Auditory Space and Culture

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An Electroacoustic Music Studio in a School of Architecture and Design

In Music Forum, Vol 7 No.2, (Dec 2000), I wrote about the project to establish a soundscape centre in the Capitol Theatre at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). The short article was essentially a report on developments and speculations as, at the time, the project was rapidly evolving. In this article, I describe the culmination of this project and the foundation of the SIAL Sound Studios; an electroacoustic music studio based in the school of Architecture and Design at RMIT University. The Studios now comprise dedicated spatial sound studios, several modes of research and undergraduate subjects, and a cultural program.

Background

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The Studios form part of the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory (SIAL), a '...facility for innovation in transdisciplinary design research and education. It embraces a broad range of investigative modes, involving both highly speculative and industry linked projects. SIAL is concerned with the integration of technical, theoretical and social concerns as part of its innovation agenda.[1]

The Studios were officially opened in December 2004, following a three-year development period and a series of start-up projects. Teaching and research is predominately conducted by project, with an emphasis on production and making as opposed to measurement and analysis of numerical data. Software platforms support processes such as auralisation,[2] sound synthesis and processing, spatial audio mixing and mastering, and music production. Other equipment is available for studio and field based recording in stereo, array and ambisonic formats.

Current activity streams include contract research, post-graduate and government funded research, undergraduate design studios and electives, and public events. Further details are provided on the website.[3] Central to all streams is a privileging of sound as its own best representation. In all other parts of the school, the primary mode of representation is visual, whereas a central aim of the Studio is to make design audible. At the undergraduate level, this is pursued by an experiential mode of learning and further exemplified in the CitySounds research project discussed later. The operational paradigm for the Studios is one where projects may utilise five general development or production modes. While project modes may be interchanged depending on development and evolution of ideas, the need to maintain efficient use of the Studio facilities led us to avoid certain scenarios, for example, where the main studio is booked for Max/MSP development that could be undertaken on a desktop system or in the small studio.

The six main research and production workspaces and scenarios are:

  1. Desktop systems – early development and experiments in software and/or small hardware configuration using headphone or stereo monitoring. Work at this level might include Max/MSP, sound file processing and editing or model building for auralisation.
  2. Small studio – interim stage where multi-channel sound output is needed, but a critical listening environment is not required, for early to mid-stage composition, editing, track arrangement or sound processing development on a 4 channel system.
  3. The Pod – an 8-16 channel spatial sound studio with re-configurable speaker system, around a central production and listening location. This space is close to anechoic. Work modes include individual research and production, final mastering, recording for the purposes of auralisation, sound design for gaming environments, spatial sound composition, and small group presentations.
  4. n-space – a space for collaborative work, rehearsals, presentations and formal lectures equipped with a re-configurable 8-12 channel system, computer, data projector, large screen and large LCD screens.
  5. Sound diffusion system – presentation on a concert system of around 30 speakers.
  6. Environmental recording – using stereo, array or ambisonic recording technologies.

New Futures for Electroacoustic Studios

There are compelling reasons why experimental tertiary sound studios need not exist. From the 1950’s into the early 1990’s, computer and electronic music studios were necessary to aggregate expensive specialist equipment for a relatively small number of expert users. What is sometimes referred to as the democratisation of technology means individuals can now afford the resources needed for digital audio research and production, such as sophisticated software, computers with fast processor speeds and larger quantities of storage media. Net-based resources support individuals to disseminate their creative output and access a wide range of technical information. Studios were once primary custodians of technical information that is now more readily, although not exclusively, available in books, magazines, on-line forums and support sites or discussion lists.

In establishing the Studios, I believed it was critical to clearly articulate an alternative to historical and current practice. Electroacoustic music studios on the scale of SIAL’s are typically based in music schools, where research and production tends to focus on sound synthesis and technology development, music perception, performance and composition. The positioning of the Studios within SIAL and a School of Architecture and Design enables us to investigate auditory spatial experience within a broader cultural and social context of the built environment and more specifically, alongside other environmental disciplines and emerging design practices.

Before fast desktop computers were readily available, one motivation for studying electroacoustic music at an institution was access to expensive equipment and studio time. As more complex programs became available to home studio users, the need to access specialist equipment in an institutional environment lessened. The appearance of computer music tools as stand alone applications or environments usually simplified their operation for the end user. While the positive and negative merits of this situation remain debatable, it challenges a response from institutional studios to re-invent their role as places of learning, research and cultural production. As the sound program and studios at SIAL develop, we are addressing this changed environment by creating a facility where researchers from diverse design disciplines, representing the visual, aural, digital and physical aspects of the environment, are co-located, and where the disciplines themselves are able to converge. The physical studios and associated listening conditions support collaboration and learning. During the intensive learning period of an undergraduate course, critical listening skills are developed best if sound materials are presented in a way that can demonstrate subtle qualitative differences. While The Pod studio is the isolated space for critical listening and production, other spaces are also acoustically treated to limit impacts of air-conditioner noise and sound reflections.

Further, all spaces have, or are can support, the use of spatial sound systems for most learning and research activities. Access to this type of configuration in all spaces is one aspect that can differentiate a home from institutional studio, although spatial sound systems in project studios are achievable at relatively low cost. Other attractive conditions cited by post-graduate candidates include access to a quality mastering environment, opportunity to use the diffusion system, critical feedback from staff and colleagues, collaboration with other disciplines and equipment resource for preparing and presenting larger projects.

The Ensemble of Elements

Many readers will be aware of the complex processes required to start up any venture within the tertiary sector. What I focus on next are the elements of the studio as a working facility. Many parts of RMIT have strong links to their industry sectors and since opening, we have been developing various ways that we work with existing University programs, external partners and the general community.

Auditory Learning in a School of Architecture and Design

A design studio[4] in architectural education is a mode of teaching by ‘the project’. In most cases, the project is expressed through a brief, which might propose an actual site, a theoretical proposition, or a general or specific issue requiring design response and resolution. Design studios run parallel to single subjects and electives, where historical, theoretical or technical subjects are taught. A teaching studio is a semester long subject – around 13 weeks – of around 3-5 contact hours per week, requiring another 6–12 hours of work by the students per week. The outcome from a design studio might include substantial design drawings or digital representations, built scale models, and in some instances, fully constructed designs. A design studio is a mode of learning that is simultaneously applied and theoretical, combined with learning experiences to prepare students for professional practice. Traditionally, these outcomes have not contained any consideration of sound or aural realisation of the project, which is a situation we are actively addressing.

To develop in design students an awareness of the role played by listening in spatial experience, practical activities to enhance their production, analytical and conceptual skills relating to sound are simultaneously applied. Listening exercises are conducted using parts of the sound diffusion system, selected sites in and around the city, and other media. This experiential mode of learning is the ground on which students’ further expand their knowledge of auditory experience and the acoustic environment before branching into disciplines such as acoustics, psychoacoustics and electroacoustics. In the initial learning stages, the multi-disciplinary approach of acoustic ecology and its listener-centred model is ideal for educating architects and designers whose practice will substantially affect the future acoustic conditions of the built environment.

There is a distinguishable difference between the educational aims of schools of music, and those of architecture. Having attended and taught in both, I can make the following observation about production of work. In a school of architecture and design, making is paramount. It is discussed, explained, reflected upon, debated. The physical conditions and properties of making are critical to understanding design as a creative act, and the purpose of design in the contemporary world. In music schools, musicians are taught to perform music, not to make music. I would argue the purpose of a musical education should be focussed on a broader agenda of making, which would encompass not just the rehearsal and playing of repertoire, but extend to the social functions of music, programming and performing for a plethora of acoustic conditions and spaces, collaboration between musicians and other disciplines, project and concert management, dissemination of ideas through all types of media, building relationships with audiences and communities, and music as just one manifestation of human auditory spatial experience.

Currently two electives are offered from the Studios across the University – Soundscape Studies, and Spatial Sound Composition and Diffusion. These electives and three more in development are pathways through which different disciplines access the Studios. For example, engineering students may be technically proficient but in need of a cultural context to their work. Similarly, a design student may be highly skilled at visual spatial representation but needs to learn and explore more about spatial sound design.

Concerts and Presentations

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In the teaching activities of the Studios, 20th century and contemporary music are used as models for auditory spatial design, for ideas about time and temporal organization, approaches to notation and the diagram of ideas, and to explore the aural experience of the sounding world through instrumental and electroacoustic music composition. In the lecture setting, stereo audio recordings might suffice for general understanding of a musical or sound-based composition, but a performance brings the music to its intended moment of reception: a concert setting with an insistence on attention and listening.

Through intersecting research endeavours, three sites of practice are emerging for the Studios: spatial sound concerts, urban acoustic design interventions and large-scale electroacoustic installations. Most practices of art and design have an enduring quality, ensured by the stability of their materials and constructions. Sound-based practices are momentary, needing specific conditions to ensure they have a continuing cultural presence. The evolving concert program of the Studios is equivalent to the visual exhibition of other parts of the School, and is seen for its potential as catalyst; for a discourse on spatial sound design, the aurality of contemporary culture and the qualities of spatial auditory experience.

During the start-up phase (2002-04) the development team supported two international conferences[5] and presented the work of over 30 composers. Since opening, the Spectrum series has been established as the public concert series based on composition and performance work of staff, post-graduates, associates and guests. Spectrum 01 (Horti Hall, 3-4 December 2004) and Spectrum 02 (BMW Edge, 2-4 May 2006) included new works composed in the studios, along with the Australian premiere of Stockhausen’s Klavierstucke XVI, performed by Dr. Michael Fowler. In July this year, a pilot project concert to test another programming approach was held in RMIT’s Storey Hall. The format of the event included a 10-minute talk on the works and recent research related to the pieces, followed by a 50-minute concert. The repertoire was selected for its relationship to a design studio and research project then being undertaken in the Studios. The Fermata design studio was investigating notions of the pause in the city, and the provision of sites-of-respite, expressed through works where silence is a primary structural device of a composition. And works influenced by Japanese garden design, related to the Teimu project (see below), formed the second programming theme.[6] The one-hour format will next be used for a series in late 2007, exploring auditory spatial awareness and the urban environment, involving a series of performances through the CBD of Melbourne, based on particular sonic effects created through the built environment.

Postgraduate Research

The current post-graduate cohort come from five home disciplines; composition, performance, architecture, acoustics and computer science. The Studios now occupy an independent stream in the School’s Graduate Research Conference, a three-day event held twice a year where post-graduates present work in progress or make their final examination presentations. Research projects of the cohort range from auditory architectural designs, spatial electroacoustic composition and performance, environmental sound synthesis for virtual applications and interaction design.

Community Soundscape Research

CitySounds was a community soundscape survey undertaken for the local government noise unit of the City of Melbourne. The project was built on the unique integration of three main digital assets: a 3D navigable visual model of an indicative inner city Melbourne precinct with detailed urban soundscape, an embedded survey, and a technique to send survey results from users’ computers to host servers at RMIT. The Jet game engine from Auran was used to deliver the project. The aim of the survey was to investigate community awareness of and attitudes to a range of sounds in a variety of contexts in the Central Business District (CBD) of Melbourne. The main purpose of the survey was to provide the City of Melbourne with a broad scope of information to help with the development and implementation of noise management initiatives using existing instruments such as legislative guidelines and design and management interventions. The survey also provided information to assist design of future initiatives such as information campaigns for inner-city residents, the general community, and for targeted industries such as entertainment, construction and retail businesses.

Survey respondents could self-navigate the 3D environment, or be automatically ‘walked’ through the virtual precinct, answering survey questions in pop-up windows at specific locations. At these locations, the sounds of the soundscape correlated to the survey questions of the location. A research and production team of sound designers, 3D modellers, programmers and a social scientist produced CitySounds. The development process of the survey and digital model took around eight weeks, and the project was 'live' for seven months. The virtual environment was released online, made available on CDs, and could be accessed at city based libraries. The survey answers for each participant were collected online at three servers housed in the SIAL Sound Studios. Around 600 people completed the 20-minute survey, generating 3,949 reportable results. A copy of the full survey report, including executive summary and findings is available from the website.[7] Recommendations made in the final report for acoustic design initiatives have since been included in Council’s draft urban design strategy.

ARC Research

Another example of a project that draws on a team with expertise in diverse disciplines is the Australian Research Council (ARC) funded project Teimu (The Garden of Dreams): aural and aesthetic attributes of Japanese gardens as models for spatial environments. This three-year project is an investigation into the design principles of Japanese gardens, with a particular emphasis on sonic and visual articulation devices that propagate such spaces. It is the combination of highly composed visual and auditory information in such spaces that characteristically defines their aesthetic of refinement and unification. Through a detailed mapping procedure on five sample Japanese gardens spaces, that includes the acquisition of data-sets comprised of multi-channel (ambisonic) recordings and geometric measurements, project-specific software will be developed to actively engage in the representation of such data-sets as a series of projective schemas. The project team is comprised of researchers from architecture, music and sound design backgrounds.[8] With the analysis and quantitative documentation of specific Japanese garden sites, the project proposes the modelling of 2D schemas and 3D objects that will serve as utilities for future sound designers, urban planners, architects, composers and performers. The project is a direct investigation into the process of documentation and translation of the principles in Japanese garden design, to which the products of the research will be suitable for a variety of practitioners in a host of other spatial disciplines to interpret, comment, and realize in a number of different ways through a number of different media.

Team members recently completed a field trip and pilot study that involved making extensive 2-, 5- and 7-channel audio recordings, and collecting other visual and spatial data from two gardens in Tokyo (Koishikawa Korakuen and Kyu Furukawa Teien). Japanese gardens are an embodiment of a number of cultural predilections, mapped out and created as a physical manifestation of form through nature. Through the pilot study, the project has identified underlying traits of aurality in Japanese garden design, and positions the methodology as a precedent for future applications of the study into disciplines such as architecture, urban planning and spatial sound design. In a recent publication on the field trip, we reported on the potential for using multi-channel recordings as valuable tools for spatial reconstructions of the visited sites, how graphic and text based analytical tools can be developed from a combination of architectural and music based representational systems, and how through an eco-structuralist approach, source material from the original garden spaces, analysed and assessed after digital signal processing, can provide a qualitatively based comparative measure of pitch, texture, and spatiality of the original garden soundscapes.

Final

When compared to the visual representation of space, the notion of the soundscape or acoustic environment is a relatively new one in western culture. As R.Murray Schafer observed, it is electroacoustic recording and reproduction technologies that have substantially influenced these emerging concepts. Within the Studios, we don’t teach music, we teach with music. Music can embody knowledge of the auditory world, a significant aspect of the human experience of space and time preserved in composition and actualised through performance. If, as Margaret Wertheim has asserted, ‘…our spatial schemes are not only culturally contingent, they are also historically contingent…’,[9] the contemporary convergence of electroacoustic practices with spatial studies might be the catalyst to generate new concepts for auditory spatial design and spatial experience.[10]

[1]

References

  1. From http://www.sial.edu.au. Accessed December 1, 2006.
  2. Auralisation is a process for predicting the acoustic performance of a yet to be constructed space. Through digital signal processing, source-receiver relationships can be created and aurally demonstrated, displaying reasonably accurate acoustic performance.
  3. For further details of projects, staff and post-graduate research, see http://sial.sound.rmit.edu.au. Accessed December 1, 2006.
  4. Design studio as used here means a mode of teaching, not a physical space.
  5. Australian Computer Music Conference (6-8 July, 2002 with VCA) and Australian Forum for Acoustic Ecology Conference (19-23 March, 2003). Refer http://sound.sial.rmit.edu.au/Events.php
  6. The full program was Landscape (1971): Peter Sculthorpe (b.1929), Ryoanji (1983): John Cage (1912-92), 6 Japanese Gardens (1995): Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952), and 4'33" (1952): John Cage.
  7. Refer http://sound.sial.rmit.edu.au/Projects.php. Accessed December 1, 2006.
  8. Lawrence Harvey (CI), Professor Peter Downton, Dr Greg Missingham (The University of Melbourne), Mr Alexander Selenitsch (The University of Melbourne), Dr Michael Fowler (Australian Post-Doctoral Fellow).
  9. Wertheim, M. (2000). The pearly gates of cyberspace: a history of space from Dante to the Internet. Sydney, Doubleday. Page 307.
  10. Harvey, L., Folwer, M. Teimu (Garden of Dreams): aural and aesthetic attributes of Japanese gardens as models for spatial environments. Proceedings of The West meets the East in Acoustic Ecology Conference. Japanese Association for Sound Ecology (JASE) and Hirosaki University International Music Centre (HIMC). Editors Tadahiko Imada, Kozo Hiramatsu and Keiko Torigoe. ISBN 4-9903332-1-7

Author

Lawrence Harvey. First published in Music Forum, February-April 2007. Submitted 5 April 2008.

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