Unlocking Sounds of the Past

Northwestern Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art

 

What does an image sound like? 

This is the question that Northwestern University students sought to answer in an experimental workshop earlier this month.  Students in computer science, engineering, sound arts, and art theory and practice joined together for a day-long session with artist Dario Robleto and media historian Patrick Feaster to delve into the ways that audio translates to image and image, in turn, can transform into audio.

Interweaving historical research, poetic storytelling, and innovative approaches to image and sound processing, a multi-year collaboration between Robleto and  Feaster has sought to discover the unexpected sounds of history.  Together the pair have worked as “audio archaeologists” with the lost sounds of the past. Their work has included making audible the world’s first pulse and heartbeat recordings originally traced in soot from flames in the nineteenth century. Currently, they are working on reanimating the first electrical signals recorded from the heart and brain in various states of emotional experience.

Dario Robleto with student, April 2018

Dario Robleto with student, April 2018

In their workshop,  Robleto and Feaster gave a behind-the-scenes look at their collaborations and experiments to date, offering a window into the technical, conceptual and emotional possibilities of engaging historical media across arts and sciences. Students then had an opportunity to try their own hand at using custom software Feaster has designed for extracting audio from images, interpreted either as spectrograms or waveforms, as well as for manipulating audio through such techniques as “melodization.”

“The introduction of such unconventional techniques for “bringing history to life” raises important emotional and ethical questions about the responsibility the present owes to the past.” says  Feaster “Technology offers us new modes of understanding the historical record.  How can the use of this technology rise beyond mere novelty to increase empathy, compassion, understanding, and wonder across time?  And how can the technical processes themselves be fine-tuned to heighten emotional impact without unduly sacrificing accuracy and objectivity?”

Patrick Feaster with student, April 2018

Patrick Feaster with student, April 2018

Patrick Feaster is a specialist in the history, culture, and preservation of early sound media.  A three-time Grammy nominee and co-founder of the First Sounds Initiative, he has been actively involved in locating, making audible, and contextualizing many of the world’s oldest sound recordings. He received his doctorate in Folklore and Ethnomusicology in 2007 from Indiana University Bloomington, where he currently works as Media Preservation Specialist for the Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative. In April 2018 the Block Museum of Art joined with the McCormick school of engineering to host Dario Robleto as Northwestern’s visiting Artist-at-Large.


Read More:

The Atlantic: Clever Custom Software Used to Reconstruct First Recorded Sounds (October 13, 2010)
Slate: Listening to Records That No Longer Exist (April 4, 2013)
Science: Archaeologist of Sound (January 12, 2012)

Students at the Block Museum