we care if you read

#NewsFlash from I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the online journal of contemporary music and related arts and technology founded in 2010 by Thomas Deneuville and now led, since 2017, by editor in chief Amanda Cook.

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the award-winning multimedia hub for living music creators, has officially become part of the American Composers Forum. After 10 years of operation as an all-volunteer enterprise, I CARE IF YOU LISTEN (ICIYL) was acquired by American Composers Forum (ACF) this month. “Over the past year, we have developed a number of initiatives in partnership with I CARE IF YOU LISTEN,” says ACF President & CEO Vanessa Rose. “The synergy between our two entities and our shared vision for our musical landscape were clear early on. ACF is thrilled that we can complement our work as part of one family, and equitably support the excellent staff and contributing team at ICIYL.”

“I CARE IF YOU LISTEN Joins American Composers Forum,” from I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, on September 17, 2020 at 7:00 am

You can read the full ACF press release here. Congratulations to Thomas and Amanda for ten years of tireless effort to make ICIYL a contemporary culture juggernaut and to ACF for its vision for the future. We cannot imagine a better outcome for the future of ICIYL, which we think will be an extraordinary asset for ACF. We also extend bounteous thanks to the ACF Board of Directors, The Elizabeth & Michel Sorel Charitable Organization, and individual donors to ACF for their financial support to make the acquisition happen.

Thomas Deneuville (photo: Axel Dupeux)

ICIYL has been a virtual home for us since August 30, 2012, when our first article was published. Eight years. 92 posts, almost 1 per month. 34 concert/festival reports. 58 interviews with movers and shakers in contemporary music and art. We’ve been busy!

Amanda Cook (photo: courtesy of Classical Bridge Festival)

Today, with eternal gratitude to Thomas and Amanda for providing us this platform, we are retiring from active duty as ICIYL contributing editors. To mark this moment, we are pulling our first-ever ICIYL post from the archive, to re-post here today. Enjoy! And please keep following ICIYL as it enters a new era. We care if you read.

A Rain-Soaked Inuksuit in Chicago Millennium Park

Arlene & Larry Dunn on August 30, 2012, on I CARE IF YOU LISTEN

In a modern world too often marked by conflicts of humanity versus nature, an exhilarating human communing with nature unfolded in the pouring rain on the fields of that most modern of landscapes, Chicago Millennium Park, on Sunday afternoon, August 26, 2012. Over 100 musicians, led by eighth blackbird and production designer Doug Perkins, performed John Luther Adams’ epic Inuksuit as they mingled with an audience of several hundred stalwart music fans.

Inuksuit in Millennium Park

Adams, who lives and works primarily in Alaska, conceived of Inuksuit as much as an environmental experience as a music performance. The title is an Inuit word that means “to act in the capacity of the human” and refers to stacked stone sentinels built over the centuries by the peoples of the Arctic. Inuksuit of varied styles and sizes are found marking important sites — migration routes, fishing grounds, memorials — throughout the aboriginal areas of Alaska and Canada. Adams uses this singularly Arctic symbol as a means to require the performers and the audience to confront fundamental questions about who we are, where and how we live, what it means to act in the capacity of a human in an environment in crisis.

Millennium Park, Chicago’s new jewel by the lake, promised to be an opportune setting for staging Inuksuit. Its starkly modern landscape featuring the architecture of Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano incites questions of human relationships to the environment. Perkins and members of eighth blackbird made a thorough examination of the unique topology and features of the park to determine how best to use it a stage for presenting Inuksuit. They designed an elaborate site plan (see graphic) to deploy musicians and instruments radiating out from the music pavilion and lawn area into the Lurie Gardens and on Piano’s bridge to the Art Institute.

Despite his extensive advance planning, a persistent storm system put Perkins’ plans in jeopardy. When we arrived at rainy Millennium Park, the Great Lawn of Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion was nearly empty save for scattered sets of drums, cymbal trees, and glockenspiels like so many inuksuit harbingers of the experience to come. The stacks of instruments were covered with plastic, tarps and other protective devices in hopes the steady rain would subside. But as performance time approached the forecast never wavered from 100% chance of rain. A crowd began to assemble and word spread that plans to deploy instruments and musicians broadly throughout the park were scrapped. But the musicians were adamant they would perform unless there was lightning.

John Luther Adams

Would the rain prove to be more than these indomitable musicians bargained for? It would not! At the appointed hour of 5:30, 101 musicians began to slowly and quietly convene in an amorphous formation in the center of the Great Lawn as the crowd gathered around them. The music began with sounds evoking the Arctic winds, some players blowing through large paper cones, others using conch shells. The rain suddenly held off.

As the performers began to wade through the crowd and spread out, wind noises gave way to clarion calls on the conch shells, eerie whirring noises from swirling flexible plastic hoses, scratching sounds of wood rubbed on wood and stone rubbed on stone. Performers assigned to the percussion stacks reached their positions and poised to play. Suddenly, eighth blackbird percussionist Matthew Duvall struck a thunderous boom on an oversized bass drum, unleashing a cacophony of sound throughout the Great Lawn and Pavilion. And just as suddenly the heaviest rain of the day burst forth. In this piece about communing with nature, we were all completely engulfed by it.

Matthew Duvall

Inuksuit is designed as a participatory piece, with the performers immersed in the audience so there is no one ideal place from which to experience the soundscape. We found ourselves promenading throughout the pavilion area with the same ritualistic style and pace of Doug Perkins’ organically choreographed movements for the performers. Some of us were equipped with rain gear and umbrellas. Others simply allowed the rain to soak them. The magical combination of music and rain unleashed an innocent abandon in the crowd: a little girl running in a “catch me if you can” game with her father, a man sticking out his tongue to catch the rainwater, some in mediative poses with their eyes closed, others holding umbrellas over musicians. No one, it seemed, had any inclination to leave.

The music continued to move in waves from one group of musicians to another, mesmerizing the crowd in its thrall. The dominant notes came from the stationary sets of drums, cymbals, gongs and hand-cranked sirens. Wandering performers added accents by striking triangles, metal bars, and metal tubes. From the stage of the pavilion, safe from the potential water damage, piccolo trills rang out. The waves and crescendos of sound mutated continuously as one wandered about. The rain added its own percussive notes, dancing off taught umbrellas and splashing in growing puddles. The light took on a special glow, reminiscent of the Arctic midnight sun.

Slowly the sounds softened to the level of bird calls, carried primarily by the glockenspiels, triangles, and piccolos. Many performers began a ritualistic promenade back to the center of the Great Lawn, attracting the crowd with them. Gently the music died out, eventually replaced by sustained applause, hoops, and hollers from an intensely joyous audience. The musicians were mostly soaked through to the skin, some visibly shivering; all were clearly exhilarated by their triumphant performance of Inuksuit.

Inuksuit at Millennium Park comes to a close

Congratulations and our profound thanks go out to the full roster of performers:

Director – Doug Perkins

eight blackbird – Lisa Kaplan, Tim Munro, Yvonne Lam, NIck Photinos, Matthew Duvall, Michael Maccaferri, Ryan Ingegritsen

Calumet Chamber Musicians – John Wachala

Chicago Civic Orchestrea – Eliza Bangert

Coalescence Percussion Duo – Judy Moonert, Greg Secor

DePaul University – Robert Fletcher

Eastern Illinois University – Jamie Ryan

Ensemble Dal Niente – Shanna Gutierrez, Ammie Brod

Fifth House Ensemble – Matt Monroe, Herine Koschak, Ross Weijer

Fulcrum Point – Kate Flum

Grand Valley State University – Bill Ryan, Dan Rhode, Adam Cuthbert, Josh Dreyer, Sam Gould

Illinois Percussive Arts Society – Jeff Strong, Jeff Brenner

Indiana University – Greg Mesa

Moraine Valley Community College – Andrew Novak, Julio Jimenez, Ben Lisak, Maura Vizza

Naperville High School – Ben Walhund

New Millennium Orchestra -Emma Hospelhorn

New Music Chicago – Jeff Shaw, Andrew Tham, Jennie Brown

Northern Illinois University -Greg Beyer, Brian Wach, Alexis Lamb, Mike Mixtack, Nick Fox, Dan Eastwood, Greg Essig, Zane Cupec, Austin Shoupe, Jonny Gifford, Chris Mrofzca, Daniel Henson, Angela Kepley, Jaime Esposito, Tim Mcallister

Palomar -Alicia Poot

Roosevelt University – Nathan Bushey

Third Coast Percussion – Rob Dillon, Peter Martin, Dave Skidmore, Clay Condon

University of Chicago – Shawn Allison

University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign – Gavin Ryan, Dan McLaughlin, Peter Breithaupt, William Mullen, Tom Siwe

University of Michigan – Josh Graham, Dylan Greene, Jon Brown, Chris Sies

University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point – Tom Bjoraker, Kel Kelley, Rebecca Kolonick, Sean Conners, Matt Clark, Jeff Crowell, Bri Trainor, Andrew Cameron, Andy Neidner, Carissa Tikalsky, Alex Meronek

Other: Yael Litwin, Chris Jasinsky, Ben Runkell, Daniel Reifsteck, Chris Dandeles, Paul Beckman, Emilie Mitchell, Doug Bratt, Christina Foster, Chris Jones, Alan Fey, Megan Arns, Amy Garapic, Ben Fraley, Aaron Butler, John Corkill, Jake Coon, Brett Baxter, Trevor Saint, Simon Munro, Alex Hough, Gabe Gaster

sip6: slicing and dicing

by Larry Dunn, August 27, 2020

Week six of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, sent me spinning down a memory rabbit hole to my fourth grade arithmetic classes at Shrine of the Little Flower elementary school in Royal Oak, Michigan.

Under the title of “Slicing and Dicing,” we delved in to Boolean logic, the conceptual framework underlying digital processing of signals with discrete voltages, i.e., the entirety of our computerized modern world. George Boole (1815–1864), a mostly self-taught English mathematician, pioneered the idea of applying the mechanisms of algebra to the study of logic, thereby revolutionizing the field. His application of formal methods to studying phenomena that exist in only one of two states − true or false, on or off, etc. − eventually found powerful application in the development of computing and other forms of electronic processing.

Sputnik-1

Now, flash forward about two centuries. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union propelled Sputnik-1 into an elliptical low-earth orbit, shocking the world. Most unnerved was the USSR’s global arch-rival, the United States, where government scientists were caught off guard that the Soviets had sufficiently advanced their space rocket technology (which we had both harvested from Germany as part of the settlement of WWII) to be able to put a satellite into orbit. The launch set off the Space Race, a new battlefield in the Cold War. And it also precipitated the Sputnik Crisis in American education, a flurry of activity aimed at closing the substantial math and science gap between students in the USA and those in the USSR. Simply put, they were developing rocket scientists and we were not.

In the fall of 1958, my 4th grade class at the Shrine elementary school was suddenly no longer studying arithmetic, we were studying New Math. Instead of a commercially printed arithmetic textbook, we had a succession of mimeographed and stapled pamphlets on topics like the number line; Boolean logic and it’s derivative, the binary number system; and number system bases, like binary (0 through 1), decimal (0 through 9), and hexadecimal (0 through 9, A, B, C, D, E, F). This was purported, correctly I think, to be a better way to prepare us conceptually to understand and excel at the more advanced forms of mathematics and computer technology needed to engineer space exploration.

For me, and probably some others in my class, New Math was more like a fun game than the drudgery of arithmetic (how could it take us eight years of that to get ready for algebra, in high school?). Of course there were some who were confused, though perhaps no less confused than they were with arithmetic.

New Math

Many parents in our extremely conservative suburban Detroit enclave were incensed by this sudden change in the curriculum. “If arithmetic was good enough for teaching us, then by god it’s good enough for teaching Jimmy and Sally!” And some no doubt thought the New Math was a communist plot, because many in our parish saw a communist plot lurking behind every lamppost. So the New Math experiment in our school didn’t last very long, and soon we were back to learning good old arithmetic. It’s impact in the broader society was more substantial in the first couple of decades after it was launched. However, New Math eventually was a victim of the 80s and 90s return to the basic ABCs. Interestingly, some of the concepts are finding their way back into the math curriculum for elementary and secondary education in the USA, through the Common Core movement, once again vexing some students, teachers, and parents. So the history and impact of New Math on American education remains controversial.

For myself, I next encountered these ideas when I started studying computer science at Elmhurst College, outside Chicago, in 1980. A required course in advanced algebra, called Functions, began with the number line, Boolean logic, and set theory. I felt right at home.

With the focus of our Synth in Place class being on making electronic sounds, it feels appropriate to close with the signals sent from space by Sputnik-1, captured by radio enthusiasts as it spun around the globe in 1957. Maybe someone in the class will utilize or replicate these sounds in their project.

Sputnik: the orb that launched a thousand synths

Stay tuned.

aphrodite’s prism

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.

~Anaïs Nin

Today is our 51st wedding anniversary. Sixteen years ago, we wrote/constructed Aphrodite’s Prism: A Love Story, from three perspectives, to mark the occasion of the wedding of our niece Jodi Rudoren (née Wilgoren) and Gary Rudoren (née Ruderman) on December 4, 2004. Last year we decided to make a 50th anniversary edition, which we are sharing today with all of you. You can download the full booklet, using the link or the red button below. In 2013, we posted Larry’s story from Aphrodite’s Prism on our original acornometrics blog on Tumblr. We’ve pulled that piece from the archive to re-post it here today.

Love in the Late 60s

America in tumult, 1968

Any love story is better understood in the context of its times. Despite how exceedingly personal love between two people must be, it can be the swirl of external events around it that provides much of its enduring fabric. Our love story—Arlene’s and mine—begins in 1968 and is inextricably entwined with social unrest, the struggle for civil rights, and the Vietnam war making the world topsy-turvy all around us.

Arlene Wilgoren – 25, Dorchester Mass, Jewish, Brandeis grad, civil rights worker, math whiz, socially adept and worldly wise.

LD Dunn – 18, Royal Oak Mich, raised to be a priest, pending college dropout, hippie, rabble rouser, troubled genius, painfully shy, often outrageously entertaining, and casual in his conviction that he was destined to flame-out before reaching his 21st birthday.

Whatever could bring these two together?

That mini-dress, those earrings, and …

April 1968. Martin Luther King gunned down by a sniper’s bullet on a motel balcony in Memphis. We were each working in fledgling political organizations—Arlene with PAR (People Against Racism) and LD with Yipfugs (Youth for Peace Freedom and Justice)—that were thrust into the limelight in the aftermath. PAR was in the midst of a hastily called organizational meeting in Detroit that week, using their newfound notoriety as impetus to form a national organization out of dispersed, loosely affiliated groups in Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, Ann Arbor, and Washington. Yipfugs, based in the Detroit suburbs, were up to their usual disruptive tricks, demonstrating and leafleting at a Eugene McCarthy for President rally at Tiger Stadium—yes, we were against poor Gene McCarthy who was way too establishment for our taste. We wanted nothing short of revolution, baby!

Following the rally, we were invited to a PAR party at the home of Les and Bonnie Biederman. Les and Bonnie were the first Jewish folks I knew as friends, having come form a very insular Catholic community. A group of us Yipfugs arrived at the party well into the evening, exhilarated from our evening of haranguing naïve young people to jump off the McCarthy bandwagon and join the radical movement for real change. Welcomed inside by Bonnie, my eyes almost immediately settled upon Arlene.

She sat in an Eames leather lounge chair. An overhanging high-intensity reading light cast a halo around her. She wore an orange and yellow mini- dress, which she had made herself, with big orange and yellow hoop earrings. She had a trim, pixie haircut and a 10,000 watt smile. All of this struck me, but what struck me even more was that she also happened to be expertly rolling joint after joint.

“Oh, let me introduce you to Arlene Wilgoren from Boston PAR,” I heard Bonnie say.

Without taking my eyes off Arlene or those joints, I said, “Well sure, please do!”

Throwing darts at LBJ

Arlene moved to Detroit to be the National Secretary of the new PAR National Organization, located in the McKerchey building on Woodward Ave. in downtown Detroit. It happened that the office was about 5 blocks from the Detroit Institute of Technology (for some reason, we dis-affectionately called it Z-I-T), where I was in the second semester of my Freshman year in college and already at my second school. I wasn’t very interested in school, at least not at ZIT. I preferred to hang out at the PAR office where David Baker, PAR’s leading political theoretician, had taken me under his wing as his protégé. I was getting the education I really wanted in political analysis, organizing techniques, propaganda, that sort of thing. David wasn’t always around, or maybe he shooed me away as a pest when my endless inquiries got to be just too much.

So I spent the rest of my time there in Arlene’s office. She had a Lyndon Johnson dart board (the first president she ever voted for, because he pledged to stop the war; within weeks of his inauguration the bastard was bombing the shit out of North Vietnam, giving Arlene a somewhat sour outlook on voting). I would throw darts at LBJ and shoot the breeze while Arlene tried to get some work done. She was awfully tolerant of my intrusions, and possibly even a bit charmed by this wacky young hippie who liked to hang out in her office. Over the weeks we talked about all kinds of personal history, and compared notes on the current state of affairs in the world and how we were going to straighten them out.

The more I learned about Arlene the more she became like an icon to me on a professional level, if you can call radical rabble rousing a profession. In those heady days of my radicalization, I had some first-rate mentors training my mind. But Arlene was different—she was schooling my soul. I learned from Arlene about passion for freedom, equality, and justice, not just intellectual justifications. Before too long we became really good friends and started hanging out a lot together, though always in group settings—which was how we usually did things in those days anyway. We were very communal. I’m sure it never occurred to me to “ask her out on a date”—that wasn’t exactly one of my top skills. And even if I had thought of it, I’m sure I would have been scared to death to ask.

On tour with the Melville’s

As the summer of ’68 approached, my mentor threw me a summer challenge. I was to conceptualize, organize, and implement a speaking tour of the state by some recognizable authorities on the war, racism, and imperialism. Something that would draw some crowds we could proselytize and organize into the movement. I set about doing my research and hit upon a move I thought ingenious. A recent event of some note was the “Catonsville 9”—all nine were current or former Catholic clergy who broke into the Catonsville, Maryland draft board office and poured lamb’s blood on all the files. They were all arrested, because their policy was “Don’t just do something … Stand there!”—meaning take demonstrative, symbolic actions against the war and stand there in the face of the authorities and take credit for what you do.

We were very taken with this approach because of its blend of political action and street theatre—or guerilla theatre—of which we were great devotees. Among the “9” were the Berrigan brothers—Daniel and Phil, both priests—and Tom and Marge Melville, former Maryknoll missionaries, priest and nun respectively, who were kicked out of Guatemala for helping the underprivileged classes organize against the corrupt right-wing dictatorship (which was heavily subsidized by the US because they were anti-communist). The Melvilles would be perfect for my speaking tour challenge. I loved the fact they were defrocked clergy (me and the Catholics had gone our separate ways by now) and they had the whole package—anti- racist, anti-war, anti-imperialist. As a bonus, Phil Berrigan was living at my Uncle’s church in Baltimore and could surely provide an entrée to the Melvilles.

We put together a five-city tour of Michigan in July and went on the road with the Melvilles. I don’t remember how we decided who should go—but Arlene ended up joining our entourage, partly because she hit it off with Tom and Marge. And likely, we needed her car. So we had about a 10-day road trip, cooped up in Arlene’s Corvair, sleeping on the floor in other hippie-radical’s houses, and introducing the Melvilles to enthusiastic crowds at one movement church after another.

That road trip greatly cemented the friendship between Arlene and me, and it wouldn’t be long before things took an interesting turn.

The unforeseen value of being a communist

When Arlene relocated to Detroit, she had moved into a basement apartment on Cass Ave., just off the campus of Wayne State University. That apartment was later dubbed the Apartfug because of all the wayward Yipfugs Arlene sheltered in their time of need.

It all began with our friend Carolyn from a good Royal Oak Catholic family of about eight or ten kids. For some reason her family couldn’t cope with her; I believe they thought she had flipped her lid. Perhaps she had, though more likely it was just the drugs. Carolyn wasn’t too thrilled with her family either, so a couple of us Yipfugs cooked up the idea to see if maybe Arlene would let Carolyn stay with her for awhile. Arlene being the generous soul she still is today said—“Of course.” Not surprisingly, one thing led to another. Soon, Carolyn’s boyfriend, Otto, had moved in and the Apartfug was on its way to becoming a mini-commune. The next refugee turned out to be me.

I was still enjoying the relative hospitality of my parent’s house. “Dunn’s Room” was the inner sanctum of the 60’s hippie-radical movement in Royal Oak. It occupied the entire upper floor of the 11⁄2 story house we grew up in. From 1967 onwards, we had transformed this space into an outrageous lair of hippie-dom–floor-to-ceiling psychedelic murals in day-glo colors, pulsing in 3-D with the black lights and strobes, and the stereo blasting one acid-rock anthem after another. And there are probably some drug stashes still hidden away in cubby holes in the attic to this day.

Somehow, we had convinced our parents we should install a doorbell at the bottom of the stairs for them to use when they wanted to talk with any of us. This was purely for their own convenience, not ours, we reassured them. (What can I say? I wasn’t called the Minister of Bullshit for nothing.)

One now-historic afternoon in the Fall of ’68, that doorbell rang persistently. Shaking off whatever fog I was in, I stumbled out of the bedroom and leaned over the second floor landing to see what was up. It was my father. “Whose leaflets are these?” he barked, pointing to a stack of papers on the bottom stairs. He was pretty good at getting worked-up into a red-faced lather in those days.

“They’re mine,” I said. In truth, I couldn’t recall for sure what they were, but they were obviously leaflets even from that distance. And as the resident propagandist, it was quite likely they were mine. “What’s the point?”

“Where did they come from?!” he barked.

“I made them—so we can get people to come to this rally we organized!” I said somewhat incredulously, still missing the point.

“The speakers at this rally are communists!” he barked back.

Me, broken record again, “What’s your point?”

His blood pressure was still on the rise, “Are you telling me you’re a communist?!”

Me, bewildered, “OK, so what if I am?”

“No communist is going to live in this house!,” he roared.

“Does that mean you’re telling me to leave?!” (whose blood pressure was up now?)

“If you’re telling me you’re a communist, then yes, I guess that is what I’m saying.”

“OK—fine. I’ll be gone by tonight!” “Fine!” he said, and slammed the door.

My expulsion was as unexpected as it was inevitable. But what to do next was not so clear. The only “job” I had was my political activity—organizing, propagandizing, learning from my political elders. And the only income I had was occasional hit or miss cash from dabbling in the traffic of mood- altering substances.

LD ensconces in the Apartfug, and that ain’t all!

I packed all my worldly possessions in a black plastic garbage bag, I didn’t really have much more than nothing. But where the hell was I gonna go? I screwed up my courage and called Arlene.

“Hey,” I said. “I got kicked out of the of the house. Can I stay there for a day or two while I figure out what to do?”

“Well … sure,” Arlene said. “I don’t see why we can’t make room for one more if it’s just for a few days. Come on down and we’ll help you figure it out.”

Who would have ever predicted those few days would turn into 36 years and counting? Of course, there wasn’t really any ready place for me to sleep. Carolyn and Otto were sleeping on some sort of couch or day-bed in the living room. Arlene had the small bedroom to herself, with a single mattress on a box-spring on the floor. She offered to pull the mattress off for herself and I could sleep on the box-spring. I wasn’t in any position to quibble, and it was surely better that sleeping on the floor.

I don’t know if either of us can fully explain what happened that night. Did a comforting hand reach for a hand in need? Or did a grateful hand reach out in thanks. No matter, that simple gesture turned into a hug, that hug into a passionate embrace that lasted well into the night. From there, it was likely not as quick or simple as it seems now – Arlene probably thought it was crazy to conclude this was anything more than friends taking care of each other; I was probably too crazy to recognize whether it was crazy or not. But a deep and enduring bond was formed that night, as friendship blossomed into love. And before long, love was precisely what we were calling it.

Such a romantic proposal

I remember it all as just so simple and nonchalant. Sometime in that Winter of ’68-’69, the local Detroit PAR organization took a determined decision that if they were going to confront racism in the white community, they had better relocate to suburbia and live among the heathens. So the Detroit PAR office moved to the corner of 9 Mile Road and Woodward Avenue in the welcoming community of Ferndale (just three miles from my youthful, very white, stomping grounds of Royal Oak).

The PAR National Office remained downtown, as did we for the time being. But we were also quite involved in the local Detroit PAR activities and I still had Yipfugs business to attend to in the suburbs as well. So we made frequent trips out Woodward Avenue for meetings and such. Sometime in late winter or early Spring (I don’t have any specific notion of the date and wonder if Arlene does) we arrived at the Ferndale office early for a meeting and were sitting in the car listening to music. I’ll never recall this moment verbatim, but it went something like this.

Arlene: “You know, I’m awfully happy to be in love with you. And it just seems to keep getting better.”

LD: “I know what you mean–I keep feeling like, ‘this is great, how could it get any better,’ but then it does. I have a hard time remembering what life was like before I loved you, and don’t know why I should even try.”

Arlene: “You know, I’ve been thinking, maybe we ought to get married.”

If it’s true that inside every cynic is an idealist striving to avoid disappointment, then inside every idealist is a real pisser of a cynic. I replied: “Wow, married! What a great idea!” while thinking, hey man, I’m going to die before I’m 21 anyway. Even if it doesn’t work out, I can stand anything for two years.

So I said yes. And the truth is, yes was just the right answer. It seemed, and seems, so right in every way.

A dashiki so short you can see her pupuk … and honey, couldn’t you at least wear shoes?

So that brings us to the wedding. A weird and wonderful hippy wedding which Jodi herself wrote about as a college Freshman at Yale and which continues to be the stuff of myth and lore—even among folks who were not there.

The wedding outfits: Arlene made matching dashikis—brightly colored and ornately patterned, modeled after African ceremonial robes. She made mine a shirt and hers a mini-dress, so short that the casual observer could catch occasional peeks at her underpants. .

The setting: We planned to be wed outdoors (out in nature, man, among the birds and the bees and the flowers), unfortunately bad weather forced us into the basement of a movement church in downtown Detroit.

The guests: Hundreds of young radicals in their finest hippy garb, along with pockets of straights— notably Arlene’s mother Goldie and stepfather Al, my parents, some relatives and neighbors. The hippies reeked of pot smoke, the straights of Chanel #5 and Old Spice. Rising above the noise and intermingling scents, our favorite local rock band jamming Come on Baby Light My Fire and Sunshine of Your Love.

The vow: an original, so perfect for its time, hand-lettered in calligraphy on a scroll made from a window shade:

The 23rd Day of Leo, 1969 Because of the way we love each other, we, Arlene and LD, have decided to live our lives together. And we declare that we will act not only as individuals, but also as a unit until that union inhibits our growth rather than stimulates it.

The ceremony: Everyone gathers in a circle, sitting on the floor. Arlene hands out wild flowers—for Peace. LD hands out peaches—for Sustenance. Goldie, whispering, pleads with Arlene: “Honey, could you at least wear shoes?” We jointly recite our vow, as a promise to all assembled, with no official witness for the state. We conclude with a massive group hug, readily given. And everyone signs our wedding scroll in witness.

The celebration: A potluck supper, featuring hot dogs, followed later in the evening (for the hippies only) by an endless night of partying and carrying on in all the special manners the 60s had to offer.

The aftermath: Over-indulged, finally in bed by 5:00 AM. Phone ringing at 7:00. It was Goldie. “Darling, are you actually married?”

“Of course we are Ma,” said Arlene, groggily.

The truth: Well, legally, no, we were not. We had decided that what really mattered to us, and, we thought should really be what matters at all, was to stand up in front of our community and announce our love and commitment to each other. So we did just that. And to hell with the state. It was none of their business, so we burned the marriage license!

This pesky legal detail we finally did take care of several months later with a few signatures on a newly registered license.

Thirty-six and counting

Thirty-six and more years later, it seems like so long ago and yet only an instant in the past. Since those early days we’ve wandered from Detroit to Boston to the great American West; back to Detroit; to Ferry, Michigan; to Washington, DC; to San Francisco; to Fayetteville, Arkansas; to Chicago; and, for the moment at least, to LaCrosse, Indiana. Not to mention stints as rabble-rouser, consultant, administrator, teacher, farmer, consultant, student, finance executive, nurse, computer scientist, consultant, executive, nursery owner, philanthropist, consultant, and retiree. And somehow, through it all we remain inseparable beyond a few days at a time.

The message in all this—cherish each other for who you are, support each other to be who you can be, never stop learning and growing. And you can never say “I love you” too often, too much, or too enthusiastically.

sip5: vactrols and vcf

by Larry Dunn, August 11, 2020

Our focus in week five of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, turned to west coast style synthesizers, and vactrols and VCF (voltage controlled filters), components they use to great effect.

The iconic maker of west coast synthesizers was Don Buchla (1937-2016), whose Buchla Modular Electronic Music System was the first commercial music synthesizer to to hit the market, in 1965. You can’t talk for long about Buchla and his synthesizers without also talking about Morton Subotnick, one of the founders of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, an early and influential laboratory focused on the development of electronic music. Subotnick, and his Tape Music Center colleague Ramon Sender, were close collaborators with Buchla on his first synthesizer, providing the user specifications for a device with a flexible modular configuration to provide endless variation in how the sound produced by oscillators could be manipulated. Subotnick used the Buchla 100 series modular synth to create the first totally electronic music album to be commissioned by a major record label, Silver Apples Of The Moon, in 1967.

In 2013, Arlene and I had the distinct pleasure to hear Morton Subotnick’s live performance of From Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: LUCY, an 80th-birthday-year reprise of sounds from across the broad swath of his extraordinary career. We wrote a piece about that experience for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the online journal of contemporary music and related arts and technologies, where we are contributing editors. I’ve dug that piece out of the vault to present here, because I think it perfectly captures the ethereal experience of hearing an expert practitioner spin out a unique sound universe using a west coast synthesizer with an array of input and manipulation devices.

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Morton Subotnick Performs a Sorcerer’s Brew of Music at MOCA Cleveland

Arlene & Larry Dunn on December 4, 2013 at 7:00 am, on I CARE IF YOU LISTEN

Morton Subotnick, a true pioneer of electronic music, celebrated his 80th birthday this year. Yet only his halo of white hair, snowy goatee, and a slight limp gave any sense he was a day over 65 when he mounted the stage to perform From Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: LUCY at Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Cleveland on Thursday, November 14, 2013. No doubt staying in the avant garde of electronics in music has kept him surrounded by younger people. Perhaps he has continuously re-absorbed youth by osmosis along the way. His performance was both historical, in that it contained many recorded samples of all his previous work since the 1960s, and of-the-moment, as he spontaneously mixed his samples and vocalizations into a sorcerer’s brew via live manipulation and processing.

Morton Subotnick (photo: Larry Dunn)

Looking like a learned shaman, Subotnick seated himself at an elaborate workstation consisting of a Buchla Music Easel (an updated version of the first-ever music synthesizer, which he helped develop in the 60s), microphone, multi-part touchpad interface, laptop, and more. It was all routed through a quadraphonic sound system from the TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts) department of Oberlin Conservatory, which co-sponsored Subotnick’s visit, including a lecture at the conservatory the following day. Four large monitors surrounded the audience, one in each corner of the open ground-floor gallery. After pausing a moment to ready himself, Subotnick launched into a series of wordless vocalizations that were transformed into pure sound and shifted around the room like they were powered by a cyclotron. This set the tone for his hour-long program full of shifting textures, timbres, density, and dynamics. Although there were no definitive stops, it was composed of three distinct sections that seemed to embody new ways of hearing the energy of the universe.

The opening section evoked the scene of some primordial swamp, full of gurgling water, croaking frogs, and buzzing insects, intersecting with wild winds and ghostly beings. Subotnick gradually built the complexity of the texture, adding waves of samples to the mix, creating more layers of sound. As the tempo and dynamics increased, it became difficult to discern the individual elements. One became immersed in its totality, mesmerized by the engulfing sound, only to be jolted awake by a loud blast and then returned to long steady tones eventually fading to near silence.

Morton Subotnick (photo courtesy of Oberlin TIMARA)

Subotnick initiated a new construction in section two as a thin gauzy fabric was punctuated by a persistent low-frequency 1-2 thump. He transported this beat throughout the gallery as this soundscape unfolded. Over this beat were crazy, wild combinations of shrill sounds morphing from disorganized chaos into more parallel structures. It was like being transported into a hidden dimension where we could hear energy darting around the room as light rays and thermal currents caused gas molecules to collide. Subotnick added more materials to the mix, thickening the texture and increasing the intensity, sounding as if we were caught up in the tail of a comet flying high above the earth. The texture gradually scaled back to only two or three lines, with Subotnick’s humming vocalizations bringing a momentarily subdued calm. He then rebuilt the complex texture at a rapid pace, increasing the volume to a crescendo with that thumping bass vibrating the entire room. With that climax exhausted, the sounds slowly dissolved and faded.

The final section inhabited a more human sphere, beginning with the haunting sounds of a disembodied female voice chanting quietly. Subotnick added processed live vocalizing and a steady percussive tapping, soon joined by the orbiting sound of a ball bearing rolling around the outer rim of a hubcap. The human vocal sounds continued to dominate and morph into moans, sighs, and heavy breath sounds as if trying to communicate with the universe on a new channel. It was fascinating to observe how the specific gestures Subotnick made on his touchpad and with his mouth at the microphone gave shape to the sounds that emerged. The texture soon thickened and became more complex as intricate plucking and striking sounds joined the mix. It sounded like some ancient sonic communication system using muted marimba, hammered strings, and kalimba. The textures and dynamics built to another crescendo of enormous beauty, then suddenly dissipated to silence.

After a sustained standing ovation, Subotnick returned to the stage for a short improvised encore with a free-jazz feel. He opened with a rapid riff of processed vocalization that reminded us that he had an early career as a virtuoso clarinetist. His voice receded and electronic samples came to the fore at nearly manic speed, dominated by heavy low frequency thumps. It seemed at once both chaotic and precise, and came to an abrupt halt.

Morton Subotnick (photo: Adam Kissick for NPR)

Following the performance, Subotnick described his workstation set-up to us in a little more detail. His Buchla Music Easel is equipped with only two oscillators, but he multiplies their effects using Ableton software on the laptop. Two ten-button keypads on his left, enable him to select which samples go through which software multiplier. With the multi-part touchpad on his right he manipulates the shape, tempo, and volume of the samples he selects to play. In the program notes, he stated: “For each season of performances I create a new hybrid Ableton-Buchla ‘instrument’ loaded with prepared samples from all my previous works and performances and new patches that will allow me to modify the samples while performing brand new sound gestures created especially for the new season.” He plays from a score, displayed on the laptop, which defines the order of samples to be played but allows ample space for spontaneity in how he manipulates those samples.

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Stay tuned.

sip4: cricket v. space invader

by Larry Dunn, August 6, 2020

In week four of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, we focused on the basic components and technology of commercially produced music synthesizers, and we looked at plans for making two simple synths: one that sound like crickets, and one that can replicate the sounds of 1980s Atari games like Space Invaders.

Our inspiration this week came from Thaddeus Cahill’s prescient 1897 invention, the Telharmonium. This awesome contraption was a synthesizer long before the invention of synthesizers, music amplification before the invention of amplifiers and loudspeakers, a music streaming service long before the internet. Sadly, the Telharmonium was never a commercial success, because it required the nascent telephone network for transmission services. But the demand for telephone service grew so rapidly, that there was no available bandwidth. However, its concepts didn’t disappear completely, as they led directly to development of the Hammond organ. And where would jazz, and rock, and church music be without that?

Breaking down the inner workings of a commercially produced music synthesizer was a revelation for me, as I’d never put much thought to how they work. I’ve just always been content that they make cool sounds. As an introduction, we fist learned that all the commercial synthesizers out there are using the same fundamental technologies and components to synthesize sound, whether those sounds are in the realm most people would call music, i.e., imitating the sounds of acoustical music instruments, or less readily recognizable sounds we’re more likely to hear in the experimental music realm.

We also learned that there is an east-west divide in the synthesizer world, not in underlying technology, but in the nature of the human-to-machine interface, the mechanisms the operator uses to elicit sound from the electronic beast.

Robert Moog at his synthesizer in 1970

East coast synthesizers typically provide a primary interface in the form of a piano- or organ-style keyboard to play the instrument, along with various knobs and switches to customize the nature of the sound. The epitome of this east coast style are the Moog synthesizers, the name that many people think of when the topic of synthesizers comes up in conversation. Robert Moog (1934-2005) was an engineer, not a musician. So he spent a lot time with musicians when he was designing his device. His objective was to make the Moog Synthesizer something musicians would find interesting and easy to play, thus, the keyboard interface so you can play it like a piano or organ.

Moog presented the first public live demonstration of his synthesizer in 1964 at the Audio Engineering Society’s New York convention. A 2014 video made by Moog’s company looks back on that day and the legacy of the founder’s creation.

Soon thereafter, it was clear that the Moog Synthesizer was an instrument musicians could and would actually play, to amazing effects. Composer and performer Wendy Carlos blazed the trail for the possibilities of the Moog in the classical realm with her 1967 release Switched-on Bach. And Keith Emerson, of the power trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer, rocked the pop world with his Moog break in bandmate Greg Lake’s Lucky Man, changing pop music forever.

Stay tuned.

swamp rose mallow

by Arlene and Larry Dunn, August 6, 2020

red-throated flowers
bleed milky sticky-sweet goo
yummy marshmallows

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

For her homework assignment in the online class in Prairie Ethnobotany we are taking from The Morton Arboretum, Arlene selected the Swamp Rose Mallow plant.

Common names: Swamp Rose Mallow, Rose Mallow, Hardy Hibiscus, Marsh Mallow

Scientific name: Hibiscus moscheutos

What the scientific name means: Hibiscus comes from the Greek word Hibiskos, meaning mallow; moscheutos, from the Latin, means musk-scented

Native range: East of the Mississippi from Ontario to Florida.

Plant description: Hibiscus moscheutos, a perennial plant featuring hairy stems and leaves, grows in wet ground often near riverbanks or in ditches. Flowers are most often pink but can range in color from creamy white to deep rose, some featuring beautiful dark-red throats.

Historical human uses: The sweet sap of mallow plants was used by ancient Egyptians to make confections for the gods. The French, in the 1800s, discovered that cooking and whipping mallow sap with egg whites and corn syrup created a moldable substance, creating the marshmallows we know and love today.

Celebratory Haiku:

red-throated flowers
bleed milky sticky-sweet goo
yummy marshmallows

Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

clafoutis madness

by Arlene and Larry Dunn, August 4, 2020

We are mad for Clafoutis! Everyone who know us, and most anyone who’s even tripped on us on social media, knows that from our frequent posts when we make one. In the middle of August, our friend composer Spencer Arias will release an episode of his Cooking with Creatives series on his YouTube channel, which features us making a classic Black Cherry Clafoutis in our kitchen, while he makes one in his kitchen. We had a fascinating conversation, via Zoom, along the way. We won’t spoil the show for you by spilling the beans on the conversation. But we thought it would be helpful to put up this post about Clafoutis (with buttons below to download our recipes), so Spencer can link to this page when he posts our episode.

Clafoutis is a centuries-old dessert from the Limousin region of France, famous Limoges porcelain, Limousin cattle, and oak barrels for aging Cognac. The name Clafoutis derives from the Occitan (an ancient language of southern France and neighboring areas of Spain and Italy) word clafir, meaning “to fill.” This is an apt name, as traditional Clafoutis is a custardy batter, filled with black cherries.

Classic Black Cherry Clafoutis

Clafoutis, of course, can be, and often is, filled with myriad other fruits. And we would argue that it ought to be made with fruit that is fresh off your local trees or bushes, in season. But some purists claim that a Clafoutis-like thing filled with anything but black cherries is not a Clafoutis but a flaugnarde. But then plenty of those same purist also say the pits should be left in the cherries. For simplicity, we call all these derivations Clafoutis, and leave it at that.

We don’t recall exactly where or when we were first served Clafoutis, nor by whom. But we were immediately entranced, and we set out discover how to make it. There are hundreds of Clafoutis recipes online. After reviewing many of them, we settled on one from chef Hubert Keller, proprietor of the famed Fleur de Lys restaurant in San Francisco (now closed). We’ve made a few minor adaptations over the years, but we’ve had consistently good results with it. You can download our Classic Clafoutis recipe below.

Savory Clafoutis with Gravlax and Goat Cheese

A few years ago, something set us down a path to try making a savory version of Clafoutis. There are some recipes online, but we decided to see if we could simply tweak and adapt our own recipe. The first step was to remove the sugar and try filling it with some savory ingredients. That worked fairly well, but we decided we needed to increase the number of eggs. Our favorite variation so far, hands down, is home-cured salmon gravlax with goat cheese and herbs. You can also download our Savory Clafoutis recipe below.

We urge you to try making a Clafoutis, sweet or savory, in your own kitchen sometime soon. We doubt you’ll be disappointed.

prairie ethnobotanty

by Arlene and Larry Dunn, August 3, 2020

spiky silver orb
battle mace of the prairie
rattlesnakes beware

Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is the subject of the haiku above, the featured photo on this post, and Larry’s homework for a 2-session online course we are taking in Prairie Ethnobotany, from The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, 25 miles west of Downtown Chicago.

We’ve had a long affiliation with The Morton Arboretum, going back 30 years. It was an essential resource for us when we were developing the landscape, and later, our landscape plant nursery, at Acorn Ridge Gardens, our homestead in rural LaPorte County, IN. We attended many courses and seminars on trees and tree care, and Arlene earned a certificate in Woody Plant Propagation, studying with Pete Linser, Manager of Plant Production. Many plants in our Indiana garden were propagated from scion wood or seeds gathered at Morton as a part of those classes, and we regularly worked the sales tents at Morton’s annual Arbor Day Plant Sale. Kris Bachtell, Vice President of Collections and Facilities, was particularity helpful to us when we were starting the nursery, and was the featured speaker at one of our twice-yearly garden festivals.

Ethnobotany, for the uninitiated, is “the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses,” according to the Oxford dictionary. Our focus in this class is on the plants of the American Tallgrass Prairie and the practical and ceremonial uses of those plants by the indigenous peoples of the prairie and early European settlers. Cindy Crosby, steward of the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum and a noted author and lecturer on the Tallgrass Prairie and nature conservation, is teaching the class. If you are interested in the prairie ecosystem and its plants, you should follow her Tuesdays in the Tallgrass blog.

Early 19th century geographic extent of the Tallgrass Prairie

The North American Tallgrass Prairie once covered a vast swath of land − about 170 million acres − from what is now Manitoba in the north, to what is now the Texas gulf coast in the south. The prairie ecosystem contained a rich tapestry of more than 500 species of deep-rooted grasses and forbs (broad-leafed flowering plants) in a symbiotic self-sustaining relationship. The relentless westward push of European settlers devastated the prairie, greatly aided by John Deere’s plow. Today, only around 1% of the Tallgrass Prairie remains.

Our own interest in the Tallgrass Prairie was piqued by one of our gardening mentors, Bill Brincka. Bill was a professor of three-dimensional art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the most masterful gardeners we ever met, and a keen-eyed naturalist who studied with May Watts at The Morton Arboretum from the time he was a teenager. The first time Bill visited our garden and nursery, he literally jumped out of the car on arrival, shouting “Do you know you have a prairie remnant right across your street?” In fact, we did not realize it, but indeed there were several acres of undisturbed prairie right there, in all its magnificence, lying between 2 disused railroad tracks. It was bursting with a vast array of prairie grasses and forbs, familiar and unfamiliar − Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, Switchgrass, Black-eyed Susan, Cone Flower, Iron Weed, Boneset, Joe Pye Weed, Blazing Star, and Rattlesnake Master (one of out favorites, for its distinctive features). Soon, we added a steadily growing array of prairie native plants to our gardens and to our nursery product line. And we restored an acre of prairie at the back of our yard, on the crest of rise about 100 yards behind our house.

In 2013, various maladies of advancing age convinced us that living in isolation in rural Indiana, with several acres of gardens to tend, was no longer sustainable. So we up and moved to a retirement community in Oberlin, OH. In 2015, we started developing a “pond bank prairie garden” adjacent to our cottage. You can see in that prairie map, above, that small pockets of Tallgrass Prairie were found in Ohio, including near Oberlin, and many prairie plants can be found growing wild here. So it seemed a natural fit. The pond bank has been growing in nicely, especially considering we planted it all from seed without a lot of soil preparation, because it’s a fairly narrow, rather steep slope that does not lend itself to getting equipment in there.

We planted some Rattlesnake Master seeds three years ago, hoping for the best. But the last two seasons we saw no sign of it, which is not too surprising. Like many prairie plants, it takes a few years to establish itself, and wouldn’t likely bloom until after a few years of growing. Our patience was rewarded a few weeks ago, when our first stalk of Rattlesnake Master flowers emerged from the thicket of surrounding foliage. And that is why Larry picked Rattlesnake Master for his Prairie Ethnobotany class homework.

Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

Common names: Rattlesnake Master, Button Snakeroot

Scientific name: Eryngium yuccifolium

What the scientific name means: The genus designation Eryngium derives from the ancient Greek and is a somewhat rare case where the name simply means “sea holly,” i.e., this type of plant, and has no other meanings. The species designation yuccifolium means “having Yucca-like foliage,” which is an apt description.

Native range: Native to the American Tallgrass Prairie.

Plant description: Rattlesnake Master is a perennial forb that grows from a corm-like crown into a large rosette of long, narrow, fibrous leaves. It flowers in mid-summer on tall leafless stems bearing many small blossoms aggregated in spiky balls, which are silver-gray in color.

Historical human uses: Rattlesnake Master, as its common name indicates, was used by indigenous North American peoples to ward off the effects of rattlesnake venom when handling rattlesnakes and as a curative for a rattlesnake bite. The sap and roots were also used in various tonics, including as a diuretic, and the fibrous leaves were used for making baskets and footwear.

Celebratory Haiku:

spiky silver orb
battle mace of the prairie
rattlesnakes beware

First Rattlesnake Master in our pond bank prairie garden
Arlene with an 8-foot tall Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbekia triloba)
Pond bank prairie garden, Acorn Cottage Oberlin
Acorn Cottage Oberlin, from across the pond

sip3: talking machines

by Klutzy McFumblefingers (aka Larry Dunn)

Week 3 of Synth in Place, the online course in DIY synthesizers taught by Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic sound labs, in collaboration with Thingamajigs, focused on two things: talk boxes and learning to solder.

One of our homework assignments from week 2 was to select a piece of music we like that makes use of some sort of machine/electronic manipulation of the human voice. My choice was rocker Joe Walsh’s 1973 mega-hit Rocky Mountain Way. When this song debuted, it was my first exposure to the use of the talk box, and I think its first use in rock & roll. In this live performance from the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival (below, starting about 3:20), you’ll see Joe switch guitars and move to a rig that includes a length of clear poly tubing stuck into his mouth. Joe starts vocalizing other-worldly sounds along with his guitar.

At, and since, the time I first heard this, I would describe it as “Joe is singing through his guitar.” But, as we learned in class, that is the opposite of what is happening. The sound from his guitar is playing into his mouth, from a speaker that is hooked up to that tubing. So what we are hearing is the sound of the guitar plus whatever sounds Joe vocalizes, using his own “human talk-box” (more on that later), and the combined, other-worldly sounds are then amplified through his microphone.

Rough illustration of a talk box setup

It turns out that a talk box is an exceedingly simple thing to build. The illustration above gives a rough idea of how the rig goes together. The red box marked “HOW YOU DO THIS IS THE TRICKY PART” requires only some simple electronics, essentially the oscillator circuit we have already built, plus a plastic funnel to wedge the speaker into (aimed at the small end of the funnel) and a length of tubing to bring it to your mouth.

We focused on the talk box in class, in part because it is so simple to make and could be a fun component of any DIY synths we might build. But it is also instructive in understanding the whole concept of synthesizing sound. The way a talk box works is remarkably similar to the way the human body synthesizes sounds, such as speech, using the combination of muscles and other structures that make up the human voice track. The diaphragm is the oscillator in human voice synthesis, and the throat, tongue, teeth, and lips are the filters that can be contorted into various shapes to make the sounds that are the building blocks of audible speech.

International Phonetic Alphabet

The ever-clever linguists of the International Phonetics Association have codified all the different sounds the human voice track can make in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Each of these sounds are classified as to which body organs are used to make them. You can demonstrate some of this for yourself, using The Pink Trombone site where you can interactively manipulate the human voice track and observe the resulting changes in the sounds produced.

Caution: HOT IRON LOOKS THE SAME AS COLD IRON!

The other focus of our week 3 class was on soldering, which is the key to migrating the oscillator circuits we made in week 2 from the prototyping breadboard environment to a permanent home on a circuit board. Soldering is both incredibly easy, and yet quite dangerous if you are not careful. That thing operates at about 700° Fahrenheit, and takes steady hands and mindfulness about where you set it down and how you pick it up. And the solder, as it melts, gives off some noxious fumes. I’m not at all sure septuagenarian Klutzy McFumblefingers with chronic lung disease (that’s me) is going to actually be doing any soldering. But it is still fun to learn how it is done and what it enables you to do.

After soldering all our oscillator components onto the circuit board, our next step is to morph this puppy into a talk box. We just need to solder connections to a small circular speaker into our circuit board, use a hot glue gun to cement the speaker, face-down, into the small end of a plastic funnel, and slather some silicone caulk over the back of the speaker so the sound doesn’t leak out backwards. Once the caulk is good and dry, attach the poly tubing to the funnel, then fire it up and start making your own electronic music with your mouth!

Before wrapping up this week’s post, I’ll call your attention to a real world example of just the sort of DIY synths we’re aiming to build. I happened to catch the video below in a post from the International Contemporary Ensemble‘s recently completed Ensemble Evolution summer workshop, presented in collaboration with The New School. Ensemble Evolution participant Leni Kreienberg is a musician and performance artist. Her primary practice focuses on voice and electronic creation and performance, aspiring to connect and blend genres. Her latest work focuses on using dance and movement-derived data to feed into musical computer systems. Here is Leni Kreienberg’s playground, from 2019.

Finally, if you’re wondering about that featured image on this post, I’ve so far neglected to point out that our class mascot is Dynomutt, the star of a spinoff from The Scooby-Do Show, from Hanna-Barberra, titled Dynomutt, Dog Wonder. According to Wikipedia, the show “centers on a Batman-esque superhero, the Blue Falcon, and his assistant, Dynomutt, a bumbling, yet effective robotic dog who can produce a seemingly infinite number of mechanical devices from his body.” Sadly, Dynomutt suffered the cruel Hollywood fate of being cancelled, in 1977, after just one season. But, take heart. Dynomutt is apparently back, in the brand new SCOOB! feature-length film.

sip2: amazing oscillators

by Larry Dunn, July 21, 2020

Create the Future! Building our own amazing oscillators was the objective for week 2 of Synth in Place, the online course in building DIY electronic music-making machines, taught by Kirk Pearson and presented by Dogbotic sounds labs and Thingamajigs. We took our inspiration for this challenge from a couple of truly awesome, and famous, installations, made by pioneers in the electronic museum field. One of these was composer and sound artist David Tudor‘s Rainforest V (variation 1), at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, as shown in this 360° video.

Another inspiration came from Daphne Oram of the  BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which she founded in 1958. Her Oramics Machine is a visual synthesizer that uses drawn images to create sounds.

Of course, our first oscillators could not even scratch the surface of the genius of the work of these transformational thinkers and makers of electronic instruments. But we nonetheless are doing our work in homage to their path-setting work.

Oscillators are a foundational building block of electronic music synthesizers. For the uninitiated, an oscillator is an electronic gizmo that makes electrons move back and forth in a normal predicable manner. That predicable pattern can be exploited to activate other electronic components such as led-lights and speakers. With the proper setup of circuits and wiring to control the frequencies in the pattern of electron movement, what comes out of a speaker in such a setup can be pitched sounds in the range we typically call music.

Our first oscillator, a flashing LED (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

Using a breadboard (a temporary circuit board made for prototyping electronic gadgets); a 555 Timer (a ready-made microchip that can control electron pulses in a variety of ways, depending on how you connect it); a handful of capacitors, resistors, and wires; a bare-wire LED bulb; a potentiometer; a small speaker; and a 9-volt battery, with snap-on connector; we set out to create the future. Our first oscillators evolved through several versions. The first, show above, implements a simple strobe light. The frequency of flashing is controlled by your choice of capacitors. If we add a potentiometer (a sort of switch that can be used to vary the flow of electrons) and a speaker into our design and rewire things a bit, we suddenly have a user-controlled noise-making machine. And if we can get the frequencies in the right range, our noises will be pitched sounds we could call music. Below is a look at that setup.

Prototype sound-producing synthesizer (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

For the final trick, we ventured into Daphne Oram territory. Remove the potentiometer and do a bit of rewiring to connect a piece of corrugated cardboard filled with a heavy smear of pencil lead (graphite, i.e. carbon, i.e., a conductor of electrons) using an alligator clip in contact with the graphite smear, with a bare wire at the other end suitably connected to the breadboard. Use another wire of the same configuration, similarly connected, and you can “play” the graphite smear using a drawing gesture with the other alligator clip. Here is the way that setup looks.

Crude homage to Daphne Oram (screen shot from Kirk Pearson demo video)

I struggled to get my own version of these oscillator variations working properly. These components, especially breadboards, can be temperamental, to begin with. And whatever manual dexterity I once had (which was not that much) is fading fast with age. As arthritis and other woes take up residence in my hands, you can call me Klutzy McFumblefingers. But, despite the challenges to actually get these things working, learning how they go together to make newly-imagined instruments is a thoroughly engaging experience.

Stay tuned.