Conceptual framework

Barely is a paradigm of composition, sound-art and multi-media that creates a highly detailed just perceptual layer above the 'experienced threshold' of our senses in both the immediate 'real-time' substance and in a temporal context of structure and syntax. The complexity of our everyday stimuli tends to a state of noise - not only in terms of sound but also in all information received by our senses. The Barely paradigm explores reality and presents an alternative organisation of this complexity. It entices the individual into deep attention, concentration and sensual experience by offering detail at a level that is only just perceptual, enhancing what is already present in both the individual and the location of the work, rather than attempting to introduce the artificial. In terms of both substance and concept Barely can be regarded as the antithesis to noise.

The Barely paradigm is manifest in a number of forms spanning abstract sound-art, acousmatic composition, acoustic instrumental performance and spatial sound-architecture.

Barely: part-1 explores the paradigm in terms of public space and installation. Barely: part-1 is not only the first part, but most likely the largest part in terms of the interaction between our senses. The work involves a large 'barely visible' spatial installation created in collaboration with experimental designer and architect Birger Sevaldson. From a conceptual angle, there are many ways to problematise Barely in terms of visual space. Sevaldson designed a solution involving hung lengths of clear, colourless plastic foil, UV light, reflective paint, sightlines and spatial conjunction. It eliminates unnecessary and districting technology and addresses the important issues in direct media. In terms of sound, a 16-channel composition is spatialised over 12 high quality near-field loudspeakers and 40 transparent miniature loudspeaker elements. The composed material is 70-minutes in duration. The opening of the installation involves a three-hour performance where spatialisation and material complexity is mixed in real-time in response to the audiences' interaction (staying time, physical motion, self produced sound level, change in room acoustics).


Noise and entropy

During the past decades the complexity of the urbanised soundscape has significantly increased such that it is 'masking' itself and tending to noise-entropy. The Internet and our multi-media environment provide an alternative in a virtual or even fictional world. But where are the opportunities to rediscover and explore reality? How can this be tackled in contemporary electroacoustic composition?

The experienced threshold

The experienced threshold of our auditory sense is directly connected to the volume and content of the existing sound environment. In an anechoic room, the experienced threshold is that of the threshold of hearing. At a busy train station the experienced threshold is the sound to which we consciously listen to as information-gatherers, rather than as passive receivers where we cannot help hear the sound but have no intention to listen or interpret meaning. Consideration of the experienced threshold will therefore determine the approach to sound. For example, not only does the content of the sound landscape need consideration but also the listeners' psychological states (expectations related to context).

Public

On entering a sound installation in an urban context an attentive listening tactic is rarely the first approach the public will take. A visitor's own footsteps, possibly talking, coughing or breathing may be the most prominent sounds heard. How to encourage physical calmness, curiosity and concentration are therefore prime objectives. In a large space such as Kanonhallen, local 'pockets' of sound combined with the installation's visual definition will allow people to feel a sense of arrival and individuality. It will encourage them to stay, listen and be enveloped in the sound composition and the aura of the architectural space.

A change in the sound material or a period of redundancy may encourage the listener to move to another location and explore a different perspective on the work. To encourage this, interactive technology was initially considered. However, although in a single user situation sensors could have be used to tune the information content based on motion activity, in a multi-user situation motion sensors are obsolete: a single location may contain one person who is in deep concentration and other person who had only a moment ago entered the space.

Compositional process

The approach to time

When Stockhausen developed the principle of the moment (a formal unit that is recognizable by a personal and unmistakable character where certain sound characteristics remain constant for period of time, and this period is not necessarily predetermined) and of moment form (where 'degree of change' is that which is controlled in the compositional process and in the passing of time, rather than in the material of the moments themselves) he presented a way for composers to free themselves from the material without loosing the integrity of the composition. Barely: part-1 approaches sound and time similarly to moment form but unlike Stockhausen's work, which only explored the potential of moment form in acoustic composition, Barely: part-1 works within an electroacoustic framework where sound and extra-musical reference are carved in conjunction.

The process

1. To begin, a number of moments or characteristic blocks of material were composed:

The two main categories were:

Abstract / intrinsic:

synthetic abstract collages
recognizable instrument sounds

Referential / allusive:

environmental reference
human reference

Each of these categories were developed following simpler spectromorphological procedures (spectromorphology = morphology of the sound spectrum though time), each taking account of the effects of low volume audition (see section on acoustics and perception):

Pitch-noise: Pitched, harmonic spectrum, inharmonic spectrum or noise dominance.

Articulation and iteration: sparse, dense, dispersed or streamed.

Motion activity: ascent, descent, oscillation, divergence, convergence.

Motion style: Synchronous, asynchronous, flocking, streaming, periodic, aperiodic.

Spatial layering: fore- mid- and background potential when set in juxtaposition.

The development created 30 differentiated moments.

2. The moments where then composed into the temporal domain via two techniques: (a) juxtaposition of moments involving careful mixing and volume control; (b) alternation of moments allowing solo clarity.

First attempts revealed an interesting problem. When a number of blocks were juxtaposed the clarity of each was easily lost, much more so than if the material had been performed live instrumental sound. The reason may be because when working with instrumental sound you create a moment with a specific collection of instruments that define the spectral and morphological average. When working with acousmatic electroacoustic material, referential identity, as well as spectromorphological identity, is important. Two materials may evoke different extra-musical references or allusion, while being similar in spectromorphological identity. Frequency masking will result, collapsing all aspects of the two materials into one.

A number of compositional techniques then emerged during the experimental process:

Landmarks and markers:

Frequency

Due to the use of the high frequency response of the miniature loudspeaker elements, at low volumes the higher frequencies and noisier aspects of the spectrum were more prominent, while pitched aspects were of lower audible weight. The result was that when pitched material was clearly audible it acted as a landmark in the temporal organisation - the ear more easily noting the same sound when it recurred at a later point. Such sounds were used to mark cycles in the temporal organisation.

Articulation

If working predominantly on the threshold of perception, louder attacks take on a specific role. An attack will lift listening out of deep attention and concentration. There will be delay time before the previous level of listening can be resumed. Such attacks can also be used as landmarks – acting as the inverse of silence in a normal composition.

Morphology

Natural morphologies involve attack-decay, graduated, iterative and non-exact periodic energy profiles. Artificial morphologies feature reversals of energy profiles – such as reversed attacks, exact repetition and extreme sudden change. Combining natural and artificial morphologies was found to be a useful technique for maintaining a foothold in the existing sound environment while adding a layer of composed surrealism to capture listeners’ attention.

Identity

When working on the threshold of perception the ear easily drifts out of an attentive listening mode. In counterbalance I used moments of what I call 'strange identity' sounds. These are sounds that maintain a strange and clear implication in the given contact, even at low volumes. For example, the sound of footsteps, although of clear identity would be normal and ignored, whereas the sound of a man making complaining vocalisations would be out of place and instantly attract the ear.

Silence

In a public space (other than a concert hall) silence doesn't exist - there is always some background sound. In Barely the background sound is regarded as information, however redundant it may be, rather than just a volume. The sound of Barely adds to this information. In a concert situation, silence can be perceived as a vast chasm. In Barely, the concept of silence connects to Cage's philosophy of silence. By stopping Barely sound, the ear, instead of being presented with a chasm, explores a continuation into this background information.

Use of the small loudspeaker elements

The characteristics of the small loudspeaker elements determine which sounds to play on these channels. The frequency response and sound localisation of these loudspeakers makes any spatial illusion in the source sound unreal and inappropriate. (A spatial illusion is where a sound-object appears to contain a recorded or simulated spatial definition). In contrast, 'dry' sound without any sense of space is more successful. The small loudspeaker elements then become sounding objects in their own right.

Loudspeakers and distance effects

Distance of the listener from the loudspeaker determines whether and what they will hear. At a constant volume this is influenced by room acoustics and frequency content. The distribution of loudspeakers in the Kanonhallen version is design to combine room acoustics and audience proximity to loudspeakers when exploring the three-dimensional aspects of the visual space. See more on acoustics and graphical figures.

Acoustics and perception

Barely: part-1 was composed with the acoustic characteristics of Kanonhallen as a guiding factor. Kanonhallen features a long and bright reverberation, strong and clear early reflections and some distinct areas of flutter echo. The composition needed to consider these characteristics as well as being flexible enough to allow re-arrangement for another space.

Volume
In all contexts the volume is tuned such that the sound emerges just above the existing sound environment when positioned at an eight? meter distance from the main loudspeakers.

Voiced and other sounds with clear identity can be given a lower volume and still be perceived (the ear latches onto that which is understood more readily than that which is abstract).

Sounds that are non-continuous (micro-sound durations 1 second - 1 ms with silence in between) will be heard clearly at lower volumes due to the ear detecting discontinuity more than continuity when set against a continuous background sound-field.

Transients
Loud transients activate the reverberation, sustained constant sounds swell into a bloom of energy and different frequencies can be heard at different distances in an often uncorrelated connection to the energy content of the source (a factor of the absorbency characteristic of the building materials). Therefore to preserve micro-sound detail in the composed material the volume is necessarily low and louder transients tend to blur the sound detail for some seconds.

Noise content
Broadband sounds of rapid amplitude variation catch listening attention, but care must be taken where reverberation smearing will create a more uniform noise field.