Thursday, May 04, 2006

Now the audience composes the music

My story last year on Janet Cardiff's Forty Part Motet sound sculpture proved to be something of a scoop, as following the installation's residency at the 2005 Norfolk and Norwich Festival it moved to New York's Museum of Modern Art to some acclaim. The Norwich Festival is making something of a speciality of presenting sound sculptures in the city's many wonderful old buildings, and the 2006 Festival, which started yesterday, has two new installations to delight Festival goers.

Today I visited Artmusic's installation Thin Air which features music by British contemporary composer Helen Ottoway, and uses new technology to create an extraordinarily effective interactive sound sculpture. Thin Air is inspired by the fragments which float in the spaces of the 15th century church of St John the Baptist Maddermarket in Norwich (pictured with the article): names, carvings, memories and inscriptions, some long forgotten. Many people have left tangible traces - masons, wood carvers, painters, glass workers all creating the intricate sculptures and beautiful imagery which adorns the building. Also present are invisible traces, memories, fragments of a hymn tune, footsteps.

One of the aims in creating Thin Air is to encourage a personal and physical interface between people and the building. In this way the act of being and moving in a space becomes a dance; simple journeys become melodies; mass movement becomes a chorus - a public choreography. The working of the installation is based on principles of indeterminacy and coincidence. There is no set route, no prescribed behaviour is required of the participants - unlike a conventional concert. The listener's movements and gestures trigger sound events in random and unrepeatable patterns. The visitor is invited to take a walk around the installation: each walk or combination of walks creates a unique piece of music - a re-creational dance.

Soundbeam converts physical movement into sound using ultrasonic reflection, in a process similar to that used in radar. Sensors emit beams of ultrasound; interruptions of the beams by movement cause echoes of the ultrasonic pulses to be reflected back to the sensor. Information about the speed and direction of movement is translated into digital code (MIDI). For Thin Air this information is intepreted by a sampler which plays previously recorded fragments of music and 'found sound', shaping and modulating the sound according to the nuances of the detected movement. Soundbeam was developed by Bristol-based composer Edward Williams whose own projects explore ways of performing electronic music in real time as well as in conjunction with dance and live multi-media performance. Soundbeam has also been used extensively in therapeutic treatment of a wide range of physical and mental conditions.

Experience a brief, but high quality, sample of this inspired sound sculpture via this file - who is going to be first to bring this wonderful installation to the US? -

* Thin Air composer Helen Ottoway is a founder member of new music/performance groups Regular Music and 3 or 4 Composers. Commissions include String Quartet No.1 (1998) for Nottinghamshire County Council. She was associate composer for In Praise of Trees, a major arts project curated by Annette Ratusznuak, in association with Salisbury Festival and English Nature (2001-02). This included the commissioning of The Echoing Green (tenor, marimba, double chorus and string orchestra) which was premiered at the opening concert of the 2002 Salisbury Festival in Salisbury Cathedral. As well as developing a new opera project for Artmusic in collaboration with artist Deborah Thomas and sound designer Alastair Goolden she is currently working on a series of string quartets including one to accompany a silent film.

Images of St John's Maddermarket from Simon Knott's excellent Norfolkchurches.co.uk. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Hildegard comes to Norwich via IRCAM and Darmstadt

1 comment:

Scott Belyea said...

... the act of being and moving in a space becomes a dance; simple journeys become melodies; mass movement becomes a chorus - a public choreography.

An intriguing ... well, whatever it is, and I wish I could experience it. However, I find something a bit off-putting about it.

This thought occurred first when I saw the word "choreography." That word generally implies two things to me - some intent on the part of the choreographer, and the possibility of it being repeated (more or less) at a later time if it's been "notated" somehow. Neither concept applies here as far as I can tell.

Surely this could be done just as effectively with computer-generated random numbers to control sounds, could it not? If the number of people present is the only thing that's distiguishable, then just have a sensor at the door to generate another "channel" for each additional person.

It's an interesting notion - as I walk around, I may get the impression that I'm "controlling" the sound, but it doesn't sound like I have any effective control at all. A dog or a robot or a random number has every bit as much "control" as I do. In other words, I could think of it as "apparent audience participation."

What's the John cage piece - "32 Radios"? In such a case, it's at least clear what's happening.

This doesn't make it "bad," but I'm just not sure what to make of it.

But as I said, I'd still like to try it out!