Kropka na Ogonie and Soroka Fruwa by Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman

extreme amplification microphone
Kropka Na Ogonie (2016) by Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman, performed by Marianna Soroka © Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman

Microphone type and microphone placement is crucial for the amplification of musical instruments. In her works Kropka Na Ogonie (2016) and Soroka Fruwa (2016) Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman gives a fascinating example of how this microphone choice and placement can become a compositional parameter and a substantial characteristic of the work. Aurélie calls these pieces a miniature musical theatre performance in two acts: the score’s instrumentation lists a single metal wire brush as a beater and the air around the performer’s torso as the percussion membrane, amplified by microphones. In the second act the performer’s voice is added, but also here the sounds are kept in a very low amount of action: only (un)voiced breath, mouth and throat sounds of the performer are used.

Hearing and seeing this performance by Marianna Soroka reveals that the piece is not only a miniature, using a minimal amount of sonic material, but at the same time also an enormous magnification: the performance is based on the extreme amplification of very large letters, written with big gestures in the air. The most conspicuous visual and audible element of the performance are the five large microphones placed in a semi-circle around the performer.

microphone loudspeaker set up scheme amplification
Set-up scheme for Kropka na Ogonie and Soroka Fruwa by Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman. © Cathy van Eck

Aurélie explained me how she developed this piece. After many years of working a lot with voice and speech, as a radio producer and a vocalist, she decided to integrate voice and speech in her work as a composer. In the talking drum from West Africa she found an instrument that had a similar relation to sound as the human voice has: it communicates (a kind of) language through sound. At times the drum even appears to sound like human speech, but it can also produce abstract sound and therefore function in a rather musical context. The talking drum was the quickest way to communicate before the invention of western telegraphy, since messages transmitted by talking drums travel with a speed of 160 kilometers per hour. The talking drum is traditionally played with a wooden beater, but Aurélie tried out not only the traditional beater, but all kinds of other ones. Using a jazz brush to play a talking drum is—as she mentions herself—quite weird. But while doing this she remarked that all sounds produced by the brush in the air before hitting the drum skin were even more interesting than the sound of hitting the drum. This is how her work on two new pieces for a single brush and hyper amplification— Kropka na Ogonie and Soroka Fruwa—started. The piece for talking drum became Tele Drumming (2016), a piece for percussionist “talking” through the drum, a text video and a recording of a Skype conversation with her brother.

microphone amplification score
A fragment of the score for Kropka na Ogonie © Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman

During Kropka na Ogonie (Polish for “dot on the tail”) the performer Marianna Soroka is making big gestures in the air with the brush, writing big letters in her mother tongue Polish. There are many very specific alphabetic characters in Polish, each calling for their own unique pronunciation and orthography, often with a tail (see the score fragment above). The visual reference to writing is enhanced by using just one brush, instead of two which is common in percussion playing. The inspiration for these big gestures for drawing letters comes from graffiti and (western and oriental ) calligraphy. Aurélie translates the visible appearance of these characters directly into sound instead of leaving a visual mark.

At the start of the development of the piece the sounds made by the brush in the air were amplified simply by two microphones. Pretty soon a third one was added to create a more detailed image of the audible movements. For the final result five microphones are used. Aurélie mentions that technically speaking  two of these microphones (no. 2 and 4, see set-up scheme above) are not strictly necessary for a suitable amplification of the sounds. But as soon as she leaves them out, the percussionist will tend to move less in between the three microphones left, since we tend to perform mainly in the area in front of the mike. The microphones used can be for example Neumann 184s, DPA 2011, 4011 or also 4099, ME66 Sennheiser. Sound absorbing materials such as sound proofing panels or curtains are used for dampening the space around the percussionist. Although the performance is very quiet by nature, Aurélie asks the performer to aspire extreme dynamic contrasts at all times.

 

amplification microphone gestures
Soroka Fruwa (2016) by Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman, performed by Marianna Soroka © Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman

 

extreme amplification microphone
A fragment of the score for Soroka Fruwa © Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman

The most astonishing moment in this performance for me is the difference in character between the two performances. The second part of the performance is called Soroka Fruwa, based on the Polish words “Sroka Fruwa” and a poetic way for saying “A Magpie is Fluttering” (Sroka was changed to Soroka, since the percussionist’s name is Marianna Soroka). This piece takes noises of the human child and bird wings as archetypes. When experimenting with the brush noises some of the sounds reminded Aurélie of flapping bird wings. The brush and microphone amplification is used to create a foley of these sounds evoking the flights of a night owl, a peace dove, an eagle or other birdspecies. In this second part our imagination is opened up to completely different associations, created again with mikes, brushes and gestures.

This is a documentation video of both performances, performed by Marianna Soroka:

Many thanks to Aurélie for the long conversation on her music!

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.

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:

Speaker Feedback Instruments by Lesley Flanigan

Lesley Flanigan Speaker Feedback Instruments
Lesley Flanigan performing with her speaker feedback instruments at La Sala. © Lesley Flanigan

A beautiful example of combining acoustic feedback and musical instruments are the speaker feedback instruments by Lesley Flanigan.  What makes the technology of these instruments exceptional, is their use of so-called contact microphones (simple piezo-ceramic elements) instead of a microphone designed for picking up air pressure waves. These microphones  can easily amplify the mechanical vibrations of objects such as the sound board of a piano, an apple box, or a coffee cooker, without picking up the sonic vibrations of the air surrounding these objects. Or, simply speaking, when a contact microphone is connected to a table, and you are hitting the table and singing at the same time, the contact microphone will only amplify your voice.

In Lesley’s instruments though, these piezo-ceramic contact microphones are placed above the loudspeaker cone, without touching it. Surprisingly, they are in this case used for picking up air pressure vibrations. And indeed, feedback happens with this set-up because the air pressure waves emitted by the loudspeaker are strong enough to be picked up by the piezo-ceramic element and send back to the loudspeaker.  Due to their materiality the frequency response of these piezo-ceramic microphones will filter the sound quite heavily, and it is possible to create a very variable feedback sounds in just changing the distance between microphone and loudspeaker slightly. She discovered this set-up when trying out an amplifier:

I had built a small amplifying circuit, and to test it, I grabbed a couple items that happened to be on my table: a raw speaker cone for the output and a piezo element (basically, a microphone) for the input. The speaker and piezo were touching each other, and a very complex, tonal noise of feedback occurred (Lesley Flanagan in an interview by Tyler Miller).

contact microphone piezo ceramic speaker feedback
A piezo-ceramic element (often called contact microphone) is placed above the loudspeaker cone. © Lesley Flanigan

Since 2007 she has developed several of these speaker feedback instruments, and a speaker synth, which contains of five small different loudspeakers. Lesley told me, that she changes the set ups depending on what she feel works best for the show she is doing (or how far she needs to travel!), but definitely she has her favorites and tend to prefer playing with four at a time.

What inspired her, was that “The sounds of feedback they generated were so “real”—it was electronic sound that I could see and touch.” (Interview by Tyler Miller). It is especially this tactile element which becomes important in playing her instruments and developing her sounds. As can be seen from the video of the speaker synth both contact microphones and the membranes of the loudspeakers are touched to modify the feedback sounds. Each feedback circuit can be turned on and off, and a potentiometer next to the switch can be used for changing the feedback gain:

loudspeaker cones contact microphones
Several speaker feedback instruments made from very different loudspeaker cones taken out of old devices. © Lesley Flanigan

Her instruments are made from old loudspeakers. She is taking them out of devices, because she is interested in not finding a “perfect” loudspeaker but in the specific voice every loudspeaker has. When she heard these speaker feedback instruments “singing”, it felt just very natural for her to add her voice to them. In her performance set-up she literally shares her microphone with them, moving it from her mouth, to the speaker feedback instrument she wants to amplify through the PA system.

For me, it is a special process to collect their raw sounds with a microphone, and amplify them on a large scale. I love the moment when what was once a crusty little noise becomes a booming, warm bass swell of dense tonality. The sound itself never changed, but when amplified, its barely audible details are magnified, so we have the opportunity to hear it differently. By amplifying feedback tones, I’m trying to dig deeper and more introspectively into their sound (Lesley Flanagan in an interview by Rena Minegishi).

In these short fragments of her performances, you can recognise well how the sound of a speaker feedback instrument is amplified as soon as the microphone is approaching it:

As Lesley told me, also this bigger amplification system becomes a part of her instrumental set-up:  “I use a PA for amplification, but often like moving back and forth between the large PA amplified sound and the ‘acoustic’ sound of the feedback instruments without any amplification.” During her performances, she develops different layers of feedback and voice, using a looping pedal for sampling sounds. Whereas they are carefully prepared and rehearsed, and she clearly knows her instruments very well, she is always also reacting on what happens at each specific moment: “I knew which speakers to work with and how to play each one to bring out elements of tonality, noise and rhythm I wanted to hear. The sampling and layering of their sounds were intentionally obvious, methodical and dense. But with all that said, I could have never predicted the exact sounds that would come out of the process. Many variables effect the feedback I work with, so no matter how much control I have planned, improvisation is always at the forefront” (Lesley Flanigan in an interview by Marc Weidenbaum).