Brookfield Soundscape


As composer in residence this year at Brookfield Community School, I worked with a fantastic group of Year 9 music pupils. My job was to give them their first glimpse of how to create a musical composition that changes every time a listener interacts with it – which is yet a fantastic, well-designed experience for all who enter it.           

One of the great challenges was that the music would be jointly composed by several dozen pupils.             
Our job was to open new possibilities in music composition – taking the pupils into areas of experimentation they hadn’t previously considered – then helping turn these ideas into a landscape-based game using audio played by a GPS-tracked handset.             
Contributions ranged from manipulated found sounds, beats and sound effects to poetry and free form spoken word that encapsulated their imaginary engagement with the open spaces and built environment of the school’s lovely campus.
Some deliciously weird and incongruous sonic fantasies were superimposed upon the sounds of the place’s everyday life.
Our first workshop was a broad introduction to strange musical innovations using technology over the past century and a half. We moved rapidly through early such one-offs as Herr Schalkenbach’s 1860s “Piano-Orchestre Électro-Moteur” and Russolo’s “Intonarumori” to Hugh Le Caine’s 1948 “Electronic Sackbutt”.

 
This use of GPS as a way of attaching sounds to landscapes has been a journey of discovery for me over three years of producing these landscape-situated pieces, from St Paul’s Churchyard and London’s South Bank to Southampton Common and the historic maritime town of Gosport.
It has forced me to reconsider the nature of musical composition where, in the hands of listeners their own interaction is the last act in creating the heard music. We explored what tools for designing interactivity can do and ways to rethink the processes of making a piece of music, asking what – under these new conditions – a musical composition is.
This was a small, really inventive and thoughtful group of young musicians, chosen by their teachers to lead the student project. They worked in pairs to investigate the strange new musical and experiential offerings of the ‘noTours’ software platform.
Questions included what would be the behaviour of virtual circles filled with sound; how the circles would overlap/ surround/ interfere with or complement each other and to what extent we are leading the listener experience or allowing it to unfold for itself.
Subsequent sessions centred on using the simple online interface to build virtual circles in the landscape (try it for yourself, free, at http://editor.notours.org !)
Brookfield Community School – satellite view

There are some simple tricks to making a geo-located soundwalk a fantastic experience and I was thrilled to see how these inventive young thinkers quickly made the soundscape very much their own piece of work.

The Brookfield Soundscape Project involved a wonderful mixture of live music performance, with the inspiring ‘Tomorrow’s Warriors’, creative writing (which contributed elements to the soundscape), learning about acoustics – sound waves, reverberation, frequency vs pitch, how sound travels, how a space sounds and can be acoustically redesigned – with Steve Dorney from the University of Southampton’s Institute of Sound and Vibration Research and real-world maths problems and solutions.

Our interactive soundscape was just one element of it but, by the magic of digital technology, this surreal multi-author auditory spectacle of imaginary worlds remains suspended in perpetuity above the landscape of the school.

Visitors will be able to walk back inside the moment where pupils secretly recorded a music lesson one spring early in the 21st century and placed their teacher’s voice, looped and accompanied, in the amphitheatre outside.

How machine and human sonically interweave to express the strange sensory combinations of dreamy interpretation with the efficient buildings and their clock-based routines. Where song, speech and wordless subjectivities meet in a poetic sound kaleidoscope.
At the highly successful launch earlier this month, pupils were delighted by the fascinated engagement of so many surprised, happy visitors, for whom this was a first taste of emerging forms of musical art. 

Over a few hours, parents, governors, teachers and friends arrived for timed slots to experience the students’ artistic work.

So many thanks to Brookfield’s Head, Ria Allan, to Shaun Riches and Ben Cull, Head and Deputy Head of Music and the students who helped also make the launch such a wonderful success, not least by manning the stand and keeping all the kit running perfectly over the evening. 

I hope these creative explorers will continue to make wonderful music for many years to come!    

Brookfield Soundscape is now available, free, at the Google Play Store:

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=brookfield.notours.org&hl=en

Acoustemologies of Space

No more time
Considering timelines in musical construction and the role of recall, remembrance or the search through ‘sound art’, ‘musical composition’, for full form of partially reconstituted former experience,  we might imagine the possibility that a musical object does not necessarily evolve over time,  or only over linear time.


Monophonic lines
The monodic phrase may be an extension or exploration of a finite set of pitches. It is an investigation of the relations, by sequentially altered permutations between those pitches and what may be conveyed or perceived, metaphorically, within those pairings or groups and they range covered by them.

In denser sonic structures however the interplay between distinct elements is important also. 

Texture happens over time?
Is it possible entirely to remove time from the musical work, for all pitches, timbral characters and separation throughout a physical space to be simultaneously heard?

Soundwords and Story-telling
The monodic line, the developmental polyphonic texture and the orchestral climax belong to species of sonic narrative where our conditioned associations presuppose a quasi-linguistic exposition of ideas whose correlative is founded in the same ancient urges whence mythic, religious and metaphorical representations of existence and experience emerge. 

Other forms

In the visual and plastic arts, in film, literature and dance, the design of buildings and their interiors, of objects functional and decorative, it has become accepted that form may in many instances equate to, be the sum of, the work’s content.

Stories and just Things Themselves
If, with the removal of temporal development or change, we are able to extract from the work its shackled association with ‘expression’, forms are inevitable to emerge that will permit the listener possibilities for transcending communication altogether.
In this way, the musical artifice speaks, if it speaks at all (for why should it, having no words?) solely of what it is, rather than a pale mirror to other forms.
But since all events must have duration of some perceptible value for there to be agreement that they occurred at all and arguably a somewhat greater durational value  than merely the perceptible, for the senses to take the opportunity to receive, process, respond, remember the occurrence, is the negotiation of change over time unavoidable?
Yes and no.
The slightest sonic pinprick may in fact be represented by fluctuating horizontal lines, describing continuous variations in the frequency and amplitude from opening attack through its decay, sustain, release or disappearance. 

Universe in a bead
Even the note produced by a plucked string or struck bottle, singular and momentary as this may appear, has a duration, albeit so small as for the duration not to be considered to constitute a primary characteristic.
However briefly though, each note or sound perceived of course still has a duration.
With the changes that occur during that time it may be said that rhythm, with all its generative, evolving, progressing patterns, originates or is at least suggested.

Time standing still, machine rumbles on

It is equally possible that the passage of time be used as a tool for the depiction, evocation or replication of stasis, in sorts of counter-developmental resistance. 
Examples of change within repeating patterns, or unaltered wholes whose constituent parts continually change, are to be found in the mechanical, electrical and digital as much as the natural.


Music in a cemetery toilet
Working many years ago at a cemetery office, my most pleasing diversion from the macabre mundanities of my working duty was to sit shivering in the vast, catacomb-like porcelain-lined lavatory, listening to the endless shifting and yet never changing balance between two echoing water drips, never ceasing, never simultaneous, flowing like parallel microcosmic waterways reduced to sequent enumerations of  their minutest parts, like a coastline falling through a miniature hourglass.

The music of roundabout systems
Eight years earlier, a comparable experience occurred from the chance discovery of an entrancing sound kaleidoscope both random and the result of collective, simultaneous mass action and response.
The inside floor plan of the Arc de Triomphe is a church-sized cross with similar acoustical properties but for the missing four end walls, arched ears to the acoustical convulsions of the city.
At its centre, the listener is as though inside an enormous resonant stone head, drawing from all around passing snapshots in sound.
They are so fleeting and frequent as to form a continuous flow of impressions.
They are so dense as to be opaque, so infinitely numerous, small and diverse are its elemental constituents as to constitute the river itself, where only the fluctuations of the whole can be quantified.
The Arc is at the centre of L’étoile, the star-shaped intersection at a monumental centre point of six of the city’s largest thoroughfares.
Six lanes of rotating, competing traffic of all sizes continuously swimming around, across, alongside; wheels on tarmac, revving engines, coughing exhausts, squealing brakes and above all, a mechanical mayhem of klaxons, despairing, warning, cajoling, threatening, pleading, celebrating, echoing.

Tuning of French klaxons
By the way, these horns were for the most part, diatonically attuned. My only explanation was the French preference for cars by one of their two principal firms and the possibility therefore that the klaxons’ slight variation from diatonic unity was based on (almost) any given vehicle being one of two makes, pitch-limited to the white notes of the piano, depth depending on size of the vehicle. 

River <- Soundscape -> Machine
At other times, while the auditory river’s flow remained unabated, effectively unaltered, it was possible to tune focus to given pitches or rhythmic imitations and again, through the unending alteration and rotation of atomic detail within, there was above all a character of constancy, of unification, whose effect was to stay the very passage of time.


All perception of time passing or changing was removed during these peaceful meditations which in memory appear to repeat like time-phase photography or an acoustical strobe.


Therefore, given the fascination of these and other phenomena, what appeared like the sudden realisation of a new concept (new to me at any rate) emerged, like all others, from a combination of reflection over an extended period and the search for alternative solutions to questions of time found in much music of the past few decades.  

Centuries-long music

Perhaps one of the best known of these is John Cage’s conceptual composition for organ “As slow as possible”, performance of which began in 2001 and is scheduled to run for 639 years.

Arguably the performance did not begin until February of 2003 due to the seventeen month rest with which the current rendition began but perhaps this is a question for a separate enquiry.

Questions of how time is represented, ridden, distorted have always occupied composers.
It has been understood that music exists more in time than space, in waiting or remembering than in an extended present sensual interaction such as may be had with an image or sculpture.

Story-telling
To return therefore to a notion for music from which the passage of time – used to generate along its line, arrayed patterns and relations with a correspondence or analogue in verbal expression, the emotions, in narrative or figurative representation – is removed, carrying off these external, unachievable distractions, to permit the construction of pure sound, unencumbered by the minute semiotic histories of our finite range of sonic gestures:

Sound like colour and smell

Through the separation of sound from putative intentions to be of or fundamentally connected to other forms of communication or activity, perhaps we can permit, by infinite multiplications, the expansion of our ‘sonabulary’, our ‘sonicon’, a new ‘acoustemology’ beginning to grow from the threads remaining, which do not carry the weighty burden of impossible ambition to relate an art with no inherent meaning to systems of signification.

Unknown writing on ribbons of sound
3DBARE is coming. Time will no doubt have a role but this is about pausing clocks, holding one time river up against another and watching the combinations of signals blow out sound bubbles from their auditory embrace, across the wide open arena of a space filled with undulating voices, tones, beams of sound, infinitely variable in combination, unending, borderless like the ocean’s horizon when the world was flat, like inner space and the dreams that float there.




Painting the landscape itself. No, I mean really, actually painting it. Oh, and in sound.

If ever you decide to demonstrate your crazy, arcane research, the ideas you dream about and discuss with yourself, sometimes inadvertently aloud – then find you’ve accidentally instigated the biggest, most exciting and terrifying project of your life, don’t call me to complain. I will only laugh.
I was working on how to motion-track listeners so they can walk inside a piece of music – we’re getting there, with amazing work from composer-programmer Iyad Assaf, it’s called 3D-BARE.
I called music tech guru and composer Julio d’Escrivan for advice.
He put me in touch with Enrique Tomas, whose noTours software uses GPS and does a similar – well, different – thing to what I was working on but with such interesting results and rich possibilities that I was hooked.
noTours lets you edit a place with sounds: overlapped, interlocking, spliced, hovering in the landscape.
When a composition is complete, I now do something additional with it – splitting it into horizontal and vertical fragments, spreading it across a garden or along the Thames, then inviting people to come and listen.
I recorded singers a few months ago, one at a time, then combined them into a ‘virtual’ choir, in a setting of a poem called “Take Me By The Hand” for Southampton’s Musical Alphabet weekend.
There’s now a version spread between the paths and trees, buildings and water of the university campus. Singers and the place, sonically and physically bound together. Blurring and augmenting the heard reality of a place allows us to do strange and interesting things…
So I’ve been constructing musical compositions embedded in landscape and decided to make more systematic my approach to recording the landscape itself and, more importantly, the people in it.
Six months on, I’m coordinating the Audio Portrait of Southampton – to capture the place, the year, its noises, sounds and music. An immersive sonic montage spread across the green spaces of the city for listeners to walk inside and investigate, like a virtual city built only of sound.
Southampton Music Hub and Art Asia have recently come on board, bringing fantastic, diverse musical talent to the Portrait and I was recently interviewed by Xan Philips on Voice FM.
We’ll be demonstrating on 11th October at the University’s next Creative DigiFest, SXSC2. Come and hear for yourself!