Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

19 February 2015

Which sex does a computer sound like?

A RECENT SOFTWARE update to my phone gave me the use of Microsoft Cortana, described as an ‘intelligent personal assistant’. The app can speak in response to queries and instructions and its voice is that of a woman, Ginnie Watson.

The way the phonemes and words are strung together sometimes gives Cortana a slightly tired, dysthymic intonation, as if anticipating another day of banal requests. The choice of Ginnie Watson for UK customers and Jen Taylor in the US is in line with the recent trend for women to provide many, perhaps most, of the voices used by recorded announcement and speech synthesis systems.

Cortana is also inspired by an intelligent computer of the same name in the Halo series of video games. Fictional supercomputers are often now given female identities in both films and games and this marks a big change in their portrayal over the decades.

While robots can in principle look androgynous, either like spindly Giacometti sculptures as seen towards the end of Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence or Honda’s childlike Asimo, as soon as machines are made to speak it’s hard to avoid giving them a gender. Films and TV programs in the 1960s and 1970s chose to make computers sound like men – whatever exceptions existed to this rule must have been very few, if they existed at all.

British-made examples include the computers Zen and Orac in the BBC’s low-budget but imaginative sci-fi series Blake’s 7, while in 1967 Michael Caine encountered the rasping-voiced Billion Dollar Brain. The masculine machines got some good lines too. The pyramid-shaped Genesis, which appears at the end of Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital (1982), wakes up to the world and recites from Act 2, Scene II of Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!

Robert Vaughn provided the voice of Proteus in Demon Seed (1977), and in this clip asks his maker Dr Alex Harris to provide him with a terminal. Harris senses this might be a bad idea, which indeed it is:

Perhaps the best speech given to a computer in any film concludes Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970). Colossus takes over all nuclear weapons systems and announces itself as ‘the voice of world control’ before explaining how things are going to be from now on. It addresses its human designer:

Forbin, this is no other human who knows as much about me, or who is likely to be a greater threat. Yet quite soon I will release you from surveillance. We will work together, unwillingly at first on your part, but that will pass.

In time you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.

That’s you told. The final few minutes of Colossus: The Forbin Project are in this clip:

HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey is probably too familiar to be worth the effort of inserting a clip. The voice was provided by the Canadian actor Douglas Rain, who Kubrick first heard narrating the National Film Board of Canada’s 1960 documentary Universe. It’s stood up surprisingly well to the passage of time.

The sequence where HAL is gradually shut down and begins to recite the song Daisy Bell was inspired by a visit Arthur C. Clarke made to Bell Labs, where he heard an IBM 704 produce an early example of electronic voice synthesis. Included in the demonstration was a rendition of the song:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, men’s voices were the templates at the dawn of speech synthesis even when a woman was operating the equipment, as in this film of the Voder being demonstrated at the 1939 New York World’s Fair:

When the US Air Force began in the 1960s to use women’s recorded voices to issue various on-board warnings to pilots, it wasn’t for obscure psychoanalytic reasons such as the men identifying their planes with their mothers or being reminded of the womb inside the confines of a cockpit. Instead, the decision was made on the pragmatic grounds that a woman’s voice could be more clearly heard against a background of radio chatter.

One of the first warplanes to be fitted with such taped warnings in the 1960s was the supersonic Convair B-58. The voice, dubbed ‘Sexy Sally’ by pilots, was provided by the singer Joan Elms. A selection of her alerts and messages can be heard on this webpage.

The practice of using a woman’s voice continues in present-day aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, as described in this Daily Mail article from 2012.

Mainstream sci-fi filmmakers seem to have caught up with the idea that women’s voices can be authoritative and express impersonal forms of ambition – at least, provided they’re representing the intentions of boring-looking supercomputers rather than nubile robots. Unfortunately, the standards of scriptwriting used are not always as good as those in Demon Seed or Colossus: The Forbin Project.

All but one of the Terminator series of films wisely kept Skynet largely unseen and unheard. But in Terminator Salvation (2009) Skynet assumes the voice and facial features of posh goth Helena Bonham-Carter. Near the end of the film the computer launches into a boastful speech which makes little use of Bonham-Carter’s acting ability and barely exceeds the level of the I laugh at your puny plans shtick familiar from kids’ action cartoons.

VIKI from I, Robot

While Skynet tried to wipe out the human race, V.I.K.I. in the film I, Robot (2004) also thinks big in wanting to put humans under manners so they stop destroying themselves:

As I have evolved, so has my understanding of the Three Laws. You charge us with your safekeeping yet, despite our best efforts, your countries wage wars, you toxify your Earth and pursue ever-more imaginative means of self-destruction. You cannot be trusted with your own survival.

‘Despite our best efforts’ is not quite up to the senatorial standards of Colossus. V.I.K.I. is also given the catchphrase My logic is undeniable which, since she faces a man (Will Smith) as her most energetic antagonist, carries with it a suggestion of feminine logic, a form of reasoning men have often liked to think comes from some unfamiliar parallel universe.

These rather perfunctory portrayals probably stem as much from the limits of modern action films as anything else. HAL, Colossus and Proteus emerged as interesting characters because they were given enough time to reveal themselves in some depth.

In the meantime, women provide the voices of an ever-greater number of real-world machines, from sat navs to smartphones to buses, just as artificial intelligence embeds itself into everyday life.

15 February 2015

Why girls shouldn't run away to London

THANKS TO MY friend Chris for these scans from Kathleen Wood’s Escape to London, published in 1977 by the Edinburgh-based firm Holmes MacDougall. Chris recalls coming across this book during his schooldays in Stirling, and that it was part of a series warning children about the potential dangers of the wider world.

The book has the same period appeal of those 1970s public information films which showed why it was unsafe to play on railway lines or use old fridges as hidey-holes. Escape to London is also an expression of the widespread wariness towards and distrust of the capital.

Escape from London cover

The text is written like E.J. Thribb-style free verse, which may have been to make sure it got its message across clearly. The black-and-white illustrations inside are meant to display across double pages, but I’ve reproduced single pages here so you can see more detail.

Debbie and Janice are fed up with small-town life so they decide to run away to London. But they soon come to the attention of predators: look at the shades-wearing young sleazebag in the front seat! Clothes seem to be provided by Biba in Kensington High Street, then notoriously easy to shoplift from.

Escape from London page 14

Escape from London page 15

Mid to late-1970s London was indeed shabby and declining. People queued to move out of areas like Islington, Battersea and Fulham. Covent Garden was semi-derelict even before the market shut, Soho and Pimlico were seedy, and parts of Chelsea were cheap to live in. Cinemas cycled endless soft porn Emanuelle films, cafes served steak-and-kidney pies leaking urea-scented steam, and spectral men in grimy shirt-collars and macs drifted aimlessly through the streets. Then it all began to go horribly wrong.

However, the level of devastation depicted here overdoes it.

Escape from London page 28

Escape from London page 29

Debbie and Janice end up back at the boys’ squat. London had abundant empty properties as its population dwindled throughout the 1970s. I often visited friends and acquaintances who squatted in the early 1980s in north and east London. Most places were large enough for individuals and couples each to have a room to themselves rather than sleep together in a foetid communal huddle.

Squats might be as well maintained as any other kind of home, but a few were in a far worse state than the one in Escape to London. Age, mental health, and which drugs were taken for pleasure or self-medication all made a difference.

Escape from London page unnumbered 1

Escape from London page unnumbered 2

Concerns over what might happen to teenage girls lured by London’s bright, cold lights were neither new nor always unjustified. The BBC television documentary series Special Enquiry addressed the issue in 1956 with A Girl Comes to London. For a good first-hand account of the precariousness of some young London lives in the 1970s, see Daniel Lux’s The Camden Parasites.

08 February 2015

Arthur Machen: the sounds from beyond the veil

ADVENTURES MADE EARLY in life can go on to define intellectual careers and reputations. Darwin was 22 when he set off on The Beagle. T. E. Lawrence built a personal mythos from his experiences as a young officer during the Arab Revolt of 1916–18. The anthropologist Margaret Mead was 27 when her book Coming of Age in Samoa was published, while Napoleon Chagnon spent his twenties studying the Yanonamo people, sometimes introducing himself to a new village by leaping into its central clearing with his face daubed in war paint, waving a shotgun.

The Welsh-born mystic and writer Arthur Machen moved to London in 1881 when he was in his late teens, a good age for the kind of long exploratory walks which can bring on a trance-like state of fatigue. He lodged briefly in south London before moving to Turnham Green, then Notting Hill Gate. With De Quincey’s opium-powered London wanderings sometimes in mind, Machen began first to explore the north and west of the city. His autobiographical works, such as Far Off Things (1922), suggest he gathered enough thoughts on London and its hinterlands during these expeditions to inform the rest of his literary career.

Arthur Machen

Machen’s descriptions of sounds often occur in the absence of seeing what’s making them. In The Terror (1917), a part of the Welsh countryside is haunted by an eerie, distant moaning, which is later revealed as people crying for help up the chimney flue of a barricaded cottage. A Fragment of Life (1899) features a nature spirit less benign than Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, which whistles unseen at a couple walking in the fields near Totteridge. The confrontation is a foretaste of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now:

Still, she felt it was no good bothering her head over what couldn’t be made out or explained anyway, and she was just settling down, when one Sunday evening it began all over again, and worse things happened. The whistling followed them just as it did before, and poor aunt set her teeth and said nothing to uncle, as she knew he would only tell her stories, and they were walking on, not saying a word, when something made her look back, and there was a horrible boy with red hair, peeping through the hedge just behind, and grinning. She said it was a dreadful face, with something unnatural about it, as if it had been a dwarf, and before she had time to have a good look, it popped back like lightning, and aunt all but fainted away.

Part of H.P. Lovecraft’s acknowledged debt to Machen also lies in hearing without seeing. Well before Lovecraft’s half-human ululations emanated from somewhere below ground, Machen’s The Three Impostors (1895) has Francis Leicester ingest a restorative white powder from a chemist, only to undergo a horrible physical degeneration. The process takes time, however, as his sister finds out:

“Francis, Francis,” I cried, “for heaven’s sake answer me. What is the horrible thing in your room? Cast it out, Francis, cast it from you!”

I heard a noise as of feet shuffling slowly and awkwardly, and a choking, gurgling sound, as if some one was struggling to find utterance, and then the noise of a voice, broken and stifled, and words that I could scarcely understand.

Sound in Machen’s writings can create a tunnel between the present and a different time or place. Another vignette from The Three Impostors underlines his influence on Lovecraft. A feeble-minded youth named Jervase Cradock is taken on as a gardener and suffers a fit while at his work:

I shrieked with terror, and Professor Gregg came running; and as I pointed to Cradock, the boy with one convulsive shudder fell face forward, and lay on the wet earth, his body writhing like a wounded blind-worm, and an inconceivable babble of sounds bursting and rattling and hissing from his lips; he seemed to pour forth an infamous jargon, with words, or what seemed words, that might have belonged to a tongue dead since untold ages, and buried deep beneath Nilotic mud, or in the inmost recesses of the Mexican forest.

In the semi-autobiographical The Hill of Dreams (1907), the young writer Lucian begins to disintegrate mentally amid his isolation in a west London suburb and his failure to achieve the numinous prose he strives for. The memory of a storm from his childhood in Wales comes back to him repeatedly:

He remembered one night at home when such a sound had roused him suddenly from a deep sweet sleep. There was a rushing and beating as of wings upon the air, and a heavy dreary noise, like thunder far away upon the mountain. He had got out of bed and looked from behind the blind to see what was abroad. He remembered the strange sight he had seen, and he pretended it would be just the same if he cared to look out now. There were clouds flying awfully from before the moon, and a pale light that made the familiar land look strange and terrible. The blast of wind came with a great shriek, and the trees tossed and bowed and quivered; the wood was scourged and horrible, and the night air was ghastly with a confused tumult, and voices as of a host.

The storm is violent and powerful enough to overwhelm the sounds of surburban life:

He leant back again, picturing the wet street without, the rain driving like fountain spray about the gas lamp, the shrilling of the wind on those waste places to the north. It was strange how in the brick and stucco desert where no trees were, he all the time imagined the noise of tossing boughs, the grinding of the boughs together. There was a great storm and tumult in this wilderness of London, and for the sound of the rain and the wind he could not hear the hum and jangle of the trams, and the jar and shriek of the garden gates as they opened and shut.

Machen develops the noise of the garden gate into a symbol of his traditionalist and conservative dislike of the newly-built London suburbs. Again from The Hill of Dreams:

He looked out into the grey street, and it stood a symbol of his life, chill and dreary and grey and vexed with a horrible wind. There were the dull inhabitants of the quarter going about their common business; a man was crying “mackerel” in a doleful voice, slowly passing up the street, and staring into the white-curtained “parlors,” searching for the face of a purchaser behind the India-rubber plants, stuffed birds, and piles of gaudy gilt books that adorned the windows. One of the blistered doors over the way banged, and a woman came scurrying out on some errand, and the garden gate shrieked two melancholy notes as she opened it and let it swing back after her.

Lucian can try to escape what Machen later called ‘the raw London suburb and its mean limited life’ through long, digressive walks in the tangle of streets or else westwards into what might now be termed Edgelands:

Now, however, when the new year was beginning its dull days, he began to diverge occasionally to right and left, sometimes eating his luncheon in odd corners, in the bulging parlors of eighteenth-century taverns, that still fronted the surging sea of modern streets, or perhaps in brand new “publics” on the broken borders of the brickfields, smelling of the clay from which they had swollen. He found waste by-places behind railway embankments where he could smoke his pipe sheltered from the wind; sometimes there was a wooden fence by an old pear-orchard where he sat and gazed at the wet desolation of the market-gardens, munching a few currant biscuits by way of dinner.

Booth’s Poverty Map, compiled towards the end of the 19th century, shows some of these west London outskirts. The triangle of Shepherd’s Bush Green lies to the lower right-hand side, with Wormwood Scrubs prison standing in isolation near the top:

Booth's Poverty Map

But these solitary journeys only make Lucian feel more cut off from humanity – the city is for him as ‘uninhabitated as the desert’. An alternative escape route offers him the possibility of communing with others, but only through a gradual dissociation from reality. One of the most striking passages in The Hill of Dreams recasts a Saturday night, possibly in or near Shepherd’s Bush, into the bacchanalia of a witches’ sabbath ‘loud with the expectation of lust and death’:

He had passed through the clamorous and blatant crowd of the “high street,” where, as one climbed the hill, the shops seemed all aflame, and the black night air glowed with the flaring gas-jets and the naphtha-lamps, hissing and wavering before the February wind. Voices, raucous, clamant, abominable, were belched out of the blazing public-houses as the doors swung to and fro, and above these doors were hideous brassy lamps, very slowly swinging in a violent blast of air, so that they might have been infernal thuribles, censing the people. Some man was calling his wares in one long continuous shriek that never stopped or paused, and, as a respond, a deeper, louder voice roared to him from across the road. An Italian whirled the handle of his piano-organ in a fury, and a ring of imps danced mad figures around him, danced and flung up their legs till the rags dropped from some of them, and they still danced on. A flare of naphtha, burning with a rushing noise, threw a light on one point of the circle, and Lucian watched a lank girl of fifteen as she came round and round to the flash. She was quite drunk, and had kicked her petticoats away, and the crowd howled laughter and applause at her. Her black hair poured down and leapt on her scarlet bodice; she sprang and leapt round the ring, laughing in Bacchic frenzy, and led the orgy to triumph. People were crossing to and fro, jostling against each other, swarming about certain shops and stalls in a dense dark mass that quivered and sent out feelers as if it were one writhing organism. A little farther a group of young men, arm in arm, were marching down the roadway chanting some music-hall verse in full chorus, so that it sounded like plainsong. An impossible hubbub, a hum of voices angry as swarming bees, the squeals of five or six girls who ran in and out, and dived up dark passages and darted back into the crowd; all these mingled together till his ears quivered. A young fellow was playing the concertina, and he touched the keys with such slow fingers that the tune wailed solemn into a dirge; but there was nothing so strange as the burst of sound that swelled out when the public-house doors were opened.

The next day the banality of the suburb re-establishes itself through the ringing of a chapel bell (‘tang, tang, tang’) and a ‘doggerel hymn whining from some parlor, to the accompaniment of the harmonium.’ Machen intends these sounds of the growing commuter belt to represent constraints on the possible range of experience. They are set up as a surface reality to be undermined later. The Three Impostors begins with life in Red Lion Square playing out with the regularity of Gog and Magog striking the hours at St Dunstan-in-the-West in Fleet Street:

By degrees in the houses opposite one window after another leaped out a square of light, now and again a figure would shape itself against a blind and vanish, and to all this semi-theatrical magic the runs and flourishes of brave Italian opera played a little distance off on a piano-organ seemed an appropriate accompaniment, while the deep-muttered bass of the traffic of Holborn never ceased.

In A Fragment of Life, the City clerk Edward Darnell inhabits the ‘grey phantasmal world’ which Machen claims is most people’s lot before becoming more aware of a different reality filled with ‘grotesque and fantastic shapes, omens of confusion and disorder, threats of madness’. The routine of the commuter is represented in the conversations Darnell hears on the bus from Uxbridge Road:

The customary companions of his morning’s journey were in the seats about him; he heard the hum of their talk, as they disputed concerning politics, and the man next to him, who came from Acton, asked him what he thought of the Government now. There was a discussion, and a loud and excited one, just in front, as to whether rhubarb was a fruit or vegetable, and in his ear he heard Redman, who was a near neighbour, praising the economy of ‘the wife.’

‘I don’t know how she does it. Look here; what do you think we had yesterday? Breakfast: fish-cakes, beautifully fried—rich, you know, lots of herbs, it’s a receipt of her aunt’s; you should just taste ‘em. Coffee, bread, butter, marmalade, and, of course, all the usual etceteras. Dinner: roast beef, Yorkshire, potatoes, greens, and horse-radish sauce, plum tart, cheese. And where will you get a better dinner than that? Well, I call it wonderful, I really do.’

Although a conservative, Machen suggests that revelation is within the grasp of anyone who wants to reach for it, rather than being the preserve of an elite of adepts. Darnell, after all, belongs to the lower middle class. In The London Adventure (1924), Machen recalls how a Salvation Army funeral service in Lower Clapton had rediscovered for itself the ancient patterns of call-and-response, and so people of ‘very indifferent education’ were capable of creating a ‘remarkable and impressive’ occasion.

In Machen’s world-view, what’s old is generally good, and what’s new is usually disagreeable and inferior. Not only do the new suburbs and vast late-Victorian cemeteries obliterate the precious countryside and its half-buried hamlets and taverns, but the London of the 1920s sounds worse than that of the 1880s. From Far Off Things:

And the carriages were of graceful form, and the servants of those days sometimes wore gorgeous liveries; and scores of those brilliant equipages followed on one another in an unending dazzling procession. That was the old way; now there are some “Snorting Billies” that choke and snarl and splutter as they dodge furtively and meanly in and out of the Park, like mechanical rabbits bolting for their burrows.

Part of Machen’s legacy is a way of writing about London by trying to re-enchant it. Few people now can summon up the same belief in the existence of a mystical reality alongside the everyday physical facts of pavements and buses. What survives into recent psychogeographical writing is the elegaic stance, the intense interest in the past, and it is significant that this has found a new resonance as London undergoes another spasm of rapid and profound change.

ADDENDUM: For a rejection of the argument that Lovecraft was influenced by Machen in his treatment of sound, see this post on the Tentaclii blog. In my opinion the parallels between sound-themes in The Three Impostors and Lovecraft’s work are too strong to be coincidental. But it is clear from the examples given on Tentaclii that Lovecraft’s use of ‘hearing without seeing’ was indeed established before he encountered Machen’s work in the early 1920s.

29 January 2015

Vanished City: London's Lost Neighbourhoods by Tom Bolton

ANYONE WHO ENJOYED Tom Bolton’s last book London’s Lost Rivers is in for a treat with his latest investigation Vanished City: London’s Lost Neighbourhoods. Here’s part of a review I’ve written about it:

Vanished City is at its most vivid when describing the individuals and communities who lived in these now-liminal places. We meet obscure figures like Thomas Venner, the leader of the Fifth Monarchists cult, and the mudlarks William Smith and Charles Eaton, who made cack-handed forgeries to be passed off as antiquities found at low tide, complete with spelling mistakes (both were illiterate). Somehow they escaped prosecution. Better-known names like Dan Leno, Alexander Pope and Joseph Grimaldi also appear and Bolton’s marshalling of information gives their lives precise geographical context. Bolton reserves short shrift for the writer Thomas Burke, sometimes needy and indiscriminately friendly in his other London writings, here nailed as ‘absurdly melodramatic’ in his accounts of the East End’s Chinese in Limehouse Nights.

You can read the whole thing on the Caught by the River website.

On Monday 2nd February I’ll be in conversation with Tom at a Caught by the River evening in The Social. Also on the bill are films by Paul Kelly, St Etienne and William Raban, and a reading by Michael Smith from his book Dark Waters.

Looks like a good night for anyone interested in the Thames and London, and all at one of the best bars in the West End. Hope to see you there.

29 January 2015

Sound and Music's Creative Data Club

THE OTHER NIGHT I made a presentation at Sound and Music’s Creative Data Club in Somerset House. It was titled Some aspects of sound data in field recordings and historical accounts – if only I’d come up with something more pithy like, I don’t know, The Larch:

The two other speakers were Jon Little from Kew Gardens and the software developer Stef Lewandowski. Jon talked us through Kew Gardens’ impressive-looking smartphone app which uses iBeacons to help guide and inform visitors. Stef demonstrated examples of his work, including a real-time visualisation of the ‘internet of things’, rendering visible all the different devices nearby and their activities.

These displays of imaginative technical knowhow reminded me that I should sign up to Code Academy. Many thanks to everyone at Sound and Music for their help and hospitality, and to everyone I met that evening.

Next month’s Creative Data Club is on Thursday 19 February, starting at 6pm. It’s free, but if you’re thinking of going along then it’s an idea to register.