Monthly Archives: December 2011

Last week I had a wonderful day with Simon Park, recording the sounds of the microbiological laboratory at Surrey University. Simon, an expert in microbiological luminescence, had very kindly set up a number of cultures: a conical jar of yeast and two petri dishes of other luminescent microbe colonies. The cultures are kept in a series of incubator rooms set to different temperatures in order to aid the growth of microbes. The room set to human body temperature is breathtakingly warm; I had no idea that I was this hot.

This initial visit to the lab was a kind of acoustic reconnaissance: lets listen to what is there to hear. Simon showed me the various machines used to stir and agitate the liquid cultures. This includes the ‘Magnetic Flea’, a seemingly uninteresting, elongated plastic covered magnet, visually not unlike a suppository. However, when the flea is put into a jar placed on a spinning machine, it begins an untidy clangorous choreography, as it rattles against the glass walls of its container. Finding equilibrium, it produces a distinct pattern of movement and sound, each magnet composing its own percussive stir: unique to that jar, that flea, in that moment and that position. The patterns continually evolve and change like listening to waves fall onto the shore, a sonic equivalent to the visual patterns of growth produced by the microbes in the petri dish.

We spent hours (and I do mean hours) trying different jars, different fleas, different microphones, and different spinners. Some of the machines allow the speed of stir to be varied, so that the jars can be ‘played’ like a musical instrument. And whilst some machines spin to stir, others have a gentler shaking action, like the clichéd motion supposedly used to swill brandy around the bottom of a glass.  I recorded many variations of instruments, jars and microphones to capture a canon of growing percussive patterns.

In one of the incubator rooms I placed contact microphones against the sides of a conical jar containing yeast. On the surface of the solution you could see small eruptions of gas as the yeast feeds, digests and expels. In appearance it is not unlike looking through a telescope at the surface of some gaseous planet. It is interesting that visually we often find the microscopic and macroscopic interchangeable: so what would be the audio equivalent? I suppose the contact microphone may be seen as a form of aural microscope: delving beneath the surface to listen to the very substance of things, bringing the tiniest sound closer and making it available to the ear.

Through the glass membrane of the conical jar, the snap, crackle and pop of yeast digestion is audible, although the contact microphone also picks up the vibration of the incubators heating system  travelling through the metal shelving system. This metallic hum adds a laboratorial ambience to the sound here, (I have reduced it slightly in post-production, so as to emphasise the sound of yeast). The drone of environmental climate control could perhaps be called the ‘keytone’ sound of the laboratory (and of the archive; a soundscape I have also explored). R Murray Schafer described a Keynote sound as ‘often not consciously perceived’ but ‘heard continuously or frequently enough to form a background against which other sounds are perceived.’ In the laboratory the hum of temperature control pronounces an acoustic stasis, the pulsing sound of time standing still.

A hydrophone sunk into the solution, is surrounded by the digestion of yeast, although again the ambient sound of the laboratory is also present in the mix: this time it’s the voices of people preparing to experiment. In order to get a larger hydrophone in on the action, we decant the yeast to a metal pan and notice (through the microscope of contact microphones) a change in the acoustics resulting from the metal skin of the pan. Another experiment, set-up quickly by Simon, involved two conical jars and a rubber tube. By gently stirring one jar full of yeast, the gas escapes up the tube into a jar full of water, producing quite delicious bubbles of effluent.

The yeast songs have their own pattern, as the microbes consume all available oxygen and food, the static crackle of their existence is extinguished. There is the possibility of producing a spatial and acoustic bell curve, through which could be heard the life cycle of these microbes, their multiplication, peak and extinction: a microbiological soundscape, beginning with silence and returning to it.


Tacita Dean Film 2011

Tacita Dean Film (2011)

A Journey up to London to see Gerhard Richter at the Tate and Building the Revolution at the Royal Academy. I had forgotten that Tacita Dean’s piece Film, was the latest Installation for The Turbine Hall, and as such I was unprepared for the dark shadow that the installation casts into the hall. As you walk into the building you are met by a distinct lack of light, Film’s distant gloaming summoning you down, deeper into the darkness. Like the secular light of an avant-garde Cathedral window the strip of enlarged Film hangs in the night which lurks at the end of the Turbine Hall.

As I watched the eleven-minute loop, looping, I felt myself succumb to its soporific lull, staring through the images into my own thinking. The echo of intermittent footsteps as people approached and moved away became a soundtrack assisting my drift. Although slightly disturbed by the stationary sprockets, which add a frame of pretense to the reality of the film, I sat here silently watching time passing me by: ‘waiting without waiting for’.

I must confess that I am partial to watching nothing happen, especially when it doesn’t happen very slowly. In 2001 Dean’s show at Tate Britain allowed me to sit on the melancholic carousal of Berlin’s Fernsehturm television tower: I sat there for several rotations, listening to the ticking chronometer of the 16mm projector with occasional accompaniment from the man on the Fernsehturm’s organ (this all does sound unintentionally seaside).

Gerhard Richter Baader Meinhof

Design for Speaker no. 7

The grey melancholy of Gerhard Richter’s Baader Meinhof room added to the gloomy pall falling over the day (in an act of unintentional irony, every room in the Richter exhibition had  a sign saying Photography is strictly forbidden) . At the RA’s Building the Revolution I discovered Gustav Klutsis’s Design for Loudspeaker No. 7 and the sublime squares, lines and circles of Rodchenko, Malevich, and Lisitsky (forms also found in Tacita Dean’s Film). But even these transcendent ‘archetonics’ had a shadow cast over them, when seen in the photographic company of the architecture they inspired. Beautiful forms, flowing with function, left to crumble and rot; one of the remaining ‘palaces’ now with its insides ripped out as it was transformed into the foyer of a bank.

Today I found comfort in the discovery of Arthur Zajonc’s book Catching the Light, which was waiting for me on the Oxfam shelf. A ‘multi-levelled history’ of light, the first few pages reveal light itself to be darkness. Zajonc conducted an experiment in which he created a ‘region of space’ (a box) filled only with light: a space in which ‘light does not illuminate any interior objects or surfaces’. What does he see when he looks into light alone: “Absolute darkness! I see nothing but the blackness of empty space […] The space is clearly not empty but filled with light. Yet without an object on which the light can fall, one sees only darkness.’ Following a discussion with the Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, Zajonc realised that even the outer space in which our planet floats, the darkness of light is omnipotent: ‘The sun’s light, although present everywhere, fell on nothing and so nothing was seen. Only darkness.’

I see a darkness indeed.

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