(Iain Mott, Leonardo 28:1, MIT Press, 1995)
The Talking Chair is an interactive listening environment created in collaboration by designer Marc Raszewski and myself, a composer. Integrating sculpture, electronics and industrial design, the Chair immerses the listener in a 3-dimensional sound space.
The concept of the Talking Chair developed from a number of spatial sound compositions inspired by John Chowning's "Turenas", that I wrote for performer and electronics in a concert environment. I decided to make a break from large scale sound projection to a more intimate, one to one relationship with the audience. The Talking Chair focuses on the individual, avoiding many technical complications of auditorium projection. More importantly however, the Chair has enabled me to communicate to an audience, that element most rewarding to me in composing and performing the earlier pieces, the act of directly connecting with spatial sound.
We have endeavoured to sensitise the listener to the kinetic and 3-dimensional qualities of sound by producing a holistic theatre of sensation. The Talking Chair is an attempt to forge links between the ephemeral nature of music and the material world, by expressing musical process through a physical poetry. It requires the creative input of the individual to give it meaning, to perfect an imaginary universe of cause, effect and response.
Marc Raszewski's design consists of a system of interlocking steel rings, supporting a battery of six loud-speakers, a cabinet of glass and mirrors, and an anthropomorphic chair made from cast aluminium, plywood panels, and steel fittings, which forms the centre piece of the sculpture. The outer structural rings direct attention towards the chair, suggesting a metaphor of human interaction with technology.
Participants are instructed by signage to take a seat in the chair, pick up the wand located to the side of the cabinet in front of them, and move the wand through the region between their body and the lower half of the cabinet. As they do so, clusters of sound issue from the speakers, drawing invisible shapes through a spherical sound space surrounding their body. The pitch, timbre, loudness and density of the sound change with the spatial position and velocity of the wand. As an aid to the navigation of sound, the viewing cabinet displays the wand tip as a glowing ball moving about a reflected image of the participants head. The position of the ball relative to the head corresponds to the perceived position of sound in the space surrounding the listener.
The sonic landscape created within the Talking Chair is an amalgam of sampled and synthesised sounds chosen for their kinetic dynamics, and expressive potential. New sounds are selected on the basis of probability by pressing a button on the wand. Each new sound is unique in terms of its timbre, as well as its musical response to gesture, confronting the participant with unpredictable spatial strategies of interaction. The user develops a cognitive relationship with each sound, exploring 3-dimensional space with the wand to uncover its logic and sonic capacities.
The Talking Chair was exhibited at the Linden, Melbourne in March 1994.
The signal from an ultrasound transmitter situated on the wand is picked up by three distance measuring receivers, the outputs of which are digitised and converted into 3-dimensional coordinates. A computer operating the music programming language FORMULA, receives this information and uses it as an input for various compositional algorithms and to determine the spatial projection of sound. Spatial projection is achieved by attenuating the level of sound fed to each speaker and adjusting the amount of artificial reverberation, using a digitally controlled mixer capable of projecting four independent channels of sound. The sound sources are a sampling keyboard, an FM synthesiser and two channels of sound on a recordable CD.
Squeezebox incorporates spatial sound, computer graphics and kinetic sculpture. Participants manipulate the sculpture to produce real-time changes to the spatial location and timbre of the sound, as well as to manipulate digitised images. The sound and images are presented as an integrated plastic object, a form which is squeezed and moulded by participants. The artwork consists of a frame supporting four sculpted pistons on pneumatic shafts. An interactive image is displayed on a monitor beneath a one-way mirror at the centre of the sculpture. Four loudspeakers are situated at the outer four corners.The cast hands of Squeezebox invite participation. Participants grasp and press down the sculpted pieces, working against a pneumatic back-pressure to elicit both sound and image. The interaction reveals a form which has visual, aural as well as physical properties. As participants press down on the hands a sound mass is shifted from one point of the sculpture to another by pressing down on alternate pistons. Music is produced algorithmically and is derived from a set of rules which respond to the spatial location of the sound mass. The system of rules however is never static. One spatial strategy gives way to another resulting in an evolution of sound, requiring a constant readjustment of focus in the listener.
Squeezebox is collabroration between Iain Mott, Marc Raszewski and artist Tim Barrass who designed the interactive graphics. It was first exhibited in "Earwitness", Experimenta '94, ether ohnetitel, Melbourne, 1994. The project was produced with the assistance of The Australia Council, the Federal Government's arts funding and advisory body.
The Talking Chair is a listening environment for three-dimensional sound, allowing participants to control the trajectory of sound through the space surrounding their body. The work consists of a frame supporting a battery of six audio speakers, a central chair, and an ultrasound wand interface. A remote audio system is linked by cabling. Seated in the chair, participants interact with the sculpture by means of the wand which generates 3-dimensional information used to produce sound and draw its trajectory. As the sound object moves, its sonic qualities change in response to its proximity to the listener, velocity and spatial location. The physical form of The Talking Chair, in addition to fulfilling the functional requirements of spatial sound projection, serves to represent a material manifestation of kinetic sound. The sculpted chair assumes a metaphorical human presence amid the arcs and curves of the outer frame which define a dynamic spherical sound space around the listener.
The Talking Chair is a collaborative project by Iain Mott, Marc Raszewski & Jim Sosnin. It was produced with the assistance of the Australia Council, the Federal Governments arts funding and advisory body. The sculpture has been exhibited within Victoria and Tasmania in Australia and at the 1996 International Computer Music Conference in Hong Kong.