Digital reproduction of Aidan Gray’s Research Notes [salvaged from accom. year of [redacted]]
Have been busy working with Dr Lester Savage from the university’s Department of Music Studies. He got in touch some time ago asking if I would be interested in helping out with a project he coyly described in the email as ‘a bit out there’. Rarely have I had an opportunity in my post-doctoral career to flirt with the humanities, so I said yes and met him several weeks later in one of his studios. He has been working on collating diagrams of ‘cymatics’: the visible manifestations of sound and vibrations. He has a lecturer from--believe it or not--a community arts college touching up the colour and texture of these diagrams. You will not believe how beautiful they are. It’s going to be difficult to write about, to record for the funding reports we have to submit to the university. This is where I come in.
Savage claims that cymatics are worth pursuing in themselves, the way you’d collect gemstones from special locations around the country. They are manifestations, he says, of ‘the secret terrains of the air’--portholes into a microscopic landscape of glaciers, dust shivers, molecules, these curious, bundling bouncing things we cannot see. My rudimentary knowledge of particle physics covers some bases here but it is actually my specialisms in chemistry which attracted Savage. He wants me to help with the funding applications, yes--goodness knows I’ve experience trying to get the faculty to cough up for kooky projects--but also he needed a confidant of sorts. By which I mean, he somehow found my name online, buried deep in the Celtic Conspiracies webring. I did recently ask dear Douglas to remove my name, owing to increasing pressure from the university to clean up our online profiles, but in this case it is a blessing that he did not open my email. For then I would never have heard Savage’s extraordinary story, which I will try to relay for you now.
...This is perhaps not suitable for college walls. I’ll take this report home immediately when written, and will not leave it lying around in my office. When Savage first told me, he turned on the radio and put it out of tune, turned up the volume so our conversation was partially drowned out by the roar of white noise. We sat on one of the studio worktops, legs dangling in the air like school boys. He told me how in his research he’d come across some very peculiar phenomena indeed. What had initially started as sprinkling sand on a plate and drawing a violin’s bow along the edge quickly accelerated with the development of new instrumental modes of recording sound as image. The whole lab was covered in gorgeous renditions of these mandalas. He talked with great pride about the story behind each one, explaining how different samples produced unique designs. I suppose the set he’d created with high frequency cello noises was my favourite. It took some coaxing to pull him back to the matter at hand. He kept distracting himself with stories about the mandalas, as if utterly obsessed, addicted to the images. He would go into great detail about the technical mastery required to evoke this or that frequency, the shivering between notes that created those elaborate loops. Cut to the chase, my man! I told him, slapping my thigh with dramatic impatience.
“Sometimes,” he whispered, “the vibrations reach a certain pitch and then there’s this great deafening tidal wave of sound. It’s like nothing else. It can’t come from anything in the room; not even our best machines can reach those decibels, let along frequencies. I hadn’t heard anything like it in my life. Bearing in mind my pop’s a marine so I spent sometime with him training in submarines, and down there you get all sorts: whale noises, ice sheet shatters, the cold moans of distant sonar. I tell you, when I heard these noises it was like the entire debris of existence being subjected to this massive star prick of pressure, being sucked into something shuddering and then sucking, like this terrible plastic vacuuming. My vision reduced to fractals, like when you smash fingers into your eyes and everything is a broken kaleidoscope, colourful contents tipped out to ether. When it stopped--with extreme suddenness, no warning--all the dust in the room had risen from its surface and was floating in the air like some kind of heavenly glitter. But the objects were gone. Whatever it was I was using to make the sound--the instruments, the plate, the table--had vanished into thin air. I was alone in the room and promptly threw up in the bin, gasping for breath. Reality took a long while to reassemble around me.”
At this point, I nodded further encouragement, noticing the beads of sweat that were starting to cluster upon his forehead. He was turning a guitar capo over and over in his fingers, needling the clamp.
“Well I tried to forget it had ever happened and put it down,” he chuckled wryly, “to work-related stress. Recessional cuts and all. Wife and I were remortgaging the house at the time after the crisis so it was entirely possible my brain just glitched up. But then it happened again. Couple months later. I had two PhD students and a doctoral assistant helping me with some new mandalas that I was intending to make for a book I was writing on forest noises. It was gonna be called Sylvan Airs: A Visual Study of Verdant Tones. We’d taken these amazing trips to the woods all around Missouri--spent a whole summer more or less travelling--and made field recordings of the wind in the trees, the trickle of rivers, rustle in mosses, bird calls, scratchy branch sounds and everything. I had this idea of investigating the psychedelic manifestations of a post-pastoral.”
I looked at him quizzically, but he was growing breathless so I did not ask him to elaborate. The sweat was pouring off him now in buckets.
“You know, include the gunshots, the distant truck noises, humming from pylons and even the camera noises, because there were always hikers around--it being summer and all. I still have all the notes for that book. Man, it would have been so sweet. We even made spectrograms and there were some pretty spooky combinations, sounds that looked like faces, but not faces you’d ever seen before. They were missing features, even though technically the marks were there. Hard to explain: a human face without expression. What do they call it? Pareidolia. I kept seeing these expressionless faces in all the diagrams. The recording equipment was awesome so we’d rigged up some complex details, I guess tuning into new frequencies or whatever. Then we found this particular grove. It was silent. I mean, really completely silent. The coordinates show we were pretty deep in, far from the highways and the nature reserves, the hunting land, but still. You couldn’t imagine this silence. Have you ever lived outside of a city? This was truly nowhere, this grove was like the vanishing point where everything begins and ends. One of my students, Bethany, blithely started unwrapping her picnic and I told her to stop. Important to preserve the silence, to put off your hunger for the sake of the moment. The other student, Nate, looked freaked. He was a city kid and this must’ve felt totally unnatural to him. Even though it was what, the apex of the natural. Or maybe not, maybe the lack of sound belied a total lack of nature. This is all the stuff I wanted to tease out in my book, but the university dropped my funding. Dismissed it as ‘airy fairy’, I mean can you believe it--after those endless applications I put in, littered with the proper jargonese?”
He sighed, put down the capo. I could feel my heart-rate growing faster, anticipating the story whose ending I somehow already knew. It was like glimpsing that second before deja vu, where one event space passes into the next.
“I mean, what happened is pretty hard to talk about. When I started getting the equipment out, Nate was like what’s the point, why record silence? This is a boy who I taught as a sophomore, feeding him the likes of John Cage, Brian Eno, some of the early sinister modernists. From ambient to atonal. He clearly hadn’t taken it in. For the sake of preserving duration, I should have whispered, the complex mysteries of air itself, in all its cytoplasmic, expanding raptures. His pupils were completely dilated.
We only had a couple hours of daylight left, so I worked quickly. We recorded for a full hour, listening to the lilt of our own breaths, the oceanic sound of nothingness. I started slipping in and out of consciousness, imagining bird calls that weren’t there, my dream state starting to fabricate overlays of other forests, half-remembered soundscapes. Bethany slipped me a caffeine pill to stay awake. It was a miracle really, not a single breeze to disturb the air. Our bodies felt lighter, thinner, hardly tangible within this world. The needle was darting away, but we chose not to look until the recording had stopped. It’s like when you rewind a cassette, Bethany whispered, and you’re not sure if it’s going to stop automatically, or if it already has--if what’s running is actual tape time or silence or what. Dusk started falling. I stood up. That was when the shriek came. It was just like the one I’d heard months before, in my studio, except this time its juddering tones were more pronounced--almost a language. Nate screamed and Bethany hugged her knees so tight her knuckles were white. I watched them in horror, frozen to the spot. All the trees seemed to loom in around us, as if reality had become mere refraction to a paperweight, this curved effect of time and space closing in.
Then the rip. It was like someone shredding layers off your brain.
Then the silence again. Except not silence, because now the grove was alive with ordinary noises--chirrups of birds and easy breeze. Leaves stirred around us as if it were already autumn. All our recording equipment was gone. Every last piece: wires and papers, machines, headphones and all. Thousands of dollars worth. What WAS that? Nate stuttered. How could I explain to them what the hell we’d just seen? It was already dark by the time we felt strong enough to make our way back, with absolutely no devices to guide us. Even our pagers had vanished. We each reported a deep ache within us, as if every nerve had been temporarily frazzled to a crisp and was only slowly recovering. We camped out, curled up in mosses and foliage, woke up bitten by insects--every one of us suffering from terrible migraines, which I suspect were more than the effect of dehydration. Losing the equipment was just the first step in my gradual demotion from the university. My luck is running out, Aidan. I tell you, it was like reality itself torn apart in a second, like another dimension came howling through. Like its echoes are still resounding somewhere deep in my bones. I can’t sleep at night, haunted by that sound. I see its cry in the curve of the moon, the shape of a leaf’s epidermal lacery, the way my own voice makes its mountainous range on a spectrogram--in some interview or lecture, coldly lamenting.”
“That’s some compelling tale, Lester.”
“It’s all true, every detail. You have my word.”
I paused. “I don’t doubt it for a second.” But I didn’t tell him about what had happened to Payne and I in the Lanark Woods, all those years ago. I didn’t voice the crossovers in our mutual stories. I knew that if I passed on my own experience, I would be opening up another rift in a reality we were only just managing to hold together--the everyday illusions required to live a reasonable life. I worked with him, building machines again and attuning to fluctuations in atmosphere. We recorded the sounds of the weather and I made field notes that got published in some journal of Science and Music. Nothing beyond normal turned up, but I feel we were only skirting the limits. We could’ve probed harder, but something between us was holding us back. I suspect in my reticence he read my secrets. I asked what happened to Bethany and Nate.
“Bethany...she’s completing her PhD this year, doing her viva and all that. She released an album called The Wilderness Tapes, using samples she’d logged from micro-noises, flurries of wind and chafing insects. Lots of cool echoes and loops. A mixture of minimalism and, dare I say it, trap production. Deliberate low quality. I’ve not listened to it all the way through; there’s something about the tones she uses, all these eerie pitch shifts that bend the samples beyond the space of nature. It’s truly uncanny, that drawn-out warp. If anything denaturalises nature, then it’s whatever the hell is going on in The Wilderness Tapes. I think it got a sprinkle of press coverage and does well online. I’m glad she found her way out, channelled something good. Nate, on the other hand…”
His story about Nate’s mental decline and eventual institutionalisation reminded me, with a pang, of Payne’s sister Martha. Something about these encounters with the other-terrestrial, with nature beyond nature, the splitting of reality. It’s no wonder one’s mind starts to fall apart. I wonder how Payne and I have coped, and I suppose it’s by intellectualising the whole thing.
Despite our mutual trepidations, Savage and I were both keen to pursue the topic of (as we eventually framed it) Reality Splitting and Uncanny Soundscapes. We were going to do a literature review of supernatural noise reports before assembling a plan for field research. I had it all mapped out, funding and everything. Connected the dots to some stuff on air composition and audible manifestations of common pollutants in cities. The gelatinous strains of smog. A couple journals were sniffing around us, asking for brief interviews. We had the whole project set up. That was when Savage left. I came into work one day to a single email from the Department of Music’s staff secretary. It included an attachment, a snapshot of a note that Savage had left on his desk, addressed to me. It simply read: Gone south. Someone very important asked me to leave. Sorry this couldn’t work out. I wondered why he couldn’t have just emailed that to me, why he didn’t call. Who the mysterious important person might be. I chalked it up to personal issues and left it alone, distanced myself from all the sound stuff. I would give myself time to let it go again, embrace the eddies of disappointment. The world, perhaps, would direct me to safer passages of research. I mean, have I ever related my mild musicophobia to this journal? It seemed ill-advised to mention it to Savage at the time--I was genuinely keen to help the man out.
I’d almost forgotten about the project, buried it under the paperwork bundles of a new academic semester, when a package arrived on my desk one Monday morning. It had no sender attached, but a note that read: This was found in the spot the equipment had been when it vanished in the forest. I unwrapped what was hidden inside the bubble wrap and to my horror it was a scorpion! Initially, I thought it was made of plastic, lacquered black for a child’s Halloween toy. I quickly realised, however, that it retained its original cretaceous texture and was in fact probably some sort of fossilised specimen. It felt both terrible and delicate in the palm of my hand, like it might come alive at any minute. After some consideration, I decided not to share this news with Payne, uncertain about how he might react to more scorpion knowledge. The coincidence is too sharp to ignore, however, and so I may apply for a grant to conduct research in desert territories next summer. I have wrapped the scorpion up and hidden it in my desk drawer, where hopefully it will not leak too much of its dark, crackling energy. Sometimes, right before I nod off to sleep, I see its tiny black eyes, a triplet of pairs, studding the corners of its cephalothorax. The vision usually prompts an abject reaction; I cannot help vomiting the evening’s meal. Still, I refuse to destroy the specimen yet. It may prove significant, a source of other-sensory perspectives on a reality whose fringes I have only just started to tease at, loosening the astonishing fibres.