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Cross Waves Series

Cross Waves Series #6: Material Sounds
curated by Anna Friz

Cross Waves is a Canadian Sound Art series that includes performances and internet radio programs curated by eight media artists representing various regional and cultural perspectives in Canada. This edition is curated by Anna Friz. Friz’s radio and performance program “Material Sounds" explores the materiality of sound, and artists who collaborate with every day devices to reveal audible but unstable systems of sound and signal.

Things and devices are neither wholly mastered by human will nor illuminated solely by human attention, but can be understood to possess a liveliness of their own. This series of Canadian artists was chosen for their interest in the materiality of soundmaking, and their commitment to the notion of distributed agency among ensembles of people and things, highlighted through their attention to trailing edge media and re-purposing of everyday objects. Engaging with mass produced alarm clocks, old vinyl, lamps, radiators, or specialized antennae, these artists collaborate with devices and unstable systems to create unique, critical sound environments. — Anna Friz

Anna Friz is a Canadian sound and radio artist who specializes in multi-channel transmission systems for installation, performance, and broadcast. She also creates dynamic, atmospheric compositions for theatre, dance, film, and solo performance equally able to reflect upon public media culture or to reveal expressive interior landscapes. Anna holds a Ph.D. in Communication and Culture from York University, Toronto, and recently completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the Sound Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has performed and exhibited widely across North America, South America, and Europe, and her radio art/works have been heard on the airwaves of more than 25 countries. She is a steering member of the artist collective Skálar | Sound Art | Experimental Music based in Iceland and Berlin. Anna was instrumental in producing the fifth edition of “24 Hours of Radio Art” on CITR FM in 1999. http://www.nicelittlestatic.com


The Thing About Things
One of the core debates in science and technology studies is over defining the relationship between human and technology. Since the Enlightenment, Western thought has tended to portray humans as masters over nature, where technology acts as the prosthesis of human will. Under this conception, technology is a neutral, mute tool whose meaning is given by human agency. 'Man' is distinguished from animals as the sole tool-user, and accordingly, the society with the most complex tools is deemed the most civilized, or most advanced.

A decidedly deterministic streak has characterized media art at various points since the early twentieth century. Technologies, particularly related to electronic media, were conceived as newly discovered natural resources that serve to extend human faculties and elaborate on basic needs such as food, shelter, and security. Technological determinism claims that though humans create technology, technology in turn transforms human society beyond human will; thus the boundaries of the human are irrevocably altered by technological development. The optimistic end of such thinking is occupied by avant-garde Futurists to the ecstatic pronouncements of Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, who believed that technological innovation represented the evolution of human consciousness. The dystopic end of deterministic thinking considers technology a potential Pandora's box that may bring about the total annihilation of human being.
The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. [...] We are responsible for boundaries; we are they.

Donna Haraway, A Manifesto for Cyborgs, 1991: 180
Bruno Latour's conception of humans as always already socio-technical challenges the fundamental categories of human and object that drive instrumental and deterministic thinking about technology. He notes that ongoing studies of animals and insects reveal that humans are not unique in our use of technology compared to other species (there are many animals from birds to mammals to insects that also employ tools), so mastery over technology is no longer a defining human trait. He writes that the increased mix of human and non-human (where human/non-human does not reduce to a subject/object dualism) represents "the hallmark of a civilized life." (Latour, 2004: 180) Latour describes the fear of dehumanization through mingling of subject and object as a misplaced modernist anxiety. For Latour, modernity is prefaced upon the illusion that humans ('human' defined as the liberal humanist subject governed by logic and reason) and objects would grow more distinct from one another; he claims that this will never and has never been the case: that our humanity resides in relationships between the social and the technical.

Though there has been a theoretical return to the body as a site of knowledge and identity construction, and to a performative understanding of subjectivity and identity, what has been missing from the discussion is a robust engagement with the things to which the body relates. As Donna Haraway also earlier asserted, assemblages of material agents are defined and shaped by embodied practices, but bodies are in turn framed, defined, and disciplined by participation in such ensembles, exchanging "energy, properties, and competence" with things (Olsen, 138). Thus things are not described only by human use, but are also actants, with a thing-ness outside of as well as within the human sphere.

Jane Bennett's work on what she terms 'vital materialism' expands on this discussion of the liveliness of things. Even though her intentions are to intervene in debates about environmentalism with a less human-centric notion of the world, Bennett's writing is particularly appropriate to a discussion about objects which are animated and affected by electro-magnetism. She extends Latour's arguments by theorizing thing-ness as something which is "as much force as entity, as much energy as matter, as much intensity as extension," a definition which also neatly describes the ephemeral yet material nature of electronic media such as radio or sound making devices (Bennett, 2010: 20). Bennett decenters humans to be just one of many actants in potentially vast aggregates; a shift in subject-object relations which she claims requires a concomitant shift in ethics: "If matter itself is lively, then not only is the difference between subjects and objects minimized, but the status of the shared materiality of all things is elevated." (Bennett, 13) Thus technological interactions are always already a many-to-many field of relations. Rethinking media, then, ceases to be a question of innovation, but one of effecting changes in operations and hierarchies of power among actants.

Materiality, Collaboration, Performance
Material Sounds is a program of works by artists who are neither masters of nor mastered by technology, but for whom media matter, in the material as well as the critical sense. The selected artists engage with everyday, overlooked, discarded or obsolete objects such as domestic lamps, mass produced alarm clocks, old AM radios, reel to reel tape recordings from police scanners, vinyl records, dot matrix printers or the incidental objects and surfaces in a room or studio. These sonic explorations of the signals and vibrations of and by things reveal relationships not only between people and things, but amongst things themselves. The works demonstrate a degree of shared authourship--things make sound, things play sounds, things are the performers/conductors. Unstable and/or temporary circuits result, so that a stack of AM radios emits a series of harmonic oscillations that can be shaped with the help of human gesture to function as an ersatz theremin, or outdated office technology conducts itself in symphony. They affirm that every technical act is also social in nature, where human sociality is intertwined with a social life of things, and the liveliness of things, particularly electronics, is highlighted. Thus “human thought as [takes] place within extended cognitive systems in which artifacts carry part of the cognitive load, operating in flexible configurations in which are embedded human thoughts, actions, and memories.” (Hayles, 2006: 138). Bodies are sounding and recording devices, be they human or non-human.

These works explicitly aim to reframe existing or trailing edge media and things, revealing or re-imagining human relationships to and within technological systems. They express both the technocratic and dehumanizing aspects of collaboration with systems of data exploitation and command/control, and effect a positive decentering of the human will/master in favour of hearing a proletariat of clocks ticking, or a muster of house lamps, or an incidental electric heater. The aesthetics of such collaborations between humans and things are necessarily various, often following the characteristics and tendencies of mass produced items once they have been enlisted to make sound art. Glitches, static, hiss and compression do not detract from the work, but further the expression of distance, age, material components and real networks. TACLERON 1999 (a title based on the acronym for tactical electronic warfare squadron) by s• begins with the physicality of the reel-to-reel recorder in a deliberate composition of analogue machinic clicking and clunking, acting as a pointed contrast to the sounds of the wireless police communications network which follow—documents of the coordination of suppression and control of a public political demonstration. This dystopic application of telephonic communications infrastructure is characterized by signature low-fidelity reproduction and compression of the human voice through small speakers in telephones or walkie talkies. Nancy Tobin's sampling practice from old vinyl records does not yield a steady 4/4 beat, but instead offers an off-kilter accidental quality to the samples, emphasizing the crackles and analogue pitch control inherent to the medium, and through an alternately accumulative and deconstructive loopiness reminds of needles uneasily stuck in their grooves rather than choral voices repurposed to house music. This method reframes the orchestral elements as well as the recordings themselves as artifacts, reminding that cultural objects are also things, while playing with the feeling of the Baroque genre initially recorded onto the vinyl.

Both Music for Lamps (Adam Basanta, Julien Stein, and Max Stein) and Kristen Roos use tactile transducers to transform everyday surfaces and objects into speakers, such that a group of lamps or the walls and windows of a fieldhouse become the playback devices. Roos describes this as a process of awakening the space by recording all its aspects (acoustic and electro-magnetic) and then replaying these sounds through the surfaces of the building itself. In addition to turning lamps into speakers for music, Music for Lamps also sonifies the electrical field fluctuation as the lamp lightbulbs are turned on and off.

Hertzian space, or the space of electro-magnetic activity is a central concern for Absolute Value of Noise, Andrea-Jane Cornell, Gambletron, and Kristen Roos. From developing specialized antennae and transmitters operating in the Extremely Low or Very Low Frequency bands, to reception, modulation and broadcast on the AM and FM bands, these artists work sculpturally and improvisationally with the unpredictability of signal and electro-magnetic fields. Wireless collaboration with radiogenic things also reveals the degree to which we spend our days saturated by signal and immersed in fields. Human bodies carry capacitance in these circuits, and contribute to the embodied relationships between things and people in a given transmission ecology.

Very few of the pieces selected were composed in studio (Nancy Tobin's Barok Soundscapes and TACLERON 1999 by s* are the exceptions). They were initially presented as live performances (Music for Lamps) or 'performed installations' (Kristen Roos' Thrum), live radio (Andrea-Jane Cornell's Constriction), or single take recordings of a series of actions (Addendum to Coincidence Engines by [The User] and Filter by Gambletron). Often the sounds of the room, site, and audience members are audible, thereby transmitting the performativity and 'liveliness' of each unique situation, and highlighting the variety of interactions between things, spaces, and artists. These live situations in turn could be composited into a composition for broadcast (as with Andrea-Jane Cornell's Constriction and Café ELF by Absolute Value of Noise). The recordings we will listen to, therefore, are not of the flawlessly controlled studio ilk, but documents of process and activity in collaboration with electro-magnetic fields, temporary situations, site-specific parameters (for instance, the qualities of an architectural space or of a broadcast signal), with a little air and hiss in the mix. This is an important conceptual and methodological aspect of what Canadian sound artists are up to, particularly as it points to the necessarily ephemeral nature of such work.

Works cited:

Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Haraway, Donna J. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.
New York: Routledge.

______. 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium: FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM. New York, NY: Routledge.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. "A Collective of Humans and Non-Humans." In Readings in the Philosophy of Technology. Edited by David Kaplan. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc.

______. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Olsen, Bjørnar. 2010. In Defense of Things: Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.


Cross Waves #6 performance
Curated by Anna Friz with live performance by Andrea-Jane Cornell
May 8, 2015, 8:00 pm
@ the NAISA Space, 601 Christie St #252
General $10

Introduction by Anna Friz

i.Quartet for dot matrix printers by [The User], 2004
ii.Barok Soundscapes (Solo de Maude) by Nancy Tobin, 2002
iii.Performance by Andrea-Jane Cornell

I. Barok Soundscapes (Fellini, Solo de Maude) by Nancy Tobin, 2002
Soundscapes composed with micro excerpts from orchestral Baroque recordings on vinyl. Originally composed for a choreography by Danièle Desnoyers, for the production Bataille by the Montréal-based Company Le Carré des Lombes.
II. Quartet for dot matrix printers by [The User], 2004
Quadrophonic composition recorded from the final installment in [The User]'s dot matrix printer series, where obsolete office technology become musical instruments. In the installation setting, four printers are displayed under glass, on museum plinths arranged in a square, one plinth at each corner. Each printer is equipped with microphones and miniature video cameras. The gallery visitor, sitting in an office chair at the centre of the installation, is immersed in a junk-aesthetic audiovisual environment orchestrated entirely from the composed texts that the printers reproduce. Quartet for dot matrix printer brings the Symphony for dot matrix printers project to its ultimate conclusion. Not only are the technologies obsolete but so are the people, rendered redundant in a totally automated environment, a performance without performers. For this evening, the composition will be heard as a tape piece in four channels.
III. Objets oubliés/Objects left behind by Andrea-Jane Cornell, 2015
Andrea-Jane Cornell improvises with field recordings, radio waves, and object-instruments. For this live performance, she works mainly with objects and machines left behind and never reclaimed, coaxing out their resonant properties and squeaky parts populating a sound scape with a confluence of broken, and sometimes silent elements.


Fellini 5:05
Solo de Maude 10:21
From Barok Soundscapes (2002)

Nancy Tobin
Soundscapes composed with micro excerpts from orchestral Baroque recordings on vinyl. Originally composed for a choreography by Danièle Desnoyers, for the production Bataille by the Montréal-based Company Le Carré des Lombes.

Symphony #2 for dot matrix printers (1999) 40:00
[The User]
Thomas McIntosh
Emmanuel Madan
Performance for fifteen dot matrix printers and personal computers, ASCII text compositions, network server, microphones, sound system, miniature video cameras, custom video switching technology and video projection.

Fifteen early-1990s era dot matrix printers become musical instruments; an “orchestra” of obsolete computers is used to print them. A network server “conducts” the Symphony using a serial command network. Miniature video cameras are inserted within the mechanisms of the printers, and using a low-tech custom-built video switching system, the images are projected onto screens behind the orchestra. All sounds and images are created live by the printers on stage with no additional or pre-recorded content and a minimum of electronic manipulation.
Symphony #2 for dot matrix printers was commissioned by Hull Time Based Arts (UK) and realised with support from the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology. Concept, design, construction and composition: [The User] – Emmanuel Madan and Thomas McIntosh. Software: Thaddeus Thomas, ReDada software. Electronic engineering and manufacture: David Ozsvari.

TACLERON 1999 (1999) 30:00
Recovering long lost tapes of the N30 protests (the Battle of Seattle), s* composes a tense montage from the police scanner, combatting surveillance and arrest activities with frequency and noise manipulation. TACLERON 1999 presents a full immersion in overhearing behind-the-scenes banter, providing the craven ear with its own surveillance apparatus, and seducing the listener with the unheard discourses of secrecy and power, personal and public.

Released as 1981 / 1999 Split Cassette, with a.j. cornell on label IO SOUND (IO/003)
URL: http://iosound.ca/2012/05/io-003/

Thrum (2015) 31:54
Kristen Roos
Thrum is a recording from a site-specific (performed) sound installation designed to activate the built environment of a park field house, which Roos accessed through the City of Vancouver’s Fieldhouse Residency Program. The work sought to re-imagine everyday interior or domestic space by wondering what sounds and frequencies are hidden in these spaces? How can these hidden vibrations be made tangible? Using a variety of microphones and an RF receiver, Roos recorded sounds from all aspects of the house—its electrical infrastructure and appliances, the vibrations in walls and windows, and all signals passing through the house in various frequencies on the electro-magnetic spectrum (including wifi, mobile phone, radio, etc). The site recordings were then sculpted and tuned for the surfaces in the space, and reinserted using tactile transducers and modified speakers, which allowed the walls and appliances in the house to become the voices and the players of these sounds.

Café ELF (2012) 21:15
Absolute Value of Noise (Peter Courtemanche)
Café ELF is a generative radio piece made for Art's Birthday (January 17th) 2012. Courtemanche mixes the sounds of the ambient magnetic environment with broadcasts from two ELF (Extremely Low frequency) transmitters. Café ELF plays with magnetic radiation recorded at Solder & Sons (a Vancouver-area cafe and bookstore which was located at Cordova and Main Street in Vancouver from 2007 - 2013.) The "rhythm section" in this piece comes from a small but powerful electric heater nestled up against the bookshelves.

ELF is electro-magnetic radiation that occurs in the audio spectrum (20 Hz to 20,000 Hz). The ears pickup sound in this frequency range, but only from physical waves in the air or other mechanical medium. We are constantly surrounded by a world of radio-waves that oscillate in this range, but we have no direct way to sense them. "Natural" ELF radiation is caused by phenomenon such as solar-flares, the aurora borealis, and lightning storms. In populated areas, this natural radiation is mixed with and often obliterated by the noise of power-lines, transformers, and fold-down from higher frequency transmitters (radios, computers, monitors, cell phones, neon signs, anything electronic).

Constriction (2015) 26:30
Andrea-Jane Cornell
This piece issues from an confluence of episodes of Chaud pour le mont stone, a radio programme operated by Martine H. Crispo for the past 24 or so years on CKUT 90.3FM Montreal. The piece centers on and branches out from an episode where Cornell used re-amped radios, accordion, the high frequency hiss of a radiator, and tone generator (operated by Mara Fortes) fluctuating between 20 and 30 Hz. Cornell had previously conducted some tests about the limits of FM radio's frequency response. She found that a carrier wave saturated with a low frequency tone could be used to modulate other sources, functioning like a gate of sorts capable of distorting and cutting out the secondary source. This technique (working with frequencies that fall outside of the optimal range of frequencies the FM carrier wave is capable of reproducing with a certain fidelity) has a muffling effect on the other sounds being sent through the transmission. Cornell hears it as constricting the transmission space and creating a muffled aesthetic that elicits an effort on the listening apparatus. The on-air performance with the tone generator was mixed in with elements from other improvised radio performances, some recorded with instruments, small synthesizers, prayer bowls, field recordings of rocks on a thinly iced pond, cassette tape field recording collage, the metal swinging gate outside the radio studio window.

Addendum to Coincidence Engines (2013)
[The User]
Thomas McIntosh
Emmanuel Madan
Addendum to Coincidence Engines is from a series created in homage to contemporary classical composer, György Ligeti, whose compositions used ideas of indeterminacy and polyrhythms, and who used metronomes not simply to keep musical time, but as generators of sonic events. Small portable clocks of identical design are arrayed and activated one by one. These battery-powered timekeeping devices are among the most generic mass-produced analog clocks available, purchased in wholesale quantity from their manufacturer in Fuzhou, China.It was performed live at Quiet Cue in Berlin in October 2013 using plastic clocks, a metal surface, and contact microphones, and was first broadcast on Kunstradio in György Ligeti’s home country, Austria.

Music for Lamps (2014) 28:00
Adam Basanta
Julien Stein
Max Stein
Music for Lamps is an audiovisual performance group. The trio controls a fleet of lamps discreetly outfitted with surface transducer speakers, turning the lamps into sound emitters. Each lamp may behave as an individual or as part of a larger ensemble, manifesting various behaviours in light and sound. This piece was recorded at a performance by the group at Café Zosha, Montréal, January 15, 2014.

Filter (2014) 13:45
Filter was created as contribution for Alejo Duque's PIRATE BLOCK RADIO project for Eastern Bloc's 2014 Sight and Sound Festival in Montréal. He requested longer pieces from sound artists for web transmission, so Gambletron set up a small multi- tonal radio theremin (consisting of nine AM radios) at Eastern Bloc, and pushed Alejo's web broadcast through her Ramsey AM transmitter, broadcasting Alejo's curation directly through her AM radio theremin drone.

Gambletron constructs the AM radio theremin using between seven and eleven radios. For every two radios she can create one oscillating note. With six radios she can create three notes, and so on… With a seventh radio slightly hacked and modified she controls all the notes generated by the radios by moving her body or hands or a conductive object near the antenna of the controlling radio, very much like the touchless function of a theremin, an early electronic instrument which also utilizes radio technology played with the proximity of the hands to aerials.


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