Spatial Sound

Understanding Space Through Sound (2015)
John Connell


January 2015

John Connell

published by:
Spatial Sound Institute

4DSOUND’s Creative Director John Connell presented his outlook on spatial sound in a lecture at CTM Festival 2015 in Berlin. With the title ‘Understanding Space Through Sound‘, the talk covered the questions 4DSOUND has been asking, and our focus until 2017.

Nikola, the techno-opera exploring the life and ideas of Nikola Tesla, the visionary inventor and futurist (and a figure of growing popular inspiration), was a driving force in the development of the project. Concepted and composed by 4DSOUND founder Paul Oomen, Nikola demanded a new kind of spatial environment and control system to enable a range of acoustic processing and live mixing of scenes. In parallel, some of these techniques themselves experimented with Tesla's ideas about the movement of energy through space: art imitating imagined life, so to speak. As an early experiment in 4DSOUND, it brought forth a range of learnings on technology and practice with immersive sound technologies.

Sound is not only a medium through which we perceive the nature of space, but also a direct way of expressing our ideas, feelings and state within – and through – space. It could even be argued that ‘sound’ is ‘space’ and vice versa­. At the very least, we feel they inform each other at a fundamental level- we know space through sound. 

“…If creative sound can come from the surrounding world, rather than only from a focused tightly defined source defined by individual authors, then I think our conceptions of art might change in fundamental ways. Instead of assumptions where humans are essentially alone, surrounded by inanimate void, I think the detailed and subtle space created by the 4DSOUND system implied a very different picture of the world. Voices and presences can be everywhere. Far from alone, I found myself inside a renewed kind of present world, surrounded and in a very curious way released and fulfilled.”

— Philip Beesley, Artist, Scientist, Architect

By exploring new ways of listening spatially, and discovering new subtleties in our capacity to perceive sound, we are examining the role that sound plays in consciousness. We become aware of the way we perceive, and we challenge to what extent we are able to perceive consciously, or unconsciously.

Developing our capacity to listen spatially, means becoming increasingly sensitive and subtly interconnected with the environment we exist in and are a part of. When we listen in this way, a new level of awareness begins to emerge. A way of decoding conscious experience through being mindful- in other words, by listening.

‘… a mode of cognition that is above all, undistracted, accepting, and non-conceptual. Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arisal of thoughts themselves…Mindfulness is a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in one’s mind or body.’

— Sam Harris, Waking Up

So, sound informs our concept of space, but listening to space also informs us about ourselves, our feeling and state within and through space.

At this point in the talk, we did a brief listening meditation I have used in meditation and sound workshops, purely as a reference for what you might call a 'deeper listening' practice, a phrase established by composer Pauline Oliveros, and the information present in our environment when we become attuned to it. Really just scratching the surface, but it went something along these lines...

Sit in a comfortable position and completely relax, feet pressing against the floor. Soften your gaze or close your eyes.
Become conscious of your posture as you sit: straighten your spine as you breathe in, release any tension from the shoulders and belly as you breathe out. Take a few long,slow breaths, and then gently return to normal breathing.

Allow yourself to ‘arrive’- become aware of yourself in space, in this particular location, at this current moment. Sit for a few breaths and become attentive to all the sensations you can feel- sounds, temperature, vibration, smell. The sound of the 'space', the character of my voice, the particular tone of the amplification you may here; the reflections of the sound against the walls: what does it tell you about the surfaces in the room, the objects in the room, the angles, the levels? Can you distinguish between flat shiny surface, between empty space, between a person sitting to your left or right?

Become conscious now of how you feel physically... mentally... and emotionally. How it feels to sit in silence in such a big group, for example, what does it bring up? Any sensations in the body, any thoughts and mental images, any emotions, feelings and impulses, and where you sense them in the body. Sit and observe these as you breathe, trying not to react to them as they arise.

Stay focused on the breath: allow the process to emerge as if experiencing it from within, but from a slight distance. Try slowly moving between the awareness of your physical body, your mind and thoughts, your emotions, and finally back to the space around you. Open your eyes.

We feel that spatial sound is becoming part of a multi-disciplinary movement exploring consciousness. Spatial sound integrates with a range of disciplines and understandings that collectively examine our experience of living and being:

    • Scientific analysis of mind, brain and body (neuroscience, cognitive psychology)
    • Mindfulness and introspective disciplines (meditative practice)
    • Physiology and intelligence of the body (applied anatomy, yoga and bodywork practices, nutrition and diet)
    • Socio-environmental studies (behavioural psychology, sociology)
    • The Quantified Self movement (the use of data to analyse how we think, feel and behave)

Moving forward, 4DSOUND will be focused on developing a diverse range of interdisciplinary projects that deal with the embodiment of the listener in space.

We define a new paradigm – instead of a passive experience of sound, what is expressed with sound appears as a spatial reality. The sensory reality that the listener perceives is exclusively individual: there is a construct of space that appears only in the mind of that particular listener, at that particular moment, being in that particular position.

Thus, by playing with the phenomena of spatial sound, we create new spaces, or rather: we create new realities for the listener. We’re enabled to experience something at the limits of our sensory capacity, both real and unreal, at the threshold of the known and unknown, providing access to potential new worlds and presences.

Creating new realities for the listener: working with sonic objects in space and psycho-acoustic processing to construct spatial landscapes, somewhere between the sonic reality of the space and the subjective imagination of the listener.

Let's look at an example of this. Here's a quick excerpt from the cult, and definitely B-grade, SF movie Forbidden Planet, released back in 1956. The sound design of the era was highly formative of our ideas on space, of travelling vast distances to new worlds, both physically and metaphorically, and watching this as a kid I remember being really fascinated by the Freud-inspired notion of the unconscious mind manifesting into physical reality.  Interestingly, it claims to have the first entirely electronic music score, composed by American couple Bebe and Louis Barron in their self-constructed sound studio.

Investigating a mysterious and advanced alien civilisation on a distant world, the crew of the ship are attacked by a strange invisible force.

What we’re listening to are the footsteps of the presence, the invisible monster of the id.  In a sense, the presence is there, but only its sound in space. The sound it makes, the physical influence on the environment, alert us to its presence, though it remains beyond our ability to fully perceive it.

This is what we do at 4DSOUND- producing such sonic images, literally creating 'phantoms' in the space.  Like seeing the shadows on the wall of a person we think is present but isn't there- except for in the mind of the perceiver.

(Incidentally, this notion of an unseen presence in the unconscious mind was a central thread in the development of NOQTURNL, my collaboration with visual artist Florence To. An audiovisual overnight meditation working with dream and hypnagogic state, we were interested by the notion of conjured entitities in dream, and of visitations in this other state, and our ability to perceive and even consciously interact with them).

It's exciting territory, that raises many questions. If the awareness of the listener becomes part of the medium itself, then what does that mean for composers and creators working with this medium? What new tools and rules are emerging? How does this affect the different listening environments we already know?

And what states might a receptive and reciprocal listener be able to access through spatial compositions? As an increased ability to listen, informed by ever increasing nuance and detail of sonic environments (and thus the space we inhabit) opens up new ways and levels of interaction with and within space? 

Spatial compositions allow us to move further into the subtle physicality of sonic forms; and with this, a more nuanced understanding of the influence of such forms on our psycho-physical state. Image credit: Dustin Schmieding

This leads us to a hypothesis, that we intend to investigate and prove with our work: we propose that spatial sound represents a key evolutionary step both in terms of

a) developing cognitive capacities and its effects on heightened awareness and consciousness; and

b) the ability to express increasingly complex and qualitative ideas, by means of space, artistically or otherwise.

We believe that spatial sound is a powerful medium to further our understanding of space and to develop the subtlety, complexity and intensity of our experience within it: consciously, physically, culturally and artistically – with an end to understand the possibilities for cultural, psychological and even biological evolution.

Through a range of evolving artistic presentations such as Circadian, and our research programme at the Spatial Sound Institute, we have begun outlining aspects of this fascinating idea, and considering what the implications and applications might be.