Sound in a Jar by Ronald Boersen

speaker jar microphones
Different microphones are used to pick up the sound from the small loudspeaker in the jar. © Ronald Boersen

In Sound in a Jar (2016) by Ronald Boersen three performers— Ronald Boersen himself, Dganit Elyakim and Hadas Pe’ery—move three different microphones back and forwards to a very small loudspeaker placed in a jar. As Ronald explained me, this piece is a sound environment, which changes and developes algorithmically during the performance. The main task for the performers during the rehearsals is to explore this environment and find ways to engage musically with the sounds they can produce. The performers pick up the sounds of the loudspeaker in the small jar and it is sent back to the loudspeaker again, passing through a Max patch. By placing the loudspeaker in a jar, the sound will resonate easier, a very suitable feature for acoustic feedback. The main sound of the performance is thus acoustic feedback, coloured by the different characteristics of the three microphones used (two different condenser and a dynamic microphone).

microphones loudspeakers max msp
This scheme gives an overview of the inputs and outputs of the piece, as well as the three forms of live processing used, in form of a Max patch. © Ronald Boersen

The Max patch processes this feedback sound: as the scheme depicts, Ronald uses threshold triggered reverb pulses, feedback interval driven harmonisation and granular delay lines. By using amplitude thresholds and feedback frequencies these processes are directly influenced by the feedback sound itself, and the feedback itself is processed by the Max patch. In this manner Sound in a Jar uses a double form of feedback: acoustic feedback (using the sound itself) and data feedback (by using data streams generated from amplitude and frequency analyses of the loudspeaker sound, without using the sound itself), and both are effecting each other constantly. How much the sound of each microphone is processed by Max and which of the three processes is used (reverb pulses, harmonisation or granular delay) is changing during the piece, as is depicted in the diagram in the score. The relationships between microphone, processing and loudspeaker change not only accordingly to the distance between microphone and loudspeaker but also because of the temporal development of the kind of sound processing in the Max patch.

In this close-up video the development in sound processing and the direct relationship between the movements of the microphones and the resulting sound can easily be followed:

A very appealing aspect of this set-up is in my view, is that all three microphone signals are connected to a single loudspeaker. All three players have to find their own way of playing, because they have a different type of microphone and their sound is processed in a different way, but at the same time all these different paths come together again in a small loudspeaker in a jar. In the second part of the performance the sound of the small loudspeaker is slowly also diffused through the bigger loudspeakers in the hall (the PA loudspeakers). This does not cause any noticeable change in the acoustic feedback interaction, but the spatial and spectral characteristics do change due to the different in placement, sound diffusion and spectral response of these loudspeakers. The sound of the jar itself seems to fill the whole performance space now, instead of occupying a single spot. At the end of the piece, the loudspeakers in the hall fade out again and the sound moves back into the jar.

By preparing this text I also discovered that Ronald Boersen has an interactive sound installation, that uses loudspeakers and ping pong balls. I added this to the collection of fifty years of loudspeakers and ping pong balls.

And here a recording of the whole piece:


Fifty years of loudspeakers and ping pong balls

Some objects seem particularly suitable to be used for preparing loudspeakers. The lightness and characteristic sound of ping pong balls might be a reason, why they have been favourable objects for this. Comparing several of these set-ups reveals that—fortunately!—using a similar technology can still result in completely different works.

Loudspeakers ping pong balls
Leser 1 by Manfred Mohr and Jochen Gerz. The loudspeakers and ping pong balls are covered by a large transparent plastic bag. Polyester tube, 19 loudspeakers,  printed transparent plastic bag, 19 moving ping pong balls, electric motor, 180 cm x 45 cm, 1967 Source: © Manfred Mohr and Jochen Herz

As far as I know, the first work using ping pong balls in combination with loudspeakers is Leser 1 (1967) by Manfred Mohr, who created the audio sculpture, and Jochen Gerz, who wrote the text for this installation. This  tower contains 19 loudspeakers, each prepared with a single ping pong ball and was exhibited for the first time in 1968 in Paris. The audience can press a foot pedal to turn the installation on for a minute. Three different frequencies are then played through the loudspeakers and causing the ping pong balls to move away from the loudspeaker membranes and hit the plastic bag (see also the scheme at the end of this post). The ping pong balls are alternating between striking the plastic bag and the loudspeaker membrane and the combination of 19 ping pong balls making this movement produces a noisy sound. Together with the text printed on the big plastic bag and a random letter printed on each ping pong ball the whole installation seems to make an attempt to speak. The text itself seems also to be related to the movement of the ping pong balls: the big letters in the middle read: “Auf Flüchtlinge wird [ge]schossen”, which could be translated as “shoot the people fleeing”. Manfred Mohr explained me, that this text refers to the fact that at that time the East German police had the order to shoot the people fleeing to West Germany.

In Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drums and Acoustic Pendulums (1980) Alvin Lucier uses four bass drums and places them in front of four loudspeakers. A low sinus sweep is played through these loudspeakers and the membranes of the bass drums start to vibrate, according to their resonance to the frequency of the sinus wave. In front of each drum a ping pong ball is hanging from the ceiling, just touching the drum head. The vibrations of the skin push the ping pong ball away from the drum. Depending of the moment of hitting the drum, when the ball falls back, as well as the direction and amount of vibrations of the drum head, the ping pong ball will be pushed away next time with more or less force. Although the set-up seems to be four times the same, the results of the small differences in material of bass drum, loudspeaker and ping pong ball can be clearly perceived in the movement of the ping pong balls and the resulting sound. The shape of the ping pong balls reminds me of the head of a drum stick, and these drums seem mysteriously “played” by the ping pong balls.

Christian Skjødt uses 16 loudspeakers and an equal amount of ping pong balls in Inclinations (2016). Here again each loudspeaker with ping pong ball combination creates its own rhythm, but due to the ping pong balls moving in upwards direction they fall down much faster than in Lucier’s set-up. This causes a constantly changing, soft and noisy rumbling. Christian is not using any other material such as a plastic bag or drums. Since the frequencies played through the loudspeakers are too low for humans to be heard, all sound is produced by the collisions of ping pong balls and loudspeaker membranes. The minimal visual quality of this installation underlines the focus on these sonic events.

loudspeakers ping pong balls
The three different relationships between ping pong balls and loudspeakers, from left to right: In Leser 1 the ping pong ball hits the loudspeaker and the transparent plastic bag. In Music for Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drums and Acoustic Pendulums the loudspeaker just hits the drums. In Inclinations the ping pong ball is placed directly on the loudspeaker.

After I finished this post on loudspeakers and ping pong balls, Ricardo Arias brought the piece PingRoll (1997) by Manuel Rocha Iturbide to my attention:

And João Ricardo mentioned Kugel-Percussion (2006) by Peter Vogel to me:

loudspeaker ping pong ball
Kugel-Percussion by Peter Vogel, with one ping pong ball and one loudspeaker © Peter Vogel

And another addition: When preparing my text on Sound in a Jar I bumped into another piece of Ronald Boersen, using loudspeakers and ping pong balls, called talk to me… . The ping pong balls are hanging in front of a tam-tam . You talk into a microphone and see and hear your speech reflected in the movement of the ping pong balls. To achieve this, the voice is processed in the computer, attenuating resonating quality in the speech, that maximises the response of the resonating frequencies of the tam-tam. This sound is than diffused through a tactile transducer attached to the tam-tam. The ping pong balls start to move due to the tam-tam vibrations, creating sounds themselves as soon as they hit the tam-tam:

Klangflug by Lara Stanic

Lara Stanic Klangflug flying loudspeakers
Lara Stanic performs Klangflug. © Lara Stanic

In her performance Klangflug (2006 – 2013, several versions) Lara Stanic looks for ways to transmit the airiness and volatility of sound itself to the heavy loudspeakers, needed to produce sounds. By simulating sounds of an airplane taking off on her flute, she sets the loudspeakers free and they start to travel through the air. The result are flying loudspeakers.

This is done by attaching four big helium balloons to four loudspeakers. Lara puts sugar on top of the loudspeakers to keep them on the floor. She starts to play glissandi on her flute now, simulating airplane departure noises. These glissandi are picked up by a microphone and sent to a computer software (a Max-patch), using pitch shifter to  transpose and enlarge the glissandi.  These sounds are diffused through the four loudspeakers with sugar on top. As can be seen in this short demonstration movie, at certain frequencies, especially low ones, the movements of the loudspeaker membrane cause the sugar to fall off. The helium balloon will now ascend into the air, taking the loudspeaker with it:

During the performance the pitch shifters prolong Lara’s glissandi on the flute more and more, enlarging the possible glissando range of the flute. Lara explained to me, that the balance of the weight of the sugar piles, big enough helium balloons and right pitches on the flute is very delicate. The amount of time it takes to free each loudspeaker is variable for each performance, and the height of their flight is depending on how much sugar is left on the loudspeaker. When I attended this performance, exactly this unpredictability was so fascinating: the big balloons and the rising pitches built up the tension, whereas the final taking off of a loudspeaker always came as a surprise.

The movement of the loudspeakers is only visually perceivable in the movie documenting the performance. Evidently, when hearing this performance live, an important aspect is also the upwards movement of the sound. (And if you are curious why sugar is used: I asked Lara and she told me it was just a result of trial and error with different kinds of sand, sugar and other material.)

Lara has created many works for microphones and loudspeakers, another example is Open Air Bach. Other artists have focused not so much on the taking off, but especially on the flight itself of loudspeakers. Works by Lucio Capece, Fabrice Moinet and Genoel Lilienstern are interesting examples (and I will write about these works in the future ).