The final gameplay trailer for my current project It Takes Two is finally released! After much waiting, we at Hazelight are finally able to share with the world a glimpse of what to expect on March 26th 2021:
Keep an eye/ear out! This action packed coop adventure game is well worth your time, and will blow your mind!
“We inhabit time as fish live in water. Our being is being in time”
Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time
What you are about to read derails somewhat from ideas purely sound related, but rather consists of thoughts and ideas on concepts which I find highly inspiring. These concepts have inspired many others before me, as they have been present in art and philosophy for longer than anyone can remember.
The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dali, 1931
The concepts I wish to explore and share in this post are those of time, space, and no less than the universe itself, which have fostered in me some questioning and pondering, and are slowly making their way into my creative practice.
With the help of facts established by science as well as some additional personal insight, I will deconstruct the concepts of time and its passing as we perceive them, I will show how order and chaos are the true determining factors in the arrow of time, and I will question the idea that ‘now’ even exists. I am doing so in order to reveal how fragile and biased our perception of the universe can be, as well as to demonstrate how deeply our entire beings are interlaced with Time. I believe that taking a moment to simply consider this topic and its repercussion is an enlightening and fascinating process, which I hope will leave you with some degree of curiosity and inspiration, as it did for me.
Let’s start with taking a deeper look at the idea of the passing of time.
Time as perception
Did you know that time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level? And by time passing faster in the mountains, that means that there is actually less time at sea level. To illustrate this, I will quote Rovelli’s example, which I believe paints a good picture :
Two friends are separated, one is going to settle at sea level, and the other up in the mountains. When they are reunited years later, the person who has stayed at sea level has actually lived less time of their life than the one in the mountain. The person in the mountain may look older because they have aged more, but they haven’t aged faster. At least not from their perspective. The person at sea level hasn’t had more youth time than the one in the mountain, that time just hasn’t passed yet for that person. When the person at sea level is the same age as the person in the mountains, then the same amount of time will have actually passed for both of them. As in both will have spent equally as much time of their lives, even though it takes longer for the person at sea level to do so.
That’s because time is relative, affected by the laws of physics, such as gravity. There is no one absolute timeline that would dictate who of these two friends has had the longest life, or spent more time in the world. Time isn’t one constant and continuous flow across the universe. Quite the opposite, every single point in space has its own time, because every single point in space lives in relation to every other point in space surrounding it.
Practically, and put simply, time is affected by mass – the greater the mass, the slower the time passes around it. Perceptually, the constant passing and flow of time such as we know and perceive it, is an illusion.
“We still don’t know how time actually works. The nature of time is perhaps the greatest remaining mystery.”
Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time
Starting from this notion, that time is all about perception, one can wonder what are the consequences of this for us as individuals, and what the passing of time actually is and means? Is it the same for me and the person sitting next to me? Is it the same for now me and past me? What about future me? If something that appears to us to be so uniform and imperturbable such as the passing of time is revealed to be malleable and fluctuating, what else might we be perceptually biased about?
“Why do we remember the past, and not the future? Do we exist in time, or does time exist in us? What does it really mean to say that time ‘passes’? What ties time to our nature as persons, to our subjectivity?”
Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time
What about time travel? If the passing of time is based on our perception of it, can one travel through time faster or slower by merely changing their perception of its passing? What if right now I recall a memory of something that happened yesterday, or a week ago, and in the space of a fraction of a second, I bring my attention right back to this moment, hasn’t time from that moment until right now just passed really really quickly? Isn’t that time travel?
At least Orson Wells seemed to agree with me in “The Time Machine” :
“You are wrong to say that we cannot move about in Time. For instance, if I am recalling an incident very vividly I go back to the instant of its occurrence : I become absent-minded, as you say. I jump back for a moment.”
The Time Machine, Orson Wells
Time as Entropy
Did you know that, of all basic laws of physics, there exists only one that distinguishes the past from the future? The only elementary equation that allows for a sequence of actions to run only forwards in time and not backwards, is where there is heat.
Heat comes in many forms. An energy transfer causes heat. Friction causes heat. Generating thoughts in our brain causes heat. Hence our flow of thoughts only ever running forwards in time, not backwards. This irreversible process of heat in only one direction has a name : entropy.
Entropy is a fascinating topic. Based on an actual law of physics, its notion branches out to creative, artistic, conceptual and romantic ideas that could seduce any mind. It’s the quality (or more accurately the measure) of chaos and disorder, it’s the natural decay and transformation of things surrounding us, it’s the appreciation of uncertainty and finality, and the recognition of a tendency for all things to degrade towards nothingness.
Indicated by the letter S in mathematical representations, “entropy is a measurable and calculable quantity that increases or remains the same, but never decreases, in an isolated process.”(Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time). It is the second principle of thermodynamics. Put simply, it means that “heat passes only from hot bodies to cold, never the other way around”. (Carlo Rovelli). It reads as follows :
ΔS ≥ 0
Of all equations of fundamental physics, the above is the only one that knows any difference between past and future. Who knew it would look so simple.
In short, time is basically the most evident manifestation of entropy in our daily lives. And if entropy quantifies the natural increase of disorder – what does that say about time?
Time, which seemed to be the one thing from our limited observation of the universe that we commonly, perhaps naively acknowledge as the one and only constant. The unshaken, unwavering continuous flow of time and its inexorable, intransigent and steady passing. The undeniable observation of the passing of time, compelling us to order our lives around it, to use it to make sense of the world around us, providing both a cruel meaning to the beginning and end of life itself, and a salvific direction to our short existences. Time, all of a sudden, under the lens of entropy, becomes the very embodiment of chaos, and disorder itself. Poetic, I think.
To explain this in other words, this arrow of time, the idea that entropy always increases, never decreases, means that ‘things’ in the universe were always more ordered in the past, and will always be less ordered in the future. We can ask ourselves why this is the case, just as well as we can ask why the observable phenomena of the universe began in a state of lower entropy (with more order) in the first place?
What determines the order? Who says that a minute from now things in the universe will be less ordered than they were a minute ago? According to what criteria does that become a truth?
There are two things to consider to explain this. First, this is true only when considered from a world view biased by perspective. In order to determine which criteria defines an ordered versus a disordered world, one has to first see criteria. So one could say that we observe the passing of time only through changes in the arrangement of things, rather than in the things themselves. In other words, only if one sees patterns in how things are arranged and configured, and if one determines from those patterns some criteria to describe order and disorder, does one see the increase in entropy, and thus the passing of time. Imagine if all you would see were atoms, then all possible configurations of atoms will only ever be a whole bunch of atoms (or quarks, if we really want to get into the smallest of things), and every configuration would be unique, and present no relation to any other configuration. But if you see patterns from those atom (or quark) configurations, then those configurations begin to exist in relation to each other. And only then the future can exist in relation to the past. So once again, time seems to be about perspective.
The second thing to consider is probability. This is where we come back to the multitude of points in space, and the multitude of times existing in relation to each other, for each of these points in space. Starting from the principle that we do see patterns in how things are arranged in the universe, the idea that things are less ordered now than they were a minute ago, exists simply because statistically, the chances of all things arranging themselves in exactly the same way as they were a minute ago, as opposed to an immeasurable, infinite amount of other possible configurations is so improbable, that it is considered that things will always arrange themselves differently. Hence the arrow of time, where time can only flow in one direction.
Now we start to understand how we, as human beings, have constructed a view of the universe that only makes sense for us, as human beings, and how we are wired to perceive it through its patterns as we observe and understand them. One may then wonder what does that mean about absolutes? Can absolutes exist in a world built on perspective?
Time as the present
If the actual passing of time is relative and a perceptual illusion, what does that mean about now? According to physics, across time and space, now means nothing. Just as the passing of time, now is defined by relative criteria, which themselves are determined by our perception. There can be no now that extends to places in the universe where time flows at a different rate. To be very specific, there can be no now that extends to any two different points in space.
But let’s say for the sake of simplicity that we, on this planet, perceive now to be a close enough approximation of the same time. We can look up to the night sky and think that we are looking at a distant star, right now, yet what we see is light that has taken many years to travel from this point in space to our eyes. Let’s say for example that we are looking at the next closest star to the Earth, after the sun of course, Proxima Centauri. Proxima Centauri is 4.22 light years away from us, which means it takes light 4.22 years to travel from there to here. This means that when we look at Proxima Centauri now, we see a version of the star that existed four years ago.
Now imagine we are looking at the most distant observable star from the Earth, Icarus. Icarus is located nine billion light years from Earth. That means when we look at Icarus now, we are looking at evidence of a star that existed nine billion years ago. For reference, that is about twice as long as the time that has passed since the Earth was formed. In fact, that is so long ago, that Icarus no longer exists. Icarus was a blue giant and blue giants don’t have a life cycle of nine billion years.
But even this is a simplistic explanation of how relative now can be. It goes much further.
Did you know that, on top of passing slower in proximity to mass, time also runs slower with motion? Indeed, in the same way that time runs slower at sea level than in the mountains, time runs slower when moving, than when standing still. Effectively, time is slowed down by speed. In other words, for a moving object, time contracts.
“Not only is there no single time for different places – there is not even a single time for any particular place. A duration can be associated only with the movement of something, with a given trajectory.”
Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time
Considering this, the idea of a now that extends from here all the way to Proxima Centauri, is completely deconstructed. In addition, you would be mistaken to believe that, since we are witnessing a ‘now’ on Proxima Centauri that is 4 years delayed, then the equivalent of now between Earth and there is 4 years into Proxima Centauri’s future. Four years into Proxima Centauri’s future may in fact be ten years on Earth, so now.. would be in the future.
If you were to travel from Earth to Proxima Centauri, and track the time that has passed, and return after 10 of your years, it may be that twenty years have in fact passed on Earth. So now, cannot exist across space and time. So as Carlo Rovelli puts it, “The notion of ‘the present’ refers to things that are close to us, not to anything that is far away”. But how close to us? This depends on the precision with which we determine time. In other words, perspective.
“The idea that a well-defined now exists throughout the universe is an illusion, an illegitimate extrapolation of our own experience.”
Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time
What is now?
So what do we define as now and how do we define it? This is where physics are left behind and art and philosophy come in.
“”Now” is never just a moment. The Long Now is the recognition that the precise moment you’re in grows out of the past and is a seed for the future. The longer your sense of Now, the more past and future it includes.”
Brian Eno, The Big Here and Long Now
Put simply, Brian Eno confronts the ideas of a short now and a long now, exposing paradoxes that exist in the way we process and act on those ideas, how our needs and interests in the short now and the long now can be ironically conflicting. His essay is a very interesting read and I highly recommend it. I also highly recommend listening to his lecture given at the University of Edinburgh in 2017.
More resources to explore about the Clock of the Long Now :
So when and how does sound as an artistic medium come into all of this? Sound, of course, needs space and matter to travel through, otherwise it cannot exist. But sound is also bound to time, as the amount of time passing between the start and finish of a sound wave cycle determines its frequency. Sound can only exist in time. Without time, just as without matter, sound cannot be heard. Which makes it, in my opinion, a beautiful medium to express ideas about time. In a way, the sound of anything is the sound of time passing, the sound of entropy.
And finally how does this information inspire us to think about time and our surroundings? What does it mean for our lives and the way we live them? If a concept that seemed so immutable such as time has been deconstructed to the point where its perceived rules don’t make sense anymore, what else makes sense? What else doesn’t? What else can be deconstructed? What else may we consider absolutes which in fact aren’t? What do we want to do about it?
Questions become infinite in the face of such mystery. But as Carlo Rovelli puts it, “curiosity is the seed of knowledge”. Below are some examples of creators who have explored this topic through their work, in various degrees. Yet the scale of the concepts of time, perception and their ramifications is so huge, that creators and philosophers have really only scratched the surface of the questions they raise all that they can mean for us.
And so so many more… Please use the comments below if you have any time based art projects you would like to share.
Hopefully this has inspired you as it has me. Time, Entropy & Perception will forever fascinate me and there is vastly much more to explore and be said about them. Some related topics may include memory, patterns, order & chaos, life cycle, subjectivity, and so much more.
I am happy to share that Shadow of the Tomb Raider has won some prestigious audio awards since it was released on September 14th 2018 :
NAVGTR Award for Use of Sound, Franchise – Shadow of the Tomb Raider
G.A.N.G. Award for Best Interactive Score – Shadow of the Tomb Raider (music composed by La Hacienda Creative)
G.A.N.G. Award for Best Original Soundtrack Album – Shadow of the Tomb Raider (music composed by La Hacienda Creative)
G.A.N.G. Award for Best Game Audio Publication, Presentation, or Broadcast – “Soundworks Collection Video: Shadow of the Tomb Raider” – Michael Coleman, Rob Bridgett, Frédéric Arnaud, Hugo Léger, Anne-Sophie Mongeau, Brian D’Oliveira
You can watch the full Soundworks Collection video awarded Best Audio Publication, Presentation, or Broadcast by G.A.N.G. Awards here :
Here are some of the nominations we also had the honor of receiving :
G.A.N.G Awards Nomination for Audio of the Year – Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2019)
G.A.N.G Awards Nomination for Sound Design of the Year – Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2019)
G.A.N.G Awards Nomination for Best Cinematic Custscene Audio – Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2019)
NAVGTR Nomination for Sound Effects – Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2019)
NAVGTR Nomination for Original Dramatic Score, Franchise – Shadow of the Tomb Raider (music composed by La Hacienda Creative) (2019)
Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) nomination in Gaming: Computer Interactive Game for Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2019)
Golden Joystick Awards nomination in Best Audio for Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018)
I humbly answered some questions from A Sound Effect about pursuing a career as a sound designer for videogames. You can also find valuable advice from Jeff Shiffman and Kate Finan from Boom Box Post on animation sound design, as well as from Peter D. Lago about sound design for television.
On November 13th 2018 I was giving a presentation at MIGS (Montreal International Game Summit) on the sound design in Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
The presentation was titled Designing the Sound of Reality in Shadow of the Tomb Raider and focused on the sound design strategies used in the latest Tomb Raider of the Reboot Trilogy in the context of this ‘realistic’ type of game.
The description goes as follows :
The idea of realism in games can be very subjective. Even in a game world which sources its stylistic references from the real world, sound designers must sometimes bend the rules of authenticity in order to present an environment which feels realistic. Because in games, ‘realism’ bears more the meaning of being ‘believable’ and ‘immersive’ rather than simply being truthful to its reference. This presentation will dig into the management of expectation vs authenticity, realistic sound design strategies, and how these can be delivered in order to offer an immersive, cinematic experience.
On January 3rd 2019 was released Voices From Eris, an album of electroacoustic music composed by 15 different women, on which I had the pleasure of contributing with one track : Lengths II.
Lengths II is made from my own field recordings captured around Iceland, Scotland and Sweden, and is an iteration on the idea of a sense of scale, and the lengths we (as humans) go to in order to feel a closer, deeper connection with nature. It is an exploration of the emotions one can feel when surrendering to their environment, perhaps communicating now a sense of relief and reward, now an idea of grandeur and vulnerability towards nature’s forces, and finally awe at our own smallness and insignificance in the grand scheme of nature itself. It is also an effort to explore the minute in parallel to the great, the tiny overlooked hidden details just as well as the majestic and the overwhelming, in order to reveal a multifaceted environment, full of treasures and secret that are screaming to be discovered. Enjoy!
Voices from Eris is an album full of diversity and surprises. It is also the journey and voices of 15 women artists from around the world vibrating inner strength, making a positive stand. These tracks are full of stories and emotions, sometimes dark and uncomfortable, sometimes intimate and beautiful.
Eris was discovered on January 5th 2005 to be the 10th planet in our solar system. She is named after the Greek goddess of strife and discord. On the astrological level her archetype is very interesting and portrays many of the feminist struggles.
Women are now composers, producers, electronic musicians but still undervalued and in minority. It seems that we have a duty to freedom of expression. Women have often been more implicated in collaborative processes, holistic starting points, and a closer relationship with their body and with the human voice in their creative processes. This fight has become ever so important today not only for the survival of the human race but for the building of a more sustainable civilisation which includes all living things.
Feminists struggle to “right the wrongs done in the name of patriarchal culture not only to themselves as women, but to nature and to the ideal of communal coexistence among the peoples of a potentially peaceful and beautiful Earth.” – Henry Seltzer
In the documentary, marine ecologist expert Dr David Ainley explains how every once in a while, he observes penguins who seem ‘disoriented’ and ‘end up in places they shouldn’t be, a long way from the ocean’. As they are filming, one of these penguins seems to be the subject of one of those existential crises, and turns away from the colony, towards the mountains. Dr Ainley explains that bringing him back to the colony would do no good – the penguin would simply resume its course towards the mountains, towards a certain death. No one knows why. This is an extraordinarily poignant portrayal of something that could have multiple interpretations – desolation, loneliness, madness, solitude, the search for a connection to something greater, a test of limits, a call of the wild, perhaps. Can’t we all relate to this penguin at some point in our lives?
On a more pragmatic note, this post is about putting some thoughts on paper on the subject of Sound Design, Process Art and Romanticism, and how these 3 things can potentially interlace and form the basis of a singular artwork, based on the idea of the call of the wild.
Similarly to my entry about Wabi-Sabi, Entropy and Acoustic Ecology, I will expose some underlying ideas and concepts behind all three topics of Sound Design, Process Art, and Romanticism, and point out some of the connections that exist between them and how I believe they can be combined in order to offer a meaningful experience.
The genesis of this post’s idea and ultimately the point I’m trying to make by writing it is the following : I have been observing (or gravitating towards) a tendency to feature a returnto nature in artistic works and installations. I wonder if, in a time when the environment has made the headlines more than ever (rightfully so), when we are at a point of no return and when many of us feel quite powerless in the midst of this environmental crisis, I wonder if some works of art may be symptomatic of or demonstrating a return to nature, a call of the wild. I wonder if perhaps when faced with the inevitable and rapidly increasing decay of our natural surroundings, paired with the feelings of both responsibility and helplessness, one might seek to revive this somewhat lost connection with nature, this sense of admiration, respect, and reverence towards it. I wonder also if the will that some of us possess to put ourselves in a position of vulnerability towards nature might be an attempt to restore the power dynamic between us and our environment to something that feels more ‘natural’, where our fate is determined by nature’s clemency (or lack thereof), and not the other way around. I at least tend to find some sense of relief in being outdoors, seeking that sensation of feeling small and insignificant – maybe overlooking such vastness allows me to believe in the illusion of nature’s foreverness for a little while, and maybe that helps to lighten the burden of this planet’s fate on our shoulders, momentarily. It is also paradoxically a reminder of its fragility and the power we hold over it, and the responsibility we have towards its preservation. I can’t be the only one with such thoughts, as there actually exists a word defining this feeling of seeking proximity with nature :
Given this, I am hoping that art, through an emotional experience meant to bring people closer to nature, can contribute to communicate those feelings to a greater audience, and spread environmental awareness.
This brings me to the subject of this post – the connections that exist between Romanticism, Process Art and Sound Design, which inspire me to create something with the intention mentioned above, and hopefully can inspire others just as much.
Let’s start with some thoughts about Romanticism.
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog – Caspar David Friedrich, 1818
Present in visual arts, music and literature, the movement originated in Europe and reached its peak approximately during the period between 1800 and 1850. It is known to emphasise on emotion and individualism, and praises nature as well as the past (which at this point meant medieval rather than classical). Characterised by a return to nature, it is interesting to note that its existence partly emerged as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and scientific rationalisation of nature.
It seems that historically, a return to nature meant going backwards, and implied a regression, at least in a scientific sense. So in this light, ‘nature’ and ‘progress’ seem intrinsically incompatible. As if the ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘improvements’ had to mean that we as humans need to detach ourselves from our natural roots or origins. And yet, the Romantic movement also shows that when our dissociation from nature becomes greater, we tend to ‘crave’ it back. Indeed Romanticism follows directly and reacts to the Age of Enlightenment, where knowledge, science and progress were put forth. In a similar way, a return to nature today can be interpreted as a reaction to our highly digitalised environment, where our connection to our natural surroundings is minimal, if present at all, and where our interaction with the organic world is often, if not always, accomplished through electronic devices.
My hope is that we can find a way to reunite those concepts of nature and progress, where progress can be found in nature itself, and where nature doesn’t have to embody a symbol of the past, of the rustic and rudimentary, but rather a vision of power and resources which can become our ally in a sustainable and intelligent way.
One of Romanticism’s main aesthetic criteria is that it emphasises intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience. It is meant to appeal to the senses and one’s subjectivity, as well as trigger awe while witnessing the sublimity and beauty of nature.
As opposed to a calculated, controlled classical approach, romanticism welcomes spontaneity and the impromptu, whereas passion is what should prevail over rationalism. Rooted in the German Sturm und Drang movement, intuition and emotion are valued as well as individual imagination.
To me, the whole movement seems symptomatic of a thirst for freedom in arts, emerging from a tightly controlled and scripted society. In that line of thoughts, it seems apparent that a ‘call of the wild’ is the reaction to an ‘absence of the wild’. That a ‘return to nature’ implies a prior ‘distance from nature’.
Moving on to Process Art
Autumn Rhythm – Jackson Pollock, 1950
As the name says, Process Art is about the process itself rather than the end product. The process of making, creating, arranging, forming, sorting, defining, etc, is what matters just as much as why. The message is the intention, and is passed through actions rather than finality. It sees art as pure human expression, and in doing so encourages to define the actual doing as the work of art itself. Rather than a deliverable, art is the journey, where inherent motivation and intention are the central focus.
Following that line of thought, my idea of Process Art today (and in the context of raising environmental awareness) involves the audience just as much as the artist. The process exists in the creation just as much as in the reception of the work of art. In other words, the experience of the artwork becomes part of the process as well. The observer becomes a participant, and the work of art cannot be experienced without action or participation from the observer.
Process Art is a creative movement existing in both the US and around Europe during the mid-1960s, and holds its roots from Performance Art, the Dada movement and other significant artists who seemed to give their process as much meaning as their final product, such as the painter Jackson Pollock.
Some of its recurring themes include change and transience, the body, random occurrences, improvisation, as well as the use of non conventional materials and techniques. The idea of a certain ephemeral quality to the materials used was also prevailing.
In a way, Process Art reaches some Wabi-Sabi principles by acknowledging and valuing impermanence, degradation, entropy and decay. The idea that nothing is perfect, nothing is finished, nothing is permanent, and that stillness is an illusion.
Here my idea of ephemeral doesn’t necessarily involve the artwork itself being temporary, but rather the various states of the artwork. If the artwork is self sustaining, ever evolving, responding to nature’s changes themselves, then any given state of the work is not only ephemeral, but unique and in constant flux, leaving it to the laws of nature to determine its patterns, its order and its chaos, its randomness and its organisation, ever changing, never finished, never really permanent, and always in motion, evolving from or towards something.
In process art, nature itself is praised in a way that goes even a bit further than Romanticism dictates, while its mere symbolisation or representation are often rejected. Hence the idea of using nature itself as canvas, using its forces to sculpt the experience, and where the audience is in direct contact with their environment.
Finally, Sound Design
If you are reading this, you probably don’t need a definition of sound design but here it is in a few words for the sake of clarity.
As the name describes, it is a type of design (which involves creativity, ingenuity and initiative) which has audio for its subject. It is the process of creating, manipulating, acquiring, generating and making sounding elements. It is employed in a variety of disciplines involving media (films, television, theater, live performance etc), as well as exists on its own as a creative practice through sound art. Sound design is indeed such a broad practice that it would be extremely reductive to talk about it only in the context of certain media, as it explores one of the most prominent human senses – audition.
It is my own subjective experience that the auditory senses can reach an audience in a deep emotional sense. At least that is what sound does to me, it amplifies a sense of immersion and connection to the work (regardless of the nature of the work and type of media), so it is my wish to use sound as raw material to create, and I believed that using sound as well as nature in the context of an art installation can offer a truly meaningful experience, as well as provide means to interpret and translate nature’s forces and manifestations through a more familiar lens.
Some examples of the use of sound and nature in art installations include the following :
Composed by Chris Watson and produced by Iain Pate, Hrafn: Conversations with Odin was realised at Kielder Water & Forest Park in Northumberland on 24, 25 and 26 October 2014.
Audiences were led at twilight on a short walk into the deepest part of the forest. Settling down as darkness fell, participants heard the sounds of two thousand birds arriving in the canopy overhead to begin their conversations. Watson’s composition starts with the calls of distant ravens and concludes with a full raven roost overhead. The work anticipates and celebrates the return of these powerful voices to the forest, making a connection back to Norse mythology.
Deep in the forests right on the edge of Estonia, three gigantic wooden megaphones stand, scattered between dark-barked fir trees.
This is RUUP, designed and built by students from Estonian Academy of Arts, looking for a way to help us all notice and listen to the sounds of the forests. Ruup offers a place to rest your feet, as well as your thoughts. Sit, sleep, think, and listen. Ruup is an open library with just one book – the nature.
The instrument consists of a series of 35 tubes and a large resonating cavity, which is played by the wind and the sea. The organ’s music is eerily reminiscent of the melancholy sound of whale calls.
In summary, some of the themes that can be explored by using such a medium as nature itself, and in line with the idea of the call of the wild as well as some principles extrapolated from Romanticism and Process Art, are the following :
Time (memory, perception)
Order vs chaos (or the illusion of them)
Ideas of scale and significance
Escape (Romanticism turns to nature, mysticism and other such avenues as means of escape)
Embracing nature as something beautiful and fortifying
Individualism (in terms of the subjectivity of the experience, introspection)
Evolution, transformation, degradation, decay, the ephemeral and entropy (the opposite of stillness)
Soundworks Collection just released a video featuring the sound and music of Shadow of the Tomb Raider – check it out for some behind the scenes developers insights!
Dolby Atmos also released a video explaining some of the Atmos features present in Shadow of the Tomb Raider and how we implemented the sounds to reinforce a sense of immersion and bring to life Lara’s surrounding environment.
And finally a short documentary was put together to show off all the hard work from La Hacienda Creative and Brian D’Oliveira on the Shadow of the Tomb Raider Soundtrack and all its many cool instruments!
In this article, I wish to share my approach on urban field recording. It consists of some tips and pointers I have come to learn and put into practice when doing field recording in urban environments. They are not based on practical or technical knowledge, but are rather meant to ignite creative thought processes. You could argue that the following tips are not limited to urban soundscapes and can very well be applied to any sort of field recording, but what I would like to convey here is how the sounds we find in a city can be incredibly revealing about a space we think we know extensively, and that listening and paying attention to those sounds may very well shine a new light on our surroundings.
When going out recording in the city, one quickly realises how noisy it can get, and how homogeneous it can sometimes feel in terms of soundscape. Urban recording is rarely about capturing bird songs or other quiet events – the loudness and ubiquity of other elements such as traffic noise can make that quite difficult. So although it is possible to focus on those soft sounding occurrences, it can be a challenge. If you embrace that fact though, it is still possible to make the most of it – for instance I think most cities have their own sonic personality, which can be very interesting to capture. As the recordist, it’s about listening to your surroundings and find a perspective which you feel can communicate this sonic personality. And that brings me to my first tip, which takes the form of a question to ask yourself about your subject when hunting for sounds:
What makes it unique?
How does this city’s soundscape sound different than any other, what do you hear in this place that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else? What gives it its special vibe? I found that Amsterdam was an excellent example of this atypical urban sonic personality: its soundscape is persistently composed of an amalgam of bicycles, trams, cars, motorbikes, and boats! You won’t find a similar composition of sounds in just any city in the world.
If you compare this Amsterdam recording with the following, which was made in Montreal, you can quickly hear how different those two spaces sound:
But if sometimes traffic and general city ambiences are good things to record in various places and from various perspectives, if only for the sake of building diverse libraries, I believe there is so much more to the urban soundscape than what shows on the surface. And to be honest, a unique soundscape doesn’t necessarily make it interesting. Which brings me to my second tip:
What makes it interesting?
The quality of being interesting may not have anything to do with the fact that it is a city recording or with how it was recorded. Interesting has to do with how you feel when you listen to that sound, and what is the emotion it transmits. Does it arouse your curiosity or catch your attention? Does it make you discover anything new? Is it suggesting something you haven’t considered before? Is it making you think about the subject in a different way? Is it simply enjoyable to listen to? Or rather uncomfortable? Compelling? Intriguing? Disgusting? Engaging? Typical or atypical? Surprising? Challenging? Impressive? Etc, etc.
In an urban context, especially if it is your own city, you may be almost desensitised to the specific sonic personality and uniqueness around you – you’ve been exposed to it for so long that it might sound only moderately interesting to you. When I realise that this is the case for me and that the most predominant elements of the soundscape in my immediate surroundings don’t present much of an interest, this is what I ask myself:
Is there anything hidden?
Is there anything else? Is there anything I can reveal about this environment that is not obvious to the ears or eyes? Are there any sounds here that I may not be able to listen to with naked ears? Is there anything I can uncover about this space that is here yet we forget about it or maybe even don’t know about it? Can I represent this space in a way that will make its inhabitants rediscover it? Can I present this space through a different angle that would make one think differently about it, or if not differently, then at least acknowledge it and possibly re-connect with it? I find that revealing those elements of our environments can be a way to reconsider what we sometimes take for granted.
More than the mere rediscovery, it’s about acknowledging that these sounds, these vibrations in the air (and in other elements), they do exist, even if they are not obvious to our human ears, or if we are a priori indifferent to them, whether it’s because they are masked by other noise or because they resonate in a way that we are not sensitive to. Even though they interact with our environment in a way that we may be blind (or deaf) to, they may still have an impact on it. It’s kind of like the tree in the forest – if it falls and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The sounds I am interested in capturing and revealing in our urban environments, they interact with our surroundings, or are manifestations of our surroundings (and ourselves) interacting with them, without us realising it. Maybe thinking about those events can make people think similarly about other elements of our environment that are taken for granted, but are equally important to acknowledge. So put simply, when hunting for sounds in an urban environment, in which so many of us are immersed everyday, I ask myself: how can I make people think about their surroundings?
Example 1 – Contact microphones on a fence under the rain
Example 2 – Electromagnetic microphone on a car dashboard
And this brings me to my next tip:
How best can you capture it?
In order to reveal the hidden, some thinking outside the box may be required. If you wish to use conventional air microphones, you might want to consider unconventional techniques, which will themselves highly depend on your subject. For instance, mics such as the small DPA 4060s are so tiny that they can fit in many places and offer a very different perspective on sounding objects than what we are used to. What if you hung a pair of these down a sewer pipe? What if you stuck them in a car engine? What if you squeezed them in some tiny crack of a wall in your house when it is raining? What if you hid them inside a sculpture and captured how the air moves through it? What if you used them as contact mics so that you capture both the vibrations in the air as well as the ones that resonate through the surfaces?
Similarly, if you would first think of recording a stereo ambience, consider using a directional mic instead, and get a focused perspective on something very specific within the environment. Maybe come back at different times of day (or even different seasons!) to reveal sounds that may exist only under certain conditions. Or rather place various microphones in different spots to get a custom multichannel recording, composing a unique soundscape of what you believe are the most relevant elements in it. Let your subjectivity shine through as the recordist. Involve space and time in the recording and give it a sense of place – situate it within a context.
Air microphones are one way to capture sounds, but what you might realise is that they may simply not be the solution to reveal the hidden, since they capture the same variations of pressure in the air as our eardrums do. Here are a few examples of unconventional microphones that can help you capture and represent your environment differently:
Contact microphones on a flagpole:
Electromagnetic microphone on an eclectic line:
Hydrophone in a park’s lake:
Train recorded with VLF receiver (recorded by Philip Eriksson):
Some fantastic work from Jez Riley French also involves geophones and ultrasonics (headphones or conventional speakers are required for the geophone aspects):
My point here is that these microphones are tools that can help you interpret or reinterpret your environment, and present it through different angles. The ways the tools are used determine how interesting the results are, not the tools themselves. Once you realise the options you have, it can even become overwhelming to start thinking about all that exists in your surroundings which you had never thought of before! Here are a few more examples which hopefully help to illustrate my point :
Contact microphones on an antenna under the rain:
Contact microphones set up on a metal bridge structure:
More electromagnetic recordings from Jez Riley French:
And finally more from geophone and ultrasonics examples from Jez Riley French can be found here.
This brings me to my last tip:
What are you trying to represent?
What my previous tips and examples have tried to show, is that the job of the recordist is more than simply pressing record. There is a lot of subjectivity involved in field recording. How it manifests is for instance through the choice of subject, the recording methods and tools, the emphasis and focus, even the length of the recording, etc. All those decisions are made according to the recordist’s intuition, artistic preferences and inclinations.
So what are you trying to share? What are you trying to tell the listener? Knowing this will determine the answer to most of the questions above – once your intention is clear, the where, how, and when are only technicalities. In other words, the recordist’s subjectivity is ultimately what will make the recording interesting.