Local Frequencies

Lost in transition, how do you explore the aural space of Montreal through foreign ears

Presented as a class project to
Prof. Erin Gee, MFA, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
The initial « idea » was when I was doing the reduced (Chion, 2012) listening assignment I really felt like Montreal had a “sound” to it or a “heartbeat”.
 Alone, at night, I could hear the sounds of the city through the night, cars swooshing by, ambulances chiming far away, the sound of the wind between the buildings and in the tunnels creating distinct sound patterns when focusing on sounds you do not normally hear unless you attempt to focus on them after emptying your head as much as possible.
Soundscapes of Canada, a 10-hour project spanning 7000 kilometers was a good place to start. But even after listening to parts of it, the inspiration wouldn’t come (Davis & Huse, 1974).
The project was intended on capturing this heartbeat through a word-free story following the footsteps of someone through the city, capturing distinct sounds from it. I failed.
Not enough time, poor recordings, poor timing, harsh realization. It was going to sound like just another soundwalk stretched into a soundscape. How do you capture the sound of a whole city in 5 minutes? I still ask myself this question.
I sat down one more time in front of my terminal and deleted the little I could muster. At this point, I headed home discouraged, a few days away from the deadline. On the bus, I heard the familiar crackling sound of a cheap FM radio. This particular one was stuck with suction cups to the bus driver’s window and evening FM programs were being broadcasted, interrupted by the sizzling frequency jams of overpasses we drove under. I always liked the distorted sound of loss of signal or changing channels on an analog radio.
I figured Montreal can be heard through its music scene. What does Montreal sound like? Montreal sounds like the bands that produce music here. The beat of the city…literally.
The following day I made a list of artists I wanted to portray. Montreal being grey and wet in the last few days, I had to source a recording of icy rain to set the mood. Playing with noise the artists I listed were all into distortion and synth pop, merging well with the channel changing noise I implemented in the tracks. I set off to produce a “horizontal” sounding track, trying to create an amalgam of music presentation mixing in noise and the recordings of my conversations with my roommate and her co-worker, embracing the variety of sounds and trying to represent this radio noise as music, through the presentation of works from Montreal using noise and heavy distortion. This production of shrills and buzzes, representing the buzzing of the city, directly addresses Russolo’s 1st conclusion:
“We must enlarge and enrich more and more the domain of musical sounds. Our sensibility requires it. In fact, it can be noticed that all contemporary composers of genius tend to stress the most complex dissonances. Moving away from pure sound, they nearly reach noise-sound. This need and this tendency can be totally realized only through the joining and substituting of noises to and for musical sounds.” (Russolo, 1967)
To tie it all to this idea of “through the eyes of a foreigner”, I changed it through the ears of a foreigner. My roommate Annick is from Germany and it is her first time in Montreal, same goes for her co-worker, my friend Michelle, also from Germany and newly in Montreal.
I recorded their impressions of the city and how they felt stereotypically German here. What they liked about the city and disliked. Their voices where put in the noise. Noise the 1.7 million other lives going on in Montreal. Their voices clearing up through the noise and the track occasionally.
For my other projects, all of my sounds were homebrewed and recorded, which made the use of samples at different bitrates and frequencies hard to work with. Each and single sample had to be equalized to balance the sound and make them sound similar. Both radio samples were the hardest to EQ. Due to time constraints I was unable to make my own radio sound and spent quite a bit of time looking for the perfect one. As for the German one, my friends in Germany only had digital radios and me asking only 2 days in advance was a bit last minute for them to source an older FM radio to play with and record decently.
As for the music, it was not always simple to cut as I only sourced mp3s. Some songs I had in lossless or less lossy formats, but others had to be ripped directly from the web and not the source media (CD), as such, everything used was an mp3 or down sampled to one using audacity. The same treatment was used for the German track I spliced in the radio samples to transition from German “sound” to Canadian.
Being able to keep the distortion matching both on the radio channel signal sound as well as the self-made samples and the distortion in the music was the other main challenge as all three were very different sounding and trying to blend them on top of each other only resulted in a very unpleasant blur of noise. Again, Equalizing the sounds to match was a strategy as well as using different levels of bit crusher to achieve a similar tonality.
The Channel Equalizing tool was the most used for this project to try and streamline the tonality of the multiple pieces and recordings.
As I advanced in piecing the original recordings with the stock sounds and the music I had chosen, I remembered the trick of doubling tracks to attenuate easily certain effects I would place so the bit crushing and distortion applied to the radio parts of the track were doubled with a track identical with lowered effects, to make it more intelligible.
Through careful use of automated panning on ambient sounds of distortion, “space” was created.
Volume automation on certain tracks was used to put the emphasis on the ambient backdrop sound of icy rain or on the speech over the distortion.
Clips such as the accordion were cut in two tracks of equal part to be able to distort the first part of the clip as if it was fading in and getting a better “signal” without having to bus it and automate the use of the effect.
Muffling of background noises on original recordings was done by equalizing out the sounds of pots and pans from the kitchen and speech between another roommate. It was simple enough to listen to the track on loop with the EQ analyzer and then lower the undesired frequencies.
I am overall somewhat happy with the final product but still very disappointed I had a “white page” blank in terms of the original idea and little time to work on it more.
I could have produced something more creative by going for another project entirely but had no time to produce new recordings entirely and had to do with what little I had already recorded. Looking back, allowing more time for such a project would have been a better idea. My future projects might include more “novella” or “story-driven” content than abstract sound meshes as it does not feel like my strength. While I love music and the musically in some sounds weaved together, I believe my story telling skills would be better put to use.
I was able to create from a noisy environment a conceptual arc between what Montreal “sounds” likes by incorporating noise, the foreign nature of two individuals in an original piece and that suffices for me, but I remain displeased with this as my “final” project and believe something with a story arc would have been a better choice.
Looking back in a positive way, it was a great opportunity to work with samples and stock sounds which I had not done yet and is challenging in its own self since every single sound has a different tonality comparatively to you making your own sounds. Using stock sounds, however, greatly diminishes the flair, sophistication and dare I say pride in the final work.
There is a certain pleasant aspect to having the whole piece made one hundred percent through one’s own sounds.
Chion, Michel. (2012). Three Modes of Listening. In Jonathan Sterne (Ed.) The Sound Studies Reader (pp: 48-53). New York: Routledge.
Davis, B., & Huse, P. (1974). Soundscapes of Canada [Recorded by World Soundscape Project, Simon Fraser University]. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Russolo, L. (1967). The art of Noise (Futurist manifesto, 1913). Great Bear Pamphlets, 15.
Sound Samples Used
AnnenMayKantereit (2016). Oft gegfragt. On Alles nix konkretes. Berlin, Germany: Universal Music GmbH.
Bufflo (2014). Nils Frahm. On Unseam'd [CD]. Montreal, Canada: Stack your Roster.
Crafts, W. (2012). Hundred Flowers. On Hundred Flowers EP [Digital Release]. Montreal, Canada: Self Produced.
Faction, R. (2010). Vaporizer. On Gone Forever 12' LP [12' record]. Montreal, Canada: Electric Voice Records.
MrAuralization (2015). FM radio tuning. [24bit 44kHz .wav]. Sweden. Retrieved november 28, 2016, from http://freesound.org/people/MrAuralization/sounds/269702/
Rammstein (2007). Reise, Reise. On Reise, Reise. Berlin, Germany: Universal Music GmbH.
reinsamba (2008). German_radio_tuning.wav. [16bit 44kHz .wav]. Germany. Retrieved november 28, 2016, from http://freesound.org/people/reinsamba/sounds/62239/
Scriver, P. (2014). Ice Storm, NDG, 04.01.15. [24bit 96kHz .flac]. Montreal, Canada. Retrieved november 28, 2016, from http://www.montrealsoundmap.com/
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