Artist: Ernst Karel
Title: Heard Laboratories
Catalog Number: and/35
Release Year: 2010
Format: CD
Status:  Available
Track List:
01. Laboratory For Chemistry And Materials Science / Organometallic
Chemistry Laboratory, Room One: Chemistry / Organometallic Chemistry
Laboratory, Room Two: Atomic Layer Deposition / In Hallway Near Photonics
Research Laboratory

02. Laboratory For Chemistry And Physics Of Climate And Earth System
Change, Part One / Laboratory For Chemistry And Physics Of Climate And
Earth System Change, Part Two / Chemistry Laboratory: Refrigerated Room /
Refrigerated Room Exit

03. MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) Laboratory: Experiment With Human
Subject / Genetics Laboratory: Sterilizers And Centrifuges / Cognitive
Evolution Laboratory: Tamarin (Monkey) Homeroom Cages; Mics On A Stand
And Recorder Left Unattended / Center For Nanoscale Systems: Empty
Nitrogen Tanks Being Changed Out; Movement Between Hallway And
Storage Area / Cognitive Evolution Laboratory: Tamarin Cages Being
Cleaned / fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) Laboratory:
Experiment With Human Subject

04. Chemistry Laboratory / Center For Nanoscale Systems: Scanning
Electron Microscope, With Vacuum Pumps / Hallway Of The Laboratory For
Integrated Science And Engineering While Still Under Construction /
Chemistry Laboratory: Following A Chemist

05. Astrophysics Laboratory, Part One / Photonics Laboratory: Canister Being
Filled With Liquid Nitrogen To Cool A High Power Laser / Astrophysics
Laboratory, Part Two
Heard Laboratories is a sonic ethnography of scientific research
environments at Harvard University, made using Schoeps cardioid mics in
ORTF stereo configuration and a Sound Devices audio recorder. The sounds
of equipment, devices, and activities draw attention to the physical
processes underlying scientific research, the work underway which provides
a ground for our highly technologized society.  In the name of human
progress, enormous resources are devoted to and consumed by such
activities, which are both hidden and taken for granted. Heard Laboratories
brings this background to the fore.

Heard Laboratories is a largely abstract soundscape, consisting of edited
sequences of unprocessed location recordings. The liner notes list edit
points, along with descriptions of the research each laboratory is engaged
in, so that the listener may follow along and know what kind of laboratory they
are hearing at any given moment.

The work does not take a position with respect to what is documented, and
neither endorses nor criticizes the research programs of the laboratories
which granted access.


Ernst Karel works with analog electronics and with location recordings,
sometimes separately, sometimes in combination, to create audio pieces
that move between the abstract and the documentary. Karel’s audio work
also includes electroacoustic improvisation and composition; fieldwork-
based academic research in the anthropology of sound; recording, mixing,
and sound design for public radio and for nonfiction film and video; solo and
collaborative sound installations; etc.

Currently music-sound collaborative projects include the long-running
electroacoustic duo EKG, the New England Phonographers Union, and other
groups. Musicians with whom Karel has performed on trumpet and/or
analog electronics include Josh Abrams, Jason Ajemian, Thomas
Ankersmit, Jim Baker, Matt Bauder, Jeb Bishop, Olivia Block, Blowhole,
Alessandro Bosetti, Lucio Capece, Cheer-Accident, Audrey Chen, Bobby
Conn, Tim Daisy, Kevin Drumm, David Grubbs, Boris Hauf, Chris Heenan,
Steven Hess, Giuseppe Ielasi, Jeph Jerman, Annette Krebs, Fred Lonberg-
Holm, Helen Mirra, Toshimaru Nakamura, Jeff Parker, Polwechsel, Gert-Jan
Prins, Key Ransone, Vic Rawlings, Gino Robair, Aram Shelton, Aiko
Shimada, TV Pow, Ken Vandermark, Sabine Vogel, Weasel Walter, Otomo
Yoshihide, Michael Zerang, and others.

Karel has mastered CD releases by Born Heller, Dragons 1976, Josephine
Foster, the Fred Lonberg-Holm Trio, Matmos, Helen Mirra, Brendan Murray,
Skeletons Out, Howard Stelzer, and others, and remastered classic releases
for CD by Tod Dockstader, Gamelan Son of Lion, Ilhan Mimaroglu, David
Nzomo, Kenneth Patchen, Ramon Sender, and others.

Karel currently manages the Sensory Ethnography Lab and the Film Study
Center at Harvard University, where as Lecturer on Anthropology, he also co-
teaches courses in media archaeology and ethnographic audio and video


The Wire  (October 2010)
Static hangs in the background, then valves thwack open, air blasts through
the instrument and sounds trace thrilling tonal arcs. But no musicians are
present; indeed there's no human presence audible at all, except for an
occasional murmured voice describing experimental conditions. These are
the sounds of possibly the strangest instruments in the world - those at the
science laboratories at Harvard University, as heard through the hand-held
stereo recorder of musician and sound anthropologist Ernst Karel. The five
longform pieces of Heard Laboratories are an open-ended listen that's rare
among field recordings. You're sucked into the laboratory space as Karel
slowly works his way around the room, as if you're an integral witness to the
experiment, the sounds poking around in your brain, waking up your

The five pieces are accompanied by time-lined notes, so you can try and
decode what's going on in each case. In practice though, the science behind
it is so complex ("6:15: Organometallic chemistry laboratory, room two: Our
major focus is on atomic layer deposition, a process for depositing think
layers from two of more vapour precursors...")  that it remains all but opaque.
Similarly, what you're hearing much of the time is not one distinct process so
much as the ambient noise of a space packed with multiple instruments,
massed air-conditioning, bright lights and steadily humming auxiliary units.
The photo on the front cover sums it up nicely: an anonymous fluorescent-lit
room with an awesome vault of machinery, tanks, tubes, valves and
electronic gizmos, all hooked up seemingly at random by cobwebs of wires
and tubes. If there's any idealogical point to be made, it's that modern
advances in science require incredibly specific division of labour, to the point
where the cutting edge is miniaturised and virtually invisible to the
non-specialist (it should be noted in passing that getting virtually unrestricted
access to these usually hidden places at the very least makes this a
valuable piece of audio-journalism).

But in any case, it's thrilling on a level of pure sensation and simple physical
wonder. Precise blasts of pressured gas flex through plastic tubing: a
centrifuge whirrs quietly and efficiently in the bowels of a machine. The
recording itself is spacious and detailed, and it underlines the feeling that, in
these strange places, anything is possible."  (Derek Walmsley)

Just Outside  (July 2010)
Like the title says. I imagine we've all been in situations where the sound
environment is so overtly full and rich that we pause and linger, absorbing
the waves, wallowing in the mass of sound. I recall, long before I had any
notion of "field recordings", leaning against the engine housing of the Block
Island ferry, imbibing the deep, complex thrum, losing myself to the
vibrations felt through the metal. Generally, at least in discs that have
happened my way, musicians tend toward subtler territory, sounds that tinge
the aural space instead of saturating it. Not Karel.

The recordings here are unprocessed, taped in various scientific and
medical laboratories at Harvard, though I suspect they're often layered atop
one another (perhaps not!). I'm not sure what to say otherwise, except maybe
to describe them as possessing roughly the kind of hums and buzzes one
encounters in such environments, augmented with the bangs and clinks
occasioned by human activity and the odd voice. It's just there, much as it
would be if you were sitting in the room. I'll say, however, that I enjoy it
immensely, love sitting here, in my room, vicariously experiencing the sonic
nature of those spaces a couple hundred miles away. As in all fine projects
of this general nature, Karel coaxes the listener into perceptions and
awareness (s)he wold likely never have otherwise experienced, always a
very valuable thing.  (Brian Olewnick)

The Watchful Ear  (June 2010)
Tonight’s CD is an interesting one. Before we go anywhere let me say that its
a disc by Ernst Karel, who recently had a release on the Cathnor label so you
can all bear that in mind when you read my thoughts on it, as if that makes
any difference to anything, but there you go, the usual caveats in place. The
disc is a set of recordings made by Karel named Heard Laboratories
recently released on the and/OAR label. While much of the work Karel is best
known for is improvisation, most commonly with various forms of electronics
and the occasional trumpet, the five tracks here are I guess, a form of field
recording. He has in fact made some good quality recordings of various
laboratories found in Harvard University. Holding a pair of stereo mics in his
hand he has walked around from room to room capturing mostly non-human
sounds, and they are then presented here without any processing.

This CD raises all kinds of questions for me. First of all, it often sounds very
musical. Now, when we hear field recordings of a roaring sea, or a babbling
brook, or the wind in the trees full of twittering birds we naturally find the
sounds beautiful, often musical. Its interesting here then that I find the sound
of the laboratories, all groaning machines, humming, whistling, fizzing
sounds with the odd sign of human activity, a crash of instruments, a running
tap, a ringing telephone, the occasional voice, just as musically captivating. I
find myself placing these sounds into the context of instrumental parts. While
there has been some editing of the recordings take place, and we do get the
occasional abrupt cut from one room to the next what we hear is mostly just
what can be heard in the laboratory, rooms that the common man does not
often get to hear. What are all those strange noises? What do those
machines do? Why am I connecting one sound to the next and enjoying the
way they seem to bounce off of one another?

The detailed notes on the sleeve do give some context to each of the
recordings here, describing the particular laboratory and what is researched
within. Quite often even after reading the description I am still none the wiser
though, and that’s perhaps one of the things that make all of this interesting-
if all of this technology is lost on me, can I then find another use for it? Does
my translation of these sounds into music insult the work done in these
laboratories? Why do I find this stuff interesting on this level?

The questions I ask about the music are thrown into particular disarray with
the middle track of the five here, which is partly recorded in the Cognitive
Evolution Laboratory, a room that uses tamarin monkeys as a key part of the
research. So during the track we hear the squeaks and chatter of the caged
monkeys. There is no suggestion reading the notes that the animals are
actually placed under any distress in this room, but of course the sounds we
hear on this track take on an extra meaning. I find myself wondering if it is
right for me to be enjoying the recording as a piece of music given the
sounds on the recording. Do we have a moral obligation to not enjoy these
sounds as much as others? Is it right to consider these sounds in the same
way as we consider the hum of a fridge or the buzz of an MRI scanner?

So I find myself wondering why Ernst Karel chose this particular source of
sounds to make this album. Certainly there is a fine array of vaguely
electronic sounding noises on display, and the resulting recordings do
sound quite close to his improvisation. Is the choice of the laboratory a
decision made on purely sonic interest grounds though? A note at the
and/OAR website tells us that the work does not take any position with
respect to what is documented, and neither endorses or criticises the
research undertaken in the laboratories, so is the choice one made and
presented to us to make up our own minds about the worth and morality of
the laboratory? Or are we just meant to receive the recordings as examples
of interesting abstracted sonic environments? If we consider these
recordings purely as a collection of found sounds then this is a thoroughly
interesting CD. If though, as I am finding myself doing, we consider the
source of the sounds, and those chattering monkeys in cages in particular,
then a whole new set of considerations come into play regarding this disc. I
suspect Karel’s intentions may well have fallen somewhere in between the
two approaches, and I have certainly been made to think by this unusual,
unexpected album.  (Richard Pinnell)

Crow With No Mouth  (June 2010)
Serendipity and a little research yield the damndest things, on your way to
writing about this music.

It turns out I first heard Ernst Karel in 1991 when he was a 21 year old
trumpeter playing under the alias Ernst Long. I was entering a hiatus, at the
onset of that new decade, from listening to free jazz/improv, burnt out
following a decade and a half of unchecked avidity and unchecked vinyl
consumption. I was checking out a little rock music for the first time in a long
while, which led to the Seattle bands Green River, the Melvins, the fantastic
Screaming Trees and the Puccini of that scene, Soundgarden.
Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger was in frequent rotation that year. The
trumpet player on that date - Ernst Long, a.k.a Ernst Karel.

The trajectory from serving as a session musician on that date, to his current
gig as the manager for the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory and Film Study
Center at Harvard, is undoubtedly worth charting. The trumpet prevailed
throughout the ensuing 18 or so years, part of Karel's instrumentation in the
excellent improvising duo EKG, his long-standing collaboration with Kyle
Bruckmann. I first heard EKG about 5 years ago, and have very much enjoyed
the three releases under that name since then. They are a genuinely
electro-acoustic partnership, Bruckmann contributing oboe and English
horn, as well as analogue electronics, Karel moving between trumpet and
electronics. Erasure [the lines drawn between composition and
improvisation, between orchestral and electronic sound sources] is their
unfussy metier, and they have established a small, superlative body of
recorded work.

The trumpet cannot be found in Karel's 2010 releases, Heard Laboratories
[and/OAR], or Falter 1-5, Karel's duo with Annette Krebs [Cathnor]. Karel has
varied interests in sound exploration, and there is no place for his playing at
all in Heard Laboratories. So what is he up to, sans trumpet, prowling the
research labs of Harvard with cardioid mics and inarguably acute ears?

Heard Laboratories presents Karel the researcher, documentarian and
abstract musician, foregrounding the sounds of science-the sounds of the
labs, the frequently goofy looking, Grade B sci-fi apparatus that conducts the
research carried on at Harvard, and, as intermittently as the co-equal sounds
of tamarins getting their cages cleaned, or the jarring burst of a telephone
ringing, the transient sounds of the humans doing the research. With an
equanimity and dispassion that would please Cage, all of these sounds are
captured, unprocessed, then edited into five pieces.

When I say Karel was prowling, I mean it-only one track [an in situ recording
of the cognitive evolution lab] involved a stationary mic. The other pieces
were realized with Karel wielding hand-held mics, threading his way through
rooms rarely visited by anyone outside of their specialized resident
researchers, much less someone documenting the physical process that
undergirds everything from chemistry labs, an MRI room, and, most
distressingly for this listener, the squeals and cries of monkeys in the
cognitive evolution laboratory.

It is Karel the researcher, who once aimed his mics at the sounds of Kerala
in South India, doing doctoral research in the anthropology of sound, now
micing his colleagues at Harvard for our listening...pleasure? Is there an
intention beyond whatever pleasure is yielded by the raw sounds
themselves? I have not asked Karel this directly, wanting to hear Heard
Laboratories for myself before reading what he might have to say. It is one of
several questions that arose for me as I listened through these five pieces.

And assuredly one of the fundamental questions raised by this sort of work,
this blending of the abstract and the documentary. I am, however, almost
completely unversed in theory and discussions about field recordings, so I
get to tease all this out "unscarred", as a friend has it, "by formal training."

Does foregrounding sounds typically unheard or passed by without our
attending to them necessarily result in sounds that merit our attending to
them, much less music? Of course not. The highest concept cannot offset
sounds that do not engage us, whether by prepossessing us in the cognitive
realm, or in a more visceral and intuitive way. Karel's concept, as I take it
anyhow, is that there is something engaging and gripping in the most
quotidian and therefore ignored sounds in our environs. What Karel does is
present these environments-from an egocentric perspective, the frame
around our self-centered worlds- with a little editing, for our consideration.

Well, Karel comes across as both the Gregory Bateson of EAI [Bateson was
immensely popular with myself and the non-anthropology students I hung
out with, his meta-koans perfect for our stoned, close attentions], and,
perhaps more apposite, much like verite film documentarians who make you
intimate with previously unknown worlds. In this sometimes thrumming,
sometimes plangent sound world, sentience and science cross fade;
animal cries and yelling humans, the mechanized rhythm of an MRI [a
claustrophobia-inducing sound many of us are familiar with], the ambiences
of academia. The phototonics lab [track 5] evokes the industrial drones of

Then there are the animal labs. Interestingly, there is a statement found on
the and/OAR page for this release that reads: "The work does not take a
position with respect to what is documented, and neither endorses nor
criticizes the research programs of the laboratories which granted access."

Clearly this statement of artistic neutrality on what is documented by Karel
anticipates possible questions about the role of the artist and the label on
the ethical/political/social dimensions of what is documented. Again, I
refrained from querying either Karel or and/OAR label head Dale Lloyd prior
to this, wanting to hear Heard Laboratories for myself and reflect on some of
these dimensions of this sort of sound work. I know Lloyd has become even
more committed to And/Oar focusing on location recordings and field
studies, saying the imprint will ...contribute to breaking down the long held
beliefs of what can be considered as music...expanded to include all sounds
that can be enjoyed for various reasons.

Does Karel realize this intention here?

Splendidly, to my ears. There is immense serenity, dark and unsettling
goings on, and the simple hum of efficiency captured in these five pieces.
These are environments previously unmet, fully alive and frequently
mysterious. As for Karel's editing, the shaping of these unprocessed sounds
recalls Truman Capote's line, I believe more in the scissors than I do in the
pencil. Heard Laboratories is a strong statement, released by a strong label
committed to documenting artists who hear music in their own, immediate

But as Reading Rainbow host Levar Burton said, following every
endorsement of the children's books he presented to his young audience-
You don't have to take my word for it... read it for yourself. You might find a
whole other set of concerns arise, including how is this music? Should the
documentarian be neutral in those rooms? Or none of these.

And I didn't miss the trumpet once.
(Jesse Goin)