Saturday, 12 September 2015 14:50

The Talking Chair: Notes on a sound sculpture

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 (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.

Notes

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.

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