Northwestern Digital Learning Podcast: Episode 3, A Dip in the Lake

Welcome to another episode of the Northwestern Digital Learning podcast, where each month we highlight an example of innovative teaching and learning across campus.

I’m Kelly Roark, a faculty support specialist with Northwestern’s Faculty support services, and your guest host for this episode.


The avant-garde composer, John Cage, created a composition called A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago and Vicinity.  The unusual composition combined traditional musical elements – waltzes, marches and quicksteps, but the written score was unusual – a map of Chicago with locations randomly chosen. A quickstep had two points on the map, a Waltz, three and a March, four.

Stephan Moore, a lecturer in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at the School of Communications, taught a course this past spring centered on Cage’s 1978 composition. Stephan and his students recreated A Dip in the Lake by visiting the locations on Cage’s map and making short recordings of the sounds they encountered. Through their work, the students not only learned how to create a quality field recording, but also earned an appreciation for the avant-garde and non-traditional ways of presenting a musical score.

To display their recreation, Stephan worked with Bill Parod and Jake Collins in Academic & Research Technologies to develop a program called Noterra. Noterra allows students to upload their recordings as well as any video and images associated with each location on Cage’s map. 

Stephan: Everyone took responsibility for certain sections of the score. I think I asked them to each do one quick step, two waltzes, and two marches. So everyone kind of looked at the map and figured out which ones they wanted to do. Chicago is such an enormous place and it (Cage’s score) really gives you an appreciation of that.

Their instruction was to take the recorders and make some sort of a sound recording in each of the spots that they chose so for each it was 16 places. They make the recordings at least a few minutes long and try and faithfully capture whatever's happening there. If you go there and there's nothing happening and it's just the sound of distant traffic or something then that's what you capture. If there is something interesting in the soundscape—there's a wind chime or there's birds or there's kids playing in a park or there's rushing water or whatever it is that there is to hear in that particular spot—try and get a really high quality recording of that and get a few minutes of it to have something to work with.

Then they take it back to the map, upload it, and leave notes as to when it was recorded. Knowing what time of day it was recorded, what day of the week is important because I think certain places sound very different on Monday than they do on Sunday because of different kinds of human activity.

Kelly: Because it's random, some of the points are actually in the lake or on private property. How did the students deal with those locations?

Stephan: Well, actually that's how the piece got its name. Cage was talking about when he was making the piece that the piece kept going “into the lake.” A Dip in the Lake was just a kind of playful acknowledgment of that reality. If you're at the point where what you're trying to record is in the lake, I didn't require anyone to charter a boat or take a kayak. Some people threatened to do that but I don't think anyone did. In the end, I think that the idea was just to find a point on the shore as close to that point as possible and just record out towards the lake from there—which is going to get you whatever gets you depending on what the weather is and depending what the waves are doing on the day that you're there.

Kelly: Brad Robin, a grad student in the Master's Program for Sound Arts and Industries participated in Stephan's sound course. He captured the wind chimes that we're hearing.

Brad: The most unusual place I ended up on was 117th Street, which isn't even a street at this point, it's just a junkyard. It's a junkyard literally there on the side of the street on this frontage road. And there's this large car sort of suspended over this gateway and it feels very desolate, very remote. That was definitely the oddest one that I ended up. Some guy rode by and asked me if I needed help, like I'm just parked on the side of the road and you ask me if I needed help so I felt comfortable, felt welcomed. That's Chicago, we’re a friendly city.

Stephan: I'm loving seeing them grapple with what it means to do something that's interesting to them but also be faithful to the score. To me, there's a bunch of different conditions they're trying to meet in doing these things and the tension between those is the interesting place.

Kelly: The final project for the students was to create their own piece of art that was inspired by A Dip in the Lake, right?

Stephan: The final assignment was to realize a portion of the score in some way. We have one student who's a painter who is looking at the way that Cage's visual art works. He (Cage) actually has a lot of visual art he produced as well, especially near the latter half of his life. That student is looking at the score and the methods for producing visual art that Cage came up with and is trying to come up with a method of painting based on what he's found.  

Someone else has been developing some software and hardware that read the brain waves and translates them into musical information. They're taking some of the field recordings and are processing them with this sort of brain wave reader software that they've created. So they have a whole process of thinking about their journey to record these spaces and then the sounds that the software will produce is the interaction with the sounds they recorded.

Kelly: On final’s week, I visited Stephan’s class to see the final presentations of the students’ “realizations” of A Dip in the Lake. The room is set up with lots of monitors and large speakers everywhere. This group is really into high quality sounds.  My eye is caught by a table with a map of Chicago and three bowls of water in a triangle. The bowls have copper numbers in the bottom that read one, two and three—a waltz. Yuzi Guo shows me that when you dip your finger, the sound she recorded at that point starts to play.

Yuzi: I created one waltz from John Cage’s A Dip in the Lake. When you dip your finger in the water it triggers the sound of the exact location. The reason why I wanted to make this interactive is that after our research, I think John Cage is a person that likes changing elements. He enjoyed being in the present to get emerged in the sounds. He once said he liked the sound to be just sound itself—nothing more—so that's why I brought the sounds as fresh as I can from the locations.

Kelly: Haley King wrote a John-Cage-style score of her own to recreate the recording you’re hearing now. She hands out the parts to volunteers in the class and distributes a bag of quinoa, a bag of sand, a laundry basket with a few inches of water, a pitcher of water, and a lemonade carton with a bit of water inside. Stephan gamely volunteers to play a dog.  After briefly reviewing their parts, they begin…

Brad’s project involved an actual electroencephalogram.  It turns out you can buy one online.

Brad: This headset I can I connect via Bluetooth to my computer and the headset comes with proprietary software that gives you a bunch of values that will read your alpha waves, your beta waves, gamma, theta, and delta waves. And so certain waves are associated with relaxation, others are associated with concentration, some are associated with cross-modal thinking—so if you're thinking visually, certain things get triggered, certain brain waves will act up more depending on what you're doing.

You can visually see these states of mind displayed by a value between zero and one. I find when I'm programming a computer the one for concentrating goes up as well as the one for mellow. There's the other one—mellow—which is when you're relaxed. If you're in somewhat of a meditative state you can be both concentrated and mellow at the same time. That's ideal. I then built a program that takes these two values, mellow and concentrate, and interprets them to run sound. So in my program that I built, I take the sounds from A Dip in the Lake and process them to provide an experience that is modulated by these values.

The way it works is if you're anxious, not focused, the sounds will be chaotic. As you focus and relax, the chaos diminishes and then you can hear the original sound walk. When you get into that zone I wanted something special to happen. I told you about these chimes, my favorite sound. I have it so that when both the concentrate and mellow are up to one (full) then it triggers the special sounds to come in and you get… it's almost like candy.

Kelly: Later on, I try on Brad's headset. It's like a headband that fits across your forehead and has flat boxes over the ears. My readings for mellow and concentrate go right to the top and stay there. It looks so different from everyone else's readings. Brad checks the software to make sure it's working properly assures me it is. And after one minute, I hear the chimes…