Dog Barks at Own Echo

Tracing Mimicry Through My Recent Sonic Practice

Article by Jorge Boehringer
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Dog Barks at Own Echo explores traces of mimicry throughout my recent sonic work.

Traces of the mimetic are written across my recent performances, fixed media work, and environmental installations. Where, why, and how this occurs defines a conceptual landscape that these six short essays explore. Each essay is as a separate window looking onto a shared environment. These windows frame different perspectives, some focus on particular details, while others survey the whole space of discussion. From these frames of reference, an individual and temporary wholeness may be constituted. To move outward from this, beyond the necessary immediacy of the examples from of my own practice, is my goal. I hope that the work presented here will resonate with others and provoke further discussion through words or works, as is appropriate to the questions being asked.

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I. Mirror Propositions

“Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man’s. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.” Walter Benjamin (Benjamin, 2009,160)[1]

Essential to mimicry is that it is other than it appears.

This indicates that essential to mimicry is experience, subjectivity.

The key experience is not that of the subject who ‘performs’ the mimesis in question. Instead, what is required is some observing subject who experiences the mime themselves as other than they are.

In many cases of mimicry, as it is discussed in evolutionary science, the mimic has not done nothing other than survive.

In such cases, no “performance” of mimicry has occurred. Yet we still use this terminology.

Further, the mimic need not be aware of this (non-) performance, they need not exert any volition in the direction of imitation. Nor need the imitated object need have anythingto do with what is happening. For example, some plants mimic stones, some chameleons mimic plants: in neither case need the stones nor the plants know that a process is happening.

So, what is needed for this process to occur? As Benjamin suggests in the above quote, what is essential is a third-party, who makes the comparison. This comparison, Benjamin tells us, manifests within a (semiotic) medium. Interpretation then, depends not on the mime but on the interpreting being. Causality may well pale in the face of magical correspondences.

Mistakes are made when one mistakes the stick insect for a stick, but one is none the wiser if the stick is simply left behind.

It is a human third party, in Benjamin’s example, who notes the ‘mimicry’, even in such cases as it is accidental.

The resemblance exists for us or any one of us, and linguistically, we ascribe intention to it.

What is revealed when our sciences use such language, in straining, as they do, towards objectivity (similar in form to the stretching of plants towards the sun)?

Essential to mimicry is that it appears to some experiencing subject. This is a primarily phenomenological mode of being contingent with observation.

A third party takes some object for another, based on some resemblance: so it is essential to mimicry that it is an error on the part of the perceiver.

Resemblance provides material for a comparison, and all this takes place within the experience of an observer, who remains at a distance from the phenomena under consideration.

For a comparison to be made, the phenomena under consideration must likewise be at some distance from one another in space, time, or in some imaginary distance, like conceptual space.

Should the phenomena being compared be themselves part of the subject considering them, all this may take place internal to a subject. Likewise, it may be that the subject is considering some relationship between beings or objects regarded in normal usage to be external to themselves. In either case there is distance.

Performance of a situation in which the mime is aware of their action is a manifestation of an awareness of this distance. Scales of gradation from comedian to mystic could be used to discuss the distance (extent) at which the subject perceives themselves as other than they are. As discussed below, the notion of distance is key in all but the most unifying of mystical circumstances where the mime literally merges with the mimed, and perhaps the rest of the universe as well.

Essential to mimicry is this notion of distance: the distance implied by a comparison between resemblances, external or internal to some comparing subject, who is also at a distance from the objects under consideration.

The concept of distance also makes it clear that the object is not what it imitates, conscious or otherwise.

Likewise, mimicry depends upon imperfection: the resemblance between the imitator mimicked must be incomplete or imperfect.

Imperfect mimicry does not stop resemblance, nor do incomplete lines stop perceivers from rendering gestalten. Representation follows from this, and from repetition.

In cases where resemblance is intentional, where there is an attempt on the part of some subject to resemble another, certainly this could be called performative, agential.

In such cases the situation becomes one of suspension of belief between interested parties.

This is the also situation that renders these propositions “mirror propositions.” As will be discussed later in reference to Narcissus, one is always separated from one’s reflection by at least the thinnest of distances. This is the distance between something and, in whatever form, its imitation. Exploring what this distance is largely the reason for the play of mimesis in my work and will be a recurring theme in these essays.

I will ask the reader to suspend belief while I discuss some examples from my artwork and some theories about being in the world that I have developed through making it.

This discussion is in six parts, each one outlining one key aspect of mimicry that is seen to function in my creative practice. It should be noted however, that these discussions are non-exclusive, they interbreed.

[1] Note, I employ gender-neutral language in my writing. In quoted sections, I have left the language as given in the published work, which in this case is a work in translation from German to English.

Ancient Wood II

II. Fossils: Imitative Form in Material Traceries

I will begin discussion of my work with mimicry with what at first seems to be a concrete starting point: material considerations. In Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007) philosopher and particle physicist Karen Barad analytically summarises physicist Neils Bohrs’ ontological thought and experimental-conceptual practice. Barad demonstrates how both ethical and epistemological concerns are latent in Bohr’s working and explanatory methods. These, taken together with new insights influenced by a cornucopia of contemporary theorists are developed by Barad into Agential Realism, a performative unity of thought and material.

Through the framework of Agential Realism concepts are granted a tangible materiality. “Theoretical concepts…are not ideational in character but rather specific physical arrangements” (Barad, 2007, 139). This resonates with Hans-Jorg Rheinberger’s notion of “Epistemic Things” (Rheinberger, 1992, 8) in that they “embody certain aspects of the scientific object in a palpable form that can be handled in the laboratory”. Further, that where such embodiments are discussed as “matters of fact”, they arise from complex experimental settings composed of many, rather than singular experiments. It has been the subject of much recent theory that these notions provide a correspondence between the materialisation of artistic as well as scientific research (Schwab and Rheinberger, 2013).

In my work, complex variations and instances of mimicry interweave in material exploration of sound, making use of processes that metaphorically resemble those of fossilisation. I will discuss how some recent work of mine arrives at material resemblances though mimicking recognisable sounds, and how this can be compared to processes well known in palaeontology, for example mineral precipitation, replacement, recrystallization and permineralization (Prothero, 2013).

Before going further, it is interesting to note the sedimentation of a concept mentioned in the introductory propositions: that mimicry need not depend on volition, but rather is in the eye, or ear, of the beholder. When I first encountered some ancient material in a state of chemical transition found along the Northumberland coastline of the UK, I was deeply and productively confused, believing these to be large stones. The concept that this might be “petrifying wood” did not occur to me, nor that this would be possible to encounter on the beach where I was walking. I simply noted something curious about some stones projecting from the sand on the beach, and closer inspection revealed wood-like markings. This didn’t fit. I felt strangely still in my body, as though suspended, not willing to move, despite nothing stopping me from doing so. I felt as though I was grasping for a word. Then, with a strong curiosity I began to explore the objects physically, testing them to determine what category I might make sense of them as members of. Touching their wet surfaces failed to reveal to me the nature of this material, and only confused things further. The category “stone” was a difficult match for this substance, so wood-like it was in appearance. I took photos of “these amazing stones on the beach that look like wood” only to learn a year later of the ancient forest that makes itself visible when the right conditions and behaviour of sand, sea and weather reveal some part of it.

I had a similar experience when I first encountered the work of artist Hemali Bhuta at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. In Speed Breakers (2012) a nondescript sequence of exposed Beech tree roots rises from the footpath. Some of these, the roots authored by Bhuta, are bronze. This is striking to come across, and many people probably do not even notice it. However, there is also a conceptual resonance to these objects, as Bronze Age artefacts discovered throughout Yorkshire are also found to arise unannounced out of the earth, in a manner not dissimilar to the ancient forest along the coast, given the right environmental conditions.

That in both disciplines artefacts can be found to ‘arise’ out of the environment for an observer in the right place and time gives sense to the notion that both archaeology and palaeontology can be viewed as sciences of traces. A trace always requires at least two materials, for one must inscribe within the other. Traces can also arise as evidence of a former material condition, as is the case with fossils, or other instances of chemical transition in materials, like petrification. In my installation and recorded work, there are many examples of fossilisation-like processes in which material traces bear evidence that a material trajectory once existed in another form than that in which it is currently apprehended.

It is worth noting a contrasting reading. Where the formal remnant of an object or a sound, its body, is filled with new content, as described above in reference to one form of fossilisation, the formal relationship could be seen as not just opportunistic but parasitic. In such situations, as romanticised by Michel Serres in The Parasite, the host may be found to parasite the parasite: “The parasite plays a game of mimicry. It does not play at being another; it plays at being the same….” he writes, and later “…the host starts to imitate the guest….” (Serres, 2007, 202,207). I find it productive to consider both the material metaphor of fossilisation and the more theatrical or intentional metaphor of parasitism in reference to these instances of mimetic process in my works.

In Scene at the Dawn of the Day Before, recorded traces of organic life have been replaced through processes of imitation which deploy sound material such that they retain the trajectories of the originally recorded sounds while altering their timbral identity (Boehringer, 2021c). This piece began as a simple sound installation environment, which unfolded from transducers hidden within a piano whose damper pedal was blocked in an ‘open position’ while guests assembled for a wedding in the 16thCentury Tudor music room at Anteros Arts Foundation in Norwich, England. This sonic act was performed only once, as guests waited for the entrance of the bride, for which another piece, At the Door of the Forest was performed. This second piece featured a live pianist and a recording. Both recordings had been made approximately a year before, from just outside the city centre of Norwich, and both featured the birds of the dawn chorus.

In At The Door of the Forest, a recording was presented without any transformative production. Treatment of the recording within the piece was intended to be as literal as possible, an adapted and varied transcription for piano of a recording that accompanied its own transcription. An imitation, with acknowledged distance, of a relationship to a selected (recorded/transcribed) space and duration from within an environment (Boehringer, 2019b).

The case of Scene at the Dawn of the Day Before contrasts the approach to transcription in At The Door to the Forest by removing a great deal of the ‘human’ touch. Specifically, the songs of certain birds were removed, and in their place synthetic tones 'recrystallized’ using a vocoding process. This is metaphorically akin to what happens when the soft parts of dead and buried bodies are filled with mineral-rich groundwater, which then crystallises into new but related forms. The result, as in fossilisation, is uncanny. But it is also similar to a science fiction scenario in which a parasitic life form inhabits the body of a host. Appearing as the host, moving, behaving in a manner similar (uncannily) close to the hosts, yet on a deeper level having an identity that is not that of the host.

I later released the sound recording made for Scene at the Dawn of the Day Before as bespoke recorded work, a one-track album for listening circumstances to be determined by the listener. A chance conversation with Prague-based painter Lawrence Wells resulted in the use of an image of his for the album cover, an oil on linen painting Shapes of Birds(2021). The forms of Wells’ painting are extremely well suited to the morphological processes of the piece, appearing to have apprehended a frozen moment, in which bird-like shapes are caught undergoing a process of mimicry to become formally related to the plants they live among, while surrounded by sharp chrome shapes recalling the drapery portrayed in  classical paintings.

[1] This relationship mirrors that of the signal and the sound in instances of data sonification in my work. This is discussed in detail in section V.

The difference in transcription processes between the two pieces is of great importance. In At The Door to the Forest, I sought an imitation of the behaviour of the birds, and the process of transcription was literally manual: by hand. In Scene at the Dawn of the Day Before, what was sought was instead similar to what might have inspired painter George Braque when he wrote in his sketchbooks of seeking a “unison” with nature that does not include copying, or on another occasion when he writes “Look for points in common which are not points of similarity. It is thus that the poet can say ‘A swallow stabs the sky,’ and turns the swallow into a dagger” (Braque, 1971,70)

These works pose more questions than answers. What is heard is not meant to demonstrate anything, but rather is material evidence, like a fossil, whose form is derived from its manner of coming into being. In working through correspondences, these techniques of mimicry, I have discovered not an imitation of sound, but rather a new structuring mechanism that functions on the same scale as the signal, useful for designing sounds and also on larger structural scales, for organising them. The new sounds parasite upon the original sounds and signals[1]. However, there is a great deal of uncertainty and even ambiguity in this process. Yet perhaps surprisingly, I find this situation to be very productive, as I do the imperfection necessitated by my own transcription attempts, in these pieces and elsewhere. In fact, Scene at the Dawn of the Day Before, owes a good deal of its uncanny quality to the fact that the analysis and ‘repouring’ of such ‘cast’ forms was handled with the aid of mechanical means, which kept my own tastes at a distance. Perhaps it is instead that I am the parasite, and I am establishing my own works as hosts whose bodies I will later inhabit. Critical questions present themselves: have I not just flattened language and reduced representation into something merely visceral? Are I not producing more ambiguity that I am concretizing? Can sounds or experiences of sounds possess points in common which are not points of similarity?

Graphic Work

III. Towards a New Vague

“There is a difference between a shaky or out of focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.”

Erwin Schrödinger (Schrödinger, 1983, 8)

The above words by physicist Erwin Schrodinger are extremely fertile. Linkages by which they may be extended to contemporary artistic practice spring to mind. For this essay, I will suspend concerns of adjudication implied between the types of images and their processes of creation in favour of demonstrating some ways in which concepts latent within these words resonate in my work with mimetic relationships.

We can, for example, suspend judgement in the circumstances of the quote above by assuming that in both cases the image is materially the same. That is ‘the shaky or out of focus photograph’ and the ‘snapshot of clouds or fog banks’ produces in one example, for the sake of imagination, the same image. In this case, the demand for interpretation is placed upon the viewer, who must act apart from received notions. Hermeneutically, this suggests an extremely productive situation, similar to my own encounter with the ancient wood on the beach, discussed in section II. In such instances an examination of the material traces necessitates a confrontation with the assumptions one holds in approaching the object. This is desirable, and at times the motivating factor for me to produce work.

In recent works, I have attempted to technologize circumstances productive of such a situation. I have treated ambiguity productively, as a source of novelty: like particles materialising within a cloud chamber. My concern is not to reveal but to discover how mimetic relationships can play on ambiguity in settings of material situations for listening. In some instances, mimetic material is employed in a manner that allows it to co-exist on equal terms with the sources of sound it imitates. Listeners may then navigate the relationship in the sounds, only eventually if at all becoming aware of their common source.

From Nine Seconds Above Taco Heaven is an approximately nine-and-a-half-minute piece, scored for an ensemble of Paetzold Contrabass Recorder, Violin, Electric Guitar, Vibraphone, Electronic Sound Diffusion, and a Reader. This was, in 2019, my last opportunity, pre-pandemic, to work with a chamber ensemble. This piece, like most of my scored music, consists in a spatialized listening situation with no central time standard. The piece has a beginning and an ending, but otherwise the parts are almost completely independent from one another, apart from requisite attention to dynamics for an overall ensemble balance. Each part, in its own way, requires performers to add degrees of nuance or improvisational shading and interpretation to the situation as given. Such maintenance, as in meditation, is intended to maintain a particular state of attention or attitude towards what is heard and what is done.

The piece is a response to field recordings made earlier in the year in San Antonio, Texas, the city in which I grew up. It was my first visit after quite a long time, and I was struck by the ambience of the hot Texas nights. I was staying in a place outside the centre of the city but not in the countryside, rather in a liminal zone, a kind of bubble of frozen transport between two major roadways. Despite the raging traffic on all sides, there is a sense of calm to that place, with many trees, birds and insects making their homes there amongst the car parks and the ever-present hum of multiple air conditioners, each broadcasting from a different spatial coordinate, with slight differences in frequency and phase. Although I made many recordings from the balcony of the room I stayed in, one, approximately nine seconds long, struck me. It seemed to contain the essential features of the soundscape that were present fragmentarily in each of the others. When I returned home to Huddersfield in Yorkshire, England following this trip, I had already decided that I wanted to explore this recording. After much listening I decided to make a piece based around mimicry and variation in response to the recording. Each instrument would independently perform a scored part derived from a single perspective, a way of interpreting, framing, or reproducing the sound content of the recording. This would provide a means of expanding and exploring this recording more deeply.

I had been very much occupied in transcribing phenomena into music that might be considered for one reason or another to be “impossible”. I am not interested in this from any notion of virtuosity, for in fact I am not a skilled transcriber, and despite being a lifelong musician and composer my ear for pitch is only slightly more attuned to equal temperament than my colour-blind eyes are to gradation between green and brown, blue and purple.

In From Nine Seconds Above Taco Heaven, the overall result is not a transcription in the usual sense at all and it would even be a stretch to call it an imitation, but in terms of behaviours of sound, and in terms of the structure of my own experience of listening to the sound, the work is certainly one of mimicry. Subjecting the nine second recording to repeated listening and applying a detailed phenomenological investigation to this activity over several sessions and many days, I became aware of some of the factors involved in this experience, some invariances in terms of the overall texture, but also variances in my experience over the repeated listenings. I performed my research in different settings: in rooms versus on headphones, with technological aids for creating loops, applying filters, and so forth. In perceptually reframing the experience of these recorded sounds, I seemed to approach results similar to a phenomenological reduction (Husserl, 2012). Thus, multiple notions of distance appeared in my relation to the sound material, pointing the way toward potential mimetic approaches. For one thing, my relation to the recording as a document of something initially experienced completely dissolved. Further decontextualizations occurred: the insects, traffic, and air conditioners became, as expected, simply sounds. However, that they began to perceptually invade one anothers’ sonic gestalten was less expected. The recorded sounds, and thus the original sounds (though not as I experienced them), did not remain independent of one another, unrelated, and tied to their sources of production and causality, but rather interfered and blended with one another. This observation was very fruitful for my decision, as one taken when drawing, to imitate what I actually heard rather than what I knew to be there.

Insights about this sound as sound, as decontextualized, fuelled observations about the whole, rather than the parts. The recording is one of very slow gestures. Though at first, listening holistically, it might appear all ground, without figure, further listening reveals it to be quite rich in figure, perhaps of infinite figurative depth, beyond what can be resolved by ear or by microphone: no ground, all figure. I deepened the phenomenological game, adopting a variation on a type of investigation demonstrated by Don Ihde in his book “Experimental Phenomenology” (Ihde, 2012), and what I found suggested parallels to listening experiences discovered performing Pauline Oliveros’ Sonic Meditations with various groups over the years (Oliveros, 2015).

Source Material: From Nine Seconds Above Taco Heaven

00:00 / 00:00

Many of the notable aspects of my investigation of this recording were amplified by the fact that I eventually resolved to work with a time-stretched edit which extended the duration of the recording to almost nine and a half minutes. This renders the recording something very different from what it was in the first instance. However, as I constructed material variations in the listening situation and auditioned them, I realised, as do many music transcribers and birdwatchers, that a time-stretched recording can be of some utility in enhancing the audibility of certain sonic details and micro-trajectories. In fact, in the case of bird song, it can reveal fascinating details that unfortunately complicate the task of transcription (Collier, Hogg, and Strachan, 2020).

In this instance I felt confident in following this variation into the version of itself that became the basis of the piece. The effect produced by the time-streched recording was akin to microscopic magnification, and my experience of this suggested the structure I adopted for the work. Certain instruments would articulate material similar to or transcribed from different layers in the sound texture (but not the initially expected result of ‘segregated’ or segmented instrumentation according to sound source).  Other performers could interact more with their instruments in terms of actions that I found to resemble what might be material causes in the sounds heard in the recording.

As the parts are scored without synchronisation, it cannot be linked to a recording to create a score-and-sound video presentation. Therefore, inspired by Peter Ablinger’s writing about his lovely Grisailles pieces (Ablinger 1991-93), I created a stop-motion video using the windows in the performance space where this work was premiered to accompany the recording.

Re-evaluation of instrumental and compositional approaches within my artistic practice has shed new light on what are for me pervasive aesthetic questions in my work. These tend towards the vague, the hazy, the uncertain, and the indeterminate. A key concern in my work is the emergence of form within contingency, and the related question as to the relationship between pattern formation and pattern recognition (Boehringer,2019). Does recognition depend on a catalogue of forms one carries along with oneself? Was lack of such a catalogue-entry what startled me in my encounter with the ancient wood on the beach discussed in section II? If, as I hope we do, we jettison any notion of ideal essences that compose such a catalog, could this catalogue be a possible resultant or even a component of an internal system of mimesis by which we intentionally constitute the worlds we are compossible within? Could consciousness consist of a layered landscape of metaphors, a mimetic rendering of the world that is renewed at each step to become our world, our body?

While questions such as these may seem as ephemeral as the fog bank Schrodinger refers to in the quote that opened this essay, the creation of these works has provoked a reflexive reconsideration of the relationships between listening, performance, liveness, resonance, recording, memory, sound and meaning. A move from a materially based to a phenomenological inquiry continues to raise questions: when dealing with “the correlation” (Meillassoux,2008) do we listen to the world or only to ourselves?

IV. Beyond Narcissus: Resemblance, Transformation, Fiction

An anthropocentric definition of an echo might inform us that an echo is a reverberation in which the reflected sound is not heard as part of the original sound. A more technical definition could inform us that in many circumstances, human listeners can differentiate sounds from their sources when delay times are greater than 1/10th of a second. However, there is no need to limit the discussion of these sonic reflections to human listeners.

Echolocation is used by many other organisms, and it is reasonable to assume that certain transhuman phenomenologies accommodate something echo-like. Echo-phenomena highlight two key points from the Mirror Propositions with which this essay began. The first is that as a process of material and environmental interaction, the echo occurs ‘automatically’, without volition. An echo can occur, like a tree falling in a forest, with no listener there to hear it. Reconciling these seemingly divergent definitions will remain a task for another project. However, without needing to untangle such ontologically crossed wires, we can appreciate something that phenomena that echo are offering us, which in some way is a chance to hear ourselves hearing, or at least to hear what it is we are listening within.

In this sense the phenomena of echo perceptualises space, if space is defined in the anthropocentric and somewhat pedestrian sense of being those volumes we inhabit. Such volumes can be defined as architectural or non-human environmental spaces of the landscape. These are made audible by their resonance, through sonic interaction and listening when temporal and spatial distances exceed the minimum-echo distance, or its temporal counterpart mentioned above. The limiting factor to this scale on the large side is our atmosphere, which contains the crucial pressure for sound to operate the way we need it to perceive sounds by ear. The smaller scale, that is the smallest environments that may be listened to by resonance would be physically limited by the dimensions of one’s head or in the case of imaginary sounds might be infinite[1]. The phenomena of echo thus perceptualises space in the sense that space is the medium in which we are listening. At the very least it must be granted that echo in this sense perceptualises something about a particular space, for instance, its size.

This means that this naturally occurring material-environmental process which occurs ‘automatically’ and without volition can function as a form of mediation between sound and listening. Indeed, it is akin to a technological mediation between sound and listening. What these mediations show us though echoes is distance. It is primarily distance (in time or space) which renders these imitative phenomena different from their sources. This is the distance, discussed in section I, which is set forth as essential to mimetic phenomena.

The second, related notion to resonate with the propositions that began this essay is the obvious relation between a natural and an electronically produced echo[2]. This relation is fascinating to work with because it is obvious: the echo perceptualises a key temporal relation to ones’ instruments, while highlighting the notion of distance between the produced sound and its imitation. Echo, like resonance in general, brings aspects of one's environment to mind, but also makes the listener aware of their separation from them, the distance between them, a hint of the identity relation to be discussed in the following section.

[1] Whether or not lower limits for resonance in terms of acoustic behaviour apply to imagined sounds is a slippery question, but it is probably fair to assume this depends on the context being imagined.

[2] Thanks to Bennett Hogg for pointing out to me that this becomes a sort of ‘second-order’ phenomena: as Hogg puts it,”technological echo imitates a phenomenon that is itself imitative”

Dog Barking At His Own Echo (Little, 2014)

Despite its ‘automatic’ nature, in the Greek myth of ἠχώ, Echo, personified, embodies tragic distance between volition and ability. Echo is wilful, or would like to be, but unfortunately is reduced to only being able to express her wilfulness through imitation, which doesn’t work out very well. This is because of a prior act of wilfulness in which she verbally misleads the goddess Juno, and so has been punished with the curse that she may now only use her voice to reply. Later, when she falls into an infatuation with Narcissus, as had many nymphs prior to her, she attempts to call out to him in the only way she can. He fails to hear the echo, or to notice it as anything other than his own voice. He doesn’t hear Echo in the echo, nor does he hear the landscape in the echo. This is very similar to the mistake he himself makes later when he fails to recognise the pond, the environment, in his reflection. He seems only capable of hearing the source, identified as himself, in the echo, and yet fails to recognise this source in his reflection. In his impatience and perhaps vanity, hearing only himself, he rejects Echo, as he had so many others. The heavens then curse him for this unkindness (and perhaps vanity). Soon thereafter, he stoops to drink from a pond, and discovers the object of his desires (Bulfinch, 1964). It is as though the incomplete solipsism implied in his inability to recognise the distance between his own voice and the echoes becomes complete solipsism at the point that he falls for himself, only having eyes for himself from that point.

Whether he in fact is the object of his desire (or vanity), or whether he has mistaken himself, mediated through his reflection, as the object of desire (a phenomenological error: the confusion of subject and object[1]), it is his lack of critical inquiry and of faith in his own experience that has led to this crucial mistake and his terminal situation. As poet Rene Char wrote: “You should have drunk the water, Narcissus, instead of gazing at yourself. You risked more: I would have remained handsome!” (Char, 1951,5). As Michael Worton notes in his translation of Char’s poetry ‘by preferring his self-image to the nourishing and ever-changing transparency of the water…he has denied freedom and even immortality both to the self and to the Other.’ (Char, Warton et al, 1992,7). Narcissus made the same mistake twice. Not only did he stop too early in his investigation to know the source of Echo, but he failed to fully investigate his reflection. Instead of worshipping the image of his desire, he should have gone even further than what Char suggested and jumped into the pond, scattering the water to the banks if need be, in order to explore the question as to the nature and dynamics of his experience.

In a blistering example of this spirit, Deep Sunburn (2013), flattens auditory space in a manner at once similar and different to that flattening of space perceptible in much 20thcentury abstract expressionist and tachisme painting. This is achieved in a literal manner by folding tones into themselves using closed-circuit, cross modulated feedback loops internal to the sound production system. The sound heard is an instantaneous[2]imitation of itself, persistent self-modulation amplified through constructive interference. This flatness represents a similar physical limit to the distances discussed above in terms of environmental and anthropomorphic definitions of echo. Here the echo happens at the speed of the electrons within the closed circuit. The anthropomorphic definition must be suspended in favour of the productive results by which this feedback mechanism produces a phenomenon not of echo but on another perceptual scale, in this case as pitch, which when applied together with other sound sources creates modulation. The distance cannot be heard by humans, yet it is still there, and it is what makes the feedback mechanism function in the production of these particularly physical sounds. Perhaps their perceived physicality occurs precisely because they exist at and just beyond a perceptual limit condition. Yet the distance remains.

As the piece progresses more recognisable modulation sources reveal a monster beneath the waters: recordings of exotic birds, from the arboretum at the Botanic Garden of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, attempt to outdo Icarus as they soar into this pulsing mass travelling at the speed of sound, and fall. Yet the birds are not lost, as the interaction between their voices and the intermodulated signal produces a rhythmic chirping, a harmonic filtering behaviour mimicking characteristics of birdsong, but in a form not found by birds existing outside of wires. The birds are preserved in sets of closed circuits modulating one another, an aural version of something like a hall of mirrors or perhaps Narcissus gazing into his own pond-like eyes reflected back to himself from the infrathin surface of the pond.

Deep Sunburn, from Plastová Okna a Dveře by Core of the Coalman

[1] Incidentally, this is similar to the mistake made by dogs who will persistently look at a pointing finger rather than follow the finger towards where it is attempting to direct their attention.

[2] The speed of the electrons of which the signal is composed should only be mechanically limited, I believe, by the resistance within the wires

In Cartesian Birds (2018) a peculiarly digital species of birds-within-wires is rendered visible and audible through a process of sonification. Here, echo is given a conceptual treatment[1], somewhat closer to Narcissus’ use of the water-as-a-technological-mirror to view himself. In the process that renders the Cartesian Birds visible, a text-to-sound recording of a translation of works by Rene Descartes is subject to analysis. The results are displayed in real-time using a software oscilloscope. Pleasantly surprised to discover that my oscilloscope (a simple design using Lissajous curves rendered in Pd/GEM[2]) was outputting bird-like forms in response to the sound input, I then re-sonified the numeric output from the video signal of the oscilloscope and convolved the original text to this. Thus, this is a piece that encounters itself through a process of mimicry not dissimilar in concept from the pieces described in section III in reference to fossilisation. However, here the relation is carried forth mechanically and is nearly instantaneous, occurring at the speed of computation, rather than conceptually distant, carried out by a human relating to their own perception. It is largely irrelevant whether the birds are sentient or not: the system senses and analyses, then outputs material we experience. This process can be likened to placing the Cartesian Birds before a curved mirror in which they appear as cosmic eggs that produce further Cartesian Birds.

The examples here are captured from an installation of a ‘flock’ of these birds presented throughout the atrium of the Richard Steinitz Building, which at the time was home to both fashion design and music at the University of Huddersfield, UK.

Cartesian Birds, An Aviary:

[1] In contrast to a more literal use of echoes in a great deal of my work

[2] Pure Data software:

V. Mimicry as A Productive Frame of Reference

There is a type of interaction I would like to highlight and that is the focus of a great deal of my work. This often finds me in trouble when discussing with audiences and artists claiming association with ‘new media’ practices. As will be shown, it would be accurate to describe this quality as one of intra-action instead of interaction, following the precedent Karan Barad sets in her study of Niels Bohrs’ ‘naturalist commitment’, that “we are part of the nature we seek to understand” (Barad, 2007, 26). Unfortunately, in conversation these two terms sonically resemble each other enough for some to assume one to mimic the other, whether intentionally or not.

The problematic type of ‘interaction’ I am discussing is of a fundamental sort and brings up hard problems about reality and consciousness. Unfortunately, these issues are buried beneath other, less important assumptions about interactivity: expectations that interaction consists exclusively in wilfulness or volition, i.e., waving one’s arm, whistling down a microphone, or pushing a button, and receiving some technological reward: like a bit of stale cheese for a rat in a maze. I will suspend this meaning of “interaction” for the present discussion, in order to focus on a type of interaction that is often made present for us in encounters with the mimetic, and which poses the question, among others: how much of what we think is there is really there? To explore this, it is helpful to move towards a point of stillness, and to examine how this is perceived.

Granted, it goes against what at first seems to be common sense empiricism to consider something that appears to be static, as actually providing a dynamic experience. This key aspect of how we understand ourselves in relation to the world can be traced back to pre-Socratic philosophy and exemplified by contemporary art and inquiry. A sculpture like Tony Smiths’ Die (1962) a cube of steel 1.83 m x 1.83 m x 1.83 m, phenomenologically speaking, could be a classic study in dynamic experience, despite obvious arguments to the contrary. For Edmund Husserl, the object is not static but ‘adumbrated’ as we move around it (Husserl, 2012). In the Phenomenology of Perception Maurice Merleau-Ponty speaks of something not far from inter- or intra-action:

“…in so far as I see those things too, they remain abodes open to my gaze, and, being potentially lodged in them, I already perceive from various angles the central object of my present vision. Thus every object is the mirror of all others. When I look at the lamp on my table, I attribute to it not only the qualities visible from where I am, but also those which the chimney, the walls, the table can ‘see’; but the back of my lamp is nothing but the face which it ‘shows’ to the chimney. I can therefore see an object in so far as objects form a system or a world, and in so far as each one treats the others round it as spectators of its hidden aspects and as guarantee of the permanence of those aspects.” (Merleau-Ponty, 2020,79)

In my previously discussed ensemble music piece From Nine Seconds Above Taco Heaven, each performer, each listener establishes, consciously or not, their own frame of reference for relating what they hear as performed, to what they hear in the spatio-temporal situation in which they hear it. This is deliberately, and unconventionally, not given by the piece. The point is that, by diving into an experience, and then thinking about it, we compare not only the thing or process in question, but our experience of it. In comparing this with other experiences we are familiar with, we become aware of our process of sense-making, of meaning-making.

The way a seemingly static thing changes in our experience points to techniques for perceptualisation of our own thresholds of attention. Observation of the flux of one’s attention may seem conceptually difficult, but in practice it is not dissimilar in function from tools for empirical science, like the ruler and the Cartesian plane. The object considered to be static or unchanging, like the grid or ruler, provides a frame of reference against which something may be measured, or some change registered. Similarly, when we become aware of our shifting attention in the perception of a seemingly ‘static’ object, we turn that object into a frame of reference, a projection screen onto which our shifting perceptions are rendered observable to further awareness. The object considered to be static or unchanging provides an ‘external’ frame of reference for our ‘internal’ frames of reference, and in relation to one, movements of the other are described, as in the old Zen story below:

Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said: "The flag is moving."

The other said: "The wind is moving."

The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them: "Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving."

(Mu-mon, Senzaki, and Reps, 1934,114)

In How Innocent Is the Grid? (Boehringer, 2020), I problematise the perceptibility of change as figure on a ground of relative stasis, showing how the ‘cartesian shadow’ cast by such change renders a frame of reference (which need not be a grid), a projection surface by which a phenomenon appears. My aim is not to skate the slippery slope of relativism but rather to understand how everyday life, and in particular our experiences of artwork, are constituted. For example, a disturbance in pressure moves through a relatively undisturbed atmosphere, and if it the waves produced are between approximately 16 and 20000 hertz this is perceptualized and experienced as sound. That we can create and apply such frames of reference to phenomena render them perceptible and even measurable. That we can translate or move phenomena into relatively fixed “given” frames of reference like that which makes phenomena audible for us is powerful. In fact, this process is one form of data sonification which is called by audification. But what we have done when we rescale phenomena or the frames of reference we operate within? Are we really listening to the “same” phenomena or instead its similar? My work in data sonification provides a medium for experimenting with these concerns in a way that allows me to bring together artistic research and scientific literature in an abstract framework of my own design.

But what is sonification, what can it be for artists and what can artists offer to other practitioners of sonification and data science? While much of this is beyond the scope of the present essay[1], expanded notions of aesthetics necessary for exploring these questions are not, and in fact they orbit the same poles of non-contradiction between the material-led epistemological tendencies mentioned previously, and the phenomenological themes recurrent throughout my work and writing. I call this perspective Arbitrary Naturalism, and it revolves around the plasticity of frames of reference discussed here but favours a particular artistic license in which such frames of reference may be applied and deformed playfully and/or at will, for the purpose of rendering new experiences perceptible.

For a practical example of this, let us revisit echoes. As we know from environmental experiences, echoes are never merely rote repetitions of a sound phenomenon, but rather, as reflected pressure waves, they bare physical, audible traces of the medium of reflection. What we hear are sound waves incised, in the reflection process, by the rigid material of encounter. As Thoreau writes in language seemingly aware of the admonition from story of Narcissus “It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph” (Thoreau, 1995,196).

Changes in aspects of the sound relative to other aspects believed to be stable and unchanging carry information. In such circumstances, the unchanging aspects of the sound may be used as a frame of reference that change may be measured against. Known qualities of swept sine waves are used for research on the acoustic dynamics of rooms, for example, by comparison of the recorded result of the swept sine wave in a room, with a sine wave rendered internally by a computer and thus not ‘coloured’ by the room information. In Meanwhile, I captured deviations from sine waves that render sound-images of the room that they were diffused into and re-recorded from. You can try it in your own room, with these ‘almost sine waves’. Turn it up and move around to explore the resonance changes in relation to different surfaces and positions. As George Braque wrote,“Echo answers echo; everything reverberates” (Braque, 1971,92).

Meanwhile,On Growth and Form, 2020

[1] I am currently part of a Leverhulme Trust funded research project ((number RPG-2020-11) Radical: A New Interdisciplinary Space for Sonification which is presently investigating these questions alongside other foundational questions regarding listener-centred sonification and the spatial perception of sound and information.

These sine waves also resonate with George Kubler’s discussion of what he calls a self-signal in his work with temporal paradigms for artistic production, The Shape of Time (1962). Leaving aside some of the more complex theoretical context of Kubler’s formulation, I would like to highlight the tension produced by the notion of distance in imitative art that is expressly not what it imitates. For Kubler, this tension is key to the long-standing appreciation of representational painting in many cultures all over the world.

“ A…painting also issues a self-signal. Its colours and their distribution on the plane of the framed canvas signal that by making certain optical concessions the viewer will enjoy the simultaneousness of real surfaces blended with illusions of deep space occupied by solid shapes. This reciprocal illusion of real surface and deep space is apparently inexhaustible. Part of the self-signal is that thousands of years of painting have not exhausted the possibilities of such an apparently simple category of sensation.” (Kubler, 1962,24)

In further recent sonification work, I extend the exploratory use of sound from space to data. There is an interesting relationship between sonification, and the process of fossilisation discussed in Section II. The examples considered there drew on metaphors of permineralization and recrystallization, in which a new sound fills the space of an existent sound-form in a recording or sound environment. My sonification work can be compared more to the process of bioimmuration (Taylor, 1990). In bioimmuration, animal tissue may grow around other organic material, subsuming it. As is the case with corals today and with bryozoans in prehistory, the growing tissue may be soft tissue that hardens into bone-like material later. The subsumed organic material is then trapped within the hardened tissue of the other and decays, leaving its impression within it, as though in hardening clay or a related sculptural media.

Similarly, in my work with sonification, my general working method is to first ‘impress’ data upon a sounding signal. The simplest of the several ways I go about this is to write data into an array rendered directly as a sound signal. I often further contextualise these signals, ‘moulding’ them through modulation into a ‘parent’ or carrier wave, similar to the function of carrier waves in radio, and metaphorically reminiscent of yet another fossilisation process: the formation of endocasts from hollow parts of a body, like the inside of a skullcap. My approach to the well-known technique of parameter mapping (Grond and Berger, 2011) applies a similar process in reverse, in which it is data that shapes an existent signal from the outside. In either case the situation is one in which an existent signal-form is modulated by a flexible data-signal, or alternately, that the data-signal constraints and shapes the development of its ‘carrier’. In the examples to follow, data thus infuses a sound, either forcing the sound to take on characteristics of the data-signal, or, through a mimicry-like process of flexible sonic mould making in which data-signals and sound signals are pushed through each other, becoming a single, new thing through inter-modulation. Other usages of data are also present throughout these works as control signals for aspects of the sound presence, like spatialization or volume. Where the relationship is not one of mimicry, these will not be dealt with here, however more details can be found in articles about these pieces (here and in the bibliography to this text) which clarify data-sound relationships within specific pieces (Boehringer, 2021b).

In two recent sonification-centred works, I was concerned to use the techniques just discussed to raise the awareness of the listener as to their role as interpreter of the data, which is rendered as a sound environment. The listener takes the position of the object sonified, a sort of mimetic-personification of a non-human object or phenomenon. I sought to create experiences that would not be the same, or would not exist without the listener, while inviting them to discover insightful relationships within the information-as-sound environment by navigating their relationship to it in space: moving, listening, and responding. Such a process of listening happens naturally when works are presented as spatialized sound installations and the original intention of both pieces considered here was this manner of presentation.

This interactive approach to data enacts a ‘re-coupling’ of elements originally related to one another in the ocean environment, but subsequently separated in the measurement and data collection processes. Placing the listener in a certain position in relation to the piece, an attempt is made to return a sense of qualitative wholeness to an environment formed from quantitative data. The listener, in listening, places themselves in the position of a lone oceanic sensor buoy. Through a naive identification with what is heard, an almost accidental act of agency: the environmental phenomena that had to be decoupled in order to be datafied, can now be artistically re-coupled in order to be capta-fied, as taken, found, and felt information. In She Surfs, data from Papa, an Ocean Weather Station moored in the north Pacific at 50°N, 145°W was embedded within the design of signal and filter parameters, and within the modulation of the spatial position of sound families. Datasets were used to provide control values for sound parameters while being brought into interaction with each other in the production of the sound field apprehended by the listener (Boehringer, 2021a).

She Surfs[1]

[1] Although both this and the piece to follow are shown here in the somewhat compromised “video” format that the covid-19 pandemic necessitated for their public presentation, new versions are slated for public presentation with the original aesthetic intentions of spatial audio in place for February 2023. While She Surfs (II) will utilise video, though not text, in a way akin to what is presented in the above recording, the unfolding of the sound and image presentation will progress according to a generative logic that allows real-time transformation of sound and data, with the object of turning the sonic mimicry enacted away from a presentation of data and re-turning it, experientially, towards the transhumanist experience that asks: what is it like to be a sensor buoy?

The function of sonification in my work is not to transmit data as quantitative information, but rather to present capta, which, as Johanna Drucker states, “acknowledges the situated, partial, and constitutive character of knowledge production, the recognition that knowledge is constructed, taken, not simply given as a natural representation of pre-existing fact” (Drucker, 2011,3). By offering information reframed for a field of qualitative exploration rather than quantitative reference, I am encouraging an empirical ‘taking’ of data, rather than linguistic transmission or passive reception.

Irminger Channels (2021) expanded the inquiry begun in She Surfs through the activation of a field between two sensor buoys. In Irminger Channels, the buoys are located twenty kilometres apart in the Irminger Sea to the west of Greenland. The buoys are in every quantifiable way alike, containing identical sensors at identical depths, and calibrated to match one another. Likewise, my sonification approach models and renders the data as sound in exactly the same way for each of the two. Discretion between the signals is maintained: the spatialization is monophonic and places one signal to the left channel and the other to the right. The space and energy coursing between the two sensors is made palpable to the listener who encounters them, and moves around and between them (Boehringer, 2021b). Try it at home: despite the covid-compromised version of the video-recording provided below (see note[1]) try playing this back at a robust volume through loudspeakers separated by a good distance. You will be able to hear that while the sound design has many aspects of correspondence between the channels, the differences between them becomes very perceptible, tracing out trajectories mimicking the waves of the Irminger Sea, and rendering the fluctuations of the measured phenomena in ways that a dataset in a csv file format would not reveal with such visceral immediacy.

Irminger Channels. “demo” from ICAD 2021

[1] As was the case for the previous work discussed, Irminger Channels was originally planned to be an installation. The covid-19 situation necessitated a mutation of this into a work for sound-alone, eventually presented at the request of the venue with the somewhat silly video seen here. For Irminger Channels: The Sentinels the planned installation will follow a similar overall audio treatment, driven by the full historical data set from the two ocean stations polled for the piece, or, if possible, by the time of installation, parsing near real-time updates from these systems. No visual material is planned for this, and in fact the presentation space should be quite dark. Two columns of loudspeakers will be installed in the space, separated by great distance. The overall sound level, which, as can be gleaned from the above recording, is quite dense, should be broadcast at a full-pressure volume intensity. In this way listeners navigating the space within the room and between the loudspeaker columns can attain a strong physical sense of the similarity and divergence between the sensor stations. If, as in the previous piece, listeners take the position of the buoy bobbing upon the waves and weather, in Irminger Channels, it is in fact the ocean that is the object of mimicry. Listeners’ playing the role of seawater drift between the sensors, learning about aspects of their new water-bodies by navigating with their ears as they “swim” through the darkened space.

Section VI. Conclusions:Arbitrary Naturalism As Fieldwork on Earth

The situation is complex when notions of mimicry differ in appearance and process, and even more complex when mimicry is present in the dimensions of both processes of coming into being and objecthood. As if in answer to the Schrödinger quote from section III: consider the difference between a painting of the sea and painting like the sea. Perhaps such considerations were in play when Walter De Maria filled flats in Germany and later in New York City with soil. Was he trying to reframe a nearly (but not quite) tactile aspect of a landscape, of the ground, within a room that we can only see but never enter? Does setting the ground just out of reach create enough mimetic distance for us to complete the experience?

I conjecture such concerns were also in play when, preceding and concurrent with these projects he recorded his two pieces: Cricket Music and Ocean Music, which feature De Maria on drums playing simultaneously with field recordings of the phenomena named in the titles[1]. Cricket Music dates from 1964, a year after he stopped playing drums for the Velvet Underground, and Ocean Music is from 1968, the year he created the first Earth Room, filling the Galerie Heiner Friedrich in Munich with dirt.

Walter de Maria: Cricket Music, from Drums and Nature

[1] Bennett Hogg has suggested to me that to his ears these pieces undergo a transformational process as the drums are very gradually replaced by crickets, which seems to suggest a relationship to the replacment/fossilization ideas from earlier

As discussed in a previous part of this essay, in my recent work I continue to develop new mimetic relationships between signals and information, live sensor data, or scientific data captured by elaborate and remote systems. My aim is to render this as capta, data that you learn about by feeling, and experience. In such efforts, I aim to frame instances of experience providing opportunities for the recognition of a perceivers’ role in the constitution of their world. I also look towards imitation in the form of the modelling and understanding of complex and natural systems, and I continue to transcribe ‘impossible’ sound textures. Additionally, I study and learn the behaviour of aspects of the world and attempt to reach towards it through mimicry, as other artists have attempted to speak the languages of whales and birds with their instruments (Rothenberg, 2013). However, my aim is not to have the animals take me for one of their own, any more than for the stones or wind to do so. Instead, I am looking for unexpected experiences in structure and contingency, for new ways of making sound in response to and understanding my own pattern apprehension and pattern formation dialogue with(in) the world (Boehringer, 2019a). The mimetic is one of several ways that I place and orient myself into the physical and imagined world.

Arbitrary Naturalism thus becomes a flexible means by which I can explore this world through my relation to it. My naturalism is as arbitrary as my coordinates are in relation to another subject, yet they are central to my perspective. My process is indeterminate. I use measurements whose standards are flexible, destabilising objectivity in a manner akin to Duchamp’s ‘diminished meter’ (Duchamp, 1997, 603). I take freely from phenomena, and from the data gathered from them, I harness environmental and even perceptual process. Yet I am in no way beholden to a coherent or rational treatment of this material in my work. The work enters the world as a phenomenon itself, which in turn will be interpreted. Artwork is a real thing, composed of natural objects, and processes like pressure waves. The works are as real as anything else experienced, even when they are primarily illustrative, or when, as parasites, they call upon forms other than their own[1]. Artworks may seem like another thing, while not being that thing. Yet their very distance from that thing further solidifies their reality. Mimesis may be applied without concern for consistency within the process by which the imitation is made and without regard for whether this, or even the imitative quality, is perceivable or not. Arbitrary Naturalism is a celebration and exploration of this strange but obvious turn away from nihilism, but that remains, with nihilism, non-positivistic.

I will close with two final examples, artworks in progress and not yet publicly available. The first, which captures De Maria in the act of what members of the Oulipo would describe as ‘anticipatory plagiarism’ (Mathews, Brotchie,and Queneau 2005), is called Last Song (Boehringer, 2022a). This piece features a duet played by me, on an electric bass, and a tape machine with a recording made of a local skylark. The listener may wish to explore human and lark notions of pattern and repetition.

Last Songs, Jorge Boehringer

[1] See section II.

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Screenshot Spectraof Zoom0012

Finally, in another work from the category of impossible transcription, I share a fragment from an ongoing project. I have made a series of short recordings of a part of the Ouseburn river near my house at around the same time on different days. This bend in the creek displays a complex resonant behaviour from a variety of causes. In working with these recordings as source material, as in the example to follow, the situation is one of multi-model mimicry in the service of understanding. The chaotic action of the sound produced by the water in the creek is captured as a digital representation. My analysis procedure renders data from the recording accessible to my human understanding, and I render key aspects of the recording as short events constrained to the grid of equal-tempered tuning, performed on an electric piano. Meanwhile, I allow the much faster but inscrutable capabilities of the analysis algorithm to tell me what it thinks are the key resonances in the captured sound. I then translate this into control data for my synthesisers whose signal can then be listened to and interpreted. The indeterminacy latent in this activity brings up many questions: Isn’t this arbitrary? What is understanding? What is transcription and which parts of this process are mechanical? What is the role of intuition in all this? Is this a creative activity?

The accompanying spectral-harmonograph image displays the wave-like structure of the harmonic components of the ‘noise’ from the waves of the ‘Burn. I leave you with these findings/creations exemplifying mimicry and interaction for the celebration and participation within the phenomena that surround us (Boehringer, 2022b).

BurnX: from the 40”

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15 February 2023
Review status
Double-blind peer review
Cite as
Boehringer, Jorge. 2023. “Dog Barks at Own Echo: Tracing Mimicry In My Recent Sonic Practice.” ECHO, a journal of music, thought and technology 4.

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