Audio: The Listening Post

Back in June I worked on ‘The Listening Post’ – an ambitious sound installation, co-commissioned by LIFT and 14-18 NOW that formed part of the ‘After a War‘ exhibition at the Battersea Arts Centre.

IMG_1613_webWriters James Wilkes and Tom Chivers led the project researching the history and lives of Battersea residents during the First World War. Their research into local archives and town records unearthed a wealth of material to work with, featuring stories from conscientious objectors, the struggles of munitionettes and the local paranoia surrounding activities of German bakers (below).

The pieces were produced and presented across more than 14 speakers spread throughout the installation, supported by work from graphic designer Lina Hakim and installation designer Gary Campbell.

Each section of the installation evoked a different feeling and theme, ranging from orchid growing to leisure activities (roller skating and hot air ballooning) before moving onto the darker tones of wartime industry and tribunals for conscientious objectors.

You can listen to James below as he gives a guided overview of the installation:

https://soundcloud.com/liftfestival/lift2014-after-a-war-a-tour-of-the-listening-post-with-james-wilkes

You can read a review of the event here.

Audio: The Sound in Silence, the Silence in sound

The space between silence and noise

Last year, as part of an AHRC funded project, I was commissioned to make a short experimental audio documentary on the subject of silence. I was given freedom as to how I explored this subject and so I set out to capture the thoughts of those who worked with sound and in silent spaces.

Click here to download it.

The result, unsurprisingly, was that silence meant lots of different things to different people and so thematically it was very noisy! This relationship between noise and silence was one I was keen to explore through the production and so the piece is filled with hiss, distortion and feedback in an attempt to echo the noisy subject matter. This was explored further through the use of interviews but also with extracts of the poem ‘Describing Silence’ which are intercut throughout. This piece written by James Wilkes was a response to his time spent in total silence and explores some of the self generated noise born out of silence.

The audio work was an artistic output for an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project exploring the role of silence in academia and other professional fields. The project was run by the Science Communication Centre at Imperial College London and the piece was featured at one of their events.

Production Notes

  • The piece features interviews with Sophie Scott (cognitive neuroscientist), James Wilkes (poet and writer), Sara Mohr-Pietsch (BBC Radio 3 presenter), Cheryl Tipp (Natural Sounds Curator, British Library) and Vidyadaka (London Buddhist Centre).
  • The idea of distortion and noise influenced the production from the early stages and as work continued I really wanted to create an intense build up of noise that would level off and really help mark the silence experienced later on in the anechoic chamber.
  • The piece written by James Wilkes ‘Describing Silence‘ – can be heard in full below:
  • The interview and reading from James was recorded in an anechoic chamber based at UCL. The space itself is very strange to stand in, the best comparison I can think of is what happens to your hearing when you travel in a pressurised aeroplane. In terms of recording audio in there, it was actually a pretty boring space to record in!
  • Although it did crop up in several interviews I was keen to avoid referencing John Cage’s 4:33 – there are some great pieces on this already (particularly here: http://www.thirdcoastfestival.org/library/1258-john-cage-and-the-question-of-genre) and it justifies a much longer discussion than I could have accommodated for it.
  • The piece was recorded on a Zoom H4n and a Marantz PMD661 with AKG D230 dynamic microphone. It was edited and composed in Ableton Live.

Video: Structure and Order – A Century of Symmetry

Chemical crystallographer Judith Howard reflects on the beautiful aesthetics of crystallographic exploration and her career, including time spent with Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin.

The end of the video provides links to some of the other videos in the crystallography collection!

Crystal Clear: Exploring Crystallography on Film

X-ray Crystallography – ever heard of it? Perhaps not, but it’s arguably one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the 20th Century. Why? Well, it’s an incredibly powerful technique that allows us to look at really small things, like protein molecules or even DNA! Once we know how these molecules are assembled, we can begin to better understand how they work.

How does it work? Essentially you take your sample, crystallise it and then fire X-rays at it. You then measure the way in which the crystal scatters or diffracts the X-rays – the resulting ‘diffraction pattern’ is what you need (and a bit of maths) to work back to the structure of the molecules that make up the crystal. So in theory, as long as you can crystallise your sample – you should be able to work out the molecular structure!

To find out more watch this simple animation we recently published:

The technique was developed over 100 years ago and it has led to some incredibly important discoveries, including the structure of DNA – since it’s inception, work relating to Crystallography has been awarded 28 Nobel prizes. To mark the continuing success of Crystallography – we received funding from the STFC to produce a series of films that helped explain and celebrate this technique.

The above animation was scripted in house and animated by the awesome 12foot6 – it also features the voice of Stephen Curry, a structural biologist based at Imperial College London.

Understanding Crystallography

I produced and directed this two-part series, working with Elspeth Garman of Oxford University and Stephen Curry. The two pieces aim to explain how the technique works and what’s needed to grow your crystals and subject them to X-ray analysis. The films take us from a microbiology lab at the University of Oxford to the Diamond Light Source, a huge facility that hosts a particle accelerator designed to generate incredibly powerful beams of X-rays.

As always, the hardest part in producing these pieces was in deconstructing the explanation of what is a very complicated process… hopefully we pulled it off – see for yourself below!

Part 1 – why proteins need to be crystallised and how this is done.

Part 2 – what it takes to shine x-rays at your crystals and how we work back from diffraction patterns to determine structures.

Crystallography and beyond

Producer Thom Hoffman also worked on this project – he produced two pieces, one exploring the history of farther and son team who helped develop the technique

and the other looking at the application of this technique on the recent Curiosity Mars rover.

 

Video

Video: Exploding Baubles at 34,000 fps!

Christmas is over – but here’s a very quick film I put out just before the holidays:

The glass baubles (unused props from the 2012 Christmas Lectures) were each sealed with a tiny amount of water inside. As the water was heated under pressure it boils at a higher temperature and when it does evaporate within the sealed space, the internal pressure builds until the glass structure fails. At this point the water (heated beyond it’s normal boiling point under atmospheric conditions) flashes into steam with explosive force and the bauble is shattered into a shower of glass fragments. All this happens extremely quickly, you hear a loud bang and then see a shower of glass – far too fast to be seen by the human eye (or a camera shooting at 25 fps).

Enter Phantom

It requires the muscle of a specialist high-speed camera to really catch a glimpse of what’s going on here. For this film we used a Phantom v1610 – which provided extremely high frame-rates, just what you need to get a better glimpse of the action! However, even at a blistering 34,000 fps you can see just how quickly the explosion event occurs – within the space of 1 -2 frames! A rough calculation shows just how fast this is, with one frame at 34,000 being the equivalent of around 29 microseconds in real time, that’s 0.000029 seconds!

You can see the unedited footage below:

As you increase the frame-rate on these cameras, you’re reducing the amount of time each individual frame is exposed, so you need to shine a lot of light on your scene with the higher frame-rates in order to see anything. As you go up to the higher frame-rates you’re also capturing a lot more information and to handle this the camera usually has to lower the resolution – this provides a rather agonising compromise between capturing something at very high-speed and retaining acceptable image quality.

Regardless of this, the results were simply breathtaking and why wouldn’t they be? It’s like being able to slow-time down and observe our world from a totally new perspective. Watch this space for more high-speed footage over the coming year.

Audio Piece: The List

Earlier in the year I received a commission to produce some experimental audio work on the theme of ‘dreams’ for the ‘Dark Matters’ event at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. For this commission I collaborated with poet James Wilkes who has previously been a poet in residence at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and run the ‘Vox Lab’ project. 

The resulting pieces we produced present a list detailing a week’s worth of dreams – pulling an odd array of incoherent imagery, places and situations into the formalised structure of a list. The list was compiled and narrated by James and then worked into three soundscape movements, each of which were responsive to elements of the list content.

Dreams naturally offer a rich source of imagery to work from, they’re patchy, incoherent and often overflowing with symbolism, so I really like the idea of pulling all this messy imagery into a structured, arbitrary list. In a sense, The List is an attempt to bring order to some of the madness that breaks loose within our nocturnal imaginations. The conscious brain seeking for order from the chaotic ramblings of the unconscious mind.

The  pieces were presented in the form of an In The Dark listening event held at the museum and which pulled together a collection of audio works exploring the human mind, dreams and brain disorders. After curating an In The Dark event for ‘The Voice’  (an event produced by James at the Wellcome Collection) it was great to work with James directly on the production of this commission. It was also fantastic to be given the opportunity to bring creative audio work within the confines of a Science Museum and introduce In The Dark to an audience outside of London!

Audio piece: The Dustbin Man Cometh

A processed and layered piece constructed from a single recording of a dustbin truck captured outside of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Headphones recommended.

The piece was produced for exhibition at an In The Dark live listening event on Cityscapes and presented within the Glasshouse Bookshop at the Wapping Project on Wednesday 22nd March 2012.

If you have ever been woken up in the early hours by this sort of noise, I’m sure you’re aware of the complex mechanical racket that they make. It’s a great collection of sounds – clangs, squeaks and crashes – I really wanted to capture and then pull out elements of this noise, turning them into an evolving, glitchy cascade of sound that would fill the listening space it was to be presented in. Anyway, have a listen below.