Sine Qua Son

Considering the Sine Wave Tone in Electronic Art

Published in Abstract Video Art, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 2015


TV test pattern (c.1960); Oscilloscope

In the long gone nights of broadcast television, the transmitted signal would be terminated around midnight. The home television set would keep receiving, tuned in as it was to the chosen channel’s frequency, but the broadcasting station needed to notify the home audience that its shows were over for the night. An announcement might be made; a title or graphics card would be positioned in front of the studio camera; maybe a short collage of scenery culled from the local community would be played. But ultimately, things had to end. So when all the goodbyes were over, the medium itself declared it was going to sleep. A test pattern chart would fill the screen, accompanied by a softly numbing hi-pitched whine.

Nowadays, the television shut-down is a historical figure; an audiovisual icon of how television declared its status as a medium by emptying itself of any message. The reason for using the tone was simple: the 10kHz sine wave tone was used for calibrating audio transmission and sound recording. Technicians would feed the signal into VU meters to check that the audio signal flow was stable, continual, and at a prescribed level. What the home audience saw and heard way back then was how the medium was technologically defined through the act of monitoring. When the test pattern’s dense lines, chequer-boards and cross-hair rings were sharp, and when the VU meters held steady at 0db, the medium was primed. This is how things went from the 50s well into the 70s.

But since then, variants of the uninterrupted sine wave tone has taken on multifarious meanings. In April 2012, NHK television news in Tokyo documented the makeshift memorials conducted across East Japan, commemorating one month to the minute since the Great East Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami at 2.46pm on March 11th. For nearly two full minutes, only a fixed-pitch droning siren was audible—like an old air-raid siren but higher in pitch; more resonant and full-bodied than a single pure sine wave tone, yet reminiscent of its sonic reduction. Groups large and small encircled small clearings; couples and solitary figures huddled in the midst of unfathomable debris. The scenography was always the same: it resembled a million abstract sculptural installations mulched into a flattened forest of grey muddied mess. These fixed-tripod shots of unbearable stillness were captured from various locations along the ravished coastline, whose myriad small ports and seaside fishing and farming communities were decimated by the tsunami’s 12 hour inland surge. Superimposed titles named each location. Everyone stood head bowed in one direction. No one moved or spoke. And each location had the same siren blaring—amazingly holding a unified precise pitch.

Over 60 years after television commenced in Japan at the tail-end of the American Occupation, the broadcasting of a sustained tone with neither music, dialogue or atmosphere communicates a very different kind of ‘nothingness’. The post-3/11 televisual memorial melds the electronic with the acoustic, portraying sites of remembrance while recording the live ‘performance’ of amplified electronically mediated sound. It’s a new audiovisual moment, but also an old one. Temple bells in Japan do not mark clock or even social time as do European church bells, but instead create a moment wherein personal time and space is interrupted to mark a shift from event (the ‘experience’ of the sound) to contemplation (the ‘consciousness’ enabled by the sound). The intention is to empty the mind to facilitate consciousness, by abruptly halting all other noise and interference which psychoacoustically batters the social mind day-in day-out.

Bowing during the 3.11 memorial siren, Tohoko, Japan

Sirens in Japan thus build upon this type of ‘consciousness marking’ whilst providing an act of intrusion. Japan’s air raid sirens share a history between national military applications and local prefectural operations —from the wailing that signalled the fire bombings of WWII to the notification of approaching storms, tidal waves and tsunamis. The televised memorials of 3/11 (which would continue to be broadcast each month for a whole year, and now appear at least annually) are part of this aural continuum. For the oldest generation, these contemporary extended tones emitted into the public sphere could recall the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. For the next generation, the Allied Forces’ firebombings of WWII. For a current generation, those sirens mostly symbolise acknowledgement of the over 18,000 people who died or were never found following the creeping tsunami as it flooded whole districts within hours. Most importantly, image is not the carrier of information here. All representational imagery was rendered abstract by the tsunami (effectively, the land was rendered unrecognisable). Rather, sound embodies all that was lost and destroyed; all that is no longer present and now invisible.

While people across Japan stood silently to observe the deep density of nothingness augured by the tsunami, similarly large crowds gathered in disconnected pockets within the cavernous Park Avenue Armory in New York in June that same year. They stood still, squatted, laid prone, wandered slowly, spun deliriously; fixated by massive wall and floor projections of brilliant black-and-white stripes which ceaselessly changed thickness and vertically scrolled in a dizzying display of abstract lenticular illusion. Accompanying this: an orchestrated onslaught or what sounds like a billion sine wave tones of frequencies and pulsations hyper-low and hyper-high, but all fiercely declaring an aesthetic of nothingness by virtue of their impressive anti-musicality and ascetic aural characteristics. This is Ryoji Ikeda’s test pattern (enhanced version) (2011, part of an ongoing series of installations commenced in 2008). Ikeda’s audiovisual installations over the last decade have set the bench-mark for how impressive screen-based video art can be when extrapolated to realise a digital actuality from what was previously only an analogue potentiality.

Yet a simple way of describing Ikeda’s undeniably stunning work is as an echo of the ‘end point transmission’ of television’s originating broadcast format which utilised the test pattern graphic with the sine wave test tone. Indeed, many people perceive Ikeda’s voluminous iterations of black-and-white stroboscopic glitch-and-wave hi-def projected onslaughts as a postmodern summation of Video Art’s medium-specific ontology. They accordingly presume that the works’ calculated impression of all the televisions in the world playing within a single spatio-temporal screen zone is a super-logical outcome of Video Art’s teleological desire to define itself through synaesthetic synchrony. On the one hand, it makes sense: if so much Video Art is about defining itself as medium, form and even material, any ‘meta’, ‘hyper’ or ‘super’ presentation of the medium will appear to be a crescendo of self-reflexive metonymy. On the other hand, such a simplistic exponential upward curve through history portrays Video Art as yet another heroic endeavour which inevitably results in the most grandiose displays at the expense of any grandiloquent criticality. So before teasing out precisely what is entailed in the shift from analogue potential to digital actualisation — which will be uncovered as a type of abstraction of audiovision itself — it will be productive to trace the rhyzomatic morphology of how the sine wave tone developed to occupy both the ‘density of nothing’ announced by Japan’s 3/11 sirens, and the ‘infinity horizon’ heralded by Ikeda’s data-saturated screens.

Tohoko, Japan, 2011; Rio Ikeda - test pattern (enhanced version), Park Avenue Armory, New York (2012)
Luigi Russolo's Intonarumori (1911); John Cage & David Tudor in Japan with Nam June Paik (1962)
Rodan (1956); Karlheinz Stockhausen in Japan (c.1966)
Otomo Yoshihide - Cathode (1999); Toru Takemitsu
Schiko M performing live (c.1998); Kraftwerk - Radio Activity TV performance (1975)
Kraftwerk - Radio Activity No Nukes performance, Tokyo (2012); Dumb Type - OR (1997)
Dumb Type - S/N (1994); Fail Safe (1964)

Text © Philip Brophy 2015. Images © respective copyright holders