INPUT: NOISE / OUTPUT: SOUND (M.A.L. sound collage) + project write-up

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014 by willm2

INPUT: NOISE / OUTPUT: SOUND (M.A.L. sound collage): Final Project Write-up


Listen to the MP3 here: INPUT: NOISE / OUTPUT: SOUND (M.A.L. sound collage)




Among the Dadaists, Futurists, and Surrealists we read in week 7, I was especially interested in Luigi Russolo and his letter which detailed his idea of a Futurist orchestra. His comments about the restrictive nature of contemporary (at his time) music, based on the Greek system of tetracords, was an interesting compliment to the works on discourse network we had read the week previous. By limiting all sound to the consonant intervals mathematically determined by Pythagoras, the Greeks “made impossible harmony they were unaware of.” (Russolo 5) I saw this as an illuminating analogy to the reality-system we view as absolute, but which in fact is merely a product of a certain way of knowing. Russolo’s desire to create noise machines based on the sounds of modernity (cars, industry, war) seemed to spring from a desire to cast off the restrictions of a false-absolute world-picture. Where I broke with Russolo was his technophilia. He wanted to replicate and amplify the sound of machinery because he thought it an appropriate soundtrack to the “increasing proliferation of machinery sharing in human labor” (Ibid 5); it’s clear from his letter that he whole-heartedly thought the mechanization of society was something desirable.


My simultaneous interest/criticism of Russolo’s noise-art project led me to the conception for my own project: a sound collage of the Media Archaeology Lab.




My intent in creating a sound collage was two-fold: first, to show a different model of sound that could stand in contrast to the still present and still limiting array of ‘respectable’ sounds that structure today’s interchangeable mainstream pop music (most of which ironically sounds like the work of machines), and second, to critique Russolo by resisting the idealization of technological progress. In sum: noise can be beautiful, progress not so much. I wanted to reconceive the notion of archive (in the Foucauldian sense) to build on the latter idea. The Media Archaeology Lab is arranged in a way that sometimes suggests an improvement of technology over time. The line of portable computers, for example, begins with the oldest and ends with the newest. When arranged in this fashion, it is hard not to see a refinement of form and an improvement in components. While this improvement is not a complete fantasy (I really don’t want to carry around a 25 pound “portable” computer), it is reductive to view the devices by only these two variables. By scrambling the linear archive, we open up the possibility of new variables to discuss. A sound collage makes no explicit suggestions for other ways to arrange media; it does, however, show that technology can be set into different arrangements, some harmonious, others cacophonous.


The collage I did not want to make would have begun with the churning and groaning of primitive machinery and ended in the total silence of the Apple Store (sans customers). Instead of this narrative, I sought to represent one that was random, strange, circuitous, ruptured.




Creeping like a thief across the freshly waxed floors of the M.A.L. on a Thursday night in April, I laid my Macbook Pro alongside the Apple ][e, inserted the 5¼ floppy disk of bpNichol’s First Screening, flipped the power switch, and hit record. The program was GarageBand, bundleware with every MBP, the microphone was a silver circle on the computer’s side no bigger than a thumbtack. While I did not end up using First Screening in the sound collage, it became the first of around 55 devices/sounds I committed to the memory of my laptop. I tried to record the sounds that were most emblematic of each machine. The entry/eject sounds of computers that required boot-disks. The serene start-up tones of every Macintosh computer. The hideous whine of the NeXT Cube harddrive reading itself on start-up. I captured ambient sounds: background conversation, keyboards clicking, office chairs skirling over the tile floor. The only sounds which were expressly musical (except perhaps for the Mac start-up tones) were those of videogames for the Vectrex, the NES, and the Atari 2600. Asteroids on the 2600, I later discovered, was the first game to ever feature music. I also made noise: I vigorously shook an 8 inch FORTRAN disk (in effect, flopping it).


After I recorded at least one sound from nearly every computer/device in the lab, I set about organizing them by type. Not hardware or software type, but sound-type. Drawing inspiration from Russolo, who organized city sounds into six categories, I arranged the M.A.L. sounds as follows (those used in the collage are bolded):


Drone / whir / buzz

-Altair fan

-Apple Lisa fan

-NeXT Cube fan

-Intellivision Ice Magic

-IBM fan

-Xerox 6016 printer


Susurrus / warble

-FORTRAN disk flopping

-FORTRAN disk pulled in/out of sleeve

-Mouse scraping across table

-Office chair rolling

-Powerbook trackball


Percussive / plosive / thunk

-Nintendo load cartridge

-Atari load cartridge

-Intellivision load cartridge

-Altair switches being flipped

-Mac disk load/eject

-Apple ][e disk load/eject

-Apple III disk load/eject

-Commodore tape deck open/close

-Radioshack disk load/eject

-WP print sound

-Olympia typing

-NeXT mouse clicking

-Amiga mouse clicking

-Portable Mac open/close

-3×5 disks stacking

-3×5 disk datagate open/close

-Osbourne typing

-Apple III typing


Beep / screech / error

-Word Processor error

-Apple ][e error

-NeXt Cube hard-drive read

-Apple ][e start-up screech




-Vectrex start up

-Vectrex Star Trek

-Vectrex Star Castle

-Vectrex Melody Maker

-Nintendo Track and Field

-Nintendo Zelda 2

-Atari 2600 Asteroids



Mac Centris startup tone

-iMac startup tone

-iBook clamshell startup tone

-Powerbook startup tone

-eBook startup tone

-iMac 3 startup tone

-iBook G4 startup tone

-Mac Classic 2 startup


After I had organized the sounds in this fashion, I came up with a general plan for how the collage would work. In order to present a non-linear (and non-corporatized) archive, I wanted to mix new/old, hardware/software, intentional/unintentional sound, error/proper functioning, and machine/human. I wanted the beginning and end of the collage to be similarly ambient, with the middle being a site of dissonance which would increase to the point of discomfort on the part of the viewer. The Drone, Susurrus, and Charm categories featured heavily in the beginning and end, and Percussion mainly occupied the middle. I kept the sounds of the beginning continuing through the middle dissonance, though at a reduced volume, then brought them back for the end. While I did clip and loop various sounds, as well as adjusting volume, I made absolutely no changes to the sounds themselves, happily ignoring the hundreds of ‘effects’ that come with GarageBand. Nor did I alter pitch in any way. Some odd effects happened unexpectedly of course. For instance, I did not expect the FORTRAN disk warble to have such a strong underlying bass-tone. I arranged the sounds in a kind of rhythmic order, sometimes layering two or three identical versions of the same sound in order to get more volume or to mask their beginning or end. The Altair fan and the Xerox 6016 printer sounds were layered three times each, while the eMac start-up tone was partially overlapped across 5 different tracks. I faded various sounds in/out accordingly to create smooth transformation of mood throughout the collage.




One aspect of the collage that caught me by surprise was how it took on the sounds of other machinery. In particular – and this may be a product of endless repetitive listening – the FORTRAN disk warble began to remind me of an oncoming train. In my demo of the project, another student (Sammy I believe) remarked that the cascade of Mac start-up tones at the end reminded her too of an approaching train. This is an apt metaphor for the sound collage. A train barrels into the station, at first its sound is distant and ambient, not entirely unpleasant. As it closes the distance, the sound of its machinery grows louder and louder until it becomes a din. Just as it becomes overwhelming, unbearable, it somehow returns again without ever having left, again distant and calm, and again growing louder.


Works Cited:


Russolo, Luigi, and Robert Filliou. The Art of Noise: (futurist manifesto, 1913). New York: Something Else Press, 1967. Ebook.


One comment on “INPUT: NOISE / OUTPUT: SOUND (M.A.L. sound collage) + project write-up

  1. […] Name: Will MinorTitle: INPUT: NOISE  OUTPUT:SOUND – A Media Archaeology Lab Sound CollageSummary:  A sound collage composed of recorded samples from over 50 different computers and devices in the Media Archaeology Lab.Onsite:NoDuration: NAEquipment: MP3Documentation: Sound Collage, Write Up […]

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