Favorite Sounds of 2008

January 2, 2009
sounds described by EMF Subscribers
compiled by suzanne thorpe

We had an idea for the end of 2008. We thought, well, EMF's network consists of a remarkable group of composers and sound artists, all of them professionally involved with sound. And all of them attentive to sound and sensitive in their listening. So we invited everyone to send us a description of their favorite sound of 2008. We received many responses, from the US, Canada, France, Italy, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries, all of them fascinating, some of them describing musical sounds, some nature sounds, some sounds made by people. Here are responses from John Bauerlein, Walter Branchi, Ben Chadabe, Joel Chadabe, Phil Dadson, Andrew Dalio, Kristopher Daniel, Michael S. Horwood, Alcides Lanza, Mary Jane Leach, JoEllen Livick, Eric Lyon, Barton McLean, Priscilla McLean, Norbert Oldani, Matt Rogalsky, Arielle Saiber, Eleonor Sandresky, Margaret Schedel, Ramon Sender, Elzbieta Sikora, Gordon W. Smith, Suzanne Thorpe, Daniel Valente, Hildegard Westerkamp, Joshua Zalow. We hope you enjoy them. And for 2009, we have a suggestion for you ... Listen!


Our question: What was your favorite sound of 2008?

Two days before Thanksgiving, I was in Chicago's Orchestra Hall, listening to Mahler's 2nd Symphony (CSO and B. Haitink). What "set my hair on end" was the initiation of a sound, as the string basses started the movement of the bow across the string. The resin on the bow, and the pressure of the bow hairs on the string, caused a guttural sound that helped define what was to come (pitch, tone and dynamic phrasings). Like the "chiff" of a baroque organ, this noise effect gives the music character. Whether it was the acoustics of the hall (which means I have rarely heard this in other concert halls), the use of a German bow versus a French bow, or the manner in which the section and conductor wanted their ideas interpreted, the sound gave me great pleasure. - John Bauerlein

Any sound that is in relationship with any other sound - Walter Branchi

The sound of a Lyre bird mimicking a chainsaw - Ben Chadabe

Imagine that you're standing very still at about an hour before low tide in a mussel bed near Dunham Point, near the town of Sunset on Deer Isle, Maine. There's a mild wind. Birds nearby. A loon sings its call. Water passes through some rocks. You're listening. And what you're hearing is a very quiet crackling kind of sound that you can't quite place but it seems to be all around you. As you stand there, attentive but completely still and quiet, it seems to get slightly louder and very present. All the more beautiful because you don't know what it is. - Joel Chadabe


Sound in a mussel bed



Near Dunham Point, an hour or so before low tide

17 hot air balloons and a brass band, burners blasting into crisp morning air, each basket with one or more brass players inside, playing long notes on the lengths of breaths, recorded as an event, Breath of Wind, in Easter 2008. - Phil Dadson


Breath of Wind

For me, it was the sound of a most appreciative, rather small audience at McKeown's Books & Difficult Music, for the two shows I gave there this year. There may have been about 20 people at each, but the knowledge that they were there to hear music, and be challenged by it, made the applause that much sweeter. The free wine and getting paid were nice, too ... - Andrew Dalio

My favorite sound of this year was my baby daughter’s laughter. It’s a warm, belly-filled chuckle that rises in pitch until reaches a short-circuited, white-noise squeal. Such unabashed glee is an amazing thing to hear, and it’s great to be the cause of it. - Kristopher Daniel

My most distinctive sound for 2008 was heard in early February, on a trip to South America. Specifically it was on a speedboat ride up the Parana River and UNDER the incredible Iguacu Falls that border on Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. The roar of over 160 waterfalls is visually and audally so spectacular that it humbles even the most jaded. But to go underneath them, getting thoroughly drenched as well, was an experience I shall never forget. If you've been thrilled on the "Maid of the Mist" boat ride closer to many of us at Niagara Falls, trust me, Iguacu Falls is significantly better on an order of magnitude: many, many notches higher. - Michael S. Horwood

While I was teaching a class on the history of electroacoustic music, we began listening to Pierre Henry's "Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir". We were playing the music and then (what a surprise), a student arrived late, and cautiously opened the door to the classroom. A strange situation developed: the creaking noises of Henry's music developed extra, unexpected variations from our old building door, musically and timbrically different, adding its own rhythm and unexpected noises to the masterpiece of Pierre Henry. We shared comments among the class, replayed our contribution to the celebrated musique concréte piece, and gave a round of applause to the discovered instrument. A nostalgic but very enjoyable audio-moment. - Alcides Lanza

When the temperature got warmer, and the ice began to melt off the trees, an amazing delicate tinkling sound started to happen as the ice began to expand. If there hadn't been a generator wailing away in the background, I would have recorded it. - Mary Jane Leach

I have spent the day on campus, trying to concentrate, but a small jangle of anxiety is growing during the day in the pit of my stomach. This evening's outcome, oh-so-slowly approaching, will be the culmination of either my worst thoughts on my American people, or a triumph of my belief in the same people. I cannot concentrate. I go home to my apartment,  way up on the upper east side, and turn on the television for the first time in months. Returns are just barely in; I pace. I convince myself that the events of this same evening, four years ago, could not possibly be repeated. I pace some more. It is so quiet outside in the streets - is everyone holding their breath? Where are the cars? I sit. I fall asleep. I wake up and look at the screen; McCain is stepping to the podium to deliver - what? A concession? This can't be - it's too early - and then I hear it. A loud, thick wall of sound. Something is happening outside. I yank open the fire escape door and step outside. There is nothing on the street; literally, nothing. No people, taxis, sirens, bells, there is not even wind. Even that has been sucked off the concrete. But this swell of sound is seeping like thick syrup through the buildings to the north. It does not emanate from a specific point; this wall of noise flows as a thick line from many blocks away, loud but not harsh. The sound does not waver; it remains at a constant level and waves of it are washing down the avenues. I cannot imagine what it is. So I do what I discover many others are doing; we take to the streets and head for the source. Within ten blocks I know what it is. It is the grand, monumental total of great joy on 125th street; a celebration of thousands of voices, the blaring of thousands of horns; clapping, music, bells, shouts; the sheer rapture of hope grasping Obama's victory. - JoEllen Livick

The most distinctive sound I heard in 2008 was the sound of a solo piano piece - Caténaires (2006) by Elliott Carter, in a stunning recording by Ursula Oppens. In this wonderful little piece, Carter concentrates so many strong points of his more expansive works: set-based harmonic fields, a sonorous orchestration which continuously varies in articulation and registration, a flair for vivid, surprising events and gestures, and perhaps most important, a sense of many things happening simultaneously over different time-scales. Somehow, improbably, Carter managed to graft all of this onto a rapid monophonic stream of 16th notes. So for me, Caténaires is the sound of the idea of Elliott Carter's music. - Eric Lyon

The best sound I've heard all year was the absolute silence experienced collectively by 1200 audience members between pieces at the premiere opening of the new EMPAC Concert Hall at RPI in Troy, NY. Getting 1200 people to be quiet en masse is one thing. Having a state of the art concert hall with absolutey no fan noise, no ambient noise of any kind, is another. And having all this in the presence of the visual stimulation of an architecturally elegant space blew my mind. Absolute silence focuses the mind. With it, one can realize the profound expectation of the greatest sounds ever heard to follow. This may not happen, but at least for these precious moments, anything is possible, placing the burden, and the excitement of discovery, on one's internal mental sound generator. Absolute silence is as unsettling as it is invigorating. - Barton McLean

My favorite sound is a piece called "Cinema for the Ear" by Robert Normandeau, a 40-loudspeaker rendition of his sixteen-channel piece premiered at EMPAC on Oct. 9, 2008 in their brand-new main concert hall. What was so enthralling was the clarity of sounds, each emanating from a speaker somewhere over your head or to your side... just hundreds of small interesting sounds, mostly vocal, creating this mass volcano of "acousmatic" music (Normandeau's term), which I and many others found fascinating. And it kept changing and remained interesting for the entire 80 minutes of the piece. - Priscilla McLean

My favorite sound used to be the sound of a brook or stream off in the distance as I hiked or climbed in central New York. However in 2008 my favorite sound was the sound of the radiation machine at the Faxton central New York Cancer center as I received treatments for prostate cancer. Since then I still hike. - Norbert Oldani

Not the most remarkable sound I heard this year perhaps, but interesting and a bit funny. In Costa Rica, out after midnight recording insect sounds, I heard this sound off in the roadside grasses, and I quietly crept up on it so as not to scare away the insect or animal. After listening to it a few times (it happened about every 30 seconds) I traced it to an irrigation hose. - Matt Rogalsky


Insects and Irrigation

A cherry bomb, or m80, went off under the massive marble portico of the San Francesco di Paola Church, in Piazza Plebiscito, Naples, Italy. It was raining and just after dusk. My partner and I were standing near the middle of the piazza and the bomb went off to the right of the main entrance. The echo through the semi-circular portico and out into the piazza was a huge, strikingly clean reverberation. Needless to say, it was terrifying and made our hearts beat at warp speed. - Arielle Saiber




San Francesco di Paola

This past summer , the very end of summer, I was at a large lake which also serves as a nature preserve. Mid-summer it is full of people, but this was mid-week, and just a few days before the start of fall, so there wasn't anyone around. I was out in the field recording nature sounds, and it was extraordinarily quiet. It was quite windy on the lake, and a small flock of birds flew in. Just as they were hovering over a concrete slab, a weird, great reverb kicked up between the water and the concrete. It was great! That's my favorite sound this year. - Eleonor Sandresky

This November the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players performed Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. It is such an iconic piece and, having listened to it so many times on recordings, it was a treat to hear it performed live. As the first bass clarinet note swelled out I realized I had never once dissected this music into its component parts. I never knew that the first note was played by a bass clarinet. I never counted how many mallet instruments, of what type, realized that there were live human voices (not samples), or known that there were four (FOUR!) pianos. Unlike most acoustic music, I never actually broke this piece down into lines, I just accepted it for what it was. I naturally took the deep listening approach to the work, instead of my usual more academic approach. During the concert I sat there entranced for nearly an hour, moving my head slightly to hear the difference in the sound, watching the performers groove in a concert I will never forget. - Margaret Schedel

My favorite sound is the one emitted when practicing Purring to Nirvana, which can be seen here. Further details about Purring to Nirvana can be found here. - Ramon Sender

My favorite sound of the year was heard while bicycling through a path in the Debki woods, where the autumn let all the colorful, dry and crispy leaves fall to the ground. Bicycling on them made all kinds of aleatoric rhythms and melodies. I can play with them and choose to pass, and bigger or smaller branches introduced accents, dynamics and tempo changes. The sea is not far from there and I could hear its tempest or peace. Nobody was around. Happiness. - Elzbieta Sikora

The sound of a generator, operating on a building site next to the site I was working on. Constant and always at the same pitch, the volume varied only when other noises came in to play. Activities also allowed the sound to recede into the background and attention would be deflected. While inside my building I could not hear the sound and it was only on occasions when I was outside that awareness of the sound was there. Inside, the building was empty and silent. I walked the passageways, and was made aware of my physical presence within the space through my own movement and echo. I was engaged with the sounds that happen in a building, and the sense of them, the concentrated listening brought about by an inner sense of self-awareness. Sudden noises of doors gone through and closing, the descriptive noises of objects handled together combined in my mind with the overpowering sense of the space itself. The contrast and naturally composed elements of both sound situations feed my ideas of music. My real-time experience of elements impressed themselves upon me, and the way that I interacted with them in time and space. As I now reflect on them in memory, I consciously recall them as accurately as possible. Keeping the singularity of each sound in mind, and knowing how each was part of a entire experience, I am aware of how this is the way that I see music and its real significance. - Gordon W. Smith


Generator Tones

The sound of metalic ends of tarps being blown in the wind, on a contruction site on the corner of N. 5th and Kent Ave., Williamsburg, NY. - Suzanne Thorpe

The sounds of the generators blowing up at the power grid near my apartment during and after an Upstate New York ice storm. - Daniel Valente

Silent cars in Vancouver's neighbourhoods! A thick blanket of snow has covered the city now for more than 3 weeks---unusually long in these West coast regions of Canada. The streets have been emptied of motor sounds. If an occasional four wheel drive passes through, its motor swishes by in a whisper. Other sounds fill the silence now, lively, intermittent sounds: snow shoveling and scraping (no snow blowers here!), children's voices excited by the snow, cross country skis and toboggans gliding by, people's footsteps in snow, the occasional child crying, people stopping to talk with each other. I can have a conversation with our neighbours across the street, can hear every word they say, no passing car interrupts us. People living in our street who have never spoken with each other suddenly communicate. It is as if the snow has encouraged connection, the silence has opened possibilities and hearts. We help each other out, pushing stuck cars, shoveling endlessly, daily... Only occasionally does one hear tires of inexperienced drivers spinning impatiently, screaming at the injustice of it all, of being slowed down by the weather! But mostly there is this lively, bright silence and a kind of smiling calm in many people's faces. - Hildegard Westerkamp



The silence of snow

The sound of a friend kissing me on the cheek. - Joshua Zaslow