Last spring, I traveled to San Francisco to experience the Audium in person. This trip was supported by a grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation in Los Angeles. What follows is a writing that I created after the performance as part of the final grant report.
Originally written on July 2nd, 2012
A large room with a suspended ceiling and a floating false floor houses this permanent audio-performance-as-sound-art-installation created from a composition performed through a series of 176 different speakers mounted throughout the space. There are square acoustic panels mounted in concentric circles at the ceiling. Speakers of different sizes, for frequency and response, are hung from the ceiling facing down, under the floor facing up and along the wall facing toward the center. The audience is seated in a series of 3 concentric circles facing the center. There are speakers mounted directly under many – if not all – of the chairs. Some of the walls are solid but some of the curved forms used to define the space are created from stretched white fabric. The area where the performer sits is a very Kubric-esque station opposite the entrance that contains a custom mixing area with a series of dials and switches. The entirely custom-built interface is marked with glow-in-the-dark labels so that they can be seen by the performer but won’t give off any projected light. This aligned with the initial announcement that requested people remove any watches with illuminated faces or anything else that might light up during the performance. As the sound began, the room was slowly taken to complete and absolute darkness. In fact, during the second movement, the gentlemen sitting next to me got a silent phone call and the light emanating form his blue jeans pocket was incredibly bright, emphasizing the darkness after 30 minutes of being without light.
A primary technical feature of the space is that it provides sound the ability to move through the space and be composed with other moving sounds. The tape performance consisted of a mix of musical instruments, synthesized sounds, field recordings and even some voice samples. These sounds create a dream-like state that flows through a series of emotions and compositional movements. It deals with issues of tension, beauty, memory, child hood innocence and scientific exploration. There are moments that are heavily rhythmic and draw the listener’s attention around the space and other times the sound comes to the listener during the experience.
The presentation throughout the space functions in a way that a normal projected listening experience cannot. The sound moves through the space in a way that directly reflects one’s listening ability in real space. Sounds come from all around us. We hear in 360° and we can’t turn it off. Our ears don’t blink – as the famous John Cage saying goes. This installation / performance explores this and presents a composition in a way that creates a different relationship to recorded and projected audio. The listening experience is quite amazing. Hearing a performed composition distributed through space in such a way draws the listener in and blurs the familiar lines of experiencing recorded sound, usually limited to 2 channels of stereo or at most maybe, 5 channels of surround sound. Having sonic distribution at this granular level to compose against creates a great deal of questions and opportunities for composers. As a media artist, I am intrigued by the questions this raises about the methods by which an artist would perform in this type of space. How does one perform within such a dramatically complex and interwoven sonic environment? What are the interaction implications of a controller for 176 distributed, discrete audio channels? And how might this controller work in reverse if instead of distributing sound out to many channels, we consider ways that our binaural listening system might be hacked and modified to perform this space surrounding a listener? While considering the role of the listener within this rich, dynamic performance environment that the Audium presents, these are some of the questions that the experience of this multi-speaker audio installation and performance has raised for me.