Sensing Space through Sound at East St Arts’ Patrick Studios

In November I had a sound installation featured as part of East St Arts ‘Untitled’ Exhibition at Patrick Studios in Leeds. The Untitled project ‘set out to unearth ‘hidden’ artists in the city’. Through a call-out, they selected six artists who had, ‘never exhibited or who may or may not had studied art’. The other five artists exhibited paintings and drawings, which were hung in the gallery space. So as not to interfere with or confuse the viewing of their work, I opted to install on the stairwell up to the gallery space.

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The intention of my installation was to make evident the link between frequency and physical dimensions of three adjoined spaces: Each space has its own set of frequencies whose wavelengths are consonant with the dimensions of that space. When played into the space, these create standing waves or room modes, which resonate the space and provide a different, less directional listening experience than other frequencies. It may be said that when a space resonates, you can ‘hear’ its dimensions. By comparing resonant modes of three adjoined spaces, this installation encourages listeners to understand the differences in size and shape of these spaces sonically as well as visually.

ESA PAtrick Studios Installation 6 Nov 2015

In practise, loudspeakers were placed in three different spaces, connected by the staircase (see diagram above), and a MaxMSP patch was used to take impulse responses of the spaces from positions through which the audience would naturally pass. The patch then derives a list of resonant modes for each of the three adjoined spaces. Of the fundamental and first three partials, one pitch was selected for each space. Pitches were intuitively selected for the effect with which they resonate the space.

A second MaxMSP patch plays these three pitches back into their respective spaces via the loudspeakers. The patch detunes the sine tones at undetermined intervals, bringing them in and out of resonance. The amount of detune is based on the amount of pitch movement required to bring the tone out of resonance (something which I established intuitively). Coloured markers were placed in positions where the microphone recorded impulse responses. These became ‘listening points’. 

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Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room is perhaps the first and most well known work to use resonant frequencies as its material. As Lucier writes, ‘Thinking of sounds as measurable wavelengths, instead of as high or low musical notes, has changed [the] whole idea of music from a metaphor to a fact and, in a real way, has connected me to architecture.’ There is an important shift here whereby sound moves from something related to an established musical language, to something which is acknowledged as behaving as a naturally spatial entity. This is the domain in which I wish to consider sound in my work; as something which connects humans to space and is a fundamental part of the spatial experience.

There are numerous other artists who have worked with resonance, no doubt inspired either directly or indirectly by the work of Lucier.  Adam Basanta’s A Room Listening to Itself (2015) consists of a network of loudspeaker cones and microphones suspended in a blank gallery space. These three elements combine to create a network of feedback that triggers different resonant modes of the gallery space. The delicate feedback process is affected by an audience’s movement through the space. His work The Sound of Empty Space uses a tiny microphone and loudspeaker suspended inside a glass jar. The microphone moves closer and further away from the speaker, which controls feedback and triggers a series of resonances. These resonances are hear through a pair of headphones. In his Four Rooms project Jakob Kirkegaard recorded the sound of four empty rooms and using a similar technique to I am Sitting in a Room, repeatedly re-recorded the original sound to produce a series of earie recordings that expose the resonances of the space.

In the work of Kiregaard, Lucier and Basanta, I would posit that an emphasis is placed on the beauty of natural resonant phenomena rather than a direct intention to engage listeners with the spatial properties of sound. As architect and sonologist Raviv Ganchrow states, ‘sound’s spatialities are approachable […] most crucially [through] exercising an intention to significantly “listen to space.”‘. Exposing the phenomena of resonance has a beauty in itself, however in order to make explicit to the listener the spatial implications of resonance, I would argue that extra steps are required.

The work of Angie Atmadjaja also moves in this direction. The title of her installation 492.40m3 51.7Hz TILT, refers to the quantity of air in a space, the frequency of a resonant sine wave injected into the space, and the ensuing effect of the installation. A sine wave injected into the space through a single loudspeaker creates a topology of high and low air pressure which is then explored by listeners. Listeners’ attention is heighten by the fact that all visual distraction is removed from the space and that the floor is modelled to reflect the topology created by the sound wave. Intrinsic uses a single loudspeaker to excite different standing waves in a dark black room. Lights attached to microphones are scattered throughout the space. As different resonant modes are played into the space the lights indicate the varying amplitudes in different locations. Atamajaja’s work is meditative. It focuses on the act of ‘the notion of being in a moment, or in that moment’. The work explores acoustic phenomena in space, but is aimed at the human individual. Phenomena are framed in such a way as to draw attention to the act of listening and perception. The work uses the outer to direct the audience towards the inner. 

In my installation, the use of listening spots aims to incite an engagement between the listener and the emitted sound. Moving the frequencies slowly in and out of resonance allows listeners to compare the sensations and perhaps grasp at the idea that sound and space are related. Finally, the use of a series of acoustically different interconnected spaces allows all three pitches to be heard at any one time, and therefore comparisons to be made between the resonant effects of each space. In reality, audience members experienced frequencies moving in and out of resonance, but they didn’t necessarily understand that this was what was happening. People really engaged with the installation when the principles had been explained to them, so it’s clear that there is more work to do in terms of allowing the work to better communicate what is happening. I’m interested in what the idea of play can bring to the table in this context, and perhaps making this more central to future versions of this installation.