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The Sound of Silence

Katie PipalKatie Pipal is a new york-based musician, studying recording engineering at NYU Steinhardt. I met her last summer when she masterfully designed the nightmarish soundscape for the original play Antigone Unearthed at the 2012 NYC Fringe Festival. Since then, I’ve heard Katie’s music featured in a number of pieces that have been labeled “experimental” works of art. Being a scientist interested in the art/science connection, I’ve become really intrigued by the idea of experimenting with art. So, naturally, I was super excited to get a lesson in creating and listening to experimental music from Katie herself!

For you, what does it mean for music to be experimental and what exactly does experimentation mean for music?

Whenever I think of experimental music, I think of John Cage and all the things he ascribed to convey and say over the course of his life. The epitome of that is 4’33”—a performed piece where the musician essentially sits silently on stage for 4 minutes and 33 seconds—which he made to force the audience to tune into their surroundings. He was also really into chance and composing based on chance encounters. So 4’33” is the ultimate chance situation because it’s different every single time because the audience is different every single time. John Cage was all about tuning into your surroundings and creating atmospheres—sound for the sake of sound. Because there are things that are part of what we hear and experience on a daily basis, but never notice unless we give them this plot of land on a piece of sheet music and called it music. Experimental music is very much for the purpose of illustrating different ways of looking at music and thinking about music—like this is a really interesting soundscape and so much of it is in our daily lives.

The idea of silence as a soundscape seems so crazy because we don’t even know what silence sounds like!

an anechoic chamber: the quietest place on earth.

Unless you’re in these chambers called anechoic chambers that are used to test the noise floor for mechanical machinery. The walls are acoustically treated to have absolutely zero sound reflections, which are what we use to orient ourselves in space. So I know that I’m here right now because my voice is coming out and reflecting off this wall and bouncing back off that wall and then coming back to my ear. So in an anechoic chamber you can’t orient yourself at all. Unless someone speaks, there is no sound at all. Or if you do speak it just comes out of your mouth and dies—which is terrifying! So John Cage went into one of these chambers because he was obsessed with silence and the different kinds of silence and what silence means—silence in this coffee shop [where we’re sitting] is the sound of the street outside and what’s happening out in the backyard. But when he went into this anechoic chamber, he could hear two distinct pitches. So he told the technician who ran the facility: “It’s not quiet in here. I can hear two different frequencies.” And the technician said: “One of those is your circulatory system and one of those is your nervous system—and that’s it.” So the only thing you can hear is your inner function as a living organism.

So would you say that John Cage has really influenced the way you make music, or the way you think about music?

I definitely have a tonal center to my work, and it’s always built upon a certain fundamental key and harmony and rhythm, whereas John Cage is very much about polyrhythm and complete anti-structure. But I do try and compose for the sounds themselves. In the last song I did, I tried to take this one sound and evolve it to make it feel like it has a life of its own—and then to just completely demolish it and show these parts of the sound where it’s the most horrendous thing I’ve ever heard. I can’t even listen to that piece because there are sounds in it that I just hate, but they were just there and I felt like I had to work with them. Being a recording engineer is primarily about the feeling of a given song, but also about the distinct sounds that make up that sound. So when I was first considering becoming a recording engineer, it was so much about this sound in this song and how it’s blowing my mind right now and how do I make that sound? How do I create this lush crazy atmosphere that I hear in all of my favorite albums? I wanted to learn how to take sounds apart and piece them back together so that they can stand on their own and be totally strong and excellent and part of this vast network.

As you’re composing for sounds and letting them take on a sort of life of their own, what is it that you’re aiming to get across through your creative process?


katie at work in the studio.

It’s about trying to experience things in a new, fresh, and open way. Antigone Unearthed was the beginning [of composing music] for me. I loved making sounds for that piece and bringing everything together to make an atmospheric sense of space and feeling—this is a world that you create and inhabit. As opposed to, this is a love song, and this is a sad love song. Or fuck my boss, I hate my job. I never make pieces because I want to say something about a specific memory or about my childhood or family or loved ones. I make music because I feel there is just this thing inside of me that nobody ever talks about and that I never talk about—and I just need to vomit it out right now! I was talking to a friend of mine a while ago and she said, “I believe in human darkness.” And it just sort of hit me: “Oh my god this is what I’ve been trying to do this whole time!” That is, just trying to express this human darkness—and not darkness in a cruel and terrifying way. But darkness as in this very universal loneliness and pain that we all feel, and we all sympathize and empathize about it, but nobody really says anything about it because it’s so universal.

I’ve always thought of musicians as makers + mixers of melodies and harmonies, using bits of sound as raw material to stitch together a whole song. The individual sounds behave as some means to an end, but by no means the end itself. So naturally, I was intrigued by Katie’s special attention to and consideration of how certain sounds sound. By how she composes for—not with—the sounds themselves, exploring them to deepen them. In so doing, her work builds these rich // evocative // novel sonic atmospheres. But the sound that resonated most with me throughout our conversation—and has been creeping into my thought-space over and over ever since—is actually the absence of sound: the ever-elusive silence.

I actually interviewed Katie over four months ago, but the idea of silence has disquieted me so much that it has actually taken me all this time to gather my thoughts enough to even begin to respond! Musician David Byrne once said, “Science’s job is to map our ignorance.” Yet here I found Katie’s contemplation of silence to be deeply revealing of my own ignorance when it comes to the science of silence. Accordingly, I’ve decided to share a sample of where my ignorance has led me that all sprouted from one simple question: where can I “hear” silence?

In this technology-ridden // noise-polluted world we live in, silence has become an ideal–synonymous with this idea of an escape from the hectic, ultra-modern world so many of us inhabit. But more than that, silence is a physical + statistical impossibility. Sound begins when a source vibrates, setting surrounding molecules in motion. As these molecules bump up against each other, regions of high pressure compressions and low pressure rarefactions form a pressure wave as the sound is propagated from one location to another. As a result, silence can only exist in the absence of matter–in a vacuum–so that the sonic source can never set molecules in motion. So then I started thinking about where we might encounter a vacuum, and naturally my first thought went to the enormous + ever-expanding void that is space.

After a quick Google search for *sound in space* I was rather shocked to find that space isn’t so silent after all. True. Space is as close to a perfect vacuum as nature can get [after all nothing in nature is perfectly perfect]. But, just like here on Earth, far-off planets, stars, and black holes play out their own signature songs, which we can actually hear sung aloud if given the proper equipment. In fact, there is a whole field of astronomy–dubbed radio astronomydedicated to translating the super long-range // low-energy radio waves emitted by celestial bodies into sound using ordinary radio receivers. Radio astronomers can interpret the humming + hissing // pulsing + pounding of these celestial songs to glean information about the inner workings of outer space. For instance, we can ensonify outer worldly phenomena from the rumbling of storms on Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io to the hissing of high energy solar flares on the surface of our sun.

Fine. So the sounds of the universe can travel to our earthly ears [granted via interpretation + manipulation] as low-energy radio waves moving through the near perfect void that is space. But what if we were in the middle of that void just floating about… could we hear those sounds? In her TED talk, astrophysicist Janna Levin paints a sonic picture of the sound the universe makes–namely, the percussive beating of space-time as patches of our universe collapse into black holes. Dark against a dark sky, black holes remain invisible to us. Nevertheless, we can hear them by the havoc they wreak on the fabric of space-time:

If you were standing near enough, your ear would resonate with the squeezing and stretching of space. You would literally hear the sound. Now of course, your head would be squeezed and stretched unhelpfully, so you might have trouble understanding what’s going on!

Even in an atmosphere [nearly] devoid of the very stuff that makes sounds sound, the universe has still managed something like it’s own definitively non-silent celestial soundscape–a deep void rich with sonic stirrings + textures. Accordingly, I’ve decided to leave you with some aural snapshots of some of the most resounding sounds in the universe.

X Class Solar Flare. Click to listen. Photo courtesy of NASA/SDO/AIA.

Artist’s rendering of a black hole. Click to listen. [Credit: NASA/ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)]

Artist’s rendering of a black hole. Click to listen. [Credit: NASA/ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)]

For the last few months I have been interviewing local artists and am constantly amazed // invigorated by how my conversations with them have added an entirely new dimension to my own scientific thoughts and curiosities. Stay tuned for more Conversations with Artists!!