Sonic Storytelling: Designing Musical Spaces

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Sentient Music for Media founder Ariel Blumenthal.
Sentient Music for Media founder Ariel Blumenthal.

Tali Krakowsky, WET Design.
Tali Krakowsky, WET Design.
When I was five years old, I took some piano classes and was soon officially banished from the world of music-making when informed that I lacked all musical abilities. From there on I have remained in the audience rather than the creator category, when it comes to music.

It is from that category of the novice sound-lover that I encountered a series of fascinating innovations in the design of spatial sound. I say this both because I do not pretend to be an expert in the world of music-making and because it turns out that you don't have to be a music professional to be interested in some of the exciting new explorations that are happening in sound-composition today.

As much as we love our music, we often forget to think of our living environments as containers of sound.

Some of the most compelling things happening today in sound are explorations in multi-dimensional soundscapes. This is a brief introduction to some work being done in the field for those who work and think about space.

SoundLife London Trailer from Illustrious Company on Vimeo.

One simple example was last month's SoundLife London installation at Leicester Square by Illustrious (above). It consisted of a three-dimensional sound composition that inhabited the entire space of Leicester Square gardens over a 10-day period. Another is a sound labyrinth installation by the fabulous someone who made a film about his project but did not mention his name. Using classic labyrinth models such as French gardens, Pacman, and Kubrick's famous The Shining maze, visitors are tasked with navigating an invisible labyrinth in a seemingly empty space with a headset that vibrates with a sound when a wall is hit.

Some of the more complex developments that I know of are being done by Sentient Music for Media's founder Ariel Blumenthal, a fascinating composer working on modeling three-dimensional sound environments. He has developed three spatial concepts for how original music can be expressed in space using non-traditional uses of existing technologies.

The first model extends our understanding of standard surround-sound. Multiple music elements are separated and distributed from different sources throughout the room.

If a speaker transmits a recording of a spatial performance from a single source then this is an exploded acoustics model that delivers the various musical elements simultaneously from multiple sound sources strategically placed around a room. For example, one corner of the room may be dominated by vocals of a song while at the other end the drums may lead in the acoustic landscape.

The second model is slightly different and can work with or independently from the first.

Here sound is mapped across multiple spaces. The same music gets expressed in diverse styles across geographical locations resulting in smooth, gradual shifts in mood as the listener travels between the spaces.

The concept is probably easiest to understand by taking a very literal model. Imagine recordings of three separate bands performing the same song in a jazz, classical and contemporary style. Now imagine two rooms and one connecting corridor. Each of the performances has a dedicated space but their playback is synchronized. As a result, walking through the three spaces allows its inhabitants to experience three intricately connected expressions of the song, each evoking its own specific mood.

Using short music elements and a set of unique algorithms and compositional considerations that layer them in space, Ariel creates a sonic landscape that changes across space and time.

What drives the mood of each space and its interconnected sonic environments can be greatly driven by factors such as time, the type of activities that take place in the room or a mood that the architect hopes to evoke.

Ariel has recently completed a permanent installation that is based on this model for the Plaza Hotel in New York City--check out this pdf for more information. Layers of music unfold to tell a continuous sonic narrative that changes through the space. If you're in NYC, you should check it out.

For the third and most interesting iteration, Ariel is developing a model that could include interactivity.

Imagine a whole three-dimensional sound environment that is co-choreographed by its inhabitants. the environment and its occupants would choreograph themselves in real-time to create spontaneous compositions.

Why should you care? Because it's really time that we put as much attention and effort into designing our soundscapes as we do in our architecture, interior design, lighting and media. Storytelling, after all, is best expressed as a truly multi-sensory experience.


Tali Krakowsky, Director of Experience Design, heads a think tank at WET. Working closely with design, research and production, she focuses on developing new ideas, technologies and business opportunities for the short- and long-term future of the firm.
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