Loudspeakeroperas by Huba de Graaff

Huba de Graaff's opera Lautsprecher Arnolt
Several of the loudspeaker sculptures used in Huba de Graaff’s opera Lautsprecher Arnolt. © Huba de Graaff

In her opera Lautsprecher Arnolt (2004) Huba de Graaff decided to have most roles played by loudspeakers. Only the main character—the writer Arnolt Bronnen (1895-1959)—is played by a human actor, Marien Jongewaard. Arnolt himself is literally a  “loud speaker”, screaming and provoking the kinetic loudspeaker sculptures. Arnolt often changes his policitical orientation, depending of what seemed to be the most advantageous at that time, similar to how loudspeakers can reproduce all kinds of sounds and do not have to choose one direction. The loudspeaker sculptures in their turn are all humanised. They are constructed by Bart Visser and can often move and play the characters of, for example, Bertolt Brecht (a very long thin and vibrating loudspeaker), Joseph Goebbels (a long column of loudspeakers, which can grow higher and shorter)  and Arnolt Bronnen’s wife Olga Förster-Prowe (two loudspeakers in the form of a bra). The piece is set during the first half of the twentieth century. During that time the loudspeaker was developed and became suitable for mass communication and soon after used in Nazi Germany for dissemination of their propaganda.

Marien Jongewaard next to the column loudspeaker Joseph Goebbels, in its shortest form.
Marien Jongewaard next to the loudspeaker column Joseph Goebbels, in its shortest form. © Huba de Graaff
Speaker opera Goebbels
The loudspeaker column Joseph Goebbels can increase in length (compare it’s length with the picture above). © Huba de Graaff

As Huba explains in her text about loudspeakers and sound systems, she considers the loudspeaker as the real instrument of electronic music. For this reason it is essential for her that loudspeakers become moving objects on stage. In this way a physical connection between sound and movement is created and the speakers become a sound source which is moving when it is sounding (similar to instrumentalists playing their instrument). A typical example of such moving loudspeakers are the so-called AATs, an abbreviation of Addressable Audio Transducers. These are rotating loudspeakers derived from Leslie loudspeaker cabinets produced by Yamaha. Huba transformed them in such a way that their movements are controllable by MIDI. Here they speak in German on loudspeakers as instruments:

Except the often historic voice recordings and some texts by the director of the piece Erik-Ward Geerlings,  most of the sounds diffused through the loudspeakers are sounds which can not exist without loudspeakers: sine waves, all kinds of other synthesised sounds, hammond organ, electric guitar, but also the characteristic mostly unwished hum of sound amplification systems and of course acoustic feedback.

Huba de Graaff composed several other works with loudspeakers, one of them is the opera Hephaistos (1997), for 40 loudspeakers, robotspeakers, computercontrolled moving loudspeakers, three singers and computers. Also in this opera the loudspeakers are part of the scenery, as for example the singers are wearing loudspeaker heads.

loudspeaker hats Huba de Graaff
The two actresses in Huba de Graaff’s opera Hephaistos are wearing loudspeaker hats. © Huba de Graaff.

An earlier piece is Corenicken (1990). Although not called opera, this is again a large scale work, using many different sound sources and performed by Huba on violin and a percussion player. The audience is surrounded by all kinds of loudspeakers and also visual media such as small televisions. Huba herself wears her “Japon Fuzz”, a tin dress containing electronic equipment, so it can create “fuzzy” and feedback sounds in response to her movements. The piezo disks attached to the dress (see the second picture of the dress) pick up the sound of the dress. As soon as Huba approaches a loudspeaker, her amplified tin dress feedbacks with the loudspeaker:

Huba de Graaff loudspeaker dress
The “japon fuzz”, a tin dress with electronic equipment to create “fuzzy” and feedback sounds. © Huba de Graaff
dress with speakers
A close up of the Japon Fuzz, using piezo disks to pick up sound. © Huba de Graaff

There are also two rotating loudspeakers (similar to the AATs mentioned above) on stage and an enormous amount of piezo ceramic elements is hanging above the audience. Together they form three grids, containing each 256 piezo disks (a total of 768!). Huba developed a computer software to control pulse-trains send to these disks, resulting in moving soundscapes. Every piezo disk is prepared with a piece of thick aluminium foil, so it diffuses its sound louder. Wonderful clouds of small sounds are moving above the audience:

Huba de Graaff Piezo grids 768 piezo ceramic elements
Setting up for Huba de Graaff’s Corenicken: the audience is placed around the stage. Three grids containing 768 piezo disks prepared with aluminium foil are hanging above the audience. © Huba de Graaff

Huba considers stereophonic sound as used in hifi-systems for the living room or in concert hall amplification as a strange and flat reproduction of reality. Sound loses its depth and perspective when reproduced by such systems. A common P.A. system (a public address system used for sound amplification in all kinds of situations, such as concert halls, theatres, and stadiums) creates a distance between the audience and the creators. In works such as Corenicken Huba is looking for a what she calls an I.A. system (individual address), as opposed to the common P.A. system. Every audience member is surrounded in a different way by loudspeakers. And indeed each of her imaginative loudspeaker sculptures diffuses its sound in an individual way.

Huba is currently working on a new piece for the AAT loudspeakers, which will be premiered soon. I’ll keep you posted.

Vestiges of Discomposition and other works by Simon Whetham

loudspeaker earth water Simon Whetham
Loudspeaker covered with earth during Simon Whetham’s performance Vestiges of Discomposition. © Simon Whetham

Before Simon Whetham starts his performance, he asks you to close your eyes. However, I could not withstand to open my eyes briefly once in a while. I saw Simon walking around slowly, holding a cymbal in his hands. A tactile transducer was attached to the cymbal (Simon uses Dayton transducers, often also called exciters. If you want to know more, about what kind of microphones and loudspeakers he is using, have a look at the very detailed equipment list on his website). Larger sounds were diffused by a tactile transducer attached to the big metal ventilation system on the ceiling, resonating in different ways depending on the frequencies diffused by the tactile transducer.

tactile transducer ventilation system
The tactile transducer attached to the ventilation system. © Simon Whetham
Simon Whetham object tactile transducer
Simon Whetham is carrying an object with a tactile transducer attached to it through the audience. © Simon Whetham.

Every performance space is different of course, as are the objects you might find in such a space, so I asked Simon how he prepares for these performances. He answered me, that besides being experienced enough now to often know already what object might sound good, “banging and knocking on objects to test their resonance and which part is more resonant is essential. Also when setting up I will place objects in various parts of the room to test how each one works in the space, for distance and if they will even vibrate against another resonant object. But then this can change during the performance as I often have no control over where people sit!” And some of his favourite objects, such as the cymbal, just travel with him.

cymbal tactile transducer Simon Whetham
Simon Whetham holding a cymbal with a tactile transducer attached to it during the blurred edges festival 2016. © Simon Whetham.

As an input Simon uses pre-recorded sounds and recordings made in the performance space itself, but also produces many sounds live. For creating live sounds he often uses a small loudspeaker cone,“I also started working with an open speaker as a sound source, either by playing audible sounds through it and then channeling them around the room, or using inaudible low frequency recordings and placing objects inside the speaker. I like this approach as field recorded low frequencies are often unpredictable in their volume level, creating an erratic ‘rhythm’ with the objects in the speaker or even throwing them out.”

aluminium foil loudspeaker Simon Whetham
A loudspeaker cone prepared with broken glass. © Simon Whetham. Picture by Michel Pennec of humus in Lausanne.

As a result of sending the same recorded sound to the differently prepared loudspeakers in space, there are now several representations in the room: one is the sound of the loudspeaker cone covered with, for example, broken glass or stones, the other ones are very similar sounds somewhere else in the space, but filtered by the spectral characteristics of this object. You hear beautiful reminiscences of sounds of scraping stones, scratching metal, or the electric noise made by a ventilation system. But all of them are surrounded by a sonic aura, which makes them less recognisable, transforming them into more imaginary sounds, not related to any existing things. Listening to a recording can of course never reproduce such a performance, but it might give you at least an impression of what kinds of sounds were used:

In contrast, in Everyday Emanations (Dead End) (2017) the sound source is more easily recognisable and plenty of visual cues reveal the source of the sound. Once again, Simon uses tactile transducers, this time attached to damaged car parts. He recorded sounds of traffic inside objects such as pipes, bottles and cans in the streets of Nakanojo (Japan) and these are played through the tactile transducers. Or in Simon’s words: “So ‘dead’ cars would play the sounds of ‘live’ ones.” This time your eyes should not be shut, since car lamps are used to light the space, turning on and off according to the volume of the sound.

An even more direct examination of the physicality of sounds occurs when Simon uses loudspeakers for creating physical marks. The visuality of the performance—completely absent during the first performance I discussed—plays a crucial role now. Simon mentions the book Lines: A Brief History by Tim Ingold to explain more about these works: “Ingold describes two classifications of lines – threads and traces. I was led to consider traces of sound, or of action that makes sound. This ranged from retracing grooves cut into metal objects by the process of twine production, to actually creating physical traces of sounds, to be displayed as visual representations.” In Trace of Water (2016) several metal wires are attached to a very small loudspeaker. A recording of cascading stream water in Wongol (South Korea) is carrying the loudspeaker through the sand, literally leaving its traces in the sand:

Another work using also the sounds of cascades is the very poetic Vestiges of Discomposition (2016), developed on Mount Tsukuba in Japan. Simon used hydrophones to supply a live sound feed, “carefully positioning it to pick up the most energy from the flow. When transduced to sound through a speaker, this energy manifests itself as a low frequency that is unheard by human ears, but creates a strong movement in the speaker itself.” He now fills the different loudspeakers with earth and water, recreating the landscape the loudspeakers are placed in. “These ‘landforms’ mark every point where the stream makes more audible sound above the water, therefore acting as listening stations.”

In Trace of the Storm (2017), created of the Open Arts Project in Busan (South Korea) a recording of a storm is played through two loudspeakers. One of them is a loudspeaker attached to the wood of a painting, the other one is a speaker cone filled with Korean ink, and producing a similar painting as the first one. “The sound continues to play through both pieces, but is heard in two different ways. The picture filters out low frequencies so you hear more detail, whereas the open speaker is almost inaudible, but creates another ‘drawing’.” This results in what could be called an action painting by a loudspeaker. In Simon Whetham’s works the microphones and loudspeakers are not only transducing between air and electricity, but they translate between all kinds of movements and sounds.

The trace of the storm by Simon Whetham
The trace of the storm by Simon Whetham: one finished painting and one in the process of making. © Simon Whetham.

Speaker Dress by Pauchi Sasaki

speaker dress Pauchi Sasaki
Pauchi Sasaki wears her Speaker Dress (2014), containing 96 loudspeakers. Photo by Juan Pablo Aragon. © Pauchi Sasaki

Our clothes can be seen as a form of communication between ourselves and the outside world. They give a visual impression of who we are and how we would like to be seen by others. Pauchi Sasaki designs dresses which are not only visible, but transmit sonic xterial as well. These dresses consists of around 100 loudspeakers, and are able to process sound live.

Pauchi got the idea for developing sonic costumes, when she performed in a temple in Lima. As she remembers: “But of course, it’s an ancient temple, so there was no electricity or outlets; I could perform only acoustic sounds, even though that’s not what I had planned. That’s when I got the idea of a self-contained system, but one that could be integrated into my body, that was the idea” (interview by Michael Barron).

The result was developed in 2014 and is simply called Speaker Dress. It is a self designed wearable sound sculpture. Two dresses exist nowadays, a black and a white one. The black one contains 96 loudspeakers, the white one even 125. Several loudspeakers are connected to the same amplifier channel. The black dress for example contains six channels of amplification, resulting in 16 loudspeakers per channel, and in six different sonic zones on the dress (a zone is formed by the loudspeakers diffusing the same sound).

Pauchi Sasaki Speaker Dress
Pauchi Sasaki in performance with her Speaker Dress. Photo by Janice Smith-Palliser. © Pauchi Sasaki

The performer can choose from different input possibilities: a contact microphone, a lavalier microphone and an mp3 player are connected. These signals are sent wireless to a computer, which processes the sound in the music software Max. The sound is sent back to the dress again and is diffused by the loudspeakers.

This is a short video made during a sound check for the Ojai Music Festival made by sound engineer Nick Tipp. Pauchi is testing the dress and walks through the auditorium:

All kind of live sounds made by the performers can be processed live during the concert and the transformed version is sounding through the dresses. Flutist Claire Chase and Pauchi herself, who is a violinist as well, use their breath, their voices and their instruments in the first composition Pauchi composed for  two dresses: Gama XV (2016). The performers are dressed in their own sounds, transformed by live electronics:

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 patch in the music software Max. 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: