site-specific composition

site-specific composition

The topicality of site-specific composition

backgroundPosted by hansroels.be May 31, 2016 09:12
Since the 20th century contemporary classical music and site-specific sound art are deeply related to each other and I am convinced that in the future the influence of site-specific arts on music will grow. Some themes common to both, are well-known: for example the attention for popular and non-western culture or the fascination for silence, noise and (environmental) sound. But in this post I want to focus on three other themes which also disclose parallels between site-specific and contemporary music: the many-sided character of sound perception, its multi-sensorial nature and the artists' call for sustainable, local solutions to global social and ecological problems.


The many-sided nature of environmental sound is much more than just the spatialization of sounds. For example, on a market place, there is not just one central sound (on a stage) but many sources. People listen from changing positions to different things and they do so by integrating their own ideas, habits, feelings and history. At the same time these people have the experience that they are sharing a space – the market – and they are part of a common soundscape. The raise of portable technologies has added a digital, virtual dimension to this many-sided character: in a market place people use their mobile phone or search on the internet with a smartphone or tablet. They partly move in a virtual world which is connected to the common market place.

In our daily world the experience of sound is also multi-sensorial. Together with visual and tactile experiences it forms a holistic experience at one specific location. For example, hearing the wind blow is usually coupled to feeling it in your face or seeing trees and objects move. The different simultaneous sensorial experiences create a complex and diverse array of unified experiences of which the auditory experience is only one part. Music and sound are not isolated, independent experiences.

In the past decades an increasing number of composers and performers became fascinated by this many-sided and multi-sensorial character of the sound experience. Within the (isolated) concert hall, technology has been used to recreate this experience. In contemporary classical music the number of productions and compositions which not only involve multimedia (video, sensors,…) but also produce sound and image from many perspectives (as in the work of Michael Beil) continues to raise. Site-specific arts have a major trump card in this respect: they do not need to reconstruct the many-sidedness and multi-sensoriality with a lot of technological devices, it is often an inextricable part of a specific outside location. Moreover, the artist can focus on the interaction of the new digital worlds and the real, local place, in contrast with the concert hall in which the isolated, technological, virtual world is often placed in the foreground.

A next theme is sustainability. In recent years more artists began to tackle questions such as: “How can my art help to realize a more sustainable and equitable world? How can I enforce the local power of people and not of international economic and political institutions?” This convergence of artistic and societal concerns is noticeable in festivals such as (im)Possible Futures in Vooruit (2015, Belgium), the international conference Culture(s) in sustainable futures (2015) or the recent term sustainable art. Art critics use this term to describe artistic practices operating in harmony with principles of ecology, social justice, non-violence and grassroots democracy. Already in the seventies site-specific composers such as David Dunn stressed the local elements in their outdoor performances, and the work of Chester Schultz shows that site-specific music can develop into sustainable art. In the intersection between site-specific and sustainable art it is necessary to mention community music, a concept that stresses and fosters the social and relational aspects of performing music for all people. Community music encompasses a wide array of practices, some with a long history. But in the past decades the attention for community music has grown, specifically in the English-speaking countries such as the UK or Australia. In some site-specific music projects (a.e. Kathy Kennedy or Het Geluid van Hasselt en Genk with compositions of Wim Henderickx) both listeners and amateur musicians participate, which blurs the borders between site-specific and community music.

The previous three themes and relations indicate that a movement 'outwards' is likely to appear in contemporary music because it is outside the concert hall that these relevant and topical themes can be fully exploited. I also think that in contemporary classical music there is a complex and fundamental contradiction between the music and the expressed ideas on the one hand, and the closed, isolated hall with its related social rituals (between audience and performers, audience and composer) in which it is caught. I hope that moving performances to other locations, in a dialogue with the surroundings, breathes new life to contemporary classical and experimental music...



Inside and outside soundscapes

actionPosted by hansroels.be Apr 25, 2016 21:27
Auditory field is a term that can be used by analogy with visual field. It refers to the area around a listener in which sound sources are audible. I guess that in an open area the auditory field has a range of a few tens of meters (of course, this also depends on how loud the sound sources are). But in a city acoustic obstacles such as walls and houses are omnipresent and limit the sound propagation. The insulation of these walls and windows has improved and a specific 'inside' and 'outside' sound experience has come into existence. For example, when you open a window at home, you suddenly hear another sound world, even though you are still standing in your room. What you experience as inside or outside not only depends on the kind of sounds and the familiarity with these sounds, but also on the distance and direction from which they reach you and the effects (reverb, filter, etc.) produced by the architecture of the indoor and outdoor spaces.

At this moment I am working on Kier (working title), opening and closing the doors of the concert hall is an integral part of this composition. The audience can hear the sounds from outside the hall through the doors. Three performers, including two percussionists, play in this work. One percussionist also performs outside the concert hall and becomes audible through these doors.

An additional setup with multichannel amplifications transports sounds in real time from outside the hall to inside. There are microphones outside the building that pick up environmental sounds (including the percussionist playing outside) and these are mixed (by the third performer) and played back on the speakers in the hall. This third performer can partly zoom in on the acoustic sounds that are heard through the doors.

In some parts I also give the performed music, on the stage, the characteristics of outside sounds. This is achieved by a polyphonic, simultaneous writing style (fragments performed in different locations of the hall) and a specific amplification of the inside percussion. A dynamic directional microphone is attached to a foot of the percussion player to ensure that the performed music sounds 'from a distance' and with background noises (foot steps). By the mobility of the performers, the live amplification system and the manipulation of the doors between the hall and the outside world, the auditory field in the hall can be enlarged and new overarching and intermediate (auditory) spaces – between inside and outside – can be created.

A hall with at least one opening (door or window) through which the outside can be heard, is required for the performance of this composition. In December 2015 I tried out a first version on a concert in the School of Arts Ghent with Ruben Martinez Orio, Michiel De Naegel and myself as performers. This was a very 'premature', short version: Kier was still conceived as a solo percussion work with two assistants and the percussionist only played inside the hall.

This
is a recording of a fragment of a rehearsal in December 2015, the environmental sounds consist of working and talking building laborers, machines, rehearsing music students and the carillon of the belfry. This is a quick recording, take into account that it is extremely difficult to present the difference between acoustic and amplified-recorded sound through a recording! The recorded fragment starts around number 14 in this sketch.



About this research project on site-specific composition

about this projectPosted by hansroels.be Feb 02, 2016 14:36
At the end of the sixties artistic developments to leave the concert hall and value any sound as art objects, coincided with rising environmental concerns in society. Acoustic ecology (and the World Soundscape Project) came into existence and its influence spread over a wide range of artistic and research domains. Sound walks (Christina Kubisch), soundscapes based on field recordings (Hildegard Westerkamp) and compositions mapping data of natural phenomena (John Luther Adams) are just a few of the new sounds arts that appeared in the aftermath of acoustic ecology.

But a concert practice in dialogue with the direct environment is less present, i.e. performers shaping a composition and its performance with the sounds, acoustic features, visual images, architecture and human activities of the performance location. In my current artistic research the focus is on site-specific composition (in Dutch 'compositie op locatie'). I mainly built upon the insights and practices of composers such as Murray Schafer, David Dunn, Albert Mayr and Chester Schultz but audio art, sound installations and community music also play an important role.

Theoretically I will revitalize the concept 'simultaneity' from the first half of the twentieth century and let it interact with writers and researchers from audio art and ecological sciences (such as Steven Feld, David Rothenberg or Tim Ingold). In our society electric, electronic and digital devices are not the only force to disconnect and dislocate sensorial experiences. We see the other side of the planet on a phone screen while local enviromental sounds surround us. Widespread mechanic and architectural developments also enable this disconnection and dislocation. Large and insulated windows are omnipresent in buildings and vehicles. Through these windows we can see a landscape and hear another. The re-interpretation of simultaneity stresses the overall experience, produced by fusing, ignoring or conflicting simultaneous experiences. In this way contemporary, local space is interpreted as raising complex experiences without a strict border between fysical and virtual reality. This concept opens perspectives to exploit the artistic and musical potential of locations in gardens, parks, roofs, elevators, public and working spaces, more than possible in concert halls which are (acoustically and architecturally) often isolated from the surroundings.

The goal of this research project is the development of site-specific composition, by giving the concept simultaneity a new and local meaning on the one hand, and making artistic productions and designing experiments with interactions between musicians and the environment on the other.

I am working on this research project 'site-specific composition' (2016-2017) at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp (Artesis Plantijn University College).





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