Vertex, an Approach to Performance-Installation
Video documentation of the performance installation shows the “sense of space as the listener explores the installation” with a voice-over introduction and a soundtrack built on recordings the artists made with passers-by and the installation itself over three days. Vertex was presented live at the Des Carrières Incinerator 24–26 September 2004.
The creation of Vertex, by Andrew Watson and Nicolas Basque, emerged from different collaborations in the domains of dance and improvised electronic music. Our association is founded around similar ideas with regards to sound, artistic sensibility and a desire to realize our aesthetic.
Through the use of different technologies (computers, samplers, multi-effects, etc.) we have been developing techniques and a vocabulary designed specifically for improvisation. We use found sounds, field recordings, of urban and natural settings, as well as recordings of the human voice (crowd sounds, single voice, singing, narration, interviews). The range in types of sound is augmented during collaborations with other performers (musicians, dancers, actors, etc.). The important human quality inherent in these sounds leads to a richness and dimension that resonates closely with our stylistic goals. Our performances are generally site-specific, calling for a series of on-site recordings prior to the event. These sounds, transformed and layered become symbols integrated into an abstract sonic environment directly linked to the space of presentation.
We are particularly interested in the elements of performance, multi-speaker configurations, audience percpetion, sound installation and in interaction between disciplines. Each performance context allows us a unique opportunity to explore the qualities of situation and circumstance through concepts and techniques developed to exploit the particular time and space. Our latest projects have focused on the use of asymmetric speaker configurations designed within a space to stimulate a mobile audience, a subject we explored in 2003, with funding from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.
1.2 Research on symmetric and assymetric speaker configurations for performance-installations
Carried out in autumn 2003, our research was divided into three sections: the creation of a bank of sounds, improvisation on symmetric speaker setups (including octophonic) and improvisation on assymetric speaker setups.
Our sound banks were composed of various recordings made throughout Montreal and within our studio. Evaluating and trimming the sounds based on their sonic, symbolic and metaphoric qualities, we setup our equipment and began improvising in stereo. These improvisations allowed us to discover and define an aesthetic proper to our individual styles.
The next stage was oriented towards the research of perceptual and psychoacoustic qualities of different speakers placed in symmetric configurations. We started with an octophonic setup using: solos (center front), front, side and rear speaker placements. This system offered us a certain flexibility as well as a good replication of sound movement between speakers given a centered listener. From there we tried a variety of non-traditional, but symmetric, setups and investigated the perceptions of a mobile listener. It was obvious that a movement from one speaker to another was perceived quite differently depending on the listener's placement in the room. The speaker, newly defined as a point source, became a localized source for sound increasing the separation between speakers. We investigated these relations further, exploring the perceptual qualities of speaker placement, diffusion techniques and listener position before applying this knowledge to the final stage of our research.
For four weeks we evaluated 10 different assymetric speaker configurations, each defining their own sonic space and each requiring different diffusion techniques. This period of our research allowed us to discover many possibilities and to explore the creation of different sonic architectures. The space could be physically divided (providing compositional tools as well), and speakers could be varied in orientation and height. The effect of deconstructing the space defeated the concept of a sweet spot, or focal point typical of a traditional octophonic setup, providing each listener with an equally 'sweet' and unique sonic experience. Compostionally, these configurations also permitted us increased flexibility in terms of dynamics and distinction with regards to the placement of different sounds.
Through this research we have appropriated assymetric speaker configurations into our common style, creating concepts for sound spaces aimed towards a mobile audience in the form of performance-installations.
Types of Multi-Speaker Presentation
2.1 Standard Stereo Diffusion
Typically, many multi-speaker concerts use a stereo CD or DAT source. The stereo signal is split up to the various pairs of speakers around the room while keeping the left/right arrangement of the composition. Generally, the console faders are adjusted by stereo pair, keeping in tact the lateral movement of the piece. This allows the diffusion performer to spatially mix the composition, and create additional movement and effects. Speaker configurations vary, but are almost always symmetrical with a seated audience. This type of setup is prone to the creation of a single ‘sweet spot’ at a common focal point usually located at either the mixing console or in the center of the audience. The speakers have a range of placements including: double diamond, shoebox and octophonic. Additional speakers can provide more perceptual effects. They can be placed in the front (solos) for proximity and prominent effect, in the distance for natural reverb, above or in the middle of the audience and sub-woofers can be added (with volume controlled at the console). At the hands of an experienced diffuser, the composition can gain new life and dynamics based on the mixing and placement choices. Knowledge of psychoacoustics can also break the stereo pattern inherent in the source and create the illusion of a multi-channel work.
2.2 Multi-Channel Presentation
Many multi-channel pieces are pre-recorded for a given setup. This allows the composer to have detailed control over the final diffusion of the work. Common media include ADAT, DA88 and computer. Many of the works are created for an octophonic speaker placement.
There is also the possibility of doing a live mix from a multi-channel source. This generates new flexibilities and implies a different compositional attitude. Sounds can be arranged for performance to be mixed and diffused to create a unique composition.
A sound installation refers to an open-ended and on-going sound art exhibition. It “can be a musical equivalent of a sculpture, an aural experience designed for a space generally used for the exhibition of visual art or a site-specific work”. (http://www.mti.dmu.ac.uk/EARS/) It is designed to be temporally independent with no definite start or end (although at times looped). The focus is not performance oriented, but at times will have interactive elements.
A sound installation can take many forms. It can be presented in combination with visual arts, for example with video, sculpture or photography. It can use any number of speakers, including none at all in the case of sound producing objects or resonating structures. The speakers can exploit properties of the space or have a set configuration for the exhibit. Location can range from gallery to outdoor spaces.
2.4 Performance Installation
Performance installation mixes the qualities of a fixed installation with at least one performer present. This could incorporate theatre, dance, or instruments into the setting. It is interesting to contrast this form with a normal performance situation in that the duration is often much longer than usual and the audience is mobile and free to come and go.
Regarding multi-speaker presentation, this allows a flexible medium on which to explore asymmetric speaker configurations, peculiarities of the space and sound material. This sets the stage for the interplay between improvisation, space and audience.
3.1 Types of Performance
Having a flexible setup allows us to take advantage of different performance situations. We have a range of possibilities at our disposal depending on the equipment and time available, the space, personnel and concept.
In terms of speaker arrangements, a mono or stereo setup would be the most basic. Sending our signals through small amplifiers or through an in-house PA is quite a different experience from a multi-speaker environment. Two speakers are limiting, first in terms of accessible space and then consequently in terms of density and frequency. Without having to worry about diffusion, however, more attention can be paid to the development of the sounds.
Having more speakers available to us opens up a range of possibilities. The addition of point sources allows sounds to interact more fully with their environment. Interplay between speakers and being able to take advantage of the specific characteristics of a site create a unique experience for composer and listener alike. With increased control over the sound space, new elements can be incorporated. Besides room acoustics and sound diffusion (travel), options open up not only in terms of frequency and density (sounds previously cluttered have more trajectories to roam) but conceptually. For example, dedicated or symbolic speaker assignments are often made to fix a message or meaning at a point in the room.
Our multi-speaker presentations often take the form of a performance installation. The speaker placements, sound sources and concepts are usually drawn directly from the space itself and from the context in which the installation is being presented. A little more on this will be discussed later.
In a non-performance setting, one option is to present a pre-recorded composition on multi-track. Other performance possibilities include a live diffusion of a stereo composition, or simply a multi-speaker performance without the qualities of an installation. The latter usually occurs when collaborating with an instrumentalist or with another performance discipline.
In our multi-disciplinary work we have collaborated mostly with dancers, video artists, and storytellers. Other interesting possibilities would include theatre, visual arts, light design and other interactively stimulating domains. Working with other disciplines allows for new levels of dynamics as approaches and modes of expression blend and contrast. Strong similarities exist, for example, between a dancer’s movements through space and the movement of our own sound gestures diffused to the speakers.
3.2 Site-specific Performance-Installations
Implications of a site-specific installation are varied and determined through a number of aspects involving many creative decisions. The relation of sounds to the location, their level of interactivity, the configuration of speakers and underlying concept and approach are all examples of factors involved. Taking advantage of the peculiarities of a space and transforming it according to its native properties can imbue rewarding sonic qualities.
Compounded with a performance element, this installation format has strong possibilities to further relate to the space and its audience. Constructed for a mobile and chronologically casual public, elements of real-time control have strong adaptational abilities that can create a personalized and unique experience. Examples of this would include an interactive microphone setup for the audience and surroundings or spatializations designed with a particular audience member in mind.
Developing material and compositions for a particular environment can have a powerful effect on the perception of the space. The reverse can be said with equal weight. The binding of an installation to a site can have profound perceptual effects and create an immersive mind/body experience. The physical presence of the space accompanied by all its indications (visual, sonic - through natural reverberations, smell, temperature, etc.) lends itself directly to the performance. When used effectively, the space can adopt new liveliness.
3.3 Final Notes
We enjoy the challenge of adapting to a space and creating an environment that can be experienced uniquely. Site-specific concepts and asymmetric architectures combined with the element of live performance allow us to transform a space creatively using its qualities and function.
Our past performances have varied. Alongside improvisational dance group ‘Instant’, we interacted with the dancers in terms of gestures, concept and tone – setting the stage with a placement of speakers. At Bruits du Noir (a concert held in complete darkness), we sampled the audience in the minutes before the show and created a composition from their raw and transformed sounds (in the dark!). For an installation in the Concordia University library’s atrium, we interacted with passersby (both willing and non) through live microphones setup to capture and process in real-time. At the abandoned incinerator during Desert, we filled the empty dumping area with recollections, facts and sounds native to the building in the aim of re-instilling its history and activity once present.