Touch from a Distance

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There's a likely apocryphal story about Guglielmo Marconi that I've never wanted to ruin with research.

I'm still going to tell it to you.

As the legend goes, the father of radio was struck with an epiphany while watching grains of pollen dance inside a puddle outside. People walking along the path would, unsurprisingly, stir the grains of pollen into motion with the vibrations from their feet. Marconi realized that, as all sounds are physical vibrations, and all vibrations have to propagate through something physical, all sounds in the history of the universe have been, in some way, “recorded” into our material world. Every piece of audio has a visual counterpart. We just don't tend to know where to look to find them.

Marconi's principle, 1993, colorized.

Marconi's principle, 1993, colorized.

Most of us would have stopped at that little profundity and happily carried on with our normal lives. Marconi, however, wanted to take it one step further. Assuming one could build a pressure sensor fine enough, he concluded that one could reconstruct conversations from the dead. In his mind's eye (no jokes intended), he thought sounds would never "die," simply get quieter and quieter until nothing could sense them. The details of this story are certainly a bit sketchy, but I can attest to this final fact. Marconi spent his final years attempting to build a device sensitive enough to listen to Jesus’ sermon on the mount. 

Christ.

Much to all of our relief, this device was never invented and will never be. Marconi’s idea, much like the man according to most accounts, was eccentric and surprisingly inefficient. However, at the core of this invention lies a rather beautiful and simple reminder: all sound has a visual counterpoint. As air particles bump together like dominoes in your ear canal, they push a series of hairs arranged in a spiral-like pattern. These hairs, in turn, activate various electrical potentials that we have given a meaning to. To call audio profound is an understatement. In the words of Diana Deutsch, sound is “touch from a distance.” 

As you can guess, this week's post isn't really about an "invented" instrument, and more a bunch of interesting inventions to complement them. For Joan Villaperros, contextualizing sound as touch takes on an almost religious meaning. Joan is a Costa Rican electrical engineer, though calling him that feels a bit disingenuous. He’s a professional hacker of hardware—turning everything from fax machines to children’s toys into pieces of verifiable music.

Joan is also the owner of a workshop, La Jauria, and teaches weekly classes at the Cultural Center of Spain. Last week, we stripped apart a ton of television monitors from the late 90s. As someone who took apart plenty of household items as a child, visiting La Jauria was half “kid in a candy store” and half “bull in a china shop.” My first year of college, I honestly signed up for a seminar called “Deconstructing Technology,” presuming we’d be taking apart VCRs. On the first day of class, I not only found that I would not be taking apart a VCR, but I would have to write a ten page paper on the history of batteries.

This is to say that meeting Joan in person was a bit like meeting an enthusiastic freshman, and I mean this in the best possible way.

Joan’s other projects include wiring a camera to a remote control car, and letting you actually drive it via racing game console. He also builds synthesizers out of virtually anything at the local flea market. (If you ever get to visit a flea market with this man, please don’t pass up the offer.) I, oddly enough, met Joan in a music technology Facebook group two years ago. We discussed a project that we’ll finally be making (details coming later). Upon our first meeting, however, he mentioned a second hobby of his. It’s called “cymatics.” Put simply, it’s the practice of illustrating the physical shape of sound. A bit more abstractly, it’s sonic alchemy. 

Even the word “cymatics” was totally unknown to me until about a week ago, when Joan proposed we try it out. We were joined by the trombonist and composer Andres Cervilla, who kindly lent us his bass drumhead. Invert the head, place it over a subwoofer, pour some water in, ensure Andres' face is reflected, and drop out. 

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We then spent a few hours working with milk. 

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And ink. 

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And paint.

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And glycerine.

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Ask Joan about cymatics and he'll wane philosophical. The entire earth is shaped by the atmosphere that surrounds us, and, if you don’t mind the occasional paint splatter, you can be an audience to audio at its most intimate. We are cymatic products of the world around us—weird bags of viscera that both come from, and die in, the atmosphere. Best yet, all that’s needed to remind you of that is a subwoofer and some water. 

But for me, cymatics is a reminder that sound is physical contact. It can be an affront, a threat, and an often non-consensual tug at your ear canal. But with that comes a sense of potential intimacy--attending a concert is an invitation to have your nerves played around with by a team of professionals. It's exciting, it's real, and it's far too important to not pay attention to.

Cymatics is a reminder that music, in all its profundity, literally touches all of us. 

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