Sonic Environments: Composing Analogies to Social and Natural Processes

Sonic Environments: Composing Analogies to Social and Natural Processes
Franck Mauceri

In Senior Lecturer Frank Mauceri’s open class yesterday, 15 Bowdoin students sat in an open circle on the Studzinski Recital Hall stage. If you were to observe the class through a window, it would appear as though nothing were happening. Stationary students. No musical instruments. No performers. Only one laptop computer and a pair of large speakers.

Walk into this open class, however, and your perception would change. The recital hall was filled with sound — sounds ranging from the bubbling of rivers to the chugging of machinery, chirping crickets to cacophonous traffic. These were the sounds of student compositions, written to comment on the social, political, and environmental issues of today. The compositions were part of the curriculum for Mauceri’s Intro to Electronic Music class. Students organized field recordings from the surrounding Brunswick and Topsham areas into short compositions that told a story about the themes of the Teach-in. Using the computer program Logic Pro X, students manipulated their recordings — looping, fading, pitch-changing, splicing—to create an intriguing sonic landscape, evocative of images and sensations.

Mauceri said he hopes the students’ compositions will make a difference in how listeners perceive their world.

These collections of sounds are not “music” in the traditional sense: there is no defined rhythm, melody, or repetition. The genre is called “musique concrète,” an abstract arrangement of sounds that focus artistic attention on what might otherwise go unnoticed. This type of music intends to provoke the audience into critical thinking, calling upon them to question their perceptions. And because perception precedes thought, and thought precedes action, music can have a significant influence on social and environmental change.

Listen to a few student compositions below: (Make sure to listen with a pair of headphones — the sounds are nuanced and may be difficult to hear on computer speakers.)

“Unless Someone Like You,” by Cordelia Zars ’17 and Katie Kronick ’17

This piece intends to reflect the tension between natural and manmade worlds. After spending a few days gathering field recordings from two different environments — the Cathance River Nature Preserve and the busy sounds of Bowdoin and Brunswick — Zars and Kronick combined audio files into a composition. The patterns, loops and rhythms are all arrangements of recorded sound into a type of “sonic story” wherein the pleasant sounds of the river are interrupted by the manmade world. From alarm clocks, to ringing cell phones and even intersections, the natural world struggles to be heard in the end.

 “Signal,” by Steve Cho ’17 and Dylan Devenyi ’17

The composition vu Cho and Devenyi draws a contrast between a stable state of nature, grounded in the white noise of the forest, and an unstable consumption-based state depicted by a cacophony of car and restaurant noises. While the natural state is overlaid with a slow, consonant melody of consonant water noises, the consumption state is overlaid with disparate interjections of confused sounds, reversed and layered, forming rapidly phasing and shifting soundscapes that represent confusion and a lack of grounding. Loud beeps rouse listeners from any comfort or sense of pattern, constantly challenging them  to make sense of the noise. The presence of a turn signal invites the listener to consider a “turn” or change, and leads to a moment of contrast between honks and bug noises. The long decay of the turn signal invites the listener to contemplate the spiritual gulf between the calm simplicity of nature and the rich but confused and bizarre consumer culture. The necessary conflict between these two ideas is further clarified as the sound fades to silence.

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