The Sound Of Rain: Mark Fell And The Quietest Room In Europe

John Doran speaks to the renowned leftfield electronic music producer and sound installation creator about 64 Beautiful Phase Violations - an experiment in an anechoic chamber. With thanks to Rory Gibb and Kit Turner for essential moral and technical guidance. Features embedded short documentary. Mark Fell portrait by Connie Treanor

All anechoic chamber pictures courtesy of Nick Harrison of Harrison Phair Photography

Short film courtesy of the Generic Greeting Collective

In the Acoustics Department of the Peel Park Campus of Salford University, staff members Danny and Ian are listening to ‘Territorial Pissings’ by Nirvana on their office stereo. There are a lot of CDs by Korn on Ian’s desk. I ask if grunge and nu metal are required listening for staff to offset the terrible silence of The Room. Danny, who has an exuberant blush to his cheek, says: "No, this is the music we listen to on Friday afternoon when we get back from the pub." Ian looks wistfully at all of his Korn CDs. "Our lass won’t let me have them in the house."

I’m waiting for Nick, the photographer, to come out of the anechoic chamber so I can go inside and — with the lights turned off, in absolute silence and absolute darkness — experience Mark Fell’s installation piece 64 Beautiful Phase Violations, which has been commissioned by Salford Sonic Fusion Festival. While I’m waiting I wander into the department’s self-explanatory and booming Reverberation Room and start shouting things self-consciously, in order to hear its phenomenal echo.

The anechoic chamber has been on this site for seven years after being relocated from the old campus on the other side of the River Irwell. The original room had been with the department since the 1960s, when such spaces were still in their infancy. Its purpose is to remove all the echo and reverberation that you would associate with naturally occurring environments, providing a cleaner space in which to carry out experiments with results uncorrupted or uncomplicated by extraneous sound.

Anna Papapaschlis in The Room

Anna Papapaschlis, a volunteer working for the festival, explains that the anechoic chamber is the definitely the quietest room in the UK, and probably in Europe as well. When asked for examples of what it is used for, she says "There was a student a few years ago who wanted to test the sound of a single raindrop landing on a roof. He couldn’t do it in a room because then there would be the normal reverberation of the walls and the floor. Yes, he did find out what he wanted to know, because in The Room it is the purest you can get a sound. It is also used for commercial reasons. One such commercial application would be to test the exact volume of earphones and other audio equipment.

"Some people find it quite unpleasant in there. I think I did when I first went inside it, because your ears and brain are not used to it. It feels like you are on an aeroplane when your ears pop but there is no pressure, you just have no idea how noisy normal rooms are."

I also speak to Ian Drumm, Doctor of Acoustics, who has been with the department for 15 years and has been helping Fell with the piece. He says that despite having tinnitus from attending too many rock concerts, he still likes The Room. (I can confirm that it does accentuate the condition – or at least make you more aware of it.) "The anechoic chamber itself is a room within a room," he explains. "If you look round inside, you’ve got a huge space between the room and the surrounding building, which is built on earthquake springs. These acoustically isolate it from vibration and things like that. Then, as you go into the anechoic chamber itself, the sound is attenuated by absorbing foam, specially shaped to capture all the various forms of waves that sound can take. And within that there is a trampoline floor, so whoever is inside that is completely surrounded by these conical bits of foam to capture sound waves.

"It’s unnerving in there," he adds. "We always have echo and reverberation surrounding us, so if you go in there it’s not like anything you will have experienced before. I work with a number of colleagues on sound systems. We have got a 64 speaker system in there at the moment. We could understand how the system works in theory using simulations and calculations, but if we want to see how it operates in reality, then this is a very pure place to test out the maths and the physics… where again a mediating environment would corrupt the results.

"I’ve only heard bits of Mark Fell’s piece as he’s been composing it. I intend to listen to it in its entirety tomorrow. It’s fascinating. I’ve seen the way he develops it. He’s controlling the amplitude and delay across a number of speakers in a very unusual way. Our mind tries to make sense of it and localise where the noise is coming from. For example, if we hear a lion we need to be able to localise where it is coming from,otherwise we get eaten by it and [in evolutionary terms] we can’t carry on. Mark’s presenting something that is nothing like a real world experience, but our mind tries to make it a real world experience by picking sounds here and there and trying to pinpoint them, and it takes you somewhere else. Somewhere you’ve never been before."

I ask which rock bands are the culprits for making his hearing bad. "Unfortunately my hearing is really, really hurting at the moment," he admits, "because I went to see My Bloody Valentine last week."

After being upbraided by the author for going in to see them without ear protection, he says: "I know! I know! They’re the loudest band I’ve ever seen and then during ‘You Made Me Realise’ they made 20 minutes of noise… it was a cacophony and it was wonderful but I don’t know if my health was worth it. I’m seeing The Hollies tonight with my partner and that should be a lot easier on the ears."

Dr Ian Drumm in The Room

After all the build up I find that The Room is actually ok when I’m inside it but crossing the threshold is bizarre. It’s almost like going through some kind of force field. A certain vitality in my experience of reality itself switches off. However, I don’t feel dizzy or as if I’m on an aeroplane. In fact, it’s totally ok, until Anna walks out of the room and closes the door and turns the lights off. Then I come close to hysteria on a couple of occasions.

Standing on the floor – essentially made from the same material as a tightrope’s safety net – I’m in the middle of a octagon arrangement of 64 identical, side plate sized speakers at head height. A recording of an emotionally neutral woman speaking French announces that the demonstration is about to begin at 1,000 hertz. I don’t hear a thing. Then she announces the second stage and I can detect a painfully high pitched tone, the kind you hear when you’re having a test to assess hearing damage. Then the installation moves from single tones into very dry, clean tones which are starting to resemble the synthesiser noises you might hear in techno; and then to electro-like pulses. And then the amplitude of each individual speaker starts shifting in various patterns, which not only feel like they are coming from completely different speaker set-ups but are happening inside differently shaped rooms. Sometimes the sensation is utterly unlike anything I’ve heard or experienced before — it’s not analogous to any ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ experience. All of the Violations are non-representational, and some resist any kind of useful description.

However with most of the short patterns, you could at least say something along the lines of "The varying amplitude of the 64 sine waves cause the sound to travel in a circle round you, in a manner similar to a vertical coin that has been spun, getting closer and closer to horizontal as it slows" and you would have at least gotten a small distance towards capturing what is happening. But with some of the Violations, there would be no metaphor or simile to grab onto. (In fact, one of the most uncanny Violations makes the sound appear as if it’s being generated inside my own head – ridiculously, as if I had imagined the strange sound into being — which in turn makes me think of Fell’s excellent Collateral Damage essay in a recent issue of The Wire.)

At this point during the piece I realise that, in some ways, this is perhaps the least sublime music I’ve ever heard. True, it is deeply stirring and even moving, but has no link to the natural or the man-made world. The pieces build in intensity – if not volume – through ragged sine wave manipulations, blasts of near power electronic noise, pure industrial throb and then to the denouement which is utterly terrifying. Each individual speaker emits the descending drone of an air raid siren, rippling round but never reaching the bottom of its swoop somehow. Standing on trampoline netting in the dark, I start to get the impression that I have stepped off Jacob’s ladder, and that there is an infinitely deep shaft beneath me.

Mark Fell is a friendly, forthcoming and extremely articulate man, who has a habit of taking very complex sonic and philosophical ideas and describing them accurately in a witty and easy to understand manner, more as if he were talking about a nice stroll he took recently or his plans to decorate the spare room.

When I describe my experience of the last Violation to Fell as unpleasant, he seems amused and mock outraged. I explain that it was like when a psychedelic experience goes horribly wrong, or perhaps like a particularly effective bit of scoring in a modern psychological thriller attempting to unnerve the audience.

"I think with the last piece you could draw that reference to horror film music, but I don’t know if I’d make that connection myself," Fell says. "For me the last piece was just supposed to be pretty. The methodology of the piece was just to have these 64 oscillators and to manipulate the phase and frequency of each to create some weird spatial effects. It was actually one of the first experiments that I did [with the 64 oscillators] and when I did it, in my head I thought of it as ‘The Instant Xenakis Algorithm’ or something like that."

I tell him, given the amount of planning, programming and other variable factors that went into making the piece, it must have been a massive ball ache to arrange. He agrees. "Yeah. Well, I got invited over here [Salford Sonic Fusion Festival] and they said, ‘Do you want to do an ambisonic piece?’ Ambisonics is a method of creating spatial sounding pieces. It tends to be used a lot in academic contexts and electro acoustics tends to use ambisonics. I’m not from an electro acoustic background at all. In fact for a long time I was very ignorant of all that, of people like, for example, Xenakis or Stockhausen.

"So for me the electro acoustic world is… I’m ideologically opposed to a lot of the way they do what they do; the aesthetics of it and the rhetoric surrounding it as well. Ambisonics is very much rooted in that world. So because I’m from this art background where I would study structuralist film, I’m ideologically opposed to creating illusions or trying to recreate the real world. It’s a bit silly really, I guess I should just let go of it! [laughs] So they asked me to do an ambisonic piece but I found out they had a wave field synthesis system, and I said, ‘Look, well I’d much rather do something with that’, because the principle of wave field synthesis is to actually manifest sound as opposed to creating the illusion that it’s there. [With wave field synthesis] it’s actually supposed to be there.

"But when I started with the machine I got a bit disappointed with it. It was like it didn’t live up to what it said on the box. So I went to the guy in acoustics [Ian Drumm] who was working with me and said, ‘Look, I’d much sooner just forget about this, and produce 64 oscillators and just work with the frequency and phase of each one.’ So if you think that the principle behind wave field synthesis is the manipulation of phase and delay, what I actually wanted to do was to focus on that technique and make that the content of the work myself. So I threw away the wave field synthesis software and just worked with the phase of 64 oscillators. This created a lot of weird spatial anomalies, because the body is not used to being in that kind of environment."

Tell me about it…

He laughs and concludes: "Basically, the brain is trying to work out what is happening to it, I guess."

I tell him how weird I found the experience. How, when I’d been worried about my balance or my perception of my orientation, the reality was much weirder, coming from my inability to process the sound ‘correctly’… especially during the Violations where it felt like the sound was emanating from inside my own head.

"Yeah, there are points where weird things like that happen," Fell replies. "There is a bit where there’s a crunching sound. There was a point where I was manipulating the start and the end of the wave shape, only by very small amounts, but even then it was kind of like, ‘Bloody hell, where’s that [sound] going?’ Because it’s all around your head and then inside your head. That was a happy accident, I didn’t predict that happening. I just observed it and thought, ‘Oh wow.’"

‘SOA-5’, taken from 2012’s Sentielle Objectif Actualite album, released via Editions Mego

There must be a goal above and beyond just making people go ‘Oh wow’ though, surely? What is the piece about, above and beyond creating the intrinsic weirdness of the experience?

"Well, for me it’s not like the intrinsic weirdness of the piece could ever exist in a vacuum," he says. "So I’m drawn to creating those kind of experiences, because I think it’s healthy for people to experience weirdness [laughs], and to come away from it with questions and unresolved issues about what they’ve encountered, rather than it just being some pretty soundscape, and ‘here’s a sound floating round your head’ and ‘there’s a sample of a bell going backwards’. For me, it’s good to create a situation whereby people are prompted to be in that state where they’re questioning what they’ve just experienced.

"But in terms of whether there is anything beyond just creating the weirdness for its own sake," he considers. "Well, for me that necessarily creates a load of other issues to do with the rhetoric about sound in space that come from the academic community. Rhetoric that I find quite unimaginative and tied into a lot of problematic ideas. Like for example, the issues of how the self relates to the world; this very metaphysical view of the world which sees the human as centre of his world and master of his environment.

"I’m very into reading philosophy. In particular I’m very into this guy Martin Heidegger, who promotes a view of the human being as absorbed into the world. Most of the time you’re not actually conscious of yourself as being separate from your environment, it’s only when you stop and think that you become separate from your environment. So for me that kind of belief that Heidegger promoted really rang true for me, growing up in Rotherham where my dad was a steelworker and observing him doing certain things. So I guess the way I work with sound on one hand is trying to create this weirdness, but on the other hand I’m trying to question this received wisdom that the academic community has about electro acoustic sound."

I tell him that decades of watching metal and extreme music gigs have left me unable to hear the first of his Violations, and he admits it’s right on the borders of his own hearing for similar reasons. But he started the piece at such a low level precisely because of the context. Outside of an anechoic chamber, no-one would be able to hear the first Violation, hearing loss or none — normal rooms are just too noisy.

Someone a few rooms away from us moves about, and the door to the room we are in creaks audibly. We both laugh. "I have a reputation for producing very loud music," he adds, "so I thought it would be good to do some extreme music at the other end, the very quiet end. So yeah, the first bit is two oscillators and all I’m doing is manipulating the phase of the wave shape, symmetrically – they are 360 degrees out of phase. So when I did it I was getting really weird spatial effects where I wasn’t really sure where the sound was coming from. Then the second piece uses four oscillators; then the third uses 16 oscillators and then the fourth uses 64 oscillators. I don’t actually turn the volume up, I just turn more oscillators on. But I had to be careful that I didn’t go too loud because in a space like that you can’t judge volume due to the lack of reverberation. It can be chucking out an immense amount of volume and you can’t really tell until it stops, and then your ears suck in on themselves."

Sonic Fusion Projects: Mark Fell – The Making of “64 Beautiful Phase Violations” from Sonic Fusion on Vimeo.

He explains the use of a French voice between the Violations. "This is a reference to the French electro acoustic movement. I’ve got some CDs of Jean-Claude Risset and an FM Synthesis demonstration. He introduces it in French and then there’s a little tone and then there will be another bit of French, and for me it was all about the strategies around that music to give it status or credibility. I’m not actually against academic electro acoustic music; I’m just against the power division between that and what I do. I produce independent electronic music which I think is of equal status in technical and aesthetic ways [to academic electro acoustic music]. But there’s this whole machine around academic music which reinforces its importance. So you look at a recent editorial in Computer Music Journal [a peer reviewed academic magazine], that said non-academic music was beyond the remit of the publication. Or you get people like Curtis Roads on a panel discussion, saying there is no non-academic electro acoustic music in America. You only need to look at this journal to see that they totally sideline non-academic music. So I guess the French voice is just a way to try and deal with those kinds of strategies. To deal with how they try to give themselves authority. But apart from that, I just like the way it impacts the experience of it. I just put these very long, literal descriptions into Google Translate and it comes up with this mish mash of not particularly accurate French. But ultimately I guess I just like the way it changes the experience."

I ask Fell if it isn’t just wholly predictable that academia behaves like this: creating a closed shop, treating the subject at hand as if they had sole ownership of it… treating it ike a dark art. He replies: "There’s a woman called Georgina Born, an anthropologist, and she’s done the most important work in the field, I think. She went to IRCAM – under the Pompidou Centre in Paris – and she studied the people there as if they were a tribe and wrote very critically of them, who they would let in and who they wouldn’t.

"But for me it’s a bit different," he continues. "The kind of value system that is implicit in those communities is different. I read a lot of [academic] writing on the subject in the Computer Music Journal and Organised Sound. There’s a very strong subtext with how this music is justified. A lot of the time the validity of the work depends on how it is justified, and for them this is to do with being able to give a critical, technical or scientific analysis of the work, without which it wouldn’t have any value. So there’s a certain way of relating to the work which relies on you constructing a theory about the work [to justify it], instead of just allowing someone to encounter it. That is something I find quite problematic, especially in relation to technology.

"There’s this Italian guy Alessandro Cipriani – a composer and academic – who said you have to learn technology, you have to be able to understand how it works – if you merely use it, you become a slave to it. Whereas for me, if you look at the history of what I do, it’s full of people who don’t really understand what they’re doing, and they’re using technology in this manner to create really important music. For example ‘Acid Trax’ by Phuture – when DJ Pierre made this track using the Roland TB303 he didn’t have a manual for it – he was just messing around with it. He’s on record as saying he didn’t know what he was doing, he was just twiddling knobs. If he had known what he was doing, he wouldn’t have made that acid house record, so for me there’s a big value in not knowing what you’re doing, which a lot of academic discourse… denies."

The author in The Room

I tell Fell that I loved his Collateral Damage essay in The Wire, and in particular the sentence where he describes an imaginary sticker on the packaging to the 303 bassline synthesiser: "If you have the filter’s resonance turned up to maximum, please do not wiggle its frequency control, as you might inadvertently discover a new musical vocabulary."

But I want to know, to what extent is this what he is actually doing himself when he makes music? And if so, can he give me some personally satisfying recent examples of when he (or other musicians if he prefers) have done the equivalent of putting all the needles into the red, or wiggling the frequency control when the filter’s resonance was turned up to maximum, that produced amazing results?

"For me, growing up and beginning to make music meant only having one piece of equipment at a time," he answers. "So my way of working was to work intensively with a single piece of equipment. Consequently I would explore it in extreme detail. Typically this would mean finding a particular feature of the equipment that did something interesting. For example, on the TX81Z – a small FM synthesis rack module by Yamaha – there was a function whereby one could step through different sounds each time a note was played. So you could set up variations of sounds, and as you played a sequence the sound would change also. This for me was a very early encounter with simple generative systems. But it became part of the fabric of how I thought about making music.

"Similarly I remember when I first connected a drum machine to an analogue monosynth, and used it to step through notes in a sequencer. If the drum machine was triggering five events per bar, but the sequencer had four notes, this would create changing patterns. Again these simple techniques became part of how I thought about music. I think probably this is how lots of musical activity happens. However, as soon as physical objects, strings, reeds, skins, etc get replaced with wires, dials, and speakers, people get all anxious. The vocabulary used to describe exploration of physical objects with strings, reeds, skins, etc, is quite different than that used to describe exploration of electronic objects with wires, dials and speakers. One becomes a liberating activity based upon expression of feeling, the other an oppressive activity based on the domination of human creativity by machines. Although I understand the mechanics of this distinction, I thoroughly disagree with it. Although the examples – TX81Z, drum machine to monosynth – are not ones where the needles went into the red, they illustrate the same thing as the high resonance cutoff twiddle technique used by Phuture."

‘Sensate Focus 2 – Y’ (Sensate Focus)

Mark Fell has always lived in Yorkshire. He talks about the effects this has had on him, both musically and socially. "I’m from Rotherham, a town on the other side of Sheffield. When I was growing up, there was a conservative government and where I lived was falling to bits in every way imaginable. When I was a kid at school I discovered Throbbing Gristle, and I thought, ‘Oh wow. This just makes complete sense. At last there are some adults who are not full of bullshit.’ So that scene was the pivotal thing for me. And from that point on I followed everything that came after that: Coil, Psychic TV, Chris and Cosey. [At the same time] in Sheffield we had the Anti-Group, a spin off from Clock DVA in Sheffield.

"So I ended up being completely fixated by electronic music and went through that and into On-U-Sound, Tackhead, Mark Stewart and all of that. And then early techno arrived. So I went through a lot of weird marginal musics to very mainstream house, and I’ve trod a bit of a weird path between those things ever since. So this is all present in the sound installation to some extent. Especially the Anti-Group… they said that they dealt with different frequencies and how this affected the physiology of the person; they were directly trying to address the nervous system. This isn’t necessarily something I agree can be done, but I like the rhetoric around the idea. I guess in some ways it still hangs round my work."

He goes on to explain that he drifted out of contact with what Coil were doing after the release of Horse Rotorvator, becoming more and more interested in dance music. "1989 was when WARP records started in Sheffield and when the techno scene was very active," he says of his route into house and techno. "At that point I became less interested in what was thought of as being extreme or experimental music and got much more interested in, for example, New York house in 1991 and 1992, tracks that had these really super slick smooth productions. [A place and period he also revisits via his recent Sensate Focus project – Ed]

"There was this guy Marc Kinchen, and he was doing some really interesting stuff with the cheaper end of Yamaha FM Synthesis which I really liked. Until this day all this has formed the template for the music that I make (as opposed to the sound installations). Even though the music I make is quite experimental and unusual, the primary influences are from that period of house and techno music in New York, if you see what I mean."

Fell became a father when he was 20 and ended up studying fine art and film at Sheffield University in 1989, because it was easier for childcare. However, this also meant he was in situ when the WARP scene was just starting. Talking about the label he says he remembers Autechre moving to the city from Manchester in 1994. At the time he was running a pirate radio station with a friend when Sean Booth got in touch asking if he could do a show with him. Since then he has stayed in touch with the duo, even supporting them on tour. However he is at pains to point out that just because they come from a club music background in the North of England and now work in non-standard timings, there is little comparison to be made between what they are doing.

SND – ’15/16′, released last year via PAN

In 1998 he formed SND with Mat Steel, to produce austere, minimalist, techno influenced electronic music which became known in some quarters as glitch. They released a series of 12"s and three albums via Mille Plateaux before 2002 and then, after a sabbatical, returned in 2009 with Atavism on Raster Noton. When asked if there are any similarities between his solo work and that of SND – and how the workload is divided up in that project – he replies: "There are some similarities. Some of my preferences for specific types of sound are present, some of my solo work follows the percussion and chord format used by SND, and similar production techniques are present in both my solo work and SND. In terms of division of labour, this comes down to our different skills and personalities. When we are making records I tend to come up with patterns, whereas Mat tends to take a lead in editing them.

"In a live context our technical system has gone through about three major incarnations. In the current incarnation there are two computers. My computer generates all the patterns and sounds, and both my computer and Mat’s computer function as interfaces. We each have four "decks" into which we can load systems. Systems can generate patterns or act upon other decks. So Mat can be running some grid-based pattern generating procedures, and then I can run procedures to distort timing, etc. That’s typically how it works. In terms of communication onstage I tend to say, ‘Shall we move to the next bit’ or ‘Shall I press stop’, etc. There’s not really much need for communication [beyond that], because we know what we are doing."

It’s always interesting to discover exactly what is going on during certain live performances of electronic music – to what extent the performance is improvised on any given night, how reactive the pieces are and what equipment is used. "I use Max/MSP for live work," he says. "I’ve started to refer to live work as presentation rather than performance. My solo live system is more or less the same structure, technically speaking, as the one we use for SND. I load a number of processes into the environment and mess about with these. It’s not predetermined in the way it might be if I were to press play on a MIDI sequencer. But there is some planning. I have the same order of systems which are loaded one at a time. Within each system there are parameters. I have well rehearsed combinations of these, or I might try some different combinations (if I feel like doing it while I’m on stage). So I guess, in this context, trying different combinations of parameters might constitute improvisation. Sometimes, and in some tracks, the general feeling is more like meandering, and trying to find combinations of parameters that produce appealing results. And given even a small level of complexity, this can still be quite challenging sometimes. But with experience, I think I am more relaxed to let it wander a bit onstage. The more meandering low parts I like more and more."

Mark Fell’s music is undoubtedly marginal in commercial terms. As he puts it, "You wouldn’t play it in a nightclub… at any point during the evening. It’d be a disaster!" Given its wilful disregard of meter or tempo of any kind, let alone merely disregarding 4/4 at 122bpm, it certainly isn’t suited for dancing, although its sonic palette is taken from types of music which are primarily concerned with dancing in clubs. But also there is a formal link to dance music – albeit punishing stripped back dance music – via some of the labels he works with. For example, in 2010 he produced an album for Raster Noton called Multistability which was a response to the label’s aesthetic. He claims he has no idea if anyone involved realised it, but he was immersing himself in the music of producers like Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda so he could hold a mirror up to their music; to ask the question "have you thought of your production like this?"

What is he trying to provoke in people by using non-standard timings? "I enjoy them," he replies. "That’s the honest answer. But I think when you do something ‘for pleasure’ there are a whole load of other reasons why you’re doing it as well. For example, when I was a kid Culture Club were really big, and they would say things like, ‘We’re just having fun. We just want to make this music.’ But what Boy George was doing at the same time was provoking this really articulate dialogue about gender. So it wasn’t just for fun, it was for loads of other stuff as well. So while he was having the fun he was also dealing with all these other issues. Now he might say, ‘Oh I’m not bothered about that.’ But fundamentally that was going on as well. So when I’m doing these timing structures, I’m having fun, I’m just making music I like – but on the way, there’s a whole bunch of other stuff that I’m probably dealing with as well. But in a way it’s nice to remain ignorant of it, because then you probably do a better job of it. Me and Terre Thaemlitz are very good friends, and we always disagree on this issue. He thinks you have to consciously deal with all of these layers of meaning around a work, but for me, I’d sooner just concentrate on the work and let the layers of meaning take care of themselves."

‘Multistability 10-A, 11’ (Editions Mego)

Now that the dreaded philosophy genie is well and truly out of the bottle, I ask Fell what he makes to Stephen’s Pinker’s (provocative) assertion that music is little more than cheesecake for the brain – a decorative treat with no real evolutionary value. "I think that music fulfils a much more fundamental role in people’s lives than that," he replies. "I’d be a liar if I said that music didn’t make me feel a certain way. Terre Thaemlitz would murder me if he heard me saying this! [laughs] But it’s true. Music makes me feel certain ways. I’m not really sure what it does, but at some deep level there is a kind of need for music in order for us to understand our environment. Why is it that music has a certain tempo? Why do we have certain tuning systems? There are certain kinds of musical structures that are repeated [in different places]. And what is the relationship between music and time and the way that we remember things from different times?

"So I’m interested in how the music we listen to is connected to how we experience and understand time, but I don’t really know the answer to that question. I think it was [Edgar] Varese who said that music was organised sound, but for me, that’s a bit problematic. It’s a bit like saying a car park is organised tarmac. It’s not. So what is a car park? Take the white lines in a car park. Are they to do with organising the tarmac, or are they to do with organising all the movements of cars and people and social interactions that go on in the car park? So for me, music isn’t organised sound. Music organises sound in order to deal with something else, and for me it seems that what it’s organising is time. For me, music is organised time."

When told his music frequently does play tricks with the normal sense of time passing — the way he subdivides and breaks up regular rhythms or causes them to slip slightly, he replies: "My view is that our experience of time is constructed in relation to music. For example, Western musical frameworks, I would argue, imply an understanding of time that is ideologically related to first person linear perspective. This model has been shown to be connected to specific beliefs about the world and ourselves. In the Western tradition music is thought of as events moving from future to past through an infinitely narrow now point. This now point is where "we" are at. We could contrast this, however, by referring to anthropological studies of different cultures and musical traditions. For example, Australian aboriginal society has a very different view of time and space, and of the relationship between self and the world. Studies have shown a preference for a spatial over temporal view of the self and the world. Here time is seen as an infinite now. Similarly, aboriginal musics can be seen to sustain and constitute this worldview. My specific interest is in how time line based audio and MIDI editing environments imply a linear view of time with an infinitely narrow now point, whereas programming structures and the paradigm implicit in Max/MSP (for example) offers different temporal frameworks. Max/MSP is a topological, not temporal, framework."

We’re done chatting so we prepare to leave the campus. I ask Fell if he knew that a guy had used the anechoic chamber to record the exact loudness of one drop of rain. I say that I was hoping that his work would provoke me to emit one tear, which would roll off my cheek and drop to the floor, in honour of both him and the raindrop recording student.

"Unfortunately, I’m a stony hearted bastard", I tell him.

We both laugh and depart for a tram.

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