Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Embodied Voices - Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, Auditory Illusions, and Virtual Vocaloid Idols

I've been interested in Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response for sometime but recently it has occurred to me that the term "ASMR" is not really common parlance; even at a recent sound symposium I realized that not many had heard of it, and even if the term rings a bell, perhaps for some it would be considered as verging on pseudo-science. But I feel there is something about it that is more than just a fluke.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response or ASMR has been a mainly youtube phenomena where people produce videos of "trigger" sounds which give some listeners a "tingly" feeling in the scalp or back of the neck. Some people may be more familiar with this sensation when at a hairdressers, when the sound of the approach of an electric razor on one side of your head gives you anticipatory "prickles" or "tingles" even before the razor has touched your head. Some other common trigger sounds are that of the crinkle of a paper bag, the sound of blowing in one's ears, ear cleaning, the sound of hair being cut.

SOUNDsculptures - 3D Head Massage (No Talking)

SOUNDsculptures - 3D Hair Clipping (No Talking)

Deep Ocean of Sounds - 3D virtual laryngologist (No talking)

The level of professionalism in ASMR videos has risen sharply over the last year or so, with countless ASMR youtubers investing in serious binaural microphones - specialised ones which are spaced apart to reflect the distance between a human being's two ears, so that what the microphones hear can be exactly that of what a human would hear. Some of the best ASMR video producers are practically 3d foley artists, and very good ones at that. There has been a great demand in developing virtual sound role plays, and a lot of them have become very sophisticated, and highly realistic. If you listen to them, you will swear that the distant hum of the plane was the distant hum of a plane in your own reality. This is much better than all those old and tired sounding "auditory illusions" that you can find on the internet.

DonnaASMR - Brushing the Microphone

I believe that there are sounds (being vibrations themselves) which transcend being just a sound experience but also produce physical sensations. For example, I enjoy standing next to a giant speaker in a club with a very low bass because it is more than just sound by that point, when the room around you is also affected by the vibrations. Similarly, I cannot tolerate spiciness in food, but I do enjoy it when food is so cold or hot or spicy to the point that it transcends a matter of taste and becomes an actual physical experience (of pain receptors responding in the tongue, of sweating from the heat, of numbness in the face and extremities from overstimulation).

I'd love to do more research into the phenomena of ASMR but it seems that one impediment to it being studied or taken seriously is its inherent association with pseudo-science or even the supernatural. In theory it bears some similarities to the idea of Electronic Voice Phenomenon and the notion of one being able to perceive voices or speech from electronic static and background noise. Not everyone perceives ASMR, so it is assumed by some that it is also because the individuals who do report it must be already predisposed to it or easily influenced into believing the sensation exists. Not too long ago I had a bizarre experience on Bus 9, where I was having a conversation with my classmate about virtual reality and I started to tell her about ASMR. Later she disembarked from the bus, and an african man came up to me from the back of the bus and told me sternly, "I HEARD WHAT YOU SAID JUST NOW. BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU SAY", before getting off, leaving me very puzzled. What I eventually made of it was that even my objective layman's description of ASMR could also sound a lot like a paranormal or odd spiritual/ghostly experience to someone who was inclined to read it in that way, so the man probably disapproved of my "meddling" with these unknown things.

I am obsessed about certain sounds used in electronic music, like white noise, crackling, static, pops, especially if accompanied by with very low moving drone basses. One of my favourite examples would be Fennesz's Rivers of Sand (to be listened to with headphones). Actually, many things on Fennesz's Venice and Endless Summer album have those sounds for me.

Fennesz - Rivers of Sand (From Venice, 2004)

Fennesz - Happy Audio (From Endless Summer, 2001)

I don't need to listen to Diana Deutsch's examples to understand how repetitive sounds produce certain auditory illusions after sometime (not when there is already music that illustrates it and is even more musical and evocative). But the point is that I wonder if there is scope for someone to make a music which makes uses of known auditory illusions, especially in the area of electronic music and experimental music today. AHHHHH IF ONLY I HAD MORE TIME TO MAKE MUSIC THESE DAYS!

鏡音リン - 炉心融解

Speaking of strange disembodied/embodied music, not long ago I also found a new video for Kagamine Rin's Meltdown - a lot of it is coming out from Project DIVA which is a series of rhythm games; so I guess that explains why there was never an official video - since the "performance" of the song is the basis of the video game Project DIVA.

Kagamine was the second vocaloid program to be released and it consists of two characters, Rin (female) and Len (male) – a slightly lower toned female/young male voice. Back in 2011 I managed to see Hatsune Miku and Kagamine Rin at Anifest back in Singapore. This is an annotated picture of the performance I went to back then:

"Kagamine Rin" at Anifest 2011, Singapore

To be honest I am the sort of sap who is wont to overread into things or overdo it with a prac crit of what's basically just a bit of fun, but I think the main reason that I'm still really attracted to tracks released by the virtual idol Kagamine Rin is because Kagamine Rin's name 鏡音リン is derived from Kagami (鏡, mirror) and Ne (音, sound) and Rin (リン Rin / sometimes mis-transliterated into 鈴 Lin, bell). I mean, what better example could you have of a virtual idol, whose name even defines her as a sound mirror of reality? Where else can you see a concert in which kids come to see an original projection along with live event projections that inadvertently consist of hordes of kids cheering and watching a projection of something entirely virtual? This would be a perfect example of third-order simulacra (as according to Baudrillard).

Similarly, Hatsune Miku's name, 初音ミク, is supposed to mean "first sound from the future" - Hatsu (初, first), Ne (音, sound), (Miku (ミク, like 未来 mirai). As a name it is much less interesting to me but also she is ridiculously high pitched and yes there is a limit to how much high-pitched singing I can appreciate in one sitting. (Kagamine Rin and Kagamine Len is typically less high-pitched)

It is a great example of how we expect sound to render or embody matter - because she sings, because she is in a program that you can use to make songs that "she" will "sing" for you, the character of Kagamine Rin has to exist. I really did not like Spike Jonze's "Her" for being too literal and terribly flat (as if written by some dunce who didn't even know how computers or natural language processing normally work), but I know it is very popular as a film simply because it plays on the idea of the disembodied, digitally generated human voice becoming virtually embodied into what we imagine to be a seemingly material being - just through the production of an artificial human voice. Even today, the ways in which actual living media personalities and celebrities exist and perpetuate themselves is in a manner that could very well be entirely virtualised. In contemporary culture, there is little difference perceived between the biological and digital body; after all, you only experience media. Kagamine Rin's face can even change to look like ACTUAL EMOTICONS which people use to express emotion - and yes I've seen her face like this before --> ≧∇≦ ) So really, who needs a real physical idol?

Kagamine Rin

From "炉心融解":

時計の秒針や [Tokei no byoushin ya]
テレビの司会者や [Terebi (Television or TV) no shikaisha ya]
そこにいるけど見えない誰かの [Soko ni iru kedo mienai dareka no]
笑い声飽和して反響する [Waraigoe houwa shite hankyou suru]

Second hand of a clock
The host of the TV
Someone who is there but invisible
The laughter becomes saturated and now echoes

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