Speaking rather broadly about what is capable of being defined as music, R. Murray Shafer declares: “Behold the new orchestra: the sonic universe! And the musicians: anyone and anything that sounds” (1993, 13). Within this context, the perceptive and trained modern listener, if they so choose, has the distinct role and responsibility of absorbing and recognizing sounds around them. One can find musicality and rhythms in urban and rural environments, buildings, machines, living organisms and natural sounds. Whether it is the white noise produced by water and wind or the drones from crickets and cicadas that establish a base for a biophony, the natural world and living organisms are inherently musical (Krause 2013, 164, 87). Relative to certain musical genres, the modern composer adapts the same responsibilities as the modern listener, practicing the merging of human and natural sound, and human and mechanical sound within their compositions. With these experiments comes intriguing explorations in and discoveries of the relationship between biophony and anthrophony, plus finding new answers to what the connection might be between biophony and human music (111). Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a breadth of literature connecting modern music with biophonies and the natural world of sounds, as many of the musical styles that do this are simply not within the mainstream interest. These alternative musical genres and composers manipulate conventions of composition, which lead to important questions surrounding the interplay of music, sound and environment.
Specifically, in what ways do avant-garde, ambient and electronic musical genres provide modern explorations of the following sonic relationships: human noise and natural sound, sound and space, and music and technology? By examining two albums from modern composers, Ben Frost’s By the Throat (2009) and William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops (2002), the binaries presented in the above question are brought together in their music through composition, imitation, production and recording techniques. For instance, whereas Frost explores the relation between human and natural sound through composing and mixing violins with howling wolves throughout his album, Basinski’s deteriorating analog tapes simultaneously provide a live and recorded soundtrack for the 9/11 attacks, thus demonstrating the role of technology and environment within music.
By the Throat from Ben Frost combines ambient and electronic music with recorded sounds of biophonies and anthrophonies, most notably, the howling and growling of wolves, human breathing and an ICU machine. The motifs of wolves and breathing (mechanically assisted or otherwise) play throughout the album in tandem and in conflict with the synthesizers, strings, brass and woodwinds, which make up a majority of By the Throat’s orchestration and timbre. At the beginning of “The Carpathians,” the distinction between human noises and wolf sounds are difficult to distinguish. Seemingly, the wailing of a woodwind instrument (a saxophone?) gives way to the howling of wolves as the string drone begins to build in intensity and amplitude.
Frost uses the biophonic recordings of these wolves as a melodic instrument and compositional element within this track. The natural sounds (biophony) are blended with the human music of the droning strings and wailing/howling woodwinds (anthrophony), which points not only to the wolf as a musician of sorts but one that enters into an anthrophony. Frost maybe unintentionally reverses the typical sonic entry and disruption of natural sound by human noise, as this chorus of wolves enters into and sings with the instruments. More than simply implementing natural sound recordings into a single soundscape, Frost sonically demonstrates the relationship between animal sound and human noise as one where the wolves influence the orchestration and melody of the instruments featured in “The Carpathians.”
Furthermore, the track creates an affective acoustic space characterized by isolation and tension, as Shafer points out that in general “[t]he howling of wolves is haunting and isolating […], [i]n the wolf call we encounter a vocal ritual which defines the territorial claim of the pack to an acoustic space” (1993, 63). Comparatively, LaBelle describes “acoustic space [and territory] as a productive form of tension” (2010, xxiv). With the track eventually leading to the isolated sound of a wolf growling, it is safe to say the wolves claim their acoustic territory over the composition and instrumentation. Thus, a sonic conflict and tension arises within the composition, recording and mixing of this track, creating an acoustic space to be fought over – natural sound versus human noise.
In his discussion on the origins and structures of music, Krause states “we can look at music as an acoustic mirror,” as “[h]umans have a well-established aptitude for mimicry” (2013, 121-126). Our first heard sounds and sense of rhythm and melody would have been that of the natural world, the geophony and biophony. “The Carpathians” explicitly demonstrates this natural influence and subsequent human imitation of animal sounds. Frost utilizes the wolf song and effectively replicates it through human technology, simultaneously portraying the natural world’s effect on our sonic world and our affinity for musical mimicry. Also, one could purport that the wolves ‘sound like’ a saxophone or even a brass instrument. Within this track’s context, the instrument’s noise mirrors the wolves’ sound and vice versa.
Krause also mentions that “[w]hen taken out of their original milieus and placed in new ones, fragments of noise be[come] structural components of composition” (2013, 122). At 1 minute and 8 seconds into the track, the drone fades down to give rise to the sounds of a wolf growling and barking. Again, Frost uses biophonic sounds as a compositional element to transition from section A to B. Around 1:24, the climax of the wolf growls leads into the synthesizers and piano playing in harmony (or in conflict) with the wolves. In an interview, Frost references natural sound recordist Chris Watson as influencing his use of the wolves on the album. He suggests, “[t]his is a vocal record, a physical record, and Wolf song is the original choir” (themilkman 2009). Furthering the link between previous works in natural sound recording and By the Throat, the ‘wolf break’ featured on “The Carpathians” sounds quite similar to Chris Watson’s “Adult Cheetah” on Outside the Circle of Fire (2000) occupying a deep, low register and frequency. Though Frost’s wolf sounds far more menacing than Watson’s cheetah since taken out of its original context and placed between moody, tense ambient and electronica, Frost’s use of the wolf indeed strengthens the ties and musical functions between biophony and anthrophony. Rather, a tie that binds animals with musicians within the controlled sound of Frost’s ambient and electronic music. Following a history of natural sound recording, the wolves of “The Carpathians” exemplifies the sonic bond between human instrumentation and animal vocalization.
On the next track, an ICU machine begins “Ó God Protect Me” to establish the track’s tempo and rhythm. In this example, the anthrophony is comprised of three different human-generated sounds: the electromechanical sound of the ICU, physiological sounds of breathing and the controlled sound of an electronic beat and electric piano or synthesizer (Krause 2013, 157). While Frost removes the ICU machine from its original context, he also removes the rhythmic clicks, beeps and inhaled breaths from its source and space and places them inside of a 4/4 beat and instrumental song. In following the sociocultural tradition of splitting an original sound from its electroacoustical transmission and reproduction, or “schizophonia,” we hear and begin to understand this electromechanical sound as a component of the beat and rhythm of the track (Shafer 1993, 134). As Shafer states, “[s]ounds have been torn from their natural sockets and given an amplified and independent existence” (1993, 134). However, LaBelle affirms that “[s]ounds are associated with their original source, while also becoming their own thing” (2010, xix). Thus, Frost ironically gives life to the sounds of a machine that gives life, thereby allowing the machine to exist as a life support and instrument. The ICU machine, while still being identified as such, simultaneously becomes a musical and rhythmic machine.
“Ó God Protect Me” exemplifies the technological process of sound inhabiting an entirely new space and existing as a musical element based on the recording and production techniques employed by Frost. Generally deemed as ‘background noise’, the ICU machine, like the wolves, becomes a musician within the controlled sound featured on By the Throat, thereby highlighting the musical phenomena occurring outside of the perception of most human hearing – that being the rhythm of the ICU machine and the tuneful wolf song. Also, other examples include “Híbakúsja” and “Leo Needs a New Pair of Shoes” where both human breathing and manipulated or mimicked growling wolf sounds are combined rhythmically and melodically.
Similar to Frost’s “Híbakúsja,” a strange Icelandic imitation of the Japanese word hibakusha, which means the surviving victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski also deals with disaster and a deadly attack through explorations of sound and space, and music and technology. The production and recording process of this album and experiment is as follows:
[On September 11, 2001, Basinski began] reviewing old tapes and came across a pastoral composition from 1982 which he had completely forgotten about. Intending to transfer it to digital format for preservation, he set the old tapes running, but time is not kind to magnetic tape and decay had fatally undermined their stability. As they played, fragments of iron oxide spalled off the tape’s surface and became dust, gradually, but progressively, breaking down the music into a ghost of its former self, becoming ever more fragmented as the recording progressed. Almost simultaneously, within view of [Basinski’s] apartment, the appalling events of 11 September were unfolding (Simmons 2002).
Influenced by his environment, Basinski’s deteriorating tapes became an allegory for the buildings, bodies and billowing smoke that would disintegrate and disappear from that day forward. The physical, musical and allegorical atrophy caused by the analog technology gives meaning to and evidence of the innate relationships between music and technology, and sound and environment.
Basinski found creation in the slow destruction of his analog tapes and produced pieces of music entirely his own due to technological mortality and degradation. In contrast to Frost, Basinski’s disintegrating loops give musical life to technology that is slowly dying. The destroyed analog tapes can live on through the recording of their natural disintegration, with the ambient sounds becoming further obscured by echo, reverb, lower fidelity and the slowing of time between musical passages. Furthermore, the tapes contribute to Shafer’s concept of schizophonia by removing the original spatial context of the 1982 recordings of the ambient compositions, as the technology begins to blur the timbres and fidelity of that original sound and space.
Along with the historical and technological influences and context in which the 2001 recording took place, Basinski’s album relates to fundamental concepts of and relations between sound, space and echo. Connor suggests, “the most important distinguishing feature of auditory experience [is] namely its capacity to disintegrate and reconfigure space” (1997, 206). For instance, by listening to the loop on “dIp 1.1” the current listener and analog tapes from 2001 move through time and space while the original 1982 loop essentially stays in the same place. Defined by its lack of musical or auditory movement, a loop is stationary. However, by listening to the tape’s loop on “dIp 1.1,” the listener experiences the decaying technology literally disintegrating the music’s sense of space as it drifts farther away with natural echo and added reverb. The loop becomes less tangible and more of a reflection of its original source, both from 2001 and especially from its 1982 recording. As schizophonia deals with the fragmentation of sound and space, William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops offers a prime example of composers within the ambient musical genre using sonic and physical disintegration and fragmentation as a compositional element within their work.
In terms of the echo that characterizes the loops’ disintegration, LaBelle’s work becomes incredibly relevant: “the echo disorients and distracts; it wanders and returns in the same moment to confuse where we are and where we are going, […] [the echo] exaggerates the passing of sound, staging it as a performance” (2010, 7). Again, this is exemplified in the first track where from the beginning to approximately 50 minutes in, the tape has obscured and performed the original 1982 recording to its death. Jones believes “[m]usic is alive in time, and it is experiencing architecture as a flow in time that brings it alive” (2006, 25). Though he is writing in the context of sound in physical space, arguably, the same can be applied to the architecture of acoustic space defined previously by LaBelle. Around 33:30 on “dIp 3,” the loop begins consistently cutting in and out, struggling to sustain a full measure without interruption from the analog tape’s decay. Though whenever the loop stops, the echo remains and fills the acoustic space once occupied by the loop. Personally, this reminds of breathing, as the loop breathes normally when alive and well, yet struggles for breath as the tape disintegrates – exhaling with the loop, inhaling with the echo. In a sense, the loop continues to exist until its eventual death through the echo’s passing of sound, acting as smaller breaths and remnants of the original sound. Through notions of space, sound and echo, Basinski’s work provides an exemplary sonic experiment in the relationship between sound and space, and music and technology.
Writing about the track “Híbakúsja,” Ben Frost explains how the balance of sound mixing and compression is a delicate one within “the entire ecosystem of sound” (2010). As examples of modern ambient and electronic music, Frost’s By the Throat and Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops both explore the balance, binary and relationship of biophony and anthrophony. More specifically, these albums portray a soundscape in harmony and in conflict with natural sound and human noise, sound and space, and music and technology. The ecosystem of sound is large and expansive and to be continually influenced, all musicians should recognize the natural and human world as full of sound and musical life.
Connor, Steven. 1997. “The Modern Auditory I.” In Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present, edited by Roy Porter, 203-23. London, UK: Routledge.
Frost, Ben. 2010. “Ben Frost: Hibakusja.” Ableton. Last modified October 9, 2010. Accessed March 6, 2016. https://www.ableton.com/en/blog/ben-frost-livepack/
Jones, Stuart. 2006. “space-dis-place: How Sound and Interactivity Can Reconfigure Our
Apprehension of Space.” Leonardo Music Journal. 16: 20-27. Accessed March 5, 2016. https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/lmj/summary/v016/16.1jones.html.
Krause, Bernie. 2013. The Great Animal Orchestra. New York: Back Bay Books.
LaBelle, Brandon. 2010. Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life. New York: Continuum Books.
Shafer, Murray R. 1993. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books.
Simmons, Ian. 2002. “‘The disintegration loops’ by William Basinski, ‘Architectural commentaries’ by M Behrens.” NTHPosition. Accessed March 6, 2016. http://www.nthposition.com/thedisintegrationloops.php
themilkfactory. 2009. “INTERVIEW: BEN FROST Colours Of The Night.” Last modified November 16, 2009. Accessed March 6, 2016. http://www.themilkfactory.co.uk/st/2009/11/interview-ben-frost-colours-of-the-night/
- Ben Frost – “The Carpathians”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmrmYAmhI9w
- Chris Watson – “Adult Cheetah”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lteDfpNr0Y
- Ben Frost – “Ó God Protect Me”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kWMcGUtfQk
- “Híbakúsja”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugdFJw3lAa4
- “Leo Needs a New Pair of Shoes”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVPUHAogSeQ
- William Basinski – “dIp 1.1”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYOr8TlnqsY
- “dIp 3”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGddm-hw-Xc