06: Sound Extinction (Transcript)

Craig Shank I’m Craig Shank

George Drake Jr. I’m George Drake Jr., and this is Everything Sounds.

Craig Shank Usually this show is fairly collaborative…

George Drake Jr. …and it still is, but we wanted to present ourselves with a bit of a challenge.

Craig Shank Could we separately capture an idea using different

George Drake Jr. But what good is a challenge if it’s not challenging?

Craig Shank So, we decided to try to make a dark subject lighter.

George Drake Jr. And well, what’s darker than death?

Craig Shank Yeah…death….made lighter through sounds.

George Drake Jr. You can go first. I want to save the best for last.

Craig Shank Alright, we’ll see. You know how you can set your browser to default to a certain page every time you use it?

George Drake Jr. Yeah.

Craig Shank I actually do this thing where I set my browser to open a random page on Wikipedia every time I open it.

George Drake Jr. Ok. Why’s that?

Craig Shank It’s just interesting to me. You learn about things you’d never think about. There was this one time I opened the browser and landed on a page about animals that were extinct in the wild. I read a little more and then started looking at other animals and they all fall into one of these conservation statuses:
Least Concern
Near Threatened
Critically Endangered
Extinct in the Wild
and Extinct.

George Drake Jr. Well yeah, that’s pretty interesting, but where does that fit into what we’re doing here?

Craig Shank As I was looking at Hawaiian Crows, Koala Lemurs, and Dodo Birds….

George Drake Jr. AKA the best bird ever!

Craig Shank Sure…I was thinking about the permanence of extinction. Regardless of the reason why something goes away, preserving that thing or some part of it just feels important and there’s a website that does that for sounds. It’s called the Museum of Endangered Sounds, which focuses on sounds that aren’t extinct yet, but are on their way out – older technology such as rotary telephones, old operating systems and antiquated printers. So….I gave Brendan Chilcutt, the curator of the site, a call.

Marybeth Ledesma Hello?

Craig Shank Hi, is this Marybeth?

Marybeth Ledesma Hi! Is this Craig?

Craig Shank Oh yea….he doesn’t exist.

Marybeth Ledesma My name is Marybeth…

Craig Shank Brendan is a fictional character.

Marybeth Ledesma …I’m one of the creators of the Museum of Endangered Sounds.

Craig Shank Marybeth and her two friends created him to curate this site.

Marybeth Ledesma It’s just so much easier when people email us. Instead of being like, “Hi Phil or Marybeth or Greg.” You know what i mean?

Craig Shank Told ya.

Marybeth Ledesma We were deciding, well, it’s a museum, somebody has to curate it. Should we put our three names on it? And then we kind of went the weird route and thought, “Hey! Let’s create a fake character and make it as believable as possible and we created that and it’s so much fun playing this character, at least through email. And sorry, I’m not sorry that we kind of convinced you that we were Brendan.

Craig Shank And he’s not really a ‘normal’ guy either.

Marybeth Ledesma …really into technology and talks a lot…super enthusiastic about everything, has weird…weird habits about himself, like he has six gerbils and he has too much information to give you.

Craig Shank Anyway, the Museum of Endangered Sounds is exactly what you’d think. It’s just a bunch of sounds you might remember and some you may never want to hear again.

Marybeth Ledesma Some sounds on the site are Encarta ’97’s “Mind maze,” a VCR rewinding, Space Invaders – the game, and our personal favorite is the dial-up. When we first created our initial twelve sounds, that was the first sound that we created because it just resonated with everyone. I mean, everyone has experienced that sound. Everyone has their own story, their own experience and it’s kind of funny that something that sounds so ugly can, I guess, it makes sense, can leave a lasting memory because it sounds so ugly, but now we’re just glad we can laugh at it.

Craig Shank …but maybe those sounds bring back memories.

Marybeth Ledesma …especially the VCR rewinding. It’s just, it’s so nostalgic to us because now we just pop in a DVD or stream from Netflix and you never have to go through the process of rewinding so it’s…you know, you miss it. You appreciate it now that it’s gone.

Craig Shank When you go to the site, you’re presented with a note from Brendan that says:
“Hi there!
Welcome to the Museum of Endangered Sounds.
Click a thumbnail to take a listen down memory lane.
Click the thumbnail again to turn it off and play another.
Or, if you like industrial music, try turning on all the thumbnails at once!
Love, Brendan”

Marybeth Ledesma “It has two purposes. One: For entertainment and just, you know, kind of the opportunity to go back in time, you know, just listening to the sounds. I love reading fan mail because each sound…it just resonates with peoples’ lives and they just love sharing their stories, which I enjoy reading. And secondly, it’s just education. I mean, my five year-old cousin doesn’t know what Pac-Man is. They have…it’s like, technology is moving so fast today that I feel like the purpose of The Museum of Endangered Sounds is to catalogue these old technologies forever.

Craig Shank When you think about it, the Museum of Endangered Sounds is doing more than that. It’s preserving a bygone era, which many people today don’t know existed. At the same time, it’s allowing those who did live through it to share stories and experiences with younger generations.

Marybeth Ledesma It applies to all ages. Like, a five year-old would enjoy it up to a ninety year old, who has told me they enjoyed it.

Craig Shank …and about that 90-year-old fan…

Marybeth Ledesma Oh my gosh, he’s adorable! He’s this man in Germany. He’s just from a small town and he read about it in the local newspaper. It’s just the most wonderful thing. He was just saying how he used to be in theatre, so he dealt with a lot of old technology and naming sounds that I’ve never heard of. So I took it down and it’s just touching. It really is.

Craig Shank Still, it goes beyond just connecting generations. The Museum of Endangered Sounds has a worldwide audience.

Marybeth Ledesma So, I think it covers a wide range of ages and a wide range of nationalities and languages. I’ve been using Google Translator a lot because we’ve just been getting emails from all over the world and it’s wonderful that, you know, even if we all don’t speak the same language, we’re all from different countries, and different ages, we can all connect with, you know, sounds. That’s incredible to me. 

Craig Shank You can find the Museum of Endangered sounds at save the sounds dot info.

George Drake Jr. Ah, so sounds that are being pushed out of existence by newer technology. Very interesting….

Craig Shank So where did you take this ‘dying sounds’ challenge?

George Drake Jr. Well, I took it a bit more literally, in a way. For some reason the first thing that comes into my head when I hear ‘dying sounds’ is a sound actually is dying. Like the sound of a turntable shutting off. You know, when it slows down and almost groans out its final notes like geeeaaahughhh.

Craig Shank Right, something like that.

George Drake Jr. Yeah, so that sound is so representative of a ‘dying sound’ that in a sense it’s almost a cliche. And then I remembered about this smart phone app somebody I know made, which actually uses a ‘dying sound’ in my sense of the phrase.

Norbert Herber Uh…Norbert Herber

George Drake Jr. It starts with my old college professor.

Norbert Herber I’m a musician, a sound artist, and a senior lecturer at Indiana University.

George Drake Jr. He’s created this app called Baby Reindeer, an app which evolved from his son’s toy.

Norbert Herber …and I think it’s called something like “bedtime seahorse” or “sleep and dream seahorse” or something like that.

George Drake Jr. Ocean Wonders Soothe and Glow Seahorse, actually.

Nortbert Herber It has nothing to do with reindeer or creatures that walk on land. The toy is actually a seahorse and it’s soft and cuddly and cute with big eyes and bright colors and my daughter, who was four years old at the time, saw it and for whatever reason, probably because it was Christmas, she said, “Oh, look! It’s a baby reindeer,” which struck me as odd because if it looked like anything, it looked like a reindeer fetus. You know, not an actual reindeer. It didn’t have legs, it didn’t have horns…it looked nothing like a deer, but that’s what she called it and it cracked me up.

George Drake Jr. Long story short, this seahorse-reindeer-animal-thing glowed and made noise. Nothing loud or obnoxious. The point of the toy is to lull a baby to sleep.

Norbert Herber When you touch the seahorse’s belly, it would light up and it would play lullabies and songs that were kind of mixed with some underwater sounds. So, you would hear “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” or “Ode to Joy,” and those melodies were played in kind of a dreamy, slow way and mixed with some bubbles and gurgling and, you know, it was meant to sound like it was, you know, you were sort of sinking deeper into the ocean.

George Drake Jr. Like many toys, the seahorse took batteries and so eventually, well, they needed to be replaced.

Norbert Herber First time the batteries died, I looked into what it would take to replace it and I saw how to open the toy up and it actually kind of reminded me of that scene from Empire Strikes Back where they…Han Solo cuts into the tauntaun’s belly and it just kind of spews its innards. The baby reindeer, or the seahorse, was a lot like that. I sort of open it up and all these electronic…this electronic shell came out and what it was was this cold, impersonal-looking robot.

George Drake Jr. Because the batteries were dying the sound was affected too.

Norbert Herber Of course, you know, I wanted to play the sounds back because as the batteries, you know, when it was first turned on the batteries were still sort of good and it had some juice, but then they would run down and things would slow down and spin out and I just loved that sound. The way it would detune the lullabies or transform the bubbling sounds was really, really interesting. So, it was kind of the play on all of those things.

George Drake Jr. …and that’s when Norbert stepped in. He processed the audio by layering and stretching the sounds, added his own synth elements and created generative music.

Norbert Herber Generative music is music that is based on a set of rules that once they are set into motion, those rules run their course. Music happens as a result of those rules and it will play for as long as the rules allow or until someone stops that process, or if it’s something that’s related to a machine of some sort, which it usually is, when that machine is shut off, the music is finished.

George Drake Jr. And that brings us to the Baby Reindeer app.

Norbert Herber People use it simply by turning it on. The idea is that the music plays and will play continuously. It varies itself over time based on the rules and algorithms that I put in place for the piece itself.

George Drake Jr. He wanted the music he made to have a general application as well.

Norbert Herber I wanted to create something that people would listen to as they’re reading, as they were drifting off to sleep, working, writing, you know, anything where they want something that’s going to function like a piece of ambient music. When Brian Eno invented that genre, he wanted to create space for people to think. He wanted the music to be as ignorable as it was interesting so that their attention could drift towards it or drift away from it and focus on the cooking or reading or writing or whatever it was that they might be doing. So, I’d like to think that it can serve sort of as a catalyst to any of those sort of activities.

George Drake Jr. But the real question is: does it actually work?

Norbert Herber I’ve talked to people who have used it and many people use it for exactly the things that I just mentioned. A girl I know who does a lot of babysitting said that she’s played it for young children that she’s taking care of and it helps them drift to sleep and helps them relax, which I was just thrilled to hear that.

George Drake Jr. So much so that he’d try it out on…oh, I don’t know, his own kids?

Norbert Herber Oh, yeah. I’ve played it for them before and they just sort of carried on doing what they’re doing. One time I was listening to a linear version that I had recorded of it while driving somewhere with my son and he just nodded off to sleep and looked as happy as can be, but he could have been tired. Who knows?

George Drake Jr. You can learn more about Norbert’s Baby Reindeer app from our website at everything sounds dot org. And he also provided the music for the show this week. You can find out where to hear it at our website as well.

Craig Shank Thanks again to Marybeth and the team at the Museum of Endangered Sounds. Find a link at our site and you can also support the show and get access to exclusive content by becoming an Everything Sounds “Audiophile.”

George Drake Jr. You can also show your support by writing a review and rating Everything Sounds in iTunes. It doesn’t take much time and it goes a long way towards helping us move up in their rankings. Find the link at everything sounds dot org.

Craig Shank Until Next time, I’m Craig Shank

George Drake Jr. I’m George Drake Jr, and this is Everything Sounds.

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