Hacking The Silence - description of the four movements

Leverhulme Trust Sound Art Residency 2016 - Artistic Achievements, final performance at Being Human 2016

Hacking The Silence: Sonification of Senate House Library (SHL)

Hacking The Silence of the Library, held in the walls of Senate House


The work is in four movements like a traditional symphony. The success of this form testifies to it's strength, a platform within which musical form has developed since the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. It is used to consolidate the experimental forms within it, to create a Sound Art Symphony. It provides the solidity, to hold the complex blend of musical forms that co-exist and respond to each other in different ways, through the four movements. Musique-concréte sounds are treated in fragments of varying sizes from points to sound objects, phrases to textures. Sonic particles, form dots and lines with varying weights of brush stroke, slabs of sound with slices removed, represent the dislocatation between what appears to be and what actually is, in Senate House.  Cloud-like formations are used to build the atmospheres and weave the tapestry of cycles and stories in time and space contrapuntally, with micropolyphony and polyrhythms, through mapping percussive sounds to multiple quantization templates, over which textures are manipulated in time, shape, spectrum and direction.

Algorithmic composition based on the classification systems in the library, determine potential orders-of-events, with decisions made in real-time through live coding using options triggered at random within predetermined frameworks. Gestural controllers move the sound around the immersive soundcape, with pointilism mapped in time and position, through six-degrees-of-freedom over three planes.  The Computer music formed together with live analogue audio electronics uses both composition and improvisation, both homogonous and heterogenous sound objects*3 influenced by the musical forms from the music collections, highlighted by the music librarian in conversation, emphasizing the particular strengths and characteristics of the collections, including poly-lingual volumes, from Tudor Church music, the Littleton collection of music, to the latests texts on the avengarde and a rich collections of scores. This is realised technologically, using ambisonic spatial audio, audio production techniques, audio electronics and audio programming; combining musique-concréte, algorithmic composition and machine learning, with live coding, gestural controllers and acoustic instrumentation held together in a traditional form.

Leverhulme Artist hannah thompson playing violin in live performance Hacking The Silence

Event Series 'Into The Memory Hole' in the London hub Ministry of Hope and Fear, Being Human 2016 in Chancellor's Hall 24th Nov '16

The Four Movements of Hacking The Silence

- detailed description of the form, content, themes and technological solutions -

Movement One - cycles in time and space, interconnected networks that form the library (the supra)

Movement One is in a loose underlying Sonata form, over which contrapuntal themes weave a tapestry, using sound objects of different sonic colours and threads, that exist on a set of scales, to the power of two, on the meso scale with analogue filters and delays that interact, forming polyrhythms and micropolyphony to form textures of varying densities in which clouds morph, evaporate or grow. This movement initiates the dominant cycles in the life of Senate House Library:

  • in time: over multiple timescales, over a core structure based on the Supra time scale, representing the technological and sociological dielects over a Century and back to the dawn of print technology represented in SHL
  • in space: the multiple pathways through the building, representative of the connectivity between the departments, specialisms and activities that feed into the life of the library, from the aesotheric to the functional, research, archiving, classification, aquisition, conservation, Information Technology, maintanence, cleaning, service, events, marketing, administration, politics, archiving, cataloging and public engagement to name but a few, that can be found by walking through the labyrinth of corridors, rooms, lobbys, hallways, doorways, rooftops, multiple stairwells, staircases and lifts, with sound travelling through lift shafts, air-conditioning vents, cavities for electrics and plumbing from the basement to the roof from the past and today held as a living time machine.

Sounds from the field-recordings are set out through the movement to form the core structure, from the foundations to the tower, up the levels of the stack to the roof, the top of the 210ft tower, where the lookouts were posted through the Blitz in the War.

Artist on the Roof of Senate House Tower, photograph by Rory Cole
Central Stairwell to SHL

The multiple time scales are based on the nine timescales of musical structure.*1 The sounds of each time-scale are layered contrapuntally, over the pathways, inspired by the musical structure of Ligetti,  in interweaving patterns across the six-degrees-of-freedom of the immersive soundspace. These timescales cover the very large (the supra) to the very small, the infintessimal (used in Digital Signal Processing in Computer Music).

The dominant timescale of this movement is the Supra. The supra timescale in music provides the cultural context, in SHL this is focused on the technological and sociological, for example of listed features of Senate House from the mechanical era: the boiler room, the air conditioning (still running since 1937), the switch room, the catalogue-card-cabinets, old computer technology used in the library, sourced from the ULCC archive cabinet etc. The digital era represented by recordings of the digital systems from the very small (personal devices, book loan system) to the very large (the communications systems and the ULCC server rooms, the Library's last ever daily manual tape-backup from the Library server in the data center in July, the sound of the two data centers, the installation of the networks into the basement for the Program Beveridge redevelopment (adding office space and meeting rooms).

Sounds mapping the development of technology since 1437 are used, from the Library 'book paleology rooms' the sounds of rare books preservation, of book conservation, use of books from the shelves, sound of shelving, storage in the stack, the fetch system from external locations, automated systems for taking out books, from the wooden panels of the study carralls to the 'Everywhere' computers for students visiting the Library, use of smart devices. 'Smaller timescales are represented by using the sounds and sonic shapes of the changing populations and activities in the Library, Senate House and the Bloomsbury site of the University of London over the years of a degree and the years within it; the building through the seasons of a year; Senate House and Library commercial, educational and commemorative activities marking the anniversaries key to the cultural life of the country and beyond. Timescales diminish like a Russian Doll, within the year: the semester; the week; the day (opening hours / closed hours); the hour; the minute; the second; the millisecond; the moment, down to the atomic sound particles within a waveform.

The Switchroom in the basement
Boiler in boiler room
Pipes of the boiler room still heating The Warburg Institute and Birbeck college
Internal lift in the stack
View from 10th floor of the stack

Movement Two - disruption and change at Senate House Library 'What is And What Appears To Be' (mesa)

Movement Two represents disruption and change, of the Program Beveridge building works and through the huge book moves past and present, tying together historical representations of disruption and change through the history of Senate House Library. The books are first introduced through audio from the spoken/text-based content gathered through collaborations between the artist and various departments of SHL and SAS. The themes that reflect the SHL collections are thrown through the immersive sound space between four of the six speakers, like intellectual discourse in a time machine. The representation of Senate House in which the disruption occurs also reflects the dislocation between What Is and What Appears To Be since this lies at the heart of many of the features of the building and the very identity of the building. These sounds are connected to the multichannel outputs of the audio interface connected to the artist's own iMac, in a quadraphonic spatial audio setup while the audio of the book moves and disruption caused by the building work of Program Beveridge drives through the center of the 3D sound space, with some of the dislocated voices, output via the two central speakers connected to the artist's Mackie mixer (12:2) with the Zoom H6 setup as the audio interface for the residency laptop provided by SHL.

The sounds evoke the book moves in the history of Senate House and in the School of Advanced Study's The Warburg Institute, representing the impact of disruption and change. Negative destruction represented by the book move before the War and the hit on the library tower in the blitz kept alive through stories of ghosts trapped in the tower ever since. Positive change through disruption is shown through saving the Warburg Collection from the Nazis and creating the Warburg Institute through which the approach to art history developed by Aby Warburg is manifested in the unique classification system used in the library, to enhance creativity, and the development of ideas. This system is used to control how the spoken audio is output through a Granular Sampler built in the residency. The Warburg Collection provides evidence of the global influences to the Enlightenment and birth of modern science and philosophy, through the study of magic and astrology as well as mathematics and astronomy from the east in the middle ages, representing a perspective of world history that breaks down the concept of 'Western Civilization' lazily adopted in public discourse today. Just as SOAS has reclaimed it's identity, created originally to educate administrators of the empire through the unqiue external examination system deviced by University of London, it now stands in the heart of the building, represented fully in public discourse. Likewise the collections in the Warburg reflect the globalisation of the middle ages, of shared knowledge and understanding across religions, cultures and georgraphy in a time that British school children are still taught are the Dark Ages. The third book move represented is the huge book move that took place in the first three months of the residency, causing massive disruption to some of the research librarians and imposing the limitations of off-site access for researchers, librarians and students.

The sounds of this move are rich and evokative, placed after sounds of the spaces filled with books and succeeded by sounds more reverberant due to the lack of books, the Alvin Lucier "Im Sitting in a Room" technique of iterative recordings, of played back subsequent loops was used in the processing of the audio to evoke this change from a dry, close, dead sound, through the sounds of trolleys evokative of the film "The Shining" (through the hotel) across flooring from carpets to parquet to marble with the lifts, lorrys and packing sounds to the reverberant sounds of the empty shelves. These are set within the sounds of the library building and the disruption caused by the moving noise-beast of the building sites, as they rove illusively through the site and the voices, of the collections, exhibitions and events with the silence of the internal surrounded by a cacophany of external noise, that by the end of the residency was beneath our feet from the basement.

In order to encompassing the theme of dislocation between What Is and What Appears To Be in the representation of the library, the audio uses techniques that emphasise the small and insignificant and diminish the loud and dominant subverting what is heard from the nature of the source, since features such as a dominant light switch does nothing but the light shining may only be controlled automatically, so the controller is visible but control is impossible. The movement introduces the danger of potential destruction, the energy and visceral hope in building sites and physical processes of scale, fear and hope are therefore introduced, together with representations of the opposing forces that form the contest in the fourth movement, through which the voice of the Memory Hole cuts.

The dominant time-scale of the second movement is the meso time scale, this is the musical form within a piece, a phrase, like a musical sentence. A Granular synthesizer and sampler is also used to create this discrepancy between 'what is and what appears to be', as voices are processed into both the beautiful and the terrible, layered with the sounds of the book moves and the building work that is transforming the basement of Senate House. The sounds of the book moves are output via the mixer from the laptop, with the Wierd Sound Generator synthesier, the violin and a microphone for live looping, with a quadraverb in the output chain, to send the audio down the central path of the immersive soundscape with analogue electronics at the end of the chain, using the quadraverb to separate the different signals across the stereofield at the center of the soundscape, within the central stereoplane. The meso-timescale, is represented in the sonic patterns of an academic year. This is the central sonic shape experienced at SHL under the changing sounds of the seasons, it is unusual because a long, steady crescendo builds through the long first semester and the shock of the small number of weeks when students return after christmas, before dissertations are submitted and exams sat, intensifies it. The buildup in intensity of study and occupancy of the library builds until exams. The sounds of excited voices at the start of the year is followed by the sounds of books and reading, and gradually the tapping of keyboards grows, the atmosphere intensifies, the voices in conversations have increased animation and urgency, emotional, stressed voices on the phone in the hallways and café, the reading rooms themselves sound like a colony of worker ants, tapping, high concentration levels palpable in the dry acoustic of the carpeted wooden pannelled reading rooms. In the marble of the window aloves however, the sounds of summer enter a reverberant zone that cuts off dramatically to the dry tapping inside, the bird-song, open sounds of London in summer a juxtaposition to the industry in the Library walls. This builds throughout the year increasing exponentially with a raw intensity as exams are taken and then suddenly all breaks off, without the satisfied relaxation of 'job done', but a long silent wait, for results. The crescendo develops over the first two movements with the furor of book moves and building work until it suddenly breaks off in the meso timescale for movement three. Movement two represents the physical disruptions of the year ending in the loudest point with movement three the break off to sudden quiet and the space for the human, sociopoitical disruptions to be represented sonically.

Movement Three - suspended animation, tensions hang in the juxtapositional for the launch of the Memory Hole (sample | micro)

Russell Square

Here the gentle sounds of a London square (Russell Square), the bird song, the wide streets surrounding the site, with bicycles, holiday visitors to the British Museum and the hum of a burger van evoke the relaxing sounds of summer in London. This is not replicated in the University, for assesors are marking, and for the students, a tension is held in the softness of the sunshine, yet potent with the expectancy, hope, terror of failure, of a huge loan that can only be paid back if the exam results are favourable.This mirrors the perpetual state of fear for the existance of the Library itself, a central library for the establishment unversity, but also a library built out of the founding collections, two identities that don't sit comfortably together, in real-estate that is commercially valuable, a value that sits next to it's value as a unique inter-disciplinary Library holding the subversive, the excentric and unusual (even the Shakespeare collections hold conspiracy theories of the true authorship of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets,  Francis Bacon in Durning-Lawrence and Edward De Verre in the Eggar Collection.


This movement emulates this state of prolonged suspension, reflecting the significance of the terror of exams in May and June for students across the globe and the sudden drop into a long summer. This musical structure, favoured by Charles Ives known as the 'arrows' (the long arrow of a crescendo and the sudden quiet), is a structure that sits beside the sonata form of the symphony, in this work. The tension between the structures intensifies, for the battle in movement four. For the academic summer isn’t peaceful, with the uncertainty of unknown results, lecturers uncertain if their course will be taken up the following year, research carried out franetically while the students are away, with the tense post-referendum calm of a pre-storm African sky. The tensions between sound art and music are invoked by the violin, a sonic quotation from Hindemith violin concerto, with excerps from Ligetti opera. The violin cries out, an emotional response from the tension and uncertainty of post-referendum Britain, that has hit Senate House knocking the atmosphere into suspended disbelieft, with dual control through playing the violin, with the adapted bow. The bow movements send the environmental sounds of the library up and down pipes in the walls (using ambisonic calculations of comparative volume and timings, to replicate the position and movement of sound upwards and downwards), to the left and the right and infront and behind, through a pathway between pairs of speakers with each bow stroke, while intermittent disruptions, threats to the calm, enter the soundscape from different directions, from the audio devices located around the space, subverting the central soundscape, yet a suspended, held anticipation remains, setting the scene for the Memory Hole Machine playback revealed through the center of the soundscape over the quiet sparse sonic texture, intensifying the scene by speaking humanity, in a modern day interpretation of newspeak for the 'post-truth political age' with Memory Hole's errorspeak.

Granular Synthesiser / Samplerfor violin with adapted bow dual control

The sound effects caused by typo-errors rip through the underlying texture, for the final battle between Utopia and Dystopia in the fourth movement. This battle encompasses the tensions referred to through the work, that revealed themselves through the residency, evoking a year that has engendered mass fear and mass hope, with a climactic close to the year, the end of the presidential campaign in the United States. The trans-atlantic influence to the library, reflected in the collections themselves, developed due to the close proximity of LSE and UCL accompanied by the Goldsmiths economics collections and in the inter-disciplinary ethos of the library itself, bringing home the reality of the political events not only in the UK but in America too, through 2016. Thoughts and responses to these events are represented in the Being Human collection of messages, played in the Memory Hole Reading, that begin at the end of the third movement, as tape encoded by visitors to Being Human and by Library staff and users, is read back by the Optical Reader, in real-time, so that the tensions and oppositional forces referenced in the piece so far intensify, taking listeners into the final, fourth movement.

The recording structure for the residency began with the large scale, wide-stereo recordings of the building moving inwards to the small scale, using directional recordings of the quieter sounds within the building, relating to the individual human activities within it. Therefore, the time scale used goes sub-waveform in movement three. By going down a scale within the boundaries of human perception, the durations of discrete sounds become perceived as continuous, the texture therefore changes, as the iterative becomes smooth. The transformation of what is discrete,  appears to be continuous. The other theme of mechanical, analogue technology of the real and of digital technology and the virtual is therefore introduced, reflected in the technology used in the audio devices adopted by the artist. This too is fought through the fourth movement.

Movement Four - Sturm und Drang. Utopia - Dystopia, Hope - Fear, symphōnos - diaphōnia*2, specialist - polymath, inter-connected - juxtapositional (atomic | sub-sample)

Through the expression of what it is to be human, Goethe’s Sturm und Drang comes out from behind the Lygettian, Ivean layers established in the first movement, and the sound introduces a traditional mythological contest found in traditional cultural forms, since Achilles and Priam, to Faust, Dante, the Dream of Gerontius,  between Utopia and Dystopia (the subject of the Library’s current exhibition) and Hope and Fear (the theme of Being Human 2016 in the London hub Ministry of Hope and Fear).

The poly-lingual confusion initiated in the second movement consolidated through the third, also joins the battles of the fourth, of 'language' the theme of Bloomsbury Festival 2016, international cooperation is exemplified, nurtured and celebrated at Senate House as it is challenged for the first time since world war II elsewhere. Technologically, the voices become components of iterative sound, that which 'appears to be', morphs into something else, the building work sounds build, in a threatening cacophony of hope or fear. Granular synthesis parameters reduce inwards, increasing the atomic pressure and the impending threat of atomic explosion lingers, as within the granular sound objects, the clouds darken and the splitting atom looms. All the tensions introduced in the earlier movements come clashing against each other.

However, the building work of Program Beveridge is ongoing, the uncertainties both physical and human remain, in Senate House Library.  With so much power from the six speakers, used deliberately and carefully in the immersive space, power spreading outwards through the strange shape and high ceiling of The Chancellor's Hall, it felt too easy to build to an obvious speaker-rattling explosion of sound, it felt too predictable without representing reality. For life is a balance between all these tensions, the greyness between the black and white of these extremes. It was therefore chosen, once again, to follow the arrows of Ives, reminded of, by Colin Homiski, in the course of discussions over the year. The build-up increased as the Memory Hole Machine contributors screamed out their messages triggering the computer speech in real-time from the Processing talky library, typos bending the filter cutoff and messing with the pitch, building work was accentuated with the Weird Sound Generator, adding sonority to shape the noise, with the building work machine stomping through the quadraphonic setup cut down the middle by the Memory Hole. Therefore, it was decided to represent instead, the end of the acadmic cycle, the true calm after the degree has been completed.  It was decided that the fourth movement would take a surprising turn, and  break off not into suspended tension like the third movement, but into a totally acoustic instrument, technologically, the simplest possible, the recorder; contrasting not just the analogue with the digital but also the industrial with the artesian. Inspired by the Tudor scores and The Littleton 15th, 16th and 17th Century music collections, including Lute music from 1666 (reflecting the Night At The Library collaboration with the Institute of Historical Research), as the density of the textures, the intensity of the sounds and level of the amplitude reached towards the pinnacle,  surrounded by the type of noise the artist is usually so engulfed in and comfortable with, cut to the vulnerability and exposure of a simple recorder line, played to the artist's mother.*4 Yet the melody too didn’t resolve, using repetition and controlling the atmosphere with simple melodic modal patterns. The piece did not oblige with resolution, it didnt even quote the so-called interval of the devil - a rising diminished 4,th or interrupted cadence, instead of rising - the final pattern eased into the stillness of a November evening, cutting like a flower – a descending minor-second.

*1  Time Scale: Infinite, Supra, Macro, Meso, Sound Object, Micro, Sampled, Subsample (including Atomic Sound Phonons and Polarons, the Planck Time Interval), infinitesimal. Curtis Roads Microsound (2001), MIT, Cambridge MA.

*2From the greek origins of the word sympony symphōnos  harmonious consonance between intervals, as opposed to diaphōnia dissonance

*3 Homogenous sound objects are musical notes that have discrete parameters that can be controlled individually, duration, timbre, pitch, loudness envelope. Heterogenous sound objects have interrelated parameters, so that changing one sound parameter will impact on multiple qualities simultaneously. Curtis Roads Microsound (2001), MIT, Cambridge MA.

*4 The artist's mother died suddenly with a funeral 3 weeks before the mid-residency performance. It was very sudden, however, she had a catastrophic stroke, in the midst of a fully active life before this, leading the artist to consider the connectivity in the human brain, the potential of brain plasticity overcome by the exhaustion from having a tiny blown connector the size of half a pin-prick. Having spoken relatively easily in the weeks following the stroke, gradually exhaustion 'locked her in' until her only remaining foibles 'privacy' and 'control' were taken away. The artist found the Lbrary and it's role in human society an interesting mechanism through which to consider the human brain and it's role in the person. The interconnectivity between the collections and between all the parts of the library that work together to form a society within the tower of Senate House, working so passionately towards sharing knowledge and understanding for the future, from the past, working to optimise access and break down barriers to the past, in order to inform and influence the future, through the students of the University of London and Library members. This was why Orwell's Memory Hole's were used as a basis for the installation, the fear of loosing the past and access to it. This fear resonates in todays political jargon and dreadfull straplines, the use of silly banal language to manipulate and control. The hope lies in the library to share and discuss, a thoughtful critique of the past for the future.  The artist was a violinist and recorder player as a music scholar, and was a Young Musician of the Year quarter-finalist through her school days, because of her mother's dedication and perseverance. The artist was sadened by the fact that after all the work put in by her mother that she hadnt heard any recent Sound Art performances. This was the first position after graduating from The CASS, LMU, in audio system's design. Had the timing been different it would have been wonderful for her mother to have been at the Being Human Festival performance, a culmination of a classical training together with new skills developed in Audio Electronics and Computer Music. Therefore the recorder was played to her and for her, in thanks and as a way of consolidating the links between the Library and the brain in society and in the individual for her mother.


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