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.

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:


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 the music software Max, 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 ).

An active loudspeaker by Hermann Scherchen

loudspeaker ball nullstrahler hermann scherchen
The rotating loudspeaker ball with 32 loudspeakers developed by Hermann Scherchen (sourceörbar-machen-i).

Due to his intensive occupation with recording and reproduction of music the conductor Hermann Scherchen (1891-1966)  became aware of the enormous increment of people listening to music through loudspeakers. He was concerned about the difference between the complex sound diffusion during a concert by the whole orchestra and the very poor representation of the music through one loudspeaker (at that time sound diffusion was often still mono). Scherchen aimed for a recording to sound as if performed in the (acoustic) space, in which it was reproduced and in which the listener of the recording was present. To achieve this, loudspeakers should diffuse sound in such a way, that they “trigger” the acoustics of the space. The recording is not anymore a reproduction of a musical event, which had happened in another space and another time, but the recording now becomes a musical event in itself, sounding as if the instruments are playing in your living room.

To achieve this effect, Scherchen invented a rotating loudspeaker ball, or, as it was called by him, „Der aktive Lautsprecher“ (the active loudspeaker) or “Nullstrahler” (which could be translated as zero radiator, since it was diffusing sound in all directions). Scherchen looked for an alternative for stereophonic reproduction, which in his opinion could not reproduce the sound perception in a space. The rotating loudspeaker ball was developed to distribute the sound in such a way, that each member of the public would sit inside the „sweet spot“ or actually no sweet spot was existing anymore. This loudspeaker was developed in 1959 and consisted of 32 speakers (215 mm diameter) placed on a 70 cm ball. The weight of the whole construction was 150 kilogram. This ball was placed on a stand and able to rotate in all directions. The music played on this loudspeaker ball was not experimental at all, but for example J.S.Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. (I would love to experiment with these loudspeakers though!)

I only have a very bad picture but apparently listening to this loudspeaker was also done outside (in Gravesano, Switzerland, where Scherchen lived). In the second picture you can see the loudspeaker ball in the middle and the audience sitting around:

Nullstrahler loudspeaker ball hermann scherchen
The “Nullstrahler” in action during a meeting in Gravesano.

A beautiful documentation of an exhibition on Herrmann Scherchen’s electroacoustic research has been made by Luca Frei. Bruno Spoerri wrote a detailed history on Scherahen’s studio in Gravesend (see the article Hermann Scherchen und das Experimentalstudio Gravesano (1954–1966) in the book Musik aus dem nichts).

In this video the loudspeaker ball can be seen in rotation (the music heard in the video seems not to be diffused by the loudspeaker ball though):


The loudspeaker has been renovated at the Studio für Elektroakustische Musik der Akademie der Künste, and will appear in concert during the Kontakte Festival (28.09. – 1.10.2017).

More information on this loudspeaker ball can be found in the archive of the Akademie der Künste Berlin and in several volumes of the Gravesaner Blätter:

“Fünf Jahre Gravesano“ (1954 – 1959) in: Gravesaner Blätter No. XIV Volume IV 1959 p. 2.

Technical aspects at the Fifth Anniversary of Gravesano, F. A. Loescher, Gravesaner Blätter No. XV/XVI Vol. IV 1960, p. 6 – 7

Annea Lockwood’s loudspeaker ball  also diffuses monophonic sound through many loudspeakers. And spherical and hemispherical loudspeakers have also been used by laptop orchestras such as the Plork.