Letter to Frank
London, 02.2009
Published in MA-tters, available from Gaffa Design.

MA-tters is 'a publication which aims to instigate and promote a discussion of issues surrounding design education at MA-level'. It features contributions from
Nick Bell, Paulus M. Dreibholz, James Goggin and Ken Hollings among others, alongside work by the 2009 graduates of the MA in Communication Design at Central Saint Martin's.

The following text is an extract from a letter to Francis Heery, a composer with whom the author has been in correspondence this past year concerning, among many things, the nature and purpose of his own studio work.

“...,these words bring me to some more words then, or questions I should say, for you old friend; questions regarding a subject that I know is quite close to your heart. It’s a subject that is probably close to my own heart also – but in a much more amateur capacity than it is yours – hence all the questions! I hope that you don’t mind me picking your very generously proportioned brain on these matters for a moment. Ok, well, yes, this was the thing see: so I had gotten mad into listening to La Monte Young there for a while. I seem to remember back in the days when we were living in North Strand that you were a big fan, but I have to say at the time, I was a little put off by his essays that you gave me to read… and by the music too. But you know, ‘never say never’ as the saying goes. (Since moving to London, I have even started to drink coffee occasionally, which I never thought would ever happen…) And sure enough, a little while back I came around to old La Monte’s way of looking at the world (or should I say listening?). Anyway, some of it (the music) is splendid stuff indeed. Although, some of it is pretty hard going too at times; I bet he’d even give Feldman — the great patience tester himself — a run for his money in the endurance difficulty stakes! But anyway, credit where it’s due, the one with the piano, ‘The Well Tuned Piano’, it’s a bit of a whopper at 5 discs long, but it’s pretty special. He could tune a piano, old La Monte, that’s for sure! It pays really well apparently, piano tuning I mean. I guess it’s handy to have a back up source of income if your main occupation is making music like that all time… Do you know, is the piece tuned in ‘just intonation’? I tried to find the tuning on the internet, but it seems to be a secret apparently. No one knows how it was done exactly. The parts where all the notes are meshing together, it’s totally amazing, sounds almost electronic in a way. But, it got me to thinking anyway. So yes, about the tones in it see – the way it all blurs together to make one sound – because all type has a tone too, that blurs together to make one overall grey ‘colour’ on the page. If you squint your eyes at this letter you’ll get a sense of what I mean. It’s a certain kind of varying colour that all texts have, which is influenced by some of the different proportional variables concerning the type used – relating to the physical make up of the actual type and some of the other factors relating to spacing etc… Anyway, so the idea was to try and find a way to turn the tone that you read into something that you can hear, a sound that is representative of these specific ‘tonal’ qualities that type has. You remember I did that project using music theory to make type? It’s like inverting that: if it worked one way, then this would be turning it the other way around – using type theory to make music... or some kind of noise at least. I had this idea that by calculating the black : white ratio that each character of a typeface has with its own bounding box, (an invisible box that all letters sit inside) you could then convert these ratios into sound, using sine tones whose frequencies express the same ratio. The idea being that once you have all the letters measured, you can begin to ‘spell’ words and texts in sound. And each typeface will have its own unique sound. I think it could be quite interesting. It’s a weird one really, in that it’s very literal in one way - substituting tone for tone - and completely abstract in another – as in when you hear it! When I was playing the sounds from the first experiments up in my room, Paul was really worried because he thought that the pipes in the house were blocked. I don’t know if he was more worried before or after he found out what was actually making the sound. Anyway, at the moment I’m using a typeface called Univers for the experiment, which is this old modernist ‘super-font’ that was designed in the 50’s so that nobody would ever need another typeface again or something. You’d like it I think, (although its not as distinctive as your old fave, Futura.) In visual terms, its like… how would you describe it? It’s a bit like Helvetica really, or at least, it was designed around the same time and was inspired by the same kind of thinking. I prefer it though, it’s a much stronger design I think. It came in 21 weights originally. And now it comes in 59 (?) – which is a touch excessive, but the main point is that the design is really systematic – so it suits the project, because the increases in weights are always so proportionally even, that every weight when measured gives a correspondingly even change in the proportions of the sound wave frequencies. My tutor called it the ‘guinea pig’ – which I like as a term. Plus it goes with the whole sort of ‘wacky science’ nature of proceedings so far. So things are good, or interesting to me at least for the time being. Although it might be noted, the further that the project goes on, the more permanently I am likely to be entrenched in queues at the dole office upon graduation. So much for my big plan to make my MA project the most ‘real-world’ applicable thing I’ve ever done, it’s actually the complete opposite. I mean, it's kind of… useless really in many ways, you know, from a practical point of view. Oh well, you can’t win them all eh Frank? Besides, McDonalds always seem to be looking for staff; I’ll go hungry yet! Anyway, so here’s where you come in. For starters, I think I am going to require some assistance working out what exactly is going on with the volume levels when you play the sine tones together. At the moment they all need to be really low in the mix or the sound gets quite distorted. Which sounds quite nice sometimes, except that it might be a little abrasive for the purpose intended. Also, as for the tones themselves, is there a general rule of thumb about how many can be perceived at once. Basically, do you know at what point do they all blend together and become indistinguishable sonic soup?…”

JPH, London, February 2009