Brain food

I had two especially  interesting culinary conversations with folks at Sounding Out last week. The first was occasioned by Chris Chafe’s presentation and in particular the section concerning his ‘Tomato Quintet,’ and the second one involved a discussion about blog stats with Marcus Leadley – a fellow artist who, like myself, sometimes blogs about academic, creative, sound-related undertakings, and sometimes puts useful recipes and suchlike on his website; like this boiling rice article, which apparently ranks highly in google searches for rice-cooking information. Incidentally, the 4th most popular search term used to bring people to this blog is ‘world’s sharpest knife,’ a tag I very incidentally and ironically used in ‘The Rubberloaf Bake‘ post of 2009, and the 5th most popular search term for my blog, is ‘chocolate donuts’ even though as far as I can recall, I have only ever posted about donuts once. Clearly the world has just as much use for information on rice, sharp cutting utensils and DONUTS as for considered articles on the meaning of sound and suchlike. So I am hoping today to combine the two ideas, since I don’t think cooking and imaginative experience should necessarily be divorced from one another in a high/low culture dichotomy and well, because as you know, I do like to mix things up a bit here in my explorations of the domestic soundscape.

Controversial chocolate/strawberry combo donut of 2007

Chris Chafe’s keynote speech was most diverting, including some interesting ideas about ‘the sonification of data,’ and some good examples of the really cool stuff you can do if you throw loads of money and technology at an idea. The idea of sonification is essentially the idea of making inaudible stuff audible; a process that can be effected using any number of techniques. A straightforward example would be bat-detection, in which bar sonar – which happens at far higher frequencies than the human ear can hear – is detected by a bat-detector and rendered at frequencies which the human ear can hear, through a process of conversion. What is exciting to me about bat detection is that you hear the event in real time, so that what you hear is sonar happening. Although the sounds which come through a detector are modified in terms of frequency and pitch, the rhythms and timing are pretty representative of what is taking place; the actual event of echo-location occurring. I am interested very much in our imaginative relationship with everyday things, and sonification has the potential to be used to make us aware of many phenomenon in our lives to which we are either insensible or which our ears simply will not naturally allow us to hear. Using microphones, for example, can sometimes amplify details in sound which normally would not be possible to hear, and I see many of my own activities falling under the category of ‘sonification’ and am essentially excited about sonifying the world in a celebratory way, to cause expanded appreciation for everyday reality, extra joy at being alive, and a greater appreciation of SOUND.

Tasty home-grown tomatoes

However, as I sat through Chafe’s presentation, I wondered about the point in the conversion processes between source and end sound at which the connection between reality and representation is lost. In other words, when have the sounds ceased to be about the world, and become more about Music, or a composition process?

To take the example of the bat detector above, what happens if I record the sound of echo-location via a bat-detector rigged up to my EDIROL, then invent a slide-guitar synthesiser with which to ‘play’ the collected data, and then decide to layer successive recordings of bats across different channels all using different synth patches to make it sound ‘more interesting?’ Is what you are left with to listen to in any way representative of bats or are we now talking about Music I have made which is loosely derived from bat-sonar? A central question for Chafe involves ‘where do we get our Music from?’ and I like the fact that he derives Music from a wide range of sources such as brain waves, Internet server pingings, tomatoes releasing gas over a given time period and so on. But for me this work is about Music from interesting sources, and not anymore about sonifying the world. To be fair, Chafe stopped talking about sonification quite early on in his presentation and moved onto the idea of musicification, or turning data into Music; a much more comfortable definition in my opinion, as many of the decisions seem to be focussed around making something which satisfies the formal definitions of Music, rather than using sound purely to document unfolding happenings in real time and space. The Tomato Quintet is a prime example of musicified data; electrodes sensing the release of gas from tomatoes were connected to 5 pods containing ripening tomatoes and the air inside the pods was measured by these electrodes over a period of time, and then the long strings of data thus acquired were somehow turned into an audible sound and compressed, so that 10 days of ripening time were condensed into a 44 minute long recording. A pasta sauce was then made from the tomatoes and served in the gallery alongside playback of the recording.

A key question for me in this kind of work is, what does the resultant music actually tell us anymore about the ripening process of tomatoes? From where I was sitting/listening, it demonstrated to me that yes, changes take place in a tomato as it ripens, which may be used as the basis for developing an audible – and entertaining – piece of Music. But is it really about the tomatoes anymore or have the tomatoes at this point become a kind of cool gimmick or just a stage in a broader creative process, which also included a lot of studio time and many non-tomato-related decisions being made?

I’m not sure what the steps were between taking the data from the sensors inside the ripening pods and playing it back in the gallery; it seems to me there were a whole set of developments that remain largely unexplained here… how does the data get turned into sound? What is the methodology? How are the sounds selected and attributed to different levels of data analysis? How is it decided what sound will be used to express, say, the data gathered on the CO2 or temperature levels? How are the layers of information given a voice and how is this voice then made audible and when does the resultant creation cease to be meaningfully connected to the real life event of a tomato ripening? Although I think it’s kinda cool to be able to ‘hear’ the noise of tomatoes ripening, I couldn’t help wondering whether the experience of listening to this Music and eating pasta with tomato sauce might not be a more abstract and obscure way of appreciating the tomato-ness of a tomato when compared, say, to growing a tomato plant myself, and closely watching its developments. Certainly in terms of experiencing one’s own sense of agency, learning, and imagination, it is difficult to imagine how hearing the sonic ‘salsa’ (a planned, future incarnation of Chafe’s Tomato Quintet) could be as exciting for an audience member as the experience of making their own real salsa for the first time – as evidenced here by Sam’s Salsa – a proudly-created concoction handmade by Mark’s teenage son, Sam.

The key difference here between two types of salsa, is that one seems to be made up mostly in the mind of a composer, and turned into a spectacle that we can 1. marvel at and 2. be impressed by 3. enjoy 4. find entertaining while the second salsa – if one is the first-time learner/maker – is a more inclusive process, which provides 1. sensuality 2. fun 3. learning and 4. pride.

My beef really isn’t with Chafe; like I already said, I don’t think he is purveying his work as a deep insight into the inner workings of the tomato, or trying to claim that his Tomato Quintet is directly representative of tomatoes ripening. He seems pretty clear on the idea that his work is about deriving Music from the world, and not merely sonifying the amazing, infraordinary aspects of reality that surround us all the time. But I do take issue with some of the things he said in his talk, which seem to underpin a general sense of insecurity suffusing the world of composition in general, in relation to ordinary, everyday sounds; an insecurity which says that the sounds and situations which are around us all the time are just not interesting enough on their own; that in order to make reality ‘interesting,’ we must jazz it up with pleasurable, pitched sounds, with special effects, delay-pedals, reverb, special software programmes and all manner of fancy, obfuscating contrivances. The idea that gallery-goers wouldn’t be interested in hearing changes in the tomatoes’ ripening process in real time (too slow) or that music derived from ripening tomatoes might not sound ‘musical’ enough (too uneventful) without some aesthetic tweaking for me undermines the power of sound to document reality, and its ability to reveal the actual world in exciting ways.

Because sometimes really ordinary things – like growing a tomato, or boiling some rice – can supply the imaginative experiences we crave. Sometimes an afternoon of tinkering with bread dough can throw up more surprises than an afternoon spent in a gallery, and sometimes it’s equally necessary to go on random forrays into the unknown lands of the Internet, books, or galleries, for an explanation of why or how rice can be exciting. In terms of websites, I hope that people looking for the world’s sharpest knife have not been disappointed by The Rubberloaf post, and I’m really sorry to those folks who came in search of chocolate donuts and found instead reams of academic reflection on the meaning of socks, the beauty of everyday sounds, and random recipes. But I believe there really is a way for these things to sit beside one another, and it is this idea which I am most interested in, rather than a world where reality needs dressing up, or where the sound of a tomato ripening must be composed beyond all recognition, because the fact of its ripening – in and of itself – just isn’t snazzy enough to hold our attention.

It is interesting for me to read about Chafe’s Tomato Quintet online and to listen again to the exciting, windy twangs that resulted from his composition process in this instance. And I also enjoy reading about Marcus Leadley’s research into the relationship between language and environmental sound, which is arguing passionately for the importance of sound in our overall experience of being in the world. However, there is also a sensual and imaginative reward involved in everyday tasks such as cooking, and there is perhaps more opportunity for me to enjoy a sense of my own agency and creativity when I print out, say, some recipes and start thinking about how I might make or modify them. I love a good idea to noodle over, but being alive in the world and participating in the material and daily experiences of life shouldn’t necessarily seen as being less important, worthwhile or exciting than engaging in the critical discourses. All too often the two things are seen as distinct from one another when in fact they could be complimentary.

And that is why this wordy exercise in exploring the realms of the brain and the belly shall now conclude with a delicious recipe, all preparation sounds to be enjoyed or ignored as is your personal preference.

Cajun Turkey* Joy, serves 4.

Ingredients:

600g turkey steak
1 lime
2 cloves garlic
cajun seasoning (I like Schwartz)
salt
black pepper
sugar or splenda

100g dried breadcrumbs
1 medium sized egg

First of all, Turkey has these amazing striations in it which mean that it really soaks up a marinade well. For 4 people, I use about 600g of fresh turkey steak, cut into 16 large chunks

These I then place into a marinade comprised of:

zest + juice of 1 lime
2 crushed garlic cloves
good shake of salt
1tsp splenda or white sugar, to take the edge off
a LARGE and SPICY shake of your preferred cajun seasoning blend
+ black pepper to taste

(The lime juice tenderises the turkey meat beautifully)

Leave this concoction for 5 or 6 hours in the fridge, with a plate over the top of your bowl

Once fully marinaded, coat the turkey pieces in egg and dip in breadcrumbs, thus covering your tasty chunks in breadcrumbs.

Bake at Gas 5 in the middle of the oven for 35 – 40 minutes or until the outside of your tasty turkey pieces is nicely crisped up

Consider the experience as imaginatively rewarding, as well as tasty and serve with rice and baked squash.

*I am sure a veggie version is possible using tofu or suchlike…

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