INTERNATIONAL NOTICE explores the complex landscape of audio in performance..
GET READY FOR BINAURAL
Don’t listen to the links in this download over the speakers, get your earphones plugged in – real binaural recording is more than just stereo. Placing two microphones about 17 cm apart (the distance between most people’s ears) won’t cut it either. A good binaural recording set-up involves two microphones embedded into the ears of a dummy head complete with anatomically-correct ear folds. Only in this way will the sound waves bounce authentically into the ears of the listener.
Are you ready? Good. Then let us begin with a bit of history.
A BIT OF HISTORY
The world of sound has always been with us. Its invisible frequencies weave a layer of complexity through the mundane silence of the visual. It provides us with information that would otherwise escape us, helps us locate ourselves in space, even transports us to alternate realities. Stories around a campfire, bird calls through cupped hands, drums mimicking the sound of thunder – sound is an augmented VR layer we are hard-wired for. The first attempts at a faithful reproduction of the world of sound were surprisingly early. Inventor Clement Ader was famous for his aircraft, but in 1881, he also invented the Theatrophone. Wires ran from 80 telephone transmitters set up in front of the stage at the Paris Opera, via cables through the Paris sewers, to rooms in the Paris Electrical Exhibition more than two kilometres away. Visitors were able to listen to the world’s first ever broadcast of stereo sound. Binaural recording reappeared about 40 years later in Connecticut when a radio station produced binaural programmes. Tech limitations of the time meant that the left and right channels were broadcast on different radio frequencies. To listen in, you would have needed two radios, with the one earpiece plugged into one radio, and the other into the other radio. Needless to say, it wasn’t a roaring success. The next big leap in binaural came from the incomparable Lou Reed. His eighth solo album Street Hassle (1978) was the first commercially produced binaural release, and he followed it with Live: Take No Prisoners (1978) and The Bells (1979).
Lou’s love affair with binaural was timely: the birth of the The Walkman in July 1979 opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Before this simple adaptation of existing technologies, binaural technology was a cumbersome luxury. Suddenly, one could be immersed in non-ordinary sonic realities absolutely anywhere and at a minuscule cost. It could even be argued that the Walkman paved the way for virtual reality itself; it is no accident that VR was first conceptualised by a generation brought up with a hand-held device for personal transportation.
THE ART OF SOUND
Ever-improving binaural recording techniques and sound installation technology opened up possibilities in the world of art. It took until the 1990s for the term Sound Art to appear, emerging from a complex interplay of experimental music and performance. According to sound-artist and broadcaster Thomas Worby, John Cage was the first true sound artist.
Suddenly, the galleries of the world were filled with more than just the hushed chatter of art-buyers. The field exploded at the end of the 20th century and into the new millennium. Notable creators of sound installation art include Bruce Nauman whose Raw Materials occupied the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern (UK):
For Raw Materials, his sound installation for Tate Modern, Nauman has brought together 22 recordings of texts taken from earlier works that span almost 40 years of his career. Walking through the Turbine Hall, disembodied voices speak to you, or maybe just to themselves, in a variety of styles. There are stark texts like ‘OK OK OK’, which Nauman himself chants repeatedly until the phrase distorts and seems to morph into new words. Longer pieces such as ‘False Silence’ or ‘Consummate Mask of Rock’ are cryptic narratives describing psychological states that are at odds with the calm delivery of the voice. Somewhere in between is ‘Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room’ in which Nauman repeats the statement as if on the edge of asphyxiation, his gasps and snarls building an atmosphere of claustrophobia and intimidation. There are statements that explore sentence construction, single words repeated over and over, stories that feed back into themselves and go nowhere. Throughout, the tone of voice, the inflection, and variations in rhythms dramatically shift meanings, from diplomatic to psychotic, pleading to bullying, anxiety to mockery.
Ryoji Ikeda’s startling monochrome explosions of sound and light have appeared in galleries, museums and exhibitions all over the world:
HEADSETS & FLASHMOBS
Outside of the art-world, binaural sound has been taken up by performance makers to create new possibilities both on stage and outside of the theatre. An audience with headsets have access to an extra layer of input. Complicite used binaural sound in their production of The Encounter taking their audiences into the depths of the Amazon rainforest with sound technology:
Chekhov’s First Play by Dead Centre subverted the style of the Russian master by including an entire layer of dramaturgy only available to the Schaubühne’s audiences through their headsets:
Rimini Protokoll’s Remote X brought together the worlds of theatre and gaming by sending hordes of strangers out onto the streets in a collective swarm controlled by the voices in their heads:
A synthetic voice in our headphones (of the kind familiar from GPS navigators or airport announcements) directs the movements of our swarm. Binaural recordings and film scores turn the cityscape into a personal film; artificial Intelligence explores unknown territories, mustering human activity from a remote perspective. And yet the voice sounds ever more human to us as we progress, while in the eyes of passers-by our remotely controlled horde starts to look like a kind of alien entity.
UK-based artist Duncan Speakman harnessed the flash-mob coupled with binaural sound to create works that wove narrative into chance happenings:
Binaural sound is not all cultural self-improvement however: to conserve your energy for the excitement of this year’s Performersion, why not kick back and relax with the ASMR crowd. Here are 58 minutes of a binaural tropical thunderstorm. It gets really good about 6 minutes in.
- APR 2016
Writer: Richard ASLAN for INTERNATIONAL NOTICE
Credits: Rafael SENTOMA (V #1) | Lou REED (V #2) | FUTURE WORKSPACE (V #3) | Ryoji IKEDA (V #4) | COMPLICITE (V #5) | DEAD CENTRE (V #6) | Duncan SPEAKMAN (V #7) | 1NIGHTMAREMAN (V #8)