Quick hit: Acoustic ecology slideshow

Check out this slideshow of natural sounds over at Seed Magazine (and it’s named after this blog, obviously…).  H/t Wayne Marshall via the SEM Sound Studies listserv.  Pretty cool!

Torture music redux

After a two-week hiatus, ettg is back!

Wayne Marshall over at wayneandwax and Ben Tausig over at Weird Vibrations have both recently taken up the role of sound in U.S. military and police operations.  While I checked out the role of music in torture a while back, these gentlemen are investigating another, potentially more-harmful phenomenon: the use of sound as physical force to control protesters and crowds–not to mention warfare.  Just as Joshua was able to bring down the walls of Jericho with ear-splitting trumpet blasts (see the incomparable Mahalia Jackson’s explanation below), the vibrations that are the essence of sound can cause severe damage at high decibel levels.

During the recent G20 protests in Pittsburgh, police used sound cannons (aka LRADs, Long Range Acoustic Devices) to disperse and control the protesters.  These weapons are capable of producing sound that is intensely focused and well above the human threshold of pain, thus running the risk of producing permanent hearing loss in those targeted by the weapon.  Weird Vibrations breaks down the questionable use of these devices:

This is something of a loophole in the ethical treatment of protesters – the human body cannot tolerate sound in excess, but exposure leaves no (visible) scars. Perhaps in a wiser moment, we’ll take stock of the emotional distress such conditions can produce, of the long-term hearing loss that can occur with misuse of the machines, of potentially dangerous levels of stress, and of the disturbing political asymmetry such technology facilitates between a government and its citizens. But for now, sound cannons are perfectly legal.

LRADs operate in the threshold between normal listening, where vibration is mild enough that we experience sound as essentially immaterial, and where we can readily pay attention to communicative and aesthetic content (music, language, texture), and extreme sonic exposure, where vibration is felt as a force throughout the body. The sound cannon is far enough along this spectrum that we react involuntarily to its painful volume, but not so far along that we lose life or limb. It’s pretty brilliant, in a mad scientist kind of way.

wayneandwax expands the conversation by reminding us that sound is an inherently physical medium, though we do not always perceive it that way under normal conditions–that extreme frequencies and decibel levels can pass right through us, moving us (and not in the metaphorical sense!) and shaking up our insides until we’re severely messed up.

These two concepts taken together–torture music and sound as weapon–will hopefully serve as a wake-up call to folks who think music is just about aesthetics and emotional expression: though we’d like to think some things are incorruptible and without inherent meaning, that’s just not the case.  Keep your eyes open for how music can be used in questionable ways–and bring a pair of these along to your next protest in case they bring out the LRADs.

Quick hit: decorating advice can be silly sometimes

As the inhabitant of a very tiny apartment, one of my favorite blogs is Apartment Therapy.  Many props for its massive help on making my space fit all my stuff neatly while remaining functional and maybe even cute.

But today it went a step too far with the suggestion that if your piano is “dominat[ing] a room’s aesthetics,” you should totally, like, just paint it!  It’s a quick DIY!

I grew up with family members who (meaning very well and trying to make our house look nice) liked decorating the piano with tchotchkes and houseplants, and I got annoyed every time I tried to do a tremolo in the left hand and flowerpots would rattle vigorously.  Treating a piano as furniture annoys me a lot.

Yes, pianos are big.  Yes, they might not necessarily fit your aesthetic vision.  But you know what?  They’re instruments, not furniture, even if they are large and wooden.  They are functional. They are primarily supposed to sound good and if they look good, it’s a bonus.  I’m not advocating that you go out and get an ugly piano.  But seriously, I wouldn’t dress my viola in doll clothes, why on earth would I paint a piano?

Hasn’t anyone around here seen The Red Violin? Instrument varnish is very important, folks.


The New York Times ran a few music-oriented articles over the past several days that I think are worth highlighting:

  • Carleen Hutchins, a fantastic violin maker (and a violist!) passed away recently after a long and innovative life.  String players–especially violists like myself–know that the instrument designs we’ve been handed down through the centuries are acoustically imperfect.  (This is why violists are always looking for the biggest instrument we can physically handle.  The viola would technically need to be much bigger in order for its acoustics to be ideal, and we wouldn’t be able to play it under the chin then, so we try to get as close as possible.)  Hutchins pioneered research into the minutiae of string acoustics and reimagined the string family–something that hasn’t been done for hundreds of years, essentially since Stradivari.  Now I want to play some of her creations!
  • Will the baby boomers get over Woodstock already?!  Let’s hope we’re not rhapsodizing over Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo like this in 40 years.  Yes, Woodstock was important, but the overly romantic way in which writers of that generation treat it is just absurd and typical boomer narcissism.  I’m happy that at least some of the Room for Debate bloggers acknowledge this.
  • It makes me cry a little inside every time I hear about an instrument mistreated like this.  The story of how this Irish harp, made by the influential Dublin craftsman John Egan, ended up in a dumpster but was rescued and is now being restored, is inspirational in the cheesiest sense, but I love it.

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