Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: Finding The Music In Noise

28 October 2007

Finding The Music In Noise

As should now be apparent from my essays on the Light Harp and on Tantric Listening, if I am a seeker of anything, it is of music in what is considered nonmusical. Consequently, I am a huge fan of music that draws its inspiration from environmental sounds. Clyde Stubblefield, "the world's most sampled drummer" for his work with James Brown (and thus himself something of an environmental phenomenon), had some great stuff to say about this in his essay on time for the September 2007 issue Modern Drummer Magazine:

"I learned to keep time when I was a kid by focusing on my walking. I really listened to all the sounds around me and always heard rhythm in them. Whatever the leg and foot patterns of my walking may be, that's the time I focus on. Those are my timekeepers.

I lived in Chattanooga, Tennesee as a child, and there was a big factory where they made cardboard boxes. The factory had a big smoke stack. Every morning it would start puffing smoke out, and you could hear it all over the city. So From early in the morning until about 4:00 p.m., you heard this smock stack going PUFF-puff-PUFF-puff-PUFF-puff all around you. I also remember the sound of the old washing machine at home going slish-slosh-slish-slosh all the time. And hearing that tick-tock of our big clock - it all stuck in my head. I would fall asleep to the sound of that clock. I feel that all of these things helped develop my time as a drummer."

Yes indeed, internalizing our environment is the evolutionary process itself (more on that here). So we are taking a more active role in evolution when we groove to the sounds around us, whatever they may be. Peter Gabriel, in his infinite wisdom, has of course already written a song about this:


Listening with headphones, you can hear the scratchy percussion track come in when he's singing about the burnt brown toast, and the dull repeating thud when he talks about his neighbor hammering something...it's a gorgeous song.

In the same vein, Björk made a whole movie, Dancer in the Dark, about the musical fantasies that take over a woman's imagination as she goes blind. Increasingly forced to rely on her hearing to escape her suffering, she fancies herself the star in a series of outlandish interludes:


Electronic sampling has helped us make sense of our busy industrial world for decades. When I got my computer, I was most excited about the little built-in microphone - suddenly I had a mobile recording studio! The first thing I did was go record the oh-so-melodic sound of rotors and computation that the ATM makes before spitting out cash (I'd been waiting to do it for weeks). That sample, and a synth flute I made from blowing a Tanqueray bottle, were prominently featured in my first electronic composition:


In my next piece, I carried it a bit further into Björk territory and made almost the entire song from random noises - including a soda fountain, wind chimes, a shaken box full of old toys, and the rustling pages of a book (Osho's Tantric Transformations)


In the works are another song that grooves to the University of Kansas Herpetology Department's printer; one that squeezes anthemic glory out of a rusty dishwasher door; and a kind of tribal thing that features me drumming on the computer itself (oooh, how recursive!). Tonight, I'm playing a show with a electronic drum kits composed of little chimey things I found lying around at my old job in the candle shop. I'm sure that sooner or later the novelty of saying, "That gorgeous synthesizer tone is me dragging a chair across the floor" will wear off, but in the meantime it's a game I'm playing with the universe to find cool new textures and rhythms where I wouldn't normally pay attention.

The more I listen, the more intimate I become with the various properties of my surroundings - learning to anticipate how this table might sound if I struck it with that magazine, wondering whether my laptop mic is sensitive enough to pick up the sound of me rubbing two leaves together (and if so, what part of the drum kit would that be?).

It's a great game. But it tickles me when artists are not only paying attention to this stuff, but lending their creative ear to music that ends up doing something important. Tim and Chris Bran, aka the Vapour Brothers, showed me up with this gorgeous little cut-up ditty they created for SOS Live Earth ("Concerts For A Climate In Crisis"):


...Just in case you were wondering how to make cool music, commune with the kosmos, and help save the planet all at the same time. But don't think you need expensive recording equipment to start crafting your own found sound masterworks. The Freesound Project is a massive collaborate effort that collects and archives all kinds of cool environmental samples under a Creative Commons license for anyone to use. Thanks, guys!

And there you have it. Maybe now that jackhammer outside your window will put a little swing in your step. Why not? The world sings for us.

(Written for iggli.com.)