a POP post

Yesterday I received a most pleasing packet in the post; this one came from smallPRINT records and contained an order I placed last week in the midst of working on The Sonic Tuck Shop book; apropos, a hand-packaged CD featuring the Sonic Catering Band’s live popcorn-performance in Linz, entitled Popkorn.

I am very much enjoying listening to Popkorn. My main experience so far involves trying to identify how the sounds have been extricated from the process of making popcorn for this performance, and how the exploding kernels and whirring motor of an electronic popcorn-maker have been transmuted into something that is such a musical experience. Additionally I have been feeling a great sense of kinship with the aims and ideas of the band. I am especially delighted by the fact that, when working out how to package this lovely bit of ear candy, they decided to include actual popcorn kernels.

This is in many ways a sort of dream-record for me; it has sounds, it has popcorn, it has culinary references, its packaging features actual popcorn packaging, and it sounds amazing. The outrageous thing is that I didn’t know a thing about it until about a week ago! I learned about Sonic Catering very recently, when I met with Telling The Bees to record a track of theirs – The Language of Birds – in a field near Sandford, for inclusion in The A4074 radio show. It turns out that Colin Fletcher – who plays guitar in the band – is one of the founding members of Sonic Catering.

I don’t know how it came up, but in between avoiding the curious cows in the field and trying to get a good level of all the instruments in the field we somehow started to talk about the sounds of food. It was such a coincidence that we immediately organised to do an interview and no sooner had I penned the piece, than it was being formatted and typed up for inclusion in The Sonic Tuck Shop book. I really enjoyed talking to Peter Strickland and Colin Fletcher about their approach to working with the sounds of food, and especially learning about their labour-of-love release; ‘The First Supper.’ This was a box-set consisting of 5 ‘courses,’ each one a coloured vinyl record, containing a composition derived from the sounds of preparing the recipe detailed on its corresponding sleeve. All 5 courses were housed together, in a hand-stencilled pizza box.

This red record I believe is the second course of ‘The First Supper,’ a soup course, described thus:

The First Supper: Edition 2 (Soup)
‘The Sonic Catering Band … report from an Alimentary Zone’
tracks: 1) Peristaltic 2) Nootka-tone Ensemble
10″ vinyl in an edition of 500, (250 red vinyl, 250 plain)
recipe: Borsch Soup
released: October 1999 (Peripheral Conserve pH-02)

Strickland and Fletcher were a bit disappointed at the scuffing on the packaging that they showed me, but I love the way these vinyl releases have taken on the patina of age and the indefineable record-ness of them. All my favourite old records have scuffed like this and it seems to be part of the material life of a record sleeve… to scuff and fade a little bit. I love all the food/music similes they came up with the release. The vinyl records are like dishes, the playing instructions are phrased like cooking instructions, and so on.

The release cost the band about £5,000 to produce… a sum of money I am not sure they ever recovered through producing something so niche, on such a small scalle. There is a painful dichotomy inherent in working with the idea of industrial packaging; often in my own practise I will decide that the work must look like cheap, throwaway packaging, but not being a corporation or a company and not being able to order in the thousands like a big company means ordering instead on a smallscale. And on a small scale, industrial-looking packaging is often very costly to produce. In my experience, because of its industrial appearance, such work is rarely valued highly at the time of its production. But in later years when it is univerally understood to be ART, its value increases massively – often to the gain of third parties, and rarely to the advantage of the artists who made the work. For instance I searched online for a copy of The First Supper and found that only one copy can be tracked down online – at the costly price of around £75. I am sure that Sonic Catering never got £75 for a copy of the release when they made it!

In my own work with popcorn I have done nothing to change the actual sounds of making popcorn; only the way that we view or think about them. Here, for instance, lie packets of Sonic Popcorn in the window of The Sonic Tuck Shop installation. They are packaged with the following instructions:

SONIC POPCORN: Instructions
Pour enough oil into a pan to coat enclosed corn. Add corn to pan. Put lid on pan. Apply MEDIUM heat. Shake the pan once while keeping the lid on. As the corn pops, listen to the explosions and sizzles! When these sound quieten down, turn the heat off. Remove the pan lid. Add salt or sugar to taste. ENJOY YOUR SONIC POPCORN

For myself, I really like the idea of working with sounds just as they are, and changing our relationship to those sounds… and for this reason I have not done a lot of manipulating sounds in a musical way. I like keeping sounds firmly connected to their sources and the material world, highlighting their role there in the soundscape around us, and using paper, packaging and other real objects to ‘frame’ them there. However, I appreciate that another way of framing everyday sounds involves extending the sonic potential of everyday instances and objects, and reforming them as music, and Sonic Catering’s Popkorn is a brilliant example of the effectiveness of such an approach. Popkorn evidences the same tight organisation of sonic events and considered sense of structure that one would expect to find in a conventional Sonata or a Concerto. The difference here is that the sounds being organised are made by a popcorn machine popping popcorn, and not by – for instance – a flute. When I play my flute, I blow across the hole at the top of the instrument and this excites the air molecules inside. As the air in the resonant chamber of the flute is excited, it produces a sound, which I am able to mediate through changing the length of the chamber and by adjusting the force with which air vibrates inside the instrument. Making the resonant chamber longer or shorter produces a change in pitch – producing lower and higher sounds respectively – and blowing with greater or lesser intensity produces an increase or reduction in the volume of the sound. In addition to these aspects of playing the flute, changes in my breathing and mouth-shape can also moderate the sound, and I am therefore able to manipulate consciously the sounds that are produced from the instrument when I play it. Many folks have, over the years, written documents which detail how high or low the sound I produce from my flute ought to be, at what intensity I should be blowing when I produce a higher or lower sound, and what texture or feeling I should imprint upon the resulting sonic output. This process of organising sounds is part of the realm of human activity that we have come to entitle Music. When I listen to Popkorn by Sonic Catering, I am reminded of this collective, cultural endeavour of Music. For in this performance, Sonic Catering have an instrument for producing sounds; a popcorn maker. As popcorn is poured into the chamber inside this device, and as electricity is supplied to it, it produces a sound which can be mediated through a series of electronic attachments. Amplifying the sound of the electronic motor via the use of a telephone pick-up results in a sound whose pitch and volume may be adjusted through means of electronic manipulation or – less prosaically – a mixing desk. Other sounds produced by the instrument may also be mediated in this fashion, and therefore the performers are able to consciously manipulate the sounds that are produced by the instrument according to pitch, tempo, volume, and so on. Everything about the release is therefore traditionally musical except the source sound. Because whilst most of us consider something like the flute to be a specifically musical device, we do not always think of appliance like popcorn-makers in such terms. But perhaps it would be more fun if we did?

Popkorn, The Sonic Catering Band

7 Responses to a POP post

  1. Frances Burton says:

    Dear Felix, I found this a enlightening, informed and very interesting piece – thank you. I find it very helpful to have such an explicit piece of writing on your approach to sounds and listening; very readable and intelligent at the same time. You are helping me to open up my senses (apart from my sense of sight, which I think is already quite active) and to these up with my already developed sense of sight. Thank you for making my experience of the world bigger and more exciting. This is a big gift.

  2. Frances Burton says:

    I left out a word: …and to *link* these up with my already developed sense of sight.

  3. Lucy says:

    Dear Felix,

    I haven’t commented on your blog before but I read it often. My comment isn’t specifically related to this post, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about in relation to your work for some time. I was wondering whether in your research, particularly on your oral/aural connections around food, you consider what we might think of as the (for want of a better word) ‘negative’ aspects of food and sound? For example, I know someone who simply cannot abide the sound of someone slurping soup, or crunching cornflakes noisily. It makes her tense, irritable, annoyed, etc, and I often find myself similarly irritated by the sounds of other people eating! We live in a culture in which sanitised and ‘quiet’ eating is considered the most polite/acceptable, but in other cultures, it is more acceptable to make noise when eating. I suppose I’m introducing a potentially huge anthropological/sociological issue here, about cultural values and societal ‘norms’, which you may have decided to steer clear from in your doctoral research (and as a fellow PhD student I quite understand that!). Nonetheless, I would be interested to see how you think we can separate thoughts about the aural pleasure of corn popping, for example, from the discomfort/distaste we might feel when someone makes a lot of ‘impolite’ or ‘inconsiderate’ noise as they messily crunch their way through a piece of toast. Hope that makes some sense!

  4. sound city says:

    absolutely amazing work!

  5. Drew Sewell says:

    Hi
    This also isnt really related to this post. My two brothersand I live at braziers I think you interviewed our dad (John). We often travel to work, town, see friends and whatever else there is to do away from home. The three of us can often be seen hitch hiking along the road between wallingford and reading. I believe we may be the only hitch hikers along the A4074 or I havent seen any others. would you let the kind commuters of the area that we’re are friendly : ). Its a vey socialble way to travel – you find out some good stories and meet interesting local – and not so local – people.

    on aonther note I’m part of a local 4 piece band -Tricycle Riot
    http://www.myspace.com/tricycleriotmusic

    check it out would be cool. we’ve played around the area the acoustic ballroom in june should be there again in sept also played Wood festival in may and will be at supernormal festival this coming weekend :

    http://www.supernormalfestival.co.uk/index.html

    come see what happening
    Drew

  6. Rachael says:

    Oh gosh yes, I have those sonic catering band releases on vinyl. I’d forgotten all about them. Brilliant to put on when people are coming round for dinner…. thanks for reminding me x

  7. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Blog Archive » Knitting, Sounds, & Good Weekends continued…

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