What does it Mean to ‘Exhibit’ pre-recorded Electroacoustic Music, and How Should I do It?

College, research

Firstly, who listens to electroacoustic music? Electroacoustic musicians, ravers, unwitting film goers? Not a great many people would actually say they listened to ‘electroacoustic music’; there are plenty of EDM-heads around, and progressive rock generally shares a lot of characteristics with electroacoustic music – say for a distinct lack of spatiality – and film soundtracks often use heavily electronically processed sound recordings to create music (often to blur the line between the soundtrack of the film and its diegetic sounds, a great example being Tarkovsky’s Stalker). The art world is saturated with great electroacoustic music, though a purist wouldn’t like to hear it – at least, not from an amateur like me. So, we do listen to electroacoustic music, but unintentionally?

I want to know how to make electroacoustic music interesting and accessible, without it being made a side-attraction; I believe electroacoustic music has the capacity to transport a person who’s totally ‘uneducated’ (in terms of music) into a fascinating sonic environment, and I want to share that.

My question is: how does one exhibit an unchanging piece of electroacoustic music (in my case a soundscape composition) and what makes live exhibition important for pre-recorded music – if it is? An equivalent question is often posed when working with film, but unlike the relationship between film and theatre, pre-recorded music and live music are often grouped incredibly closely together, though they are equally dissimilar. I believe this is partly due to a lack of adequate notation for pre-recorded electronic music – due to the prevalence of time/pitch notation – though I won’t get into that now.

In his 2014 article ‘Shamanic diffusions: a technoshamanic philosophy of electroacoustic music’, Jon Weinel

We could also look at building the environment for the listening experience, and creating a space in which the listener can be fully immersed in the composition; we could add visual stimuli and/or create a multi-sensory experience. But, personally, I don’t like supplementary visual (or other) information, as almost always this information is either unnecessary or ends up being a feature of the piece and therefore equal and necessary for the composition – thus creating something new entirely, or being a distraction. But, isolation, or a controlled listening environment, is something that could benefit my work, which makes this argument quite compelling. Then again, where does one draw the line? What is the difference between a multi-sensory exhibit, and simply creating an adequate listening environment? And should one create their piece for a particular listening environment? Kevin Austin sheds a lot of light on this question in a masterclass video on electroacoustic composition and working in an electroacoustic studio – he talks about the effect your working environment will have on your final composition.

So, how do I apply this to my work; how am I going to exhibit my work? The most important thing I’ve been considering is isolation, how does one isolate a listener from their immediate environment – considering especially how to avoid making the novelty of it a distraction? I’ve been considering two options, either the use of a separate room from the rest of the exhibition, or a semi-soundproof booth within the main exhibition. Next I want to provide the technology to experience the full scope of the music, I’ll do this by simply offering the headphones I used for mixing the piece for the listener to use, or by installing high-fidelity stereo speakers into the booth or room of the exhibition. As for visual supplements: I think I’ll keep those to a minimum.

And, finally, the reason I think this is necessary for my piece is just because people don’t like electroacoustic music – normal people don’t, and this is the only time I’ll get the chance to show normal people this work. I don’t want to make soundscapes for people who understand how I made them, and will see it as an intellectual exercise; I don’t want Trevor Wishart to enjoy my piece, nor would I want Jonty Harrison to wind down to it. I don’t see electroacoustic music that way, the mystery is one of the most beautiful parts of the experience – and I guess I just want people to experience that. Exhibition of electroacoustic music is about catching a group of people and letting them experience something they haven’t before. I remember the first time I learned how to pan a track in ‘MixCraft’ when I was about ten years old: I turned off all the lights, I got my friends to dizzy themselves, then I gave them headphones and spun the entire acoustic environment around their heads until they fell over – and they thought it was magic.

Thanks for reading my ramblings!

‘Come and See’: Review

College, Film Reviews, research

I looked blindly at her eyes, unable to recognise her; the blood from her mouth and her thighs seemed to originate in the same wound deep inside her; I was sure I’d been in love with her, but I couldn’t feel the mud on my face or the gun in my arms or the tearing of my lips. I’m still unsure it was her, and I know Florya was equally unsure, and the moment is soul destroying for this very reason. After two hours of intense subjectification, I was finally there with him; Florya is seeing a woman’s broken and raped body walking through the carnage and he feels it like it’s the girl he loves, and we – the audience – see it as though it’s the girl we love – our sister, our lover, our daughter. Perhaps this moment would take on another meaning if I could entirely avoid ‘the male gaze’, perhaps a far more atrocious one, but the relationship built between the protagonist (Florya) and ‘the girl he loves’ (Glasha), and the fact that we are forced into Florya’s viewpoint throughout the film, seems to invite us to experience this horrific event in parallel to Florya – as I did, much to my own anguish.

Come and See grabs your arm and tugs you innocently into the life of Florya. The film starts with a scene embodying the excitement of a danger you’re yet to fully understand. Then we are made to understand. This only accentuates the feeling of dread when we see Florya’s harrowingly naïve smile thrown at the camera over and over – the smile rising from his belief that he’ll be tugged gently towards heroism by joining the resistance movement.

The use of subjectification is perhaps the most powerful element of this film. Using subjective sound – both realistic and impressionistic – creates an immersive world, but leaves you stranded with only the experience of the characters. It creates the illusion of an expansive world by limiting your view of that world: the sonic experience of Come and See is intense and almost cluttered, but frequently seems incomplete, therefore you’re forced to auralise the space beyond the explicit sonic environment. The subjectivity of the soundscape gives you the explanations for everything you cannot hear, removing the need to hear everything.

on sonic art - mental reconstruction of an image from masked data with text

This, when coupled with the meandering camera movement, creates a sense of freedom and space while attaching you to the perspective of characters. This experience is at its most intense directly after Florya and Glasha narrowly escape the German dive bombers; Florya loses his hearing, resulting in the near loss of the diegetic sound for the next twenty minutes of the film. This sequence is particularly poignant due to it being simultaneously the closest we get to Florya’s perspective, and it being the most relatable section of the film – we understand the charming moments the pair of teenagers share while they’re alone, together. Looking back on this sequence, I immediately saw it as respite from the harsh world of the film, but I later realised it was pivotal in creating the heart wrenching finale I opened with.

I can only see one serious flaw with this film, and that’s the transition between the moments before the Soviet soldiers overpower the SS death squad, and the scene in which we witness their execution. Watching this sequence, I was unable to pinpoint the moment at which the balance of power was reversed. Perhaps this was simply a stylistic decision in order to heighten the feeling of uncertainty over the righteousness of the Soviet executioners, but on first viewing – and currently only viewing, as I dread experiencing it again – it gives the whole sequence a momentum that doesn’t give certain events the time they need to settle.

Overall, this film is harrowingly honest. Come and See is possibly the most powerful war film I’ve ever seen, and is certainly the most thoroughly anti-war film I’ve ever seen. There is no hero. There is no winner.

Recording and Processing Vocals

College, experiments, planning, research

Due to my love of writing poetry – I would say ‘songs’, but I’m no singer – I decided to experiment with writing and recording some words inspired by The Willows. This (below) is what I came up with after about a day and a half.

Disregarding the rowing sounds at the end, and the flute – though it’s barely recognisable – this track is made up of six voice recordings. The recordings are each in a different location within my bedroom; they were recorded with a pair of Rode M5s, in a cross pattern (see sketch below), into a Zoom H4N.

Vocals setup one (full page)

I decided to record the vocals using several positions – there were eight recorded – for three reasons: one, I wanted to take advantage of the change in vocal quality from whispering near to the microphone and talking from a distance; two, I wanted to use the different acoustic qualities of the microphone positions to create a sense of space; three, I wanted to be able to analyse and compare these recordings in order to better understand the way in which source position effects a recording, so I may imitate 3D space more accurately in my finished piece.

Once I had my recordings I brought them into Adobe Audition, captured a noise print, then applied a batch noise reduction to all the files – just a very light reduction of the self produced noise from the Zoom.

Once denoised I brought them all into Ableton Live (below). Each voice was given a track, then I used an EQ to accentuate the acoustic qualities of each recording positionbringing up the low vocal frequencies in the close recording to accentuate the proximity effect, etc. Then each voice was given a position, the left and right recordings were pretty straightforward. Once this was done I warped each sound slightly, and cut pieces of silence between lines, until I found a synchronisation I liked – having the whisper first and the further recordings happen a little later, all in the hope of accentuating space.

ableton vocals one

Once a simple mix was established I then worked on each sound individually, I’ll take you through the process on the closest voice – the whisper – as that’s the sound with the most work done to it.

Firstly, this voice was positioned in the left of the stereo mix, I felt it needed to be predominately coming from one side to sound like an external voice, as opposed to a voice in your head. I also wanted to keep the voice sounding as though it was moving slightly closer; to do this I had the sound move from the left to the right, very subtly, and then resetting between lines. Secondly, I needed to EQ the voice with the movement I wanted it to make. As you can hear at the end of this test, the voice moves slightly overhead and from the left to the right. To achieve the attitudinal movement I used an EQ to bring out some of the higher tones as it moved from left to right, I also used a volume control to drop the level of the sound to give a sense of distance between the listener and the sound as it moved overhead.

As you can see, not a lot was done to each voice – no reverb or chorusing effects – but the method of recording in several positions allowed me to create an interesting effect, that could be easily manipulated just using the volume and panning of each track.

‘The Willows’: Key Event Breakdown

College, experiments, planning, research

As mentioned in my blog post (‘eight’), this is a breakdown of the key events in ‘The Willows’, with specific attention paid to the descriptions of sounds within the narrative. This breakdown is based on emotional changes, physical occurrences, and descriptive changes in the narration.

Also available as a Google document here.

Part I

  • The Danube Builds in intensity; from a mild trickling stream to a boisterous and humorous river, then a dark, deep flowing mass.
  • The flood waters rise and the men begin fighting the current.
  • They are faced with a choice of three channels, though some may only be sailable during the floods and may leave them high and dry to starve once the floods subside.
  • The men attempt to land their boat, fighting the current they begin to fear the power of the river. When they land, they recover and laugh off the affair.
  • The narrator explores the island; he finds it to be less than an acre. He goes from end to end of the island, finding downstream is a ‘crimson flood’ and upstream is a ‘sliding hill with white foam’. He gets close to the willows for the first time.
  • The disquietude sets in, they feel as though they are not welcome.
  • Pitching the tent in violent wind.
  • Collecting firewood by the shoreline the men spot what they believe is a body floating down the river. After a moment, their sensible selves realise it must be an otter, and their horror subsides and is replaced by laughter.
  • They are recalled to the river again and see a man standing in a boat crossing himself, he is shouting some warning furiously at the man, but his voice is carried away in the wind.
  • Mist is beginning to fill the air.
  • The Swede tries to reassure the narrator that the man was just frightened by them and didn’t mean anything, but the Swede is unconvincing.
  • They lay by the fire, talking of their adventure together and listening to the sounds of the night. ‘Curious sounds accompanied [the wind] … like the explosion of heavy guns … [that] fell upon the water and the island in great flat blows of immense power.’ However, they are comfortable and safe; their focus is on the past events and they avoid the present.
  • The narrator goes to collect firewood alone and find himself struck first by the silence and then by the voices of the willows ‘chattering’ amongst themselves. They crowd around the men holding their ‘silver spears’ ready to attack.
  • The willows seem to be creeping nearer, though they are almost certainly not.
  • ‘The melancholy shrill cry of a night bird sound[s] overhead’ and the narrator nearly loses his balance as the piece of bank he is standing upon topples into the river with a splash – he steps back just in time.

Part II

  • The Swede arrives, but his approach was covered by the elements and he is a sudden appearance to the narrator.
  • ‘Lucky if we get away without disaster!’ says the Swede.
  • They return to the camp, make sure all is in order, extinguish the fire then turn in. The tent is safe. Sleep takes over the narrator.
  • The narrator awakes and looks out of the tent, the Swede still sleeps. The narrator sees shapes he believes are somewhat monstrous, but is unsure.
  • The narrator leaves the tent to look closer and the sounds of the river and the wind burst upon him suddenly.
  • The figure disappears suddenly, after the narrator spend some time consider their reality – grounded by the fact he knows his senses must be working, as he can hear the wind and the river so clearly. Once the images are gone, and the narrator’s awe subsides, he is filled with cold fear.
  • The narrator calculates escape and is filled with terror.
  • The narrator returns to the tent, closes it to block out the willows, then buries his head in the blankets to block out the ‘terrifying’ wind.
  • The narrator drifts to sleep but is woken by a multitude of patterings outside the tent, and a pressure on the walls of the tent – he feels cold, though the air is warm, and shivers.
  • A shadow of a figure rushes past the narrator in this twilight morning and he almost loses his balance (the figure comes from in front and passes by his side, but almost through him). The narrator returns to the tent to sleep.
  • The Swede mentions ‘the gods are here’ and his manner is somewhat frightened though this is not mentioned by the pair.
  • They find that the paddle is missing, and the Swede mentions the tear in the bottom of the canoe; then they find the other paddle is damaged.
  • The narrator makes countless explanations for the damage to the boat and the paddle, but the Swede and his deeper self are both unconvinced.
  • The narrator has a moment of suspicious concerning the events and the Swede, but he quickly realises his fears are preposterous.
  • They begin melting the pitch to repair the canoe.

Part III

  • The Swede brings up the otter, doubting its innocence, but if rebuffed by the narrator. Tension is building between them, and the Swede is almost angry when a mention of the man in the boat is similarly rebuffed.
  • The wind, ‘for the first time in three days’ begins to drop, and with it the roaring lowers.
  • The sun sets and the ‘cheerfulness’ of the place is lost, and all becomes more sinister once more.
  • The narrator prepares a hearty stew for the evening. The pot bubbles. Then the Swede calls the narrator from the bank of the river, to ‘come and listen’.
  • They hear a deep note, like a distant gong. It happens at regular intervals, but it’s not a distant steamer, nor a bell, they know that much.
  • The narrator dashing back to the bubbling stew, mid-conversation with the Swede – half for fear of the stew, half to avoid further talk of the frightful sounds of the island.
  • The narrator asks the Swede too to get the bread for the stew. From the tree where there bag of supplies was hanging, the Swede laughs an unnatural but not forced laugh, after he empties the contents of the bag on the ground sheet but finds no loaf of bread.
  • The odd note, the gong, slowly becomes a ringing as the men wash up and prepare for the night; they smoke in ‘comparative silence’.
  • The fire begins to die, and the stock of wood runs low, but neither of the men replenish it and darkness closes in. The hum is in the air and the willows are shivering, but there is a deep silence nonetheless.
  • The narrator finally breaks, it’s all too much, he tells the Swede of all his worries and exclaims ‘If the other shore was different, I swear I’d be inclined to swim for it!’ The Swede offers little hope, but says ‘Our only chance is to keep perfectly still. Our insignificance perhaps may save us.’
  • The Swede goes on to say, ‘we must keep our minds quiet – it’s our minds they can feel’; the men now know they are being searched for and are beginning to consider ways in which they can hide themselves.
  • They know they have camping in the region where the veil has grown thin and ‘their world’ touches ours.

Part IV

  • The humming comes extremely low and stops the narrator mid-sentence.
  • The swede reveals he also heard the ‘countless footsteps’ – the patterings from the night before.
  • The narrator chances to look as his shoe and is – luckily – recalled, in memory, to the London shop at which he purchased them. This momentarily lifts the fear of this supernatural world, by the practically and mundanity of this past experience. He burst upon the Swede with accusations of superstition but is stopped by the humming overhead and leaves this comfortable mindset and returns to their predicament.
  • The Swede, now in pure terror, suggests leaving now, in the pitch dark, but the narrator sees sense.
  • They go to collect wood.
  • The Swede clutches the narrator upon noticing figures crowding around the dim glow of their fire, then he exclaims his fear as he sees them coming towards the men.
  • They men fall together and the Swede clutches the narrator in such a way to cause him acute agony.
  • After an uncertain amount of time the men regain composure and consciousness. The humming has stopped. The Swede explains the acute pain saved the narrator, and the Swede himself says he fell unconscious – removing his mind from their grasp.
  • ‘A wave of hysterical laughter seized [the narrator] once again, and this time spread to [the Swede] too’.
  • They return to the camp, stoke the fire, and see the tent has fallen down. They pitch the tent, but find themselves tripping in deep sand funnels.
  • They collect all their belongings as close as possible and go to bed fully clothed. The Swede is restless at first, but he sleeps, which encourages the narrator to follow suit.
  • The narrator is woken by a difficulty breathing, then he hears the pattering and notices the Swede is gone; the humming is audible once more – only far more intense, like ‘a swarm of … bees’ – and he leaves the tent ‘mad[ly]’ to find the Swede.
  • The narrator shouts for the Swede, running around the island frantically. But the willows and the humming smother and muffle the narrator’s voice.
  • The narrator finds the Swede with one foot in the river, about to take the plunge. The narrator drags the Swede back to the tent and hold him down until his trace is over and the pattering and humming subsides.
  • Everything has stopped, and the Swede remarks upon this and his feeling of safety. He didn’t remember his suicide attempt upon waking, but does when he bathes in the cold water.
  • They find a body washed up on the shore, tangle amongst the willows, it is evidently the ‘sacrifice’ that save the men; the Swede insists they give this man – a peasant – a ‘decent burial’.
  • Before the Swede can get to the body the ghastly humming begins again and the body is stolen from him by a torrent of water. They see the man’s chest is mark with the same funnel they saw in the sand, and the humming diminishes and leaves with the body.
  • The body turns ‘over and over on the waves like an otter’ before disappearing for good.