The Emergence of Acoustic Spasm
"Lurch,” “Creep,” “Sponger,” “Murkman,” “Worm,” “Tosser,” “Freak,” “Ratty,” “Unhealthy One,” “Tramp,” “Mr. Abnormal,” “Village Idiot,” “Twat,” “Minger”: These are just some of the many foul vocalizations regularly floated in my direction during outdoor strolls. Usually they are not intended for me to hear, since they emanate from groups of two or more people murmuring to each other, but I have very good hearing. Children can be cruel: One particular group regularly calls me “Wasteman” to my face because I am known for leaving cassettes and CD-Rs of my homemade music in public places, and I am also noted as a regular bin-digger, or “dumpster-diver.” An ex-teacher who once taught me passed me recently and sarcastically remarked, “I bet your parents are proud of you,” which was hurtful but not surprising, given this man’s vicious streak. Essentially, all these utterances constitute the fallout from manifold interpersonal mishaps suffered within a small town in the southeast of England. If one ventures outside regularly, his or her face eventually becomes familiar to other people, and in most cases this gives rise to the friendly exchange of pleasantries typifying the quaint picture-postcard model of English small-town life. However, if the potential greetee has been flagged in the minds of the townsfolk as an unattractive, unstable, or incomprehensible loner, the friendliness is withheld and within that void suspicion and fear will fester, before invariably giving way to express hatred. Conservative attitudes are rife amongst the young and old. To enact even the slightest of eccentric actions in public view is to imprint the impression of oneself into the mind of the viewer as somebody intolerably ambiguous. In small towns, everybody knows each other, and therefore such an impression is circulated and embellished with lugubrious speculation in the process. This is what has happened to me.
The townspeople frolic in swamps of poison gossip and delight in flinging barbs of hate (and this seems to be a trait of English townspeople; one can refer to Rev. Edward Fitzgerald Synnott’s Five Years’ Hell in Country Parish  for evidence of this). My own attempts to counteract this ill atmosphere—by initiating warm greetings myself—have nearly always been thwarted by my own mild autism (that is, difficulty in socialising), accusations of sexual advances, or simply the fact that the impression some people already possess of me is irreversible. Instead, I have resigned myself to my old hobby of simply recording complicated sounds (signifying highly interesting or obscure “greetings”) and consigning these recordings to CD-R to be left randomly in public places as a substitute for physically socialising. I attempt to make audio recordings of intense interestingness and unexpectedness, comprised of instruments I have built from scavenged materials—things I’ve pulled out of bins; circuit-bent, hardware-hacked gubbins; and bits of lampposts. My email address is always written on the recorded media to enable any responses to be harvested, and I can subsequently learn from them how to enhance the content’s effectiveness and immediacy. I have been mediadropping like this for a very long time, and I like to think I am an authority in this field.
Let it be known that the “picture-postcard” idea of the English town is utterly false. All my life I have lived in this small town, and I cannot escape for love or money due to a feedback-loop: I live by witheringly slender means with my parents in a tiny council house, I have poor social skills, and years of unemployment have seen a physical and moral degeneration occur in my body. In my youth I could sense ill will (maybe born of classism or just generalised dislike) directed at me, yet I ignored it or laughed it off. Now the ill will is mutual, and I’m rather bitter and resentful against society. When somebody calls me a “sponger,” don’t they understand that while I “sponge” off the state by legitimately claiming Jobseeker Allowance, I am buying CD-Rs (which have Value Added Tax) with this allowance and recording my mediadropping sonics before dropping the CD-Rs back into the public domain. All for the sake of interestingness and pure creation? It’s outrageous that people should assume things without knowing my circumstances and motives, yet if they knew all this they might view me even more askance. This contempt-exchange propels me to create things even more rabidly—such as the mediadroppings—which, in turn, drives me even further into unemployability.
Allow me to illustrate, courteous reader, that there are two kinds of people: the Creatives and the Destructives. Often the creative ones present their creations to the Destructives in the hope that they can romance them and convert them into Creatives. Conversely, sometimes the destructive ones attempt to demotivate or destroy the motors of inspiration in the Creatives to convert them into Destructives. To further complicate things, Destructives often disguise themselves as Creatives and make poisonous creations that outwardly appear entertaining but are ultimately demotivating. As a general rule, wherever competitiveness is nurtured, destructive tendencies are in evidence. I have always sought to create stuff, flirt with the Destructives, make interventions on the consciousnesses of the Cow People (who always flitter between states), and paradoxically destroy destructiveness.
At school I was generally disliked, insulted, slighted, and beaten. I cannot ascertain whether this was due to or in spite of my interventions and “trespasses” upon other people’s consciousnesses. The teachers insulted me, too—one said, “You have none of the necessary social skills to succeed in life.” Perhaps he wanted to get a rise out of me, but I just blankly walked away. Another teacher asked the class, “Has anybody here ever had homosexual feelings?” and nobody spoke a whisper or raised their hand. It was an all-boys’ school, so these ideas caused widespread sweating (a fact that I would later play upon in mediadroppings around the school). This teacher then pointed at me and exclaimed, “What? Surely you have?” at which point the class burst into mocking laughter. He used me as a prop—a mere butt of a pseudo-joke—to deflate the air of tension that had formed around his intrusive and uncalled-for questioning. What business was it of his what anybody’s private thoughts were? If he wanted private thoughts, I would truly give him private thoughts: I put a cassette tape in his pigeonhole-containing horrific half-comprehensible stories, vile whisperings, toilet noises, and digitally distorted recordings of me masturbating (over men).
Without a doubt, I have always been inordinately shy—it may have indeed been these characteristics that initiated the vicious feedback loop. Was I despised from the outset, or did I perform some despicable action that precipitated the never-ending ping-pong contempt-exchange and social frictions? It’s a conundrum similar to the chicken/egg question. Even today, it’s difficult for me to judge whether a passerby who utters an insult is somebody previously unknown to me or someone who has witnessed me beforehand pissing in an alley, or doing the mediadroppings, or desperately browsing through dumpsters at night, or taking audio recordings of railings.
Here’s how the contempt-exchange worked during schooldays: No sooner had someone slighted me with even the most subtlest of contempts then I would immediately plan an act of disorientation equal to the perceived magnitude of “confidence damage” he or she had inflicted upon me. I would always transmute any contempt into something bizarre, thus neutralizing any explicit negativity. At the most basic level, such a retaliation might constitute an act as simple as anonymously leaving an impromptu plasticine or Blu-Tac sculpture on their desk (in the form of something unusual enough to produce an impression of extreme bemusement), or taping some dubious object to the ceiling above where the aggressor sat. Sometimes I sketched intimidatingly bizarre drawings on paper and fed them through the gaps in the persecutor’s locker door, so that when the locker was opened it would appear as though some fearlessly odd character had been in there. But I soon abandoned drawings as not being anonymous enough; the inkmanship can be recognized all too easily. I turned instead to audiocraft. This was where I first began making special sonics—distorted words and disorientating noises—and leaving cassettes or CD-Rs in places where they would be discovered by the appropriate person. Since those school days, I have been persistently mediadropping, indulging in the pastime at least once a week.
Over time, the content of these mediadroppings has changed in character. Whereas during schooldays the mediadropping content reflected the environment it was conceived in, i.e. noisy and confrontational, when I dropped out of school and embarked on a wilderness year, the tone of the mediadroppings become softer, and I was particularly concerned with enticing complete strangers—particularly women—into my shabbily produced sound world and winning them over. This was when I started putting email addresses on the media. I maintained contact with one particular male correspondent whom I led on a wild goose chase around the town with promises of more cassettes. I entertained his curiosity by strategically placing cassettes at key areas and telling him what time to make the collection—these cassettes were left dangling by string inside drains, and he promptly collected them on five separate occasions. By email, I crafted crude maps and described the whereabouts of the tapes. I was amazed and alarmed by his enthusiasm, because he wanted more and my stocks were almost empty. At first I was honored by his interest, but to expend all this media for one person seemed a waste. So I gave him directions to more drains, only this time there were just the bits of string—no cassettes! Briefly, I considered hiding in a bush near one of the dropoff points so I could see who he was. This thought was pure wrongness: Obviously such a thing would be far too tragic and dangerous, since if he actually met me it would utterly destroy the concept and the magic would vanish. He emailed me back and said, “The tapes have fallen down into the drain,” but I told him that it was a trick: There were no tapes, only the string! “Enjoy the string,” I wrote, and dispensed instructions on how to build a rope zither.
While studying sonic art at university, there was a period when my mediadroppings consisted entirely of three to four-minute “pieces” and took on melodic forms which were commendable enough to warrant official release. An album of my most accessible mediadropping “songs” titled Tongue Under a Ton of Nine Volters was released in 2005 on a prestigious label [see review in the March 2005 Rail]. Since I am not a musician—and I play makeshift instruments which are more or less unplayable anyway—the melodies and chord progressions were painstakingly constructed note-by-note, and the unnatural stutterings disguised afterwards with some light spring reverb (with the springs damped by sponge or metal washers to create “chatter”). I worked every day solidly for nearly four years on these “songs,” slowly pasting the melodies together and building chords by trial and error. (By the way, I use the term “chord” lightly, as most of my instruments are tuned according to their own physical quirks and not to any tyrannical tuning system.) Suffice to say, I certainly won’t be doing anything melodic anytime soon—it’s far too intense work with far too meager reward. Besides, my research has shown non-melodic, non-tonal mediadroppings generate considerably more responses than melodic ones. Perhaps imperfectly rendered melody with an accompaniment of half-assed “singing” conveys some kind of repugnant delusional aspiration?
After graduating university to find myself unemployable and plunged into the inescapable hell of town life, I once again reverted to distorted confrontational mediadroppings, albeit this time round zested with a little mystery, paranoia, and ambiguity. Studying sonic art has taught me one important thing: that the audio-craftsman/craftswoman must become a magician, an alchemist, a thaumaturge. Special efforts must be made to disguise the processes used to create a sound. Effects must not be recognisable. Everything must be concealed. That student loan will in all likelihood never be repaid, unless it is with the SOUND of my very blood trickling onto xylophone keys made from lamppost doors.
Now I find myself penniless, continually having to look in bins for sustenance. Thankfully the bins also provide inspiration and yield useful sound-producing objects and fascinating books. But no longer can I sensibly afford to drop media around. What’s more, my four-track tape recorder has died and I cannot economically repair it. The mixer has been sold to pay for food that goes into the toilet eventually anyway. My computer suffered a motherboard failure. In these times of economic downturn, obtaining “artist grants” is impossible to all but the most well-connected and upper-class. Besides, it is disputable whether what I’m doing is actually art or just something to keep me occupied and interested in life until death cometh. What else can I do? I must continue mediadropping. A dilemma presents itself: How can one mediadrop non-electronically on zero budget? Acoustically, of course! This is an art form that could be called “acoustic spasm.” It is definitely not busking, as there is no desire to entertain or procure coinage.
To satisfy my habit of mediadropping now that all means are unavailable, I have lately been doing acoustic spasms inside makeshift sacks I call “hides” made from old sacking, and covertly shouting (or “pipping,” as the shouts are only short “pips”), bugling into buckets of mud, epileptically twanging twangables, and suchlike. In other words, the noises and whisperings of bizarre phrases that would have once been recorded to CD-R as mediadropping material are now performed live and acoustically—in person. This involves hiding in foliage or in the specially constructed camouflaged boxes, sacks, or hides, with stentorophonic loudhailers in relatively quiet places, making the subdued special supernatural noises, sinister rustlings, minuscule trumpetings, and vicious tuttings. Should there be any external intervention, dynamic shock must be employed to make the intervener go away. This dynamic shock can be achieved with equipment such as rape alarms, portable amplifiers, old bugles, car horns, etc. Twilight is the perfect time to do acoustic spasm, as it enhances the acousmatic situation (i.e. the condition of not being able to see any source of sound), although I find early evenings to be just as favorable.
The hides protect against the dreadfulness of recognition in small towns, which, as I’ve described, stains one’s character until it is toxic. When one is inside the hide, people cannot see whether one has a weapon or not—their stares can’t penetrate darkness. This automatically makes people keep their distance. Also, because the performer of acoustic spasms can’t be seen, the impression can be given that more than one person is indulging in this new phenomenon by touring extensively around the locality and thus rousing confused rumor.
The reception of the sound generates a genuine confusion that approximates the degree of confusion mediadropping elicits. With “live” sound, however, the reactions of people can be actively steered by carefully observing their posture and facial expressions in response to the acoustic spasms. Just when they convince themselves that it is simply children messing about, a very unplayful roar or adult phrase can be sounded to steer the auditor away from that assumption. I imagine that the depth of reaction produced by acoustic spasm in this setting is far deeper than anything mediadropping can achieve, and yet it is cheaper! But I confess, it is fraught with danger.
Hides wherein acoustic spasm is generated are best suited for woodland areas, of which there are many surrounding my town. All that’s required is a piece of sacking and some clips, bolts, or nails. These items can all be found easily in bins. A convenient spot will inevitably present itself wherever there are clusters of trees (preferably saplings where sacking can be wrapped around the trunk). Peepholes are then cut into the hide along with an outlet through which sound can be directed. The hides will end up looking very similar to the hides traditionally built by birdwatchers. Personally, I would advise bringing wooden protective boards to reinforce the hide and stop particularly aggressive people from smashing everything up. Balaclavas are also advised for emergencies in case the dynamic shock fails and running away in full view is the only option. There was one incident where I created a particularly effective acousmatic show of acoustic spasm using a homemade bugle, a clown whistle, a combo of hosepipe and bucket of wet mud, and a dented cymbal suspended from a sapling. As I wailed into the makeshift bugle a mixture of smothered parping and buzzy sighing, a lady walking her dog turned and made a startled noise: “Euuggghhhaaah!” Delighted by her dramatic reaction, I inadvertently slipped up and allowed a too comprehensible phrase to be voiced (“Flick my Volvo ’til the tax-disc drops”) and she twigged that something trying-too-hard-to-be-interesting was taking place, shouting back at me, “Oh, grow up!” At that point, I would have liked to emerge from my hide as a fifty-year-old man. The twenty-seven-year-old that I am may also have surprised her, but I dared not emerge. She stood still for a long time, and I worried that she might approach and I’d have to flee, but after about five minutes of silence she walked away.
The ideal location for a hide is up a tree (with an appropriate emergency escape route), where cooking oil can be poured down the trunk if anybody should try to climb up. Additionally, the “Oh, grow up!” comment reveals an important issue—that the older the acoustic spasm performer is, the more “interesting” things become.
Finally, through acoustic spasm and hides I can deflect the destructive remarks levelled at me by the kids, the old ladies at the post office, the ex-teachers, the prejudiced, and the busybodies, and I can vent creative airs, demonstrate freedom to improvise non-melodically on scrounged objects, interact socially and, above all, reclaim some small sense of satisfaction in that I can now reply to their demotivating put-downs in a language of sonics in which I am rather fluent. Through acoustic spasm, it is unclear whether I will become even more notorious locally as a “wrong ’un,” but through the publishing of this article, at least somebody out there might feel some faint glint of respect for my circumstances: where society has backed me into a corner and all I can do now is make sounds acoustically. But the purpose of this article is not solely to justify my actions (not least to myself) but to advertise this method of diffusing experimental sounds to you, kind reader. Acoustic spasming democratizes the creation of acousmatic music, as nothing expensive is required. Wherever means are limited interestingness can always be made with whatever resources come to hand. Go forth, hide, rustle, and whisper.
Dan Wilson was the winner of an Arts Foundation Award for Electro-Acoustic Composition. His CD Tongue Under a Ton of Nine Volters (released on Alcohol Recors under the name Meadow House) is available from Resonance FM's online shop (www.resonancefm.com). The complete archives of his radio show, The Exciting Helebore Shew, can be heard at epistaxis.stodge.org.
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