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Through a tape recorder, darkly - or an MP4

One of the recurring fixations of Internet art is an attempt to recreate, using new media, famous artistic experiments of the preceding era. The most interesting of the new takes on famous avant-gardes are ones that don't just replicate but add a contemporary twist by exploring properties unique to the digital age. Take the simple idea of a Chicago sound artist who calls himself Ontologist: he has redone a famous piece of avant-gardist sound art by the U.S. composer called Alvin Lucier, but this time using YouTube.

Alvin Lucier was part of the wave of 20th-century composers fascinated with recording technology and the possibilities of electricity and music. He did brilliant things from the 1960s through the 1980s like stringing a length of piano wire across a room and making it vibrate with an oscillator. The resulting sounds are a ghostly interplay of frequencies. Out of simple devices, he managed to get all sorts of echoes and overtones that we don't normally hear in music: Like John Cage, he was interested in isolating and amplifying the ambient, the sounds around us.

This led to his most famous piece, I am sitting in a room (1969), in which he sat in a room and recorded himself reading this short text: "I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but, more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have."

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So that's what he did: He recorded this speech, then played back the recording to another sound recorder in the same room, then rerecorded that recording, making a copy of a copy. he ended up with what's now called the photocopy effect - when you keep copying a copy, the copy becomes distorted, you lose data and certain features become exaggerated. In Lucier's case, a drone starts to dominate the speech, until the speech has vanished entirely and one is hearing nothing but the natural frequencies of the room. And it's strangely musical, as if it has been created by a synthesizer.

Another interesting aspect of Lucier's recording is that he had a stutter, and it's quite noticeable in words like "rhythm," which takes him a half a second to get out. This sounds eerily contemporary, as we are now so familiar with sampling and delay techniques in pop music. It could easily be an added effect. But it was quite natural, and in fact one of the reasons that he was so interested in "smoothing out" any "irregularities" in his speech.

Well, this experiment has been repeated by many a student, and done with video as well - someone has filmed himself reciting the text, then filmed it being played back on a monitor, and so on. You can see the results of all these on that great magic library, YouTube. But the new thing about this guy Ontologist (yes, it's an annoyingly pretentious name, but I'll call him that if that's what he wants to be called; he lists himself on YouTube as Canzona) is that he has used YouTube itself as his filter: He shot a video of himself reading a slightly altered text, uploaded that, then "ripped" or copied it from YouTube in MP4 format, then reloaded that and did it again. He did this 1,000 times (it took him a year) and every one of those is viewable on YouTube, so you can watch the gradual disintegration of the sound and the image.

Unlike Lucier's audio tape, YouTube's "codec," or coding-decoding software, actually tries to remove some information each time it translates an image into a series of bits. Most codecs also serve as compressors, so they are "lossy" - they reduce the quality of the information in order to make the file smaller. (This leads to the delightful new English word lossiness.) So the quality of all these re-recordings degrades very rapidly, and quite terrifyingly. Unlike Lucier's booming, spectral soundscape, what you wind up with on YouTube are the slithering sounds of hell: The voice becomes hissy and monstrous, exactly as villain aliens speak in science-fiction movies, the image glaring and jerky. By around 500 recordings, it is actually painful to listen to. It's a distillation of all the problems that audiophiles complain about in digital sound, and evidence, to my mind, of why our sensory landscape is so much more noisy than it was 50 years ago.

The other striking difference between this and Lucier's 1969 piece is the critical reaction. The response to Canzona's uploading has been, online, almost entirely technical. It leads to furiously specific arguments by geeks about how to avoid lossiness in different formats, or about how to duplicate this lossiness without using YouTube. You could recreate the whole transformation now just using after-effects. It's no longer a philosophical discussion about the essence of sound or the idea of recording. It's just everyday life.

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