Location, Location, Location

(Post 3 of a few reflections arising as I prep for the
Drought in Eden workshop in August at Arrayspace.)

Drought in Eden has two plots.  One is story that can be told in words (as it is in the Old Testament and in the Qur’an).  The other plot is a sound production plan that begins lightly, rises to a climax with five minutes as loud as a commercial Broadway revival and as distorted as a rock show and then comes half way back.  The two plots are coordinated.  Either might be considered an interpretation of the other.   But, though fundamental, I don’t yet know how far we can or should go with that sound production agenda in our one-week workshop with just a three-piece band.

All the more reason for me to want to spell out a bit of my thinking, my way of holding on tighter to what may be postponed.

The artistic contrasts in play have to do with where sound seems to come from, its apparent location, as well as with types of processed sonority.   These have rarely been my central preoccupations, but I’m not entirely new to them.  I heard the premiere in 1962 of Otto Leuning’s Sonority Canon with one live and 32 recorded flutes.  The entering flutes gradually encircled the audience and morphed into a grand bell.  In 2012, I enjoyed an opportunity to work a bit with David McKevy, who made a one-person, 30- loudspeaker auditorium for his compositions of sound images moving in three-dimensions.   (Recently exhibited in Hamilton.)  And the fifty years between those bookmarks continually brought occasions for enlightenment, participation and appreciation in these dimensions of music that were not quite mine.

I reflect below on three sound location encounters from 2005-8.

First in Germany, the Berlin Phil in their Philharmonic Hall.  The orchestra played from raked seating.  I sat in a distant balcony fairly near centre.  The basses were not in the row just behind the cellos but one higher with an empty row in between.  Great sound.  Basses carried beautifully.   The common wisdom that bass sound is hard to locate loses its rationale in a space that big.  What completely surprised me was this:  The empty row was evident to the ear.  The spatial gap in the sound source was a palpable, sensory fact, at least from my seat.  I was some hundreds of feet away.  Couldn’t make out the players mustaches, but the spatial sound shape didn’t budge when I blinked.  In no way did this seem a defect or a virtue.  The facticity of it didn’t distract me from the Mahler.   It didn’t matter except for pointing out to me the precision of aural location.

(Note that this was a prolonged situation, not the quick blip that is typically tested in a perception lab experiment.)   Was the percept suggested by the eyes?  Could be.  But “suggest” is a deceptive word.  The brain integrates data.  That’s in its job description: taste and smell when you eat, touch and kinaesthesia when we shake hands. etc.  What I might have then heard without sight is a good scientific question.  Is it important for aesthetics?  I would say not, but consider this:

Also in Berlin, at the Technical University,  I was invited to a demonstration of wave field synthesis.  Full wave field synthesis like an aural holograph.  No “sweet spot” as in binaural or multi–channel stereo.  The apparent sound source is crystal clear and does not move when you walk around the room.  (The first thing I noticed was relaxation in my neck; I wasn’t unconsciously straining to keep it still.)  In this case, there was nothing for the eyes to do.  We listened to ‘electronic music.’   The apparent sound sources were entirely virtual – fictions or illusions, but appeared to be located in a three-dimensional field with a precision of a few feet if not inches.  This was in a fairly small space with  a modest array of 32 speakers.   Each speaker relays a separately calculated signal.   Something like a MacBook Pro per speaker. (Wiki reports that there is now a hall with 832 speakers at the Technical University in Berlin.)  This technology is pricey and still problematic.  We don’t know yet if it will cash out.

Maybe these matters don’t seem important to you.  They didn’t to me, then.  My passionate concern is the living quality of live performance.  I respected those two surprising encounters with aural location simply as briefly fascinating side shows.   This next raised the ante:

In the 2008 production of The Sound of Music, Toronto, Prince of Wales Theatre, Maria cavorts back and forth and side-to-side on a tilted stage as she sings the title aria.  Had she only cavorted and not sung, the suggestion of the hills of Austria might have been charming.  But at least three quarters of her song came through speakers at the upper sides of the wide stage, speakers too far apart for a stereo effect.  The sound was nebulous and stationary.  Spatially, the voice was decisively separated from the vocalist, as in bad lip synch.  Live theatre is suppose to offer a more intense personal presence than the canned substitute, but for any awake listener, this live presentation, putting eyes and ears in conflict, was more depersonalized than TV & Video.

I acknowledge the record breaking box office.  (The numbers suggest that 1/10th of the GTA saw the show). That’s NO excuse NOT to complain.  36 billion hamburgers sold is NO excuse for fatal doses of trans-fats.  I know that for some folks, going to a live show that looks, sounds and feels like REAL! TV! might be real! exciting.  But we shouldn’t be sure what people want until they have tried an alternative. In conventional theatre, wire head mikes that pretend to be invisible and crass amplification, artificial but denuded of artifice, are not “conventions”.  They are merely sloppy.  Poisonously, they widen the chasm between commercial entertainment and more intense art.  The fault is not Roger’s or Hammerstein’s.  They made a nice contribution though I don’t so much like this, their last work[1].   For all that more challenging art is essential to us, the ecology of healthy culture also wants light, innocent entertainments that are truly ALIVE.  This wasn’t, and its shortcomings cheapen us communally.

Some of my colleagues react (as I did for a long time) by wanting to avoid vocal amplification altogether.

Why amplify?  Aside from the economics, more seats, there are plenty of good reasons for amplification employed critically and artistically.   We all know them.  By and large, amplification is inappropriate to the Bell Canto tradition where the force and beauty (high tone-to-noise ratio) of the voice is identified with the power and glory of operatic characters.  But surely one might argue that, after recording per se, the finest innovation in 20th century music making was to make available to us a global panorama of vocal styles, especially quiet ones, from which we draw our main courses and our best side dishes, many pop recordings, Viet Namese court music,  jazz vocals, African traditional song, etc.  A thousand styles. New possibilities for clear diction.  No, I don’t want to get rid of mikes and amps.   But can’t we use them more honestly?

Put a guy talking into a microphone in the middle of a stage with one loudspeaker 25 feet to his right and another loudspeaker 25 feet to his left.  The result depends on amplification, channel mixing, room acoustics, where you are sitting, etc.  Pay attention.  Maybe close your eyes.   What we typically get is not the stereo effect of a sound source at the center.  The all too common result is a blurry sound like the voice of a fat guy 50 feet wide.  Your ears are smart.  What we want in Drought is for any mike and amp we use to respect their intelligence.  If we put a sound in a “wrong” place, that should be for a right reason.

David Lidov

[1] I admire, for example, the quiet, modest voice and the psychology of denial in “Hello, Young Lovers”—a game changer to my thinking–understatement and subtlety on the mainstage.

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