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Roomtone: indigenous sound - click opera
February 2010
 
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Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 01:02 pm
Roomtone: indigenous sound

Yesterday Wired News published Hell is Other People's Music, an article (and podcast) based on Ubiquity is the abyss, the "comment superstar" of my March entries here at Click Opera, with over 150 comments. The Wired News piece only has one comment so far, but a Technorati search shows that many people took these ideas away to their own blogs to thrash and hash them out. (Some even went so far as to fact check on my behalf, finding the original Eno quote I was reciting from memory.)

It isn't always the case, but this time I think the Wired article was better than the Click Opera piece that inspired it. I had more time and space to think, and I was more ambivalent, seeing iPods as both part of the music-flooding problem and a solution to it, proposing a "Parkinson's Law of music", and so on. One important thing that emerged in the Wired piece is the idea of roomtone. The Wired editors split it up, rendering it as "room tone", but I like the run-together version. Roomtone, as I'm using it here, means "the raw, natural sound of a place". It means indigenous sound.

If you google roomtone, ironically enough, you get mostly hits relating to electronic music projects. It's one of those words, like "Mute", which gets picked up and used as a pleasingly minimalist name for a music project. There's an LA band called Roomtone, and a record label which has hosted some of my favourite formalist bands; people like Dymaxion and Tarwater.

But I think the first time I heard the phrase "roomtone" was when I was working with students of the London International Film School in the early 90s, making a documentary called "Momus: Amongst Women Only". Nikos Triandafullidis, the director of this ten minute film (which "climaxed" in a scene of me getting castrated, though luckily it was Nikos who stood in as my body double for the gory chop), would wrap up each scene with a reminder to the sound recordist to "get a few minutes of room tone". Wherever we were, we'd then all have to stand still and quiet for a couple of minutes, listening to the background sounds of the location. The resulting "roomtone track" would be used at the editing stage to provide continuity between jumpcut shots, or provide a natural-sounding backdrop for any re-recorded dialogue. (You can read film tech types discussing roomtone here.)

Standing still like that was a great exercise in hearing indigenous sound; suddenly something in the background would become foreground, something small would become something big, something assumed to be "nothing" would graduate to "something", a valuable commodity. What was amazing was to discover that mechanisms in one's own brain had been suppressing the roomtone, reading it as silence, when in fact it was quite loud: traffic, gulls, wind in the trees, air conditioning units, plumbing. Reframing it as "roomtone" gave it a new dignity; instead of "sound pollution" or "a reason to raise my voice", it became something valuable; the original and organic sonic occupier of a space.

Putting roomtone into my anti-music argument in the Wired essay allowed me to escape from the binary silence/music, with the implication that something is always better than nothing, and that "no music" means "no life", or nothing. Rather than a positivistic battle between music and nothing, I could propose a battle between music and "the lovely, subtle melodies of roomtone; raw natural sound". I cited Cage, Eno and Alejandra and Aeron as the people who'd opened my ears to raw sound as "melody"; I could have added the laptoppists of the late 20th century, or field recording "sound recordists" like Chris Watson.

The next metaphor to arrive in the Wired piece was of songs as opportunistic weeds taking over a garden. I could perhaps better have reversed that metaphor, saying that the garden originally contained lovely weeds, but that pedigree commercial flowers -- stinky, expensive, bright and foreign -- were taking over from the beautiful, subtle, local weeds.

Of course, the danger of this kind of metaphor is that, like the phrase "indigenous sound", or the phrase "natural", it begs a lot of questions about authenticity. Vegetation, like population, is a complex mix of the local and the imported, the feral and the planted, and so on. The word "indigenous" might make us think of the massacre by whites of the American Indians, the "raw natural sound" of the American continent. But the problem is that authenticity is an eternally regressing horizon; I've heard theories that a pre-American Indian civilization was displaced by the Indian tribes, for instance.

Sound is the same; "raw natural sound" has no title deeds on the space it occupies; it's usually just a random mess of spillage from various sources, and to frame it as something beautiful is slightly perverse and willful. To oblige people by law to respect roomtone, for instance, would be an absurd sort of tyranny. It's only during the rush-revelation of "the return of the repressed" -- the moment at which we first hear it and decide to frame it as "something" rather than "nothing" -- that roomtone has value and dignity.

Things get more complicated when we listen to a "roomtone" track like "Barbearia Salão Ferreira" from Alejandra and Aeron's Porto album. It's a field recording of a Porto barber's shop. Close up, we hear the comforting, irregular rhythm of scissors cutting hair. In the middle ground is the barbers chatting. In the background is a Portugese pop song playing on the radio. If songs too can be roomtone, my whole opposition collapses.

But I'll say in my defence that, as a musician, I can't help finding the syrupy, sentimental song the most dominant sound object in the whole composition as well as the most "commercial" element. I find my mood altered by it in ways I don't want, and I find it impossible to background it, no matter how far in the background it already is. Even considered, themselves, as "roomtone", songs are particularly aggressive and over-determined sound objects. They refuse to "sit" in the landscape with the rest of the random noise. They demand to be foreground, no matter how far back you set them.

Songs are fascist immigrants, conquistadors who've come, inevitably, to slay indigenous sound wherever they find it. They can't help it, the poor things, that's just how they're made. Correction, with a mea culpa: it's how we make them.

41CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 06:30 pm (UTC)
Roomtones

I recall many years ago reading in "The Making Of Star Trek", that one of their concerns was what sort of background noise would occur in a starship...so all of the weird little background blips and boops are carefully constructed (unlike actual space vessels which make a lot of clunking and air circulation noises, plus electronic annoyances).
- Enginerd


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freesurfboards
freesurfboards
freesurfboards
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 06:51 pm (UTC)

I remember in my early days of writing music I used to trade amongst my internet friends tapes that we simply called field recordings.
It was a matter of pride amongst us that we never made copies of these field recordings, instead each tape was just a single moment of time shared with only you and the person who recorded it.
Most of them were really relaxing, but one in particular blew me away. In the middle of a forest someone found what looked like an old pool, a big white ditch in the ground. In the middle of it was a old flag pole, with no flag, but a long wire that ran down the side and banged against the pole with the wind.
For an hour and half he recorded the wire blowing in the wind, never hitting the pole in the same way twice, scratching up against the metal, pounding away or lightly bouncing against up it, which would have been amazing enough even without the resonance of the pool all around it, which would bounce from every direction, making the flag pole sound like it was everywhere.
It really changed my mind about music in the sense that a violin doesnt just sound like a violin, a violin can sound like a million different things.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 07:18 pm (UTC)

Thanks for your story about the flagpole and wire--it brought a nice feeling to me.

Winslow


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xinit
xinit
the artist formerly known as the geek
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 07:38 pm (UTC)

I've been playing with "room tone" but calling it my "background noise" project.... It's amazing how we filter the noise out, and it sounds so different, and even interesting when you start paying attention.

I'm still not quite sure what I'm going to do with this...


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 07:41 pm (UTC)

You know, with the various tools of "audio blogging" - specifically, Blogger's fine/free cell phone-to-blog system - it would be possible to setup a site entirely composed of various, soothing roomtones. I did a few things like that on the first blog I published, back in 2003. I've been considering doing it again. There is something inexplicably wonderful about the natural, ambient tones of the world.

Also, an irony. "Elevator music." Not to be too artschmart here, but I've always found the sounds of the elevator itself soothing: perfectly-functioning cables, the dings of the floor-stops, the gentle slide of the door opening and closing. Why pump in poor versions of Beatles songs when the natural ambience of the elevator is pleasant enough?

You know, there's a great passage in David Mitchell's Number9Dream: Eiji Miyake, the book's very own Japanese Holden Caulfield, describes hearing a poor, syruppy version of "Imagine" in a Tokyo coffee house. Worth checking out, especially for his (if I remember correctly, it's been a while since I've read the book) antagonistic reaction to it.

-Rob (http://pixelmist.blogger.com/)


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freesurfboards
freesurfboards
freesurfboards
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 11:06 pm (UTC)

I've heard that elevator music first started from trying to sooth people from being too frightened of the technology of moving floors. People were so scared of falling that they decided to have mind-numbing music to pacify them.
The rest is just tradition.


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 08:08 pm (UTC)

Have you ever heard The Residents album "Third Reich n roll"? It's based on the concept that the hooks of popular music songs is fascism.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 08:26 pm (UTC)
Residents

I always though it was the Rock and Roll business that was fascism, according to the Rezzies. I might have misread the notes, though. Third R&R is a wonderful record, isn't it?


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jean_djinni
jean_djinni
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 08:55 pm (UTC)

Your writings on this topic raise so many interesting issues.

Songs are fascist immigrants, conquistadors who've come, inevitably, to slay indigenous sound wherever they find it.

Yes, quite. I don't think I could have put it better than that. But maybe it is the influence of the surrounding culture of fascism/colonialism that endows the songs of here and now with that character? In other cultural ecologies, might songs more gently enter public spaces? Is the situation different (even if only slightly) in Japan, for example?

In Noise Jacques Attali calls the industrial/electronic 20th century an age of repetition, an era in music that sows the seeds of its own destruction. He writes that the hyper-accumulation of commercial music will eventually overextend itself, people will recoil in horror, and the whole commercial music regime will then self-destruct. In your malaise over the ubiquity of song, are we maybe witnessing a slice of that moment of change?

Just some thoughts. Glad to see you on LJ; I've been a fan for a long time.


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butterflyrobert
RND
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 09:11 pm (UTC)

What I particularly like about Momus' article is that it is completely - though somewhat indirectly - self-effacing. He does, afterall, record and release pop records.


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loveonice
loveonice
...its just that my knickers are showing
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 09:19 pm (UTC)

Off the subject somewhat: Last night I dreamt you were in my Grandmas house (!!) and I had to introduce you to my mum, my sister and the Predator in the corner.

Creepy livejournal comment of the day award goes to me...


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cityramica
cityramica
cityramica
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 09:53 pm (UTC)

i once had a dream where i was in bed with Momus in a red velvet hotel room and my mother wandered in and asked to join us.

touche! :)


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cityramica
cityramica
cityramica
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 09:23 pm (UTC)

yes i would rather like to find the precise opposite tones to cancel out "emo rock."

i've also been considering an installation of invisible church-like confessionals, an area anywhere, say a street corner or cafe, where all noise is filtered out and all voices held in...allowing exquisitely intimate rendezvous and private, formless areas for selected music in an otherwise soundless bubble. alternatively, it could allow sound in and not out, permitting you to talk about your cafe table neighbors without self-consciousness.

the word, "roomtone" tastes delicious.

and a paltry suggestion, to be ignored at will:
please, if you can, liven up your voice a bit for these podcasts. i like your readings quite a bit, but sometimes, esp on rainy days like this one, they make me want to curl up in bed with your vocal chords rather than rouse me to action.


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cityramica
cityramica
cityramica
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 09:50 pm (UTC)

hoho i'm ripping all your le grand magistry releases [my company reps them digitally!] to my iTunes as we speak! i'm a pirate! nice having you [er...your albums] around the office.....


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fishwithissues
fishwithissues
jordan fish
Wed, Apr. 12th, 2006 10:15 pm (UTC)

Wherever we were, we'd then all have to stand still and quiet for a couple of minutes, listening to the background sounds of the location.
yeah these pauses are the best, when all of a sudden the narrative stops and it's all about field recording.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 13th, 2006 05:43 am (UTC)

"it's all about the field recording"... that somehow sounds worse than the being assaulted by the noises at large. sort of the trouble I have with the whole project of these roomscapes is that they are built on the presumption that putting the ambient noises of life on a silver platter makes them more valuable, pretty, real.
boo. are our musicians so bad these days that they can't better than that?


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jimmyandfriend
Jimmy and his japanese friend.
Thu, Apr. 13th, 2006 12:19 am (UTC)

As far as its relationship to roomtone I'd think music is more analagous to architecture than to vegetation (or fascist immigration). These comparisons seem to make music the bad guy against silence when one is just a more structured and expressive version of the other. But of course some beautiful things can be done with architecture without totally ruining the flow of an indigenous landscape. The ubiquity problem seems more like an overabundance of townhouses and condominiums clogging up iPod city. Some kind of renevation or revolution is needed to reduce them all to rubble.

-Jimmy


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madge_pastiche
madge_pastiche
madge_pastiche
Thu, Apr. 13th, 2006 01:29 am (UTC)

You know, I think that's beautifully argued, but it occurred to me that the whole mataphor gets really funny if it's extended to another sense. Taste, for instance, instead of auditory sensation. Would we call flavors invaders and talk about mouthtone? I think the real problem is the predominance of junk food, in both worlds.


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madge_pastiche
madge_pastiche
madge_pastiche
Thu, Apr. 13th, 2006 01:31 am (UTC)

I meant metaphor, maturally.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 13th, 2006 03:54 am (UTC)

What's interesting, of course, is when you really do get rid of roomtone altogether. I remember an interview Piers Martin did with Aphex Twin in the NME ages ago, conducted (just for the hell of it) in an anechoic chamber. Martin commented that, even when every outside sound was cut out and every sound within the room completely deadened, it still wasn't silent - you were just left to enjoy the usually inaudible burps and gurgles of your own body's inner workings.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 13th, 2006 04:07 am (UTC)

"There is no such thing as empty space or empty time. There is always something to hear or something to see. In fact, try as we might to make a silence, we cannot. For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its walls made of special materials, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University... and heard two sounds, one a high and one a low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system and the low one was my blood circulation."

John Cage, "Silence"


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 13th, 2006 04:53 am (UTC)
Whitney

I went there today and I caught a glimpse of you on the third floor with your blue pants and your blue shirt. But I thought we'd catch up with you later since we started on the fifth floor and walked our way down. Imagine my horror when 6pm rolled around and you were nowhere to be found. I was beyond livid. Only to be calmed by a bottle of wine.

Grrrr, maybe next time.
haru02


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 13th, 2006 05:07 am (UTC)
Re: Whitney

Sorry, I looked around and decided there weren't enough people around, and sloped off...


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tassellrealm
tassellrealm
XWSF Tassell
Thu, Apr. 13th, 2006 09:42 am (UTC)

Songs are fascist immigrants, conquistadors who've come, inevitably, to slay indigenous sound wherever they find it.

Oh not yet another schizoid rallying cry.

I'm sure readers of this weblog are aware that you're as much of a sucker for a pretty melody as anyone else.

I ran the first, if not the last, field-recording club-night. Called Town Etheric, we put it on at The Blenheim in Chelsea in the late nineties - and it was just great.

I guess, at least to me, the golden age of field-recording coincided with the advent of the Sony portable minidisc recorder.

It's not true not that ambient noise is non-invasive.

It's not true that what one takes to be silence can't itself be a tyranny.

What is fascinating to me about field-recording is the possibilities it holds for sonic self-education.

I remember one of the things that prompted me to start the club was a recording I made of the interior of L'Eglise de Notre Dame de France, in Leicester Square. I'd always been fascinated by the strange other-worldly ambience in this place, and wanted to record some of it's 'silence'.

When I got the recording home to my flat in Brixton, I played it back through my stereo (quite loud), over and over again.

A while after I'd stopped playing it, I'd noticed that the strange ambience of the church had superimposed itself onto the ambience of my flat and stayed there - which to me was fascinating. The vibe of this recording didn't go away for quite a while, but I got into the habit of topping it up every now and then.

Later, when Resonance FM started, I used to love listening to The Framework programme, where you'd get an hour of the sound of the snow
falling on someones roof in New York, or whatever.

I also like are field-recordings with music in them. Decades ago when I used to travel around on the Northern Souls scene, I used to tape 'nighters. It was great, you'd get all the super-distorted sounds of the records bouncing off the ceiling and floors, hand-claps, sounds of dancing, chatter and glasses clinking, and the whole atmosphere of people having a wild time. I've got a big collection of these tapes - they're very exciting, much, much more exciting than listening to the original records. I made a programme for Resonance with these tapes, which was broadcast a couple of years ago.

As for anechoic chambers and soundproofing - I think that kind of thing spoiled recording a bit. I like the free movement of air. I like to 'hear' the heat-drenched ambience of the California sun on Beach Boys records, and I like to feel the English damp on early Dusty Springfield records.

I also really like the one-mike-in-a-church super nude, super air-y, super prana-y sound of chamber music recordings from the early nineties (notably those on the French Valois label).




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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 13th, 2006 11:18 am (UTC)

Wow, wonderful, Jake, I didn't know you were so far into this stuff!


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Thu, Apr. 13th, 2006 10:53 am (UTC)

sorry to get all Madhyamaka on you but wouldn't the ex-neighbours techno itself be roomtone. Mr Cage might agree, Mr Eno maybe not.


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