2021 Part One

Ka Baird

Originally based on the parlor game Consequences, in which texts were assembled by guests without seeing (due to creative folding) what was previously written, exquisite corpse became an important source of collaboration and creative experimentation for surrealist writers and artists such as André Breton, Joan Miró, Tristan Tzara, and Marcel Duchamp. These artists used a form of the game as a way of assembling visual and textual ideas into a form that they could not have foreseen and, therefore, had very little control over. Some of the results were astounding, others less so. Every result, however, was something new.

Sound American’s version of exquisite corpse adds a few twists in keeping with our milieu and mission. Within each cycle, three composers will collaborate on a short work specifically for SA, to be published in that cycle’s journals. One artist will go first, passing on a set of information to the next who, in turn, will add, subtract, and change that information to create a new version of the piece before passing it on to the third, who will create a “final” take on the composition. The readers of Sound American will get to watch the whole process as it occurs.

We’re very pleased to have Ka Baird as our first composer of this exquisite corpse. Her work, Proximity Exercises II (Emergency Studies), takes the series out into the world and asks the audience to move, experience, and be with each other, the perfect salve for the past year and a half.

Proximity Exercises II (Emergency Studies) 

Ka Baird, 2021 

1Locate a wide-open field outside, size is variable but the closer the field is to 360 feet in length and 160 feet in width, the better. The field could be in a rural location, an expansive urban vacant lot, a huge outdoor performance space, or a football/soccer field. 

2The location needs access to electricity, whether through an available power source or through generators. 

3There are four loudspeakers placed in each corner with two subwoofers placed at each end, slightly behind the corner speakers. There is a mechanism on the corner speakers’ platforms that allow them to rotate at the steadied rate of a siren.

4The four speakers should emit sine tones of 600 Hz, 600 Hz, 470 Hz, and 469 Hz with the 600 Hz diagonal to the other 600 Hz and the 470 Hz diagonal to the 469 Hz. The subwoofers at each end should emit the power frequency of 60 Hz. The overall volume of the speakers and the subs should be loud.

5There are two lines of vocalists, approximately arms length away from each other, extending the diagonal of the field. One line is toning the 600 Hz frequency (or any corresponding octave) in an O-shape, while the other line of vocalists is toning the 470 Hz frequency (or any corresponding octave) in an O-shape.

6Audience members are scattered throughout the field and are encouraged to move around the field, crisscrossing the lines of vocalists and appreciating the different listening points of the field. 

7The length of the piece can last anywhere from 45 minutes to 4 hours. Vocalists can have shifts, depending on length.

Note:

Over the last couple of years, my brother and I made the realization that the emergency siren test (at 10 am on the first Tuesday of every month) from the vantage point of my mom’s house in the west end of Decatur, Illinois was a deeply satisfying sonic experience. We would make a point whenever we were there on one of those testing days to give it our full attention. It was a wash of slow pulsating tones with some subtle microtonal shimmers with the overarch of a major third holding it down, making what was a siren test into a profound moment of beauty.

Upon further investigations, we accredited the proximity of my mom’s house in relation to four surrounding sirens as a major contributor to its sonic impact. Through an available city map, we determined that two ASC RM-130 sirens, one ASC E-Class and one ASC T-128 were likely within audible range of my mom’s house. Both the RM-130 sirens and the ASC T-128 rotated on a motor while the ASC E-Class had four omnidirectional speakers. This rotation created a wavelike presence of certain frequencies peaking and then falling with some interference amongst the more static E-Class sirens resounding. Most sirens emit sounds between 400 and 600 Hertz, which researchers have found is the best range to get people’s attention. While I did not record and analyze each of these surrounding sirens, it seems as if at least two or three of them were hovering around 600 Hz while at least one, possibly two sirens hovered around 470 Hz creating this beautiful major third of frequencies that would undulate in and out, winding up into loudness and winding down into silence. The subtle microtonal shimmering I am assuming was some very small discrepancy in frequencies between two or more sirens.

While this emergency siren test was definitely meant to be an “alert” particularly for the tornados that often hit that part of the country, it seemed strange that it had this pleasing sonic quality. It was a welcome, still confusing paradox. The sound was definitely attention grabbing, yet, at least for me, did not instill the anxiety or panic that sirens often do. I had read somewhere that despite advancements in meteorology, a ban on tornado warnings lasted from 1887 until 1938 because researchers believed it promoted panic. Even the use of the word “tornado” in forecasts was discouraged until 1950, when the Weather Bureau officially changed its policy. 

So what to make of this beautiful siren test? Was this a chance perspective based on the location from which we heard it? (Surely if we listened to the test right in front of one of these sirens it would be more steadied, maddening.) It seemed an apt metaphor for proximity, in that where you stand in space is what you experience, or in this case, hear. Or from our vantage point, at least, were these Decatur emergency siren tests a strategy, namely one that announces the threat of danger without pushing the “panic button?” 

Proximity Exercises II (Emergency Studies) is both an attempt to try and recapture at least in part the monthly siren test in Decatur, Illinois as well as a broader sonic experiment that investigates the relationships between proximity and perspective, power and connection, danger, and reaction.