{kA}: Oblivious to Gravity

{kA}: Oblivious to Gravity – series of a building sound composition.

Starting from Graz, six vacant buildings in different European cities were utilized as sound spaces and understood and experienced as an integral part of multi-channel sound compositions. Therefore a series of compositions with and in these buildings was created. Furthermore, empirical values ​​were collected how sound art can react to site-specific conditions or how these environmental acoustic characteristics can become part of a previously non-existent composition.

The series was made available to audiences on site, documented and prepared for various listening situations.
A CD series with booklets and summary catalog completes the cycle.

Project website
Print Documentation

…As powerful as my first experience with spatial music was,
it was clear from the very beginning that presenting music
in a space meant for other purposes would be a challenge.
Spatial music requires new halls that are specially designed to meet its requirements…
(STOCKHAUSEN, Musik im Raum 1958)

The above words, which were written after the debut performance of Gesang der Jünglinge, describes what is now commonly considered a classic challenge for electro-acoustical performances. In conventional concert halls, studio-produced compositions tend to face inadequate acoustic conditions with regard to the composition’s sound and structure.

For this reason, techniques were created which allow spatial compositions to be played independent of spatial conditions and special halls were created for the presentation of electro-acoustic performances. The approach I take in the compositional series {kA}: Oblivous to Gravity is different to the ones I have taken before with regard to concept and composition.For the past eight years I have been working on spatial compositions in Ambisonics and Wave Field Synthesis, where the space of a sound composition plays more of a secondary role. Now I wish to focus more on space and turn it into an inseparable factor or even foundation of composition. Despite all the interesting theoretical knowledge of and presuppositions regarding Ambisonics and Wave Field Synthesis, Sweet Spot and Sweet Field, I believe that for the overall sound and perception of each piece, the space in which the composition was created and in which the performance is meant to take place play an essential role, albeit one that can neither be preserved nor moved to another location. Thus space is usually not a prerequisite for production and perception, but it is an inherent component of the composition.

Since 2009 I pursue a series of building sound compositions. Temporarily abandoned buildings in various European cities have been and will be used as sounding spaces and become an integral and tactile part of multi-channel sound compositions, presented to visitors after an extensive research and composition period in situ. Within {kA}: Oblivous to Gravity electro-acoustical “studio art” is confronted with every-day life. But the objective is not to just try out an idea on electro-compositional theory in buildings, but rather to create grounds for successive research which will ultimately lead to the creation of a basic instrument in an area inspired by working with buildings and the effect it has on artistic composition while taking into account the differences in acoustics, architecture and history of the buildings.

Thus the composition as well as the loudspeaker concert should not take place in a concert hall or studio designed for electronic music, but rather in a place that is normally meant for other purposes and whose architectural character is an integral part of or even the foundation of the composition and its presentation.

The socio-political aspect of abandoned buildings plays an important role in this series of compositions. Of course, there have always been abandoned buildings, but their numbers have been increasing in the inner and outer areas of cities in recent years. It seems some pedestrian shopping areas would be proper ghost towns were it not for the ground floor shops located in the otherwise empty buildings. Real estate agents used to advertise the availability of their objects, whereas now, for-rent signs advertising commission-free rental adorn buildings right next to the many construction sites one now sees so frequently for new office complexes. But the project is not about the superficial denunciation of tough speculative economic practice. However, the composer has decided to make a temporary dedication to vacancy – to vacant buildings, which are deemed worthless in economic terms and isolated from their surroundings, just waiting to be ripped apart, yet rich in their own history, architectural value and atmosphere. These aspects come to life through this artistic initiation. The one-sided and often pejorative way of looking at/hearing these empty places, sometimes considered ‘non-spaces’, in our neighborhoods can be altered through alternative interpretations. These non-spaces are a symbol of opportunity.

The instrument (issit: insitu sound installation toolkit) for this project consists of a mobile set up of 32 active speakers (as well as D/A converters, audio interface, laptop, tripods, cable reel, cases with wheels), an advanced multi-channel system that allows a maximum of flexibility while working inside a building.

Method of Space Inquiries

The compositorial production process of {kA}: Oblivous to Gravity is devided in four phases:

  1. Inspection
  2. Survey
  3. Compositional Answer
  4. Concert

The first phase of the project is dedicated to the vacancy of buildings. More and more buildings are unoccupied for longer periods of time in business and shopping districts as well as in residential and industrial areas. The vacant and isolated hallways, offices, basements and stairways should be used as sites for spatial sound compositions, concerts and recording.

For this project it is crucial to create the compositions on-site so that they can be inspired by their surroundings; that means not a single part of the composition will be created in a studio and then tailored to fit the building. The spatial sound composition is only be worked on upon entering the building.

Basements become natural echo chambers, through opened windows enter sounds from outside and doors are used as filters. Depending on the positioning of the speakers, materials used for isolation and reflection, such as carpets, glass, wood and steel, will play a role in the creation of the sound material. Each building’s unique and individual sounds can be integrated and the building’s history and original purpose helps form the sound composition and its structure.

Each building will be explored as far as possible. Listening to the unique sounds of the location provides new ideas for further thought. For the compositional process, the ear will be the most important instrument.

What are my impressions of the building and its surroundings?

After collecting impressions of the area’s atmosphere, the further step is to answer a few questions about each room to be used. For this, Gerhard Eckel, David Pirrò and I have created a conceptual, software-aided toolbox. Standard applications “test” the rooms, ex. its frequency, reveberation times, absorption, etc:

Conceptual toolbox:
MAX/MSP-Patches are used for the spatialization and for expedient testing of a sound room, for example multi-track rotating bursts, low short pulses and high frequency waves, pitches for various rooms in order to “tune” the building with chords. I also use templates for arrangement and sound organization with filters and EQs in channel strips and multichannel versions. Furthermore, for the initial spatial impressions, I have developed standard sound sequences and arrangements that include familiar sound material.

Basically, one approaches the building using a standardized question-answer repertoire (acoustical survey), which can be changed and expanded.

How do the sourroundings react?

This step is not only about preparing and finding a beginning for the composition, but more importantly, about the assumption that the answers to the questions will accumulate as empirical value that can be used to help simplify the questions and help the composer better understand and even learn to read the character of the material, the space and interaction with its surroundings.

Based on the impressions experienced, the piece is created at the location and out of it. For this the following is possible:

  • Integration of acoustic conditions
  • Usage of site-specific sounds
  • Modification of sight-specific sounds
  • Spatialization of sounds in the building
  • Complete refusal to use the acoustic elements and sounds specific to the location.

How can a place be acustically (re)organized?
Being the his will change one’s perception of the place, does the place become a different one altogether?
Is there an acoustic architecture?

The result of this process is implicit artistic knowledge, which, in turn, can become a guideline or even the foundation for future practice. This knowledge can thus only be gained through practice, i.e. composing inside buildings, and can then be used to create further works.

Various scenarios come to mind for presenting the works and the building’s atmosphere, whereby the building’s architecture and acoustic properties play pivotal roles in the presentation.
One idea would be to place chairs at different points where the building’s sounds “come together”, for example in staircases connecting different floors or in a hallway near entrances to different rooms.
After selecting listening points, the same piece could be played from different acoustic perspectives. The visitors would change seats after each playback. That means the concert would consist of the same sound material with different colorations and filtering schemes from the building.
Other ideas include installations where the visitors are standing, for example, a walk-in listening-parcours. Listening points could be near some fixed point, for example, in front of door cracked open just a bit, in a ventilation shaft or near a window, behind which the sound composition is played.

In buildings which cannot be entered by visitors it would be record the composition at a specific point, for example from a Soundfield microphone hanging in a stairwell or a Dummyhead fixed to a tripod in the arched ceiling of a basement. The recordings could then be streamed to the IEM’s Cube or saved on a hard drive and played back via earphone concert. An ambisonic playback in the University’s concert hall Mumuth would also be possible.

The project’s state can be watched on this website. Here the currently beeing processed subprojects (buildings) are visualized and made audible. A part from that, information is provided about the selected cities and the characteristics of the buildings and critical reflections on the production process.
Besides, each building had been documented by a print publication collecting several material (audio, photo and text) on the whole production process.

The documentation is not for providing a visualization of the finished work as much as it is for documenting and visually supporting the decisions that were made in the process and the experiences gained in order to create a kind of guideline for future buildings and problem solving situations, i.e. to record the experiences for future reference. A photo-documentation and catalog had been created for each building.

In this context, the audio recording of the special sound-space setting is extremely important. For this, the purist assumption that the composition is so closely linked to the location that it cannot exist without the location, would be plausible. Of course that would mean any recording of the composition would be superfluous.

However, one could also use the given setting to make a recording and in turn, use it in another, independent project. During recording, interesting possibilities unfold for capturing the sound of the building or the sounds of the location and using them in a musical context.

After the initial phases of entering the building, surveying it, compiling the composition and the concert, there is one final step pertaining to picking up the sound setting of the location on microphones and recording it. Perspective variations are possible, for instance outside and inside, close, far, etc. and it is possible to cut the sources from their direct surroundings and put them on separate tracks. A further option would be a room mix on a common time axis. Further options are the aforementioned ambisonic recording for a speaker concert in the Cube or Mumuth or for broadcast on a binaural radio program. These are interesting possibilities because, while the finished product will have been composed and arranged, the fact that it was created in a different “sound setting” will mean it has its own characteristic atmosphere.

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