Sound has an unusual place in my life, both as a curator and outside the museum. Few people know that British Columbia in the 1960s and 1970s was the scene of some marvellous work on recording and discussing the soundscapes of Vancouver, through the work of composer R. Murray Schaeffer. In his book The Tuning of the World he shows us how the sounds of our environment shape our sense of place and identity. Another person I hold in high esteem is Bernie Krause, who went from working with the early Moog synthesizers, to recording hundreds of vanishing wild sounds as nature was under siege.
While objects are the central focus of my life as a curator, sound is often their invisible context. Place is implied to the visitor in our galleries by simple sounds: the cart and hooves outside a kitchen window, the dominos in Chinatown and the sounds of animals. The certainty you are in a forest is reinforced by a Raven’s call. The wet, cold mine becomes real to you with the sound of distant hammering and the dripping of water. The ship creaks and gulls call.
Our galleries have a hidden history. Their sound technology has evolved, from audio tape loops and 8-track cartridges, to laser disk audio, and on to wave players with no moving parts. Sound is captured, stored and retrieved as digital files in memory chips and converted into analog audio events. I’ve thought about these and other changes when selecting objects for Century Hall. One thread in those cases is sound. It starts with the telegraph “bug” so nicknamed for the clicking sound of a cockroach.
As a technology the telegraph first came to BC over two decades before the railway, in an attempt to by the Collins Overland Company to link us via Siberia to Europe. Recently I finished that collection by collecting the “bug” used to send the last railway telegraph in North America.
To carry those telegraphic sparks across oceans, lines wrapped in Gutta Percha, natural rubber, coated thousands of miles of undersea cables. The line left Canada at Bamfield and linked us to New Zealand, Australia, and India. Few people remain today who have worked with the sound of sparks moving along copper wires, carrying messages that moved information, capital, armies and governments.
Gramophone horns met their fate around 1925 when the modern speaker was invented. Radio changed everything; some show their vacuum tube internal workings, others illustrate how the transistor made radio smaller. How we recorded sound also went through radical technological shifts, from cut-into-wax Edison cylinders which gave way to Berliner flat discs, or magnetic spools of wire which gave way to iron particles on tape used in the 8-track or cassette. Digital storage created the CD and then, last century, back in 1999 local shops began to sell something new called an mp3 player.
In parallel with these changes my own personal exploration of sound began with my father’s reel to reel that had an echo and a multi-track feature. I listened to records like Switched on Bach and experimental works. My first synthesizer soon followed, a Roland SH3 designed by Ikutaro Kakehashi, and then a Minimoog designed by engineer Robert Moog. I studied Brian Eno’s records for technique and symphonic players like Rick Wakeman, the Tangerine Dream Berlin school, disco sound designers like Giorgio Moroder, and early punk (Mute records) and industrial artists, and the emergence of techno.
One day, tired of dragging heavy keyboards to practise, something changed. I discovered what a new generation was doing. There were noise artists pushing boundaries, much like György Ligeti did in the 1960s. They were building new instruments. A generation of young cottage industry inventors and engineers used free software to draw new instrument circuits and email them to be made into circuit boards by small manufacturers. CAD designs were sent to computer controlled lathes to make cases for the circuit boards. Interesting in design and sound and pocket-sized, I gravitated towards these new instruments. I found a DIY global community of individuals with soldering irons building new instruments and approaches to sound.
Small kits began arriving from young engineers in places like Austin, Bristol, Chicago, New York, Portland, Paris, and Seattle. Their instruments were self-contained and unpredictable. Designs by Tom Bugs or Eric Archer use light to manipulate or create sound. The player’s body becomes part of the circuit using copper contact points. Changes are visceral and dynamic. The designs contain both an homage to past designs and radical new ways of manipulating sound.
One could make something one night, perform with it the next, and encourage others to make their own instruments. The line between performer and builder blurred as the technology became a very democratic grassroots community. Stuck on a circuit you’re building? Call on the global forum for help. Like an idea? Help fund it through crowd-sourcing.
Isn’t this all just noise? Or worse, a collector’s fetish? Perhaps, but then, what is music? Molecules and pressure waves move invisibly in patterns and events in the air around us, yet have an incredible emotional effect upon us. This offers a way to be tactile in a digital world. It subverts the computer by using it to make new music without computers. I suspect it makes me a better curator when I consider objects and technology, study how things are made or used, and how technological shifts happen. And to paraphrase R. Murray Schaeffer, wherever you are: Listen.
Want to learn more? Visit these other excellent Canadian museums. The Canadian Science and Technology’s has Canada’s first electronic instrument builder’s collection, built by scientist Hugh Le Caine (1914-1977). Possibly the largest collection of electronic music instruments on the planet is in Calgary, at the National Music Centre.