INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Financial Times FEBRUARY 25, 2011 - by Laura Battle
THE SOUND OF THE FUTURE
Interior design is now a lucrative and far-reaching - some might argue, bloated - industry. The import and export of styles is big business, top designers such as Kelly Hoppen and India Hicks have achieved filmstar status (one or two others the dubious fame of fraudsters) and then there's the lucrative spin-off culture of books, magazines and reality television shows. Its emphasis, however, has so far rested almost exclusively on the visual.
Once clients have agonised over colour palettes, fabrics and fittings, it's rare that any thought is given to the sound of a space, aside, perhaps, from blocking unwanted noise or integrating the latest Bose speaker system. Partly this is because our understanding of sound has always been vague, and partly because sound designers - a blurry spectrum of DJs, artists and sound engineers - have pursued a range of careers. But there is a sense that this once mysterious subculture is finally gaining mainstream credence. A growing number of individuals are promoting the importance of sound design in public and domestic settings. Among them is Lawrence English, an Australian composer, curator and sound artist.
"We're so conditioned to experience the world through our eyes that the other senses really suffer," English says. "It's always interesting to go into a space you know very well and then close your eyes. It's not something people do very often but it can be very powerful."
As well as devising sound festivals and installation works around the world, English has designed his own house near Brisbane, Australia with sound as a primary concern. Trees and plants have been planted for the sound effects of their leaves, or to encourage birds - lorikeets and blue-faced honeyeaters - in specific locations so that their song can be enjoyed from inside the house. As with his other projects, English's approach to domestic sound design is about "reinforcing the positive rather than counteracting the negative". Like many of his contemporaries, his interest does not lie in noise reduction techniques, and nor is it simply about music playlists; it's about exploring a level of sound that leaves the softest imprint on the consciousness.
"Until the early twentieth century we didn't fully understand how sound functioned," English says. "Recording technology has really influenced how we think about sound and I think now there is, at least, a passing awareness of how it works."
Of course, an interest in sonic atmospheres is nothing new. In the eighteenth-century there was a trend for Tafelmusik (literally, "table music"), with Georg Philipp Telemann a prominent advocate, which was designed to offer a background soundscape to feasting and merriment. And in 1917 Erik Satie put his own spin on the concept with Musique D'Ameublement ("furniture music"). So-called ambient music is, however, generally traced to Roxy Music alumnus Brian Eno, and specifically his 1978 album Ambient 1: Music For Airports. This collection of soft-focus sketches came with a slip asserting that ambient music "must be as ignorable as it is interesting".
As a mantra, it inspired a whole generation of so-called ambient bands, and the sudden explosion of ambient music in restaurants and lifts and other public spaces. As English explains, this genre (known and loathed by many as "muzak") was developed as a sort of tranquilliser for modern, city life, "but at some point the effect was reduced by its sheer volume and now when you go shopping the sounds are overwhelming". A growing understanding of how sound can influence behaviour is now being actively exploited as cynical marketing tricks: hard techno is often played in clothes shops to encourage frenetic purchases, for example, and bars tend to play loud music to stifle conversation and encourage people to drink instead.
Others in the industry, including English DJ and sound artist Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud), have put sound design to more creative ends. Scanner established his reputation in the English club culture of the 1980s, performing in chill-out rooms - spaces where those too smashed for the main sets could slump in front of calming, psychedelic light shows and DJs playing down-tempo music by the likes of Massive Attack and The KLF. Since then, he has broadened his work with a number of notable commissions, including telephone sound design and an installation for Tate Modern, as well as high-profile collaborations with Bryan Ferry, Radiohead and the Royal Ballet.
In 2003 Scanner was asked by the Hôpital Raymond-Poincaré in Garches, near Paris, to create a sonic backdrop for their salle des départs, or morgue. Already the Italian architect Ettore Spalletti had designed a striking cobalt blue interior - luminous, elegant and minimalist - but he felt the space needed another dimension and invited Scanner on board. "It was almost impossible at first," the sound artist explains. "This was a soundtrack for, perversely, a place where nobody wants to be, and a place where people are not expecting to be visiting. It's dealing with sudden death, basically, so what does one do?"
What Scanner did was collage together a number of environmental recordings - insects, birdsong and the sound of rain outside a window - and then overlay this with the lightest piano touch. The result is Channel Of Flight, a composition that carries a vague suggestion of rhythm and a sense of human presence, and yet is without a spiritual or religious agenda. "I wanted to make the piece as anonymous as possible and the volume at which it is set is key," Scanner explains. "I wanted to play the soundtrack at such a volume that you'd realise its absence should it not be there but at a level that you are not fully conscious of." It's an approach that relates directly to the original principles of ambient music.
Since then, Scanner has moved his work into the domestic environment. Edith Garcia, an American sculptor and installation artist, had heard about Scanner's previous projects and recently invited him to create a sound environment for her loft apartment and studio space in Minneapolis. "She wanted something that would inspire her, but that wouldn't interfere too much," he explains. "So I made a series of very tonal pieces, a mixture of strings and voices, all kinds of things. They're very long and there is no sense of beginning or end, they just happen and they become part of the space, in a way. I was trying to create an ambience that would offer a creative environment but also help to mask other noises that were going on outside."
Once complete, the compositions were loaded on to several iPod shuffles and posted to Garcia, who simply connected them up to her own speaker system. As Scanner explains, the entire project was dependent on MP3 technology: "An old cassette tape or CD gives you a finite amount of time, around seventy minutes, but the great thing with digital media is that you can now play pieces of extraordinary lengths: days or even months," he says.
"And what's clever about the iPod is that you can write a number of pieces then hit shuffle and they will constantly reconfigure themselves within the space, which means that the same patterns don't follow each day."
The cost of these commissions can range from about five to twenty thousand pounds, depending on the location and the demands and expectations of clients, and excludes any additional hardware expenses.
Like other sound designers around the world Scanner has seen his repertoire expand in recent years from one-off, niche and broadly experimental projects to large-scale installation schemes and the more practical design of domestic appliances. "It still seems to be a new concept for lots of people. Even architects very rarely talk about the acoustics or sound of a place," he says. That may be so, but it seems likely that sound design, and sound designers, will wield greater influence over the buildings of the future.
LISTEN TO THIS: THE MUSIC OF SOUND
Sound has always been integral to the design of household appliances, but it wasn't until the start-up jingle for the Microsoft 95 computer operating system that people realised its significance. Microsoft approached Brian Eno with a brief that reportedly stretched to a hundred and fifty adjectives (futuristic, universal, sentimental etc.) for a piece that was to last just three-and-a-quarter seconds. In response, Eno composed a little swirl of arpeggios that has now become synonymous with the brand.
Since then, the aesthetics surrounding product design - how they are packaged, how they look, feel and sound - have become increasingly important with the advance of technology. As smart phones and tablets are integrated into our lives, more and more thought is given to the sounds of ring-tones, message alerts and alarms. There is even a White Noise iPhone app that offers a choice of sound effects, including a heartbeat, the rumble of thunder and the sound of a Tibetan singing bowl that are supposed to aid sleep or relaxation. English DJ and sound artist Scanner was commissioned to design a series of alarm sounds for the Philips Wake-Up Light. "I came up with a simple philosophy, which was that no one wants to be woken up where they are, they want to wake up near the beach or somewhere beautiful," he says. "So I made these different environments, one a collage of European bird song, one a little African village with insects and warm sounds and another a very elegant, soft beep."