The Common Perkins Scream


The Common Perkins Scream is an award-winning two channel tape composition to be played preferrably over headphones or, alternatively, through a stereo speaker setup, placing the speakers +/-90° around the audience. This piece is a noise composition using the vast textures of noise, said auditory Gestalt, as well as its gestural placement in physical stereo space as its main compositional element.

Listen to the composition here:

The primary theme of The Common Perkins Scream is context. How does the familiar behave when brought into comparison to the new? How do we perceive the artificial when placed next to the natural. Context is created through narration and by providing adumbrations. The scene is set with speech samples and other samples taken from archival cetacea hydrophone recordings. Always underneath and sometimes even in loud bursts, the single sound of the composition makes its way into the foreground. The audience member is invited to a pattern finding activity, making associations and engaging with the unknown. It bends the mind of the imaginative listener by feeding it a framework into which something as abstract as the digital distortion of a complex feedback loop is placed into and is brought to life.

On a reduced level of sensory perception, the vast textures of the feedback loop are presented and spatially moved through the stereo speaker setup. Initially intended for headphones, the skull is used as a playground for the sound to dance and move. But even for stereo speakers the textures warp around the head of the listener. Its placement in space becomes not just as important for the composition as, for example, dynamics, but the concept of space even replaces that of melody and rhythm, as the rich textures do not allow definite pitches to form. In fact, it shares this responsibility with timbre, which, in itself, can convey pitch and rhythm modulations. This creates a complex interplay between sound and space conveying the core compositional concept of the piece.

The composition was done in three parts. The original raw recording was taken from a live improvisation of an open feedback loop between the laptop speakers and mic. A Max/MSP patch was used to control the intertwined pitch shift algorithm. The feedback was excited through clapping and snapping fingers or tapping on the laptop. In essence, the final composition still follows the development of the improvisation, but parts of it were crunched and layered to fit the 30 minutes of improvisation into the 10 minute composition.

Post-processing was done in a sequencer to spatialize the mono track and mix several fitting parts of the original recording together. The spatialization techniques make heavy use of time delays. Parts were bounced down and re-introduced into the mix at a slight time shift. Interesting movements were especially achieved, for example, with pitch shifted or dynamically tempo-altered bounces that are placed against their originals. During the spatialization process, the timbre guided the descicion making: where a sound should be placed and what should be done with it.

At the same time I got fascinated with the huge library of animal sounds of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I was engulfed and in awe at the variety of calls and communication that is present in our world. Especially marine species resembled the feedback sounds I was just putting together and I decided to combine the two. But it was not only the incredible noises that the animals made that fascinated me, but sometimes even more what the recordists said to document the recording. The sound of their voices became just as intriguing as the animals they set out to record. Also, the aparent arbitrariness of meta information – from minutes of talking and calibrating, to silence, letting only the recording itself speak – was, to say the least, interesting, making every find that contained an interesting bit of speach feel you were digging for a rare gem. Listening to snippets of speech on end, I could not but include the humor in these documents. I pasted syllables together to put new words sentences into their mouths allowing me to construct my own story. This gave me the opportunity to include with the piece a narrative of my own: that of a scientific audio recording, on the hunt for a rare, artificial sea creature.


Samples taken from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Voices by Thomas C. Poulter (possibly René-Guy Busnel) (#120300) and Paul J. Perkins (#110847). Animal sounds from a Humpback Whale (#110847).

This composition won both first and grand prize in the 2012 Concours International de Musique Bruitiste « Luigi Russolo – Rossana Maggia »