"Rattern Brummen Klackern eine Frauenstimme plappert Auto Auto der
Wind braust Auto tiefes Brummen harte Schritte Flaschenklappern Auto
Auto Stille Paff Scheppern es schwatzen MŠnner ein Kind quengelt
Mama Mama ein dumpfes Bohren wie beim Zahnarzt schweres Brummen
The idea for my project started with an article about blind people collecting their memories with sound recordings. What seems to be obvious becomes a fascinating experience. Where we are looking at deaf pictures, blind people are traveling back into that situation, into what they "saw" in that moment. This could never be rendered into a picture.
So, how can you visualize what blind people "see" in their memories when listening to their records? Do they see anything at all in their mind or is it just an emotional impact? How can we use this insight for a media product that makes a difference?
As we are so much bound to visuals in our every day life it is an interesting approach, even though it is of course not new, to draw the attention away from the visual level. Create emotions and give information by switching the focus to the sound level.
Therefore it is helpful to think of the extreme: people who actually can’t see.
Inspired by the idea of working with "everyday sound aesthetics". I want to let seeing people experience the world of blind people themselves, to uncover the beautiful landscape that sound gives us anytime with ordinary places and noises.
Most of the time we are not aware of that. This has two reasons:
First, we have an overload of visual information everywhere we go. TV, pictures, commercials, cars, traffic signs, and so on. Second, we also have an overload of sound information. In a city you can hardly find a quiet place (whereat "quiet" means a subjective perception, implying that there is always some sound).
To avoid excessive demands, our brain is selective. We can fade out information, visual and auditive. In addition to that visual information are processed faster and have priority over information from other senses. That is why we are not aware of all the sounds that sourround us. We accept them, sometimes just as disturbing, but
we do not listen. Murray Schafer, composer and one of the pioneers in sound studies, says in his as standad work regarded book "The Soundscape – Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World":
"Noise pollution results when man does not listen carefully.
Noises are the sounds we have learned to ignore."
Considering that, my superior aim is to raise the awareness for sounds in our daily live - to let the user experience "conscious listening".
To find out how this can be achieved, the research phase will be a very important one in my project. It is not only for preparation. The research is one main part of my production, as I see it more as a development, gaining experiences in that field, always adjusting the course. So, the development is nearly as important as the final
At the beginning of my research phase I had the concept to visualize what blind people "see", respectively show visual impulses. Therefore I arranged a meeting with one of the protagonists of the article. His name is Carsten Albrecht and he is blind by birth. By just talking to him I developed a different awareness for sound and the interview sensitized me more and more to my topic.
Later the interview turned out to be a turning point in my project: Carsten Albrecht said that he doesn’t see anything at all. He has no visual associations of what he sees or touches. No abstract forms or colours. He can sense if it is light or dark outside, but he doesn’t know where the light comes from.
And: It is not of interest for him. It doesn’t make a difference if it is light or dark.
He said that some blind people try to force themselves to have visual ideas about sounds in their mind, and that some actually have visual associations, or at least they say so. Carsten Albrecht never forced himself to try to imagine what things could look like. If he hears a car he thinks of how he is touching a "matchbox car" or how he is walking around a real car, touching it. I also had the feeling that he wanted to say that he doesn’t believe that others have real visual associations.
To sum it up, it is not traceable what blind people "see" in their mind or if they see anything at all in their imagination. Of course, it makes a difference if somebody is blind his whole life or if he became blind. And others might have visual associations, which might be very individual. So the next step would have been to talk to many blind people and find out, what they "see". Besides that this would have been a scientific work - which is not my business - it was clear that it is not possible to make a statement about that in an artistic project without making generalizations that are not appropriate. The most decisive insight for my project was that the visual might not important, at least for Carsten Albrecht. He relies completely on his
"Gehoersinn" (engl. "Acuesthesia") and is happy with that.
Nevertheless I have to mention here that he said, that the distinctive "Gehörsinn" could never be an adequate compensation for the lost ability to see.
I came to my first important decision: There will be no visuals at all. All you see is a black screen. This allows fully concentrating on audio and avoiding the risk that the visuals again have a stronger impact, no matter how discreet they are used.
My decision concerning that can be supported by additional statements of Carsten Albrecht: He says in one part, that often when people only hear sound they expect an image, that they don’t want to create the image in their mind. For me this again confirms my decision not to have visuals, as my work should be challenging – for me as the producer and for the user: to see how far can we go and what happens
when there is no visual information.
Second, he says that many (seeing) people just walk by, very fast, never recognizing what is happening around them. Never listening to the details and what sound can tell us. One aim for me is to make people listen and show them what they can experience in the "sonic environment".
2.1.1. Soundscape Composition
Thereupon my focus shifted completely to the sound layer.
The next important topic I came up against was the concept of "Soundscape Composition". The term "Soundscape" was first used and coined by the Composer and Professor Raymond Murray Schafer and the town planner Michael Southworth independent from each other in the 1960’s.
"A soundscape is an acoustic environment or an environment created by sound. As such, it refers in the first place to the natural acoustic environment, consisting of the sounds of the forces of nature and animals, including humans. This is the domain of acoustic design (R. Murray Schafer)."
The term can be translated as "Klanglandschaft", which points out the plastic analogy to a visual landscape. It means the entirety of the sounding environment.
Soundscape composition means a style of elektro-acoustic, avantgarde music, which has no rhythmic or melodic patterns in the classical sense. As source material detached from their original context in the environment. These are noises or sounds (e.g. street-noises, wind in the trees) that can’t be expressed with classical notation.
The aim is to establish a consciousness for our sonic environment.
In my eyes it is important to make a clear differentiation between the concept of a soundscpape composition and the process of sampling noises to use them as instruments. "Sampling" in the creative sense just means that sounds or noises are recorded, processed and then used to build instruments, often drums or percussive instruments. One small part of a sound is taken out of the context.
The Soundscape composition follows a different idea. Hildegard Westerkamp says in her article "Soundscape Composition: Linking Inner and Outer Worlds":
"But whatever the continuity is or the proportions are between
the real (unprocessed) and the abstract (processed) sounds, the essence of soundscape composition lies in the relationship between
the two and how this relationship inside the composition informs both
composer and listener about place, time and situation.
A piece can not be called a soundscape composition if it uses environmental sound as material for abstract sound explorations only, without any reference to the sonic environment."
The concept of soundscape composition meets exactly my ideas about the sound concept, and therefore provides a good starting point to develop concepts and strategies.
I had the opportunity to present my ideas to Peter Post, who works for the fullservice agency for interactive media "Scholz & Volkmer" in Wiesbaden. He was imediately interested in going with me during the project, to cover the part of "usability" from a professional point of view. This was essential to develop strategies and manage the tightrope walk between a pure art project and an application that is user-friendly and understandable without explanations.
The next step was to make experiences with sound recordings and at the same time to start producing the sounds for the final product.
First, I tried to find out which technique would be the best one to get high quality sounds recordings. I came across so-called "head microphones", that many blind people use to record sound atmospheres. They give a good and realistic surround image of sound.
They are worn like small headphones and reproduce approximately the "real" situation.
What makes the experience of listening to these recordings interesting is the fact, that normally we can select what we hear and what not. In this case every little detail "screams" at you – the whole place comes to life, even the most ordinary ones.
Here again one thing concerning my final concept became clear: the best result will be achieved using headphones. So this has to be considered, too.
After some test-recordings with a MiniDisc-recorder and the mentioned
microphones, I realised soon, that the quality differences between possiblity of the mics and the less quality of the storage medium are immense. Against the background of the major function of sound in that project, I desided to aquire a Flash-recorder, that provides high quality mobile sound recording possibilities.
The final product is a virtual and interactive sound installation in which the user can experience the situation of a blind person beeing forced to just navigate through sound.
It is not a game, but a sonic playground. By discovering the build up world of "everyday sound-aesthethics" (deutsch "Alltägliche Klangästhetik") the user creates and experiences an interactive soundscape composition. Through "active listening" the user contributes to the composition with own associations and memories. It is a mixture between an art project and a trial of creating an interactive application only with sound. A trial how far we can go without using visuals. The content of the sound concept is poetic, reflecting my personal creative "Auseinandersetzung" with the recorded sounds, regarding the concept of soundscape compositon. The
superior aim is to create a consciousness for everyday noises in our environment.
As mentioned in the research part, there are no visuals at all. The interface is (for the prototype) the well-known one of a computer screen and a mouse. Being isolated, not seeing anything and just hearing the soundscape is a vital concept concerning the intensity of the experience (headphones). The user is forced to exclusively concentrate on sound.
After all a screen would not even be necessary. The computer as the visual medium par excellence until now rarely integrates the potential sound, especially in the web.
This project shows how one can use the spatial potency that sound holds, to give this medium depth by adding a dimension. The conflict that one expects at least something visual supports the effect I want to achieve.
But it goes beyond the topic of being blind. My aim is to let the user experience something new. Not abstract or detached, but very concrete and ordinary. All these sounds are just there if you listen carefully. This is what I want to uncover. Noises, often regarded as disturbing, do carry something fascinating. I want to uncover and
underline musical, rythmic patterns in daily soundscapes. The example of a train, whose clattering on the rails is creating a rhythm is often used, but illustrates the idea behind. Sounds in our environment become a rhythm by using the stylistic device of repetition, used in electronic music. Although there is no rhythm in the classical musical sense, a loop always creates a certain rhythmic pattern. The hypnotic effect of different elements, developing over time, to a more and more dense composition in the context of the soundscape is what I want to achieve.
3.1. The Room
Entering the virtual room first might cause a feeling of disorientation. But soon one realizes thathe virtual room consists of four different sound atmospheres.
→ Please see the documentation of the prototype on the attached CD.
3.1.1. Basic Navigation
Moving the mouse through the room simply changes the portion of each in the mix.
The 3D image is build up through the depth of sound. That is why I can work with four directions: Left and right in a stereo image is very clear. Back and front first can’t be reproduced. But with the knowledge of moving the mouse to the front, hearing the changing sound, one can navigate. On top of the screen it simply sounds different than at the bottom. Moving to the left changes the sound-mix into the characteristic sound on the left side.
Besides that, as mentioned, my aim is not to build up a realistic impression, but to give a sound experience, which is still screen based.
Abbildung 1: The virtual room is build up from 4 stereo soundfiles. What we hear is always a mix from all sounds. Moving the mouse causes a continuous volume fading of the sounds, changing the amount of them in the mix.
Inside the room there are three sounds that can be discovered. They become louder when the user is approaching.
Abbildung 2: S = Soundelements arranged in the room, that can be discovered / modified. By approaching one element it becomes louder. Example: The "wind chime" (Windspiel).
As you can see in the graphics each sound is set into a kind of "bubble". When the user is inside the sound becomes loud and clearly emphasized, the rest seems dull through a filter effect. This is an element to depose sound levels from each other.
The user understands that now he is on a different level, like text field, which gets a contrast with a gray layer behind. Or like a mouse-over effect in flash. One has learned that now one can do something. The sound is now "uncovered" and can be modified inside the bubble. In the center of the bubble we have the loudest point.
Moving the cursor here changes the sound naturally. The wind chime is "nudged".
The effect on the sound depends on how “hard” one nudges the point, which means that it depends on how fast the user moves the courser against it. I wanted to use the idea of applying energy to change something.
1.We are inside a "bubble": the wind chime is now loud and clearly emphasized, the rest seems dull through a filter effect.
2. In the center of the bubble we have the loudest point. Moving the courser here changes the sound naturally. The wind chime is "nudged". The effect on the sound depends on how "hard" one nudges the point, what means that it depends on how fast the User moves the courser against it.
The user knows now, that he can come back to change the sound again.
Of course there will come up sounds naturally that have the same character. The user might try to approach, but the sound disappears. This is a desired effect, as a blind man definitely makes the same experiences through his whole live. He hears something, tries to "catch it", but then it’s gone.
What needs to be defined in the beginning is, that the user has to know how much elements are there to find. Not to give it the character of a game, but to show that it is also finite to avoid frustration.
Once the sound is "discovered", it is extended over almost the whole scene, so that one can hear it in combination with the other sounds. The bubble for modification stays.
Abbildung 4: Once the sound is "discovered", it can be heard over almost the whole scene.
3.2. Media Design Concept
The idea for the sound concept also lies in a progress. The process of collecting everyday sounds and afterwards sorting out and arranging was very important for me as an experience. So which sounds to pick, is “just” an artistic, personal choice and can not be put into a fixed plan. Like in music compositions one chooses which
instrument might fit to the song, the next one might sound different again.
But, what all sounds have in common is something slightly streaming or floating.
Interestingly one can find the same "structures" in floating water and in a burning match.
As said, the main room consists of four stereo sound "atmos". I have recorded them with the mentioned head-microphones. Important is to catch up an everyday situation, that carries a certain character. A train station for example is a good starting point. There are many things happening at a time. I found a hall that has a good acoustic so that even steps on the floor sound great. Besides that I just tried bringing together sounds that fit together. One can hardly explain why, one has to hear it. It is a creative decision one has to make.
I decided to put together the hall of a railway station in Frankfurt (Main), the sound of a fountain in a small park, a market place in a city and a train ride. The combination already has a certain effect and is part of the composition. The three basic sound elements are a wind chime, "lighting a match" and the crackling sound of the burning match.