Couple's art business Born of Sound
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
Big ideas, like babies, wake you up in the middle of the night and don't always arrive on schedule.
Sometimes, as they did for Alamo residents Ashik and Jenelle Mohan, they spring to life nearly simultaneously. Baby Anika Mohan came into the world Aug. 1, 2012, and the Mohan's sound-to-art company, Born of Sound, launched this March, although it had been incubating for a few years.
The Born of Sound business sprung from the curious minds of Ashik Mohan, a biomedical engineer, and Jenelle Mohan, a lawyer. Their technological process renders sound into lofty, exquisitely elegant visual imagery reminiscent of liquid smoke or even flags undulating in a wind current.
Ashik describes their "see what you hear" art with softly scientific language, saying, "We put known physical descriptions of sound like turbulence, velocity, density and speed into an environment and record how it energizes the particles around it."
Because the particles react to each other and the sound keeps moving, the software they've developed freezes the action in a stop-motion pattern similar to film. Without slowed-down sound, fast-traveling sound waves would cause the "o" on the right side of "hello" to occur before the "h" had been fully visually rendered, for example. What could be an unremarkable blob in less facile circumstances becomes a beautiful, organic, suspended spiral.
Baby Anika is a frequent subject for the Mohans' own collection. Their clients pick their own images and play a major role in customizing their own sound-forms on the company's interactive website. First, a "shape" -- actually a texture choice between the atmospheric, powdery "Holi Smokes" and the more clean-sweeping "Fluidicity" -- is selected. Color choice follows, with options for ordering from a basic palette, partial sound-form color samples or custom-matched colors.
"The (varying) density of the color is related to how much sound is going through the form," Ashik said. Jenelle recalls custom-matching the eye color of a client's beloved cat and the lighting at a wedding, just two examples of the personal approach they bring to each project.
With shape and color determined, the size and display (a choice of archival quality canvas or paper, mounted or unmounted, ranging in price from $249 to $749) influence proportional aspects of the sound-form.
"A longer space will be thinner," Jenelle said. "My favorite size is 18-by-48 inches because there's enough room for detail to show."
"In a small frame, with a long sound, it will be wider but squished," Ashik added.
Final steps involving optional text inscription and how to submit sound (you can record right on their website or upload a file in multiple formats) are completed by following simple, step-by-step instructions.
Client's sound-form account orders are stored and played back for review. Three business days later, an online proof arrives. Ten to 15 days after approval, the custom-designed, original "sound made visual" art arrives.
The twisting, ethereal results the Mohans show off like proud parents arise from wide-ranging sources. There's a baby's blue, pulsing in-vitro heartbeat; a burgundy-toned cork popping from a wine bottle; a fiery, flame-like child's giggle; a butterscotch Hungarian fiddle solo that's wispy and robust; smokey-brown pistons firing from the engine of a Mustang GT 350; or an elephant's subharmonic contact call, elegantly displayed on a white field of canvas.
"Echo is maybe one of the most studied elephants in the world," Jenelle said. "A man in the states is taking the sound-form to Kenya as a gift to the researcher who worked with Echo for over 30 years."
Nature, music and science are inseparable in their process. Saxophone-playing Ashik says he has gleaned medical insights from nature's superior engineering. An implantable cardiac device he designed mimics organic "clipping" features in the very heart it repairs; a catheter he introduced is modeled after a shrimp's tail.
Jenelle said the scientific puzzle -- turning their daughter's heartbeat into art -- has now become their passion. They expected mothers with children would be their primary demographic. Instead, orders come from a 50-50 gender split from ages 25 to 70.
"There isn't one target," she said. The common denominator is emotional attachment.
"I've been pleasantly surprised by what is meaningful to people," Ashik said, describing heartfelt emails responding to seeing favorite songs, a relative's last words left on an answering machine, a marriage proposal, a child's first cry at birth. "You get to see your soul. No one else will ever make that sound, that image."
For now, Ashik appears content. "Some artists wait a lifetime to get that kind of response," he said.
But Jenelle, asked if supersized murals, sculptures fabricated by 3D printers or real-time animations performed with live sound are on the horizon, says she'd like to do all those things, plus have an art show.
"We'd partner with an organization like Hear the World and fundraise for hearing aids or cochlear implants," she said.
Then, mindful of the 150 gigs of memory and roughly three hours required to render each 10- to 15-second computation, she returns to Earth. "We're holding off on all of that," Jenelle said, "but we're thinking about it."