December 3, 2012

Sound and Ultrasonics by Ira Freeman
Audio Illustrations by Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Since 2010, I have been developing a project titled Aural Contract that investigates the contemporary politics of listening, with a particular focus on the role of the voice in law. Aural Contract has led to a series of events, publications, exhibitions and workshops.

During this time, I have been assembling a sound archive that contains extracts of my audio works along with excerpts of specific moments of recorded juridical listening and speaking. These have been gathered from a wide range of sources that include the trials of Saddam Hussein and Judas Priest, UK police evidence tapes, audio tracks of films such as Decoder and readings from texts such as Italo Calvino's A King Listens. The components of this archive have been mixed together in order to generate audio documentaries and narrative compositions that immerse its audience into the heart of a discussion about the relationship of listening to politics, borders, human rights, testimony, truth and international law.

For this installment of Word Processor, I have intervened in Ira Freedman's book, Sound and Ultrasonics (1961). I have stripped the text of its images and replaced them with my own audio illustrations and captions in order to juxtapose Freeman's words with a collection of contemporary tracks from the Aural Contract Audio Archive. This reframing of Freeman's original text is an attempt to complicate his definition of sound and listening and its relationship to technology. Sound and Ultrasonics ambitiously attempts to present a complete description of the sonic world. But today's reading of it tells us very little about sound itself, and instead tells us a great deal about pre-digital audio culture and its conception of sound as an extraordinary phenomenon. It is a utopic and optimistic perspective on the emerging potentials of sonic reproduction and audio technologies.

The stark temporal and conceptual distance between Freeman's text and my audio illustrations calls attention to an alternate account of the history and politics of sound; picking up where Freeman left off, these audio illustrations highlight the contemporaneous excesses naively omitted from his sonic world view. Mapping the distance between the text and audio illustrations should allow the reader/listener to see how our understanding of sound has changed over the last 50 years; how the utopic vision of audio technologies became so quickly entrenched and corrupted by capitalist trajectories, how our/my ears became so cynical, how we can no longer imagine the uncontaminated potentials of sound and no longer mute their ominous applications in a society of security and subjugation.

The World of Sound

Listening is one of the best ways of finding out about the things that go on all around you. And using your voice is a simple and easy way to communicate with others. Whenever you hear anything or talk with anyone, you are using sound.

Other sounds bring you messages, too. The warning blast of an auto horn, the crash of thunder, the chirping of a bird or the music of a band—each is a message that you receive through your sense of hearing. Sound is one of your most important ways of communicating with others.

red speakerShouting Valley

Families communicating across the Israeli/Syrian border in the Golan Heights, shouting across physically impenetrable jurisdictions.

Storing Up Sound

It was over a hundred years ago that scientists discovered that a tone could be broken down and put together again. But it was some years later before anyone found a way to store up sounds so that they could be reproduced at a later time.

The discovery was made by a young inventor named Thomas Edison, at his laboratory in the village of Menio Park, New Jersey. He designed a machine that had a roller with fine grooves around it. The roller was mounted on an axle that could be turned by a crank. At each side was a short metal tube with a thin lid that could vibrate. A needle projected from the center of each lid.

In his first test of the machine, Edison wrapped a sheet of tinfoil around the roller and carefully set the point of one of the needles against it. Now, leaning forward until his mouth was close to the tube, he began to recite, "Mary had a little lamb," while slowly turning the crank.

Then he moved the roller back, set the other needle down at the starting point, and once more began to turn the crank. From the machine came the words, "Mary had a little lamb," in a squawking, scraping voice. For the first time, human speech had been captured by a machine that could reproduce it. Now the voices of great men and women of history could be stored up for later generations to hear.

red speakerA Phonograph Boasting

A recording from 1906 on a phonograph that was played out loud in stores to advertise its capabilities.

    Video: Sounds You Cannot Hear

The Queen of England shakes hands with IRA leader Martin McGuiness in June 2012. Cameras were permitted at the event, but microphones and audio recording devices were strictly prohibited.

Sounds You Cannot Hear

A trawler steams slowly back and forth about a mile off the coast of England. After a few hours of sailing this zigzag course, a marker buoy is thrown overboard and the ship makes its way back to port. The wreck of a sunken ship has just been located by the trawler, which is equipped with sonar. Later, divers will be sent down to have a look at the wreck and to figure out ways of raising it from the bottom of the sea. In addition to locating objects under water, such as sunken ships, schools of fish, and submarines, sonar is helpful in navigation.

"Sonar" is a name put together from the phrase SOund NAvigation and Ranging. It uses high-frequency sound waves to measure ocean depth in the way that was described on page 22. Sonar uses sound waves to locate objects in air or in space in much the same way that radar uses short radio waves. But radio waves do not pass through sea water, while sounds waves can do this easily.

Sonar is just one of the many uses that engineers and scientists have found for sound waves that have frequencies too high to be heard by the human ear. This kind of sound is called ultrasonic sound, or sometimes simply ultrasound.

The average person can hear sound waves that range in frequency from about 20 up to 18,000 vibrations per second. A dog can hear vibrations as high as 40,000, and the hearing range of other animals goes even higher. The waves used in sonar have a frequency of around 25,000.

For most of the practical uses of ultrasound, the waves have frequencies from about 20,000 to 1,000,000, although frequencies have been produced in laboratories as high as 60,000,000,000 (sixty billion). Ordinary sound waves are usually a few feet long, but ultrasonic waves are measured in hundredths of an inch or less. Because they are very short, they do many things that ordinary sounds cannot do.

red speakerThe Mosquito

The use and misuse of the mosquito teen repellent device that emits a high volume, high frequency sound. Inaudible to most people over the age of 20 this device is used to stop youths from congregating.

The Sounds of Voices

All sounds carry messages of some kind, but the human voice can do this best. Speech gives people the power of communicating with each other in a direct and convenient way. Listening to a story is an enjoyable pastime, and hearing a teacher or lecturer is one of the best ways of learning new facts and ideas.

The human voice is a kind of musical instrument, and it is particularly capable of expressing feeling or emotion. It is a special pleasure to recognize the voice of a friend who has been away, even when the quality of his voice is changed somewhat as it comes over the telephone.

Musicians might say that the voice is a combination of wind and string instruments. The main source of sound is the vibration of a pair of bands that form a slit in the throat passage. They are called the vocal cords. When you breathe, this slit is held open to allow air to move into and out of the lungs. When you speak or sing, the cords change the size of the slit. Air flows past the cords and makes them vibrate and send out sound.

A violinist can change only the length of the free part of a string in order to get various tones. But when you speak or sing, you can change the length, the stretching force and the thickness of your vocal cords by using certain muscles. Motion pictures of the vocal cords in action show that the movement is very complicated. From experience, you learn to make your vocal cords go through all these motions automatically.

Men have heavier vocal cords than women or children, and this is why the male voice is lower. The singing frequencies of men range from about 80 to 500 vibrations per second, while those of women go from about 200 to 1400, or even higher.

red speakerThe Chipmunk in the Court of Saddam

Pitch shifting, harmonizing and other vocal manipulation effects are employed during the trial of Saddam Hussein to disguise and infantilize voices testifying in his defense.

All the vowel sounds are made with the lips somewhat apart. The consonants are made with fhe lips closed, or almost closed. As an example, the lips are together for the humming sound "m-m-m," and the sound really comes out through the nose. Still, the shape of the mouth space helps produce the tone.

Consonants such as "s-s-s" and "z-z-z" make very little use of the vocal cords. They are formed by air passing through the narrow opening formed when the tongue is held near the roof of the mouth. The teeth and gums help, too.

Scientists who study human speech have been able to find out many interesting things about voice sounds. They discovered that most of the sound power of spoken words is carried by the vowels.

red speakerYou Say Tomato

Excerpt from The Freedom of Speech Itself, an audio documentary by Lawrence Abu Hamdan looking at the UK's controversial use of voice analysis to determine the origins and authenticity of asylum seekers' accents.

Sound engineers have designed "speaking machines" that imitate voice syllables. In the simplest kind, an air pump, such as a bellows, takes the place of the lungs, a metal reed serves as the vocal cords, and a flared-out rubber tube represents the spaces inside the head. The operator can pinch the edges of the opening together, as in closing the lips. Or he can squeeze the tube near the middle, as when the tongue arches up against the roof of the mouth. With a little practice, he can make the machine give out sounds that can be recognized as simple spoken syllables, A setup of this kind can be built into a doll to make it say "ma-ma," or into a toy to give a fairly good imitation of a cow mooing or a cat meowing.

Telephone engineers have built a better and more complicated speech machine. It uses a computer that stores up bits of speech sounds of different pitch, loudness and other characteristics. The operator can select any combination of these and transfer them to a magnetic tape. Then they can be played back on a tape recorder to produce the actual word sounds.

red speakerThe Traum-O-Meter

Excerpt from an interview with Dr. Iulia Lefter, who developed a device which organizes emergency phone calls based on stress levels detected in the voice.

The words voice and speech are usually used in connection with human beings. But many animals have a kind of speech of their own, and they use it for more purposes than people do. It is now known that animals use sounds not only for communicating with each other, but also for finding food and for navigation.

There is much more to be found out about the wonderful sounds that animals make. Perhaps some day there may even be a means of speech communication between animals and people.

red speakerAnimal Rights

Metro Goldwyn Mayer's roaring lion was the first 'non musical' sound to be copyright protected.

Artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan is based in London, his ongoing project Aural Contract has been most recently exhibited at Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm (2012) and The Taipei Bienniel (2012). He has written for Cabinet Magazine and is now developing a radio documentary trilogy and a string of solo exhibtions produced by The Showroom London, Casco Utrecht and as part of a PhD at the Centre for Research Architecture Goldsmiths College.

View Sound and Ultrasonics in the catalog.

Read other Word Processor essays.