An Archive of Silence
Both archives and silences take many shapes, and poet Julia Wieting, a PhD student in English here at UH Mānoa, has turned her art toward auditioning an archive of silences rooted in poetry and place. She has created a chapbook with poems written at seven places around campus, contemplating the sounds and silences of each. Wieting is drawing on the emerging field of documentary poetry, which finds its content — not just its inspiration — in texts that already exist, usually in the concrete form of a written document. Documentary poetry is thus involved in making and remaking archives.
Her work expands the notion of the document, taking it beyond silent visual words on a page to include spaces and their sounds. This is where the digital element comes in. To make an archive of silences, she and our team of three technical collaborators (Rich Rath, David Goldberg, and Christie Pang) went around campus to the seven spots with my digital recorder and stereo microphone pair, a bag of balloons, and a safety pin (the safety pin was Julia’s idea, as I originally asked for a needle, which would have been tricky if not dangerous to carry around). At each of the spots, we would turn the recorder on, pop a balloon, and then Julia would read the poem about the space in the space, enacting the acoustics that shaped the poetry in reading it.
If this all seems a little audible rather than silent, that is because there is never an actual silence — as in the complete absence of sound — in human life. Even in sensory deprivation tanks, people are amazed to hear the humming and thumping of their vitals rather than the expected
nothing. Silence is always relative. But the team has something further in mind. The balloon is not some arcane ritual (ok, maybe a little bit), but rather as close to an impulse as practically possible. An impulse is the sonic equivalent of a point. When the sound is digitally edited, the impulse is removed by chopping off the first loud moment of the signal, leaving behind the sound of the space, the sound of the silence, the reverberant response to the impulse — called, naturally, an impulse response. (In other words, popping a balloon in a room allows us to hear how the room responds, physically and sonically, to the balloon pop.)
Through a digital process called convolution, a sort of rolling multiplication, any other sound can be made to sound like it is taking place within the space where the impulse response was taken. For example, someone could record her own version of the poem, or another poem altogether, or some music, or even something impossible, like a plane taking off, and have it sound like it was taking place in the stairwell at Kuykendall Hall. Once we have the code in place, you will be able to upload your own soundfiles and hear them in the seven spaces. We have the proof of concept working, we just need to get the web interface ready.
We are still planning and discussing the shape of the digital version of the chapbook on the Digital A&H Initiative Github repository, where you can follow the project’s development and download the latest version. If you have a GitHub account, you can join us in the process. We welcome your input, and it need not be technical at all. Just open an issue or comment on one that is already open to make a contribution. If you do not have a GitHub account, you can sign up in moments, it is secure, and your information will not be tracked and data mined in the fashion of Facebook or Google. If you have an account and would like to keep tabs on all the initiative projects, email us for an invite to the DigiAH members team. This will give you participatory access to all our projects as they develop, including, we hope, your own.
Postscript: I (Rich) turns out I left on something called the limiter on the first recordings. Normally this prevents overloads in the recording process, but with an impulse response, that is a problem since it adjusts the levels of the background sound. So if you are going to try convolution at home, remember to turn off the limiter or any automatic level control features of your recorder. We made two more attempts, and we now have good recordings of all but two of the spaces, so we will need to make one more trip. That means we will need to record again, so if you see a man with a bookbag with two furry ears sticking out of it (the microphones) and a woman popping ballons, say “hi” to us, but only after we are done recording. Go Cubs.