I hear the mermaids singing

Cocktailphysicsmoi Ever since I first heard Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (hear a sample here) I’ve been into electronica and ambient music. WNYC radio show New Sounds’ John Schaefer defines ambient music as "music of little or no rhythm, with background sounds and effects as foreground music." As my tired old arena-rock damaged ears get older, I find it immensely soothing and much better to write to than, say, the Stones or The Who, or even, God help me, Van Morrison. I was a band nerd in high school and though I didn’t play an instrument, I occasionally "roadied" for our Class AA band because two of my best friends did. One was first chair flautist and the other played piano and percussion. Hanging out with them (and the influence of my classical and opera-loving mother) and another friend’s hippie parents got me completely hooked on music of just about all kinds. It wasn’t until grad school that I first heard music like Eno’s though, and that got me interested in all sorts of things, some of which might be classified as noise by the undiscerning: like found music.

Yeah, you know what I mean: the car horn symphony like this one by Dennis Báthory; the folks whacking out percussion riffs on up-ended 10-gallon paint buckets, the sound of wind in the wires, even whale songs. It’s ambient music in its literal sense: Take what’s already in your environment and arrange it a little, or use objects that we don’t tend to think of as musical instruments to create music. Paul Winter was one of the first musicians to do this with natural sounds, working with whale sounds as early as 1967. Twenty years later, that culminated in his recording of Whales Alive, an extended improvisation with whale song recordings recorded live at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (where the acoustics, with their seven-second reverb, are by turns magnificent and muddy, depending on the instrument and tempo).

We don’t know much about the sounds that whales make (more samples here), except that they are definitely some sort of communication, rather than just echolocation (though they are that, too). Male Humpback whales seem to sing more than females and usually during breeding periods and in known breeding grounds. There’s no Rosetta stone for Whale-to-human yet, so we’re not sure what they’re communicating, or if they’re just serenading their girlfriends. They’re haunting enough to make some of us want to sing along though, as are some other ambient sounds. T.S. Eliot is far from my favorite poet, but I’ve always loved this line in the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: "I
have heard the mermaids singing, each to each." Since whale songs
can be heard for up to 100 miles, I’ve often wondered
what sailors in wooden ships made of the sounds of whales through the
hulls, and if that wasn’t where the notion of mermaids
first came from.

The urge to make music seems to be a universal human characteristic.
It’s a form of pattern recognition (or Gestalt psychology) as hardwired into our brains as language seems to be. We like to make sense of our surroundings, so we have a hardwired tendency to try to organize the random input from our senses into patterns, whether it’s visual input, like Rorschach blots (right), stains on the wall, or sound input. Recognizing music in sounds or sounds in music is often part of musical training for sight reading and composition. This ability to make patterns crops up in odd places and can really come in handy at odd times too. I remember lying in bed listening to a loud building alarm going off for what seemed like maddening hours before I managed to turn it into a sort of white noise rhythm pattern in my mind, at which point I fell asleep to it. We commonly see it as a behavioral tic indicating boredom too. How often have you started to drum your fingers or tap your foot in boredom or impatience? Thus is born many a percussion track, like this one from the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Research Station, where the ambient sounds are human-made, and a couple of real musical instruments are added on to round out the composition, as Winter did with whale songs and his clarinet. In this piece, in addition to running water, you can hear lots of percussion on found instruments, wine glasses humming and a different technique that’s almost like LP scratching, along with violin and guitar.

Srsly, what else do you do in Antarctica when you’re not researching? You form a band!

Engineer and musician Noah Vawter, who’s currently a Ph.D. candidate at MIT’s Media Lab, takes found music one step farther with Ambient Addition,"a Walkman with
binaural microphones
" Like Báthory’s car horns, Vawter’s portable device takes the existing noises around the listener and reinterprets them. In this case, that reinterpretation involves a non-random overlay of sound, something with harmony and rhythm, two key components of music. He accomplishes this with the use of a Digital Signal Processing (DSP) chip, which does pretty much the same thing our brains do: overlays order on chaos. the result is that, instead of isolating yourself from the world around you with a set of headphones plugged into your iPod, you’re actually highly tuned into your environment and experiencing the literally found music of it firsthand. Every walk becomes an original composition.

Another example of the intersection of electronics and music, and my new obsession, is Tomoko Sauvage‘s  water drip performances. Sauvage first came to my attention through a YouTube video of her performing on waterbowls in Paris (It’s kind of a crappy quality video, so I won’t embed it; here’s a better one of her rehearsal with Scottish pop star Momus). She has a set of graduated-sized porcelain bowls filled with varying amounts of water that she plays like a percussion instrument with a couple of wooden kitchen spoons, accompanied by an electronic drone and drum track or electronic shruti box. Same principle as playing a glass harmonium, harmonica or harp (like the wine glasses in the video above): fill a receptacle with water and make it vibrate. The water acts as an amplifier as well as determining what note the receptacle "plays" by how much liquid you make resonate. The water bowls, Instead of being rubbed to make them resonate (as you also do with Tibetan singing bowls), are struck like a xylophone. The cool thing about this method is that the tone can be varied a little by stirring the water, which adds a vibrato. You can hear and see this in the Momus video I linked to above. The struck bowls have a bell-like tone similar to struck singing bowls, one that’s deeper and more resonant than glasses. Don’t try this at Thanksgiving with the jello salad bowl.

Where Sauvage’s work gets back to the ambient is in her waterdrop performances, like this one:

In this case, she’s using hydrophones to transmit the sound of water dropping into the bowls and hitting the bowls themselves, the water in the bowls moving, the sounds of her pouring water in, and her disturbing the water and flicking the bowls with her fingers. That kind of plooping sound the water makes pouring into the bowl is due in part to a process called cavitation (the making of a cavity), where air bubbles created by changes in pressure in the water oscillate and explode, creating teeny shock waves. Usually it takes a marked change in pressure for cavitation to occur, but fast-flowing water can do the same thing on a smaller, quieter scale than, say, a submarine or ship propeller. On that louder and larger scale, cavitation can actually erode rock and damage metal. In Sauvage’s bowl though, it’s more like blowing water through a straw: noisy but harmless. These are normally sounds you wouldn’t hear well, if it all, without amplification, and a normal mic wouldn’t help much.

Hydrophones were originally developed to collect sounds underwater and transmit them the way land-based mics do, to amplifiers and recording media. This is done with pressure-sensitive transducers "tuned" to the same impedance (how fast sound moves or propagates through a medium) as water, rather than air. Transducers turn the pressure of sound waves into electrical signals that are then decoded by the amplifier. Water is a great acoustic medium because of its density, which gives the sound waves more particles to push around, creating more pressure over the same surface area for the transducers to pick up. Because of this, even faint sounds, like shrimp clicking their little claws to stun fish (remember that shock wave?), can be easily heard underwater with a hydrophone. Sadly, now that we have the tools to hear them, some of those noises and natural songs are being lost in the noise pollution of ship traffic, which is mostly more cavitation noise when it’s not sonar or drilling.

Hydrophones are used in a number of different research areas, from studying the aforementioned sea mammal communication and echolocation and estimating their populations and feeding and migration patterns, to hunting subs, studying sound propagation and visualizing sound wave fields (pdf), and monitoring underwater earthquakes and volcanoes. Whitlow W. L. Au, Chief Scientist in the Marine Mammal Research Program
at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii at
Manoa, was recently elected President-Elect of the Acoustical Society of
, which gives you some idea of how closely the two fields are intertwined.

But this is the first I’ve seen hydrophones being used to make music. Is it mermaid music, or music for mermaids?

5 thoughts on “I hear the mermaids singing”

  1. (((I remember lying in bed listening to a loud building alarm going off for what seemed like maddening hours before I managed to turn it into a sort of white noise rhythm pattern in my mind)))
    Ever listen to Dane Cook?: “Helloooooooo…. Ima caaaaaaaaar.”

  2. I wish that I could see embedded links at work! I’ll have to come back to this. I’m a big fan of all that stuff and then some. I’d highly recommend checking out computer music. Look around for the Consortium for the Distribution of Computer Music (CDCM) or wikipedia for some artists; it covers everything from what you might call ambient, found sound (musique concrete), computer-composed music (Rodney Waschka has a great piece about Ambrose Bierce composed with genetic algorithms), and so on.
    Also, I’d recommend checking out some post-rock. I find that a lot of the softer stuff (Paper, Goodnight Sleep Well, Godspeed You Black Emporer, Explosions in the Sky) fills that same place in my life that pleasant ambient/techno can fill – not dynamic enough to be distrcting, but calming.

  3. For fans of Ambient music I recommend the radio show Ultima Thule from Australia. They can be found at http://www.ultimathule.info/ They have an extensive archive of the 90 minute shows all as unencumbered MP3s for downloading. You can download them directly or subscribe to the RSS feed and receive new shows via your favorite podcatcher client.
    I keep an MP3 player loaded with them beside my bed for nighttime listening.
    “Music from across the ages and around the world”

  4. A couple of reactions. Sorry I’m late to the party, but I’m behind on the sudden surge of posts in this column.
    I had a bit of an epiphany about music a number of weeks ago. I had just finished reading Jay Ingram’s book _Theatre of the Mind_, which explores the nature of consciousness; I listened to an audio version of Oliver Sacks’s _Musicophilia_, and finally I read an article by Carl Zimmer (I’m pretty sure) on the nature of time.
    One of the questions scientists have about music is, Why? Why would an appreciation of music evolve? What adaptive advantage would it confer?
    It occurred to me that music is a good way for humans to keep track of time. We’re much better at keeping even time (tap, tap, tap, tap) if we do it with music in mind than if we try to do so without music.
    In fact, there was even a study widely reported recently that showed that rescue workers who sang the BeeGees’ “Stayin’ Alive” in their minds did better at timing the ‘pumps’ required for CPR.
    So, if tracking time conferred any advantage, musical ability may have been selected for. That’s a big ‘if’, of course.
    With regard to Ambient Addition: a couple of weeks ago, a Canadian radio show called The Vinyl Café had a show called “The Basement Tapes” in which the show invited some of their favourite musicians to send in quick-and-dirty recordings done in their homes (i.e. without sophisticated recording equipment).
    A couple of the most interesting pieces were from a project in which Charles Spearin, from the instrumental rock group Do Make Say Think, invited neighbours to come to his home and tell him what happiness means to them. He recorded the answers and then got musician friends to play along with the interviews, matching the sounds of the voices (spoken, not sung) as closely as possible with their instruments. The result is pretty amazing.
    For anyone interested, the podcast will be available for download for another week or two, at http://www.cbc.ca/podcasting/pastpodcasts.html?44#ref44. Look for the one called “VC: November 1st, 2008 “Home Recordings”. The direct link to the MP3 is http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/vinylcafe_20081101_6720.mp3.
    The Spearin recordings are at about the mid-point of the track, but you may find the whole thing worth listening to (except for one somewhat anti-science bit as the intro to one of the songs).

  5. Hey thanks for all the great recs everybody. I’ve been checking some of them out and found some new favorites (Dane Cook hmmmmm. Very funny guy.) And some great podcasts.
    Wilson, I think you’re right about music being a great way to keep time. It’s also a great way to memorize things. Poetry and music get wound up in that sense because of their dependence on rhythm. There have been studies about how much easier it is to remember phrases and such when they’re set to music. I’m continually amazed at the number of complete song lyrics I can remember to songs from the 70s.
    The Spearin recordings reflect the fact that most musical instruments mimic the human voice somehow. Then there’s Bobby McFerrin . . .

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