Wednesday, December 25, 2013

What's Portuguese for Opossum?

Back in July I was plagued by a problem—there was a noise I needed to recreate and I had a limited schedule of rehearsals of Cat in the Hat to figure it out. This was aside from the other initial problem I had when first approached to do the show, which was not knowing whether it was a book about a cat inside a hat versus a feline with fashion forward style.

It was an easy mistake, people. Also seriously, children's books have LONG SINCE jumped the shark, with such notable titles as these: "Mommy, Why is There a Server in the House?" and "It Hurts When I Poop!And my personal favorite:
Is it wrong that what I actually find offensive about this is the father's hair?

Needle is to Haystack as Noise is to THE WORLD

Now back to the noise.

I tried asking friends who are musicians. I went to local music shops that specialized in unique instruments. I tried the larger chain stores that promised to teach its incoming patrons to be a genius on guitar in ten lessons or less. And in attempting to imitate the noise with my voice, I got a lot of strange looks and very little else in return, outside of an offer for the first guitar lesson for free so long as I'd stop scaring the other customers.

I came back home and tried to Google it. But, that in of itself surmised my problem: how do you Google a noise? How do you describe a sound?

I'm Copyrighting the Idea for the App for This
Time was creeping by. I was working under multiple hats for the show (sound designer, composer, live musician and sound effect maker) for an amazing local theatre company, Bay Area Children’s Theatre Company. They do wonderful work and I was lucky to work for them. There's no punchline coming up with this paragraph, btw. I am unabashedly plugging BACT. Go see a show and see why it's worth it to pay for live theatre again.

If you know your Dr. Seuss, you’ll understand why I was on the hunt for noises that sounded like chaos; I was looking for sounds to help underscore the moment when two characters, Thing 1 and Thing 2, destroy everything in a house. I had several noises in mind, noises I had access to (discordant toy piano, cymbals crashing, off-tempo booms on drums). But, this infernal unknown noise kept popping up in my head as a potential alternative. Rehearsals were flying by and the rest of the design continued on, leaving my anonymous noise in the dust. All I wanted was to Shazam my my voice and call it a day. The technology is there but my app--YouToot, as I like to think of it--doesn't exist. Yet.

A Seal Giving Birth or a Manakin Mating Call?

He is. Just watch him dance.
I couldn't let it go. Even long after the show ended, I kept looking--er, hearing for it. When asked, I described the sound as, “somewhere between a tropical bird honking and a harbor seal having a baby.” If you Google that you immediately get routed off to the Everglades National Park Flora & Fauna website, which was interesting but not exactly helpful. 

One thing that occurred to me though, upon reading about the size, weight and nautical speed of an alligator, is that the sound I was convinced existed (contrary to the raised eyebrows I got when describing it) sounded organic: it sounded like a living thing. And therefore, could be created through some form of friction, either air passing through, quickly, or a skin of some sort was being stretched and rubbed for the effect of an exaggerated squawk. This was the first clue. 

So, in combination with the fact that I knew this instrument wasn’t your average string, wood or brass instrument, I started to look up weird percussion instruments, and just for fun, weird percussion instruments that you’d find near tropical birds. This in turn brought me to the courting noises of the manakin bird and this illuminating video of animal noises in different languages, which reminded me of David Sedaris' Christmas essay 6 to 8 Black Men.

Now you see how this process easily could get off track. Eventually though, I stumbled onto Brazilian Samba percussion instruments, which finally brought me to the cuíca.

Meet Caluromys Philander, the Bare-tailed Woolly Opossum, aka La Cuíca

This little weird creature wrapped in what looks like green leathery felt (we're coming full circle now with animals and clothing) makes an odd, high-pitched sound. It's native to Brazil, and as such is called 'la cuíca' colloquially. I'd like to note that on the possum's wikipage it is classified as "Least Concern" on the scale of conservation status. Aside from the offensive nature to being a least concern to humans, I feel like taking the International Union for Conservation of Nature aside and pointing out the incredibly fertile ground for new, creative naming opportunities they're missing out on here. How about, "We didn't even know you existed so that's probably why you're still alive! Yay!" which pairs wonderfully with the updated extinct status, "We didn't even know you existed so that's probably why you're now all dead!" and the ever-hopeful, "You shit gold, therefore you shall become our idol. Praise thee, non-humanoid creature." By these new naming standards I've just come up with, I would like to knight the Bare-tailed Woolly Opossum with the conservation status of, "There are too many of you to kill and we don't eat your meat that much. Go, thrive."

Meet Puíta, the Brazilian friction drum, aka La Cuíca
Not the lady. The hand drums next to the lady. Focus, people.
Anyway, going back to the unique sound this animal makes, there is an Afro-Brazilian friction drum, a cuíca, which (you've guessed it) apparently sounds just like its namesake, the cuíca opossum.

The way the instrument works is there is a piece of wood stuck in between a regular cylindrical open-ended hand-drum, and the friction of rubbing the wood stick up and down with a cloth causes a vibration into the skin of the drum. These vibrations ripple outward, thus creating a series of tonal noises and screeches, depending on the strength and pressure of the strokes. If you Google it, you’ll hear my tropical bird and/or harbor seal giving birth, although sadly there aren’t many demonstration videos of its opossum namesake. Here's a professional cuíca player:

After all that, I was content I didn't end up using the noise. For one, the good quality ones are expensive and even the fake ones involve using two hands, which I was not able to spare while playing discordant piano noises, crashing a cymbal and kicking a bass drum. But, knowing what it was felt cathartic—I hadn’t been going insane, this was something that existed and continues to be a vibrant, if not quirkily unique, addition to musical world.

Sound is Stories
After going through this round robin research it ocurred to me that if I had had the name cuíca to begin with, I would have had my answer weeks in advance, whether or not the sound was appropriate. For three months all I wanted was to Shazam my description or my voice and call it a day. I know the technology is there--but my app, YouToot, as I like to think of it, doesn't exist. Yet. However, even the process of finding this sound has now in turn become a story to tell. Kind of meta when you think about it. When I told Dad about this he gave me this book for Christmas. Fiona gave us mudmasks. 
A Baker Christmas: Pores and Patents
The issue of not even having a language to describe all the noises we experience every day gets to the heart of why it is I love expressing stories with sound. It is a fluid processs of discovery. While I didn’t end up using the cuíca as part of my design, it is just one of a myriad of instruments I’ve come across while trying to find the most fitting audio to tell a story. For many people, stories are considered as existing solely within the domain of words. Yet, the first stories were all heard and memorized, passed audibly from group to group. Kind of like... the story of Jesus.... and how that was first told and retold. 

What? I'm trying to link this to Christmas as much as possible, guys. 

Sound is Community
But, seriously. Think about it. The birth of Christ was first experienced aurally. Well, not for Mary. I'm pretty sure she felt that one (although you could argue hearing is feeling--I'm sure pregnant women everywhere would argue there's a difference between music and your vagina passing a baby). For the rest of us though, the most important story for the majority of the Western world was aural in nature for the first 1200 years of its existence. Gutenberg's and Luther's Bibles weren't printed until the 1450s and 1534, respectively, even though requests to the Holy Roman Empire for colloquial translations started as early as the 8th century. Not to hammer the point home, but when you think about it further--and this is the part that warms me to the core--each Sunday this story is still being told. As opposed to an hour of quiet reading time at Church, we're hearing this story each week. 

Sound is communal in nature. And I find personal meaning in openly connecting and re-connecting myself over and over with the aural world. It's why I am a sound designer. It's definitely why I am a musician and a performer. In my ever-growing search for the right sounds I am comforted that there is probably a noise--or measured silence--to tell even the smallest stories. The question now is how to find them--and how to hear for them. 


p.s. the average speed of an alligator has been clocked around 10 mph. But, consensus is that they can go much faster in short bursts. And if you are more than welcome to test that theory.