Sound Design, Process Art and Romanticism

 

Did you know that penguins are prone to what can be interpreted as existential crises?

This scene is from the documentary Encounters at the end of the world, and is said to be ‘’one of the great existential moments in modern cinema.’’ 

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?

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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 return to 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 :

Biophilia

The biophilia hypothesis also called BET suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.

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.

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Let’s start with some thoughts about Romanticism.

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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.

Some thoughts…

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.

More thoughts…

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

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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.

Some thoughts…

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.

More thoughts…

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.

William Basinski’s Disintengration Loops are a good example of this thought.

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.

Process art and Environmental Art

Some parallels are definitely to be made between Process Art and Environmental Art, while process artists engage the primacy of organic systems, using perishable, insubstantial, and transitory materials. (…) The materials are often left exposed to natural forces: gravity, time, weather, temperature, etc.

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.

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Some examples of the use of sound and nature in art installations include the following :

Chris watson and Iain Pate – Hrafn: Conversation with Odin

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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.

‘Ruup’ Wooden Megaphones

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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.

Sea Organ in Croatia

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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.

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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)
  • Responsibility
  • A sense of urgency
  • Power and the natural forces
  • Fragility (of nature, of ourselves)
  • Etc

Hope this was inspiring!

 

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Latest news about the sound of Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Shadow of the Tomb Raider was released on September 14th 2018, we are super excited and happy about it, and a lot has happened since then already! Here is a bit of a summary :

Our first nomination for best audio is already here! Time to vote on the Golden Joystick Awards page 🙂

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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!

 

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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.

 

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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!

 

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This is just the beginning, more soon!

5 Useful Tips for Creative Urban Field Recording

This article was is written by myself, but was originally posted on A Sound Effect here :

5 Useful Tips for Creative Urban Field Recording

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):

Kettles Yard Piano Room

Gallery Three

Voyage Ultrasons

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.

Happy field recording!

How to create outstanding audio for cinematics – a Q&A with Samuel Justice

Just released this interview with Samuel Justice, co-founder of Sweet Justice Sound Ltd on how to create high quality audio for cinematics and trailers. Have a read!

Posted on the A Sound Effect Blog.

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Some examples of Sweet Justice’s amazing cinematic audio work:

Battlefield 1 Official Reveal Trailer

Eve Valkyrie Launch Trailer