MIGS 2018: Designing the Sound of Reality in Shadow of the Tomb Raider

In 2018 I gave a presentation at the Montreal International Game Summit (MIGS), about the sound of Shadow of the Tomb Raider. This session was about sharing some sound design strategies to make reality sound more believable or interesting than it actually is, or in other words, to aim for ‘believability’ rather than ‘authenticity’, as was our approach in SOTR.

I decided to put this presentation into text (better late than never..!) simply for the sake of accessibility, and in an effort to share this information as widely as possible.

You can watch the full presentation here.

The following text is basically a transcript of the MIGS presentation and does not include any new information.



My name is Anne-Sophie Mongeau, I am a sound designer at Eidos Montreal [that was true at the time, I am currently Senior Sound Designer at Hazelight in Stockholm], and in this presentation I’m going to tell you about designing the sound of reality in Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

What I mean by designing the sound of reality, is that Tomb Raider is a game environment in which the story may be fictional, but it sources its stylistic references from the real world, as opposed to other genres such as Sci-Fi, or Fantasy, where everything is made up and thought of from scratch, and where every sound is original and belonging to that made up world. In the realistic type of game, what we sound design, are sounds from the real world to start with, according to our expectations of them and how we think they should sound based on our experience of them.  In a game such as SOTR, a waterfall is a waterfall, a bird is an actual bird species that exist, a door opening is made from materials and mechanics that are known to us. When we see those visual references, we have expectations, of how they are going to sound.

These expectations are based on our real world experience of these things, but also on our experience of them through other media and other representations, and the cinematic, ‘hollywoodesque’ experience that often surrounds them. Not all of us here have seen actual jaguars, or have been through floods and earthquakes, but we all have some sort of idea of what it might, or even ‘should’ sound like.

So how do we, sound designers, meet these expectations, and walk that fine line between what it actually sounds like in reality (accuracy), and what we want it to sound like, based on ours, and the listeners’, biased expectations. WHILE also offering some originality and character – so not only staying within those expectations but surpassing them. In other words how do we contribute to the immersive, cinematic experience, as well as the storytelling, within a realistic context? 

So it’s not because the game genre is ‘realistic’ that the sound design is any less important or any easier to do. Because really, when we talk about the quality of being ‘realistic’ in games and entertainment in general, it means more being believable (or convincing), rather than being strictly authentic or accurate.

So how do we make reality more interesting than it really is? 

This can be achieved by putting into practice a few realistic sound design techniques which I will go through in a minute, as well as by identifying and taking advantage of the sound design opportunities that the game offers. A combination of those things will help reinforce a sense of place, immersion, character, uniqueness, and make the whole thing more memorable.

You will notice that a lot of my examples feature ambience sound design, because in Tomb Raider ambience has been a very important feature which provided us with many opportunities to reinforce immersion. Also I left the music playing in my examples because music also plays a role in the soundscape, but I made it deliberately lower in volume because we’re going to focus on the sound design.


Let’s start with general techniques. These are things to keep in mind throughout the project.

These broad strategies (this is not an exhaustive list by the way, these are suggestions) can be used at different moments and in different contexts within the game. They have the specific purpose of reinforcing a sense of reality, without necessarily relying on reality (or accuracy) itself. 

These include :

  • Exaggeration
  • Evocation
  • Worldizing
  • Controlling focus

General Strategy 1 – Exaggeration

The title says it all, this strategy is about exaggerating what accuracy would want us to do, in order to compensate for the lack of sensory experience due to not actually being there. Considering that the field of vision is narrowed to the screen space, that the hearing is reduced to whatever sound system the audio is played back through, that you can’t touch or smell your environment, that your body doesn’t feel out of place, this technique’s goal is to rely on the available stimuli to deliver something that is closer to the sensory experience that should be had, by compensation.

For example, here are some screenshots of some of the stunning looking environments in Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

As you can see, even the visuals kind of overcompensate by making everything look absolutely stunning all the time. Our role as sound designers is to support and even enhance those beautiful environments, and sometimes that means cheating a little bit.

I was in the Alps last summer, and I was faced with similarly stunning landscapes.

The Alps, summer 2018 (photo I took myself)

So I took a moment when I was there to listen to the soundscape around me.

And this is what I heard :

That actually sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? And it feels nice as well. There is one good reason for it: because this is not actually what I heard. This is designed reality. Now this is what I actually recorded:

This, in the context of a game, would be quite disappointing, and underwhelming. This is why our Peruvian jungle sounds like this:

I’ve actually never been in the Peruvian jungle, but I like to imagine that this is what it sounds like. This is my expectation of it, at least, it’s how I want it to sound like.

This ambience has been ‘cheated’ in different ways. In this environment, every single sound source has been placed by hand, every bird, insect, tree creak and foliage rustle or rain drops. There is no stereo or quad ambiences, everything has its determined 3D place. I will talk a bit more about this later in the sound design opportunities. For now you get the idea about exaggeration. Make it sound better than what a scientific recording would sound like.

General Strategy 2 – Evocation

Next strategy, evocation.

Without digging too deep into cognitive functions, using the power of evocation is a way to build unique character by relying on associations made within one scene and the connections that exist between the different elements in it. For me it seems to have something to do with pattern recognition, somewhat like the psychology theory called recognition-by-components, but extended to the auditory senses rather than only limited to visual stimuli. 

This theory says we are able to recognize objects by separating them into geons, which are the object’s main component parts as you can see here.

But if start replacing the individual parts by geons that are somewhat to the outer limits of recognizable patterns, to the point that if I disconnect them they barely make any sense on their own, for instance if I do this :

This weird thing:

Plus this other weird thing:

Which are 2 barely recognizable objects, when put together, become something we can finally identify:

(It’s a weird mug).

As long as I keep them together, I can still identify the whole as something that makes sense.

And it’s not only a mug, but a very unique and original mug.

The whole helps us make sense of the individual parts. Sometimes that means we can take some freedom in the sounds that we use, as long as they make sense within the whole. So using certain sounds that are evocative rather than purely descriptive or scientifically accurate, allows us to offer something that has more of a unique character, and even gives us an opportunity to represent not only the visual and descriptive characteristics of a scene, but also its psychological quality and tone, its mood.

For example in the following area:

There is a large metallic structure, part of a dig site, that descends into this cavernous hole, through which Lara will go and find that it’s a bit of a horror scene. So the atmosphere we want to create here is not only one of a cave, but one of mystery, unease, apprehension. So basically it’s not only the physical characteristics that we are trying to depict through the sound design, but also the emotional ones.

I felt like this situation called for this type of evocative sound design strategy, so I used a recording a made with contact microphones of rain falling on a metallic fence. On its own, it’s not something you would hear in this context as this could not even normally be heard with naked ears. But when you put it in there with the rest, the fact that there is a metallic structure in the scene, and that metal is the main recognisable material in the recording, and because there are other metallic creaks in the soundscape, our brains just make it work by association, and it helps creating a more unique atmosphere rather that simply rely or accurately representing the space as we would hear it in reality.

Listen to the contact mic recording first so you can hear what to listen for in game:

And now watch this video example, which includes this recording in the scene:

So in summary, some abstraction can still feel realistic enough, provided that it is given the right context.

Strategy 3 – Worldizing

Most of you will be familiar with the technique of worldizing. But note that here I am talking about worldizing in the most simple possible way: simply, from the start, record the sounds you need in an environment that is as close as possible as what it is supposed to be in the game, instead of recording only ‘dry’ sound effects and trying to replicate or emulate certain conditions through effects and filters. 

For example, I used some recordings of trees creaking in which you can hear a lot of wind, birds, other things as well as a nice natural reverb, and I placed those within the jungle as positional sources, instead of placing only dry, isolated sounds and applying reverb on them, which there are as well, but using a combination can make the whole soundscape more believable.

Listen to the recording first:

And now watch how it sounds in game:

This could be applied to not only ambience but also interactive elements, for example you could have multiple recordings for various types of spaces for things like guns or anything else really.

Strategy 4 – Controlling Focus

In our experiences of the real world, our brains have this ability to focus our auditory attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out a range of other stimuli. This is called the Cocktail Party Effect, and it happens naturally, without us consciously making that effort. 

So in a game, so much can be happening at the same time, between ambiences, Foley, music, sound effects, surrounding non important and important VO, and so on, and it’s all concentrated in that screen in front of us, on which we focus our attention. So if we don’t fake that cocktail party effect, it actually ends up sounding less realistic, too chaotic, which doesn’t reflect the way that we would process our surrounding soundscape in reality. So here the goal is the get closer to that sense of realism by cheating and intervening with technology to replicate what we normally do organically. 

This can be achieved through:

Azimuth: Make volume curves based on the field of view – which will attenuate the sounds of the sources behind you and bring into focus the ones you are looking at.

Loudness: Making some sounds deliberately louder than they should be so that we can hear them no matter the context, such as making sure you can hear objects that important to the gameplay even through noisy ambiences like thunderstorms.

Ducking: Ducking some sounds when important ones occur so that they seem louder and come through the mix more easily, as we would perceive them to do in real life.

For instance our weapons and explosions duck some of the ambience, SFX and even music so that they have more impact:


Moving to sound design opportunities, through which all of the strategies mentioned above can be used as well.

Sound design opportunities are moments favorable to feature creative, original, ‘ear-catching’ sound design which will emphasize the emotional qualities that are meant to be transmitted through a particular moment of gameplay.
Those opportunities can arguably be the same whether the game is said to be ‘realistic’ or not, but the sound design strategies that we use in the context of a ‘realistic’ game might differ. In a linear, narrative driven game such as Shadow of the Tomb Raider, these opportunities are many I will go through a few examples.

Sound Design Opportunity 1: Location Reveal

Sound can contribute to emphasize the time and space where the next events are about to take place. It can also be an excellent opportunity to set an emotional tone.

While there is a lot of value in having the soundscape completely interactive and positional, on a location reveal or a vista, ambiences can be faked (scripted) to fit the screen and support the mood, then this faked ambience can disappear gradually and transition to the actual in-game interactive material. This allows more control to choose what kind of material and sentiment to present to the player during their first contact with the space and not leave it to chance.

For example, in this Vista of Paititi, you can hear birds, walla, horns blowing, a lot of liveliness in general, meant to communicate the sense of wonder Lara is feeling when discovering this hidden city for the first time, and taking in the scale of the place and its energy.

Sound Design Opportunity 2: Ambiences

I have a lot to say about ambiences.

In a similar way to location reveals, ambience design can be very useful to reinforce the emotional tone as well as the sense of place, but it is different in a way that instead of being punctual and scripted, ambiences play during long stretches of gameplay during which the narrative development stays relatively the same (the player usually remains within the same environment, exploring or traversing). So the strength of good ambiences is their contribution to a sense of immersion, reinforcing the feeling of actually being there and making the player believe in the environment.

How to achieve that can take many forms:

  1. Contrast

Emphasize the contrast between one space and another by using different types of assets. For instance even if the geographic location is not far, if the visual and emotional tones are different, the sound must also underline that change. And even if that visual tone would be the same or similar (and probably especially so), sound can really help create the feeling that you are actually in a different place than you were in the previous chapter, and help create new bearings through which the players can locate themselves more easily. In Tomb Raider, our ambience system involved placing by hand every single sound source that were part of the ambiences, there were no quads or 2D ambiences, only positional 3D emitters for every single element constituting the ambiences, this gave us a lot of control over the sense of progression through one space as well as from one space to another.

For instance, one forest can contain a few types of birds species while the other has different ones (even if all of them are said to live in that area),


one forest can be more heavy on birds while the other one is on insects (maybe that says something about humidity and amount of sunlight that penetrates through the trees),


one forest can feel more dense and claustrophobic by placing the sound sources much closer to the player’s path and the other more spacious and wide by placing the sound sources further away with more reverb.

To summarize this point let’s listen to some forest examples taken from the game, they are all in Peru, fairly close to each other, but they all sound quite different depending on the tone.

The first one is meant to be more hostile, dark and claustrophobic, in which Lara is vulnerable :

In this second one Lara goes from a small lush oasis to this forest laced with ruins. She believes she just found the hidden city but (spoiler alert!) she didn’t, in fact she’s about to find it just a bit after that. This space is just abandoned and feels very empty – kind of the underwhelming more realistic version of Paititi that Lara was expecting to find, which itself will contrast with the lively actual Paititi which we have seen in the reveal example earlier.

And finally I have 2 videos showing the same jungle area, but in the first one Lara is about to fight the creature that lives in this part of the forest and terrorizes the wildlife – it’s quiet and creepy. In the second one she killed the creature and the forest has come back to life, all the birds are back and there is even some additional reverb to make it feel even more lush and serene.

Before the fight:

After the fight:

The same strategies can be applied to any type of environment (hubs, puzzles, combat spaces, etc) – simply pinpoint a few elements that are meant to be specific to this place and emphasize on them.

2. Progression

Also, ambiences can greatly contribute to the storytelling and narrative development. Tomb Raider is not really an open world game, even if some hub or exploration areas let you move freely within them. The story takes you from point A to point B, never really looking back. There is rarely any possibility for backtracking, and if there is, you won’t get very far. The story and the game compel you to move forward, so it is important that the sound moves forward and evolves as well with the story and the character. One way to do that is to emphasize on a sense of progression, from the start to the end of the game, but also simply within one space, creating different moods and contrasts.

In this example, Lara goes from a village area to a jungle area, as part of the same general space, and this is where our 3D sources ambience system really helped us: you can hear the various elements of the ambience transform as she walks from one space to the next.

3. Sound design the invisible

Another way to make the most of ambiences as sound design opportunities is to give a story to the various locations, beyond what is visible on screen, and sound design the invisible. In a way you have just heard some of that in the jungle as none of the life we hear is actually seen, we place sound sources without there necessarily being a visual source. But it can go a bit further than that.

For instance, if Lara finds herself in a stone structure like a ruin of a temple which looks like it’s standing pretty still, it is still possible to use sound to reinforce the idea that this structure has been there for thousands of years and is effectively in ruins. For instance by adding some rock rumble and stress, debris falling and crumbling around the place, water drips to indicate that elements have penetrated the outer walls. Also some bats chirping indicating that nature has somewhat overgrown and overtaken the space and claimed it, so that it’s not quite welcoming for human visitors anymore. 

It is also possible to use more abstract sounds, which, according to my evocation strategy, will make sense within that greater environment.  For instance we have used eerie tones extracted from wooden whistles and flutes or instruments from that region, sounds to which our ears are not quite used to so can’t quite identify, and will blur the line between sound design and music, but will help bring more body to the ambience which might actually be quite dead if we only relied on what should be there to populate it.

In this example Lara moves from a puzzle area inside a temple in ruins, where you can hear fire as it is part of the scene, but beyond that there are some debris sounds, wood rattling in the wind, distant birds that you can hear through the whole in the roof, etc – and in the second part are after the puzzle space, it’s a lot more quiet and some abstract sounds have been placed, all positional, 3D in the scene (there is no actual music).

3. Scripted Events

Moving on to next opportunity: Punctual or interactive scripted events or sequences.

I am talking about an event or a sequence of events that is scripted to happen at some point in the narrative development. These moments are usually quite cinematic and rely on sensation/sensationalism to communicate a sense of drama and excitement to the player. 

In the same way camera movements and animations are often created custom to fit certain scripted events, sound should be designed having in mind the purpose of making that sequence stand out from the rest of the ‘systemic’ gameplay. The ways to achieve that highly depend on what the sequence actually is, so I will jump directly to an example :

Throughout this piece of traversal, Lara has to hang on to wooden cages, and ledges breaking under her so it’s full of scripted events:

And another straightforward example of a scripted destruction on Lara’s path:

4. Features and Mechanics

The specific features and mechanics present in a game kind of define the game. They are present throughout the game and constitute the most part of the gameplay experience. Examples include combat, weapons, traversal, underwater traversal, etc.

Each and everyone of these features need to have strong sound design support, reinforcing their respective nature (either aggressive, friendly, fast-pace, adventure, emotionally driven, etc).

In Tomb Raider, traversal is a really important part of the gameplay. This is a good opportunity for sound design to reinforce a sense of adrenaline, danger, vertigo, breathlessness, or even fear when needed.

In this first example, Lara is traversing underwater. Since there is less room for ambience design and moment specific sound design when she is just swimming around, the systemic swim sounds include movements for arms and legs so that as a player with just a controller in our hands we can still feel the motion and the impact or Lara’s movements in her environment.

In this Last example of my presentation, it’s actually a good example of traversal, scripted events and ambiences all in one:


In summary, in games, and in the broader context of entertainment and immersive media, scientific recordings and ‘accurate’ representations don’t always sound as good as we expect or as we want them to be, and this is where creativity comes in. So in order to deliver a unique, good sounding experience when working on this type of realistic game, the question to ask yourself is: how will you make reality sound better, more exciting, more immersive and more interesting than it really is?

Thank you!

Being in Time – Thoughts & Perspectives on Sound

“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. 

You can read more about Entropy and sound in a creative sense in a previous blog post : Wabi-Sabi, Entropy and Acoustic Ecology: an approach to environmental sound art. For now, let’s stick to what this means about our perception of time

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. 

If you are curious about this idea that time can only flow in one direction due to probability of things arranging themselves in more or less ordered ways, I recommend you watch this short BBC video where Brian Cox explains Entropy in simple words:


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.

Did you know there exists a giant clock (hundreds of feet tall), buried under a mountain in Texas, that is designed to keep track of the time for 10 000 years? This clock is called The Clock of the Long Now, or the 10,000-Year Clock

“The 10,000-Year Clock keeps track of five different types of time: Pendulum Time, Uncorrected Solar Time, Corrected Solar Time, Displayed Solar Time and Orrery Time”.

If nothing else, this says something about how complex it can be to track time

Brian Eno wrote an essay about an idea of The Big Here and Long Now

“”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. 

Artworks exploring Perception

Olafur Eliasson‘s In Real Life Exhibition 

Esther Stocker’s work about the perception of Space 

Artworks exploring Illusion

Yayoi Kusama – Infinity Mirrored Room 

Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life 2011/2017 Yayoi Kusama born 1929 Presented by the artist, Ota Fine Arts and Victoria Miro 2015, accessioned 2019 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T15206

The Unseen (Infrared photography)


Artworks exploring Time

Davide D’Elia‘s ‘Antivegetativa

Sequences – An Icelandic festival dedicated to time-based art

(Below : Performance by David Horwitz with Jófríður Ákadóttir. Camera: Ólöf Kristín Helgadóttir)

Arthur Ganson, “Machine with Concrete,”

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.

Thank you for reading.

Voices From Eris

voices from eris cover_8

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!

You can listen to Lengths II here.


Description of Voice from Eris – from Shifting Waves music production :

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

Blog : www.shiftingwaves.com/blog_files/Voices_from_Eris.html
Presentation : www.youtube.com/watch?v=g50-COQJqeU


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?


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 :


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.


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.

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


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.


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

Chris watson and Iain Pate – Hrafn: Conversation with Odin


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


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


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

Hope this was inspiring!


Wabi-Sabi, Entropy and Acoustic Ecology: an approach to environmental sound art


Being passionate about environmental sound art, this post is about providing some insight into some of my own creative processes, but also (and maybe mostly) about spreading knowledge on these sometimes forgotten but fascinating topics.

Wabi-Sabi, Entropy and Acoustic Ecology as both conceptual and practical methods greatly influence my creative thinking: they shine through my sound design and recording approaches when working on personal projects, as well as contribute to give me a sense of artistic direction and intention.

Hopefully the ideas expressed below will help the reader gain a better understanding of my perspective on environmental sound art.



(photo credit : Juanjo Ripalda)
*Note : the passages in ‘’brackets’’ in this section of the article are taken from the book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers


First, let’s talk about Wabi-sabi. If you’ve never heard of it, here is the short version: a Japanese world view celebrating the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It disregards the grandiose and flawless as aesthetic criteria, and rather looks for unique and unconventional characteristics in humble objects of everyday life. It is the acceptance of things as they are and of the constant motion occurring in nature.

Now for the long version.

Wabi-sabi is the opposite of materialism, of modernism, of stillness, of the spectacular, and of the orderly and the symmetrical.

It is nature-based, and refers to the rustic, the simple, the unsophisticated, and the unpretentious. It concerns the spatial and temporal events and occurrences surrounding us.


(photo credit : Juanjo Ripalda)

In japanese, the meaning of ‘Wabi’ originally bore rather negative connotations regarding poverty and the barbarism that comes with living in remote regions, with few material goods and means. Over time, the evolution of the term transformed into something much more positive, communicating how this type of life away from society and in isolation ‘’fosters an appreciation of the minor details of everyday life and insights into the beauty of the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature’’.


(photo credit : Juanjo Ripalda)


  • Nature

Wabi-sabi and nature are intimately related, even though it is possible to observe the philosophy in any environment. It believes in the fundamental uncontrollability of nature, which resonates well with the complementary ideas of chaos, randomness and complex patterns.

In a way, it romanticises nature, calling for a deeper sense of perception than the superficial act of looking. It requires thinking, observation, patience, attention, and care.

It is especially calling attention to natural degradation processes, such as corrosion and contamination. All forms of natural transformation make the expression of wabi-sabi richer.


One of the most important wabi-sabi spiritual values is that truth comes from the observation of nature. The Japanese have suffered extreme natural conditions over time including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, floods, fires, tidal waves, and more, and the wabi-sabi philosophy expresses some of their lessons learned:

  1. All things are impermanent.

All things, both tangible and intangible, wear down. Permanence can only ever be an illusion.

  1. All things are imperfect.

Nothing is flawless. So embrace the flaws as unique features, instead of masking them.

  1. All things are incomplete.

All things, including the universe itself, are in constant, never-ending state of becoming or dissolving. The notion of completion has no basis in wabi-sabi.


(photo credit : Juanjo Ripalda)


  • Time

The dimension of time, transformation, degradation or metamorphosis are all present in the wabi-sabi philosophy.

It insists on the non everlasting quality of things – To every thing there is a season.

Some of its metaphysical basis include principles such as the idea that ‘’things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness’’.

Wabi-sabi is about the delicate traces, this faint evidence, at the borders of nothingness. The universe destructs and constructs, evolves and devolves, and nothingness is, unintuitively, alive with possibility, or potential: ‘’In metaphysical terms, wabi-sabi suggests that the universe is in constant motion towards or away from potential’’.

According to the above statement, I find that memories and perception are equally part of the wabi-sabi recurring themes. It is about the subtleties, the non obvious, the once was, the potential to be, the insignificance of us as individuals in the grand scheme of things. Exploring wabi-sabi is exploring the line between construction and deconstruction, evolution and devolution.


(photo credit : Juanjo Ripalda)


  • Observation

Wabi-sabi states that ‘’greatness exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details’’.

It is the opposite of the ideal of beauty as something monumental, spectacular and enduring.

Wabi-sabi is found in nature at moments of inception or subsiding. It is not about the gorgeous flowers, majestic trees or bold landscapes, it’s about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes.

It is quite easy to make a parallel with recording approaches here: consequently to experience wabi-sabi, one has to slow down, be patient, look very closely (or listen), and pay attention to details. Patience is key.


(photo credit: Juanjo Ripalda)

Wabi-sabi also expresses that ‘’beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness’’.

Beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. It is an altered state of consciousness, not an absolute. Thus the separation of beauty and non-beauty or ugliness is not in accordance with the wabi-sabi way of thinking.

Again, the parallel is easy to draw – who is to say which sounds are pleasing, which aren’t? Who is to determine what are the universals in beauty? To me, this is a personal, holistic experience, where individual perception plays a significant role. Whatever you capture out there is part of a greater, more intimate moment between you and your subject, and what you find beautiful may not appeal to someone else, but that’s part of what makes your subject unique.


(photo credit : Juanjo Ripalda)


  • Natural disorder

Part of the wabi-sabi state of mind is the acceptance of the inevitable, and the appreciation of the evanescence of life. Wabi-sabi serenely contemplates our own mortality and finality, as part of a greater ensemble. Ecosystems are a good demonstration of this mindset: they are continually evolving (not everlasting), transforming, and complex, while their components are ephemeral and incomplete.


Wabi-sabi also celebrates natural degradation and entropy (in an artistic sense). For instance, signs of corrosion are a manifestation of nature following its course. In materials, this translates as the observation of cracks in clay as it dries, the color and textural metamorphosis of metal when it tarnishes and rusts. Those occurrences we are able to witness are a ‘’representation of the physical forces and deep structures that underlie our everyday world’’.

In terms of aesthetics, wabi-sabi always consists of a suggestion of natural processes.

Things wabi-sabi are expressions of time frozen. They are made of materials that are visibly vulnerable to the effects of weathering and human treatment. They record the sun, wind, rain, heat, and cold in a language of discoloration, rust, tarnish, stain, warping, shrinking, shriveling, and cracking. Their nicks, chips, bruises, scars, dents, peeling, and other forms of attrition are a testament to histories of use and misuse.

They are irregular (non repetitive), intimate (observed in proximity), unpretentious, and simple.


(photo credit : Juanjo Ripalda)


One way wabi-sabi translates into my recording approaches is through welcoming accidents and the unplanned. I accept the unexpected and imperfect as part of a greater order, and find the beauty in overlooked details.

For instance, I remember this one day when I did some field recording in a remote forest. It wasn’t a hiking forest, it was an actual wild forest where it is absolutely impossible to set foot in because the ground is either too dense or unsafe. Only one small dirt road was going across it, which allowed me to get closer. I went as far as I physically could in the forest, which was realistically right at the edge of a path. There I set up with my portable recorder, and hit ‘record’. Headphones on, I could hear how alive the forest was. There was a mild breeze, making the tips of the trees dance and creak. Most trees were dry and in pretty rough shape, some bits were falling apart here and there. The entire forest was lamenting, it was really spooky. So I was recording, never wanting to hit ‘stop’ as I was entranced by what I was listening to, and suddenly this ‘accident’ happens. Somewhere not too far, a big heavy branch falls down, totally ruining my set levels. Also I think I shouted a bit, I was totally taken by surprise. But that’s all fine. Because that was part of the moment, the experience, that unique soundscape. I kept all of those recordings.

I have an equally strong attraction to romanticism, which in many ways contradicts the wabi-sabi experience: bold landscapes, mountains, forces of nature and large scale events also fascinate me. But how better to record a mountain and capture the grandiose than seize all of its living components, its motion, its overlooked details, its changes, its gradation and degradation.


Now, about entropy.

In a scientific sense (and put simply),  entropy is the measurement of disorder. It refers to a principle of thermodynamics dealing with energy, considering the amount of unavailable energy in a closed thermodynamic system as a property of its state, i.e. its order or disorder.

In a poetic or artistic sense, it’s the quality of chaos and randomness, 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.

I like to marry the concepts of entropy and wabi-sabi through the ideas of the uncontrollability of nature, the construction and deconstruction, and the evolution and devolution of the universe, as well as the idea that all things are in continuous flow (the opposite of stillness).

While wabi-sabi appreciates the patterns in nature, the instability, the overlooked details of natural decay and transformation, entropy reinforces those ideas by affirming the constant movement of things and greater natural forces, and supports those conceptual and metaphysical views by describing perceptible physical phenomenons.


The way this translates into recording or designing approaches can be many. It concerns just as much what you chose to record, how you record it, and what are you going to do with it.

Some recurring themes may include perception of patterns, the passage of time, and the transformation of matter, the exploitation of unplanned behaviours, the unexpected and randomness. There is no exhaustive list of course, and this exploration is not only about the subject but also very much about the process itself.

During my Master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh, I participated in creating an audiovisual installation exploring the concept of entropy, along with 4 other extremely talented audio and visual artists (Juanjo Ripalda, Gaby Yanez, Euan McKenzie and Adam Howard).

In this experimental piece, which roughly consisted of a self regulated feedback system played back through rusted metal plates (with audio transducers) and reacting to the space, we communicated the idea of entropy through 6 different levels, as follows:

Level 1 – The rust

We ‘prepared’ 4 large metal plates, making them rust over a period of time, and documented the process through video recording. This is in line with natural decaying processes.


Level 2 – The curves

We modeled formal oxidation measurement curves and implemented them in our installation in such a way that the audio played back would follow these curves in a cyclical nature, thus highlighting the perception of decay over time.

Level 3 – The feedback system

Inspired by composer Agostino Di Scipio, the feedback system is set up according to the notion of ‘audible ecosystems’. This concept illustrates the complexity of the relation between sound and its surrounding environment, and how both interact with each other. It intends to show how any organised system, while being altered by its context and place will ultimately function on its own and potentially lead to unexpected behaviours.

Level 4 – Audio and visual processes

We illustrated entropy’s ‘coloration’ both visually and sonically by playing back the corresponding videos of the metal plates on 4 different screens. Both sound and video were processed in various ways in order to portray digital decay (loss of information, quality degradation, glitches), following the ‘rust curves’ evolution mentioned above.

Level 5 – The human interaction

The human agent contributes to the unpredictable nature of the installation. From the moment interaction occurs, it is impossible to predict how the system will react, change and adjust. Also, as entropy is a process rather than a state or a finality, the concept of interaction emphasizes on the procedure itself rather than the result.

Level 6 – Material

Entropy as a ‘transformation’ was also communicated through the materials chosen as means of display. For instance, audio playback was amplified through mismatched and deteriorated speakers, each of them offering a differently ‘tinted’ sound, spread across the space.


To know more about the installation and watch the recorded performance, you can visit this page.


As you can see, entropy, as any other idea at a conceptual level, can be explored and communicated through various means. The idea is to revisit those concepts and find different ways to present them. I find that making parallels and marrying artistics intentions (such as combining entropy with wabi-sabi and acoustic ecology) is a great way to foster creative ideas and maintain subjects alive – the possibilities are just infinite.


*Note : the passages in ‘’brackets’’ in this section of the article are taken from the book Environmental Sound Artists: In Their Own Words


The terms (and ideas of) acoustic ecology and soundscape are relatively new. It’s only in the 1970s that these concepts were first introduced, as part of a greater consideration concerning climate change and environmental deterioration.

R. Murray Schafer, in his book The Tuning of the World, wrote that  «The soundscape of the world is changing. Modern man is beginning to inhabit a world with an acoustic environment radically different from any he has hitherto known».

His concerns about our sonic environment eventually led to Acoustic Ecology, which is today known as a discipline exploring ‘’the relationship, mediated through sound, between human beings and their environment’’.

Acoustic Ecology is part of a greater environmental sound art movement, consisting of a large body of work, contributing to connect us to the world in a various ways. In order to get a better understanding of the field in general, I’ll weave in some of the defining characteristics of environmental sound art, of which acoustic ecology is a branching creative practice.

Sound art is ‘’ultimately an art form that is inherently diverse, constantly expanding, and conceptually elusive’’. While the purpose and meaning of environmental sound art may very well vary from one artist to another, some characteristics certainly do bind the work of these various artists together. For instance, the strategies of appropriation of structure, processes, materials and impulses derived from the environment around us.

In acoustic ecology, some of the most important points are the following:

  • Environment

Sound art from acoustic ecologist can come to life through various ways. From data sonification of natural processes (such as seismic activity – John Bullitt), to playing natural or human made landmarks (Tower Music – Joseph Bertolozzi), or taking advantage of natural forces in order to create musical pieces (Sea Organ – Nikola Bašić), the means are many, but they do have one thing in common: the environment surrounding us. The goals also vary from an effort in raising environmental awareness, an invitation to connect with nature, an exploration of the mathematical patterns that govern our existence, etc, etc. Needless to say, these goals are not mutually exclusive – the intentions can be many.

  • The process

There is also a significant appreciation of the process itself just as much as the sonic output that results from it.

In some cases the mere description of the work’s process or structure can be pleasing even without experiencing the work sonically. The ideas themselves can be elegant and intellectually fulfilling.

This makes me think of the fascination I have for the work of experimental composer Iannis Xenakis; while I greatly appreciate his motives, his ideas, his processes and intentions, I am moderately touched by the results of his musical practice. But that doesn’t really matter, because he has inspired me with his creativity either way. To learn more about Xenakis, take a look at this previous post.

  • Location

Location and context are of primary relevance in the field of environmental sound art. A strong connection to specific spaces seems to be a unifying thematic thread. ‘’It is the space that brings context to the work’’.

I like this example from Cheryl Leonard, who recorded melting ice from glaciers in Antarctica for her work Meltwater. In many ways, this work is in accordance with both the wabi-sabi philosophy and entropy, in the attention to details and the overlooked, and the small as opposed (or as part of) the grandiose, the natural degradation processes and the changes in states.

«One of the allures of making music out of natural materials and environmental field recordings is delving into the minutia of the very quiet».  (Cheryl Leonard)

There are plenty of examples of site specific installations. Some invite to reflect on the spaces and our relationship with them, such as the piece Bivvy Broadcasts by Dawn Scarfe, where real-time audio signal was streamed between a remote forest location and people located in urban areas. This was intended to ‘’reflect on the differences between urban and rural ambience, and to explore the imagined space of the forest as much as the physical reality’’.

Sometimes it’s about finding the musical elements within a natural environment and use them as a basis for creativity, inviting people to find connections with their surroundings and reflect on common interactions with them. (Sounding Underground – Ximena  Alarcón, David Rothenberg, Matthew Burtner).


Acoustic ecology is known to explore themes centered towards nature and the various socio-political topics and questions surrounding it. Environmental awareness is certainly a common thematic thread, but it would be a misjudgment to reduce the discipline to this particular angle only.

Acoustic ecology is drawn to the principles of design and structure inherent in nature, which presents both orderliness, stability and balance, as well as chaos and randomness. Some elements that can be explored and observed from this complex tapestry are perhaps the mathematical beauty of reiterated forms, the power of repetition, and the forces of physical energy.  

For me, all three concepts of acoustic ecology, wabi-sabi and entropy come together to provide a sense of direction and intention. My artistic statement is in accordance with the wabi-sabi philosophy, inclusive of the idea of entropy, and accomplished through the means of acoustic ecology.

I’d like to conclude this article by describing a beautiful sound installation by field recordist and sound artist Chris Watson, one I had the privilege to experience: Hrafn: Conversation with Odin (October 2014).

The installation consisted of a multi-channel, spatialiased sound installation playing back recordings of thousands of ravens returning to roost. The speakers were hidden among the trees, and the audience was taken to the location at twilight to experience the event of the birds arriving and commencing their conversations, culminating into a full raven roost overhead.

Through an intensely immersive perspective, I found that Chris Watson’s work portrayed the metamorphosis of a space, the transformation of an ecosystem, and offered a memory of it. Recorded and natural sounds blended together to form one beautiful audible painting. Many aspects of this installation fell in line with the wabi-sabi philosophy:

  • Not materially inclined: hidden speakers, only requires physical presence, the audience sitting on the ground.
  • Appreciation of things as they are, no intention to control weather or environment: whatever sound events occurring during the piece were part of it. The ecosystem was alive, while both recorded and natural sounds lived together, then transformed seamlessly into a fully natural soundscape again. The listener could effectively decide when or if the performance was over.
  • The evolution from nothingness towards nothingness, the appreciation of finality simply by acknowledging this as a past moment.
  • Nature-based reflection: such a piece will inevitable take the listener into a reflection about nature and the environment surrounding us, our relationship with it and its transformation over time.

This installation beautifully incorporates ideas from all 3 concepts I described in this post, and have inspired me to develop similar projects and search for symbiosis between sound art and environment.

I hope this was insightful and inspiring!


Audio processing using MaxMSP

If you follow me on twitter, you will have seen a few recent tweets about my latest experiments with Sci Fi bleeps and bloops.

I created a MaxMSP patch that allows me to process sound files in such a way that the original file is nearly unidentifiable, and the results sound nicely tech and Sci Fi.

My process there was that over time, I created a few simple individual patches performing this sort of processing:

  • Phaser+Delay
  • Time Stretcher
  • Granulator
  • Phaser+Phaseshift
  • Ring Modulator
  • Phasor+Pitch Shift

I decided to assemble those patches together in such a way that I could play with multiple parameters and multiple sounds at the same time.

In order to do so, I have mapped the various values and parameters of my patch to a midi controller [KORG nanoKONTROL2], and selected a few sounds a know work well with the different items of the patch to be chosen from a dropdown menu.

This is what the patch looks like:


All the different ‘instruments’ are contained in subpatches. They are all quite simple but create interestingly complex results when put together.

The subpatches:


Organised nicely in Presentation Mode, I can interact with the different values with my midi controller:


The mapping system:


I can then record the result to a wav file on disk, which I am free to edit in Reaper afterwards, selecting the nice bits and making cool sounds effects with these original sources.

Record to file:


This process can be quite infinite as I can then feed the processed sound back to the patch and see what comes out of it.

Here is a little demo of the patch and its ‘instruments’:


And some bleeps and bloops I made using this patch:


You can visit the Experiments page to hear more tracks 🙂



Iannis Xenakis – Composer, Architect, Visionary

I’d like to talk to you about Iannis Xenakis, this Greek composer who created most of his work between 1950 and 1980.

This isn’t going to be a biography, it’s going to be about the nature of his work and why I consider him to be a brilliant sound designer way ahead of his time.

We all have those artists who inspire us greatly in our quest for an individual creative voice. Xenakis is most certainly on the top of my list, and I hope this post will help you understand why.

This also isn’t going to be about his music itself. Confession – I am familiar with only very few pieces from Xenakis (something which I need to address shortly..). What fascinates me about him are his ideas, his vision, his audacity, his overall multidisciplinary achievements, his daring, relentless creativity.

I read a book recently, entitled Iannis Xenakis – Composer, Architect, Visionary.

This compilation of essays enlighten the reader about Xenakis’s life, philosophy, and artistic and personal achievements. You could have never heard his famous Metastaseis and still enjoy the book greatly.

*The text in italic in this post is taken directly or paraphrased from the book

Xenakis was a creator before anything else. It would be a great misjudgement to label him as a composer only. His work involved experimental composition, experimental visual art and installations, experimental architecture, and much more. He was an experimenter. He dared to question our ideas about art, society and even science. His own passions were many, including archaeology, literature and astronomy.


  • scientific and mathematical foundations

When composing, he had a way of ‘imaging’ music which was far from our conventional music notation system with lines and dots. He wasn’t either creating graphic scores the way some of his contemporaries such as John Cage had started doing a little earlier in time. He was rather working through strategies to deploy physics and mathematics as means to organise sound. This is a direct reflection of his compositional philosophy, which was founded on mathematical and scientific ideas.




This way of drafting his work on paper and thinking through the hand was very much foreshadowing the avenue of Process Art (of which I’m a big fan of as well).

Xenakis once remarked that he did not compose at the piano, that instead his tools were mathematics and computer science.

One of his most brilliant insights was that it is by going to the very physical foundations of artistic phenomena – and their basis in physics – that one can find viable ways to move forward.

  • the force of nature

As much as Xenakis’s music was said to sweep over you like a force of nature, his artistic approach was very much inspired from it too.

Some tragedies in his life have led him to find meaning in things beyond the reach of accident and time, a realm of immutable laws he would find mirrored in Nature.

I think it is a pretty strong statement to be relying on Nature itself as means of last resort to find some sort of bearing in life, of stronghold, because everything else just isn’t strong or meaningful enough.

He desired to represent through music how everything is in flux, how everything around us moves, shifts, is in constant turmoil, and that we navigate in the provisional, we must reconsider each thought at every instant.

His piece Matastaesis (1953) was the first to express this vision, describing certainty and uncertainty, timelessness and motion. He relied partly on the probability theory to achieve this.

He then developed an approach that would later become one of his trademark sound, first heard in Pithoprakta (1955-56): the cloud of points. Xenakis suggested that these are like things heard in nature, such as swarms of cicadas, or rain pattering on a roof. This active listening for natural sound events is one of the many things I find inspiring in Xenakis’s sonic creativity.

His approach, which sometimes seemed hyper-cerebral, was in fact deeply grounded in nature as well as in human experience.

He enjoyed creating immersive environments (which you’ll find out is a passion of mine if you browse this blog), of which his site-specific multimedia works are some examples, such as the Philips Pavilion and its 425 coordinated loudspeakers.




One of his later pieces, Terretektorh (1965-66), was said to be partly inspired by one the Xenakis’s many intense experiences with nature and its sounds;

Xenakis spent summers in Corsica in the company of his wife and daughter, surrounded by the sea, gazing at stars, immersed in forest sounds, or rattled by the intensity of a tempest. It was an almost violent primordial feeling he was after, sound shifting from instrument to instrument, as if between loudspeakers – a line traced in space.

His passion for astronomy was also palpable in his Diatope (1978) in Paris, where lights, lasers, pivoting mirrors and prisms created galactic movement rendered accessible.


Other Polytopes include the ones of Mycènes (1978) and Persepolis (1971).




  • innovation

In an era where the worldwide avant-garde music scene consisted of a handful of influential composers tightly bound by common beliefs, Xenakis had the audacity to challenge and question the very foundations of their aesthetic choices.

While both Boulez and and Xenakis somewhat shared the view that new music had to reflect a modern conception of a universe in perpetual expansion, they had disagreeing ways of expressing it. Boulez and the other avant-garde composers’ music was known as ‘pointilliste’, featuring complex textures and meticulous organisation which in the end sounded more like restless randomness, as where Xenakis opted for a more global approach, more natural sounding to the ear, giving up the note-to-note approach of serialism for one better suited one to manipulating these global entities of density, texture, and tendency towards greater or lesser complexity.

This consideration for the medium and its reception, sound in this case, is why I consider him a brilliant sound designer. His creative approach wasn’t only about finding a way to send a message through art, but also about how it would be received. This message will be heard, it is thus important to factor in the human ear and how our brains will interpret this audible message.

This passionate artist, who became a famous timeless composer without any previous musical training, was always one to stand apart, not altogether fitting in any of his contemporaries’ company. An aura of loneliness surrounds his work, even his name ”Xenakis” can be translated as ”little stranger”.

I will leave you with an excerpt from Xenakis’s daughter’s memories, Mâkhi, featured at the end of the book.

He sometimes stared at the sky, searching for that particular moment when he could at last, in extreme hand-to-hand combat, draw close to the untamed elements of nature, so as to nourish and renew himself in them.


The thunder rumbles, we’ve taken refuge in our tent, And again his face is radiant, peaceful. He uses his watch to calculate meticulously the number of seconds between the brutal bursts of lightning that tear apart the night and the explosions of thunder as they grow closer and closer to us. When the storm is at last directly above our heads he leaves the tent, half-naked; he runs and disappears little by little into this grandiose spectacle of sound and apocalyptic light.

In the early morning, when dew covers every particle of the arid countryside, he crouches for hours, scrutinizing each very particular spiderweb. A multitude of parallel stretched lines sktetch out complex architectures comprising cut-off cones, convex and concave surfaces conjoined – they are the natural ancestors of the Philips Pavilion and the polytopes…