Earthquake-forged music premieres in Wellington

FEEL IT: Jo Burzynska has made an earthquake recording, Body Waves, in collaboration with Melbourne sound artist Malcolm Riddich. The image in the background is train tracks in Lyttleton.
FEEL IT: Jo Burzynska has made an earthquake recording, Body Waves, in collaboration with Melbourne sound artist Malcolm Riddich. The image in the background is train tracks in Lyttleton.

Jo Burzynska was at home in Lyttelton, Christchurch, when the quake struck on February 22, 2011.

The sound artist, who performs as Stanier Black-Five, first gathered her senses, she recalls, before picking up her phone, purse and recording device.

As she fled her home, she pressed the record button of the recording device and placed it on her front doorstep.

The hour-long recording she took on that day has been turned into a soundscape, a piece of sonic art.

"I can't stop recording things. It's funny that it was part of my emergency pack," Burzynska says.

"I left it running while everything unfolded . . . the sheer number of aftershocks; I wasn't conscious of there being as many as there were. The sounds on the street, alarms going off, people gathering and talking on the street, the radio being turned on and hearing what was happening in Christchurch. It's a powerful document of what happened in my street after the earthquake." Later she recorded more general sounds. Her home being evacuated because of the threat of a boulder coming down, helicopters hovering overhead, early demolitions of Lyttelton buildings.

In collaboration with Melbourne sound artist Malcolm Riddoch, Burzynska has called the piece Body Waves.

Thanks to the support of the Sonic Arts programme at the New Zealand School of Music (a joint venture of Massey University and Victoria University of Wellington), and Massey University College of Creative Arts, the piece will have its New Zealand debut at the Great Hall at Massey University in Wellington on July 18.

"It's an evening of four experimental electronic music works exploring the natural harmonic resonance of one of the largest acoustic spaces in New Zealand - the Great Hall ," Burzynska explains.

Riddoch specialises in the use of the Larsen effect (microphone feedback) to "ring out" the unique resonant frequencies of an acoustic space. The four works track the evolution of his practice from simple pure tones through interference effects with acoustic instruments to the use of acoustically derived digital feedback controllers driving the electronic manipulation of sound. The only audio source for these first three works is the ambient noise within the acoustic space itself.

The final work, Body Waves with Burzynska, tunes her Christchurch earthquake infrasonic soundscape into the lowest fundamental resonant frequencies of the Great Hall to create music that goes beyond the auditory system to be felt in the body.

"We called the work Body Waves, as this is one of the two types of seismic waves - the ones which travel through the interior of the Earth rather than the surface. It also refers to the way the performance is perceived, which is as much through the body as via the ears," she explains.

"My sister, who is deaf, will be at the Wellington premiere. It's exciting for her as her world is a lot more focused on those low frequencies she can feel.

"The space at Massey is quite large so it will be exciting to attempt it there." The pair have been invited to perform it at the International Computer Music symposium in Slovenia in September.

Seismic waves are actually acoustic waves, soundwaves travelling from the source of an earthquake. However, we can't hear them as they pass through the medium of the Earth at a frequency too low for humans to register. Body Waves accentuates the lower frequency harmonics to create music that goes beyond the auditory system to be felt in the body.

Every performance venue has a unique set of natural resonant frequencies and Riddich uses a microphone to "ring out" a space and find that acoustic space's dominant feedback frequencies.

Using the lowest of these resonances he can tune Burzynska's earthquake soundscape to the space in which it is performed.

The result is like being in an enormous pipe organ except there is only one pipe and you're in it. The fixtures shake and your whole body resonates. This is music you can feel.

Infrasound refers to extreme bass waves or vibrations, those with a frequency below the audibility range of the human ear.

Even though we cannot hear these waves, they can be felt.

Such frequencies have been shown to produce a range of effects in some people, including anxiety, extreme sorrow and chills.

Burzynska describes herself as a "low-frequency nerd", and was curious about the effect her quake recordings might have on the body.

An early version of the soundscape was first performed at the Lines of Flight Festival, part of the Dunedin Fringe Festival, held just a month after the 2011 quake.

"I had to get a performance together for the festival and my head was all over the place at that point," Burzynska recalls. "I thought what on earth am I going to do? Then it struck me I had all these recordings, so I sat down and listened through.

"The first listen-through was quite powerful emotionally just listening back to those sounds.

"I made a piece of music using those recordings. I edited the samples and extracted bits out of those recordings and made it a sound collage for that festival. That was the first time I did anything with the recordings. I was nervous because it was so deeply personal, but hearing it in a live situation it sounded good regardless of my emotional connection with it; the sounds were amazing." She describes it as more of a relaxing experience than one might imagine.

"I like the rhythmical aspects of it as well.

"I used all my best aftershocks, sometimes at the ends of them people in the street were saying, 'Oohhh'.

"I arranged it like it was a journey through the experience, starting with the aftershocks, then the sirens and helicopters. I put little snatches in of the Lyttelton community party we had on the Saturday, and then the demolition. They create big crashes of sound so it tied in.

"Throughout the piece there are aftershocks coming through and it worked well sonically doing it that way." At the Dunedin performance, people that had fled to the city from Christchurch were among the crowd and it was an emotional event.

"It was just a month after the quake and we were all still processing what had happened. Someone did cry during that performance; there was a lot of emotion, but everyone was quite positive about it; they were emotional, but thought it was a good thing to do." The next step was, she says, making the soundscape "more visceral, more like an earthquake".

"I was talking to Malcolm Riddich who does things with vibrating spaces using the fundamental frequencies and we decided to do a collaboration that enhanced those low-frequency aspects of the recordings. It's a quadrophonic performance, the audience are in the middle with lots of sub-woofers around them so you get those powerful bass frequencies."

The next performance, at the Sound Spectrum Festival in Perth in May, was completely different, she says.

"It's not a simulation of an earthquake; it is an artistic arrangement of sound. In Perth, not having experienced many earthquakes if at all, they were more intrigued by it.

"The room was vibrating. When you get the fundamental frequency of the room, you are vibrating; when you talk, your voice vibrates, and you feel it in your chest cavity; you can hear the sound as well, but one of the most powerful things about it is that it is music that you feel." The theme of this year's International Computer Music conference is non-cochlear music, interpreted as being music that is conceptual or felt rather than heard. The pair submitted Body Waves and were gratified by the response.

"It moves around every year, this year it's being held in Slovenia. They described Body Waves as a 'must-have' for the festival.

"There are not that many people who have substantial recordings of earthquakes. Some people have done things, pitching seismic recordings up so it puts it into the frequency range you can hear, but not many recordings of earthquakes.

"Also, power outages often coincide with quakes, so people usually only capture the beginning of a quake." The performance is usually no more than 15 to 20 minutes long and different every time it is performed.

Burzynska describes it as "intense experience" which is probably better kept short. "I mix it live as we go. It's a matter of what feels right on the night of the performance." After the conference in Slovenia, it will also be performed in London following an invitation from Goldsmiths University.

Burzynska is also a professional wine writer and combining it with her sound artist enthusiasm was a natural progression.

This month she has been in Italy, where she has been invited to match wine and music. She describes it as a "multi-sensory experience".

"It's a sound and wine artist residency, culminating in a multi- sensory performance in town square. I'm recording at the vineyards and then making a piece of music that works with the wines. I'm going to go in and select three wines and make the soundscape which enhances the different wines.

"It's a fascinating area, one that is only recently starting to be explored. Higher frequencies work with higher acid wines, and lower ones work with more full-bodied, tannic ones. The wines will be brought to the audience. It's an outdoor performance and all of the sound samples will come from vineyards so it will be a circular thing." Another project close to her heart is a CD of recordings of Lyttelton, the port town. She is in talks with American and European labels to release it.

The Details

Malcolm Riddoch presents Variations on Electroacoustic Feedback and Stanier Black-Five and Riddoch's Body Waves, The Great Hall, Museum Building, Massey University, Wellington, July 18, 8pm.

The Dominion Post