Density of perception - cross-disciplinary works between installation, composition and performance

Kirsten Reese

In the past 15 years, I have worked in a variety of genres within the fields of electronic media and sound - electroacoustic compositions, works for instruments and prerecorded or live electronics, sound installations and audiovisual works, radiophonic pieces, net based and interactive works etc. Some of my main interests have been to explore phenomenological aspects of sound and juxtapose them with the artistic transformation and perception of sound. The role of media in establishing a reflective distance to what is being perceived has intrigued me, and there have also been a lot of site-specific works, in which I try to capture the “essence” and atmosphere of a given space. In the following I would like to focus on three examples of my recent work, which can be described as cross-disciplinary works that expand and combine the forms of installation, composition and performance.

quiver (2004) is a collaboration with the Swiss performance artist Victorine Müller. With regards to the musical form, quiver is an 8-channel algorthimic composition with a duration of 30 minutes, constructed from sinetones synthesized in realtime through a MAX/MSP patch. Six women, dressed in a skincoloured costume, lie on the floor of the former chapel of Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, under the focus of a spotlight. Miniature loudspeakers placed under their costumes emanate sine tones, two tones from each body. The sounds of all six performers together result in a flux and overlay of changing chords, which softly fill the space. There is an overall dramaturgic structure in the progression of chords over the course of the 30 minutes of the piece. Also, the audience interacts with the work. They can experience the presence of the sounds in the space individually and, in the course of the performance, audience members begin to approach the performers and bend over their bodies in order to hear the very soft sounds from close-up. So in this way, there is a performative involvement of the audience with the work.


quiver, 6.11.2004 Künstlerhaus Bethanien Berlin [Click thumbnails for larger version]

Another work which combines installation and composition as well as performance is Abglanz (2006). Abglanz/reflections again is a collaboration, with the film and media artist Dominik Busch, and was developed for a specific space, the small water reservoir in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg. This space has an extremly long reverb, and many walls, thus many sound reflecting surfaces. With a mobile speaker, different noise patterns were projected into the space. Interferences occured through reflections on the walls of the reservoir and through overlays with sounds that were played through a stationary four-channel loudspeaker system. All sounds were controlled and triggered in realtime by the performer (who was me) through a game-interface connected to a laptop (which was carried in a back-pack) and a wireless connection to a second computer.

On the visual side, the second performer moved through the space with a mobile lamp. The lamp was directed at transparencies, which had visual patterns applied onto them. These were – like the sound patterns - derived from the hexagonal floor plan of the reservoir. The netlike structures were projected onto the walls of the reservoir, physically animated by the movement of the lamp.

Visual and auditive movement in the space were thus created by the movement of the performers with the mobile light- and sound sources, by interferences of different sound sources and their reflections, by overlays of the patterns on the transperencies, and also through the movement of the audience and their changing viewing and listening perspectives.


Projections and mobile lamp, Abglanz 23.9.2006 small water reservoir Berlin [Click thumbnails for larger version]

Hallenfelder/hall fields is an audiovisual installation for the Donaueschinger Musiktage in 2006. The yearly festival Donaueschinger Musiktage is the oldest and one of the biggest contemporary music festivals in the world, and is situated in a small town in the Black Forest. Every year, an audience of more than 2000 people invades this little town for a weekend, mostly “specialists” for contemporary music but also curious and progressive classical music listeners, school classes, locals and others. Hallenfelder uses only audio and video recordings from the nine halls which function as performance spaces for the concerts and installations during the time of the festival.

The work seeks to document the halls themselves as well as the activities within them. It centers around the sound of the empty halls, trying to capture the atmosphere of empty spaces, that we usually understand to be silent, although of course there are always little sounds that make the space come “alive”, like ventilation, electric appliances, and so on, or sounds that intrude from the outside. Also included in the work are sounds and occasionally images of things mysteriously moving in the space, and of communal activities that take place in these halls during the rest of the year when the festival is not running - like cow auctions, blood donations, the European beekeepers conference, carnival parties, various sports events etc..

Hallenfelder again is a work situated between installation and composition: the nine halls are presented in succession, 4-6 minutes for each  hall, but the piece is also constructed as a whole linear structure of one hour, with the parts – the respective halls – relating to each other formally. This hour long structure was looped and played over the course of the three day festival. The challenge was to make the piece work in both ways, as a classic walk-in, walk-out installation, assuming the audience stayed for only one or two halls (on average at the festival people stayed for about 15 minutes), and as a whole composition of one hour. I tried to achieve this by employing the parameters of “classic composition” (i.e. repetition, variation, density, time flow, dramaturgy) within small motives, within the halls as separate parts, and within the work as an overall, one-hour piece.

All the compositional work was done with the concrete source material. Hallenfelder centers around the relationship between the real and concrete and the abstract. Representational connotations in the recorded audio and visual material are abstracted through focus and isolation. Many processes of selection from the over 20 hours of recorded material were involved. Although it is not necessarily noticeable on the surface, many tiny little edits and re-arrangements of the smallest entities took place, in order to extract the specific qualities of the material. Notwithstanding the abstraction, there are nevertheless many levels of meaning and reference left in the work, and it was fascinating for me to experience how the audience found different references in Hallenfelder - of course also depending on their background, whether they were music specialists or local visitors for example. For me this work became to have a special significance because of the way it transmits “content”, not in an easily decipherable manner of assignment or allocation of meaning, but through an allusive interplay of content and denotation and – on the other hand - artistic abstraction.

Another important aspect was the role and the use of media. The installation was presented in one of the portrayed halls, so there was always a reference to the actual, real space, which contrasted the constructed media space of the loudspeakers and video projection. Also, the other halls featured in the installation were known to locals and to other audience members because they visited them for other festival events. There was a chance that sounds which appeared in the work, like for example the ringing of the church tower clock, could be heard outside of the installation space. Thus, the medial representation brought a moment of self-reflection to the work: a reflection on the mediation of perception, of reality and illusion if you want. The audience’s perception was also brought to attention by the fact that sounds and images often did not run parallel, but were only seemingly synchronous, something that one would realize after a while when observing the work. The work also featured much more sound material, there was much more to hear than to see, because the images were often static. This resulted in a concentration on the auditive perception, and by having one sense come to the foreground, the disrupture between the aural and the visual and thus the disrupture of “realistic” perception became a point to be reflected upon.

The rift between aural and visual sensory information was also highlighted because of an array of 20 large loudspeakers which dominated the installation space, and the use of wave field synthesis for spatialisation. With wave field synthesis spatialisation takes place not through a virtual stereophonic sound image, but through calculation of the actual wave fields which are then projected into a given space. Presently in Europe quite a few bigger studios and institutions such as IRCAM and Fraunhofer Institute are developing software and hardware applications for wave field synthesis. I experienced this technology at the Electronic Studio of the Technical University in Berlin, the studio where I worked a lot in the past. Wave field synthesis seemed to suit the specific aural density that I had in mind for the concrete sound material of the work Hallenfelder. I was not so much interested in the seemingly more “realistic” sound projection that wave field synthesis claims to incorporate - because although this is partly true, in the end I believe that media representation always differs from reality – but in the creation of a dense atmosphere and a specific presence of sound in the installation space.


Photos: Hallenfelder setup, Hallenfelder installation view with video projection and wave field synthesis array [Click thumbnails for larger version]

Sound exerpts and photos of all works can be found at: