An Aparanthetic Bio
O comes from a profoundly amusical family. Their home contained a windup gramophone and a violin. Both were never used. O remembers the sharp styli for the gramophone, but does not remember there being any records to play. The violin (belonging to his father) was a device even more indecipherable. His father would, at times, exhale a vaguely tuneless whistle. Not a pursed-lip whistle (O’s mother often said that kind of whistle was the worst thing one could do) but rather a hiss of air passed over the tongue, brought close to the roof of the mouth, through the top incisors, and out; an almost tuneless whistle. His mother, for her part, would occasionally sing a single line from one popular song or another.
Perhaps the earliest sound he remembers noticing was the summer cicada. Later there was a dilemma (similar to when his father misinformed him that clouds were all the same height in the sky; which was contrary to what he thought he could see) — was the cicada biological or electrical? Where did it come from?
What other remembered sounds? A ringing bell on the milk wagon, pulled, he remembers (perhaps inaccurately) by a snorting, clopping horse; the calliope-pistoning of a push mower across the lawn; a phone ringing; the metal tongs of a fan rake pulled through fallen leaves; the crackle of these leaves as one tossed oneself into their heaps; fire in its fireplace, thrombing, snapping wind in its many sonorities. Talking he remembers at first not understanding; he would soon discern that his grandparents used two languages, German and English. Later, the deep-throated wattle of the sedan parked next door, similar to an inboard motor launch. The family lived inland, although he learned that his parents had wooed by a small lake. And later, one week per year was devoted to living by one of the Great Lakes, waves; boats of all sizes. O was able to swim at the age of three, and then he forgot how.
The neighbours next door with the throaty car also had a piano and O received a couple of lessons there from the neighbouring matriarch, of which he has no other memory.
The family procured a television set, and there were evenings of music playing in the house, particularly the fiddling, dancing and singing of Don Messer’s Jubilee. And Sundays the portable organ warbled during church services held in the Empire Public School gym. And everyone singing, approximately the same tune, each singer varying in temerity and accuracy.
A new family car came with a built-in radio. This was soon followed by his very own eight-transistor portable radio receiver. This radio had a choice of two bands, AM and SW. O spent hours, particularly evenings, carefully advancing the serrated, gear-like plastic tuning dial; finding, between locations of foreign voices, many mysterious sounds to be interpreted. The rapid pitch blipping (data transmissions) he mistook for satellites in earth orbit; the harmonic roar (signal jamming) he interpreted as the propeller and engines of airplanes, and he listened to long stretches of these seldom-varying drones, waiting to hear pilots asking for landing instructions. To pass the time, he would adjust the tuning dial fractionally, by millimetres, and thus sweep up and down through the frequencies, and the glissing whoops of carrier sines. In the AM band he would gradually adjust the frequency from station to station wondering where the stubby red diamond-shaped pointer would centre on the call numbers (1490, 1050) pronounced by each ‘standard broadcast’ vicinity in relation to the mysteriously spaced numbers
[ 54 6 v 7 8 9 1v2 16 (x100 kilocycles) ]
printed above the tuning trough. He’d open the back of the radio to see how the dial and pointer were attached to a much more elegant looking turbine thing.
And then there was the volume dial. O had to open the brown leather case to see the indication LOUD < — OFF. The LOUD was brash; OFF was indicated by a click; and just next to OFF was a secretive miniaturization of sound. A similar tinny tinyness could be attained by canceling the radio’s main speaker. a paper cone hidden behind a gold metal fine-perforated faceplate behind the coarser perforation of the brown leather case, by plugging into the 2nd of two receptacles provided for the earplug speaker jack attached to a white-plastic-coated pair of wires attached to a white pill attached to a white finger with a nostril at its tip — the tiny sound would emit from the nostril; or, if the plastic finger was fit into one’s ear, the sound was louder, and private. There was only one earspeaker provided with the radio so O would have to choose which ear to plug. Left or right? What was the difference? Why, when the voices from the radio were as loud as himself talking it seemed way too loud, even though his own voice was not a very loud one.? He mumbled. He still has this radio. It still works, although the once teaming short-wave band is now almost deserted. He still mumbles.
The next device of disembodied sound to enter his life was a four-speed automated phonographic record player in a cardboard case. the four speeds were 16, 33 1/3, 45 and 78. The phonographic records purchased for O were labeled 33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm, but there was nothing to limit any of them from being played at any of the four speeds. The transition from 33 1/3 rpm to 45 rpm transposed the human voice to chipmunk range, an effect popularly exploited by rodent puppets, as he heard on the Ed Sullivan television show. The more evocative transformation of a woman’s voice into a man’s was simulated by a transition from 45 to 33 1/3rpm. This and the approximate doubling in speed and duration to 16 and 78 eventually led to some of O’s favourite plunderphonic effects, and the concept of harmonic speeds.
This 4-speed time machine would eventually be replaced by a hi-fi two-speed semi-automatic phonograph, which was followed by a two-speed manual turntable. These successors eschewed the exotic speeds of 16 and 78.
The device which came next into his life was a solid-bodied guitar. It was designed to be magnetically and electronically amplified but O never obtained the requisite amplifier, so this guitar’s dynamic range was restricted to (but not limited by) the approximate range of a clavichord. Each week a guitar teacher would plug this guitar into an amp and tune it. After a few weeks, the guitar teacher dissuaded O from further supervised study. O never tuned the guitar again but continued to play it for years, unamplified. It was quiet. It was private. It still has some of its original strings.
The unamplified guitar and the record player were the instruments which he brought to his first musical ensemble, a mixed-media quartet. The other musicians were boys from the same block as O. they rehearsed in houses on the street and performed in the backyard of O’s house. The other instruments were trumpet and bongos.
O is not sure which noise-producing device came next, a Spanish guitar with nylon strings, or his first tape recorder. He remembers working the two together: dropping the tape recorder microphone between the strings, into the hole of the guitar; then shaking this concoction and recording it; and playing that back, backwards.
The tape recorder was a portable, monophonic reel-to-reel, a present from O’s father, who repaired typewriters. O soon modified its recording function by disabling the erase head, a magnet on a movable arm. With the eraser out of the way he was able to record layers of time. To the sound of the shaken guitar he added the sound of the strings being scratched by various things. The heads of the tape recorder were half track: designed to play the tape through in one direction and then the ‘flip side.’ But O wanted to go backwards through time. Until he discovered how to wrap the tape deviously around the motor capstan, he would twist the tape around moebiusly and listen as the reversed sounds muffled through the acetate backing to the magnetic layer. Sounds would present themselves tail first, but it was particularly with reverse talking that he found a foreign language of interest to him.
O began to create fictionalized musical documentaries. He once taped himself and a friend playing penny whistles and household percussion, and presented the result in music class at school; passing it off as a field recording from the jungles of Africa lent to him by an uncle on safari.
O began planning technically idealized pop songs, which would, for instance, have tempi in simple rations to 33 1/3 and 45 rpm — the result being that vinyl scratches would be rhythmically co-ordinated and would not phase in relation to the rhythm of the content.
Eventually O entered high school, where he was not accepted into (nor allowed to audition for) the school band. Using an insider as a conduit, instruments were borrowed or purloined, and O started his second musical ensemble. At first this fringe school band was open to all comers. Their intention was to play rock music (with tubas and timpani!) but the ensemble’s arrangements were never other than entirely improvised. Since then, O personally has always approached the performance of music and dance as an improviser.
And that’s another story.
Meanwhile, after leaving high school, O briefly attended several universities. He traveled for the first time to the West Coast to study Communications with the composer R Murray Schafer, and consequently worked with Schafer’s World Soundscape Project for a summer. While there, he created several projects in the WSP electronic sound studio, including the first of many swarmfields (sounds time-staggered and multi-tracked so many times that they become drones) and sculptural sounds (drones that vary relative to the aural equivalent of viewpoint — hearpoint?). He also developed his Burrows series, a group of short compositions using the reading voice of author William S Burroughs as the sole source material. With the exception of a film he made in high school, now lost, these would be his first examples of the massive and meticulous editing and reorganization of time. In one, for example, a mediation between backwards speech and forwards speech was presented. Another featured an acoustic palindrome. The pieces were all intentionally reversible and O briefly published them on full track reel-to-reel tape, so the listener could explore the reversions.
These compositions were part of O’s early explorations in plunderphonic procedures (documented in the 69plunderphonicS96 box set — a retrospective of compositions from 1969 to 1996), which relied exclusively on transformative quotation. O has seldom been one to disguise his sources.
A little later O began developing, with Marvin Green, Pitch, presentations in absolute darkness. Their perceptual research manifested itself in performances, sometimes with, and sometimes without aural content, curated variety concerts, with ushers and performers using elaborate systems to ‘see,’ while the audience remained in utter black. O also created, with Emile Morin, a Pitch installation, for one participant at a time, which encouraged an absolutely sightless journey from hard gradually to soft, and from hearing the outside world to an entirely insular experience.
From then on the ongoing obsessions with improvisation, perception, and transformative appropriation would continue as independent, parallel investigations.
During the last quarter of the 20th century O founded and developed Mystery Laboratory (a.k.a. mLab) a perceptual research facility and recording studio in a small attic atelier, in Toronto. At first there were no multitrack tape recorders in the studio. O preferred the way film sound was put together on sprocketted reels, each of which could be time-shifted in relation to the others; but instead of sprocket-synch, he preferred wild synch, in which various tracks of sound, on independent machines, would be started in relative co-ordination. Synchronization was approximated in performance.
O continued to exaggerate the time-base of existing music; either slowing pieces down a dozen times, or speeding them up to the spectral threshold of audibility, particularly with mono-harmonic examples such as a raga or the opening of Mahler’s First Symphony.
With the acquisition of some synchronized multitrack recording machines in the mid-’80’s and computer audio technology a few years later O entered a renaissance period of plunderphonics development. Many of the techniques he developed were applied to a broad range of popular music and the techniques of popular music were applied to less-than-popular fare.
Norman Igma [vi-03]
Interview with John Oswald (part 1 of 2)
In the autumn of 2002 mLab observer Norman Igma spoke with John Oswald about aparanthesi
i: We’ve talked in the past about your activities in terms of categories, such as improvisation, plunderphonics, discosphere, etc. This will be the first time you’ve asked me to discuss with you a single composition. If one were to take at face value your assertion that aparanthesi consists of just one note, then it would seem that there isn’t much to talk about.
o: I thought you might be interested in discussing something simple in great detail…
i: … with the result, I expect, that it will seem less simple. So, where would you like to begin?
o: Well, let’s begin at the beginning. But not, for now, at the beginning of what’s on the CD, particularly since there are two beginnings, and I would first like to describe my concepts at inception, which I think will help explain why there are two versions of more-or-less the same thing.
i: You received a commission from Réseaux [with support from the Canada Council for the Arts] for its “Rien à voir” concert series in Montréal…
o: … to create an electroacousmatic composition of approximately fifteen minutes in duration for their festival in the winter of 2000.
I usually already have an idea of the tangent I would like to take when I accept an invitation, and in this case it was the one-note idea. I was hoping to find an interesting way to follow a single specific pitch gradually through many states; it would be, in a sense, the morphing of a pitch through various instrumental, acoustic and electronic forms.
I had often before explored slow transformations, particularly in 2 Crossfading Stills and a Shifting Multiple Transparency , and the sonic image of a concert pitch 440 Hertz sine tone transforming into an orchestra tuning has been used to begin several of my pieces, including WX , ’Plause  and Tune . Minus the sine tone it also is the beginning of my first string quartet, Spectre  and my first full-orchestra piece, Orchestral Tuning Arrangement , co-composed with Linda Catlin Smith.
It’s almost the same gesture in each of these pieces: a single uninflected A, whether it’s begun with a sine tone or an oboe or a cello, transforms into a broader timbral spectrum, with the A as the spine. That thickening A is all that happens in Spectre, which was composed for the Kronos Quartet with a thousand recorded images or reflections of a string quartet playing an A which is very gradually inflected with an increasing degree of subtle tremolo and vibrato, which then slows and broadens into wandering glissandi. Spectre has the same macro-wave form as my analogue tape meditation on fire Skindling Shadés , which also features this wandering-gliss effect multiplied hundreds of times, to create a rather massive sine composite. I first began this approach, which I called swarmfields, around 1973 or ’74.
A pure sinusoidal tone is my favorite electronic sound. In fact it’s just about the only electronically generated sound that I ever use in making music.
i: So you’ve been attracted to 440 Hertz pure tones for quite some time.
o: Another oft heard tone is 1 kilohertz. This is a common test signal. That’s the signal broadcasting stations play when they’re off-air. It’s a soprano pitch. 440 is alto. It’s the pitch reference that almost all music, of the sort that has been influenced by equal temperament, use as a reference. But it’s not what any of the worldwide electrical grids are tuned to. That would be 480 Hz (which is 3 octaves up from the 60 cycle hum we often hear in North America) or 400 Hz (in Europe) — about a quarter tone sharp and flat of 440, or A. So quite often music is out of tune with the noise generated by amplified or electronic musical instruments. It’s out of tune with the lights and ventilation in concert halls.
We can come back to this when we talk about version B of aparanthesi, which is tuned to the North American electrical standard. In any case I initially followed the concert norm and tuned this piece to 440. I do try to be conventional when there’s no good reason not to be.
Now when I say that aparanthesi is one note I mean that it is one specific pitch and manifestations of that pitch in the various audible octaves. For A there are ten audible octaves, from the lowest note on most pianos (A=27.5 Hz) to 5 octaves above A 440, which is 14,080 Hz. These ten manifestations of simple halvings and doublings of a set frequency are the entire harmonic content of aparanthesi — any deviations from this frequency gravitate back to it, by various means.
o: Yes, tuning. There’s are two human solo instrumentalists in this piece. One of them is an anonymous piano tuner. The other is a cellist, Joan Jeanrenaud. And then almost everything that has a broad range of frequencies, or noise elements, is gradually filter-tuned to this tonic. A thunderstorm becomes a thunderstorm in A. All the birds in an aviary sing in A. The 88 notes of a piano are all tuned in forced perspective to one A.
i: How did this odd instrumentation of piano and cello and birds and weather…
o: … and a foghorn and cattle.
o: Yeah. There were some distant cattle in the source recording for the thunderstorm. It was a prairie storm. I tuned the moos to A and then I changed my mind and suppressed the cattle sounds; they were distracting. And I forgot about them until just the other day I heard them again when I was listening closely — I have a pair of in-ear monitors which have been custom-made to sit about half a centimetre from my eardrums. It’s hard to miss anything when listening with those and the cattle are still there, in both versions.
Which leads to the subject of subliminal images and sounds that are at the threshold of audibility. They are not necessarily quiet because they can be buried in a loud sound. When I was first formulating this piece I was most interested in creating audio morphs; an identifiable sound which would gradually transform into something intangible on its way to becoming a different identifiable sound. I got particularly interested in that intangible area, by which I mean when a sound on its way to changing into another sound, becomes something in the middle which is neither the original sound nor the destination sound, although the listener might already guess that destination sound, or they might begin to hear something similar which is neither of those two sounds.
I had been researching the various attempts that were being made to metamorphose sounds — to, in effect, create an acoustic analogy to morphing robots and the effects that happen to women’s coiffures in hair conditioner commercials on television. I wrote to a few pyscho-acousticians and programmers who have worked on this, but no one seemed to be very interested in my situation. Eventually I figured out that this was because, in cases, such as mine, where there is no pitch change, morphing can be accomplished by simply adjusting the dynamics of the harmonics. For instance, by applying the shape of harmonic spectrum of a dull sound as an envelope filtering a rich sound, you can make the rich sound imitate the dull sound. Morphing two sounds of the same pitch is simply a matter of crossfading over time from one to the other. If this is done with active filters (I mean filters which progressively emphasize or suppress the frequencies which constitute the characteristics of that sound) one can go from a sound to another in a really lovely gradual sort of way.
The original premise of the piece was that there would be an initial sound, probably a sine tone, same as I’ve used in the past, and this would transform into the wind which would transform into a flute which would transform into a highway heard through a narrow drainpipe which would transform into a human voice, and so on through a multitude of transformations.
I started by making a catalogue of orchestral instruments playing steady, sustained A’s, sans vibrato, and we (Phil Strong did quite a bit of work on this) expanded this catalogue by adding these instruments with their different natural pitches shifted in time so that they also became A. Then I did some of the morphing technique I just mentioned. I particularly enjoyed working with winds, because, in listening, I could imagine the physicality of the instrument transforming, so a conical clarinet would curl into a French horn for instance, and then straighten out into a didgeridoo.
This sort of thing occurs as a quick transforming figure in aparanthesi [A.12:20->12:50 or B.30:00->31:10], and very slowly in the voice horn fog [A.13:24->15:40 and B.15:48->19:45], which I’ll talk about when we go through the tracks sequentially.
i: The orchestral instruments and voices all seem to blend together, but the piano sticks out, which makes the whole thing feel a bit like an electroacousmatic piano concerto.
o: In 1999, when I was finishing up aparanthesi I was also beginning to work on what I call The Idea of This, for the Glenn Gould ballet, Disembodied Voice , choreographed by James Kudelka for the National Ballet of Canada. The starting point for that was my plunderphonic creation Aria , based on Glenn Gould’s final recording of the intro to the Goldberg Variations. It was interesting to hear, in Aria, how a particular machine would interpret Gould’s performance somewhat inaccurately, and I liked the resulting music a lot. Then subsequently, a composer acquaintance of mine, Christos Hatzis, employed a fellow named Ernest Cholakis to attempt to make an accurate MIDI transcription of the Goldbergs. I was curious to see how far one could go with this. I had the idea that there could be a, in-a-sense restored recording of this performance which would not be heard through loudspeakers, but through a piano which would be played by a reproducing mechanism, and ideally that that piano would be the same one that Gould made the original recording on.
Quite conveniently Gould’s piano was a Yamaha, and Yamaha has developed a line of player pianos called Disklaviers. Gould’s Yamaha is on permanent display in Toronto, which is where I live and work. I set about to try to convince Yamaha, the Gould Estate, and a bunch of other people to convert the Gould piano into a Disklavier, so that it could be more of an active musical museum piece, rather than an inert one. This was a long shot, and in the end it didn’t happen, but meanwhile Yamaha graciously lent me a decent Disklavier grand for a year, and another one for Ernest, who perfected our reproduction on a piano at least similar to Gould’s.
So all the piano sounds in aparanthesi come from this Disklavier, which arrived towards the end of the composing of it.
i: Did you know before then that piano sounds would be a pervasive part of the composition?
o: I don’t think so, although I might have. I seem to remember that I wanted to start the piece the same way as the aforementioned compositions WX, ’Plause, etc., with a sine tone fading in and becoming gradually harmonically richer. As it turns out a big piano chord, [A.00:00 and B.00:00] is my other oft-used opening strategy; a piano chord (an electroquotation of the end of The Beatles’ A Day in the Life) is the beginning of the Plunderphonic CD  as well as its successor, the 69Plunderphonics96 box set , and I reversed it for the beginning of one of the dance scores I made for choreographer Bill Coleman . Also the big strummed piano chord at the beginning of the Gordon Monahan CD I produced  is one of my favorite beginnings. That disc in particular increased my interest in the acoustic image of the piano. A piano is difficult to record because it is big. The classical solution is to always record a piano in a room. This also applies to recordings of orchestras. The listener is never really close. We were able to record very close for the Monahan disc particularly because of the material, which focused on particular regions of the piano, sometimes a single pair of strings. I developed a physically and electronically moving soundfield microphone technique which we tagged O.M.N.I.V.E.R.S.E. [orbital microphonic navigational imaging via ecotonic radial stereo eccentricity]. In effect we treated a piano as if it was a landscape in a film. We panned, tracked and zoomed continually over this pianoscape. The effect is aurally much more subtle than you would imagine. Our achievement was to record a whole piano the way pop crooners are recorded — in-your-ear close-up.
This sense of landscape, or more precisely soundscape, was present throughout the composition of aparanthesi. This particular soundscape is both inside and outside. Many of the sounds occur obviously outdoors, such as thunder and birds. Some of them, for example the rain storm, were recorded from a sheltered position, and then the piano, other instruments and voices were recorded in small isolated rooms. Because most often these inner and outer states are occurring simultaneously, and particularly because all the inside sounds were close-miked, which de-emphasizes room ambiance, there is little or no apparent division between environments. I was consciously trying to make it seem as if the listener’s perspective is not moving around, but, instead, different states are evolving from one point of aural perspective. This is somewhat akin to what Stockhausen described as seeing the same thing continually under differing light, rather than the usual cinematic method of seeing a variety of things under the same light.
There’s another angle that comes to mind about this outside/inside thing, which is related to the first public audition of aparanthesi, which took place at the Ex-Centris cinema in Montréal for the “Rien à voir” festival.
i: Which is the same as track 2: aparanthesi B on the CD.
o: Approximately yes. aparanthesi A [track 1] is the final revision of this piece, idealized for home listening. It is the result of almost two years of sporadic revision of the composition.
aparanthesi B [track 2] is a dynamically compressed stereo realization of the eight-channel concert version of this piece which was created with that particular premiere performance in Montréal in 2000 in mind. It had a different title back then.
i: What was that?
o: It’s gone through more titles than anything else I’ve created. The most pervasive one during its conception has been the symbol A). The title aparanthesi is a slightly modified spelling out of that equation. But for some reason that escapes me now, for that performance only, it was called Just or Jeus, depending on who you ask.
But before that, the festival organizer, composer Robert Normandeau, seemed to be slightly amused that I made a special trip from Toronto to Montréal two weeks before the performance, particularly to observe the characteristics of the lobby and the entrance way to the theatre.
This is what we did for the concert. The first part of the programme was an appropriately psychedelic diffusion by Julien Roy of the Cease Tone Beam section of Mirror Ashes from my Grateful Dead set Grayfolded . The audience was then invited to leave the theatre. In the lobby, which is a rather large multi-storey atrium, I had the actress Pascale Landry standing on a loudspeaker pedestal facing away from the audience. She was very, very slowly turning towards the audience. There was a very slow crescendo of a drone which turned out to be a reversed reverberation, or preverberation, of her speaking a single syllable, “la.” This was followed by progressively shorter preverb ramps to progressively closer spaced syllables and words of a text which she appeared to speak eventually in a continuous stream without breathing, by which time the reverse reverberation had disappeared. The preverberation resonated from loudspeakers in the upper balconies of the atrium. Pascale’s voice came from the speaker she was standing on. In fact what the audience heard was a recording of her voice to which she was very precisely lipsynching. If she hadn’t been pre-recorded, it would have been impossible to anticipate her vocalizations for the preverb and it would have been impossible for her to speak continuously without breathing.
i: You cut out the breaths.
o: In fact each word of the text had been recorded separately, so all those spaces had to be cut out.
Anyway, following this performance the audience returned to the auditorium, but the doors were closed. Ushers then opened the doors precisely synchronized with the sounding of the initial chord of the piece, which erupted from the doorways. In the theatre itself this sound was at an extremely high volume. It would have been unpleasant and perhaps harmful to experience this degree of volume directly, but from the lobby one got the impression that something powerful had just occurred in the room.
We replicated this beginning for a hearing a year later [in 2001] at the Festival Archipel in Geneva.
The chord itself consists of the eight A’s on a piano, including its lowest note, played precisely synchronized on the Disklavier. And for this performance everything was pitched up to approximately a quartertone flat of a B natural, which was my choice of tuning for that room.
Then the audience entered the aftermath of the initial chord and found their seats. In the B version the piano decay is fairly quickly replaced with a ten-octave sine-tone chord. Each of the tones independently and slowly varies in volume, sort of a one-key sine organ, with variable stops. Because the tones themselves are pure and absolutely in tune with each other, the chord sounds remarkably still, but the audience is moving, because they’re still getting to their seats. It’s a period of adjustment.
One thing that did happen in an obvious way in the concert version was that things became gradually very quiet. I worked on the first third of aparanthesi for several months. The piece was auditioned with an extreme dynamic range. And most of that extreme was extremely quiet. Most CD releases use very little of the 90 dB dynamic range available in 16 bits, except when there’s a final reverb decay. I was working with the increased dynamic range of 24 bits, and I was very interested in having things happen at the threshold of hearing, where and when you are not certain if you’re hearing something or imagining it. So I was working with a very precisely set range of dynamics in a fairly quiet environment, and I would bring people in to test what they were hearing. The concert dynamic was also quite extreme. The initial sound was huge, and then by the time the audience was settled in their seats they may have not been sure whether the piece was still playing or not. There was also the low level prominence of the highest tone which would be 15,360 Hz, which some of the older members of the audience, myself included, may not have been able to hear but which, by the very fact that it was moving air, could be sensed in some way.