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Paper: Ritual Sound Design

Ritual Sound Design

Abstract for a paper I gave recently at the Affect Project Conference, in Winnipeg, Canada. I investigate some of the ways that religious cultures around the world have exploited low-frequency vibration for its capacity to confound perception, filling bodies with nebulous energies and producing felt-but-unseen presences …

‘Engineering Numinous Affect: An Ethico-Acoustics of Ritual Sound Design’
ABSTRACT: Religious cultures around the world have long recognized the intrinsic peculiarity of bodily encounters with low-frequency sound.  Consider the prevalence of ritual bass-making devices (and structures) designed to hum the body, mystify the senses, and conjure visceral perceptions of invisible presence.  Beyond meaty vibration, this is sound as an incitement to the imagination.   It re-textures felt surroundings and turns the body into a string of questions: “What is that … what’s happening … how will I work with it …?” Brian Massumi would call this synaesthetic ontogenesis.  For Donald Tuzin, it was the audiogenesis of religious culture: sound, modulating affect, as a catalyst of belief.  This paper theorizes low-frequency sound as a non-representational strategy, deployed for its extra-musical (and largely non-cochlear) perceptual effects, in what could be termed “numinous sound design.”  The discussion combines a materialist approach with insights from anthropology, religious studies, musicology and acoustic science.  It takes, as its central example, the case of the pipe organ and the Church, examining the machine’s material contribution – alongside architectural, visual, and liturgical practices – to the sensory (re)generation of belief within a religious assemblage.  The guiding question is not so much what we make of low-frequency sound (how we “construct” or instrumentalize it), but what it makes of us: how does it undulate and unsettle; how does it incite; how does it modulate experience, drawing bodily thought into new equations with itself and its surroundings?

Article: Perceptual Abstraction

 

My recent article in The Senses and Society on shared affective strategies in the work of bass-drone mysterio Eleh and Op artist Bridget Riley.

Paul Jasen, “A Transversal Lineage: Perceptual Abstraction from Eleh to Op Art,” The Senses and Society 9(1) (March 2014), pp. 16-32.

Abstract: This article proposes the term “perceptual abstraction” to describe the methods of artists who take bodily contingency as their medium. It focuses on the low-frequency drone work of an anonymous figure called Eleh. Like others in the Minimalist tradition, Eleh follows a processual ethic that begins from a minimum of structural elements and asks how they might reshape one another over time. What sets Eleh apart, however, is its singular focus on frequencies within, and sometimes beyond, the lowest reaches of human hearing. These tones play strangely on the sensorium because they can evade cochlear audition even while haunting other registers. This is bass as an agent of bodily mystification, and in Eleh’s hands it becomes a sonic strategy for modulating felt space and fleshy thought. If Eleh diverges from most Minimalists in these ways, then liner notes and cover art point to another, more like-minded body of work. Might Op(tical) Art – with its interest in “charging fields” and rhythmically unraveling retinal perception – share at least as much with Eleh, at the level of affective strategy? If so, could we posit an alternate, transversal lineage of artistic practices defined not by form or tradition, but by a desire to confound perception, by whatever aesthetic and sensory routes?

What lurks…

The nearly-infrasonic call of the not-so-friendly cassowary (picture a ‘flamboyant ostrich’ with 5-inch daggers for claws). One of the largest birds on Earth, the cassowary lives a secretive life, preferring to lurk out of view in dense South Pacific vegetation. But other creatures feel their presence in the form of that throbbing call that hits tones as low as 23 Hz.  In that range, human hearing begins to trail off into uncertainty. Directional perception breaks down and ‘ubiquity effects’ (‘it’s coming from everywhere’) begin to bloom.  This adds an unsettling sonic layer to daily life in the rainforest: bodies hummed, nerves put on edge, by a volatile neighbour that seems to be everywhere and nowhere.

via Wild Ambience

Paper: Bass Cultures and the Sensory Construction of the Audio-Social


‘I know you’ve all been prepared for this but I thought I’d just remind you just the same…’

Abstract from an older paper on bass cult(ure)s, affect engineering and sonic-fictional resonance presented at the 2009 IASPM-Canada conference.

‘Bass Cultures and the Sensory Construction of the Audio-Social’
ABSTRACT: This paper focuses on bass, the body, and the culturally constitutive functions of sensory experience.  As essential as it is to so much contemporary music, and despite centuries of experimentation around with its corporeal force, surprisingly little has been written about the cultural uses of low-frequency sound. The following discussion combines sonic fictional synthesis with a materialist account of bodily sound to make a case for expanded attention to the corporeal and the incorporeal in musical culture.  My larger project is concerned with developing a conceptual toolkit more suited to this task than are dominant models rooted in the language of mediation, construction and consumption.  Popular music studies scholarship has yielded many important insights on matters of identity, power relations, technology, and industry.  However, its disinterest in the non-representational along with its tendency to disregard the corporeal, or construe it as an effect of social construction, is analytically debilitating.  For all of our speculations on people’s subjectivities we still have very little sense of how it sounds and feels in the sites we describe, even though these are among the main concerns of the people involved.

Return of the Bristol Hum

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From the BBC:

Some people in Bristol say they are plagued by a mysterious low-level hum that no-one can trace. […]

But it’s not the first time the hum has kept Bristol awake. In the 1970s hundreds of the city’s residents complained to the council that a strange noise was audible at night. Most of the experts drafted in put it down to factory noise, electricity pylons or tinnitus – while some of the more imaginative suggestions included the sound from flying saucers hovering over the city or secret military activity. Eventually, it stopped as abruptly as it began, but not before it had spawned reports of equally unidentified hums in other towns across Britain.

Then last year French scientists announced that they had solved the conundrum. It was, they said, the effect of continuous waves causing the ocean floor to vibrate. “We have made a big step in explaining this mysterious signal and where it is coming from and what is the mechanism,” said Fabrice Ardhuin of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. But his answer doesn’t immediately explain why the sound was only around for a number of years. Or why it might have returned.

Something in the air: The Hum seeps into music too.  Bass culture runs deep in Bristol …

Trailer: The Hum (1997)

“A documentary investigating the enigmatic humming sound that have reportedly been heard by residents in the south west of England, particularly those in Bristol and western Cornwall. The cause of the noise remains a mystery and The Hum explores some of the possibilities, from gas and water utilities to military operations and telecommunications. The documentary also raises the question of how the human senses might be affected by the growing range of technologies that now surround us. Includes interviews with members of the Low Frequency Noise Sufferers Association.”

Faction Films (UK)