The Art You Didn’t Know Existed

Jo Burnham
Jun 12 · 5 min read

And why it might be what you need right now

Image: Clem Onojeghuo (Unsplash) / Jo Burnham

I’m listening to an arrangement titled On Days Like This, You Always Miss Him. It’s the sort of name that might fit a song by an indie rock band like The Antlers, or maybe a favorite poem from a well-thumbed anthology. Instead, it’s an audio composite — a new entity created by mixing together careful selections from an enormous library of field recordings.

And it’s beautiful.

To be specific, On Days Like This, You Always Miss Him is a myNoise Supergen: a collection of several sound generators loaded onto a single page, working together like the members of an orchestra to create a lush sonic spectrum. Each generator is usually made up of ten different sounds (ascending from low-bass to high-treble), with creators free to adjust or mute the channels as they see fit.

Using samples from only three generators, On Days Like This, You Always Miss Him is fairly conservative; larger ensembles (such as Erin Song: Cry Of My Family’s Bean-Si or Garden in the Monastery) use five, while composite generators (which are created slightly differently) might sample ten. Examples of these larger mixes include Resilience Of The Human Being and Fear, with the latter including this as accompanying text:

You sit alone. Surrounded by nothing but the spirits and the rain, you hope for company in which you know you will not receive. The ghosts surround you, singing their lonely, gasping songs, and you can’t help but love them and hate them at the same time. The wind blows in harder rain as you curl up tighter, willing sleep to come, willing this to end.

That sort of text isn’t unique to Fear; many composites use words (and occasionally images) to introduce the intended mood, atmosphere or provocations associated with the arrangement. Some even write short stories. Here’s another, this time from Cryogenic sleep among the stars:

In a pod that sails among the twinkling stars, you sleep deeply, suspended in a womb of life-giving fluid. Some part of you is aware you’re on this journey, almost watching yourself from outside, but you don’t really think. You just drift through observations and sink further into your subconscious.


Image: Nicole Y-C (Unsplash) / Jo Burnham

The arrangements I’ve just discussed are all built from a library of sounds hosted on MyNoise.net, a project created by Belgian electrical engineer Stéphane Pigeon in 2013. If you haven’t visited the website before, I do encourage you to do so; although the sounds available have the practical value of blocking out unwanted noise or disturbances, there’s a far richer and more evocative experience available to the aurally curious.

Sounds have a peculiar ability to resurface memories and stir feelings within us. And, unlike with songs, we don’t usually feel we’re pushed or manipulated into a predetermined emotional resonance. One person could listen to Huu Chant and just hear something that sounds quite interesting (but mostly a novelty) — while another could be brought to tears (as was an experience reported to me by a friend).

Through the use of noise and sound, we’re able to share something with others that perhaps we’ve only uncovered first within ourselves.

Personally, I’ve enjoyed countless evenings falling asleep to Cave Water, and I’ve often found a curious sense of solace from having Japanese Garden on peacefully in the background throughout my day. These soundscapes act like raw ingredients; on their own, we encounter them as somewhat objective constructs which we might respond to in some way, but when carefully mixed together, they can take on a higher quality of originality and subjectivity. Through the use of noise and sound, we’re able to share something with others that perhaps we’ve only uncovered first within ourselves.

It’s also a marvelous device for evoking creativity. If you’re writing fiction, it’s likely you’ll be able to find a Supergen which pairs superbly with a scene taking place in your head. For example, if you close your eyes while listening to Night Train in a Storm, a story might simply start to emerge from the shake of the railway carriage and the clutter of haphazard rain against the roof. For a certain type of brain, these arrangements could be a valuable (and even exhilarating) means to immerse oneself deeper into imagination.

As a tool for self-expression, Supergens are an interesting premise. Perhaps by recreating a sound from your memory, you’re able to share something quite personal in a unique and unexpected way. Or you could use it like an audio mood-board for setting the tone for a collaborative project. If you’d like to try making and sharing some, there’s an active community on Reddit for doing so.

“I’ve always been more tactile and visual; I’m surprised to find that I can be creative with noises, too.”

Happily, this is an activity you can experiment with even if you’re entirely new to working with sound. “I’ve never considered myself particularly attentive to auditory sensations,” said one of the Supergen creators I spoke to, who has created arrangements such as Cryogenic sleep among the stars and Half-dreaming in the Sahara. “I’ve always been more tactile and visual; I’m surprised to find that I can be creative with noises, too.”

The titles and the accompanying text of the arrangements play an important role. “As someone more visual and word-based,” said the contributor, “it helps me set a mental picture of what to expect of the ambiance. I can then settle these noises into position within this mental picture. I find Supergens without the descriptions or descriptive title much harder to make sense of.”

The idea of making sense of a composite is an interesting thought, but also one which we can intuitively appreciate. Would On Days Like This, You Always Miss Him still sound captivating to me if the title hadn’t provoked a particular emotional response in my brain before listening to it? Maybe, maybe not. It doesn’t matter; I’ve come to appreciate that with Supergens, the title (with all its suggestions and connotations) could be as much a part of the work and the experience as the sound itself.

You might think that composites shouldn’t be considered an art-form, but I’d disagree. When I close my eyes and actively encounter one, I’m aware that I’m listening to a creation that another person felt captured a particular sense of something — whether that was a meaning, a memory or moment in time. Maybe I’m especially receptive to sound, but most times, when I choose to really listen, these arrangements give me a sense of something new that I know I didn’t have within me before.

Thinking about it now, I’m not sure I can think of a better qualification for what constitutes art than that. In any case, I do encourage you to try a few Supergens for yourself: they’re an ideal way to let your mind be transported somewhere else — and perhaps you’ll discover something which made you glad you took the journey.

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Jo Burnham

Written by

Marketer and publications consultant in the UK. Will write commissions in exchange for pasta. Contact: Jo.M.Burnham@gmail.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +704K people. Follow to join our community.

Jo Burnham

Written by

Marketer and publications consultant in the UK. Will write commissions in exchange for pasta. Contact: Jo.M.Burnham@gmail.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +704K people. Follow to join our community.

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