Friday, 29 November 2013

The fire alarm that changed my life

In the cylindrical tower, a spiral staircase descends from unseen height.
The building is of white, ancient stone, punctuated by rings of rounded windows of Romanesque design, the staircase of wide thin stone of the same type as the building.
An infinitely varied pattern follows the course of the simply ornate ironwork supporting the smooth endless polished banister rail.
As I find myself half-floating, half-tripping down the smooth worn stairs, I look in wonder at the walls that pass me, where floral interweavings, frozen animals and gesturing stylised human figures cover the curved vertical surfaces, hewn with infinite silent patience by masons who were able during their work to remain for the period floating at the scene of their anonymous memorials.
Other figures, children, the old and infirm, the beautiful and the crazed are glimpsed, passed and sometimes brushed against.
As I continue my descent it is possible to hear the faintest, most distant of musics which, as I attempt to focus my whole undistracted attention upon it, becomes increasingly close and clear and sweet until instead of a staircase, I am inside of nothing, my body has disappeared and the universe exists only as sound, with the infinite fluctuations and ebbing flows of air currents high above the earth, microscopic particles of gas and vapour, of which I am a single one.
I was awakened from the dream by shouting and fire alarms on the landing outside my room, confusedly half dressed and moved outside to find out the reason for this confused  interruption of sleep.
It was the winter of 1992 and I was working as a busker and living in the Hotel Audran, off the Rue des Abbesses in Paris.
The staircase I noticed for the first time had a particularly subtle combination of evil, permeating smells that through repetitious application to the fetid air of the place had become as much a part of the building’s fabric as the stiff-stained carpet under foot and the streaky stains on the layered peeling paint.
Descending from the third to the second floor, as the midnight fire alarm signalled an electric cooker or tumbled candle out of control in one of the rooms, I noticed a tiny variation in pitch between the alarm signals emanating from the different ceilings.
The one on the level below was of minutely sharper pitch and  - moving slowly backwards up the stairs, ears focussed, against the dazed downward flow of drowsy half-clad people - it was possible to hear the upper signal at enough of a higher volume for the lower to be imperceptible, then to shift, first two then four steps, down again for their mixing to create a strangely pleasurable throb as the skewed interfluctuations pulsed arrhythmically: the closer you descended to the sound below, the faster became the throbbing and then quieter, then disappearing as the higher note dominated.
We descended through two more flights.
I was now possibly the last person on the stairs. The first floor sound was slightly higher yet and the shrill sine wave from the ground floor ceiling was the lowest of the three, all of the sounds within a whole tone of each other, or the distance between middle C and the white note above it.
There was no smoke, no flames or crackling, no smell of melting, fat soaked carpet immolating within the crumbling rotten floors.
We were a motley collection of desperate souls, moments before in sagging beds, listening  to the constant scratching of cockroaches and whistling of water pipes either trying to sleep, drink ourselves to sleep, fuck our way to momentary dishevelled contentment, or obtain the money from a haunted looking client with rotten teeth for tomorrow’s first fix.
I looked at my fellow residents and saw a mirror of shame at my own failure and outsiderness.
The long term unemployed who stayed for the first two and half weeks of each month, until the chaumage cheque ran out then slept on benches and subway vents for the next week and a half or so of the month.
These were my neighbours and on certain days, the only people with whom I spoke.
The Hotel Audran was a narrow, infested hole in the street of the same name directly half way between the church of Sacre Coeur and the Boulevard de Clichy.
As my Bulgarian friend Ivan pointed out “slep exectly helf vay to heafen end hell. Parfect!”
In the month or so I stayed there I came to know the neighbourhood and made a couple of acquaintances, principal among whom was Corinne.
In a tiny crammed grocery shop on the Rue Germain Pilon I boggled at the cost of basic groceries, wondering where to buy food for the evening meal in my room.
A strikingly pretty girl with full lips, voluminous mousey hair and round green eyes was hanging around, slinking and swinging a bottle of milk in one hand.
Excuse me, I said, do you know a shop not quite so expensive for basic food near here?
Buy me a coffee and I’ll tell you she said, and I thought why not, astonished and glowing.
So we went to drink coffee and grinned and told each other stuff, leaning over our cups with a confidential air, although she was coy, guarded, under the coquettishness.
She turned my amusement quickly into a committed, serious lust and, becoming aware of this fact, I admired whatever magical action she had taken, unnoticed, upon me.
Suddenly she had to go, to work. Where did I live she asked. She would come for me there. Oh, when, I asked, confused.
Soon. Maybe later she laughed, a kiss and she disappeared.
Suddenly, my surroundings were highly coloured, complex, filled with danger and promise.
Uncertain as to what had just begun, I moved to pay for the coffees, remembering I had almost no money, certainly none now for groceries.
I returned to my room with a small loaf and opened the wardrobe to look through my tinned food stash, finding nothing there.
There was a rather foul stew of andouillettes and borlotti beans in the cold electric frying pan which I kept hidden, beneath a towel under my bed (in case hotel staff should decide to enter my room and clean it, although this hadn’t happened yet).
I pulled it out on its stand and turned the dial to full heat, opening Russell Hoban’s terrifying and compelling Riddley Walker, a post-apocalyptic coming of age tale, set somewhere in the south of England a thousand years in the future.
Riddley had begun his journey and was a fugitive from several lethal pursuers.
Distractedly lifting a fork of food from the pan to my mouth as I rapidly read, I noticed just before it entered my mouth, a chunk of dead, now cooked, cockroach on my fork.
When the pan was cool, I wrapped it and its terrible contents into a black plastic bag and carried them down to find a place to leave them in the street.
This did not solve the food situation and I resolved to go out and play the violin at a metro station to raise some francs.
That was the night I met Olivier from Gibraltar, at Chatelet, which friendship would both signal the beginning of the end of my time in exile and lead to a series of events that brought me to composing music as my job.
The memory of heterodyning electronic sound signals, Doppler effect and the physiological response of strange and complex random sonic occurrences would inform all these processes.
What happened with Corinne and who was she? I would only ever find out a little.
Olivier was the hapless bringer of both magic and of chaos.
It could have been for him that Macduff cried “confusion now hath made his masterpiece”.

But more of this anon.

Friday, 22 November 2013

SINGING PLACES SEMINAR, University of Sussex, 22 Nov 2013

Co-chaired by Richard Elliott (Lecturer in Popular Music, and
Professor Sally Jane Norman (Professor of Performance Technologies and Director of the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts)

University of Sussex
22nd November 2013, 9am – 4:30pm

University of Sussex, 22 Nov 2013

The interweaving of song and place as a literally resonant cultural identifier offers a richly interdisciplinary research focus.
Music, sonic arts, cultural anthropology, and human geography feature amongst disciplines mobilised by this domain, which is also strongly invested by a range of creative practices including poetry, architecture, acoustic ecologies, and site-specific sound art.
Drawing together theorists and practitioners, this seminar aims to identify key research questions associated with the theme of "Singing Places", with a view to launching a longer- term programme of academic and artistic events.

This wide-ranging cross-disciplinary series of talks and presentations was hopefully the beginning of a rich and provoking longer exchange.
Arriving from Southampton, in time for Richard Follett's paper "Soundscapes, Creolized Identities, and the Matrix of Memory", I was immediately absorbed by the richness of anecdote and cross-reference beginning with Mudimbe’s Matrix of Memory (see also
“Historians who have examined the sounds of New World slavery and the soundscape of plantation cultures quite reasonably focus on the audible transcript left by the enslaved.
Song, folktale, hollers, and religiously inspired sound contributed to an audible slave culture, that Shane and Graham White conclude, "was made to be heard." These audible and visible shards of slave testimony constitute what Valentin Yves Mudimbe refers to as "a matrix of memory," a diasporic African "orature."
…the aural soundscape of slavery leaves "sonic echoes" of subaltern agency and visibility deep into the twentieth century. . .we should not think of audibility and silence in binary terms; they were instead slipping modes of expression, at times intensely soldered, at other points, gliding linguistically and culturally, giving voice in a multiplicity of ways.”

His talk raised questions about whether diasporic performance and/or expression is necessarily or inevitably subversive and transgressive.
Quoting Paul Gilroy on the “unsayable, unspeakable” parts of remembered terror, which are at once audible and silent and J. C. Scott’s ‘hidden transcripts’ and the ‘infra-politics of resistance’ “Domination and the Arts of Resistance”, he segued elegantly into contemporary Afro-Brazilian culture’s Angolan and Congolese inheritance and the similarities between capoeira, carnival, samba and Brazilian football, who share a use of unexpected elisions, silences and necessarily guileful pauses.
A plausible etymology for the term ‘cool’ was argued, keeping your composure while performing seemingly impossible complications around European dance moves to entertain, beguile and confound their slave masters. Moving to the rhythms formed by the audible but silent interstices, suggested but evanescent other fluctuations between the only beat perceptible to the white men’s ears.
Richard Follett is Professor of American History at the University of Sussex

Richard Elliott, “Songs in/and place” began with a comparison of white American country singer Alan Jackson’s “Where I come from” and Jay-Z’s “Where I’m from” in terms of lyrical content, tone and evocative referential statements of origin.
An eclectic and broadly referenced piece, largely focused on Portuguese Fado music: Fado originated in the dock areas of Lisbon – and therefore was a music of many sources, concerned with place, origin, identity – unlike flamenco and tango for example, with no accompanying dance form.
Elliott touched on de Certeau’s “Walking in the City”, where the ‘migrational’ and ‘metaphorical’ are superimposed on the ‘planned’ city; the poetic power of place names; Perec’s playful and poetic “Species of Spaces”; Lefebvre’s “The Production of Space” and “Rhythmanalysis”…lived space as biological, psychological, social and mechanical rhythms… Svetlana Boym’s “The Future of Nostalgia”, Edward Soja’s “Thirdspace” and “Postmetropolis”, Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” and returning to the unifying theme, with Michael Colvin’s “The Reconstruction of Lisbon”, primarily concerned with Fado music.
Native American folk tales, he said, were often based in familiar physical locations while in all other aspects remaining fabulous, incredible.
Elliott made me wonder how the textures of geo-located sound structures can be made more to reflect and explore the audible and inaudible interstices between present sounds in physical locations.
Richard Elliott is Lecturer in Popular Music at the University of Sussex.

Jean Martin [] presented “Echoes of the Past” a proposed project to bring live streamed sound from functioning British cathedrals and/or prisons to the ruined twelfth century abbey and (from 1804 to 1963) prison at Fontevraud.
He presented the ethical and logistical difficulties, enlarging on the sense that there is a value and beauty in the sound’s live transmission that would transcend, in its unpredictability, any constructed sounds used to artificially evoke such an ambience as would be broadcast from a live functioning institution.
There was discussion about the nature of liveness, given digital latency and streaming unpredictability.
Martin’s ontology:
Sound translocation through technology
Evocative: presence created
Sound sculpture

He touched on the possibilities afforded by free internet radio streaming hosters, such as and Icecast, a free streaming media project maintained by the Foundation.

My favourite quote of the day:
“In spite of the internet we still have our bodies”  Jean 
Jean Martin is a musicologist, sound researcher, composer, writer about film sound and music, radio producer and documentary film maker

Composer Matthew Hodson presented an astonishingly beautiful example of his work interpreting and responding to landscape in which he analysed the frequency and timbral content of field recordings from the South Downs and after (incredibly effective, sensitive) processing of the original sounds, superimposed synthetic sound textures that interwove in a delightful, indefinable beast-machine complex. He asked how sound is deliberately built into places in terms of the sounds produced by the place and its resonances. How are places sonically branded as a part of their design and construction?
He would take the music composed in the studio and perform it in situ with speakers under trees. The heard effect in the examples played sounded as though they were a studio-based mixture of field recording and composed additional layers but the lightness of touch in production made the seams and boundaries of the work difficult to untangle on first audition.
Hodson touches on the ethical question of introducing sounds into an environment that interfere with its functioning, reminding me of the pleasure of introducing sound to landscape inaudibly for all but the individual headset-wearing listener, with GPS-enabled notours software.
Composer and Sound Designer,

Composer Danny Bright presented his sound installation at Magna, the ex-Templeborough steel works at Rotherham.
Unusual in being at once part dis-used, part ruined and part re-purposed, the site is palpably populated by sonic ghosts. 
The former Electric Arc Furnace was turned into a melting shop – where scrap metal was melted down to be re-used in new metal fabrication.
The scale of the site is staggering; one mile wide with networks of rail, sidings, 14 separate furnaces. It closed in 1996 and was dormant until the Millennium Project initiated its partial transformation into a science education centre. 
It remains largely derelict, some underground areas filled with construction waste, others including tunnels and shafts for communications, cabling and the movement of people remain accessible. 
These became the viscera of an enormous instrument, the mouth of which, a hand-riveted steel trumpet bell, protruding from an old manhole allowed the resonance of the building to literally become its own song.
A striking aspect of this intervention was the lack of interpretative or manipulative work done – not attempting to evoke or speak for the place, but giving a mouth to the place’s own voice. 
The arduinos and control circuits running a three channel MAX patch had the required simplicity to never require maintenance and to be operable from a simple three button, two slider console the visiting children would push to its limits. 
The console was constructed from the retrieved controls of a dismantled crane.
Bright referenced Michael Mayerfield Bell’s 1997 “The Ghosts of Place”:
“a ubiquitous aspect of phenomenology of space is ghosts: the sense of presence of those who are not physically there…”
Bright calls his process of summoning and repurposing the naturally occurring sounds of the place Sonic Ghost Composition.
It is one of a number of similar projects he has so far completed, looking at the architectural and acoustic resonances of a place, allowing them to take precedence over compositional techniques. 
It was a way of giving ultimate voice to the historical and personal references and resonances of the site, as is appropriate to a design that celebrates and memorialises the place’s former existence and the people who manned, operated and lived through it.
Listener interaction was reported as often being random and showing very short attention spans – or indifference or incomprehension – but for Bright, the possibility to hear the “space singing its own song” gave it weight and validity that he hadn’t fully expected and this has now come profoundly to inform his current thinking and planning for future work.
Danny Bright is a sound designer, composer, recordist and sonic manipulator

Co-chair Professor Sally Jane Norman gave a penultimate concluding talk that moved rapidly and sure-footedly over many connections between historical and contemporary sound sites: places re-located and de-located.
Robert Fludd, 1621, The Tuning of the World,
Soundhouses in Bacon’s New Atlantis, 1648,
Boston Symphony Hall, designed by Wallace Sabine in 1900, held to be the first example of acoustically aware modern concert hall architecture,
The Oracle Room of the Hypogeum at Malta, dating from around 3000 BC, discovered accidentally in 1902 by builders, the only known prehistoric underground necropolis with an acoustic clearly designed to evoke and recall mystical truths and revelations.
A cross section of the elaborate, brilliantly designed Versailles Opera, 1770,
The Philips Pavilion of 1958, with big boss Le Corbusier’s name on it but actually designed by composer-architect Xenakis and sonically populated or its opening by Varese’s Poeme Electronique for 400 speakers. 55 years ago!
Francois Bayle’s acousmonium, whose intent was to engage listeners with the timbral and temporal qualities of ‘sampled’ and processed sounds but which had the opposite effect, causing them to anthropomorphise and interpret as constructed, communicative sounds that which he was merely attempting to curate and present.
Keith Fullerton Whitman’s 2011 deconstruction and acoustic repopulation of a space at the Kontraste Festival at Krems in Austria,
Pauline Oliveros’ uses of space in her Deep Listening work,
and Michel Redolfi and David Hykes’ transmission of Thoronet Abbey in France to the Kitchen in New York,
Bennett Hogg’s “when violins were trees” – placing the instruments in woodland and underwater settings for them to be played by natural elements in the environment [The Violin, The River and Me],
Max Neuhaus, sounding out the New York underground through vent shafts…
Stockhausen’s proposal for the ‘urban sonic vacuum cleaner’….. in light particularly of the approaching mercantile cacophony of Christmas, so bereft as it is of all poetry.
Perhaps places need to be quietened before it is possible really to listen to them.
How might one develop layers of the past and present that make them mutually responsive?
The past and sonic ghosts need not necessarily be an expression of lamentation but also celebratory, inventing and imagining futures of the space
Identifying common themes between Body – Song – Place among the speakers of the day.

Michael Bull’s summing up began with the story of the Dutchmen who told him to speak for as long as he wanted, so he did 2 ½ hours. We were not so fortunate, as the day was drawing to a close, but he touched on how…
notion of place is increasingly abstract in a digital-dominated experience
citing as example the sounds of ‘Canterbury’ and Manchester’ bands – acknowledging that many of us could already not remember these,
that the Cavern is no longer a site of musical production or performance but a museum to a historical artifact, removed from the context of its inception,
the commodification of sound in place as an ever-increasing trend,
power and social class relations dominating our reading of sound in specific places
mechanisation constructing the imaginary nostalgic
e.g. Italian Americans pining for ‘home’ when listening to Caruso in the 1920s
Studio tourism, even of vanished studios…..
What was absent from the day’s discussion in Bull’s view?
Whose sounds are in the space, musical identities being manufactured through constructed ideologies.
Histories of song show that much was located in occupations and we refer to places as historical phenomena, where ‘place’ is eroded, dissolved by the ubiquity of digital.
Anders Brevik was listening on headphones to the Lord of the Rings as he murdered teenagers in Norway four years ago.
What place emotional, psychological, imaginary was he occupying in the middle of all this?
Surely there is a direct link between the sadness of much nostalgia – even for time before our own memory –  and sadness at the loss of one’s own days?
There is an ancient Japanese hillside cemetery, a place of great tranquility and subtle sonic and acoustic interest where Bull was enjoying an evening stroll, when suddenly a hundred loudspeakers began to produce a kind of ‘celestial shopping mall’: a horrible and disconnecting experience raising questions about the imposition of sonic effect, someone’s vision or ideology, on a public space.
The alienating and intrusive effect brings a strongly political aspect to discussion of sound in public places.
Auget’s Non-Places, to return to question of ‘what is space?’ – how we construct meaning even for the most apparently clearly defined:
e.g. the relative experience of singing at Greenham Common by the protesters (unifying, supportive), the police (subversive, defiant) and military (obstructive)
Consider parents and children arguing about what sounds to play – using the sounds they wish to hear to define the space they are occupying from an own perspective.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Just some rough notes to try to remember the enormous glut of new ideas and references I’ve enjoyed during this fantastic day of sound and speech. 
More sound next time, I agree!

1st prize at #SXSC3 Dragon's Den Business Plan Competition

It's a little hard to take in winning this incredible prize!

It will go a long way towards getting 3DBARE to proof-of-concept and beyond. 

Many, many thanks to the panel and the conference organisers of #SXSC3 !

For more about 3DBARE, our engine for Music You Can Walk Inside, and to get involved, please get in touch via 
Twitter (#benjaminmawson), 
Soundcloud (benjamin_mawson) or 

Some key things about 3DBARE: 
Sound You Can Walk Inside

  • software to give listeners virtual experience of walking inside music.
  • translates motion-tracking into multi- channel binaural audio rendering.
3DBARE packages site- and event-specific audio content, creating a connection between digital and real-world experience through being situated at a physical location.

It will be used at a new kind of event that combines elements of concert, exhibition, silent disco, funhouse, public garden, dreamscape.

3DBARE allows listeners to move and make a virtual exploration of a soundscape: permits annotation of a space with audio that enhances both listening experience and individuals' connection to a place.

Why we think 3DBARE is essential:
• Digital studios permit ‘impossible’ music and sonic textures of greater complexity than can be fully heard through standard (loudspeaker) relay.
• Loudspeaker listening same as a CD or a gramophone record – it is passive and fixed, identical on each audition.
• Loudspeaker spatialisation is unconvincing, complex and expensive.
• Wireless headsets offer freedom to investigate sound as though it were a
physical structure.
• This permits recorded digital sound to be explored from continually changing perspectives.
• 3DBARE achieves a significant step towards "digital liveness".

To find out more and to get involved - send us your email address and we will get straight back to you

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

November Tea Party on

Saturday, 23rd November, 1730 GMT

One minute preview of tomorrow's little festival of the banal, insane and wondrous:

Moving around crowded places is like a rapid-cut movie with complete surround sound, of fragmentary tales. Spontaneous capture of where someone’s going, or what they might be waiting for. What brought them right here, at this moment? What’s urgently at the front their mind to express, for just the second it takes to pass them and hear it?

Composing can be like that: if, instead of a formal structure, streams of idea and emotion that occupy the composing process can lead it, the transitions and places we ask the listener to follow us through, we can take you on a walk through real, imagined, simulated, impossibly combined experiences.

I want to take you on a walk through the crowded places of my recent listening and musical thought. It is not a picture of a particular thing: it meant different things as I made it, tells me new stories as I listen to the completed piece while writing this.

I hope you will give yourself to it, climb inside it (with headphones) for the time it takes to run.

There’s a miniature virtual-piano study, on which the piece hangs, with its own distractions and tangents, interruptions and alternative routes taken or just suggested.

I’ve also used tiny voice samples as keyboard notes, fragments of the Victorian composer Cyril Scott, a little moment from a well-known UK rapper (talking about my town) and various voices you will recognise immediately, removed from their context.

It’s a collage, a reconstruction of the pulsing, shifting emotive and geometric forms that the sounds I’ve used here inspired in me.

I’ve tried to make you smile as I did, and to feel some of the empathy, fear and exasperation that the sampled speakers inspired, while also inviting you to look with me through a window at something bluer, beyond.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Sound You Can Walk Inside, #SXSC3, Creative Digifest, Southampton, UK

SXSC3 Creative DigiFest, 19 November 2013

Digital Economy Strategic Research Group, University of Southampton

#SXSC3 Speaker profile: Ben Mawson

Benjamin Louis Mawson, Composer and Virtual Performance Developer‏. 

Working to make music composed in the digital studio come alive through motion-tracked real-time interactivity, using 3DBARE.
Ben’s recent work has included sound effects for a London stage production of
-  Bulgakov’s “Heart of a Dog” (simulating Moscow 1920s streets and domestic interiors) and the
-  Cotswold Motoring Museum (vintage motor racing audio in surround sound in the new exhibition space).

He has composed extensively for chamber ensemble in addition to more recent acoustic commissions including
-  “ROOM” (2011), in conceptual art show “Parallax” at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton (excerpt) and
- “Dreaming at the Circular Ruins” (2012), South Bank Centre, London.

Recent compositional work and his PhD thesis are about how composition in the digital studio can be made to simulate acoustic music impossible for human hands: 
doing things that seem to be happening but aren't, creating music you can walk inside and investigate like a physical structure, augmenting the auditory reality of a place.

He is currently working on a commission from New Dimensions (funded by Hampshire County Council) to build a community-based immersive Audio Portrait of Gosport, South East Hampshire, interpreting, depicting, augmenting the acoustic history and present of this pivotal historic port town.

It uses noTours software to create a geo-located multi-layered musical composition that draws on the contributions of hundreds of speaking, singing and playing residents and visitors to the town and is connected by a complex web of structurally linked fragments of virtual sonic reality. 

The composition will cover several hundred acres of the town, accessible via noTours software for Android.

Recent guest presentations on immersive audio have included Cap Gemini and Google, schools in Southampton and the Landscape Institute.

Ben is working on ways to present music created in the digital studio so the experience is continually changeable, impossible to hear the same way twice. These include multi-room speaker installations, GPS-based tracking with noTours software and wireless head-tracking (3DBARE) for listeners in an interior space - Music You Can Walk Inside.

He has a monthly show on internet radio station (Broadcast Art, Sound & Independent Culture) and posts regular articles at

In this event for SXSC3, Ben Mawson will be presenting noTours and 3DBARE, two distinct tools for listeners to walk inside an audio landscape. 3DBARE (under development) is a revolutionary approach to the creation of ‘digital liveness’, making repeated experience of fixed output continually changeable: Music You Can Walk Inside.

noTours software, by Spanish sound collective is a means to annotate landscapes with audio via a GPS-enabled Android phone handset.

Ben will deliver a Master Class on Annotating Landscape with Sound, using GPS-based tool noTours  at the Avenue campus 65 / 2149 10-4 on December 6:  

“Annotating landscape with sound: an introduction to building geo-located audio sculpture.” 

A practical session on building geo-located sound structures in the landscape. 

Learn how to use the (free) editor software, build soundmaps, publish your work and share it with listeners: 

Watch Ben's video about working with noTours at St Paul's Cathedral here: