Johnny Cash in the Baths of Neptune

This last weekend I tried a new form of presentation for my acoustic analysis. It was a short 10 minute presentation at Multitudo: a multisensory, multilayered and multidirectional approach to classical studies. I was part of the organising committee for the workshop and we were drawn to non-academic ways of presenting our research. I decided to test out a ‘reverse’ of my usual presentation style.

My usual: intro acoustics, physics of sound, maths, sums…; followed by discussion of spaces with plans, graphs and tables; finish with social-spatial implications.

 

This time I started with a sound sample. I played a 20 second clip of Johnny Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down. The clip was EQ’d flat, with no reverb. I then played 3 more versions of the clip, each set to the reverberation time and EQ of a room from the Baths of Neptune. I then showed one of my standard plans of the Baths with the reverberation times for each room colour coded. I asked the audience to try and figure out the relationship of the sound sample with the rooms on the plan.

It was a challenging exercise. Most people haven’t spent hours listening to tracks, adjusting the EQ or reverb. Most of us don’t connect what we hear with the space we hear those sounds in. And most of us don’t think about the space that is created in the post-production of making a record. At the same time, it’s a great exercise in relating acoustic discussions to different spaces.

I was asked in the question time why I picked Johnny Cash and not some choral, symphonic or even ‘ancient’ style music. I thought I would layout my response here, as it gets at some of my driving questions behind my project.

  1. I picked the Johnny Cash song because it is a simple track with almost no reverb or processing to start with. I used the first 20 seconds of the track, which is just foot stomps, claps, guitar and Johnny’s voice. The flat response of the song means that when I altered it to each room it would be noticeable and wouldn’t get lost in an abundance of different sounds.
  2. I needed a clip with some low end frequencies, which I could draw out for one of the samples. Johnny’s voice has a deep resonance, which showed off the long reverb and muddy character of the low frequency noise.
  3. I used a contemporary song, one I expected a majority of people to know, because I wanted to make a connection with the audience. In my answer, I said, “Playing a foreign sound, in a foreign space and asking foreign questions, is too much for an audience.” I am not interested in simply recreating ‘ancient’ sounds. By using a contemporary song, the focus shifts to the changes created by the space, not the authenticity of the sound. This is probably the main theoretical reason for the choice. My project uses acoustics to better understand the architecture and architectural history of Rome.
  4. Finally, it is way more fun to put Johnny Cash in the Baths of Neptune, than it would be to play white noise or a frequency tone. The music is only a tool, which conveys architectural information. While I could use any sound, I used something that entertained me, as well. It takes time, and a lot of repeating, to get the clips right. I picked a song that I could repeat without going to crazy…

I was impressed with the response and have been thinking about adding sound samples to more of my presentations. It was far more engaging, and we all need to be able to laugh at our presentations, thinking about Johnny Cash playing in a Roman bath complex, as a way to share what I’m researching.

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