Thoughts on musical experiences, my own works, and who knows what else.
This article was original published in ADSR Zine, April 2019 edition.
Last year, I travelled interstate to an art gallery. I was excited to hear some stereo works of mine diffused alongside a collection of other electroacoustic pieces. This installation-style octophonic diffusion would take place in one of the gallery’s front rooms. The works ran on a three-hour loop that listeners could dip in and out of as they desired.
Alone at first, I sat on a padded bench placed in the centre of a cool, white room. Arranged at regular intervals around the walls were eight high-quality speakers. A small black screen announced the title of the current piece in bright white capital letters. Just enough visual information to contextualise the listening experience.
When your ears are primed to listen in a 360-degree field, you become hyper-aware not only of the incredibly designed sound bursting in the air around you, but of:
In the quiet moments, the hum of the air conditioning moved into the foreground of my awareness. I realised I could differentiate between ambient sounds designed to be perceived as far away in the music, and the dull roadwork noise which bled into the room from the street. As a staunch headphone supporter, I was unused to the subtle sense of distance between myself and the sound source, located approximately 2 metres away in every direction. I left after two hours of impressive electroacoustic diffusion, having come at just the wrong time to hear my own work.
Every reasonable effort had been made to minimise disturbance to the listener; in effect, to make this an ideal listening space. These seemingly small factors were enough to periodically pull me back from complete immersion in the music, even though in other situations, I will happily listen to the unedited, imperfect cityscape with my eyes closed and a smile on my face.
So why did this experience give me a case of the slight irks?
Was I being overly fussy? Most likely. But in a world where smartphones, online dissemination and solo listening is increasingly common, I think my inability to focus on designed sound within the world’s larger, permanent cacophony is not rare. This listening environment insisted, “You cannot hear anything but the composed music!” while infiltrating the same space as those outside world sounds. I don’t believe that the key to creating an ideal listening space (which is subjective anyway) is to hide music further and further away from the world, but to embrace and prepare for the non-ideal listening space. Not ignoring the world around us, but working with it to enhance the musical experience you give your listener. Music for buses? Sure. Compose it in a way that works with the percussion of the bus doors, the bubbling of conversations, but also accounts for the peaceful silence of an empty bus ride. Maybe people will be less likely to crank the volume up too high, trying to drown out the world. But that is a whole other article.
Composing for the non-ideal listening space extends not only to the content, but the dissemination method.Composing for headphones has been successfully explored by many, using spatial and recording techniques to evoke a realistic image of the listener within a certain space. Composers can also subvert this reality, placing the sounding space within the listener. Bernhard Leitner’s 2003 album Kopfräume gives the goose bump-inducing effect of drums rolling joyously around the interior of one’s skull. This use of in-head acoustic imaging demonstrates that the ideal listening space can be, literally, all in your head.
I have an almost exclusive interest in composing stereophonic and monophonic works for what I term “small spaces.” That is, stereo or mono works which are diffused over monitors or through headphones to create intimate, immersive experiences for individuals. This term can also encompass the size or feel of a listening space; whether that is the passenger seat of a car, a train, a tiny office or a bedroom. The worlds which can be conjured between two speakers (or indeed, headphones) is an endless source of curiosity for myself as a composer. While often seen as a stepping-stone to mixing for surround or other large diffusion methods, I truly believe that these spaces can be treated as effective end-points for acousmatic works, that creatively challenge the composer to conjure a universe between two ‘walls.’
While music can bring people together, arguably like nothing else, it can also be a profoundly intimate and personal experience. Music gifts people the ability to escape reality and immerse themselves in another world. As a sound artist, headphones are a way to extend that ability to more listening spaces, both non-ideal and easily accessible. My new work, Paranoia in the Bush, was composed on and for headphones, using field recordings drawn from the Bundanon Homestead in the Shoalhaven. The work features the sounds of vast green fields, a humming forest, the playful splash of river water; however, these are all transferred to inside the cranial cavity, creating a strong sense of introspection that cannot be translated to speakers or shared with others in the moment. I’m hoping that rather than use headphones to isolate, I am simply bringing awareness to the gallery space within.
Alexis’ work can be heard as part of lost+sound’s pop+up ii event, taking place on May 25that ARCHIES in Jubilee Park, Sydney.