The Baschet Conceptual System of Applied Acoustics
In order to allow the reader to follow our explanations and fully appreciate the examples presented, we present here a brief overview of the Baschet conceptual system for analyzing and creating sound devices.16
The Baschet system of applied acoustics is an intellectual tool, a method that allowed the Baschets to learn, create, and innovate, and which has allowed us to understand their ideas and come up with new ones. But, in order for it to actually be useful, one has to practice it. The Baschet system is a discipline that is developed and reinforced by practice; it is a perspective of listening to sounds and thinking about how they are created. In time it becomes intuitive, a sense that allows us to recognize the materials, shapes, and vibrational modes. All these dimensions of sound are connected to the actual reason that they appear as they do: their physicality. With this perspective, every sound object can teach us, inspire us, and confirm the intuitions that form with the observation and manipulation of everyday sound sources.17
This system offers us a clear perspective on the functional elements that are to be found not only in the Baschet creations but on any possible sound device:
Oscillator: a material able to vibrate periodically. Every object has its own natural vibrational modes that determine its sounding qualities, based on the material of which it is composed (liquid, gas, or solid) and dimensions (for liquids and gases it is usually the dimensions of the cavity that determine the sound qualities). The wavelengths in several possible directions are determined by the boundary conditions (the shape and its contact with other elements) and physical properties (such as density, elasticity, and tension) that determine the frequencies produced.
Activator: the method of transferring energy to the oscillator and stimulating vibrations.
Each method of activating an oscillator has an impact on the sound qualities and the possible ways of articulating sounds. Intermediary activating elements such as plectrums, mallets, bows, etc., are defining elements of the instrument’s particular sound and, therefore, an integral part of the compound system.18
Radiator: an element able to convey the oscillations to the transmission medium.
Some oscillators are able to function as radiators themselves. If the oscillator is not able to radiate the vibrations to the medium directly (or effectively enough), then a coupled radiator is necessary.19 The radiator’s material and dimensional properties become part of the compound system, filtering the vibrations coming from the oscillator and modifying the resultant sound qualities.
François also acknowledged there might be another relevant element to be found when these first three elements are working properly, meaning that when we already have a material shape that we can activate (bring into oscillation) and transmit those vibrations to the hearing medium, and the resulting sounds are interesting, we tend to want to expand the range by implementing multiple devices to create gamuts: sequences or collections of pitches or ranges of sound. These gamuts can articulate tuning or timbral systems.20 We can think about this fourth element as an approach to complement the three elements already defined: devices or implementations to modify the frequency or the vibrational modes of the oscillator by changing its tension, imposing new limits to the soundwaves, adding more oscillators to increase polyphony or the possibilities of articulating sound sequences, etc. The elements and devices to articulate gamuts can have an impact on the whole design of the shape and the activation means, depending on the distributions and displaying of the elements. Some systems feature very flexible gamut articulators (e.g. piston flutes or slide whistles), and some feature more stable ranges (gong sets, carillons, etc.).
The first three functional elements of an acoustic sound object – oscillator, activator, radiator – already determine some pitch and timbral features; this is the beginning of an implementation of a gamut that can be further developed if desired.
François also used to say that there can be a fifth functional element of the system: a resonating element or some implementation that modifies the resonance of the system. We find resonating pipes or gourds in many keyed percussion instruments (vibraphones, marimbas, gamelan instruments) that reinforce the fundamental frequency of each key and filter out some of the inharmonic partials. We find another resonating element in sympathetic strings, such as those in guitars, baroque lutes, sitars; even the piano sustain pedal enriches and prolongs the sound by allowing all the strings to vibrate in resonance with those that are being played. Mutes for brass instruments (plungers, harmon, wahs) could also be conceived of as added resonators, some fixed and some adjustable during performance.
François would say that we can find the first three elements in every existing sounding object, and we should be able to understand the morphology of every acoustic sound by looking at these three functions: oscillation, activation, and radiation. And, depending on the use and the design, we might find multiple elements that articulate gamuts and/or resonating elements. These two last elements are not vital for the production of sound but are necessary to the production of certain specific sounds and articulations.
After studying acoustics with Bernard and having observed many existing instruments, François Baschet spontaneously conceived this system and knew it was a useful tool for understanding the relationship of the elementary functions, or functional elements, for any possible sound device. He used to say that it was a bit like Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of chemical elements. If the Mendeleev chart allows us to relate the behaviours (the capacities) of a chemical element or compound to its specific components, the Baschet system allows us to relate (analyze or predict) the acoustical behaviour (or capacities) of the functional elements (ingredients) of a sound device.
In the Baschet system of applied acoustics we distinguish/differentiate between the act of oscillating and the act of radiating the oscillations. By differentiating between these unique functions we are able to apply permutational operations to the oscillators and radiators. This is a feature of the odontophone family which provides a valuable resource to the Baschetologist, allowing them to develop an intuitive sense of the results of various permutations of clamped elements and radiators of different materials and shapes.
By simple permutation of known elements, one can design structures that have never been built and have an informed idea of what sound would be created even before building it. Or in reverse, if one imagines a sound, it is possible to derive a combination of elements that could be used to achieve it. The Baschet system offers a conceptual framework upon which we can build an understanding of existing and possible (not yet created) sound devices.