Audiography: A Dramatic Audio “Autobiography” of Hallie Flanagan Davis

This project explores narrative sound technique by presenting a dramatic audio autobiography–or audiography–of Hallie Flanagan Davis (director of the Federal Theatre Project, first woman to win a Guggenheim, and Grinnell College alum). The format of the audiography is similar to a radio drama. I used primary source materials–correspondences, newspaper articles, and Flanagan’s testimonies with the House Un-American Activities Committee–as the basis for the script. I recorded dramatic interpretations of the source material for use in the audiography. These recordings are embellished with period-appropriate audio filters* and “distortion,” environmental sound effects, and narration. The overall result is sonic-cinematic, using sound to distinguish between public and private/internal moments, and exploring the use of diegetic and nondiegetic sounds.

A little background: Flanagan was director of the Federal Theatre Productions (part of the WPA), which reached well beyond the usual theatre community, entertaining and informing the masses in the Great Depression; she created spirit-lifting children’s theatre, and her “living newspaper” plays were informative for a politically unaware public. I was drawn to this project because I, like Hallie, grew up in Grinnell and pursue theatre as a means of creative expression and social dialogue. As a theatre artist, I am also obviously interested in creating art in narrative contexts. This particular piece only showcases two “chapters” of Flanagan’s life (the first appeals on the local level; the second appeals on the national level). One day I’d like to create a full live radio drama about Flanagan’s life and professional pursuits.

I used QLab for playback. The piece is meant to be played in a room with three or four speakers, so that QLab may control movement of sound around the space, helping ground the audience in the space of the piece (the train sweeps around the audience, each person at the Committee hearing has their own position, and so on). The stereo version still utilizes some of these spatial techniques, but not to the same extent. The screenshots give a sense of the QLab workspace (120 cues, not counting some auto-follows!) and the nature of the programming/preparation that went into the creative process.

Downloadable File

*I used the reverb filter that I created in my listening machine proto-project for the House Un-American Activities scene.

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Darkest Commander

O. Queathem  |  K. Baumgartner  |  E. Marek  |  Y. Wang  |  K. Bougher The Faulconer Gallery exhibition “Dark Commander: The Art of John Scott” is dark and somewhat disturbing. Our project uses noise music to reflect and enhance the tone of Scott’s work. We divided the gallery into five sections, and each section of the gallery has a unique interactive background of noise music playing. The interactive element is achieved with the use of a tailored QLab workspace for each gallery section: each workspace features a collection of continuous background noise, as well as other “accent” noise cues that we trigger live, based on how people are moving around that section of the gallery, how many people there are, etc. People can move around in whatever order they choose, linger, skip around—do whatever they want–and the noise music will follow and react to them. They interact with the exhibit in ways that affect the overall composition of the noise music.

The sounds we chose to use were inspired by Scott’s hard-edged work, featuring many abrasive, mechanical, and turbulent noises throughout the installation. Limited “playful” and “ethereal” accents were used where Scott’s work deviated and contrasted with overt harshness, particularly in the area featuring bunnies (playful/innocent) and the area featuring sky and water (cleansing/release).

^This video clip^ shows one of our group members touring the entire exhibit

^This video clip^ shows only three sections (we had some spatial recording limitations for the live presentation) as the class explored the exhibit.

*It should be noted that one of our group members was unable to attend the presentation, so one section of the noise music was not interactive. You can listen to a fixed version that section here.

Fantasia [Reloaded]

Fantasia [Reloaded] is an electronic instrument that is operated by many players. Players take cues from a video feedback loop, which is controlled by the “conductor.” The video loop is always completely original, somewhat unpredictable, and difficult to control, which ensures a certain level of randomization. Additionally, even though the players are given broad instruction on how to interpret the video cues, the final interpretation and execution is ultimately at their discretion. The players are manipulating noises that are loaded and organized in a loose framework in QLab. My original plan was for the instrument to be controlled by Max/MSP, but time constraints and technical limitations lead me to this human-controlled model. Ultimately I think this human-software instrument is more capable than solely software at mastering the delicate balance between a rigid framework, engaging interpretation, and randomization.

Fantasia [Reloaded] aims to challenge and basically invert the traditional process associated with musical visualization (visual content begets sound, rather than aural content begetting imagery). The video/sound relationship in Fantasia [Reloaded] is backward from the original Fantasia, which puts the focus on aural interpretation, rather than visual. The players are manipulating “unpleasant noises” (mostly mechanic and electronic based sounds), and they have to work together to create a piece that is more than just a bunch of sounds piled onto an image. Hopefully the conductor is able to manipulate the image in ways that use time/progression as an additional tool.

I am going to record the “performance” today in class, because I was unable to operate the whole instrument by myself as a demonstration!

Someday I will conquer Max/MSP and make a truly fully electronic instrument, but first I’m interested in exploring this type of spontaneous electronic orchestra that allows ANY user to play–play as a musician, and play as a child–within this electronic framework. Creating more “realms” (pieces with different styles) to explore would also expand the project.

The Intimacy of Flowers – A Study in Microscape by Kate Baumgartner [Sonic Cinematic]

This project is a study in miniature. The final result of the study is a series of “microscapes,” which are sensory explorations of a miniature space. Each microscape is inspired by a micro-poem and is comprised of a still image and a soundscape. I chose to focus on three microscapes as a means of miniature exploration.

Note: All of the inspirational “subtitles” for the areas of exploration are quotations taken from Gaston Bachelard’s chapter on Miniature in The Poetics of Space.

Area #1: Imagination
The botanist’s magnifying glass is youth recaptured. It gives him back the enlarging gaze of a child.
During this exploration I spent a lot of time looking at miscellaneous objects through my new smartphone microscope, and I was amazed by how completely transformative this view can be. When we view something up close–I mean REALLY close–the bigger picture goes out of focus, and our imagination finds something new. In this case, images of smeared sticky tac and a brown paper towel reminded me of water–the color, the texture, the way it reflects light. [See photos for poem and link to audio].

Area #2: Darkness
The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it. But in doing this, it must be understood that values become condensed and enriched in miniature.
When we really hone in on the miniature world, sounds that often go unnoticed can seem almost catastrophic in their magnitude. I’ll never forget a time when someone I cared about was in a dangerous situation, and I sat with my arms wrapped around my knees, my head resting right next to my ticking watch. It seemed louder than even my heartbeat, which was racing at the time. [See photos for poem and link to audio.]

Area #3: Dream World
He enters into a miniature world and right away images begin to abound, then grow, then escape.
Our dreams–or at least the memories of our dreams–tend to omit details, but the details that dreams do give us are extremely intense and surreal. The details of miniature are thrown front and center, and “bigger picture” fades into the backdrop. [See photos for poem and link to audio.]

Listening Machine Proto-Project – Testing the Echo – Kate Baumgartner

A Not-So-Brief (sorry) Artist Statement:

A Story: My dad occasionally breaks into song in public places, which I used to find horrifically embarrassing when I was young–I hardly even take notice anymore. Sometimes he’s singing because he’s happy or he has a song stuck in his head, but quite often, he’s singing to test the acoustics of an unfamiliar space. My dad designs and installs pro-audio systems for a living, so he listens closely everywhere he goes. In fact, he can’t not listen; he is a listening machine. I’ll never forget the first time my dad and I strolled down the long corridor of the newly-completed Bucksbaum Center for the Arts (circa 1999), and we encountered the rotunda. I was gabbing on about something (a soccer game, possibly), and he kindly shushed me, the way only a parent can. He walked into the center of the room and starting singing; no one else was around, so he continued to sing while pacing the room, relishing the vibrant acoustic signature of the rotunda.

I had known that every single place on Earth–every hallway, every alley, every path through the forest–has a unique acoustic signature, but it was that day in the rotunda that I realized how greatly a place’s sonic signature can influence our interactions with that space. Are we inspired to sing? Do we feel the need to whisper? And yet, most people hardly take notice of these acoustic profiles, especially in spaces that we usually only pass through. In today’s internet media-centric society, almost no one will stop and look or listen just for the sake of experiencing a real place. We’re too busy checking our iPhones, posting a picture to Instagram, and hurrying on to the next Insta-moment. My proto-project aims to capture a transitory place’s acoustic signature, and then turn that signature into something more noticeable, consumable, and palatable for today’s general populous. If you want the sappy metaphor: It will be the sweet, succulent aroma that entices the busy bee to stop and smell the flowers.


The User Experience:

You are strolling around the Grinnell Arts Center Gallery in the historic Stewart building downtown. You look at the photos on exhibition, admire the original 100-year-old tile flooring, and decide to put a couple dollars in the collection jar before you leave. As you finish signing your name in the visitor log book, you notice a QR code on a small display stand. It is labeled Testing the Echo. Your curiosity piqued, you scan the code, which takes you took a SoundCloud page. You listen.

• • •

After listening, you read the back of the QR code, as instructed. You take another stroll around the gallery–after all, you don’t have anywhere more important to be. You whistle, and tap your foot. You sit in the window benches and peruse the photo albums, listening to the lullaby of an Arts Center in motion.


The Recording & Convolution Process:

This guy (from Altiverb) explains the convolution process more artfully than I could ever hope to write here (you can stop the video at 2:24).

I captured the acoustic signature of the Grinnell Arts Center gallery and main floor in downtown Grinnell (I spent 3 hours working toward this 1 second click with reverb tail). The space is acoustically vibrant, which makes it an obvious candidate for my proto-project. My choice to use this location was based partly (minimally) on the fact that I could use their audio equipment and record in peace, but primarily because the Arts Council is actively working toward making the Arts Center welcoming and beautiful, so that people will come in and feel compelled to linger and relish the ambience (rather than merely pass through, as they often do with the gallery).

Hardware and Software I used for the recording process:
– Audio Technica 4050 omnidirectional condenser microphone, set to 360 degrees
– A Bose L1 portable speaker system
– PreSonus FireStudio Mobile interface
– Smattering of cables and accessories
– Reaper audio production software

Click on the photos for a detailed description of the recording process!

Other useful links for convolution (I relied heavily on the second one):
http://designingsound.org/2012/12/recording-impulse-responses/
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jan12/articles/reaper-notes-0112.htm


What Could Be Next?:

I wish I could replicate this process for several locations all over campus and town, but time is a significant constraint. I’d also like to find a slightly more interesting and engaging way to communicate my ideals to the user. Ideally, I’d use a 3D mic and also record natural sounds from the space to mix in with the soundscape. Field recording just requires so much of everything (namely equipment and time).