Waal van Woorden – stuttering

Have been afflicted with a stuttering river – yes, I know this sounds problematic. Improbable, even – rivers flow, they don’t stutter. But mine is a virtual river, flowing over a screen. And in the virtual world, anything is possible.

I started on this work – een Waal van Woorden – a River of Words – before I knew it was to be a river. I was just creating a list of as many Dutch words for waterways as I could possibly find. Me being an industrious type, the list ended up having over a thousand words – it now has 1181, to be exact. I separated the words into ‘manmade’ and ‘natural’.- ‘manmade’ on the right, ‘natural’ on the left. Over time, ‘manmade’ kept winning by a consistent 10% margin.

Then I noticed that the space between the columns had become interesting by itself. So I left- and right-oriented my columns, re-ordered the columns to make them wave smoothly, then made the lists scroll top to bottom over a screen. When I made the columns move at at different speed the space between the words became a true river, as seen in the short video I screen-captured and posted below.

For screen-capture I used Debut – thank you NCH Software people for making it easy to use. I do hate video editing, and Debut makes it just a little less painful. I now have a 4 minute take out of the life of a virtual river – with no stutters! For I did solve the problem.

Problem solving went as follows. The virtual river has sound –  as you will have noticed. For starters, it had gurgling water in the background. This originated from a first experiment with the sound options in Ventuz, the software that I use to make the words flow and to make interaction with them possible.  I liked the sound & decided to keep it.

Then I  got a bit more ambitious, wanting to add sounds of small things happening along the river to the work. A train crossing a bridge, a boat passing by, a dog barking, the sound of church bells, of water birds. Most soundbites were taken on my walks along the Waal, the river that dominates the area where I live. Some were found on the ‘net.

I moved the soundbites from Iphone to PC – a nightmare – then put  links to them in an Excel file. Then used a counter to make the software swich from one Excel cell to the next at the right moment. Worked like a charm. Until I noticed that the smooth flow of the words was interupted just the tiniest bit the moment the software swiched from one sound file to the next. Almost unnoticable, but it dispelled the illusion of  ‘river’. Which, of course,  was not to be borne – I had to fix this issue.

The problem: On the screen a small ‘leaf’ floats by, a small bit of text encouraging the viewer to interact with the work. This is the only bit of stage direction I allow. The leaf floats on the river for 60 seconds, then disappears. It gives a repeat performance when there is no interaction happening. I wanted to grab attention for the situation of no interaction, and decided to use the soundbites for this. So I made the soundbites start  when the leaf appears and stop  when the leaf disappears. The software then swiches to the next soundbite. And it was this that made the river stutter. 

The solution: Doing away with the sounds altogether – not an option. Taking out the leaf – not an option. Doing away with separate sound bites – do-able.  I mixed my separate soundbites into one sound file – used Audacity for this. Cut and pasted the soundbites so that they have exactly 60 seconds each, fitting in with the appearance and disappearance of the ‘leaf’. The new sound file starts and stops, its volume increases and decreases, both can be done without causing stuttering:  problem solved. As a bonus for being pernickety,  two lucky accidents happened.

First lucky accident: when looking for an example of better seagull sounds –  the soundbite I had was very intrusive and dominant –  I found a great recording of Dutch wildfowl-water-life. And long, too – almost 15 minutes, which is a rare find. Thanks very much Michiel (michieldb.nl) for posting it on Freesound and allowing me to use it. Michiel says “Heerenveen, warm summer evening. Many different animals can be heard in this recording. Most prominent are geese and frogs. At 1:00 a bat flies by, with inaudible signals at 18kHz and up. .. Heerenveen is one of the few places in the Netherlands where traffic is rare. Little airplanes (none in this recording) and little traffic.”  

After a lot of experimenting I decided to not cut Michiel’s recording up in soundbites – I wanted his frogs, initially – but to play it continuously along with the simple background gurgle. This enriches the sound landscape, also makes the fade in- fade out of the soundbites more natural. Then Michiel’s recording  had to be made to fade out when the soundbites fade in and vice versa, because that is what our brain does: focus on one thing and filter out the rest.  

Second lucky accident: I found I had somehow mis-timed my soundbites. At the first series of go-rounds of the leaf the soundbites fit with the appearance and disappearance of the leaf. But – as the fit turns out to be unexact – a while later the soundbites have shifted relative to the movement of the leaf. For example: first time around I have 60 seconds of boat, then a little later I have 40 seconds of boat and 20 seconds of ducks, and these numbers move incrementally. Decided to keep this effect, for it means the soundscape becomes shifting and ever different. Which fits with the river itself being variable – one never sees the same river twice.   

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