I got nervous all of a sudden. A crescendo of deadlines, trains waiting for me, friends to meet, projects to begin, collaborations to nurture. I found my self still with this text about audio compression to write and above all, right here and right now (which is a totally different now from the one you are reading from) with a plaster stuck right on the part of my left hand that connects the thumb to the other fingers. I am still seeing a bit of blood coming out of the little hole I made in my hand with a fork. I was trying to fix the buckle of the shoes I wanted to wear today. The hole was too tight and I could not pass the metallic piece into that subtle, too subtle, passage. I was using a fork as a lever to push it inside. I think I pushed too hard and I ended up stubbing my hand.
One Saturday, you are home alone and all of a sudden you realise you can really hurt yourself with a fork. I am starting to feel a bit dizzy, maybe my arm is getting swollen. This is a scary, little domestic accident. Why is such a common object, one that people normally use to feed themselves with, so pointy, sharp and metallic? Lips are soft. Our mouths are as well. In a bit, I will be trying to fix my shoe with some tweezers (another metallic tool I really tend to use as little as possible as I just cannot pinch, irritate and hurt my face just to eliminate some hair). How do these objects, made to confront delicate parts of our bodies daily, happen to be potentially harmful? I am still determined not to give up. Oh, now I made it. I have fixed my shoe, in a small but challenging fight, body against body, I am ready to go. As usual, I wish I was not.
I am thinking about the sound of compression and if it has something to do with the way we live our lives. If a little wound can open up something that is compressed under my skin. If a little patch can adequately compress my blood, which is not supposed to come out.
I woke up this morning, somewhere in Venice, at a friend’s. I was still in bed and heard some music. From the bedroom I could hear the sound entering in part from the open window and in part from the door opened onto the corridor. The sound was coming from a record player and some speakers in the living room; coming slowly from the corridor a sweet electric piano could be heard. With it a lady’s voice, instead of coming from the same direction, was really coming from the window. Her lyrical singing sounded like something inbetween a fat Italian opera singer and a seagull stealing fish at the Rialto market, but—above all—like an enchanting siren. Her intonation tottered, her singing exists in that passage from one note to the other. All the gaps were filled and you could listen to them, in their beautiful and pleasurable instability. I felt lucky to have made this discovery, listening to the matter of these strident passages in-between one thing and another.
Now I am back in Milan, on a terrace at my mum’s cousins, the place I have been living at in the last months. I am alone, smoking Vogues; proper ladies slim cigarettes. I am listening to Meredith Monk’s Fat Stream again. It is not on vinyl, it is not played on speakers, nor in a house with almost empty, white rooms with a lot of light coming in. It’s in a terrace on the seventh floor of a building in the suburbs of the city, you can hear a train passing by, loudly, in the background. It is music coming from a video on Youtube and through the speakers of my laptop.1 This copy, in its portable and practical compression, is still touching, still makes me feel grateful. It is getting dark, the sky is all sorts of colors, from blue to green to yellow, to orange, to pink, to purple. In a moment I will look back and it will be all blue, all of a sudden, and I will have lost that very precise moment when and where everything changes, again.
In the last year and a half I haven’t had a real house, a place I could call my own. Instead, I have been the guest of some people I know, I have been sharing a flat, and even a room with other people, I have lived for a few months back at my parents’ place. I used to own a lot of clothes, from my previous life. I used to own a wardrobe that would allow me to interpret every character I wanted to. As I moved to live away for a while, I had to get rid of some of the characters that were feeling less urgent, less necessary. All my books, the ones that were less urgent and less necessary, have been sold, given to someone, packed away. My collection of CDs got lost a lot of years ago. The hard disk where I used to store all my music files broke two years ago. I used to have some nice speakers but I cannot remember where they are, I don’t have many records. I don’t like things, in the end. You can listen to all the music you want to on some online digital streams. Everything you feel like listening to is portable, it is there with you and your internet connection.
It is such a long time since I’ve had my own time and space to listen, to reflect on things in a less polluted, packed, and compressed way. My friend and I talked about how pop, commercial music, is now specifically produced in order to sound good when streamed online. Compressed files of music, are made to be streamed easily, lightly, rapidly, possibly to be uploaded while another is already playing, possibly to be listened to while you are doing something else: at work, whilst cooking something, whilst looking at yourself in the mirror. What is the sound of this loss? Of this compromise between the experience of listening to an analog wave, very similar to the original, and a digital one, that is nothing but some kind of coded digital signal? Digital reproductions, they are faithful and unfaithful at the same time.
A French girl I know, Emilie, would like to travel to the exact point where the Pacific Ocean becomes the Atlantic, “or is it where the Atlantic becomes the Pacific?” We are sure it is not a point. It must be a wave.
It is summer and I might be observing some real waves soon. And listening to their rhythm, trying to understand their sound. A sound produced by some sea-particles, touching each other, while moving together. I wonder if each part of a wave is happy to be where it is (if it is ever really somewhere) or if they are struggling as well, body against body, while trying to understand which positions they want to take. Whether they need to compress, and compromise as we need to do.
All sounds are waves. Sound can be described as the result of a touch, of a contact. After two things have touched, the particles around them move to the areas immediately closer, thickening and rarifying, creating sounds while they are disappearing. A touch producing “physical phenomenon of oscillating character, that stimulates the sense of hearing.” Is every sound the result of two things touching and leaving each other? What part of that separation are we able to hear? I wonder if we put limits to this what particles we would missing out. If sound is a physical encounter, a relation and contamination between small parts, what happens when we are asked to compress it? Do our relationships sound compressed, too?
Audio-compression is not the only a way of making audio files less heavy and easier to send and stream. It is also a technique used in electronic music sound production to control the dynamic range in an automated way. For instance a compressor can be used in post-production, to balance the volumes in a recording. There might be some sounds that are too loud, that you might want to disguise from the final product; there might be some sounds that are too quiet, that you would like to be heard louder and better. This reassuring tool can help you normalise what your final recording will sound like. You can set a threshold, a limit to the level of volume a signal can go through. You can set a ratio according to the level of compression you aim to acheive if the signal passes over that threshold. You can regulate the attack, the reaction time of the compressor, and the release, the time the compressor takes to release the volume back.
Apparently, there are a lot of things that need to be attenuated, softened, standardised, to give the illusion of a perfect and clean recording. I wonder if in real life things are always heard the way we hear them. Is there already an automatic censorship that determines what has to be heard and what is better not to hear? A normal, accepted volume? A loudness you are allowed to have and one you are not? Who is taking care of the quieter sounds that we don’t hear well enough? Who is setting the threshold and ratio? Who is regulating the attack and release times?
You can also use this system of ratio, threshold, attack and release while producing electronic and dance music by micro-setting all the small waves that you want to be heard or not heard. The illusion of waves appearing and disappearing, of these volume threshold alterations, is what creates a pumping, rhythmic, cloudy and mysterious signal that makes us want to move and to look for each other on a dance-floor. By regulating the levels and the presence of bass-lines, kicks, drums, etc. the interval between one of our movements and another can be set; by means of a skillful regulation of the dynamic range we get back an exasperating rendition of that boxy, packaged tension we experience everyday. We can hear and dance with the compression, through the compression, because of the compression.
Hip, arm, back and forth, curve, stop. No need to interact, compressed rhythms are fast, lonely. If you can keep the pace, you might appear very desirable, looking like a difficult presence to catch. Attack, release, hear, hide your face, show a bit of skin around your neck, dance a bit under the illusion of knowing the body in front of you. The memories of all the bodies you have been dancing with since the beginning of time is vivid. It is all a manipulated illusion of audio signals that unnaturally appear and disappear, all made to last the time it takes to consume a cigarette, all made to appear like smoke.
Compression, like compromise, is relational. It helps to create softer, faster, safer balances between body, movements and positions, it diplomatically regulates the volumes of and the spaces we are allowed to occupy; either during a functional conversation, or in our lonely dances in a packed club.
Quantitative and qualitative compressions, while creating reduced file formats, produce losses that are ambiguous and difficult to observe, measure and analyse. Outputs from the compression process are not independent from their formats or from the structures that support of their reproduction. All listening devices, through their own limitations, contribute to loss and compression.
Yet late at night when listening to music on Youtube, I think of a place where our volumes, tones, selves and bodies will no longer need to be normalised.