relate my creative work to the intriguing and mystifying culture of China. Somehow I found nails referenced in a news story from China about the ‘nail house, the house that Yang Wu and his family refused to leave, even as developers dug deep trenches around it, leaving it stranded almost in mid-air. I was so impressed with the tenacity, confidence, and defiance demonstrated by these homeowners against the greed of corporate business, that I was inspired to dedicate this EP to their cause.”

To listen to this recording is a treat. You can check it out yourself; though the Stasisfield website is long-gone, the old site — and zip file — are miraculously still alive here thanks to archive.org!

Over email, Farley outlines the record for me, providing insight into the largely abstract sounds. “Part One” showcases the carpet sound in largely unprocessed form. “The first half of ‘Part One’ is basically the exposition,” Farley says. “About halfway, some of the sound is buffered and filtered, resulting in an echoing drone.” Thereafter, the source recordings are subjected to digital processing to alter the sound.

“Part Two” uses a processed loop, then adds some guitar and synthesizer to lush effect. “In ‘Part Three’ the original sound is now fragmented and manipulated to resonate at inherent frequencies using granular synthesis. I probably used the Pluggo plugins from Cycling ’74.”

“The ultimate transformation” is how Farley describes “Part Four,” the final piece. “From the drudgery of weekend chores comes this thing, which is almost ‘music.'” Farley points out a review on Disquiet.com, which likens the piece to the minimal techno put out on Chain Reaction. It’s a very apt comparison. “The only thing missing is the kick drum,” Farley says.

Farley wraps up by updating me on what has happened since The Nail House came out. “After The Nail House of Yang Wu came out in 2011, I did one more album, Evening In Paris, in 2012, a few videos, and a few live performances under the name The Beige Channel. After that, I completely switched gears and abandoned field recording and sound art. I had already begun pursuing a shoegaze/indie pop/dream pop project called Caramel Snow at the end of 2009. Since then, on the average, I’ve written and recorded one new song a month.  Even now, I’m working on about three or four new songs at various stages of completion. I spent most of my life just trying to write a convincing rock & roll pop song and I could never figure out how to do it. Once I learned how, it was like I flipped a switch, and I can’t turn it off!”

Thanks to Michael Farley for the interview.

Brent Gutzeit / Bill Groot ‎– Deselm CD-R (BOXmedia, 2003)

“I guess it takes a special person to be excited about a CD of tractor sounds.”

Deselm, Illinois is a place. When you look it up on Google Maps, this is what you get:

The Wikipedia article for Deselm is three sentences long. It will tell you that Deselm is an unincorporated community in Illinois’s Kankakee County, that it was home to a post office from 1867 to 1902, and that it was named after its first postmaster, John B. Deselm.

Deselm is also the name of a peculiar CD-R by Brent Gutzeit and Bill Groot, two woodworkers who ran the BOXmedia record label out of their woodshop, Claremont Woodworking. In touch with me via email, Gutzeit tells me about the origins of this unique release. “Groot was the owner and I was the only employee. We ran BOXmedia on the side — out of the same office. BOXmedia was releasing a lot of CDrs at the time and I was also touring and playing a lot of shows at the time.”

Deselm is named so because it collects three recordings made at a place near Deselm called Burn’s Woods, which are so obscure they cannot be found on Google Maps. “It was in the middle of nowhere,” Gutzeit says. “I remember driving down many two-lane roads through endless corn fields.” Groot and Gutzeit were there to attend the annual Antique Tractor and Threshing Reunion, hosted by the Will County Threshermen’s Association. (That event has since been moved, and 2020’s rendition — the 58th! — was cancelled due to COVID.)

Groot and Gutzeit attended the Reunion in 2000 and 2002, making recordings of some of the engines. “Bill and I were both interested in field recordings. And we were both interested in machine sounds and noise. We had recorded a bunch of ‘sessions’ in the woodshop using the tools and large machinery as sound sources — some real Luigi Russolo kind of stuff,” he laughs. “Bill came across an ad in a trades magazine for the tractor fair and we decided to go and record it. Both of us being woodworkers, we enjoyed a trip into the past of motors, engines, tools and large machinery. To us it just sounded like a fun and interesting trip. We packed up the recording gear and headed downstate to Deselm.”

Gutzeit remembers the reunion. “There was a small engines section that was similar to an outdoor flea market but just had different people set up in booths running different motors. So as you walked through it was a weird sound collage of motors.

“Then there was a parade showing off all the old antique tractors. And the most interesting thing for Bill and I, being woodworkers, was the saw mill. It was incredible. Imagine a full-sized steam engine train, but without the wheels and without the cab. Now this giant steam engine has a huge pulley wheel on the side that is connected via 100 ft belt to a 10 ft saw blade. The saw blade is set up vertical and is ripping through 4 ft wide whole trees like butter. The steam engine is wailing like a train powering up a steep hill. Pretty massive. Pretty impressive. Oh, and the big thing for everyone was the noon whistle blow where all the tractors blew their steam whistles. I have to say it was way more interesting than we had expected. We ended going back a few years later to record more.”

Tractors were familiar to Gutzeit. “I grew up in a little town east of Flint, Michigan called Davison. And we weren’t even in Davison, we were in Richfield Township. The road we lived on was dirt until I was eight. We were surrounded by corn fields. So tractors were a normal everyday sight for me growing up.”

The CD collects two tracks by Groot and one by Gutzeit. “Bill and I both had different recorders and recorded our own sources,” Gutzeit says. “I basically did a more straight forward collage mix. Bill decided to do a more ‘DJ style’ mix where he took a lot of smaller samples and looped them.

When they made the recordings, they already had in mind a release on their label. “It was going to be in the fourth BOXmedia CD-R series (Hence the catalog code BOXCDR403), which was all field recordings.” Others that series include Todd Carter (collecting sounds from Chicago), Michael Hartman (sounds from Japan), Yannick Dauby (sounds from India) and a compilation called Vacation for Hourly Employees, which features sounds from all over the world.

When I ask Gutzeit what the response was like from listeners, he tells me that he sold very few copies, and that he wasn’t aware of anyone writing a review of Deselm. “The second year we went back (to the tractor reunion) we had burned off a stack of CD-Rs to hand out to people from the previous year. Most people were confused but some were really excited about it. I don’t know — I guess it takes a special person to be excited about a CD of tractor sounds,” he laughs.

Yet today, Gutzeit carries only fond memories of this unique release. “I thought it was wonderful. I’d recommend it to anybody – farmer or not.”

Thanks to Brent Gutzeit for this interview. He currently lives in Milwaukee and recently put out a split album with Mike Shiflet, entitled Welcome to Cleveland. Via his JMY label, he just put out a massive 106-track entitled Building a Better Future, whose proceeds all go to Black Lives Matter, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

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).

Seth Cluett – Undr CDR (BOXmedia, 2004)

“I walked that driveway every day for eighteen years to the school bus, so it’s filled with memories of my perception of the world, nature, and sounds, and being immersed in it.”

I came across this unusual CDR while exploring the discography for BOXmedia, a Chicago label run by Brent Gutzeit and Bill Groot from 1997 to 2004.

BOXmedia was devoted to improvised and experimental music, including CDR, CD, and vinyl releases of work by a variety of producers, among them Pita, Kevin Drumm, and Reynols. Their extensive discography is home to a number of limited-edition treats, including a disc of field recordings taken at a rural tractor competition, as captured by Gutzeit and Groot themselves.

Seth Cluett’s Undr CDR is another interesting artifact. Its basis was a recording of Cluett and four members of the Undr Quartet walking the long driveway of Cluett’s parents’ house. That recording was then digitally processed using sine tones, only leaving faint flecks of the original source audio in the mix.

Cluett, now Assistant Director of the Computer Music Center and Sound Art Program at Columbia University, recalls the era of his life when Undr came out. He had completed an MFA in Electronic Art at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute two years prior, in 2002, and subsequently became interested in the Chicago New Music scene after performing at a series of shows for a group exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Betty Rymer Gallery. The exhibition was called Resynthesis and was curated by Philip von Zweck, its intent to situate sound art as equal to the material usually featured in art galleries. For the show, Cluett rigged up audio equipment in a stairwell, turning the environment into a “large acoustic resonator.”

From the postcard to the Resynthesis group exhibition. Source.

Participating in that Chicago event led to a number of different collaborations and solo exhibitions, and also introduced him to BOXmedia’s Brent Gutzeit. “Brent reached out and asked if I wanted to do a CDR in the next batch of BOXmedia CDRs,” Cluett explains. “It was complicated because at the time I was juggling these long form composed works and installation pieces.”

Indeed, in 2004 Cluett put two other releases, both of which came out before Undr. The Masked Verticalities mini-CDR, on Crank Satori Records, was a recording of the stairwell piece he had staged for Resynthesis. The other was his first widely-distributed, professionally-pressed CD, My Own Thousand Shatterings, which garnered reviews in publications like The Wire. That CD, which took years to produce before coming out on Sedimental Recordings,was typical of Cluett’s focused, time-intensive process.

“I had just released this 74-minute monolith of a fixed media recording,” he explains. “It took me three years to make and I was not in the same head to produce another epic, long thing… I was tempted to use it as another opportunity to release something a little more ephemeral, a little less fixed-media. So I came up with a strategy to split the difference and make a site-specific piece based on a field recording.”

Around that time, Cluett was very interested in the way sounds occupied spaces and how this affected the psychological experience of listening. He was exploring these ideas in his live performances, creating tones using sine-wave oscillators to accentuate elements of the sound environment, including the resonant frequencies of the venues’ physical space. He wondered how he could create a recording that incorporated the same processes. Undr was the result.

That name — Undr — had two meanings. It originates in a Borges story of the same the name, from his short story collection Book of Sand. “I think the Borges relation is deceptively simple,” he shares. “I feel comfortable telling you that it is about allowing worlds to exist within less. For the people in the story, their poetry consisted of a single word. I was interested in how sound creates meaning, where content lives in our sonic memory, and how small sounds contain multitudes.”

The more immediate connection was Boston’s Undr Quartet, who, along with Nmperign, were what Cluett considers the “vanguard in Boston of what got dubbed by Steve Roden the lowercase improvised scene.” The members of the Quartet accompanied Cluett for the walk that comprises Undr‘s source recording.

Image of Cluett’s parents’ driveway, the location of Undr‘s recording. (Credit: Allen Cluett)

Cluett shares the story behind that field recording. At the time, the Undr Quartet were recording with Cluett at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, since Cluett still had keys to the recording studio. For convenience, the Quartet crashed with Cluett at his parents’ house nearby. “I grew up very rurally in Upstate New York,” he explains. “My folks have a quarter-mile long driveway with about a half-mile on either end of the driveway from either neighbour. I took a binaural microphone and I walked down the driveway with the Quartet slowly, listening, and then walked back up the driveway.”

His pet Labrador, Rudy, joined as well. In relating this story, Cluett acknowledges his gratitude to the Quartet’s members in joining him for this project. At the time, Cluett was in his mid-20s, a few years younger than these established improvisers, who were mentors to him at the time.

“I walked that driveway every day for eighteen years to the school bus, so it’s filled with memories of my perception of the world, nature, and sounds, and being immersed in it.”

After creating this recording, he took it and he weaved layers of sine tones into the source audio. Indeed, it’s difficult to hear any remnant of the walk in the mix; only by playing it at very loud volume can one make out a sporadic faint tinkle of the dog’s chain or the crunch of a leaf.

The sine tones were added via a twofold process. The first step was what Cluett calls an “aural” one, with him selecting sine tones by ear. He tells me that, around the time Undr was made, he had been performing live using a set of eight Heathkit sine-wave oscillators. “They were these big tube oscillators that I carried around in my car and set up for performances. At the time, I was doing these performances in which I would listen to the room and then bring in and tune tones to what was happening. Some tones were also tuned to the architectural space of the room. I would do a sweep before the show started and look for resonant notes in the space.”

He used these oscillators as phase one of Undr‘s production process, running the field recording, and playing along live with his oscillators, matching elements of the recording to specific tones by ear. After he recorded several runs, he layered them atop one another.

A look at the Raven program. Source.

Step two of the sound processing was where the process diverged from his live rig. “At the time we had this software from the Cornell ornithology laboratory called Raven,” he recalls. Using an algorithm called fast-Fourier transform, it would generate a spectrograph of a recording, providing Cluett information about the frequency, amplitude, and phase of the audio. He had access to this program since he had used it for a collaboration with Pauline Oliveros in which they examined the acoustics of Italian cathedrals.

Running the driveway recording through Raven, he used the resulting frequency data to select tones, which he produced using digital software and added to final Undr mix. “So it was a mixture between machine listening and human listening,” he explains. “Kind of bringing it between the immediacy of the performances I was doing at that time, and a compositional thing that was painstaking and slow, like what I had done for the Sedimental release.”

Undr served as an important conceptual moment in Cluett’s career. “It’s almost the keystone for what I got obsessed with over the next ten or fifteen years, which is this use of sine tones to pick apart content,” he explains. “There’s all these instrumental pieces that came later, like Objects of Memory, which was my first record on Richard Chartier’s Line label. Those pieces are buried inside of Undr. That way of thinking, really trying very hard to make real human connections through some mediation of technology.”

The driveway in winter. (Credit: Jennifer Eberhardt)

Indeed, in looking through Cluett’s writing, this idea of using sine tones as a sound production tool has been a through line over his years. It a technique that has evolved with his perspective on exploring the interrelationship between sound perception and physical space. In a recent interview in which he discusses the early stages of his career, he recalls proposing a series of compositions designed to highlight certain psychoacoustic phenomena to one of his academic supervisors, Pauline Oliveros, only for her to point out that the concept had been done years before, for example by Alvin Lucier.

I really had to stop thinking about making work in a notebook and started to make work in a studio. I realized I shouldn’t try to merely imagine what is possible with psychoacoustic effects. Most everyone had thought of and made work out of the obvious effects in the early development of the medium.

Interview with Cluett by Barbara London, for Max Feed/Mix Feed

Eventually, he shifted from an approach to composition that was centred around the initial concept to a dynamic process in which the piece is more than the idea — compositions that instead evolve as a function of the ongoing creative process. This interactivity has manifested most obviously in his site-specific pieces, where he will carefully explore a room, searching for ways the space will interact with his audio — in many cases, using surgically-precise sine tones to draw out these physical properties. In a brief artist’s statement written in 2006, he summarizes the approach:

Much of my practice has consisted of concert pieces and installations making use of sine tones, acoustic instruments and amplified objects, and field recordings that are tuned to the spaces in which they are performed. In these pieces I have been developing the relationship between sine tone pitches and a given room’s acoustic signature.

Seth Cluett, “Toward a Post-Phenomenology of Extra-Musical Sound as Compositional Determinant”
Credit: Allen Cluett

With Undr, this idea was extended to a fixed field recording that was created in a specific space. And while Cluett describes it as being a significant turning point in his career, only fifty copies of the CDR were reportedly produced. Despite its limited pressing, however, it did garner a few positive reviews in journals at a time when Cluett’s work was picking up steam following his CD release on Sedimental.

He has since uploaded the recording to Bandcamp, where it can be purchased or listened to via streaming. That he chose to make this years old, limited-run release available online hints at his fondness for the release. “I was always a little sad it was just a CDR and didn’t get distributed much, but there are still people every once in a while who tell me, yeah that’s a great disk. I’m not so invested in whether it was great or not, but I do feel like it was important. The work got me to a place where I needed to be.”

With thanks to Seth Cluett, whose website can be found here.

Interview with Cluett conducted May 18, 2020.