Legend of Passing Time with Instruments and Captions is an abridged account of Coppice’s custom and modified instrumentation since 2009. Ranging from handheld objects and digital models to actual and simulated architectures, Coppice’s instrumentation is overviewed as an evolving idea.
Presented from within the documentary space of the now defunct Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, Coppice captions the passing of time and moves through shapeshifting music within it. Dislocated, this presentation is an annex to the audio paper Stewardship to Obsolescence and Preservation: Listening to Specimen Music through Yerkes Observatory’s Refractor and Reflector Telescopes, published by Seismograf in Spring 2021.
This audio paper or audiovisual lecture was presented in 2021 at the 10th International Scientific Meeting for Sound, Music, and Musical Instrument Studies, Organological Congress, Gardunha mountain, Fundão, Castelo Branco, Portugal. It was also presented for the Sound Studies Lab’s Colloquium Sound & Sensory Studies at the University of Copenhagen, that same year.
Slides upon request. Tran/script:
[SLIDE 1 – BLANK]
[SLIDE 2 – TITLE]
This lecture is taking place from within the documentary space of the Yerkes Observatory, which you can hear now, especially if you are wearing headphones! This is Legend of Passing Time with Instruments and Captions.
[SLIDE 3 – STEWARDSHIP]
This presentation is an annex to Stewardship to Obsolescence and Preservation, a script for audio paper published earlier this year on Seismograf. Some of you have received the link to it and have listened to it already, but if not, I invite you to listen to the piece at your leisure, as it encapsulates Coppice’s work since it was founded in 2009 and up to the present.
[SLIDE 4 – COPPER PLATE (VIDEO)]
We tend to describe Coppice as an inquiry into the capture and generation of music, and its relationship to its physical sources. The word coppice is a noun and a verb: as a noun it describes a woodland area where trees and shrubs grow together, and as a verb it describes the process of the cyclical cutting down of trees to stimulate growth. Our use of the word is metaphorical as we work in phases, each of which carries its own unique sound palette, instrumentation, and processes…
[SLIDE 5 – OPERATIONS]
We are interested in sound’s capacity to cross domains, and we have engaged with many different aspects of experimental music, ranging from music compositions and live performances, sound installations and sculptures, software, visuals, and instrument construction. It is the aspect of instrumentation that I will hone in on today.
[SLIDE 6 – AFTERTHOUGHT (VIDEO)]
Each of Coppice’s three distinct phases so far come with their own sonic palette and repertoire of instruments. Observing these in retrospect shows in a broader sense of what an ‘instrument’ may be in an expanded sense… not limited to objects and technologies, but also including spaces and architectures.
Lately we have thought of instrumentation as a hyperobject (a complex non-material structure) that can be ‘sonically observed’ in Coppice’s musical development over time.1
Our intention here is to guide the perception of this, as we identify how our idea of instrumentation morphs and continues to evolve.
So this presentation is both retrospective and projective, looking back at previous work, and looking forward to new ideas for music to come.
We will begin in the past and work our way forward (or back?) into the present, then touch on the future. To access the past, however, we would like to introduce you (in)to our current instrument through which we experiment with this kind of musical time travel: the Yerkes Observatory.
[SLIDE 7 – YERKES FACADE]
The Yerkes Observatory was founded in 1892 in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, and is known as the birthplace of modern astrophysics. After operating for more than 100 years it recently closed its doors, rendering its technologies obsolete even though they are still fully functional.
In 2018 we visited Yerkes to document those technologies: floors elevating and descending, domes opening and closing, and telescopes changing direction. Yerkes’ architecture is made up of two wings, the west housing the largest refractor telescope in the world (a little over a meter!), and the east containing two reflector telescopes.
This is the sound of Yerkes’ Great Refractor as it is elevated.
[SLIDE 8 – YERKES REFRACTOR]
Yerkes is instrumental in describing Coppice’s first two musical phases in terms of refraction and reflection.
[SLIDE 9 – SHRUTI BOX (ORANGE) AND BOOMBOX I]
The first phase or ‘glossary of study,’ in Bellows and Electronics, began in 2009 and focused on the interactions between an electroacoustic pairing: an acoustic instrument and an electronic device. Early compositions were duos between a shruti box and a Modified Boombox… pictured here.
A shruti box is a portable hand-pumped reed organ whose reeds we ‘prepared’ in the style of Harry Partch’s adapted reed organs or John Cage’s prepared piano, either removing the reeds to bring out different air textures and colors, or modifying them to bring out complex tones and noises.
A Modified Boombox is a two-cassette tape-deck that has been modified to record and play back simultaneously, creating a short time delay effect.
[SLIDE 10 – BOOMBOX I]
The way that this works is that, being a two-deck cassette tape boombox, modifications allow the tape to pass from the recording head on the right to the playback head on the left.
Sounds are recorded through the device’s internal stereo microphones (located just above the speakers in the top corners) onto a tape and then played back a short time later through the built-in speakers.
Acoustic feedback causes the sound of the speakers to be recorded back onto the tape to be colored by the system and heard again.
[SLIDE 11 – KINDER AND BOOMBOX IV]
There being several in Coppice’s repertoire of instruments, different Modified Boomboxes were later paired with various other prepared pump organs, including a Mason & Hamlin Kinder organ from the 1880’s (pictured here), an Estey from approximately 1935, among others.
Time is integral to the instrumental idiom of the Bellows and Electronics phase. This is because bellows have a finite amount of time that they could be pushed or released on the feeders, and the tape machines have a specific amount of time it takes for the tape to travel from one tape head to the next.
[SLIDE 12 – SHRUTI BOX (PINK) AND BOOMBOX III]
Each bellowed instrument has a different inherent timeframe and acoustic signature due to the size and design of their bellows, and each Modified Boombox as well, based on how far apart the tape heads are from each other, and how fast the tape is running.
So these varying features created idioms specific to time and distance, but also between both instruments, because the bellowed instruments were picked up by boombox’ microphones in close proximity to them.
[SLIDE 13 – SHRUTI BOX (ORANGE) AND BOOMBOX I]
The shruti box may be more characteristically a musical instrument than the boombox, which may be thought of more as a sound processor, together, they may appear to the ears as a single instrumental unit, an electroacoustic conjunction that is also split apart as a dynamic duo. This dual stability is something we explored at the sonic level as well.
We consider the interactive dynamic between this pairing of instrument and device to be characterized by refraction, as characterized by live and reproduced sound, signal processing, delay, and passing through. A rotating music that only works together. This is the sound of refraction.
[SLIDE 14 – REFRACTION]
[SLIDE 15 – YERKES FACADE WITH MAP POINTER CHANGE]
Coppice shifted its focus to a new sound palette in 2014, Physical Modeling and Modular Syntheses. During that time we reflected upon the sonic characteristics of the first study in Bellows and Electronics, and represented them in a palette primarily electronic.
[SLIDE 16 – SCULPTURE AND MODULAR SYNTH]
In the absence of air cycling through bellows, for example, we probed into what a “fake” air may sound like as an electronic sound design using physical modeling.
Physical modeling is a form of digital synthesis that uses mathematical models to describe the physical characteristics of the materials of a certain musical instrument and their behavior. It differs from other forms of synthesis in that it models the sound mechanism as well as the sound. This was juxtaposed against modular synthesis.
[SLIDE 17 – COPPER PLATE]
Also used were custom devices such as the Multi-Material Filter and Copper Plate (pictured here). These devices create physical interfaces for effects typically electronic – like filtering and reverb. In the case of this one, we have synthesized sounds that are transduced or introduced into to a physical material – a thin sheet of copper, imbuing those electronic sounds with acoustic features specific to the properties of that object.
[SLIDE 18 – RHODES AND PATCH BOX]
This interest in highlighting aspects of mediation in sound also shows in the use of additional instruments, 1970s rock instruments, such as a Rhodes Bass Piano, a Wurlitzer electric piano, and Korg drawbar organ, guitar amps and tape delay – each paired with their emulators.
In recordings and in some performances we bring these instruments and their emulators into auditory contact – often times causing indistinguishable effects of mutual likeness. Auditory illusion of simultaneous original sound and artificial sound.
[SLIDE 19 – SCULPTURE AND MODULAR SYNTH]
The instruments of this phase are defined by electrical power, models, and modularity. The idiom of this second phase is one of infinite possibilities, but also some limitations on nuance and gesture compared to the grit of acoustic instruments. We solved this by finding more nuanced controllers, and mapping parameters for gestural control, including aftertouch.
We consider the pairing of differing syntheses, and of original and simulated sounds, to be characterized by reflection. Music characterized by independent signals, surface appearances, doubles and forgeries, and turning. This is the sound of reflection.
[SLIDE 20 – REFLECTION]
[SLIDE 21 – 360º X3]
In the audio paper Stewardship to Obsolescence and Preservation we ask the question “What is it to hold a mirror up to music, or to run it through a lens?”
[SLIDE 22 – YERKES DOCUMENTATION]
In observing music pass from one state to another, from refraction to reflection, we notice a shift in instrumentation, techniques, conditions, expressions, dynamics, and so on. Brought into simultaneity, however, actual and fake air, together, sound like this.
[SLIDE 23 – REFRACTION/REFLECTION ROTATING/TURNING]
“Sonic observation” is a term we use to describe Coppice’s shapeshifting music over time. Sonic observation takes place at the observatory of sound – that is, attention – a perspective from which refractive and reflective processes are listened to and through.
Sonic observation pertains to the documentation of music, as well as the fiction of documentation. The discerning of sound and what may be behind it.
[SLIDE 24 – YERKES EXTERIOR]
The Yerkes Observatory is a vehicle for navigating the idea that architecture can be an instrument – a site through which signs of time can be observed.
Architecturally speaking, Yerkes is Coppice’s instrument for A Retrospective Projection. Cameras and microphones observe it in an attempt to preserve it.
From within celestial objects distant from other vast celestial objects, the movements of large telescopes, (and the moving spaces that they are housed in), generate obsolete sounds that may always be heard anew by the listener.
At this moment, we listen through the Yerkes Observatory as an instrument: the simulation of its acoustics, and the reproduction of its mechanics. This is how, through the latest devices, we have preserved and are able to reproduce a space that is considered to be obsolete… as are also pump organs, tape machines, and so on.
[SLIDE 25 – FALSE REGISTRATION MARK]
[SLIDE 26 – VIEWING MICROPHONES AND LISTENING CAMERAS]
Instrumentalizing the Yerkes Observatory is part of Coppice’s third study, in Phonography and Fiction since 2018, a phase shifts in focus away from musical instruments and on to the devices of capture and reproduction.
Devices of capture include varieties of microphones and cameras, which, turned onto themselves as tools of observation (and of sonic observation), are used to refract and reflect upon acts of documentation. Documentation, that is, as a means of dislocating what is actual, and repositioning and bringing awareness to that dislocation.
[SLIDE 27 – ANO SYROS]
This was first studied in 2018 while in residence at Syros island’s only preserved Jesuit Monastery (founded in 1744) in Greece.
Throughout the monastery we recorded a series of visual and auditory scenes that ruminate on the frames of information related to them – its make, model, timestamps, errors – and how these reconfigure moments in perplexing ways.
[SLIDE 28 – EXCERPTS FROM CHROME/BOUNDARIES PT. 1]
[SLIDE 29 – EXCERPTS FROM CHROME/BOUNDARIES PT. 2]
A 1961 Shure unidyne paired with its likeness from 1989, form an unmatched stereo image: a time-bracket brought into simultaneity.
[SLIDE 30 – EXCERPTS FROM CHROME/BOUNDARIES PT. 3]
Through them, we will listen to the voice of David Toop recorded in a prayer altar, sharing musical recollections of 1961 and 1989, corresponding to the time and distance of the microphones he speaks into, and the time and distance of his memories. In flux. This is the sound of diffusion.
[SLIDE 31 – VIDEO EXCERPTS FROM CHROME/BOUNDARIES PT. 4]
[SLIDE 32 – OUTER SPACE]
How distant could music be from sound? For Carl Sagan, telescopes are time machines. For Pauline Oliveros, delay systems are time machines: “[a sound is played] in the present that will come back in the future. When it comes back it is a part of the past. Thus time is expanded to past, present, and future as performance continuum.”2
Oliveros’ thought brings us back to the idea of distance, physical and temporal, and the reminder of an increasing ‘distancing’ between the human body and music, sound recording and playback technologies being the prime example.
She ponders “[Humans] are confronted with mortality and the desire to overcome mortality. Recording and cloning represent a kind of permanence. (Even so, media impermanence is also a threat.) The headlong thrust in research all over the world to move towards the singularity, or merger, of humans and technology in a posthuman future is a way to overcome the “weakness of the flesh” – to avoid impermanence – to delay or eliminate death.”3
[SLIDE 33 – VOTIVE CANDLES]
Just out of frame of music, silent instrumentation also plays its part. This contemplation of sources of light encapsulates a shift from presentation to re-presentation… actual and artificial phenomena, and their effects of differing consequences, in this case: of temperature (heat versus cold), motion (differences in flickering), interaction (lighting and blowing out versus turning on and off a switch), materiality (wax and wick versus plastic and electronics).
Conjuring the persistence and transformation of an object. As an object vanishes, an artificial object appears. Remembrance stems from loss. The actual runs out, the artificial clings: a dichotomy that the real accommodates and observation reveals.
For David Toop, to catch glimpses of music (as a verb and not a noun) at the outskirts of spacetime one needs an instrument (as a verb and not a noun). “Nouns are fixity,” he says, “the instrument is always being used, but humans take them to another level, through musical articulation.”4 For him, “the connectivity between Vessel and Surface forms a temporally conglomerate instrument that spreads in all directions.”5
[SLIDE 34 – INSTRUMENTS]
Coppice’s instruments may be prepared, modified, designed from scratch, or found and used as readymades.
[SLIDE 35 – ANO SYROS AND YERKES]
They may also be architectures and the traversing of them. Their experience, their state of preservation, their technological transfiguration, their memory.
[SLIDE 36 – STEWARDSHIP]
They refract, reflect, and diffuse. They stand alone and also interact.
They are extended by technologies, and operate dynamically with the imagination. Instruments intersect at the living site that is the listener.
[SLIDE 37 – A SPACE ENGINE (DUMMY HEAD DETAIL)]
The listener is a receptor as much as a generator of sound, nested in sounding spaces and found at the ends of transmission lines.
[SLIDE 38 – A SPACE ENGINE (REFRACTOR DETAIL)]
Half of music is in The Court of the Listener. Like constellations out of a full night sky, music emerges out of sonic observation – and out of thin air. Sound as is and sound to be are part of the listener who is a willing co-composer of it. The sound that was, too, is music in the mind’s ear.
[SLIDE 39 – A SPACE ENGINE (REFLECTORS DETAIL)]
Remembrance occurs in mental images that are not solely visual, but also sonic.
To steer auditory imagination is to instrumentalize the listening experience. Auditory imagination is key to future music. Making contact while turning and rotating.
[SLIDE 40 – SUN RA]
As Ambassador from the Intergalactic Regions of the Council of Outer Space, Sun Ra posits: “The music is not only just music / It touches and projects other dimensions […] For the instruments are not only just instruments / The people are the instrument.”6
At the observatory of sound, the listener tunes to the unseen, to set in motion the imagination of music which is where we are.
[SLIDE 40.2 – COPPICE + SUN RA]
[SLIDE 41 – YERKES DRAWING 1]
[SLIDE 42 – YERKES DRAWING 2]
[SLIDE 43 – ZOOMING ONTO MESSIER 4]
[SLIDE 44 – CREDITS]
1 Morton, Hyperobjects.
2 Oliveros, Tripping on Wires, 5.
3 Ibid, 6.
4 Toop, Ano Syros lecture (July 4, 2018).
6 Sun Ra, “The Sound Image,” in The Immeasurable Equation, 351.