A Report on the 2015 Spatial Music Workshop

This talk was delivered at BEAST FEaST 2016 on 30 April, 2016. I discuss the 2015 Spatial Music Workshop at Virginia Tech. Supporting texts describing their ideas and experiences from the Workshop were provided by Javier Alejandro Garavaglia and Claire Steger. Given the time constraints of the talk, I edited both of their texts considerably.

One of the most daunting problems for composers wishing to create music for high density loudspeaker arrays (HDLAs for short) is simply getting access to such facilities, which are few and far between. In order to foster the development of a spatial music community and practice, the first Spatial Music Workshop at Virginia Tech was given during August 10th – 14th, 2015, with five participants invited from an international pool of applicants. The project was deemed a success, and the 2016 Spatial Music Workshop will take place during August 1st – 5th, this time inviting six international participants.

Today we will discuss the organization of the 2015 Workshop and its outcomes.

The participants of the 2015 Workshop were:

  • Hugo Solis Garcia from Mexico
  • Javier Alejandro Garavaglia from the United Kingdom
  • Shawn Greenlee
  • Claire Steger &
  • Evan Williams from the United States of America

My co-authors are Javier Alejandro Garavaglia and Claire Steger, whose testimony we will hear later in this talk.

A limiting factor in the development of spatial music practice is access to spaces with installed HDLA systems. The Spatial Music Workshop was created in 2015 to address that limitation. In 2015 Virginia Tech housed two 3D HDLA systems: The Perform Studio, a project studio with 24.4 Genelec speakers installed on two levels in a surround configuration, and the Cube, a black box theatre with dry acoustics, housing 124 JBL SCS8 speakers, 10 JBL LSR6328p speakers in a surround configuration on the floor, and four Meyer UMS-1P subwoofers. The Cube also houses nine highly-directional, ultrasonic beam speakers by Holosonic Research Labs. In 2016 a third 3D HDLA system called ASPIRE is being installed in the Mechanical Engineering department, and will be online for acoustic research later this year.

I’d like to take a moment to consider the distinction between installed HDLA systems such as the Virginia Tech Cube, the ZKM Klandom, and the mini-BEAST, as opposed to what I call “boxed” systems such as the Harvard HYDRA, the Manchester University MANTIS system, and the full BEAST, which you are currently enjoying at BEAST FEaST 2016.

Installed HDLAs have one great advantage – they are accessible 365 days a year; just walk into the space and you’re ready to work in 10 minutes or less. The major disadvantage of installed HDLAs is that once set up, their architecture is relatively inflexible. Boxed systems by contrast have the one major disadvantage that their speakers spend most of the year in storage, used by no-one, and require many hours of setup time in order to be deployed. The advantage of boxed systems is that, once let out of their box, the architecture is extremely flexible, especially regarding distributing speakers throughout the audience.

All three systems at Virginia Tech are installed 3D HDLA systems. Only the Cube is suitable for public performances of multichannel music. The Cube is a shared space for scientific research, aesthetic research, and event presentations, such as concerts, art installations, and lecture/demos. Despite multiple competing demands for the Cube, so far we have not yet had difficulty finding adequate time for multichannel music development.

Getting back to the Spatial Music Workshop, our intention was to develop skills and community. Participants attended a small number of instructional sessions, involving orientation to the Cube and Perform systems, and introducing spatial audio techniques, such as ambisonics, and working with spatialization on SuperCollider. But most of the time is devoted to individual work for the participants in the Cube and Perform studios. The participants range from students to highly experienced full professors. Participants have the option to work alone, or have individualized instruction during their sessions. At the end of each day, all participants gather to discuss the day’s work, share any problems they may have encountered, and generally discuss any matters relating to the Workshop. In this respect, the Workshop shares attributes of an artist residency, an instructional workshop, and an artist colony. On the final evening of the Workshop, a public presentation of the research outcomes was given to a local audience of about 50 attendees.

I will now share some observations from two of the participants of the 2015 Workshop. This is from Claire Steger:

I found out about the Spatial Music Workshop while attending the SEAMUS conference in March 2015 at Virginia Tech. Some of the concerts at the conference were in the Cube, and one concert featured works that used the full capability of the space. I had not previously had the opportunity to hear such works and I was intrigued by how much difference the height possibilities provided. It’s rare to have an opportunity to experiment in such spaces and I had some specific goals when applying for the workshop. These goals tied in both to my own creative work in developing an interactive performance system and my work supporting music technology initiatives.

My main goal was to experiment with the height, as well as investigate using movement of sounds within the space; filling it with sounds and letting those sounds interact. My main preparation for the workshop was to record and edit sustained tones, as well as some experimentation with spatial tools available for use in Max, mostly so that I could better understand how I could set or manipulate sounds within the space. I recorded short sustained tones and planned on placing them in various locations within the space. Even without moving the sounds themselves, I had hoped that this would create a sense of movement as the tones shifted. The tones are recorded using a 12-string Chapman Stick with an Ebow.

The workshop offered various presentations on spatial tools and techniques, as well as some listening sessions. For my sessions in the Cube and for my piece, I used Eric Lyon’s Cubisonics ambisonic implementation. This offered a convenient way to set up the tones in the space and allow for individual control over each tone. Most of my work in the Cube was spent listening as my piece progressed. In the Perform Studio, I experimented with various panning objects in Max; my time in that space was more focused on trying out various techniques.

I feel that my week at the workshop allowed me to accomplish my goals to experiment with height and movement. My piece explored these aspects in the Cube using collections of sustained tones that fade in and out as they move throughout the space, interacting with each other and with the space. Some main tones use various algorithms to select azimuth, elevation, and the type of movement and speed, including some randomized panning. At various points in the piece, the movement of the tones is slowed or stopped and pitch is mapped to height and eventually reversed, creating different interactions and ambiences that evolve throughout the work.

Next we hear from participant Javier Alejandro Garavaglia: 

As the main result of the residency’s experience, a composition using Granular Spatialisation for its entire diffusion in a 138 speaker array was created. The workshop required from us to not only practice with and explore the possibilities of the Cube, but also to compose by the end of the week an acousmatic piece, which would be performed in concert live on the evening of August 14th. For this purpose, the workshop residency allowed for each composer to spend a total of about ten hours in the Cube, added to another ten hours in the Perform Studio during those five days. Given the short time of the entire residence, the research and testing in my particular case, was solely focusing on practical and creative processes with an acousmatic composition in mind as the main goal. Hence, what we all carried out in those five days was eminently empirical research and not the type of research including, for example, testing the acoustical characteristics of the Cube in a more rigorous, methodical manner.

The resulting composition is made of several distinctive sounds and their variations in time – which wander in the Cube space, generating distinctive localisations of those spectromorphologies through a fully granulated spatiomorphology. Although the decision to use the software Max for programming was already taken at the very start of this research, the challenge remained to test the prototypes programmed before the residency in the Cube. Thus, both the first prototypes (such as those presented at BEAST­ FeAST 2015) and all of the developments that followed were programmed in Max 6, focusing on the capabilities of the Cube and its 138 speaker system.

For the purpose of the live performance of the new piece, two main patchers were programmed in Max 6, both of which considered different aspects of the Cube’s array system. The first patcher was programmed with a mixture of several players, each of which plays only monophonic files with an output of 8 channels for most of them, with the exception of: 1 player designed for quadrophonic output (for the 4 subwoofers in the first floor); 1 extra player for the 10 stage loudspeakers placed in a surround disposition on the floor and finally, 2 players using 24 channels each. This first patcher also included ambisonics. The second patcher featured a continuously linear diffusion on 124 speakers within the entire Cube. The combination of both patchers made possible the usage of the entire array of 138 speakers inside the Cube.

Now back to myself, with a few conclusions. Despite its long history, composing for HDLA systems still is quite difficult. There are few places where this work can be done, and commercial software support for HDLA composing is essentially non-existent. Just like computer music in the 1960s, if you want to do serious work, you need to write your own code, or find someone to do that for you.

I think we’re starting to make some serious progress though, and argue that our situation for HDLA music facilities is similar to that of tape music studios in the 1950s. Few and far between, but with a huge future. The Spatial Music Workshop is one of our efforts at Virginia Tech to advance the cause of making this dream a reality.