An Exploration Of Everyday Sound: Are We Making Music?

Matt Wuolle, 1996
first published in the e-zine Where's The Music?

I enter a small public Men's Room through its exterior door. Immediately, I am confronted by an industrial "pre-fab" interior door with frame; the apparatus is metal with a hollow interior. I push the door open and pass through, it closes slowly, stating its lubricant hungry condition. "Whoooooaaaaaghff--Clunk" reverberates through the gray room. The voice is complex, a resonant metal cavity interacting with tile in an enclosed space. A similar door-set encloses and forms two stalls. A user enters a stall and slams the door shut, "Kabooomph." ...After washing the hands I turn to the paper towel dispenser, my tennis shoes "squeak" in their contact with the tiled floor. The dispenser itself seems to be a musical rhythm box, its hollow plastic interior sounding a grungy, muted "honk" each time the metal handle is pressed down for a section of towel. The spring device of this metal shaft handle slams it back up against the plastic box, creating an additional "thump." A towel is torn off with a midrange "thaaweeep," and a "crinkle, crackle" sound accompanies the drying and wadding-up for disposal. The refuse canister is an amazing instrument; its deep, hollow, metal structure can produce a dense resonance. In order to throw a towel in, one must push open the metal door on top. When pushed, this particular door instantly gives way and slams against its back side, due to a weak spring. "Ka-thwam" it loudly addresses the user, sound surrounding and reflecting from all parts of the room. As I turn to walk away, "boom," my foot hits the bottom of the canister. I walk out through the same singing door that greeted me. Good-bye.

This experience -- an essential part of our everyday activities -- is a physical, sonic "performance." As a composer-performer, I am interested in the extension and intentional production of sound using these objects and acoustic spaces. Sonically informed by activities as described above, I return to these scenarios specifically to dance, to interact with sound, to see how much noise I can make by manipulating the everyday. I close the bathroom stall door, hitting it against the frame, repeatedly: a human performing a forceful, clanging, rhythm. A double percussion instrument is created when I grab the adjacent stall door with my other hand. Both ring differently, and I play with that difference to create a dialogue between them. Now I add my feet, using the shoe squeaks to produce high frequency counterpoint to the giant slabs of door percussion. Directly to my right is that hollow trash canister, so I periodically kick it with my foot for an additional timbral accent, it is a lower frequency and more resonant.

As I continue, this becomes a physically exhausting performance, with all my limbs cranking out forceful rhythmic activity. It is a dance, a balancing act. I am a standing kit-drummer. The reverberant tiled space amplifies the sound, one is surrounded by feedback -- hardly a solo act with all this sonic interaction from the room. It is euphoric, a celebration, a festival of making sound. I become obsessed with the intensity of repeating a particular action, movement is exaggerated. The vigorous performance ends when I run out of breath...

These "soundmaking activities" have been video-documented by Georgette Taylor, and as a collaborative team, we produced The Music of Our Lives. She recorded my performances in the Men's room and a private bathroom, using camera work which utilizes many different angles and viewpoints. In the bathroom setting, I do a "tub dance," creating a rhythmic, high-energy sound world. (all stills are from The Music of Our Lives)

My feet rub against the tub interior, water lubricates the surface, and a unique timbre develops from the tub's resonant cavity interacting with the small tiled room. To compose the video, we edited scenes from various "takes" in both spaces into a linear series. Decisions were based on timbre and rhythmic pacing, as well as the juxtaposition of physical gestures, spaces, lighting, and camera angle. No effects or processing was used to "enhance" these sounds -- I wanted only to capture the performance, the body contact with materials, and the sound of these rooms.

We are surrounded by objects that can be given a voice. Sound as an artifact of daily activities is merely a small segment of what can be brought forth when purposely exploring the contact of any two surfaces, their resonances, and the acoustic space of buildings. Phenomenologist Don Ihde states that,

"we may miss the voices of things because they are often, left by themselves, mute or silent. ...The rock struck, sounds in a voice; the footstep in the sand speaks muffled sound. ...the voices of things which are often silent are made to sound only in duets or more complex polyphonies. When I strike a lecturn you hear both the voice of the lecturn and of my knuckle...if I strike something in a large auditorium, the space which is auditorily given to me is distinctly different than the space given by striking the same object in a closet" (1986: 33-34).
The sound of shoe squeaks or the metal stall doors closing in a small, tiled bathroom is sonic material. The combination of tennis shoes rubbing against a tiled floor is an instrument, as is the combination of a tub, bare feet, and water. Those large, green industrial dumpsters found at most apartment complexes are also a favorite instrument of mine. Although usually marked with a "do not play on or around" sticker, what audio explorer could resist the squeaking, creaking sounds of the rusty hinge apparatus reverberating in the dumpster cavity, and the huge metallic "bang" when the lid slams shut. Just by manipulating the speed and force of push -- "playing" it like a musical instrument -- one can coax a multitude of diverse timbres out of this dumpster lid. While it may be difficult to control a parameter such as pitch using dumpsters and doors, they are perfect for bringing out long, slow, rugged attack characteristics. The designers and manufacturers of our numerous consumer-industrial objects, products, and buildings were probably not considering sonic possibilities in their design. A tennis shoe manufacturer probably does not consider the "squeak potential" of its shoes contacting various surfaces. Unlike the size, shape, and color of these objects, their sounds have not been quantized and consumerized. The sounds we make with our clothes can be as individual as the way we dress. Consider shoes with velcro straps; functional, convenient -- but even better, these are percussion instruments on our feet, waiting to be played.

Paralanguage researcher Fernando Poyatos suggests other sonic performances which utilize clothing: "The hands can slide over one's or someone else's velvet or silk dress and produce the characteristic swishing sound, rub on corduroy or denim and let us hear their soft rustling, glissando effect, brush our woolen sweater up and down and emit that peculiar muffled tone, etc." (1993: 30).

Musical sounds are potentially available anywhere, anytime. We don't have to have specifically designed instruments playing in concert halls to experience fascinating music. Consider street drummers who play on quasi "drumsets" formed from cardboard boxes and other throwaways; or, the person who walks parallel to a metal chain-link fence, dragging a stick along the fence to produce "street music." It seems to me that even groups of teenagers on skateboards are performing a kind of music, the wheels have a pronounced percussive effect when they roll over plywood board-jumps and hit concrete with a dissonant "thud." These are usually ensemble activities that feature jarring rhythms similar to much Twentieth Century "music." Philosopher Arnold Berleant observes that "over the past century, artists have been moving toward producing work that denies the isolation of art from the active involvements of daily life...they have seized on the connections art has to human activities, instead of stressing its differences and discontinuities" (1991: 26). The British group "Stomp" is exploring these issues and espouses an aesthetic similar to my own. Combining junk percussion, dance, and "street performance", they "pull music from their own bodies and from discarded objects and rag-tag scraps mounted on the sets around them. Whirling and leaping, they flail at cans, jugs, dust bins, plastic pipes, and auto parts, then stomp thunderously about with huge oil drums strapped to their boots..." Stomp's founder, Luke Creswell, states that in his learning experience as a percussionist he would "literally grab sticks and go for it." His approach to "junk" playing is similar: "There's no right or wrong way to play dustpan and brush, there are no set rules...we like mucking about; we like having fun" (Potter: 116-17).

Producing sound from objects has been with us since our beginnings, with early humans scraping sticks to produce fire, or perhaps banging on cave walls with sticks; who knows? In 1627 Frances Bacon's The New Atlantis suggests "sound houses" where all sounds exist and can be performed (Ernst: xvii). Workers from all eras who use hand tools to shape wood and stone, or for constructing and assembling, have probably been aware of the force and the rhythms of their activities. The Industrial Revolution of the 1840's and 1850's, with its "constant din of construction and pounding, of the shrieking of metal sheets being cut and the endless thump of press machinery, of ear-splitting blasts from huge steam whistles," influenced early Twentieth Century artists such as the Italian Futurists (Kahn: 197). In 1913 Luigi Russolo described the traditional concert hall as "a hospital for anemic sounds" (Ernst: xxv), and proposed that we

wander through a great modern city with our ears more attentive than our eyes, and distinguish the sounds of water, air, or gas in metal pipes, the purring of motors...the throbbing of valves, the pounding of pistons, the screeching of gears, the clatter of streetcars on their rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of awnings and flags...the slamming of doors, the bustle and shuffle of crowds..." (quoted in Hansen: 90).
Ukrainian Nikolai Foregger developed a Noise Orchestra in Moscow, 1922, consisting of boxes of broken bottles, old packing cases, strips of metal sheets, cheap whistles, paper horns, a gong, wooden and copper sticks, and a reed pipe, to perform some eighty different "Machine Dances" (Kahn: 221-22). Marcel Duchamp's readymade of 1913, the Bicycle Wheel, when spun, "produces a soft whispering can also be played," by dragging our fingers or a stick across the spokes as they turned (Kahn: 108). John Cage's Living Room Music of 1940 used "instruments" that might be found in a living room: furniture, papers, windows, walls, and doors; the "domestic sphere, now vacated of the petit-bourgeois piano, is presented as a site for musical production rather than mere reception" (Kahn: 378). Pierre Schaeffer's early musique concrete pieces of 1948-49 feature playful manipulations of recordings of everyday objects, including casserole pan covers, canal boats, and locomotive noises (Ernst: 23). And returning to the acoustic realm, Mauricio Kagel's Pas de cinq, from 1965, uses five performers wearing different kinds of shoes, who "walk over a stage floor composed of various textures, their steps making beautiful percussion" (Kostelanetz: 127).

Other cultures also incorporate the sounds of objects into their music. Alan Merriam notes that "in Akan society, if someone scraped mud off a bottle with the lid of a cigarette tin, he would produce noise as a by-product. If he performed this act of scraping in the performance of ahyewa music, the sound, though similar, would have a different meaning. It would be purposeful in a musical sense" (1964 :67). Scraping sounds are often an element in women's work songs of the Kaluli tribe in Papua, New Guinea, as documented by Steven Feld. And Japanese folk music of the Ainu people of Hokkaido Island includes the "beating of chest lids by the singers" (Higgens: 14-15).


Berleant, Arnold. Art and Engagement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Ernst, David. The Evolution of Electronic Music. New York: Schirmer Books, 1977.

Hansen, Peter. An Introduction to Twentieth Century Music, Third Edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1971.

Higgens, Kathleen. The Music of Our Lives. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Ihde, Don. Consequences of Phenomenology. New York: State University of New York Press, 1986.

Kahn, Douglas and Gregory Whitehead (eds.). Wireless Imagination. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1992.

Kostelanetz, Richard. On Innovative Musicians. New York: Limelight Editions, 1989.

Merriam, Alan. The Anthropology of Music. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

Potter, Jeff "Stomp: the Rhythm of Life...On Stage" Modern Drummer (October 1994), 116-118.

Poyatos, Fernando. Paralanguage. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1993.

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