Physicist Richard Feynman once went on a famous rant when asked by an interviewer why two magnets repel each other. He argued that the ‘why question’ is very difficult as it can lead to an endless series of other ‘why questions’. ‘Why questions’ are indeed difficult to answer, but as a composer, I can’t help but wonder why I even compose music. Do I just like it? Or because I have always had a deep fascination for sound? Or do I particularly only enjoy music and not all sound? Over many years of periodically pondering this question, I have found the reason might be to answer a few other difficult ‘why questions’: why do I like a particular piece of music and not another, and why do I like a particular sound and not another? I compose music to explore why I like other music. What is good about them? What are their structures or forms that evoke sublime emotions in me when I listen to them? Why do I like certain sounds and am repelled by others? What properties of these sounds give them meaning and how can I use these properties in my own music? I compose music with recorded and synthesized sounds to explore what is attractive about these sounds and their properties. One of these properties that I feel has much fertile ground to be explored is space.
Sound is unique in its spatial abilities; one can hear sounds from all directions simultaneously, whereas one can only focus on a small area of the visual field. As a composer and sound artist, I am interested in using sound to evoke a sense of spatial awareness in the listener. Space has always been a part of music, from simply spreading out an orchestra on a stage, to giant organ pipes in large churches, but using speaker technology, space can now be explored as a gesture, rather than a static preset. I am interested two specific areas:
1. creating spatial paradoxes, inspired both by Zeno’s Paradox of Achilles and the tortoise that postulated that motion is impossible and by the endless glissando or Shepard tone where pitch seems to endlessly rise or fall. These spatial paradoxes consist of sounds that seem to move, but stay still or seem to get farther or closer but in fact are staying at the same distance.
2. creating spatial ambiguities by using the physical space in which the speakers are set up as a source material for the composition. The idea is that the listener may not know if a particular sound is simply background noise, or part of the composition.
My aesthetics involves the use of field-recordings as sound source material. These include nature, but also man-made sounds such as machines, or fighter jets, or fireworks. The idea is to create a believable sound world, that can then be manipulated and processed to sound strange and synthetic, while retaining the sense of realness. My latest piece was centered around the sounds of trains, using both the actual trains and synthesizing them by imitating the spectra and rhythms using percussion instruments. This serves to set up the ambiguities that can lead to paradoxes described above.
Technically, I use a 3D sound technology called ambisonics. Ambisonics is powerful because it is modular and does not depend on a specific speaker set up but also interesting because it attempts to create a holistic sound field. In contrast to traditional panning between speakers, ambisonics creates a seamless 3D field, analogous in sound to a hologram in light. In addition to ambisonics, I have been building upon research by John Chowning that attempts to synthesize a sense of motion and distance in sound.