When it comes to modern music, listening is only half the experience. From MTV special effects eye-candy to this year’s audio/tactile winner of the Google Science Fair, sound has become something not only to hear, but to see and touch.
Youth Radio invited sound artist Sudhu Tewari to our studios for an exciting Brains and Beakers event on the science behind “seeing” sound. He brought in an instrument he created using a colander, springs, and some spare television and speaker parts. Initially, I thought that something that could double as a spaghetti strainer would not be ideal as an instrument. But to my surprise, it worked really well. Sudhu showed us how sound and light could correspond with each other, connecting music and movement. As the bass hit, tiny lights on the TV screens moved up and down. It was truly a work of art.
After the demo, our Youth Radio Science Desk asked Sudhu Tewari to reflect on the ways artists are starting to use sight and touch in popular music.
YR: In one sentence, can you explain what you do for a living?
ST: I build interactive artworks that combine science, visuals and sound.
YR: Do you need a PhD for that?
ST: (Laughs) No, but I’m getting one anyone. I’m studying cultural musicology at UC Santa Cruz, and I already did an MFA [Masters in Fine Arts] in electronic music and recording media from Mills College in Oakland.
YR: A masters in electronic music. Is that like a masters in DJing?
ST: Totally different. In the mid-50s people in France began playing with recording sound on record players, and they called it musique concrète. As in “concrete,” because you could take sound as a physical object and manipulate it, turn in backwards, speed it up, turn it over, etc. That’s was the birth of one side of electronic music. On the other, people in Germany were creating music that was purely electronically generated.
YR: Kind of like your demo at Youth Radio’s Brains and Beakers. As part of your demo, you had the young people make sounds that showed up on the TVs. Can you explain what was going on?
ST: That’s an old technique that I believe comes from something television repairmen did as a test. In TVs, there’s a part called a cathode tube that shoots out a magnetically charged beam of light. There are two coils of wire that are wrapped around the back of the tube. The electronics of the TV use that beam of light to pull the coils up and down, etc. Usually, the beam of light moves really fast and it draws the picture you see on the screen. What I’ve done is take out the TV electronics so that the beam of light shoots out directly into the screen. And I use sound to move the coils with speakers. So it’s a beam of light that’s moved the same way that a speaker cone is moved back and forth.
YR: Where did you get the idea for that project?
ST: I wanted to make people more aware of the sounds they hear, and I thought that one way to enhance listening is through looking. For me, “music” is a cultural construction that says we sit down and listen to sound in a specific way. But “sound” is around us all the time, and can be listened to the same as music. The underlying idea with all of these things is to listen to everyday sound the same way we listen to music.
YR: What kind of music were you into as a kid?
I had a unique musical upbringing. My mother is a classical pianist and my father is a trained Indian vocalist, so I grew up with both classic western and Indian music. Every night I would fall asleep in my dad’s lap while he was singing. He had a PhD in ethnomusicology, so he would also listen to recordings from other countries: Japanese and Balinese music, you name it. So I grew up surrounded by all these different musical instruments, learning Bach on the flute and the piano, singing in children’s choirs. I also liked taking apart electronics, so that came into play later with my music.
YR: Can you think of examples of “seeing sound” or sound art in popular music?
ST: OK Go is a good example of a band that is moving things farther in the way they use choreography to enhance or create their music. They’ve definitely taken music videos to a new realm.
YR: Do you have any suggestions for other makers or musicians who want to play with the way we experience music?
ST: Yeah, just walk around and listen to stuff. I bang on objects all the time, and stick my head down and listen. I found out that the steel railing out in front of the court house has an awesome sound, especially if you wear a metal earring. You need to experiment with things. I also like taking stuff apart to see how it works. So if you’re into record players and tape decks, open it up and play with it.
Brains and Beakers takes science out of the lab and turns it into a live event! Youth Radio’s young journalists host scientists, tinkerers and makers of all sorts at our Oakland studio for live demos and interviews. Check out more from Youth Radio’s science desk here, including Reinventing musical instruments and Green Chemistry.
This Brains and Beakers was hosted by Youth Radio’s Jabari Jones. The post was created by the Youth Radio Science Team: Video editing by Chaz Hubbard and Jenny Bolario. Blog post by Jabari Jones. Q&A by Teresa Chin. Special thanks to our guest speaker Sudhu Tewari. Sudhu is an electro-acoustic composer, musician, and tinkerer. He is a former artist-in-residence at the San Francisco Dump, where he crafted interactive sculptures and kinetic art. In 2012 he was one of the featured artists at the San Francisco Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio. For more information about his current exhibits, visit www.sudhutewari.com.