Music From A Tree, Diego Stocco

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:05 pm

N.B. Thanks to my friend DJ for pointing me to this on Facebook….

This is cool. Composer Diego Stocco uses handheld microphones, a stringed instrument bow, a guitar pick, a pencil sharpener, a modified stethoscope, a MacBook Pro and ProTools to create music from a tree in his backyard. Check out the videos and photos here:

Music From A Tree

Then he did the same thing, on a smaller scale, with a bonsai tree:

Music From A Bonsai Tree

Very creative, and it sounds cool too. I dig it. What do you think?

Music From A Tree, Diego Stocco


… and we’re back! After 353 days of an unofficial hiatus, I’ve decided to start posting here on The Listening Blog again. I’ve had several ideas of things I wanted to post about recently, and I had an experience today that I wanted to write about, so I’m back. I still have little free time to myself, and what free time I do have is generally focused on making music rather than writing about it, so I won’t promise that I’ll write with any regularity; but I’m back for this post, at least, and I hope to post at least intervallically from now on, as I continue to try to encourage myself to listen to, think and write about music.

The impetus for this post is the book I’ve been reading over the past week, Kyle Gann‘s No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage’s 4’33″, published by Yale University Press last year. I’d read William Duckworth’s book Conversations With John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, And 5 Generations Of American Experimental Composers a while back, and been surprised to discover just how influential Cage had been in the latter half of the twentieth century. I don’t think there was a single composer interviewed in the book who didn’t mention Cage at least a few times. So when I saw Gann’s book at the library, I thought I’d pick it up. And it’s proved to be, as the same William Duckworth claims in his laudatory quote on the back cover, “an outstanding book.”

4’33″, for any of my readers who don’t know, is probably the most famous (or perhaps infamous) piece of American music composed in the twentieth century. It consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, either of music manuscript paper without any notes or just the word “tacet,” depending on which score you look at. It’s been maligned and mocked by scores of critics both inside and outside musical circles, and branded as a joke, a hoax, a prank, the typical trash that passes for “music” in the modern world and worse. But I highly recommend Gann’s book, which is excellently written as well as being insightful. He thoroughly traces all of the influences in Cage’s thinking and music, from Erik Satie to Zen, to show that 4’33″ was not a whimsical gesture by a crackpot or a provocateur but a carefully thought-through and even inevitable outworking of Cage’s musical (and general) philosophy.

In broad strokes, as Gann puts it, the piece is an invitation to (or, if you’re not aware of what’s coming, an imposition of) zazen, the Zen practice of meditation, and is among other things a philosophical statement that there is no such thing as silence. By framing the piece in the context of a concert music performance, Cage focuses the attention of the listener, not on sounds that he’s composed, but on the environmental and ambient sounds of the space in which the performance takes place, opening the listener’s awareness to sounds he or she would otherwise ignore. It’s a particular practice similar to Pauline Oliveros‘ “deep listening,” or what I’ve called elsewhere on this blog “comprehensive listening.” But for a more in-depth explanation, you’ll have to read the book.

In any case, on my way home from work this evening, I didn’t feel like listening to the audiobook I’m currently “reading,” nor could I think of any music I particularly wanted to listen to. So, several minutes into the drive, I decided to “perform” 4’33″ for myself until I got home. And it was that experience that prompted me to write this post.

I’ve done comprehensive listening exercises before, but usually sitting down and with my eyes closed, so driving was a different experience. It certainly opened my ears to a number of sounds I normally wouldn’t hear, or hear every day but don’t listen to; but my experience of the sounds was different as well. One of the Zen ideas of the piece, as I understand it, is that the listener should be passive and receptive to the sounds one hears, without trying to impose any of one’s own thoughts or structures onto them. (Cage spoke of the purpose of music, quoting an Indian writer, being “to sober and quiet the mind and thus render it susceptible to divine influence.”) This was a struggle for me at first, as I tried to quell my thoughts, quiet the music playing in my head, and avoid thinking things like “That sounds like it could be played by a contrabassoon!” Early in the drive, in a moment where I feel like I succeeded at those things, I felt suddenly vulnerable–opening myself up to any and all of the sounds around me, putting up no defenses or filters. That was a strange and interesting feeling. But it also changed my perception of the sounds I heard. I was sitting at a stoplight as a truck turned in front of me, and the bed of the truck and the chains holding whatever was in the back squeaked loudly, a sound that normally might annoy me. But as I focused on it and really listened to it, instead of just hearing it, I realized it was actually a really cool sound that was pleasing to my ear and unique and interesting in its own right.

At another point, when I was on the freeway, listening to the whush of the air flowing past my car, the whirring of the engine, and the percussive punctuation of the bumpy road beneath me, a particular sequence of those sounds and others reminded me of the type of modern music where musical events seem to happen completely at random. That type of music is hard for me to listen to most of the time. But listening to the sounds around me, I wondered if that type of music is not so much random as just an attempt to imitate the sound environment that surrounds the composer.

I felt that by “performing” the piece myself, I did achieve a “higher consciousness” of a sort–not in a spiritual or mystical way, but simply a more heightened physical and mental awareness of what was around me. I’m not sure that I could draw any direct parallels from experiences like this one to being a better musician or composer; but certainly being a more active listener can’t do me any harm. Reading about Cage’s philosophy and the influences that led to 4’33″ has led me to appreciate much more fully the thought processes behind the piece (though I still cheerfully and wholeheartedly disagree with his philosophy, and his assertion that all sounds are music). I’ll have to perform this piece more often.

(Thanks for reading this return post! I hope you’ll come back to read more–and I promise, they won’t all be this long…)


Concerning Alarm Clocks

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:11 pm

I usually wake up before my lovely wife during the week (or, at least, I’m supposed to), as her classes and work schedule start later than I usually get to work. I like to let her sleep a little longer when I get up, so I try to set my phone’s alarm at as low a volume as possible so that it’ll be enough to wake me up but not enough to wake her up. But recently she’s been waking up more often with my alarm, even though I’ve chosen a ringtone that I can set to a very quiet level.

I have a theory as to why this is. (Well… I don’t have any evidence to support it, so I guess it’s really more of a hypothesis.) My idea is that she is subconsciously listening for the sound of my phone’s alarm going off–the particular ringtone that I have it set to. She knows what the alarm will sound like, and so her mind is subconsciously listening for that and is more attuned to that sound. I hypothesize that if I changed the ringtone to something else, equally as quiet in volume but a different song/sound, she wouldn’t be as easily awakened by it. Perhaps I’ll try to test it this week. What do y’all think? Does that sound like it makes sense?


“The Sound of Home” by Mark Harbison

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:51 pm

N.B. This essay was written for this past Thanksgiving by my brother, Mark Harbison, and I thought it was so well-written and pertinent to this blog that I wanted to repost it. “The Sound of Home” is here reprinted in its entirety by permission of the author. – AJ Harbison

I always like being home. I love Biola, I love my friends there, I love Torrey, I love my major, and I wouldn’t want to go to school anywhere else—but I always like coming home. Even when nothing exciting is happening. This week, I came home knowing that there was nothing particularly fun or exciting happening this week (my family is just having a quiet dinner at home on Thanksgiving), and that I would be spending most of the week doing homework, as I have a major paper to revise, a major paper to write, Greek exercises to do, and the first two books of “Paradise Lost” to read. And yet I still woke up this morning with a smile on my face (something which is an extreme rarity for me) simply because I was physically at home instead of at school. Waking up this morning, I felt less stressed than I have in weeks, even though I still have a ton of work to get done this week.

After waking up with a smile, my expression changed to a quizzical frown as I wondered why I was so happy. I’m always happy to be at home, regardless of what’s actually going on when I’m here. Why is this? I wondered.

Unable to come up with an answer, I picked up my computer and proceeded to surf through my usual daily internet sites, concluding as always with Facebook. While on Facebook, I came across this status and comment:

“Blaire E. Hunt was woken up this morning by her sister barging in her room and jumping on her bed! Quickly followed by her mom and aunt entering her room. HOME!!!! :)
Tatyana Catalan: YES!!!!! i woke up to the vaccuum in the next room (with kitty frantic) and gershwin’s rapsody in blue blasting on the radio!!!”

This sparked my thought process and I think I finally realized what it is that I love so much about being home.

It’s the sound. I woke up this morning to a sound that I never hear at Biola, ever: silence. In my room at school, we almost always have the AC/heater running, or the window open, or there’s people running up and down the hallway outside, or yelling, or playing ping-pong—and once you actually leave the room, you can certainly forget about silence. There’s always something HAPPENING at Biola, and the evidence of that hits the ear every second of every day.

This morning, I woke up and I heard nothing. This is always what it sounds like waking up at home. If there ever are noises (which is rare), they’re quiet, or at least muffled. Even when my dog is barking, it’s less harsh than the air conditioner in Sigma 122. And throughout the whole day, even when there are noises, there’s a perpetual undercurrent of silence that’s always in the background. Even when I’m listening to music, and the television is on in the next room, and my mom is mixing something in the blender, if you listen REALLY carefully, you can hear the silence underneath it all.

This silence is, I think, the defining feature of home. It’s inherently calming. I hear the silence and I wonder how I ever felt stressed in this room, ever felt scared or sad or angry in this house, because all I can feel now is calm. Sure, I can have emotions, but underneath them all is the unmistakable calmness that everything is all right. Even when I’m extremely happy, there’s a calmness mediating it and holding it back from sheer euphoria. When I’m home, what’s just happiness at school becomes joy. What’s unbearable sorrow at school becomes a momentary (if not light) affliction.

I’ve always pictured heaven as being bright and loud—everybody singing, worshiping, dancing, discussing, hugging and loving each other. Now I’m not so sure. Of course there will be worship, and there will probably be all of those other things, too. But I think heaven, like home, will have the undercurrent of calm silence beneath it all, as all of the redeemed bask in the glorious, calm light of God’s joyous smile.

And that, of course, is my true home. 1215 Via Antibes is only a temporary reflection of that. 1215 Via Antibes probably won’t even be my home ten years from now (hopefully won’t be, I’ll even say). But for now, this is the only place that I can really hear the silence. Every once in a while I’ll catch a strain of it somewhere else—I heard it briefly at AJ and Eleanor’s, when I went there for dinner. I heard it for a few minutes in Dr. Reynolds’ office once. I heard it briefly in the Sutherland hallway when a friend hugged me and forgave me for wronging them.

But away from home, that calm silence that forces everything else to be calm only comes in snippets. It’s only at home when I can hear it all the time. I’m not sure if it’s because my home is more familiar, or because I’m more emotionally attached to my home, or because my home is a holier place than the other places I frequent.

But whatever the cause, I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter so much why it’s silent here. It just matters that it is. This sound of silence is the sound of home, and the reason I love coming home so much is because, for however brief a time, I can let everything else be quiet and just listen to it.


“Farm Machine Music”

Posted by AJ Harbison at 11:02 am

I received this video in an email from my father-in-law this morning. This is what was in the forwarded message (not including his skeptical comment, “Is this for real?”):

Last seen and heard 2-3 years ago. Good to see and hear it again.
This incredible machine was built as a collaborative effort between the
Robert M. Trammell Music Conservatory and the Sharon Wick School of
Engineering at the University of Iowa .. Amazingly, 97% of
the machines components came from John Deere Industries and Irrigation
Equipment of Bancroft , Iowa ..Yes, farm equipment!

It took the team a combined 13,029 hours of set-up, alignment,
calibration, and tuning before filming this video but as you can see it
was WELL worth the effort.

It is now on display in the Matthew Gerhard Alumni Hall at the University
and is already slated to be donated to the Smithsonian.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear that this is fake. The whole look and feel of the video is very computer-animated-ish, and it would be very strange if the xylophonic-type instrument would actually light up as its bars were hit. But the most important tell-tale sign of fakery is the sound quality. There aren’t any microphones visible anywhere in the setup, and obviously if this was an acoustic instrument as the quote claims, there would have to be microphones to pick up the sound. And even if there were microphones that somehow weren’t visible in the video, the sound quality of the audio would not be nearly as neat and polished as it is–there would be a great deal of ambient noise, both from the space in general and from the bleeding of different parts of the “instrument” into each microphone.

And to confirm my suspicions, the trustworthy rumor-busting site Snopes.com has exposed it as false in their article “Farm Machine Music.” It was created originally as a computer animation, but then was picked up by someone and passed off as a real video.

Nonetheless, it’s definitely an impressive animation and a fun song. Enjoy!


Birdsong In The Business Park

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:46 pm

I was walking between my company’s two offices the other day. There have been a bunch of crows showing up lately, and I heard a couple of crows “caw”ing to each other. That suddenly attenuated my ears to birdish sounds, quite unintentionally, and I heard one bird singing somewhere overhead, and then another down the street, then yet another somewhere else. I kept walking, but turned on my “comprehensive listening” mode, and I was surprised to hear lots of birds singing around the hallowed concrete halls of the business parks. It was an ear-opening experience. I never would have thought that there were a lot of singing birds in the area, but clearly they were there all along and I just wasn’t listening; perhaps I’d gotten used to hearing them so often that I didn’t hear them anymore. Just goes to show (again) that there’s a difference between hearing and listening–and that hearing something a lot often tunes out our listening. Here’s to deeper and more intentional listening!



Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:08 pm

I was working along my merry way the other day, helping an employee move from one cubicle to another (I’m doing double duty with data and IT these days), when I heard a loud crash coming from the kitchen. Naturally, I went to investigate; it turned out that the receptionist had been trying to put some plastic cups away in a cabinet, and the shelf was missing a peg, so it slipped and although she caught it she was unable to catch the eight wine glasses that had been sitting on it, so they slid down and crashed onto the floor. She was a little shaken up, so I volunteered myself to sweep up the kitchen. I noticed that as I was sweeping, the glass made some very pretty twinkling sounds as I moved it around; the bigger the shard of glass, the lower the pitch of its sound. This shouldn’t have surprised me, I guess, but I enjoyed listening to the sound of the glass as I swept it up. And it was interesting to observe a bit of beauty coming out of such disorder and chaos. (Hmm, sounds like there could be a metaphor for life in there somewhere…)


Open Sound New Orleans

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:32 pm

My lovely wife grew up in the city of New Orleans, and I was tipped off to this project by my cousin-in-law who emailed her and her parents when he heard about it on NPR. It’s called “Open Sound New Orleans,” and it describes itself as “a community media project that invites and enables New Orleanians to document their lives in sound.” The main page is an interactive Google map of the city, with sound bubbles in three categories (ambient sounds, music sounds and voice sounds) scattered around. You can click on the sound bubbles to hear the sounds that were recorded in that location of the city.


Eleanor and I clicked around for a while last night, and it was pretty fun. In the right sidebar there’s a list of “greatest hits,” which provide a better chance for interesting material than clicking on a random bubble. I’d highly recommend listening to “Amazing Grace at Cafe du Monde,” which is a recording of a violin and guitar playing the song at the famous Cafe–I think it’s the most soulful (and bluesy) version of “Amazing Grace” I’ve ever heard. Eleanor also liked “Cicadas at dusk,” which she said was a very familiar sound to her, though a new one for me (I’ve never lived in a place that had cicadas before). And, just for a laugh, listen to “Who dat!” on the last page of the “greatest hits”–the excitement and then disappointment of New Orleans Saints football fans (“Who dat” is their official chant).

It’s certainly a cool idea for a project, and it’s fun to click around for a while. I wonder a bit about the long-term value of the idea. But here’s their “vision statement:”

Our intent is to make more accessible the authentic, unedited sounds and voices of New Orleans. Sharing the sounds of our city as we hear them, move through them, and create them, is an act of celebration. But it also serves each contributor – you and me and anyone else who might participate – as a simple way to extend our own experience to others, harness our representations and those of our city, and participate in New Orleans’ public culture with intentionality.

Reminds me of The AudioBus Experience in San Francisco that I wrote about last summer, except less mobile and more authentic (since the AudioBus manipulated the sound live rather than recording it). What do you think? Cool idea that contributes to community, or a novelty with a little interest but no lasting value?



Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:38 pm

The office I work in is about a block down the street from my company’s main office, and I usually walk back and forth between them once or twice a day. I was walking back from the main office this afternoon, and passed a couple of guys with leafblowers cleaning up a parking lot. Each of them had one, and the hum of the two leafblowers was the interval of a fifth apart–in almost-perfect tuning. (A fifth is the distance of, for example, C up to G, or A up to E). They were different sizes, which explained the difference in pitch: the higher one was completely handheld and narrower, while the lower one had a backpack and a bigger tube. Bigger and longer always equals lower in acoustics, whether it’s a string or a column of air–consider how much bigger a cello or double bass is compared to a violin, or a bassoon compared to an oboe.

My first thought was that the “bore” size of the second one must be bigger than the first by a third–because a perfect fifth is created by the ratio of 3:2 to the original note (for example, the rate a string vibrates to produce the tone G is in the ratio of 3:2 to the rate the same string vibrates to produce a C). But I quickly corrected myself when I realized that the hum was created not by the air moving through the tube, of course, but by the motor. (Less interesting that way, but has the virtue of being true). So the fifth was created by some 3:2 ratio between the motors; since I know nothing about mechanics, though, I’m not sure exactly what property it was that created the ratio. But I still found it interesting. Just goes to show that you should always be listening–music (or at least a semblance of it) can be found in the most unexpected places!


“The Drone of the American Continents”

Posted by AJ Harbison at 9:59 am

Last night there was a fearful (and exciting) thunderstorm in Costa Mesa with thunder so loud it made our windows rattle.  The commotion woke my wife and I in the middle of the night, and we looked out our window to catch some views of the lightning and rain before going back to bed. Shortly after we turned back in, our power went out, which (along with everything else) killed the fan that was running in our room. The whole block had lost power, and so everything was very quiet–eerily quiet. We hardly ever, or never, notice it, but there is a constant electric hum that is always running just underneath our perception–we never notice it because it’s always there (just as a fish would never notice that it’s wet because it’s always underwater). But last night, when the power died, the hum disappeared, and it left a notable silence. It was much closer to silence than we ever normally get; my wife loved it, but it made me a little uneasy.

It didn’t last long, and after twenty minutes or so the power came back on. I heard the fan start up again, and faintly, underneath it, I heard the hum begin again; but I couldn’t hold onto it for long, and it soon disappeared again under my level of perception. But it was interesting to experience it unmasked, if only for a short while.

La Monte Young, the father of the musical minimalism movement, explored the concept of drones (a constant tone around which other tones move) quite a bit in his music, and was also one of the primary proponents of just intonation in the last century. He often staged performances and improvisations at his home in New York, and he says in one paper that he chose the 120-cycle hum of his home’s aquarium motor for a drone in order to keep it “in tune with the frequency of the 60 Hz AC power supplied by Con Edison” (basically meaning that the pitch of the hum of the motor was an octave above the hum of the power; 60 Hz is approximately equal to the B-natural two octaves below middle C). He ends that section with this quote, which tends toward the poetic but accurately sums up what I’ve been talking about:

The primary drone on my Original master tape of “April 25, 1965 day of niagra” is 80 Hz, 4/3 above 60 Hz, which is the dominant or the 5th degree. Because the recorder used to make the unauthorized copy that produced the Table of The Elements CD 74 ran at a slightly different speed from the Original, the ToE CD is at a slightly higher frequency and, therefore, has lost the intended effect of its harmonious relationship of a perfect just fourth to the 60 Hz AC power line drone of the American continents.

(P.S. I’m sorry that I haven’t been posting much lately–I’ve still been busy, and I’m still working on putting together my music website at http://www.ajharbison.com. But that’s coming together quite well, and I’m hoping to start posting more often again. We soon return you to your regularly scheduled TLB!)


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