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God made my Babel Bell

No, this is not my award acceptance speech, but a rather evangelical description of how I’m making my Babel Bell. I’m attempting to create a sound entirely at random, and I’ll describe what I’m doing below.

First of all, I had to break down a sound into its component parts. A sound is made up of three main characteristics: attack, the length of time from the beginning of the sound to its loudest point; sustain, the duration at which it stays at its loudest point; and release, the length of time it takes to go from its loudest point to silence. I also had to work out whether I was going to record the sound myself, or use samples from someone else, whether it would be a natural sound or an electronic one, and whether it would be tonal or atonal, i.e. would it have a musical quality or not?

I really want to apply this to a lighting design, and generate one entirely at random for a show, but all the directors I know would have a heart attack if I did that!

There are many other qualities to a sound, which can all be decided randomly, but I just don’t have the time to work them all out, so if you like this idea, feel free to contribute your own ideas. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

1. Pick up a newspaper. What is the eighth letter in the first paragraph on the front page? If it’s A to M, then you’re making your own sound, if it’s N to Z then you’re using samples.

2. Open the phone book. Call the first business you see. When someone answers, ask them what their favourite number is. If it’s an even number then you will make a natural sound, if it’s an odd number then you will make an electronic one.

3. Watch a group of people waiting at a traffic light. When they cross, see who makes it first. If it’s a woman then you’re making a tonal sound, if it’s a man then it’s an atonal sound.

4. Go outside. If there is no wind then your attack is less than one second. If there is a light wind then it’s between one second and five seconds. If there is a strong wind then it is between five seconds and ten seconds.

5. Look at the second hand of a clock and notice the number. Divide it by two. That is the duration of your sustain, in seconds.

6. Stand at a bus station. When the next bus stops, count the number of people who get off. That is the duration of your decay, in seconds.

This sort of random generation is also a form of divination. Many people use things like this to determine the events of their future. For example, how many of us have ever tossed a coin to decide what we should do? I read recently that there is a culture of trying to read the future in websites, where people find significance in words and images they find at random. This is probably a silly thing to do, as ridiculous as the significance of tarot cards. But I found out recently that even silly tarot cards can be frighteningly accurate.


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