Barely Part 2 - 2008
Commissioned by Gallery ROM in Oslo, Norway
07 - 28 November 2008
Composition and Sound Design: Dr. Natasha Barrett
Barely part 2 at ROM for kunst og Arkitektur in Oslo is the continuation of Barely installation by OCEAN NORTH that was shown first at the ULTIMA Festival in Kanonhallen in Oslo in September 07.
Visitors stayed then for up to two hours, contemplating the subtle changes of effects in the fall of dusk.
The interplay between the sound composition and the visual appearance of the fluorescent lines and material reflections always poised on the threshold of the barely audible and barely material.
Barely comstitutes an experiment in composition, sound-art and multi-media that creates a highly detailed, perceptual layer just above the 'experienced threshold' of our senses; in both the immediate 'real-time' substance and in a temporal context of structure and syntax. The complexity of our everyday stimuli tends to a state of noise - not only in terms of sound but also in all information received by our senses. The Barely paradigm explores reality and presents an alternative organisation of this complexity. It entices the individual into deep attention, concentration and sensual experience by offering detail at a level that is only just perceptual, enhancing what is already present in both the individual and the location of the work, rather than attempting to introduce the artificial. In terms of both substance and concept, Barely can be regarded as the antithesis to noise.
The Barely paradigm is manifest in a number of forms spanning abstract sound-art, acousmatic composition, acoustic instrumental performance and spatial sound-architecture. Barely explores this paradigm in terms of public space and installation.. The work involves a large 'barely visible' spatial installation created in collaboration with experimental designer and architect Birger Sevaldson. From a conceptual angle, there are many ways to problematise Barely in terms of visual space. Sevaldson has designed a solution involving clear, colourless plastic foil, UV light, reflective paint, sightlines and spatial conjunction, distortion and fragmentation. In terms of sound, a 16-channel composition is spatialised over 12 high quality near-field loudspeakers and 40 transparent miniature loudspeaker elements. The composed material is 70 minutes in duration. The opening of the installation involves a three-hour performance where spatialisation and material complexity is mixed in real-time in response to the audiences' interaction (staying time, physical motion, self produced sound level, change in room acoustics).
Noise and Entropy
During the past decades the complexity of the urbanised soundscape has significantly increased such that it is tending to noise and entropy. The Internet and our multi-media environment provide an alternative organisation in a virtual or even fictional world. But where are the opportunities to rediscover and explore reality? How can this be tackled in contemporary electroacoustic composition?
The Experienced Threshold
The experienced threshold of our auditory sense is directly connected to the volume and content of the existing sound environment. In an anechoic room, the experienced threshold is that of the threshold of hearing. At a busy train station the experienced threshold is the sound to which we consciously listen to as information-gatherers, rather than as passive receivers where we cannot help hear the sound but have no intention to listen or interpret meaning. Consideration of the experienced threshold will therefore determine the approach to sound. For example, not only does the content of the sound landscape need consideration but also the listeners' psychological states (expectations related to context).
On entering a sound installation in an urban context an attentive listening tactic is rarely the first approach the public will take. A visitor's own footsteps, possibly talking, coughing or breathing may be the most prominent sounds heard. How to encourage physical calmness, curiosity and concentration are therefore prime objectives. In a large space such as Kanonhallen, local 'pockets' of sound combined with the installation's visual definition will allow people to feel a sense of arrival and individuality. It will encourage them to stay, listen and be enveloped in the sound composition and the aura of the architectural space.
A change in the sound material or a period of redundancy may encourage the listener to move to another location and explore a different perspective on the work. To encourage this, interactive technology was initially considered. However, although in a single user situation sensors could have be used to tune the information content based on motion activity, in a multi-user situation motion sensors are impractical: a single location may contain one person who is in deep concentration and another person who had only a moment ago entered the space.
The Approach to Time
When Stockhausen developed the principle of the moment (a formal unit that is recognizable by a personal and unmistakable character, where certain sound characteristics remain constant for period of time, and this period is not necessarily predetermined) and of moment form (where 'degree of change' is that which is controlled in the compositional process and in the passing of time, rather than in the material of the moments themselves) he presented a way for composers to free themselves from the material without loosing the integrity of the composition. Barely: part-1 approaches sound and time similarly to moment form but unlike Stockhausen's work, which only explored the potential of moment form in acoustic composition, Barely: part-1 works within an electroacoustic framework where sound and extra-musical reference are carved in conjunction.
The creation of electroacoustic ‘Moments'
1. To begin, a number of moments or characteristic blocks of material were composed. The two main categories were:
(a) Abstract (intrinsic): synthetic abstract collages, recognizable instrument sounds
(b) Referential / allusive: environmental reference, human reference
Each of these categories was developed following procedures taking account of the effects of low volume audition:
(i) Pitch / noise: Pitched, harmonic spectrum, inharmonic spectrum or noise dominance.
(ii) Articulation and iteration: sparse, dense, dispersed or streamed.
(iii) Motion activity: ascent, descent, oscillation, divergence, convergence.
(iv) Motion style: Synchronous, asynchronous, flocking, streaming, periodic, aperiodic.
(v) Spatial layering: fore- mid- and background potential when set in juxtaposition.
The development created 30 differentiated moments.
2. The moments were then composed into the temporal domain via two techniques: (a) juxtaposition of moments involving careful mixing and volume control; (b) alternation of moments allowing solo clarity. Different realisations of the work can therefore be created for different spaces.
First attempts revealed an interesting problem. When a number of blocks were juxtaposed the clarity of each was easily lost, much more so than if the material had consisted of live instrumental sound. This may be because when working with instrumental sound you create a moment with a specific collection of instruments that define the spectral and morphological average. When working with acousmatic electroacoustic material, referential identity, as well as spectro-morphological identity, is important. Two materials may evoke different extra-musical references or allusion, while being similar in spectro-morphological identity. Frequency masking will result, collapsing all aspects of the two materials into one. A number of compositional techniques then emerged during the experimental process:
Higher frequencies and noisier aspects of the spectrum were prominent, while pitched aspects were of lower audible weight. The result was that when pitched material was clearly audible it acted as a landmark in the temporal organisation - the ear more easily noting the same sound when it recurred at a later point. Such sounds are used to mark cycles in the temporal organisation.
If working predominantly on the threshold of perception, louder attacks take on a specific role. An attack will lift listening out of deep attention and concentration. There will be a delay time before the previous level of listening can be resumed. Such attacks also serve as landmarks - the inverse of silence in a normal composition.
Natural morphologies involve attack-decay, graduated, iterative and non-exact periodic energy profiles. Artificial morphologies feature alternative of energy profiles. Combining natural and artificial morphologies allowed a foothold in the existing sound environment while adding a layer of surrealism to capture listeners' attention.
When working on the threshold of perception the ear easily drifts out of an attentive listening mode. In counterbalance I used moments of what I call 'strange identity' sounds. These are sounds that maintain a strange and clear implication in the given context, even at low volumes. For example, the sound of footsteps, although of clear identity would be normal and ignored, whereas the sound of ‘complaining' vocalisations would be out of place and instantly attract the ear.
In most public spaces silence doesn't exist - there is always some background sound. In Barely the background sound is regarded as ‘information', rather than merely ‘volume'. The sound of Barely adds to this information. In Barely, the concept of silence connects to Cage's philosophy of silence. By stopping Barely sound, the ear, instead of being presented with a chasm, explores a continuation into this background information.
Use of the small loudspeaker elements
The characteristics of the small loudspeaker elements determine which sounds to play on these channels. The frequency response and sound localisation of these loudspeakers makes any spatial illusion in the source sound unreal and inappropriate. (A spatial illusion is where a sound-object appears to contain a recorded or simulated spatial definition). In contrast, 'dry' sound without any sense of space is more successful. The small loudspeaker elements then become sounding objects in their own right.
Loudspeakers and distance effects
Distance of the listener from the loudspeaker determines whether and what they will hear. At a constant volume this is influenced by room acoustics and frequency content. The distribution of loudspeakers in the Kanonhallen version is designed to combine room acoustics and audience proximity to loudspeakers when exploring the three-dimensional aspects of the visual space.
The physical installation creates a spatial effect which is highly distributed and deep but which simultaneously creates a sense of connection and continuity. Twenty transparent foils with UV-reflective lines painted onto them create a dynamic space that interacts with the surroundings, the visual background noise, through transparency and reflections. The lines are generated by cross projecting sight lines from specifically chosen view points. The lines continue over several foils creating a subtle interconnection throughout the space.
Under the changing light conditions during the day and in the fall of dusk the space changes from being highly transparent and reflective, engaging the surroundings, to becoming more substantial and introvert. In daylight transparency and reflectivity tend to overshadow the lines, emphasizing from peripheral view points the geometry of the foils through reflections while they almost totally dissolve seen from an internal view point. At night the lines take over, the foils disappear and the result is a deep spatial effect.
The richness and details in the different effects of the physical space create a parallel to the detailing of the sound space and the two reinforce each other.