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unheard

by Scott Gibbons


Scott Gibbons music
through the eyes of Romeo Castellucci
and with the kind collaboration of:
University of Glasgow, Prof. Jon Cooper, Prof. Miles Padgett, Michael Lee

Production: Societas Raffaello Sanzio,
with the collaboration of Festival AngelicA.

Photo credit: Miles Padgett.

sonic arrangements from the microcosmos


Turn thy mind the more unto these bodies
Which here are witnessed tumbling in the light:
Namely, because such tumblings are a sign
That motions also of the primal stuff
Secret and viewless lurk beneath, behind.
For thou wilt mark here many a speck, impelled
By viewless blows, to change its little course,
And beaten backwards to return again,
Hither and thither in all directions round.
Lo, all their shifting movement is of old,
From the primeval atoms; for the same
Primordial seeds of things first move of self,
And then those bodies built of unions small
And nearest, as it were, unto the powers
Of the primeval atoms, are stirred up
By impulse of those atoms' unseen blows,
And these thereafter goad the next in size;
Thus motion ascends from the primevals on,
And stage by stage emerges to our sense,
Until those objects also move which we
Can mark in sunbeams, though it not appears
What blows do urge them.

Lucretius, from "De rerum natura" (Rome, c. 60 BCE)
Ever since Homo habilis struggled to create sharper stone tools, and quite possibly even further back in pre-human ancestry than that, we have been exerting ourselves into finer and more minuscule levels of our world. From ancient miniature seals in Mesopotamia, through legends in the third century of Taoists with the power to shrink entire landscapes to fit on a plate, to the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, something in the nature of our species wants to extend the limits of "Our World", beyond the polar icecaps, beyond Earth's atmosphere and moon, beyond the depths of the ocean trenches, and beyond even flesh itself; into regions finer than matter.

More than two thousand years ago, thinkers in ancient Greece and India postulated through philosophic and theologic argument the existence of particles smaller than our senses could perceive; micro-objects that we could experience only when their total energies en masse produce a larger affect at a level at which our feeble powers of perception have reach. Nineteen centuries later, atomic theory was accepted and embraced by scientists. Smaller still than an atom, the quark was discovered in the 1960's. In 2012, the discovery of the Higgs boson was announced. But even the atom - the concept of which is thousands of years old - is impossible to observe directly, even with the most powerful optical microscope. I can see galaxies light years from Earth with my inexpensive backyard telescope, but I can't see an atom. Our knowledge of such things is intellectual and indirect, not sensorial.

A new type of microphone is being developed by the University of Glasgow by scientists in the School of Physics & Astronomy and in the School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering which can listen to sounds at the atomic and molecular level. It uses laser "tweezers" to grasp minuscule beads which are arranged in a circular pattern. The beads are jostled according to the activity around them, just as a microphone membrane or our own ear drums are moved by sounds traveling through the air. The purpose of this device is to observe bacteria and parasitic micro-organism, to understand how they work, and how they are affected by pharmaceuticals. It works essentially as a micro-ear. It's output is within the range of human hearing.

At high sensitivity, this "micro-phonic" microphone reveals the constant noise that persists at the atomic level all around and throughout us at all times. The sound of atoms bumping into each other. The Brownian actions under observation are the same that exist in the smallest part of each of us and in deepest space. We can now listen in to the universe at the deepest level at which we can even imagine penetrating. More than two thousand years after Lucretius postulated about the existence of atoms in his De rerum natura, we can hear atoms jostling about in their microcosmic dance.

And what we hear at this level is noise.

The line of research I am following is to bring into being a musical composition from these smallest conceivable sounds. To extract music from the inaudible.

This is not a crude demonstration of emerging technology; for as Utsubo Monogatari wrote in The Tale of the Hollow Tree (circa 970 CE): "A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one." For Unheard, I want to grow a sonic bonsai for your contemplation. I have taken audio recordings collected at the atomic level from this "micro-ear" to create distinct patterns, rhythms and melodies inside isolated fragments and within narrow bandwidths. Sound tools such as loops and filters impose a musical structure on the micro-phonic noise. No outside sounds were brought in; the methodology behind Unheard is purist. Everything presented for you to hear has been collected carefully from the micro-cosmos. The end result vacillates between the unaffected pervasive noise of the atomic world, and distinct musical structures that emerge, gambol, and dissipate back into the turbulence.

Although the technology is cutting edge and the musical composition is contemporary, our curiosity and delight in the miniature is prehistoric; perhaps genetically embedded in the deepest, smallest part of each of us.

- Scott Gibbons
Chicago, May 2014