This blog post demonstrates ideas and sounds that were generated during the Situated Composition symposium/workshop on 6 May 2016, part of Lancaster Arts’ OPEN 2016. The day was extremely productive, with 18 participants from all over the UK and beyond sharing thoughts on relationships between sound, mobility, technology, and place. In the morning there were seven presentations from researcher-practitioners whose work resonates with the idea of situated composition. In the afternoon the group brainstormed principles and practices for situated composition inspired by the morning’s presentations, and then went out to create their own sound works, many of which are included below. After regrouping, participants shared their pieces, discussing their approaches, and the positive, challenging, and interesting aspects of working with sound in the way they did. Created spontaneously on the day of the event with minimal subsequent editing and organising, this instant journal presents the material from the day largely in the raw rather than offering a finessed finished product. While inevitably missing the full richness, detail and depth of what took place at the symposium/workshop, the journal aims to provide both a document of the event and a variety of suggestive ideas and sounds that can be drawn on as something of a tool kit for approaching situated composition.
Situated composition highlights the way in which sound production and compositional activity are always situated in multiple ways, occurring under particular conditions in specific circumstances. Like the growing field of studio studies, situated composition seeks to understand “how cultural artefacts are brought into the world and how creativity operates as a situated practice” (Farías and Wilkie, 2015, 1). As tools for working with sound become increasingly mobile and easy-to-use through developments in mobile devices and apps, the contexts in which sound production and composition occur have the potential to expand (are expanding).
These developments make the situatedness of composition evident in compelling ways. At the same time, rather than positing that such developments usher in completely new conditions for working with sound, the idea of situated composition stresses that all sound work is situated. Situated composition is not restricted to particular technologies or practices. Rather it is a way of approaching any technology or practice with an ear to how it unfolds in relation to a situation. In this view, what constitutes composition is not defined a priori, as the boundaries between listening, performing, improvising and composing are purposefully blurred. The three categories of dictionary definition for composition – a product (a composition), a process (the act of composition), and a mode or relationality (the compositioin of something) – are also brought into resonance. Situated composition, then, recognizes composition as open, collaborative and emergent, a co-composition of practitioner, sound, tool and place, and of material, social, virtual and digital relationships. The morning presentations that kicked off the symposium/workshop elaborated a variety of projects that provide fruitful ways of considering different approaches to composition and ideas of situatedness. Very brief summaries are provided below. – Samuel Thulin
- Samuel Thulin began with an introduction to the concept of situated composition and briefly discussed his current research project, which involves a combination of artistic practice and interviews with sound artists, musicians, composers, producers etc. who use mobile devices and apps in their work.
- Ximena Alarcón presented her work exploring collaborative, telematic sound performances dealing with themes of migration, dislocation, and in-betweeness, particularly through language and the voice.
- Owen Chapman shared reflections on his concept of situated nostalgia, subtly weaving connections between the recent passing of his grandfather, his early field-recording experiences, and his time in Morecambe and Lancaster as a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Mobilities Research.
- Linda O’Keeffe presented a recent project she carried out with students in Singapore, exploring the sound of the city through contact microphones and developing sound maps and graphic scores that were subsequently used in performances.
- Ron Herrema presented on his app Infinity (currently in development), which generates meditative visuals and sound in real-time based on users’ gestural interactions with the device’s touch screen. Herrema is currently user-testing the app, and shared initial responses from participants.
- Jen Southern used Umberto Eco’s concept of the ‘open work’ to consider the idea of situated composition in relation to her art practice, focussing in particular on her and Sam Thulin’s most recent work, Homing, in which audience members compose a sonic experience by moving around the town of Preston’s Harris Museum and Flag Market.
- Lucy Frears presented on her work exploring locative media and landscape, reflecting on some of the insights and challenges that arose during the process of creating her locative audio app Hayle Churks, which offers a non-linear oral history of the post-industrial town of Hayle, Cornwall.
In the afternoon session, these presentations were plumbed for ideas on what it might mean to carry out situated composition in a reflexive way – that is, to concentrate specifically on the situatedness of practices and to consciously incorporate that situatedness into the process of creating sound works.
We divided ideas into two strands: principles and practices, meant to indicate more conceptual approaches on the one hand and concrete methods on the other. However, while that distinction is maintained in the way the material is organised, we found that, unsurprisingly, it is not always easy to separate a principle from a practice as the two often mutually influence each other. The following lists are left in their raw form, as evocative prompts.
Working with the idea of surfaces & under the surface, inspired in part by the device itself, touching, glass screen/code etc. (Ron Herrema), and by recording sounds of the city by probing surfaces with contact microphones (Linda O’Keeffe)
Challenging the idea of landscape as ‘flat’ and ‘over there’; approaching it as what is around you, something you are in, as in Lucy Frear’s locative audio app Hayle Churks.
Immersion vs engagement. Different levels of activity and passivity on the part of a user experiencing a work (drawn from Ron Herrema’s discussion of his app Infinity, and the work of Douglas and Hargadon (2000))
Different kinds of dislocation and in-betweeness: “what does the in-between sound like?” Ximena Alarcón asks. Being situated through migration. Being in multiple places at once. Feeling out of place. “I am not here, I’m …..”
Situated in travel
Situated in language
Resonating with memories and nostalgia: ‘You had to be there’
Situated nostalgia (Owen Chapman)
Being there, being then, being now. How do they all work together?
Close and distant
Connection – past & present / physical & virtual
Removal of the body
Situated: to be changed by a situation // Composition: makes change in a situation (Jen Southern)
Declaring your situatedness / where your approach comes from / social/political etc.
Tension between Haraway’s situated knowledge and situation as place, different ways of thinking about situatedness.
Smell, materiality, juxtaposed with voice and memory – trigger for past experience
Contact microphones / making contact
Not being shy
Prosthesis – attachments
Beneath the screen
What sound is on the surface
What sound is under the surface
Audience as composer within parameters
Body & removal
Embodying space and then voicing it back; listening and voicing
Transforming the space with a device
Connecting voices between spaces; telematics
Gathering sounds together
In the moment
Listening together, talking together
Meditation / energy
Listening walk – using all your senses
Translation between senses/entanglement of senses
Bringing something back that connects with a sense of sound – (sound of a gorse bush on fire through evidence of it having burned) – bringing back objects (Andrew Deakin)
Microphone as an altered set of ears
Recognising something moving
Because something is moving it must be making a sound
Creating Situated Compositions
After the initial brainstorming session, participants were provided with a range of tools for working with sound, including mobile recorders, various microphones (binaural, contact, hydrophone, wireless), and iPads loaded with audio apps.
Drawing on the principles and practices discussed above, the goal was to go out either individually or in groups and create a situated composition in under two hours.
A number of these compositions are included below, along with notes from the discussion that took place as we listened back to the pieces afterwards.
Approach: Walking around campus reading out signs as they were passed and recording into the app Audioshare, then mixing in the granular synthesis app Borderlands.
Approach: Recording on the phone while cycling, then beat-tapping in the app Beatmaker 2.
Approach: Recording while travelling around in search of sounds, finding industrial sounds that aren’t immediately obvious, such as generators; making sounds through the physicality of the microphone (ex. repeatedly dropping the hydrophone into the pond).
Approach: Walking and recording using binaural microphones, following sources of sound in one take. Composing live by the route that is taken. Techniques include walking, pausing, and spinning in place to create panning effects.
Approach: Exploring apps and techniques that are unfamiliar. Using Audiomobile to generate resonances between images and sounds and their varying trajectories; using Borderlands and Audioshare.
Approach: Sensory postcards and digital ethnography. Using Audiomobile to create sound sensory postcards from Lancaster University.
Hayley Wanless and Bethany Morgan-Davis
Approach: Sitting still on the steps in Alexandra Square and recording the sounds of activity in the immediate environment. A composition composed by the environment. Subsequent mixing in the app Borderlands.
Approach: Recording sounds of motion, then carefully mixing them using panning effects to situate the listener.
Approach: Situated improvisations done on the terrace of Cafe21 on campus working with the materiality of audio tools and nearby objects. The first, a vocal improvisation, was recorded with a hydrophone in a glass of water.
Another approach, suggested by Jen Southern: recording and layering the sounds of a place over time.