This document will show my progress and the experiments I made while I was trying to learn how to use programs such as Pure Data (PD), Voxal and Audacity, to create an Apocalyptic scene based on audio.
As an illustrator, most of my discipline relies heavily on images and, while I enjoy listening to music to inspire myself to keep on writing or sketching, I never considered the possibility of creating my own audio for my projects.
The only musical background I have are a few drum lessons (that I ditched in high school) and hundreds of playlists from Spotify. Still, in my mind, I had a vision of what I wanted to convey and which also functions as the concept of my project.
The Death of the Plague Doctor and the Rise of the Blind Prophet
While I was doing my first experiments with PD, I thought of using a character rather than showing my real identity while performing. For me, showing my face in front of an audience has always triggered my anxiety rather than making me feel comfortable.
Jim Morrison (The Doors), David Bowie and Ella Fitzgerald are three of the musicians I’ve admired the most which also have had a common issue: the fear of a crowd. They also had their coping methods to deal with the fear that getting on stage caused them being either singing facing to the band (Morrison), creating an alter ego (Bowie) or fully committing to the performance (Fitzgerald).
I’m aware that I’m not even slightly close to them but I thought that maybe, creating a stage persona could be fun and helpful, while also it gave me the first idea of creating a character that could potentially become a dark stage persona.
The Plague Doctor was the first character I had in mind. I did my own research based on the mask and also the people who were behind the masks during the Bubonic Plague.
Plague doctors were physicians hired by towns where the pandemic was being rampant. They treated wealthy people and citizens with little to no economic resources, even if they lacked training or experience. In fact, this type of professionals were young physicians looking to establish themselves or second-class doctors who couldn’t run a successful medical practice.
Taking into consideration the image and the connotation that the figure of the Plague Doctor has, my first option was building a narrative around the concept in which a new disease was spreading on our current society. Unfortunately, the Plague Doctor had to be discarded because another audio-visual project called 11B-X-1371 already was using the Plague Doctor as the main character.
It was after re-reading some of my notes from previous years that I decided to reuse the Prophet as my own persona. This character is based on two famous mystics that, next to Nostradamus, have taken relevance throughout the years in relation to their own prediction that include direct contact with aliens, the rise of the Chinese economy and the fall of the United States, and a pandemic that could have the potential to accelerate the decay of human cells.
The first one is Vangeliya Pandeva Dimitrova, commonly known as Baba Vanga (Bulgaria). She became blind after a tornado (allegedly) lifted her and threw her into a nearby field. She was found with sand and dust in her eyes which made blinking painful to her. Eventually, after being treated and even gone through an operation, she gradually lost her sight completely.
The second one is Francisco “Chico” Xavier, a Brazilian philanthropist and medium. Throughout his life, Chico Xavier dealt with multiple diseases which also included one that left him partially blind. Most of his prophecies came from a technique called automatic writing which consists of producing written words without consciously writing.
“The words purportedly arise from a subconscious, spiritual or supernatural source”.Spence, Lewis – An Encyclopedia of Occultism
After doing my research, I decided to use the character of The Prophet as my own alter ego and a figure that would connect the people with the vision I had with my concept.
The Mask of The Prophet
The second type of research I made was about masks used in spiritual ceremonies and the connotations they had historically and in Pop Culture. Some of my notes are a reflection of all the information I found useful and which has official information about this tool. However, the masks have also been used unofficially during occultist ceremonies and underground events, some of them turned into fiction for the novella Dream Story (also known in German as Traumnovelle) and which also inspired Stanley Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut.
Also, one of the tribes that also used masks in order to connect with the supernatural and receive information were the Hopis from North America, who are also famous for their mythology and prophecies, in great part because of the film Koyaanisqatsi (Life Out of Balance) and which include three warnings on their prophecies:
1.- If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.
2.- Near the day of the Purification, there will be cobwebs spur back and forth in the sky.
3.- A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.Waters, Frank – Mexico Mystique: The Coming Sixth World Of Consciousness
With all this information, I chose to paint my own mask with iconography created by myself, decided to add an EL Wire to give it the glow effect and added a Lavalier microphone that could be used as a voice modulator. Changing my voice and creating sound effects with it would allow me not only to convey a creepy ambient but also, to take a step further into creating a device for the performance.
The first thing I did was to paint the elements on my mask which included the bleeding eyes and the symbol that was placed over the nose and in the forehead (Figure 3). After that, I made holes in the mask (using the cap of a pen) to decorate the mask with the EL Wire. Finally, on the back of the mask, I used tape to place the Lavalier that would be connected to an H4N Zoom device and to my computer.
The EL Wire is powered by two AA batteries which haven’t drained completely after my Live Electronic Performance presentation (approximately 18 minutes). The microphone also worked during all the presentation but only had a couple of sound issues that, after testing it back in my bedroom, I concluded that it was due to the fact that I removed the windshield and possibly to a combination of delay on my computer and how the background audio from my PD file might have also “contaminated” the result.
Plague Experiments 1 & 2
At this point, I still had in mind to use the Plague Doctor as a character, hence why I called these files The Plague Experiments.
The first one (Figure 7) is a code that plays a series of audio files on a loop. It has to be controlled manually (more specifically the audio levels) and is based on a bank of sound that can be found on the same folder as the PD patch.
Although the patch might look simple, the real work is made on multiple track files edited in Audacity. The files are exported as a .WAV format and added to the audio bank.
On the second patch, I considered the possibility of using a granular filter to give the resulting audio file another effect. The only problem I found while using the granular code was that sometimes it didn’t work on my computer. However, I kept using the loops and modifying the audio on Audacity.
For the final patch, I erased the granular element completely and used loops only. Between 50% and 80% of these audios were made with my computer and the rest was either royalty free audio (sacrifice.wav) or by creating a simulated choir by recording my voice singing the same song three times, changing the pitch and moving around the audio tracks (as exemplified with the file reverse emergency.aud, Figure 9).
Some of the audio files were more complex and required more tracks to work in. While I was experimenting with the Plague Experiment 2, I used between 5 and 7 tracks in order to create one .WAV audio file that would, later on, be added to the audio bank (Figure 10).
After I edited and experimented not only with PD but also with most of the controls and filters from Audacity (although not all of them were used), I finally was able to create the file that I would use and that I titled Contingency.
Contingency is a multiple track based synthesizer made on PD and with an audio bank built with tracks made on Audacity. One of the main differences that this patch has in comparison to the previous experiments is the use of colors to rank the relevance and use of each element.
The reasons why I decided to use a color based rank labeling and layout (Figure 11) are:
- I have dyslexia which at times it makes it hard for me to properly identify the label I wrote, especially with the default font size from PD. Since I was a kid, one of the coping mechanisms that have helped me a lot is using colors and illustrations to process my information.
- The mask that I was going to be wearing during the performance, although it wasn’t interrupting with my vision, could have had some impact on how I was going to be able to work with my synthesizer.
While I was building my synthesizer, I thought on which tracks would be used as loops and which ones would only be played once or twice. Then I color coded everything using the following criteria:
- Red: Elements that would only be used once and will need to be stopped before continuing with the next elements. On this category, I included an Emergency Broadcast System sound (cde.wav) which, in real life, is the code for Contagious Disease Warning. Also in red, I created and recorded a TV announcement for an emergency situation (three.wav). The voice was made by using a tool called Text-To-Speech from the page Oddcast.com, and recorded by using Audacity.
- Yellow: Continuous loop (ambient.wav) that needs to be dissolved before the end of the performance and before the turning off the orange group.
- Orange: Voice-based elements that will require to be put at maximum or minimum volume. The first tool on this group is a simulated choir (choir.wav) I made by recording my voice singing the same song three times, changing the pitch of the voice, placing it on the same Audacity file and by moving around the tracks to make it sound like three girls. The second tool was a royalty free audio of a crown screaming (sacrifice.wav). This track went through a similar process to the choir audio.
- Spaceship A: This audio file (SA.wav) was made by generating a tone in Audacity and processing exactly as the choir.wav file but keeping it as a neutral toned spaceship motor.
- Spaceship B: The SB.wav file is a copy of the first spaceship but with the difference that it is a low pitch variation.
- Spaceship C: The SC.wav, even if it is also based on the SA.wav file, it has a tone that makes it sound like a laser weapon. In my concept, this sound would be that of a ray that eliminating a crowd, hence why it has a similarity to an electric saw.
- Mint: The last group includes three audio files: cehigh.wav, celow.wav, and prophecy.wav. The first and second files file are a variation of the cde.wav file but, in comparison to its predecessor, cehigh.wav and celow.wav have an echo effect and a lower pitch. However, prophecy.wav, although it belongs on the same category of a continuous loop, was an audio file generated with an online pixel to audio generator called Pixelsynth. By uploading an image of another Hopi prophecy (Figure 12), I got a file that serves as granulated an organ.
Live Electronic Performance presentation and conclusions
As an artist with almost zero background on PD, I really enjoyed experimenting with the patches, Audacity, online resources and also with voice modification in Voxal.
Creating my own mask was an interesting process too but it still had its flaws that generated a very loud granulation during the performance. Some people commented that the granular effect was good but it wasn’t intentional at all.
What I would change from my performance would be the level of light on the room and maybe rehearsing a bit more with my mask and my patch while using the speakers of the auditorium to make sure that the accidental granular can still be on a tolerable volume.
Also, I wish I could have come with better dialogue during my presentation. Some days after the event I came with new ideas such as reading the Hopi prophecies or writing a better speech that would convey a creepier ambient.
Finally, although this is more of an aesthetic issue rather than technical, I wish I could have come with the idea of using the extra EL Wire I had by pasting it to my altar (Figures 13 and 14) and my table. I found out that I was enough material to do this while I was taking the documentation pictures in my bedroom. On the other hand, I wish I could have incorporated my altar way more as an audio element but the truth is that it was a last-minute decision while I was packing for the presentation.
I think that there is plenty of room for improvement and I’m willing to give it a try in the future to create more audio landscapes/concepts based on my characters and my ideas while incorporating other tools too.
- Cipolla, C. M. (1977). The Medieval City. Pages 65-72. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
- Hopkins, J. (2006). The Lizard King: The Essential Jim Morrison. Page 35. London: Plexus Publishing Ltd.
- Krasimira, S. (1996). The Truth About Vanga. Pages 42-44. Sofia, Bulgaria: Balgarski Pisatel.
- Nicholson, S. (1995). Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography Of The First Lady Of Jazz. Page 27. Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States: Da Capo Press.
- Playfair, G. L. (2010). Chico Xavier, Medium of the Century. Pages 56-68. Minnesota: Roundtable Publishing.
- Schnitzler, A. (1999). Dream Story. New York, New York, United States: Penguin Random House.
- Spence, L. (2003). An Encyclopaedia of Occultism. Page 56. Mineota, New York, United States: Dover Edition.
- Victoria & Albert Museum. (2013). David Bowie Is… (G. M. Victoria Broackes, Ed.) Page 48. London: Victoria & Albert Museum.
- Waters, F. (1978). Mexico Mystique: The Coming Sixth World of Consciousness. Page 272. Athens, Ohio, United States: Swallow Press .
 (Hopkins, 2006)
 (Victoria & Albert Museum, 2013)
 (Nicholson, 1995)
 (Cipolla, 1977)
 (Krasimira, 1996)
 (Playfair, 2010)
 (Spence, 2003)
 (Waters, 1978)