The creation of five sound sculptures centered around fire-affected areas of the 2020 Holiday Farm fire near Blue River, OR. The work was part of the Soundscapes of Socioecological Succession (SSS) project that was funded through a Center for Environmental Futures, Andrew W. Mellon 2021 Summer Faculty Research Award from the University of Oregon.
Over the summer, I produced five sound sculptures centered around fire-affected areas of the 2020 Holiday Farm fire. The work was part of the Soundscapes of Socioecological Succession (SSS) project that was funded through a Center for Environmental Futures, Andrew W. Mellon 2021 Summer Faculty Research Award from the University of Oregon.
Through field recording fieldwork, local wood sourcing, and custom electronic design, the five (5) sound sculpture prototypes were one way to generate a unique auditory experience aimed at the general public. The work was designed to unpack the sounds and scenes of wildfires in natural and human-systems and to document the regenerative succession of coupled social and ecological processes.
Video 1. Sound sculpture C prototype. Burnt cedar wood and audio sourced from fire affected area near Blue River, OR.
Socioecological systems emerge from interdependent processes through which people and nature self-organize across space and time (Gunderson and Holling, 2002). STEM-centric studies of socioecological dynamics miss literal and metaphorical connections between people and nature, which are difficult to quantify and to communicate. To address this limitation, the sound sculptures test a new approach to capture SSS as a qualitative record of collective response to catastrophic wildfire.
Like a slice of tree ring that marks age and time, the field recordings of audio in visits to fire-affected areas connotes a slice of succession activities. Sound recordings of the area are meant to capture multiple scenes and ecological voices, filtered through a raw material from the sites themselves.
Video 2. Sound sculpture D prototype. Wood and audio sourced from fire affected area near Blue River, OR.
Our sonic environment is polluted by man both in its content and its reflections. This is certainly true even for field recordists who venture further and further into the wild to break free from the noise pollution of a passing airplane, a highway’s din, or even audible underground activity such as fracking (One Square Inch, 2021). Treating site-specific wood as an acoustic resonator — a filter that distorts as much as it renders sound audible — casts a shadow onto the sounds it projects. The physical material acts as a filter upon the sound. The wood slightly changes the spectrum of sound by boosting or cutting the amount of different frequencies in the sound.
Our University of Oregon team expanded previous research by sampling the rich SSS at fire-affected sites, including soundscape field recordings, recorded interviews, and collecting “hazard tree” waste material. These materials offer a document of the resiliency of the landscape and illustrate how forest disturbance can set back human-defined sustainable development goals regionally. The development of the five sound sculptures are just one means to inform the public and inspire collective action towards sustainable futures.
Video 3. Sound sculpture E prototype. Wood and audio sourced from fire-affected area near Blue River, OR.
Audio field recordings were captured during two site visits to fire-affected areas on June 16, 2021 and July 2, 2021. The second visit was to H.J. Andrews forest and an interview and tour with Mark Schulze (H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest Director) Bailey Hilgren and I used a few field recording setups, and which mostly consisted of Bailey recording with a Zoom H6 using on-board mics and I recording with a Sound Devices 633 field mixer and three mics: Sennheiser MKH 30-P48 and MKH 50-P48 microphone in mid-side configuration and a LOM Uši Pro omnidirectional microphone. The Zoom recordings were captured at 96k-24bit, and the 633 recordings were captured at 192k-24bit. During the second visit, we were able to setup “tree ears” that consisted of two Uši Pro mics taped to a tree and a LOM Geofón low frequency microphone, and which we left recording for several hours in the H.J. Andrews forest (see Figure 2). Bailey organized all the audio recordings using the Universal Category System (UCS). The system is a public domain initiative for the classification of sound effects. While we chose not to make the 30+GB of audio files as a publicly available archive, we have made the audio categorization spreadsheet publicly available (SSS metadata spreadsheet).
Figure 1. Field recording setup at fire affected site.
Figure 2. “Tree ear” field recording configuration.
During the technical design phase, some secondary research questions were asked. Which audio exciter/transducers work best on non-flat, raw wood surfaces? Which exciters are the most cost-effective solution for an array of speakers?For fabrication of installing wood as pieces on a wall, can I cost-effectively source sturdier materials than aluminum posts?
Figure 3. Sound sculpture prototypes depicting standoffs and speakers.
I tested a few different models: waterproof transducer, round and square exciters, and distributed mode loudspeakers. I also tested different speaker formats: 10W 8ohm, 20W 4ohm, and 20W 8ohm. Unfortunately, the desired power outputs, 25-30W, models of exciters were consistently sold out throughout the project, therefore I was unable to equally distribute testing across similar power outputs. From experience more than a scientific A/B test, I found that the more flexible options for attaching to wood surfaces were the Dayton Audio DAEX25Q-4 Quad Feet 25mm and the Dayton Audio DAEX32SQ-8 Square Frame 32mm Exciter, 10W 8 Ohm. Generally, I realized that in order to get decent output in both frequency response and gain, the low-end of $15-20/transducer seems about right. I do not recommend anything below 10W for this type of work. Getting a stereo image was not important and would be difficult given the size of wooden pieces. I valued volume and minimizing visual distraction, so speakers were meant to be placed behind or under the sculptures. I doubled speakers whenever I used 10W drivers.
Figure 4. Recording log loader moving hazard tree material
Audio 1. Log loader field recording (see Figure 4)
For standoffs, I sourced variable size stainless steel standoff screws used in mounting glass hardware which worked extremely well on the river wood sound sculpture (Figure 5).
Figure 5. Stainless steel standoffs, 10W 8ohm speakers, and custom electronics board on sound sculpture D prototype.
I sourced audio amplifiers on sale for under $10 each, where $15 is normal pricing. The TPA3116D2 2x50W Class D stereo amplifier boards have handled well on previous projects, and finding them cheaply with the added volume control and power switch were a great addition for fine-tuning amplification in public spaces.
Normally powering the amplifiers and audio boards is where the real cost comes in, and I was happy to learn that Sparkfun’s Redbaord Arduino’s can now handle upwards of 15VDC, so I went with their MP3 Player Shield and Redboard UNO in order to split VDC power between the amplifier and board (12V, 2A power supplies were adequate for the project and transducer wattage).
Figure 6. Custom electronics board consisting of MP3 player shield, Arduino UNO Redboard, 2x50W class D amplifier, and power split for up to 15VDC.
Figure 7. Recording site near Eagle Rock along the McKenzie River.
I modified the outdated MP3 player code on Arduino to dynamically handle any number of tracks and named audio files, such that one doesn’t need to rename audio files in the convention “track001.mp3” “track002.mp3”.Whatever audio files are uploaded onto the SD cards, the filenames simply need to be placed into an array at the top of the code uploaded to the board. Thus, when powered on, the sound sculpture will play an endless loop of the uploaded audio files found on the SD card.
***For those interested in the Arduino code running on the MP3 players, I have made the code publicly accessible as a repository on Github.
Figure 8. Full electronics module example: 12V 2A power supply, MP3 player shield, Sparkfun Redboard Arduino, TDA 2x50W stereo amplifier, single 10W exciter.
Video 4. Sound sculpture A prototype. Wood and audio sourced from fire-affected area near Blue River, OR.
Selecting the audio for sound sculptures came through discussions with Bailey around ecological succession, the interviews conducted, and the types of audio that was captured and categorized. We chose four audio bins (categories) to work with: animals, soundscape or ambient, logging or construction, and scientific or interviews. Again, Bailey created a categorical spreadsheet of audio files within these four bins.
Video 5. Sound sculpture A prototype. Wood and audio sourced from fire-affected area near Blue River, OR.
Constructing the sound sculptures involved imagining public space and the materials. There are two pieces for wall, one for hanging, one for a pedestal, and one for the ground. The sculptures are stand alone pieces that simply require AC power for showing. See below for a gallery of stills of these works.
By activating sourced raw materials (e.g., “hazard tree” wood) with acoustic signals stemming from local sites, the sound sculptures amplify the regional and collective voice of wildfire succession even as it outputs a modified version of the input sound.
The process of developing sound sculptures led to additional ideas for iteration or for incorporating the sculptures within a larger-scale project. For example, in our interviews with Ines Moran and Mark Schulze, we found out about “acoustic loggers,” battery operated, weather-proof audio field recorders that record audio based upon a timer. We ordered one such acoustic logger for the project, an Audio Moth; however, the Audio Moth order did not arrive after the completion of the project. Working these into the project through sampling fire-affected sites would create a unique dataset.
The sound sculptures can be stand-alone works. We appreciated the modular approach to the design, and we could continue the modular approach or tether sound objects together. Future work could involve spatializing audio across multiple sculptures similar to previous sound artwork, like Wildfire and Awash.
For the sound sculptures themselves, there is gain control on speaker-level but not on the line output of the players. We could add buttons for increasing/decreasing volume on the MP3 boards to better manage levels, and if we want to provide an interactive component to the works, we could buttons for cycling through tracks on sound sculptures.
Listening to our environment is essential. In 2015, The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) formed a “Charter for Sound” to emphasize sound as a critical signifier in environmental health (LeMuet, 2017). By continuing to incorporate sonic practices (bioacoustics, sound art, field recording) into our work with the environment, we create more pathways to experiencing and understanding the planet we live on.
References / Resources
Gunderson, L.H., Holling, C.S., 2002. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems, Panarchy understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2004.01.010
Sound art installations that require digital computing, especially projects that rely on advanced software, demand added insurance of stability in order to remain up in an unattended space for extended periods of time. For exhibitions, this time period can mean a month or more with hours that vary from business hours to a taxing 24-7. One added insurance for artists relying on computers (e.g., Mac Minis) for unattended digital works is the cron job.
A cron is “a time-based job scheduler” that runs periodically (time intervals) to help “maintain software environments” (footnote 1). A software utility for Unix (read Mac), the cron automates processes and tasks, allowing the computer to be used as your personal docent to check on installation software, updating variables as part of the work or fixing issues as they crop up.
I got into cron jobs in 2014 while I was working with John Park on #Carbonfeed (URL), a multimedia installation that leverages Twitter API to transform real-time tweets into physical bubbles in tubes of water as well as a musical composition driven by behavior on Twitter (Figure 1). The piece incorporates a custom node.js script running on a Mac mini. To anticipate power failures, and to even alter hashtag sets on the LCD screens (Figure 2), I needed a way to automate software processes and failsafes. Enter the cron job.
In #Carbonfeed, I used the cron to check if the software had crashed and automatically reboot, and every 8 minutes, I altered Twitter hashtag sets on the LCDs, in order to change the dynamic of the work and create new opportunities for discourse. For a how-to on the cron and cron specifics, please jump to the bottom of this article.
Since #Carbonfeed, whenever I found myself working on a sound installation that required advanced software (e.g., Processing, Max/MSP, Logic Pro X), I inevitably involved a cron. For example, in 2017, I worked with Harmonic Laboratory (URL) on a Mozilla Gigabit Foundation Grant (URL) project called City Synth, which turned the city of Eugene, OR into a musical instrument. The piece involved taking live video feeds from Raspberry Pis (a collaboration completed by the South Eugene Robotics Team, URL) that was mangled by a Processing sketch and subsequently controlled a live synthesizer running in Logic Pro X. The work was up for a month in the Broadway Commerce Center in downtown Eugene, OR.
In 2019, my first solo exhibition at the Edith Barrett Gallery in Utica, NY (curated by Megan C. Austin and Sarisha Hogan and supported by funds from the Oregon Arts Commission) had six sound artworks running for three months. Since I was able to borrow Mac minis for the exhibition, I incorporated cron jobs and scripts to transform Mac minis into glorified audio players for two of the works. Sound Memorial for the Veteran of the Vietnam War (URL), ran an Automator script upon startup that opened iTunes and played a playlist holding the six-hour-long work (Figure 4). I mixed the 8-channel work down to a stereo headphone mix in order to account for the bleed of other works inside the space. Relay of Memory (URL) used the same script to output computer audio to an FM transmitter, which played the work through nine radios hung on a wall (Figure 5). Cron jobs checked the status of running software.
The cron utility has been an amazing tool for my sound installation work. I can still recall driving home after installing Aqua•litative (URL) when I received a frantic call from the curator that there was a power outage. In the middle of the call, the power came back on, the computer turned on (setting to automatically start after power failure), and a minute later, the cron kicked in opening up all software. I didn’t need to turn around and drive back or walk the curator through how to turn on computer software. A happy moment.
I have saved countless hours that I know about, and I’m sure many other hours I won’t ever know about thanks to the cron. I even have started to implement the cron in other ways to help with basic tasks in my daily life (see below for code specifics) such that the cron has helped me get closer to what Allan Kaprow describes as the “fluid” and “indistinct” “line between art and life.” Maybe the overseer of digital automatons is what a 21st-century computing artist feels like (footnote 2).
This is a walkthrough of the crontab on Mac OS using Terminal. I’ve included some code specifics by theme below. If you use, please share your work with me and how you implemented your cron! If you like what you’ve read, sign up for my mailing list (URL), follow my music on Spotify (URL), and please share it with friends.
Setting up a cron
Googling helped me in every way possible for working with crontab, but there are three basic steps. Open up an editor via Terminal, add your cron code (requires setting a time of how often it’ll run), and then saving the file. For more on Terminal, here’s a beginner’s walkthrough, Apple’s user guide, and a command cheat sheet.
1. Open up an editor to add a cron via Terminal
env EDITOR=nano crontab -e
2. Inside the editor add the executable file to the cron job
The asterisks tell how often to run the cron: Minute, Hour, Day of Month, Month, Day of Week. Straight asterisks mean “every” so this is a call to run the cron EVERY minute. The cron after the timer is a call to run a bash script called “citysynth_cron.sh”. The below cron runs every 5 minutes and closes the bash window in Terminal.
*/5 * * * * osascript -e 'tell application "Terminal" to close (every window whose name contains "bash")';
4. Want to know if you have a cron on your machine? List your crons in Terminal with
Adding a bash script.
If you decide to run a bash script via a cron, you’ll need to make the .sh file executable, that is, give the cron the ability to run the script. In Terminal, navigate to the folder where the .sh file lives and change its permissions with
chmod +x bashfile_name
where “bashfile_name” is the name of the .sh script (make sure to include .sh in the filename).
Below is an example of a .sh script that checks to see if an app is running and if not, reopens the app. I included the initial bash line of the file in the code.
echo "cron job";
number=$(ps aux | grep $PROCESS | grep -v grep | wc -l)
if [ $number -gt 0 ]
echo "sound is Dead";
# open music player application
Doing it all in one line of code
For recent projects, I opted to run code directly via the cron instead of relying on bash and AppleScripts. Below is code to start the Chrome web browser at a random time (to the second!) between 855-9p.
55 20 * * * perl -le 'sleep rand 300' && open -a 'Google Chrome'
Remember, the timing of the cron comes first:: Minute, Hour, Day of Month, Month, Day of Week. The cron is fired at 8:55pm, but has a random sleep time (between 0-300 seconds, read between your 8:55–9:00) and THEN opens the web browser.
Adding in an Apple Script
You can use your cron to trigger an Apple Script (.scpt file), just another way to execute commands on your Mac. Here’s an example of telling Safari to hit the spacebar (or could even be iTunes).
tell application "Safari"
tell application "System Events"
key code 49 -- space bar
Automator scripts (triggered by cron or system startup)
If cron and bash aren’t your thing, Apple has the Automator app that allows you to create automated processes straight from a GUI and then save out as an application (Figure 6). You can also easily trigger the app via a cron or by system startup by going to System Prefs > Users > Login Items. Login items can be set to run Automator scripts upon computer startup, and configuring the computer to power up automatically after power failure will help ensure a work stays running.
Hope this was helpful. Please get in touch if you have questions or want to share your work with cron in art.
1. Wikipidea, “Cron”. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cron accessed August 27, 2020.
2. Allan Kaprow. Essays on the Blurring Between Art and Life. University of California Press, Los Angeles. 1993. URL
The sonic impact of radio on the Americana landscape is profound. Fireside chats, Radio theatre, Payola, DJs, drive-ins, elevator Musak, waiting room noise––the vast consumerism and reach of radio continues to this day. Yet, what happens when we smash two artists (Kenny G and Nickelback) together into one spectral stretched fantasy using the transmission medium that gave life to their careers? Are we doomed to phase out our history with background noise? Or are we undulating with the beat of cultural reclamation and signification? Sending us adrift inside the electrical coils of the radio, Lying in Fireflies Besides Brown Curls and other original compositions attempt to recount a personal connection to memory, lust, and the power of radio to receive a new transmission.
Relay of Memory was exhibited at the Edith Langley Barrett Art Gallery, Utica, NY. The exhibition was supported by funds from the Oregon Arts Commission.
Wildfire is a 48-foot long speaker array that plays back a wave of fire sounds across its 48-foot span at speeds of actual wildfires. The sound art installation strives to have viewers embody the devastating spread of wildfires through an auditory experience.
The work was installed at the Edith Langley Barrett Art Gallery in Utica, New York. The work ran Sept. 19 – Dec. 8, 2019 as part of a solo art exhibition entitled, “Impact! works by Jon Bellona.” Wildfire was part of SPRING/BREAK Art Show in NYC March 3 – 9, 2020 curated by Megan C. Austin and Ashlie Flood.
Wildfire was made possible through the University of Oregon Center for Environmental Futures and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Impact! exhibition was supported by funds from the Oregon Arts Commission. Additional support made possible from the Edith Langley Barrett Art Gallery.
I mixed-down the forty-eight foot, 16-channel work into stereo (2-channel). An embedded Spotify player is below, but the stereo version may be found on Apple, Amazon, YouTube or wherever you stream music.
The exhibition is organized by the Barrett Art Gallery at Utica College. The exhibition is supported by funds from the Oregon Arts Commission. The Edith Langley Barrett Art Gallery programs are made possible with support from the Utica College School of Arts and Sciences and private contributions.
Media File Reported to Oregon Arts Commission (2019)
Precipitation 3 is one of a series of musical compositions written for 26 clock chimes as part of the sound art installation, Aqua•litative. With my Precipitation series, I treat the electromechanical structure as musical instrument, navigating through sound with the syntactical construction of code. Compositions played by the sculpture evoke precipitation data of California weather stations by cycling through bits of its data. These cycles create emergent sonic patterns in a continuously evolving play between density and rhythm. Movement flows as collapsing waves, additively striking a cybernetic balance between natural order and mechanic motion.
Aqua•litative is a kinetic installation that renders multiple data sets of California’s water history into a physical experience. The work correlates natural factors contributing to California’s water shortages, outlining the serpentine narrative of water through the translation of data into kinetic movement and acoustic sound.
Aqua•litative is a kinetic installation that renders multiple data sets related to California’s water history into movement and sound. The installation displays climatological data as a chronological narrative of water in the state by transforming water data into acoustic sounds (ringing of clock chimes) and physical movement (motors moving arms of balsa wood) shown in a gallery space. Precipitation data creates sonic patterns, analogous to rain droplets, in a continuously evolving play between density and rhythm.
Aqua•litative is by Jon Bellona, John Park, and John Reagan. http://aqualitative.org The installation is part of an Environmental Resilience and Sustainability Fellowship, funded in part by the Jefferson Trust and the University of Virginia Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs.