Dr Louise Harris is an electronic and audiovisual composer and Lecturer in Sonic and Audiovisual Practices. Hers is the first of two blog posts intending to provide a glimpse into research trips undertaken recently by members of staff in Music; a post by Dr Eva Moreda Rodríguez about her archival research in Madrid focusing on early phonography will follow shortly.
From April 10th – 24th, I was lucky enough to undertake the Klingler ElectroAcoustic Residency (KEAR) at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, USA. This two-week residency gave me time to make some new pieces, but also afforded the space to think about my work, and indeed think about the way I think about my work in some depth. This is something that I often struggle to find time to do, whilst attempting to balance research against a full time academic job. Though one is, of course, supposed to facilitate the other, the reality is that finding concentrated time to spend on research, particularly as an early career researcher, can be very difficult. .
The Klingler Residency is now in its third year and has attracted some well known and illustrious composers, including recently John Young, Jonty Harrison and, in the semester preceding my own stay, James Andean. It allows the recipient two weeks to spend working in the main studio at BGSU, which is equipped with a 10:2 circular Genelec surround speaker configuration, alongside an Altec Lansing first order ambisonic cube. The studio is based at the top of the College for Musical Arts at BGSU and is part of the daily life of the college. Consequently, it was a rare opportunity for me to not only spend some time in an unfamiliar, creative space, but also to embed myself in an unfamiliar higher music education culture, through giving one-to-one tutorials, presenting lectures on my own work and giving a final presentation of the work carried out during the residency. This aspect of the residency was particularly enjoyable, as it gave me insight into the academic culture of music at BGSU. The students themselves were engaging and inquisitive, posing questions of me that were unexpected and quite different to those I have been asked by my own students here in Glasgow, and encouraging me to consider certain facets of my work in previously unexplored ways. It also provided me with the opportunity to spend some time with Elainie Lillios, the coordinator of the Klinger Residency and professor of Composition at BGSU. I have long admired Elainie’s work (indeed, I attended a presentation she gave in Sheffield during my time studying for my PhD there) and it was fascinating to discuss creative and ideological perspectives with her.
The project I worked on during the residency resulted in the KEAR Miniatures; a series of five, two-minute audiovisual works, each composed largely from a single sound source. The initial sound sources were mostly material that I had recorded for other projects, or for teaching.
The works are intended for display, ideally, in a fulldome or planetarium projection format, with ambisonic and, in some cases, 8:2 surround sound. I will discuss this in a little more detail in due course.
bulla was composed using the sound of bubbles being blown in yoghurt, a recording made whilst recording sound effects with my Glasgow students for a course on post-production audio. Utilising a single, short clip of a few seconds in duration, the majority of the sound material for the work came from what I would describe as a process of ‘gestural granulation’. Having loaded the sound into a simple granular synthesis patch built in puredata, I utilized TouchOSC to make a series of short, 30-second ‘performances’ in which I moved through the file, pausing at particular point yet making very quick changes in position, grain duration, panning etc. in others, to create a number of rapidly shifting, dynamic gestural-granular recordings. These were then combined in reaper to create the finished audio composition.
As bulla was derived from a recording of bubbles being blown in a liquid, I wanted to reflect this suggestion of circular visual form in the visual environment, whilst simultaneously avoiding literal translation to bubble-like shapes. To do this, I created an initial video rendering (phase one) in processing, utilizing circular shapes that emanated from a central column in accordance with the frequency content of the audio material.
This was then run through another patch (phase 2), which created a kaleidoscopic effect from the initial visuals, altering the size of the window based on the overall amplitude of the composition.
The audiovisual result was one that perhaps has the most perceptible motion, both sonically and visually, of my audiovisual works to date. It is chaotic and almost frantic at times, providing a dynamic and, I imagine quite disorientating effect, particularly in its intended fulldome projection format. Below is an approximation of what bulla would look like in fulldome projection format.
Of the five miniatures, calix was probably the most interesting to make, sonically, because of the processes involved.
I have, in recent months, been experimenting with various forms of auditory illusions, most notably binaural beats (particularly in my work ilsonilus:1). I began with a recording of a singing bowl I was given by a friend on their return from a trip to India. The bowl is hand hammered, and the imperfections in the surface lead to intriguing ‘beating’ sounds in the tail of the sound when the bowl is struck.
I isolated the fundamental frequency of the bowl and created some recordings of binaural beating at that frequency to reflect the beating in the tail of the bowl. However, I also experimented with playing eight different frequencies across eight speakers in the ring and was very surprised by what I found. Instead of the effect of any beating being masked by the increasing complexity of the sound, the beats became irregular, altering in pattern and rhythm depending on where one was in the room. I made some recordings of these ‘beats’ and utilized them in the composition (hence, this work is best experienced in 8 channels only – though the stereo rendering does contain the beating, it is quite a limited experience)
Once again, I wanted to reflect the implied visual shape of the singing bowl, without referencing it too literally. To do this, I created multiple layers of what appear to be rotating circles, gradually increasing in size. Close inspection reveals that the edges undulate, to reflect the roughness in timbre of the hand-hammered singing bowl. These undulations increase in intensity in line with the beating that can be heard in both the recordings of the bowl and the synthesized sound material.
Derived from a single recording of a clock being wound, I wanted to explore the individual ‘clicks’ in the winding as separate entities, whilst simultaneously experimenting with additive compositional process and a method I have been describing as ‘glitch reverb’. The additive process was explored through setting up a 30 second ‘backbone’ for the composition against which new material was added with each subsequent iteration (four in total). To work with these short, angular sound materials, I used reverb not as a means to add a uniform sense of space or emulate the effects of the sound as it would behave in a particular place, but by changing the parameters of the reverb (room size, decay, feedback, etc.) with each subsequent sound, and across each audio channel, I created unexpected processing artifacts and a constantly shifting sense of space, subverting our expectations of this type of processing.
Here, my intention was to reference the visual forms suggested by the internal workings of clocks in a semi-randomised structure. To do this, a network of square/circular objects (composed of overlapping and offset squares and circles), intended to reference cogs and clock mechanisms, was set-up randomly in size and placement, within certain parameters randomized with each rendering of the work, so is never replicated. These cog-like forms are almost invisible throughout, using envelope tracking to only become visible above a certain amplitude threshold. The pixels of each ‘cog’ also spreads out with each subsequent reverb tail, causing the image to distort almost imperceptibly.
The sound source here was a series of five long, sustained notes being played on the cello. The ‘pulsing’ of the vibrato in the recordings struck me as being resonant with that of the singing bowl used for calix; here, I wanted to explore how to retain the character of the cello sound, yet apply some subtle processes to create a slightly ‘artificial’ effect to the material, reflecting the combination of recorded and synthesized sound in calix. To do this, the cello recordings (only a few seconds long each) were layered against one another, fractionally offset to create very slight phase cancellation, and extended to create eight, two-minute long stems. These stems culminated in short periods of granulation in which the panning of the material was altered after a very small number of grains; this added to the artificial quality of the sound. Once these stems were made, they were loaded into a specially made max patch, mapped to an individual speaker in the ambisonic array and, using TouchOSC, I made several ‘performances’ in which I controlled the amplitude of each stem as the piece played out. The most satisfactory of these was then selected as the finished version of the work.
I wanted to reflect some of the visual shapes and forms I associate with the cello again in a non-representational way. I created a series of hundreds of overlapping triangles that form into a circular shape that doesn’t quite meet; this was then replicated eight times, gradually increasing in size. As the piece progresses, these forms become more visible in line with the amplitude of each stem, but also rotate across the x/y and z axis, slightly offset with one another, to create a constantly, yet very subtly, shifting visual environment, reflecting the slight phase cancellation in the audio materials.
The sound material here was derived from a single, short recording of two dinner forks being rubbed against one another. This sound was at once angular and sustained, metallic yet strangely organic and I found this intriguing. This composition was envisaged as an 8:2 work from the outset, and materials were mapped to particular speakers and remained there throughout the piece. The process was a little less controlled than in some of the previous works – having placed the short ‘chunks’ of sound at the point in the composition in which I first wanted them to appear, each sound then had a granular delay applied to it, with varying levels of filtering and feedback. This lead to a very unpredictable delay pattern, and particular resonant frequencies feeding back throughout the work, resulting in a composition that builds continuously in amplitude and intensity as the piece progresses.
Once again, I wanted to reflect the visual forms associated with the object that inspired the sonic material – in this case, the prongs of a fork. Here, I created numerous 10-pronged star-like shapes, which both rotated and gained additional ‘points’ once certain parameters of the audio material exceeded a particular amplitude threshold. The still below is from a point towards the end of the work, where you can see certain of the ‘stars’ fanning out into, in some cases, up to 120 prongs.
My initial intentions, in creating a series of miniatures during the residency, were two-fold. First, I wanted to challenge myself to try and complete something in a short period of time, at least up to ‘sketch’ form, in that time frame. Second, I wanted to force myself to think through, a little more quickly than I tend to, working with materials and developing compositional methods. More often than not, my research is conducted around numerous other things, meaning I can labour over pieces for extended periods of time and, consequently, I often spend a great deal of time developing just one particular idea. In this work, I wanted to force myself to work quickly and economically with a small and very specific group of materials.
However, whilst at BGSU I also presented lectures in which I discussed aspects of my work and the ideas and ideals underpinning it. In these, I considered some of the concepts and questions that have, historically, guided my approach to, in particular, my fixed media audiovisual compositions; the intention to compose with audio and video simultaneously and, tied to this, my desire to avoid any sense of media hierarchy in either the conception or reception of my work – my intention that the audioviewer experience the work as a coherent whole as opposed to considering the sonic and visual components as separate entities.
Spending time not only thinking again about some of these ideas, but also putting them into practice over a condensed period of time, has lead me to consider the importance of these guiding principals afresh and, equally, to consider whether working in this way really allows me to realize these principals in full. Through undertaking the KEAR residency, I have come to realize that completing fixed media audiovisual work in this way is no longer as satisfying to my aesthetic or conceptual approach as it once was, for two reasons. First, although at the point of conception I try to envisage both sonic and visual outcome simultaneously, the inevitable consequences of working in the way detailed above is that one media must be necessarily be completed before the other. Thus, although I am attempting to avoid media hierarchy in the conception and reception of the work, it is still implicit in the ways in which the work is constructed, which raises questions about the validity of this idea as a guiding principle. Second, that creating fixed media works for screening/concert playback no longer holds the appeal for me that it once did. Having spent the last several years developing a live, algorithmic and improvised audiovisual performance practice, alongside exploring large scale installation, these aspects of my practice now represent the areas that I find most challenging and, indeed, most satisfying.
My intention from this point, therefore, is to continue to develop the aspects of my practice that involve live performance and installation, whilst taking my fixed media work into some new areas; namely, developing processes for simultaneous audiovisual composition. This I have already begun to do through a Scottish Crucible-funded project involving the simultaneous audiovisualisation of complex data sets, and I am hopeful that this approach will inform new methods for extending the scope of my fixed media practice.
It is fitting that the ‘last’ work in this particular research trajectory be a set of five short pieces, as the first audiovisual work I completed, five studies (2008), was also a series of five works exploring small groups of specific materials. I am hopeful that this new direction, facilitated and encouraged by the KEAR residency, will yield some interesting and fruitful new trajectories for my audiovisual research practice.