Icosahedral Loudspeaker: the ICO as instrument for electronic chamber music (IEM #5)

IEM‘s ICO is a 20-channel loudspeaker, developed by Franz Zotter at IEM. The ICO, and its smaller spherical cousin, was developed as a part of Zotter’s PhD research into sound radiation synthesis as a tool for replicating the acoustic radiation of instruments and measuring the acoustic response of rooms: “This work demonstrates a comprehensive methodology for capture, analysis, manipulation, and reproduction of spatial sound-radiation. As the challenge herein, acoustic events need to be captured and reproduced not only in one but in a preferably complete multiplicity of directions” (Zotter, 2009). The ICO was developed primarily as a technical tool but through collaborations between Zotter and composer / sound artist Gerriet Sharma it has found application as a creative tool, or indeed as an instrument. As Sharma and Zotter (2014) outline “[The ICO] is capable of providing a correct and powerful simulation of musical instruments in their lower registers in all their 360◦ directional transmission range. The device is also suitable for the application of new room acoustic measurements in which controllable directivity is used to obtain a refined spatial characterization.” It is this “controlled directivity” that has primarily found artistic application. The “beamforming algorithm developed in [Zotter’s PhD research] allows strongly focused sound beams to be projected
onto floors, ceilings, and walls… [This] allows to attenuate sounds [sic] from the ICO itself
while sounds from acoustic reflections can be emphasized. Beams are not only freely adjustable in terms of their radiation angle, also different ones can be blended, or their beam width can be increased. A loose idea behind employing such sound beams in music is to orchestrate reflecting surfaces, maybe yielding useful effects in the perceived impression.”

ICO 20-channel loudspeaker (IEM)

ICO 20-channel loudspeaker (IEM)

My work with the ICO, in combination with the IEM 24-channel hemisphere array, certainly confirmed that beam-forming can find artistic application, and indeed that the phenomena described by Zotter and Sharma are actual (hearing is believing). My exploration of the ICO’s propensities as a compact loudspeaker array are confirmed by small sample listener-response research presented in their 2014 paper. Using spatial controller plug-ins (VST) developed by Matthias Kronlachner it is mercifully trivial to shape and control acoustic beams in terms of perceived size, movement, and to use beam-forming to create reflections on surfaces within the performance space.

It is the latter that is perhaps the most surprising and lively aspect of the ICO (although there’s much to be said for the capabilities of the ICO as an acoustic surface, see below). To my ears this is because it requires one to fully engage with the rich interactions of source material, loudspeaker and room response in ways which one tends not to do when using the hemispherical array (or indeed any other multichannel approach). This is simply because in such arrays one is concerned with creating a virtual sound image/space and concern for the room acoustic tends to be limited to minimising its impact on the qualities of audio reproduction or reinforcement (in the case of live electronic music). Using the ICO as an instrument to “orchestrate reflecting surfaces” on the other hand, requires engagement with the acoustic properties of the performance space as an integral aspect of the creative process, and also an awareness of the specific capabilities of the ICO. The outcomes of this are interesting:

The (electroacoustic) work itself can no longer considered as independent of the space in which it is to be performed. In composing Let x = (2014-) for the ICO and hemisphere, for example, many of the compositional decision made in those sections of the work for the ICO alone were based on achieving results that may not be achievable in other spaces. (I hope I get the chance to find out!) When combining the ICO with the hemisphere this was not the case as the latter masks the acoustic response of the IEM Cube space, making such sections or passages more readily transposable to other spaces. One of the really exciting things about working with the ICO is that you are required to closely tune in to the interaction sound, space and movement, and often encounter results that are quite unexpected as the room response enacts spatial behaviours that could not be anticipated from the topology and morphology of source material projected from the ICO. The room itself is revealed as a sonic object integral to the work as a whole and this raises the very question of what it is to compose spatially.

When one uses the ICO to orchestrate space, or more accurately to orchestrate perceived relationships between sound and space (sound and space being interdependent), one is orchestrating for a specific space, creating a relatively high (but far from total) degree of site-specificity. In moving a work from one space to another, the piece needs then to be spatially recomposed in order to work in a new acoustic context. This is entirely possible, as Sharma wonderfully demonstrated in his Signale portrait concert (11 Nov 2104) in the György-Ligeti-Saal in MUMUTH, which featured works not originally composed for this space. The question arises though: what kind of work, using the ICO and focused on sound-space orchestration, is more readily adapted for effective outcomes in different spaces, and indeed are all spaces suitable for the ICO and such application? (I hope to return to this topic in a later post, including the ways in which the ICO can be used in sound installation work, as it has been by Martin Rumori.)

The ICO, despite its unique affordances, is characterised by a number of limitations. That these are noticeable is due to recognition of what the ICO is as a musical object, rather than a response to the false expectation that the ICO is some kind of super-loudspeaker, possessed of sonic superpowers. In fact, such limitations should lead one to consider the ICO as an instrument which, as is the case in effective use of any instrument, needs to be used in ways that exploit its strengths and are not compromised by its shortcomings (don’t ask a trumpet to do the rapid passage work of a flute, for example). Due to the driver size (16.5cm), the frequency response of the ICO is reduced below around 150Hz and the power of each individual speaker is also limited. These limitations can be overcome by coupling loudspeakers to create greater loudness and improve bass response (the typical solution is to feed low-pass signal below 150Hz to all 20 loudspeakers). However, these solutions have acoustic-spatial implications. Bass material, even in low-mid range, is clearly non-directional when an omni-source is created (as just described), which decouples this frequency range from directional beam-forming producing occasionally quite unusual spatial effects (which Sharma has exploited). Similarly, beam-forming is compromised when loudspeakers are coupled to increase loudness as the signal is spread over a larger area. Moreover, the icosahedron that houses the 20 loudspeakers is itself something of a resonating chamber which, although far from functioning like a resonator in a traditional instrument, has its own acoustic colour.

Beam-forming and sound-spatial orchestration are two of the strengths of the ICO, but I shouldn’t forget that the ICO packs a lot of loudspeakers into a relatively compact object. This comes right down to the possibility to address each loudspeaker individually, creating a very distinct point source. While I was surprised by what can be done in working with the ICO as a tool for creating acoustic reflections, I was equally pleased to hear it realise my ideas for enacting complex acoustic surfaces. Pontillistic textures skittering across its surface, sweeps of material oscillating between indirect and direct loudspeakers, clearly stratified layers of sound, and all emanating from a discrete spatial field. As I hope was evident in Let x = the ICO offers an abundance of spatial-compositional possibilities, even before using it to stimulate and shape room response or conjoining it with a more traditional array such as the IEM hemisphere.

Given the just outlined propensities and limitations of the ICO, it’s my feeling that not only should it be considered as an instrument, but more than this it is an instrument suited to chamber music. After all, in itself it is a chamber, a space which has a certain resonance which gives it the quality of enclosing sound as much as it projects sound. In other words, it has its own sound, it’s own sonic grain, as any instrument does. Through its frequency response and loudness it is best suited for small to medium size rooms, such as those in which chamber music is best heard, not so much because it cannot project sufficiently to be heard in large spaces but more because it requires listener proximity allowing perception of the detail it generates, both in itself and in the space it activates.

Guided by voices (IEM #4)

After having written below about the need to introduce constraints into the creative process, and then having fully immersed myself in the composition of the piece, what has become clear is that while it is useful to introduce pre-compositional constraints – establishing a work-concept that informs the creative process – these constraints themselves are only a scaffold which is eventually replaced by the more substantial constraints the work itself gradually establishes the further one moves inside this emergent territory. For example, in working with vocal material for the newly completed Let x = I had presumed that the heterogeneity of voice, the fact that it resonates at causal, semantic, and reduced levels (voice as voice, meaning and sound), could be accomodated in a single work. Certainly it can be and there are plenty of examples of works in which all these levels (and more) are operating simultaneously (one of my favourites remains John Young’s Sju), but in Let x = the constraint that the work itself introduced was a product of exploring the spatial sound environments afforded by IEM’s Ikosaeder (20-channel loudspeaker) and ambisonic hemisphere (24-channels), and the combination of these. In investigating what can be done with these spatially, it quickly became clear that the work was veering away from voice as speech (semantic), and voice as voice (causal) (aside from in a delimited but structurally significant way, i.e. as a means to mark key structural moments in the piece), and that in fact it needed to, wanted to, was going to, do so. The voice as sound, transformed but still vocalesque (voice-like), afforded enough sonic ambiguity and abstraction for sound materials to be utilised spatially without the histrionics of voices that behave like winged creatures or the schizophrenic effects of invisible conclaves, juries and choruses. The outcome is a work that, at least in my reckoning (I don’t need to be reminded that “the author is dead“), through which I manage to achieve one of the initial aims, but which also guided itself in a direction I had not anticipated. In the vocally tinged spatial atmospheres, textures and trajectories of Let x = there is a commingling of voice and environment which I feel fulfils my stated aims of  “the transformation of speech into objects resonating at embodied.. and environmental levels” and the dissolution of  “the barrier between ‘over here’ and ‘over there,’… the illusory boundary between ‘inside and outside’” (Tim Morton). Yet at the same time, the aim of deploying speech “as an ‘interface language’ between the kinaesthetic (nonverbal expression, including music, utterance, gesture and space) and the cenaesthetic (complex cognitive structures, including poetic language and the semantics of music)” has not really begun to be explored, simply because there is so little direct speech in the piece and when speech is heard it is in forms difficult to understand unless one is Indonesian (“Kaki langit,” the foot of the sky is the phrase that opens the piece) or capable of deciphering 6 languages at once (the closing moment of the piece simultaneously introduces the same phrase in English, German, Italian, Farsi, Bengali and Indonesian). Recognising that the piece guided itself is an important thing for me, not only because it recognises the extent to which things themselves have their own propensities and powers to which we are always having to respond (Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics is good on this topic), but also because it means one can feel good about letting one’s own work-concept fall away and trust that engagement with the complex thing-in-itself (shadowy though its being is) will produce an object which is cohesive in its own ways, irrespective of how closely these match with the hypothetical thing it was intended to become. One of the other very satisfying aspects of this is that I can still attempt to compose the piece I thought I was composing, and by concentrating less on spatiality and more on semantics, perhaps a new work will emerge which “[deploys] speech “as an ‘interface language’ between the kinaesthetic… and the cenaesthetic”. Therefore the work itself is not finished. Let x =.


The Voice on Upbeat

Another show on sound-based music for Radio NZ Concert’s Upbeat show (to be aired sometime next week). The 20 min slot explores the voice as mediator of inside/outside, self/other, the act of making ourselves through sound – “My voice is not something I merely have… Rather it is something I do” (Stephen Connor, Dumbstruck: a cultural history of ventriloquism). The following works are featured:

Awkward Ecologies now online

My piece on the awkward ecologies of sound-based music is now available in eContact! 13.3 which “features a selection of articles presented at the 2010 Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium (TES) and further complementary articles addressing contemporary issues of performance, education and composition in the larger EA milieu, and is rounded out with interviews and chats with Canadian and international composers and performers.”


Silence and non-cochlear sound art

Jason Wright drew my attention to the sound installation work of Tristan Perich and Felix Hess. The two works below exemplify a non-cochlear sound art (Seth Kim-Cohen) and are mesmerising proof of sound’s status as the most “withdrawn” of phenomena, with silence as the apotheosis of this: “Silence is not merely negative; it is not the mere absence of speech. It is a positive, a complete world to itself” (Max Picard, in George M Foy’s  Zero Decibels). But clearly neither pole is replete, there is a necessary complicity between sound and silence – “Silence is the ‘other side’ of sound” (Don Ihde, Listening and Voice)

Felix Hess, It's in the air (1996)

Felix Hess’ It’s in the air must beg the question “is it?”. A silence which draws the auditor to the horizon of sound. “Tens of tiny paper vanes move with the imperceptible eddies of air pressure fluctuations in a space. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this installation can create both a heightened sense of hearing, or an awareness of complete silence.”

Tristan Perich’s Breathing Portraits (2005-2010) use sub-audible waveforms to drive naked speaker cones (we all know what these look like, but there’s a photo below) so as to visually represent the breathing patterns of the subjects of these portraits. Sound is cut from its source and reproduced, inaudibly but visibly, and out of this emerges the invisible life-force, the pneuma, that drives the loudspeakers in the first instance. The loudspeaker cone ceases to be the reproductive source of a spectral presence (the invisible source-cause) and becomes an uncanny thing, a hyperobject, the affective power of which derives from its ontological distribution across visible presence (moving loudspeaker cone) and audible absence (human breathing). This, to appropriate Steven Feld’s take on Gregory Bateson’s term, is a rare form of sonic schismogenesis and very beautiful it is too. [and what a shame I can’t embed video without paying for a WordPress video upgrade…]

Tristan Perich, Breathing Portraits – Chris and Tom

Notes towards a programme

Lilburn in the Victoria University EMS

Douglas Lilburn’s electronic music continues to fascinate. I’ve written about it in a number of (offline) contexts, and this Wednesday evening will be helping to present a concert marking the 10th anniversary of his death – 10 years ago today. Here follow notes towards programme notes for the electronic works in the concert, which explores the links between his lesser known piano works and the electronic work. Lilburn’s complete electronic works, by the way, are available as a box set from SOUNZ.

God Save (1972, 1:00). A familiar melody, transformed into wonky bagpipe filigree and, later, towards those birdlike forms so prevalent in the electronic work. It  is no doubt a republican snipe, not least given Lilburn’s focus on the “the discovery of our own [musical] identity” (Lilburn, 1946), and delivered with irreverent antipodean wit.

Five Toronto Pieces – Sings Harry (1963, 5:06). One of Lilburn’s earliest electronic works and it presages many of the features of his mature works in the electronic medium. There is a sparseness, a concern for inharmonic timbres (so characteristic of the technology of the day), a structure defined by refrain (song is never far away in Lilburn’s music), and the sudden opening of the texture into ebullient melody (birds and bagpipes again). Then at the end, somewhat unexpectedly, there is Lilburn, giving voice to a different reading of Denis Glover’s poem. This might be understood as Lilburn revising his own history which in 1963, as Lilburn embarked on a journey into the nascent electronic medium, was still largely defined by the success of the other Sings Harry (1954).

Soundscape with Lake and River (1979, 11:00). Without doubt Lilburn’s best known electronic work. It remains a singular statement, juxtaposing and overlaying field recordings made near Taupo with electronic textures that reflect and refract the natural world of New Zealand which Lilburn held to be key to his aural imagination. Aside from its sheer beauty, the reasons for the work’s significance are best articulated by Lilburn: “I think the last piece that I did [Soundscape with lake and river] really brought me full circle to what I’d been wanting to do all the time: take the natural sound of the river and lake at Taupo and weave it into the texture of the electronic sound and fuse them in some way.”

Triptych (1977, 11:00). This work presents something of summary of many of Lilburn’s signature sounds and techniques, and as ever bears relationship both to his instrumental work (melody always hovering close by) and his engagement with the natural world (birds around tangled horizons). To a contemporary ear, it has an appealing quirkiness and grittiness, which is one reason why these pieces grab the attention of those who are as interested in electronica as Elektronische Musik. More than this though, it is in soundworlds such as this that, as Frederick Page put it, ‘the strangeness, the remoteness, of our world, finds its sound’ (1970).

Awkward Ecologies

My essay on the awkward ecologies of sound-based music is to be published online in eContact! (13.3), the journal of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community. Thanks to Kevin Austin for spotting the essay in this blog, and to Jef Chippewa for his editorial prowess. The piece isn’t hugely changed, but has been softened slightly…