14: Bicycle Sounds (Transcript)

George Drake Jr. I’m George Drake Jr.

Craig Shank And I’m yawning, excuse me. *laughter* And I’m Craig Shank. This is Everything Sounds

George Drake Jr. The yawning edition.

Craig Shank Sheesh.

George Drake Jr. Let’s do that again.

Craig Shank Ok.

George Drake Jr. I’m George Drake Jr.

Craig Shank And I’m Craig Shank. This is Everything Sounds

George Drake Jr. Ruben Garrett Lucius Goldberg, or as he’s most commonly known ‘Rube Goldberg,’ was a talented artist, writer and engineer but he’s probably more famous for his work as an inventor, most notably, the aptly named Rube Goldberg Machine.

Craig Shank And if you don’t know a Rube Goldberg machine completes a simple task in an unnecessarily complex way. Essentially, it just uses chain reactions to accomplish something really simple.

George Drake Jr. One thing triggers another, which then triggers another, and another and so on and so forth.

Craig Shank A lot of times, these contraptions are on smaller scales. They use things like dominoes and marbles, but sometimes they’re much bigger. They could involve things like cars and barrels. In 1963, one of these small-scale contraptions was a board game  developed around the Rube Goldberg machine idea and it saw a resurgence in the 1990’s. It was called Mousetrap.

George Drake Jr. In the 1985 film, ‘Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,’ he used what’s called ‘The Breakfast Machine’ to make himself, of course, breakfast. It made orange juice, toast, eggs, and pancakes using, among other things, a carousel, a life-size Abraham Lincoln statue and an anvil. Oh yeah, the pancakes had a face made of eggs eyes and bacon lips and of course, Pee-Wee talked to it.

Craig Shank Jump ahead to 2006. The Discovery Channel show Mythbusters attempted to make their own Rube Goldberg machine as part of their Christmas Special. For the machine a bowling ball was dropped onto a ramp, a model train was used, even a kitchen stove, all to drop their crash test dummy on the ground.

George Drake Jr. In 2010, rock band OK Go, who are just notorious for their outlandish music videos, they did an entire video for their song ‘This Too Shall Pass’ with a Rube Goldberg Machine. It all started with the falling of dominoes and all the stuff in between was synced up with the music and ended with the members of the band being shot with paint. Needless to say the crew was pretty happy when it was over.

Craig Shank …then in 2012, the Rube Goldberg Machine concept was the starting point for a video art piece created by a guy who lives in Brooklyn.

Stephen Mierding My name is Stephen Mierding. I’m a photography and I also do video art as well.

Craig Shank Stephen wasn’t always interested in being an artist. In fact, he’s got a twin sister named Allison who always seemed to be the more artistically inclined than he was. He instead took an interest in science. Stephen says his sister is more expressive and emotional in her work, but he favors a more technical and methodical approach.

George Drake Jr. And what’s more technical than pursuing chemical engineering degree at the University of Delaware? Stephen has always had a passion for science, but he wasn’t always finding compelling reasons to stick with it once he started his studies.

Stephen Mierding I actually started talking to people who are actually in the field and I couldn’t find anybody who really liked their job. I grew up in Delaware, which is a big chemical, sort of, powerhouse. That’s where Dupont and a lot of prescription drug companies are and everyone I spoke to just didn’t really like their job that much. I was like, I’m not sure I want to do that for the rest of my life.

George Drake Jr. Hearing about other people’s experience combined with his own made the choice pretty clear to him.

Stephen Mierding I just…I was feeling like a calculator and I took a winter session of, I was like, I’m going to do something different and I took my first drawing class and I quit my major right after that session.

Craig Shank He found a path that allowed him to combine his creativity with his meticulous nature: Visual communications and graphic design. Though, his focus on precision might have seemed almost obsessive in some cases.

Stephen Mierding You know, I would be doing all of these layouts and, you know, I always thought there was some sort of mathematical mode to it and, you know, we were in class and my work is on this big projection in front of the class and he’s like, “Steve, let me see your guides,” and I turned ’em on and it had about 1,500 guides down to the half centimeter.

George Drake Jr. He graduated in 2002 and much of his background has been with still life and photography. He moved back to Brooklyn and balances his time between work for clients and making art for its own sake, but that balance kind of tips heavily in the favor of his paid work most of the time.

Stephen Mierding What happens is you get so busy. You actually start to really love your job and enjoy what you do anyway, regardless of whether someone calls it art or whether you’re making money off of it. I mean, I love what I do, but I would say 95% of what I do has to do with making commercial products look really appealing.

Craig Shank Stephen’s hobby is also the way he makes his living. It might seem odd to some people, but his escape from work happens to be doing more work. His projects that he tackles in his downtime or on vacations are fun, offbeat, and often collaborative. Doing something creative is cathartic for him. It allows him to work without constraints that he  usually encounters while working on paid work.

Stephen Mierding It’s all of the best parts of my job without all of the worst parts. You know, it’s sort of like how you think, you know, when you’re going into school you think that, you know, they’re telling you about these awesome jobs and you think it’s actually gonna be as cool as it is in school, you know, the projects are gonna be as fun, but they don’t tell you that clients are bascially dictating everything and really you’ll be spending more time doing your business side of it than you are gonna be creating something.

George Drake Jr. It was during one of these periods of downtime that Stephen created a video piece. He’s an avid cyclist and loves taking things apart and putting them back together. So, he created a short video using bicycle parts in front of a black background and when I phrase it like that, it doesn’t necessarily seem like there is much to it, but there is. You’ve probably never heard bicycles making sounds like these and this is where that whole Rube Goldberg machine thing comes back into play.

Craig Shank His piece is called “Bicycle Sounds.” It developed because he wanted to make the largest Rube Goldberg machine that he could in his basement, but there were some hurdles to making one himself. The fact that the basement was only ten feet wide was one of the major constraint, but through some careful camera and microphone placement and some creativity, he was able to capture the essence of the mythical contraption.

Stephen Mierding So, everything that is powering it is literally right out of the frame. Everything is sort of suspended in space, it’s like floating in black and what that is is there’s ton and tons of rigging behind it all with like, I would say 800 pounds of sandbags and whatever I had, paint cans, gallons of water, whatever I could have to keep this thing from falling apart from the pressures and forces that are on it. Then we just took this black felt that’s called flock and we just cut it painstakingly and covered every single piece of hardware so you can’t see it and then it’s lit in a way so that only the thing that you’re seeing has any sort of shadow on it. So, it feels like it’s floating in space, but it’s really not.

George Drake Jr. …and then there were the factors that he couldn’t really control.

Stephen Mierding You make it as quiet as you can, but it’s still, there’s a city street ten feet away from the window with trucks that drive by. So, hopefully we’re waiting for the traffic lights and we’re timing it just right or maybe we’re shooting at a later hour so there’s not as much traffic going by, but yeah, there was tons of takes where everything is going good and then all of a sudden you just hear, “WWwaahhboooshkuchkcuhkcuhkcuchkcuhsshh,” and that’s a truck just flying around the corner and the whole house shakes as it does here and, you know, that’s not a take I’m gonna use.

Craig Shank Aside from his main goal of creating a Rube Goldberg machine, Stephen really didn’t really have any other goals for the piece. The results are based on experimentation in the filming and editing process. Initially, he planned on releasing a series of separate videos. Each one would have scenes that they staged, but it seemed that everything worked better together as opposed to individually.

Stephen Mierding ..trying to experiment with what aesthetically was appealing to me. So, that just turned into a whole bunch of shots and you shoot things slow, you shoot things fast, you know, everything in-between, you know, we’re throwing water at ’em. You end up with this collection of this huge amount of movies, you know, just little movies and then it’s really, it’s in the editing process where you start to rearrange ’em and put ’em together, kind of like a deck of cards and that’s kind of where it came out of and I was like, “Oh yeah. This is cool. Like, I can actually feel something,” as I was going through the edit. You just kind of keep tweaking and tweaking until you’re like, “Yeah, this is good.”

Craig Shank When you watch this video, you can tell that you would need access to a lot of bikes to create something like this. Stephen owned seven bikes that he could use for the piece, but he also had to ask the local bike shop if they could spare any parts. Luckily they had a few things to help him out, but the broken and bent pieces were about to go through even more tough times. He held parts in vices, bent them, and then re-assembled them into odd arrangements.

George Drake Jr. Now, the video is pretty colorful and it does grab your attention with all of the moving wheels, gears, and other stuff, but the sound is what really grabs your attention. You hear ordinary sounds take on an entirely new life and it even starts to feel like there is almost a rhythm to what you’re hearing.

Stephen Mierding You know, I wasn’t necessarily trying to create a song or a composition, but that’s sort of how it turned out. It wasn’t well thought-out like normal music, but when you listen to it, it builds a lot of tension, you know. There is a back-beat, which is the sound of this card being flipped, which, you know, creates this “doont, doont, doont,” you know, a driving thing and as you add and layer in all of these other sounds from the different scenes, it just becomes more and more and more chaotic and frenetic and, you know, finally as you really ramp up that card that’s in the clothing pin it makes almost a sound like a lawnmower, you know, I was really surprised by how that was gonna turn out.

Craig Shank It almost seems like a song as more elements get layered on top, but doesn’t quite make it to that point. Stephen said a lot of people point out that he could have taken it a step further and made music from those elements, but that was never his intent. He thought making a song would be, kind of contrived. Instead, he chose to let the bikes make their own kind of music.

Stephen Mierding It’s almost better as some kind of crazy thing that isn’t trying to be like everything else. Just let it do what it does. You know, if a bike was gonna make a song it probably wouldn’t be very good and that’s pretty much, if a bike was gonna make a song that’s what this video would probably be.

George Drake Jr. At one point we asked Stephen about sounds that were excluded from the video and it led him to an interesting thought.

Stephen Mierding You know, there was some stuff where, like, we really had this spinning crazy. There’s a crazy spinning bell at one point where it’s going pretty fast. It’s like, “Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching,” but we had it at points where it was like, “Chingchingchingchingchingchingchingching,” and things like that just kind of like, it just became too distracting, in a way and, you know, for me it just didn’t sound beautiful. So, you know, anything that wasn’t beautiful for me, I just kind of took out.

Craig Shank Beauty might not be the first thing that comes to mind when people hear Bicycle Sounds. When we asked him to explain how he would define beauty and he said it was something that can’t be explained in some cases. We just have to feel it. He said that some sounds can often be jarring when we first experience them, but after we hear them more often we get accustomed to them. Once we’re comfortable with them, we may hear beauty in them that we didn’t notice before.

George Drake Jr. …and part of the beauty of sounds may very well be the associations that we carry with those sounds. Stephen said that many people feel nostalgia about their childhood and putting playing cards in their wheels or beads on their bicycle spokes, but he remembered something beautiful from the way that children experienced the video itself. It happened when they had people over for an open studio that was part of a Brooklyn Arts Festival.

Stephen Mierding …but, I was showing all of my videos on this television set over here and we had tons of kids come over, but I think the coolest part for me is you’d have a three or four year old and they would just go sit on this chair and all this stuff is happening around him and, you know, people are really just drinking wine and eating crackers and they’re milling all over the house and you have these kids, these chairs, and they’d be like, the video would be on and they’d be completely transfixed, like, their eyes are wide open. They’re just like, stuck, on the television. As a little kid you get sucked into it and it has to do with the sound, I think. You know, the visuals, there are a lot of colors and stuff, but you know, I think the sound has a lot to do with it too.

Craig Shank Find the Bicycle sounds video and a link Stephen’s portfolio on our website, everything sounds dot org. While you’re there, you can find links to our social media pages, iTunes, Soundcloud, and Stitcher. Be sure to like our pages, subscribe, share, and let your friends know about the show. Your help goes a long way.

George Drake Jr. …and if you really feel like going the extra mile, we wouldn’t say no. Go ahead. Become an everything sounds “Audiophile.” We offer the show free to you every week, but it isn’t free to produce. So, if you’d like, support the show and get access to bonus material as it becomes available. Just click the “Support” link at everything sounds dot org.

Craig Shank Thanks for listening to Everything Sounds. I’m Craig Shank.

George Drake Jr. …and I’m George Drake Jr.

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