Both in early childhood and again during and after college, I lived in Chicago. Despite residing now for well over a decade in San Francisco, the city still feels like home in many ways.

It was in Chicago, in a Wicker Park apartment, that my love of field recording ignited: I discovered by accident how much more evocative a four-track guitar recording I was making became, with the accidental addition of the El—the elevated train—running (literally) through our backyard.

How appropriate it seems now that my career as a sound artist should begin with the sound of the El. The train was the source of some of my earliest memories of all, and the subject of my earliest conscious awareness of environmental sound.

To live in Chicago is to absorb the sound of the El through the skin as much as the ears. Its ovewhelmning clatter, as it dives underground, recurrs in the rhythms of the cities' music; it haunts the city from above and from far away as a restless sonic ghost. It is the very definition of a soundmark.

I have always intended to tackle the El as a subject, so it was the obvious candidate when I was asked by the Third Coast International Audio Festival to compose a 'Sound Drop' evoking some aspect of Chicago through sonic portraiture.


the other rooms
gauntánamo express

desert sun
the other side
on top of the world
what the thunder said
san francisco sauvignon

would you, would you?
invisible cities
deep creatures
vincent fecteau
monkey pod


Elevated premiered on December 2, 2009, as part of the Third Coast Listening Room, at the Claudia Cassidy Theater in the Chicago Cultural Center, as part of a program featuring Chicago writer Stuart Dybek along with two dozen Sound Drops.

Unlike almost everything else you might hear on this site, Elevated was not constructed with conventional field recordings.

Instead, it is field recording through onamonapea. It evokes, rather than reproduces directly, the soundscape of the El, using the English language as its medium.

I consider the piece a work of documentary sound, just one using an unconventional medium. Though I obviously used contemporary recording technology to make the recording you can download, l consider the piece iteself an example of the oldest mechanisms we have for recording and reproducing sonic experience: the human ears, mind, memory, and voice.

The voices you hear in the work belong to five people; from left to right, Susan Staley, John Adair, Annabelle Port, Ethan Port, and Bronwyn Ximm.

Each person was recorded reading a list of around four hundred words in alphabetical order. I chose words that I thought had a reasonable claim to onamonapea; YMMV.

The piece was constructed entirely during editing; no part of it was precomposed. That it sounds like a performance of a multi-voice poem is the result of my attempt to leverage incidental cadences in each rearder's delivery of specific words.

Elevated was intended as, and functioned beautifully as, an étude, in the original sense of the word: a study—in this case, of the process I used to compose it. I say that because it did a rare thing: surprise and educate me.

The form I imagined the piece would have is not what you hear.

The human voice is perceived very differently from arbitrary environmental sound—and not just in the obvious ways. I had naively assumed that I could layer many copies of specific voices, to construct a dense work that closely tracked (and hopefully replicated) the timbral characteristics of the actual El.

But the brain is too good at picking out specific speakers, and any layering of a single voice produced disagreeable sonic mush. Indeed, every commonality between the different layers of my source materials was amplified by my layering: the room tone of my living room, the limitations of my interview microphone, and so on.

There is much I to handle carefully when I apply this technique for the grander project I have long plotted in this vein, a portrait of the surfscape to be called Lilt and Drawl.

elevated 6.5 MB

A love poem to the El, for five voices.