Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Music You Can Walk Inside


After several years working outside of academe and music, I returned at last to composing and then to study for a PhD in 2010.

I visited ISVR and encountered their 3-D speaker systems and realised a problem for studio-based composers could be solved by a little invention. 

I proposed a means for listeners to walk inside a piece of music and investigate its parts at will, hearing it differently on each audition. They’ve taken it on and the construction of our 3-D Binaural Audio Rendering Engine is under way!

Here are two reasons to do this: composing in the digital studio, your music can exist either as a data file or be heard using speakers. 

But why would anyone go to a concert to see no-one actually playing? 

Concerts are about far more than listening to sounds among other people - we witness live ‘interpretation’, a musician’s struggle to create beauty and meaning by moving horse hair across a string, blowing down a pipe or banging things together.

Music has always been in flux, perhaps now more than ever. 

But the two ways we listen, at least to what is still differentiated as ‘classical’ - or worse ‘contemporary’ - music have effectively been the same since the gramophone and wireless became widespread, around ninety years ago. 

We either listen to a recording or go to a concert hall and sit still in awed, reverential hush as though the composition were an inviolable object to be revered and recreated.

So, secondly, the idea that a composer’s score somehow is the work has been a part of this problem: of course it is only an approximate transcription of what the composer imagined, just as is the performance. 

They are both attempts at reaching something magical, beyond. 

So if music is produced in a studio, without possibility of being ‘performed’, does the output we hear suddenly become this strange, fixed object that we imagine a composition to be? 

How terrible, if there were only a single way to hear a piece of music, in all its deep-seated reference and memory, refraction of experience and heard sounds!

The 3-D BARE is some way from completion but promises to shed new light on both listening and the compositional process as we rethink how to present work in this way. 

Meanwhile, I have hooked up with a collective of composers and engineers called (“Listen” in Galician), who have built the amazing tool noTours (, for situating sounds in a place by way of an android phone connected to GPS, a map the phone can read of where the sounds have been placed, and the sounds themselves, all stored in the handset.

In the last year I have composed pieces where the audience enter a space and moves freely, investigating multiple threads and layers that emerge at different rates, in different forms, around the art gallery, foyer, hangar. . . 

Each listener encounters a different version of the music, a combination of interwoven lines, intersecting at changing points in time, according to their physical position.

Then, they step outside with noTours and, under the satellites that encircle the planet, are guided through the same music, transformed now into an invisible structure, stitched and piled, locked together or floating free, in the landscape itself.

Composing like this is about using a space, integrating with it, reflecting it and its sounds back into the musical world you are constructing. 

The real ambient noise of the place is blended with (and played with, repositioned by digital smoke and mirrors) and replaced in the space, transformed and transposed. 

Now, what is the composition and what is the space becomes hard to determine, and less relevant. 

The experience, I am told, is immersive - the sonic reality of a place is both distorted and augmented at once, heightening awareness both of the sounds constantly around us and of the music situated within it.

Next project, an Audio Portrait of Southampton, a snapshot of the city in 2012: 
   a geo-located composition based in song, music and oral accounts of life in the city. 

Contributors sought: please get in touch now!

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