As Light As Sound: A Gambit In More Ways Than One

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It was an overcast Friday, the 28th of October (ironically two days before my 28th birthday) and I had three assignments due, one I’d already finished and submitted, one I hadn’t even started yet, and one that, though essentially complete, would take the majority of my time all day.

Our final project for our Synergies and Sound Technologies class was a group sound-art installation, based on manifestos we’d developed as group earlier in the semester. Our particular group, The Innovationists, had written an Innovationism manifesto, in the which we ascribed movement, progression and a musical continuum to our music.

Innovationism: A Manifesto

We believe a work should reflect the personal growth, learning or experiences of the composer. These influences should be channelled through a clear purpose in the mind of the composer. It should consequently serve, or be intended to serve, as a catalyst to the learning and life-growth of the individual listener, while thus allowing them the freedom to be influenced in a manner that fosters new music from them, thus forming a cyclical progression, a continuum of progress.

As such, we believe that there are no limits to musical potential, and that each composer should strive for the nouvelle in the their compositions, ie, the creation of new instruments. A piece of music should be progressional in general shape; it should not be limited to one genre, one key, one time signature, one language, or one species, but rather, continually evolving, though each section of a song should be unified in theme and/or purpose, likewise with each song on an album. Continuity is key, and the potential continuum is therefore infinite. As such, there can never be silence, as sound must continue, if only quietly. Finally, we believe that music should not resolve to the tonic at the end of a piece, but be left to continue on in the mind of the listener, thus enabling them to further the sonic continuum as they see fit.

To help facilitate our idea of a musical continuum, we want to build a rotating sound setup, using a feature of the natural landscape as our centrepoint. We’ll have five small speakers in the tree with corresponding spotlights, subwoofer under a bench, and mono audio which will fade from channel to channel every six seconds, slowly circling around the tree, with coloured spotlights signalling the movement to the listener, not only by a physical shift in lighting, but also by moving through the colour spectrum.

This, and the other limitations we’d set forth in our manifesto, resulted in widely different interpretations of music, but for cohesion and continuity we placed a low C-drone underneath the four of our pieces, so they had that were connected and that there was no silence at any point.

My original plan to build a piece in which no two sounds “sound” at the same time had failed miserably and I had started from scratch just a week before, building the brunt of my composition in Sibelius, a format I was more familiar with, and then adding drums, effects and virtual instrument sounds in ProTools.

Because our pieces had to be exhibited, there was literally no way I could miss this due date, and the day was spent setting up the lights and speakers, formatting our pieces into one giant ProTools session and troubleshooting anything that came up, which turned out to be the threat of rain, technological incompatibilities, timewasting Skype training meetings for work, and many human errors, several of which, as the group’s so-called ProTools “expert”, I was obligated to solve.

Eventually though, at 4:57pm, three minutes before the event’s start-time, we were ready. Anything that could have been resolved and made better had been. We had a passable sound installation prepared.

And so it began.

The subwoofer droned a low C and my composition began playing, jumping from speaker to speaker every six seconds following perfectly the array of coloured lights we’d set up to move through a simple colour spectrum around the paperbark tree, the symbol not only of life and growth and Australianism that was the centrepiece of our installation, but of the beauty of battered, imperfect and scarred things, which most of us would classify our pieces as.

As my composition moved perpetually around the tree, and the drone stayed constant, each attendee could have a unique and different aural experience depending on where they stood and how they interacted spatially with our pieces.

In an ironic and completely unplanned twist of fate, we’d ordered our pieces in the exact sequence our names were listed on the programme. Our pieces, so widely different, somehow fit well together, each having their own creepy vibe, and sharing different elements in common with each other.

It never rained, but our sequence didn’t loop as we’d hoped and had to be reset every eighteen minutes, but that was a simple matter of hitting the spacebar, waiting fifteen seconds for the lights to go back around to where it all synced up and then hitting the spacebar again.

All in all, it was a fabulous experience, and ours was definitely my favourite installation of the evening. Though you may not have been there or missed my piece in its entirety, I videoed my POV following my song around the tree, which you can watch by following the link below, so you’ll be able to gain some of the experience of actually being there.

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