Quarterly Update: Interviews, Research, and more

It’s been about three months into the project, and I’m excited to share some of my research materials and process! Below are just some of the research angles I’m exploring (and a bit about my involvement in each of them) as this project progresses. 

First up, I’ve had two amazing interviews recently, one with infrasonic specialist and paranormal researcher Steve Parsons, and one with amplification specialist (one of the co-engineers of the Grateful Dead’s “Wall of Sound”), and luthier Rick Turner.

Steve Parsons:

I was fortunate to be able to speak with Steve regarding a number of different topics: everything from his involvement with the production of specialty infrasonic generating and measurement devices, to histories of early experiments with infrasound, effects (and myths surrounding) of infrasound’s relation to the human body, and his experiences working with parapsychology, ghost hunting, and paranormal experiences.

We spoke at length about some of myths, media hypes, and tropes surrounding conversations about infrasound – ways in which its own reputation as a dangerous and destructive force propagate as widely as the soundwaves themselves. Important to this conversation was the emphasis on context in regards to perception (or perceived perception) of infrasound. As Parsons’ work with relations between infrasound and paranormal experiences are based in questioning why people have experiences that they interpret as ‘paranormal experiences?’ we looked at associations between commonly reported physiological effects of ‘being haunted’ and effects of exposure to infrasonic sound.  Interestingly, the reported effects are quite similar, but Parsons notes that infrasound by itself (in an abstract sense) is not really enough to engender the idea of ‘being haunted’ as related to a core-cause of these physiological expressions. Instead, the notion of ‘hauntedness’ is implied by contextual relation to other stimuli – for instance, infrasonic generation within a physical space that might be popularly perceived to be a haunted location, or else fulfilling aspects of popular ideas of what a ‘haunted location’ might look like. Therefore, exposure to infrasound certainly has the ability to create specific psychological and physiological effects, but designing context around situations is a primary determinant for how the brain is able to process this sound field.

Parsons knowledge about infrasound extends as well to histories of experiments with, and uses of infrasound. Early understandings of infrasound, of course, were planetary and geological in nature. Parsons notes that some early experiments with infrasound were responses to reported ‘premonitions’ of seismic and planetary events. Early uses of infrasound in music, for example, by religious composers can be traced back to the development of the lowest tones of the church organ (64 – 16Hz), which were noted as inspiring awe and presence through subsonic spatial vibrations. We should understand this as well as another example of the contextual power of infrasonic processing – replacing the haunted castle with the sky-piercing cathedral, we might also swap the contextual associations of anxiety, shallow breathing, and feeling of being ill-at-ease, with re-assuring senses of the religious sublime, the planetary, the sweeping divine sensibility.

Rick Turner:

Rick Turner is the founder of Rick Turner Guitars and Alembic Inc., and whose work can be seen in the hands of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplance, Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and Led Zeppelin, to name a few. Additionally, Turner was one of the co-engineers who worked with Owsley "Bear" Stanley to bring the Grateful Dead’s “Wall of Sound” design to life -- a speaker system totaling over 600 speakers and more than 26,000 watts of power.

Rick is a specialist in low-end design (and audio circuit design particularly), and so our conversation tended to involve more of the specific problems and puzzles related to developing infrasonic hardware systems. As most of the conversation might be better suited for a technical paper, I won’t describe it at length here, but suffice it to say for now that I’m hard at work looking into more creative ways for circuit engineering to augment both subwoofer and tactile bass response systems.

We talked at length as well about some interesting ideas related to conceptualizing this project as a sort of ‘human crossover system” dealing between tactile and audible sub-bass frequencies.  Turner thinks that the idea of sound as touch is constantly under-appreciated, and that he sees a need for more sensitive technologies involving infrasound to be developed which can bridge these gaps. At what point (or what amplitude, or in what spaces) are touch and hearing distinct? When do they blend? And what might be some experimental or novel ways to combine them in performance situations? Rick has given me a lot of technical food for thought, so I look forward to being in further communication with him!

Faculty Research

Dr. Luke Windsor, Dr. Freya Bailes and I are coming up with schemes and research methodologies for testing human responses to infrasound in both laboratory and performance situations. We’re weighing different angles of approach at the moment, looking into both memory-based recall situations, as well as physiological measurements. Additionally, we’re exploring possibilities for incorporating measurement data into live performance situations. More on this to come (as well as other projects) as they develop!

Reading List (Abridged.)

In addition to interviews and faculty research, here’s a quick look at some of the research I’ve been looking into independently:

·      Shelley Trower’s Senses of Vibration: A History of the Pleasure and Pain of Sound is an amazing and thorough look into vibration as a category of sensation from the eighteenth- to the early twentieth-century. Trower tracks appearances and invocations of vibration through Victorian times as it appears in narratives such as spiritualism, gothic and romantic poetry, modern geology, development of electricity, train travel, and sexuality.

·      Hillel Schwartz’s Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang & Beyond – a sensitive poetic, and extraordinarily non-linear approach to tracing relationships between noise and the human body. There is no real way to sum up the topics covered in this massive tome, but suffice it to say it is a must-read.

·      Research papers on determining levels of audibility and pain thresholds from infrasonic and near-infrasonic sound (Feldman and Pitten 2004; Shust 2004)

·      Infrasound produced by glacial calving events (Richardson, Waite, FitzGerald et. al. 2010)

·      Relationships of infrasound to paranormal occurrences (Parsons, 2012)

·      Atmospheric propagation of low-frequency sound (Kulichkov 2004)

·      Low-Frequency perception (Meller and Pedersen 2004)

·      Unexpected information from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (Stone 2002)

·      And much, much more…