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A Sound Journey - Interactivity as Sensory Experience

Project Statement

I have chosen the ‘path’ for my journey [see maps enclosed, all maps courtesy of www.streetmaps.co.uk]. It begins on the south side of Vauxhall Bridge, outside what is now MI5, winds its way along Albert Embankment, takes a left over Lambeth Bridge, another left back along Millbank, passing the Tate Gallery and finally left over Vauxhall Bridge to bring me back to where I started. I chose this route for several reasons:

• It is familiar to me. Having lived within ten minutes of the site for a couple of years, I took this walk regularly so I guess I have a sense of nostalgia about it. Pedestrians use the area for many reasons including moving to and from work, while snap-happy tourists congregate more in the direction of the House of Commons and on to the West End. It is also used for the simple activity of ‘going for a walk’. For me, this particular route was an oft- repeated experience to escape the tv for an hour.

• In my sojourns, I have often walked up to Battersea, around the park, and back to Vauxhall and Kennington. The Lambeth Walk is a pleasant experience and it is a nice walk into the West End from here. The route I chose came about because I wanted to pick a reasonably brief walk. You can easily walk this route in under forty minutes.

• When going for a walk, no-one I know ever chooses to walk in a straight line to a point and then return to where they started. Considering that when taking a walk, one usually wants to return to the point of origin, it is my experience that we choose to walk in what can broadly be considered a circle. The chosen route fulfils this brief.


Every segment of the river in the city centre has famous buildings and grand architecture. For me, what is important is as much the individual within this environment. What are his feelings, his sense of self, isolation or participation within the surroundings?

London is an old city, settled by the Romans. In more recent times a lot of it had to be rebuilt due to bombing in the Second World War. Consequently, it is a mix of the old and the new; narrow winding streets and the broader thoroughfares designed to accommodate official and royal buildings and business and money centres. The area along Millbank, past the House of Commons and on up to Trafalgar Square can be considered the heart, not necessarily of the city but rather the power structure of the British State. Everywhere you go around here for miles is populated with buildings which represent the historical old wealth of the British Empire. Not surprisingly, these buildings are paralleled by a network of underground bunkers directly underneath them.

To begin with, a physical journey implies a movement through space and time. Philosophically, we can see all of life as a journey; as a movement through time from one place to another. Places/locations contain emotional attachment. We are usually emotionally attached to our place of origin, for instance. We also hold an attachment, psychological and/or emotional, to many places which are not always immediately explainable. In my second project last year (‘Millenium Bridge’), I referred to TS Eliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland’. Among other things, the poem uses the London landscape to map an emotional landscape. Personally I have noticed through dream recall and general daydreaming, that I associate particular ideas, emotions etc with certain places. That is, I often find myself thinking of a certain place and with it comes a particular emotion. The converse is also true, to the extent that I often cannot say whether it is the place or the emotion that is of prominence.

In the art world we can see emotion etched across the landscapes of Lowry, Turner (see Tate Gallery), Whistler (see Battersea Bridge (ref Millenium Bridge project)), Constable, to name but a few. The Abstract Expressionist movement attempted to distil these qualities further. Barnett Newman, Rothko and Pollock attempted this via the ‘colour field’(were all in Tate at one stage, now housed downriver at Tate Modern). This is of course a particular interpretation of said work. For instance Barnett Newman named his work after biblical episodes and characters.

As we have said, we need to consider space and time when articulating a journey. Sound / music also implies space and time. Many musicians old and new have among other things, attempted to describe landscape through sound. The classical composers more often than not imply landscape in their work. This ties in with the emotion that music evokes. Bela Bartok articulated a terrifying emotional landscape, which was not lost on horror film makers later on. His music was of course also prophesising the carnage of the Second World War which was still to come. Delius, on the other hand, provides a music that emphasises a pastoral landscape, emotionally charged but peaceful. Into the latter half of the twentieth century, the sixties saw the emergence of the synthesiser among other things. This instrument digitised sound. It led to all sorts of musical experiences. Some of the acts included Can, Kraftwerk (‘Man Machine, TransEurope Express’), Tangerine Dream (Manuel Gottsching (Ashra): ‘New Age of Earth’), Brian Eno (‘Apollo, Ambient’).
[Aside: I must mention that as I write this I am listening to
Eno’s ‘Ambient 4 On Land’ originally released in’82 (re-released on CD) and am just reading the liner notes which I missed out on first-time round:
“The idea of making music that in some way related to a sense of place – landscape, environment – had occurred to me many times …”
[Brian Eno 1982 revised 1986]
The artists / albums mentioned to some extent mirror the Abstract Expressionist vision. A ‘flat floating’ music, with no immediately apparent structure.

Lastly in this introduction, I must mention the poets. They who describe an emotional, psychological landscape with words. They also of course, use sound as a tool for expression. Time / rhythm is essentially important to the poet and so they seem to be a candidate for inclusion in any project related to sound, space and time. Since the invention of recorded and generally distributed sound (radio), we have been lucky enough to be able to hear poets reciting their own work from time to time. It is my intention to include some recorded poets in this project.

I started by borrowing Dave’s minidisk writer and going to my chosen site. It was very windy and freezing – at the time the weather forecasters were telling us it was two or three degrees during the day, but at the river it was probably near zero. I walked the route, starting outside MI5, recording sound clips as I went. The wind is very apparent on the recordings. When I got over Lambeth Bridge and started making my way back along Millbank, I went into the Tate. It was part of my intended journey and a welcome break from the bitter cold. I recorded sounds in the foyer and in some of the exhibition areas. Having warmed up a bit, I made my way back outdoors, crossed the road at the lights, and continued on along and over Vauxhall Bridge. I ended my journey at the place where I had started. This concluded my sound files recorded onsite. I had maybe twenty-five to thirty tracks of forty minutes duration approximately.

Using a minidisk home system, I was able to record to minidisk anything I had on tape or CD. I used the opportunity to record bits of poetry / spoken word from various sources. I tried to include pieces that might be of particular relevance to the project. The spoken word artists that I recorded were Stevie Smith, Philip Larkin, TS Eliot and Brendan Behan.
I also recorded particular music tracks I thought could be used. Of the classical composers, I recorded Stravinsky, Bartok, Beethoven and Mozart. I would like to have included Delius but could not get anything suitable to hand. Of the modern music artists I included Manuel Gottsching (Ashra), Harold Budd, Cocteau Twins, Edgar Froese, Brian Eno, Philip Aaberg and Miles Davis / John Coltrane.

It was another two weeks before I finally could get the sound files gathered that day on the river onto CD and thus onto the computer for manipulation. We did not have the correct cable connection for computer connection. I won’t go into the details but suffice to say there was a lot of coming and going to get a result. Anyway we finally managed it and there I was ready for the next stage. Sound Forge was the program I used to doctor / manipulate my sound files. The program is very useful and I had about two hours of recorded material so it needed to be.

I had already got satellite photographs (www.streetmap.co.uk) of my chosen route. I used these to plot my route in a Flash page. It was now a case of importing my sounds to the Flash library, linking them for export using ActionScript, and declaring and attaching them in ‘Actions’ in my first frame. I attach some code copied from my Flash file.

outside3 = new Sound();
outside3.attachSound("outside3");

outside4 = new Sound();
outside4.attachSound("outside4");

Each sound needed to be attached individually to each button and below is a sample:

on (rollOver){
neweliot1.start(0, 0);
neweliot1.setVolume(60);
}
on (rollOut) {neweliot1.stop();
neweliot2.stop();
}
on (release){
neweliot1.stop();
neweliot2.start(0,0);
neweliot2.setVolume(60);
}


As I loaded my sound files my Flash file got bigger and heavier. Checking it now in ‘Properties’ it weighs in at 648 MB (680,455,168 bytes). Crumbs. That is easily the largest file I have had the pleasure of creating. What is happening is that the sound files, especially the ones copied from CD are extremely large. For instance one of the Ashra tunes weighs in at 16 MB !! and that is after compression to 8 bit size using Sound Forge. I would have liked to put more incidental sound on the file including the sound of seagulls and tugboats but my home computer system was crawling along by the time I got toward the finish. Luckily the .swf file which is all that is needed to exhibit the work is only 5.04 MB (5,294,724 bytes). Phew.

Overview

My intended audience is anyone who likes poetry, music and uses a computer from time to time.

As for its use outside of the project, it explores navigational problems, the solutions being the various sounds anchored within the grid. The obvious implementation of the work is in relation to the visually impaired. However, it is also of relevance to the whole of the computer related media experience as through tv, phone etc., audio is going to be one of the ‘next big things’ for the coming years.

The work is a combination of practicality; horns beeping, car crashes to guide you along the intended path, and philosophy; the music / poetry is used in relation to emotion, time and place. Of course as the user is in a ‘virtual reality’, he can choose to stray off the path and see what occurs. As with any computer program ‘destruction’ is part of the testing procedure. This means the system is tested to see what happens when a user deliberately deviates from the intended protocol. Having said this, I found that it is probably easier to deviate than to follow the intended path as the work gives no other clue that the user is in the wrong place other than a selected noise / sound.

One of the main emphases within the project was the ‘compare and contrast’ aspect of the two buildings I located within my map. The Tate, now Tate Britain, is a public building, frequented by hundreds to thousands of different visitors every day. They come to see Fine Art from around the world and specifically from Britain (see the Turner Gallery). As such, it is literally on view. For my project, I place pieces of music as ‘art objects’ within the confines of the building. In the room on the right, I have placed pieces of music by some of the originators of the digitized sound. Manuel Gottsching once played with Tangerine Dream while Edgar Froese still does. Harold Budd is an avant-garde piano composer who aspires to people like Terry Riley (‘Rainbow in Curved Air’ not included). In the room on the left, I included the piece ‘Freddie Freeloader’ by Miles Davis / John Coltrane from Davis’s nineteen fifty something album ‘Kind of Blue’. I think the piece relates to the urban experience on all sorts of levels. The other piece in the room is a short piano piece composed by Beethoven. It is included because of its shortness and the fact that Beethoven has spatial / landscape implications throughout his work.


In contrast, on the opposite bank (in more ways than one), MI5 is not a public building. It has a public image, websites etc. which it is keen to encourage. In fact, prior to this building at Vauxhall which has been there not much more than a few years, does anyone know where they were located? It is of course a ‘secret organization’ with a mostly undisclosed agenda. I chose a (badly mangled) clip from a James Bond film to imply the entrance to the building. This is the tongue in cheek kind of happy public image MI5 encourages. On passing this we get an ‘Access Denied’ message which is what the general public will receive. Granted, you will get this message in any office building if you are not there on specific business. What I mean by placing this sound byte here is that MI5 are a secret organization in control of information via the ‘Official Secrets Act’ of which the general public is not allowed access. I include some music by Bartok, which is I think appropriate: Bartok has been called the first modernist and his music references the terror of the years leading up to the Second World War. MI5 had their greatest success during this period, namely being party to the cracking of the German ‘Enigma’ code. Also included are sound bytes from Kraftwerk (seminal 70's synthesizer band) which implies the possible goings on within. On the periphery I have included the sound of a helicopter which implies surveillance.

While on many levels the two buildings are in direct contrast, they also have correlations. The Tate was renamed Tate Britain when the Tate Modern came into being. As such, the Tate Britain, as its name suggests, while continuing to exhibit a vast array of international art, has built the Turner Gallery and now exhibits more British work than before. Along with the National Gallery, it is the official exhibition space for recognized British art.
Meanwhile the MI5 building extends the official public face of British Intelligence and while we can’t go in there and interview ‘Q’ or ‘M’ or whoever they are, we are more aware of their presence.

I chose a piece of music by Philip Aaberg (American piano composer) for the river. Previously I tried water sounds and splashes etc but nothing worked. I think this works, as the music at least for me, implies a river in motion.

The beeps, traffic, car crashes etc. are used in an attempt to direct the user along the intended path.

The poetry is inserted in three places. The Larkin piece references the springtime which is just about here. The TS Eliot clips reference ‘The Wasteland’ which I have mentioned earlier. The third button has pieces by Stevie Smith. The first piece references 'running away with a god-like fish'. The second is a little more obscure. It references Coleridge’s writing of ‘Kubla Khan’ when he claims he was interrupted by a ‘person from Porlock’ and could not write further. Like the TS Eliot button, it is placed on click/release mechanism and is intended for those who might be interested in this poet.

Does it work as a piece? It works for me and I like it.