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Posts Tagged ‘sound’

It feels like ages since I last posted something here. Actually it was ages. It’s been an eventful summer – lots of new work getting made and going up all over the place, amazing weather to distract me, and … oh, I moved house.

Moving house is a stressful thing at best of times – when you’re self-employed and you have to move house in the middle of lots of work it seems doubly so.

empty house

My six years on a mountain was an amazing adventure. Stainmore is not exactly known for its sunshine and warm weather. In fact quite the opposite.

Four out of the last five winters have been especially hard up there. At around 1,500ft above sea level snow was pretty much a given. Most years I’d find myself snowed-in for a total of five weeks – that’s 10% of the year when you couldn’t get within a mile of the house by car. Yet, somehow I felt endeared to that bleakness and solitude. No double-glazing, no central heating and a coal-fired cooker. It was never going to be easy. But the clouds and the wind and the curlews and seeing hares on the track most days and listening to the owls at night… it was a truly special place.

view from window on stainmore

I haven’t moved far. Just over the hill. And a little lower down. I now have double glazing, central heating, hot water on demand. All the little things I didn’t know I was missing. And I still have a view to look out over while I drink my tea. (new house, new view, new header images at the top of this blog)

view with tea

But it’s a very different view. Obviously it’s not as high up as the one on Stainmore. It’s still got those wild North Pennine fells though at the moment – probably because it’s still summer, they don’t do very much yet. The biggest difference is trees.

I had trees on Stainmore. The owls used to sit in them at night and call to each other. They also protected the house from the worst of the northerly winds. But there weren’t very many of them, and there weren’t many to be seen in the view either.

Here in Teesdale, there’s a lot more of them – little copses and big woodlands. Mostly deciduous too – I’m hoping for an autumn like last year. That would be amazing. And they don’t just make the landscape look different – it sounds different too.

Stainmore was all curlew and lapwing – alien sounds in the bird world. Here, there’s still the odd curlew cry, but there’s much much more variety of birdsong. Yes, birdsong. That’s what was missing before. Tweets and trills and swoops and chirps. So many different sounds and it’s always there. The trees seem to act as some kind of filter removing much of the background noise, but somehow the birdsong still cuts through.

The other week was haymaking in the dale. The current rules on farming in this Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) mean that many farmers have very short windows to harvest hay and silage and it seemed like the entire valley got harvested in a matter of days. One of the local contractors was using some beautiful old machinery to make square hay bales. There was a wonderful rhythmic pattern circulating around the fields as the machine scooped up the hay, compacted it, tied it into bales then stored then gathered them up to be deposited in convenient piles to dry in the sun.

bales in the fields

Of course I never went out with any sound recording stuff to capture all this while it’s still new and exciting to me, so for now they’ll just have to be memories.

The other sound that somehow manages to carry on still evenings is from the water cascading down the falls a couple of fields away.

close up of waterfall

..but that’s for another story.

 

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Despite the unusually mild winter I don’t seem to have done as much walking recently as I had hoped. So it was great to get out at the weekend and go tramping up some Pennine Hills.

This week’s walk was down in the South Pennines (West Yorkshire) from Haworth. I’m doing a piece near there later in the year and wanted to get a feel for the landscape. I also wanted to get the whole Brontë thing out of my system so I could look beyond that literary baggage the area wears. So my destination was ‘Top Withins’ – a ruined farmhouse on Haworth Moor.

‘Top Withins’ must be the most visited non-place on the Pennines. A former hill farm, it was reputed to be the inspiration behind ‘Wuthering Heights’ – a lonely, remote farmhouse high on the hills although there’s no evidence to suggest Emily Brontë ever went there or even knew of it. I’ve never read the book – I’ve tried a couple of times and not got very far. I’ve even resorted to an audiobook version too, but I just end up falling asleep with no idea how far I got each time. Still, it’s big in Japan – the Pennine Way even has footpath signs in Japanese:

japanese signpost

I first encountered Top Withins on the cover of ‘Literary Britain’ by Bill Brandt. I got ‘Literary Britain’ when I was about 15 and was the first photographic book I ever had. My early years of photography were heavily influenced by his dark, high contrast, grainy pictures of desolate landscapes and hauntingly empty buildings.

'Top Withins' by Bill Brandt

‘Top Withins’ by Bill Brandt. From ‘Literary Britain’ 1951.

The farmhouse doesn’t look like that anymore. Brandt visited sometime in the 30’s or 40’s. By the 60’s the windows had been blocked in and the roof started to collapse. I expected to find a beautiful ruin of crumbling walls and maybe a standing fireplace – they’re always built stronger. Instead, the powers that be have decided to restore the walls with fresh pointing and remove the unstable gables. The result is a stone box with all the romance of a nuclear power station. Did Ruskin mean nothing to these heritage folk? Ah well…

top withins 2014

I’ve become very familiar with my own existence on a windswept hill farmhouse over the past six years. As my adventure in this wilderness is drawing to an end I’ve been more conscious to witness and record the essence of life up here on my hill.

This spring the lapwings and curlews are back in much greater numbers than last year. Their eerie calls echo around the hills and bring a very distinctive upland dawn chorus.

Last year, as part of the ‘Gods Bridge’ project, I proposed a machine to make the sound of a curlew. The idea was to fill the painting galleries in the Bowes Museum with the sound of curlews. I had already looked at dissecting its distinctive ‘bubbling’ call earlier so while on paper I knew what was needed, making that a reality was a whole different thing.

flock of curlews

First up was just getting the right notes and tone. I scoured the internet looking for the lazy way of doing things in the hope I’d find just the right bird call. I bought the only one which claimed to do a curlew sound – and it was rubbish! So back to the drawing board and after numerous attempts with varying sized brass tube I built a slide whistle which came close. The hundreds of curlews gathering on the field outside my window gave me plenty of reference material to check it by.

Next was the problem of the trilling notes.

The spectral analysis pointed to a two-note rapid trill. I tried a sine wave swoop at the same speed as the curlew to see if it was an even up and down slide:


Obviously it’s not that.

Another whistle build revealed a closer possibility. Whistles are on the surface simple things – a narrow flow of air is passed over a hole where it is split and the reverberated air makes the note. By increasing the length of the whistle tube the note is lowered, shortening it raises he pitch. The diameter of the whistle determines tone and the size of the air hole controls the volume. Only it’s not quite that simple. Subtle changes to the shape of the hole can make huge differences to both the tone and the note. Then there’s the scale. Blowing more air can increase the pitch, considerably more air can change the scale completely raising the pitch to the next step of harmonics. By chance rather than design I ended up with a whistle which when tuned to the lower note of the call would switch to the upper note by changing the air pressure blowing through it. Could this be how the curlew is making its two note trill? A bit like yodelling. The difficulty was that I just couldn’t change the air pressure I was blowing at fast enough to even get close the speed (about 9Hz). Birds don’t have a diaphragm to control their breathing and air flow when singing. Instead their entire ribcage squeezes their lungs and is far more efficient at controlling fast speed changes than we are.

bellows

This led to the realisation of significant design flaws in my simple birdsong machine. I had anticipated that a slide whistle would control the pitch (notes) of the call, while bellows would provide the air with the whole thing powered by two simple cams – one for pitch and one for phrase. However, while the bellows method works well for cuckoo clocks and chirping mechanical birds, the longer notes of the curlew trills are just too much for moderately sized bellows. Even by rebuilding several paper bellows to increase the volume of air they move, and switching to airtight plastic-coated nylon bellows skins, getting a long enough note to do all the trills was going to take bellows much larger than the scale I wanted to use.

The whole trilling thing was looking to be far far trickier to achieve using pure mechanics alone. However, curlews have a wide range of calls. The bubbling sounds are so complicated for the bird that they can only do them while gliding and not flapping their wings. While in flight they have another distinctive two-note call.

Besides, I was getting far too hung up on the ‘Machine’ bit of the piece and losing track of the original audio experience.

So, here’s the final piece as installed in the opulent painting galleries in the Bowes Museum:

 

The sound is that of the flying call of the curlew made by the brass whistle and powered by bellows. It’s a recorded sound played through an induction speaker on the machine itself. The overall effect is what I wanted even if the method of making it isn’t as hoped.

Still, it was always going to be an attempt to recreate the sound. As it stands it’s not an entirely successful one, but as a first step it’s a good one. The bug has finally bitten though – the Curlew Machine #2 is a real possibility in the future. The next version will use fans to power the ‘breaths’, a butterfly valve will oscillate between high and low pressure notes, a step motor would change the lead pitch and the whole thing controlled by a micro processor. But that’s for another day.

For now the painting galleries echo to the sound of a mechanical curlew overhead and a small essence of the big wide North Pennines is brought inside for a bit.

 

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It’s been a while since I last revisited the ‘God’s Bridge‘ project. That’s part of the problem with long-term projects – other things come along and take over your brain space. With a shed-load more in-depth projects lurking on the horizon, I thought I’d get in quick and do a bit more before my brain gets swamped with engineering calculations and complicated maths again.

I last left the ideas looking at the underground nature of this geological anomaly in the North Pennines. It’s been an unusually dry summer here and tracing the route of the water isn’t going to happen if there’s just no water around. However, what it did do was allow me to get to bits that are normally inaccessible and have a poke around.

Gods Bridge over dry river

Last month I visited again with some proper kit to experiment with photos of those underground passages. This is what one of the tunnels looks like lit just with what little daylight gets down there. That’s one of the joys of digital photography. The Nikon sensors in particular are quite incredible in low light. In fact the light levels here were so low I couldn’t really see very far, yet with a few seconds exposure it has a whole new life.

River Greta underground

The colours are fairly natural, although I did process them through DxO to look like I shot them on Fuji Velvia – which I would have done back in the day. It has a lovely punch to the colours without being over saturated and is particularly flattering for UK landscapes – makes the blue sky a bit bluer and the green fields a little more lush.

Anyway, much as I love exploring the North Pennines through photography – I’ve got a whole chunk here on Flickr – I was looking for something else from this.

While following the riverbed back upstream to see if I could actually find some water, the air was suddenly full of birds. Not the sparrows and starlings of towns and villages, but Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Lapwings and Curlews:

The North Pennines are a lonely landscape – big swathes of nothing. A great place for solitude. Only remote places are rarely empty and certainly never silent. Birdsong has a strange way of summoning up landscapes. Take the distant call of peacocks:

Peacock

To me that’s all lawn and topiary.

In mid-spring a deciduous forest in Sweden sounded like this:

An nightingales are an incredible sound. They only sing for two weeks every year:

Birdsong is a fascinating thing. To start with, birds don’t whistle – they sing. The shape of their beak doesn’t come into it. It comes from the throat like us. Humans have a larynx – a bit of flappy tissue and muscle which vibrates in airflow and creates all the basic sounds we make. We further adapt them with our lips to form words for instance, but the singy bit is all voice-box. Birds on the other-hand have a syrinx. It’s a bit like a larynx, only it can make sound with air flowing in both directions – so birds don’t need to stop to take a breath. Many birds have a syrinx with two bits so they can effectively sing two different sounds at the same time. In a way they are the ultimate singing machine.

zebra finch syrinx

syrinx of a Zebra Finch

Recent research in the States have created an artificial syrinx and can emulate complex songs. There’s a bit on the BBC site here

Birdsong has been a primary source of influence to artists and composers for centuries with countless compositions based on familiar bird calls. From the 17th Century Athanasius Kircher who first transcribed the song of a nightingale into musical notation to the 20th Century French composer Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Catalogue d’Oiseaux’.

By far my favourite artworks on birdsong are ‘Dawn Chorus’ by Marcus Coates – where birdsongs were slowed down and mimed to by people in ordinary morning locations with the video finally sped back up to pitch:

and ‘Syrinx’ by Pamela Z – again the bird songs were slowed right down to a lower pitch and replicated by her voice, and then raised back up to the original pitch and speed.

However, that’s great for traditional song birds, but the sounds that fill my landscape are very different and more complex in different ways.

Oystercatchers and Redshanks are fairly straight forward. Lapwings are ubiquitous – also known as Peewits due to their mating call. However, their vocabulary is extremely varied and almost alien at times:

(the beating sound in that clip is a Snipe – it makes that sound with its tail)

By far the sound that best sums up the vast open landscapes of the North Pennines for me is the whirl of the Curlew. The sound comes from way up above and bubbles across vast distances. It trails off in a descending tone, a built in dopplar effect which seems to accentuate the vastness of the landscape.

This clip has been filtered to remove lots of the background noise and other birds. It’s really difficult to just get the pure sound of a Curlew.

Messiaen captured the call of the Curlew and its sorrowful loneliness over the fells like this:

messiaen-curlew

It’s still got that trill element and the rising tone – represented as glissandos over a decaying drone chord. It’s got a melancholy about it that feels right and is a beautiful invocation, but it’s not the sound of a Curlew.

To figure out how the real sound is made I slowed the filtered recording right down to a manageable pitch and speed:

You get an idea of its construction from this sonogram of one of the repeated call sections:

curlew call spectrogram

From that I transcribed a basic score. I’ve done it in 3/4, but on reflection it’s probably 6/8. and an alto flute I figure is fairly close.

curlew-song2-1

so, I got the software to play it, sped it back up and it sounds like this:

Terrible.

So unbelievably bad. Though not really surprising – art is never simple. Making good art is hard work. OK, so it wasn’t a real flute playing in the first place – just a sequenced sample so lacks that natural element. Even so, this emulation of upland birdsong is far more complicated than I thought. Yet fascinating all the same. It’s going to take quite some time to get this right. I’m still not fixed on the idea of a perfect replication. I quite like Messiaen’s feeling for the bird and may yet go down that route, but there’s still something about challenging yourself and pursuing it until you get it just right and until I really have to dedicate my brain space to engineering calculations, I think that’s what I’ll do for now.

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