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Assembled speech, voiceboxes and spider sounds

November 21, 2009

The Sound Unbound conference / symposium / performance series that’s been happening at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus this week has been hugely enjoyable and improving, so for later recollection’s sake I thought I’d better do a little roundup.

By coincidence, the art gallery that acted as the venue for some of the performances (including my own) was also housing the vBox, an interactive instrument created by artist Ellen Moffat as part of her Phoneme Project. The vBox is a long cabinet full of switches that play samples of disjointed spoken phonemes from the twelve inbuilt speakers. The gallery visitor is free to play around with the switches (and alter the speed of the looped recordings) to find any number of overlapping patterns and create a kind of unpredictably reassembled speech. Here’s an mp3, from Moffat’s website, of what the results might sound like. Naturally, I encouraged my audience to turn these knobs at their leisure during my performance. This friendly background chatter was infinitely better quality than the type you get when playing in bars.

Nobuo Kubota’s presentation (of his films, of himself) was superb, and covered a whole range of his activities as architect, film-maker, sculptor, sound artist, and vocalist. He finished up with an ace performance similar to this one, which I linked to earlier. Unlike some artists working in a similar vein, Kubota considers himself more a vocalist (perhaps a singer) than a poet. His vocalisations in the video linked to at the foot of this page come close to those of scat singers, and exist further from meaning than the great readings given earlier by Gerry Shikatani, an associate of hugely important (and Canadadaist!) concrete and sound poetry group The Four Horsemen. I should say that I also appreciated Nobuo Kubota’s demonstration of an ornithological book he’d recently bought, with built-in speakers that play examples of hundreds of types of bird song.

Speaking of bioacoustics, I was sorry to miss a talk at the end of last week on animal communication, but I hear that it involved a discussion of the sounds made by male spiders when trying to impress a mate. Sure enough, there’s a video on Youtube showing this behaviour… some of the commenters on this video suggest that the sounds are faked, but I do believe that these are the actual noises made (recorded using a contact mic attached to the surface that the creatures are on), not by the spider’s legs (though it looks like he’s tap-dancing) but by some other part of his surprising anatomy.

Finally, tonight there was an intelligently improvised performance by Chris Cogburn (objects teasing the resonance of drums by playing on their skins), Bonnie Jones (exposed circuit boards), Chandan Narayan (contact-mic’d autoharp) and Liz Tonne (cracked abstracted voice). Subway trains beneath us added their own low frequencies.

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