The Beauty of Interactive Audio Installations
Yann Seznec believes in the power of discomfort to spark a good idea. In his award-winning candle-based installation, “Ritual”, he takes inspiration from a niche corner of the web called “prayer request” videos, where people upload calls for prayers for themselves and their loved ones who are in trouble. “It’s an odd and terrifying sub-genre of the internet,” he says. “I found it really uncomfortable, which I think is a good starting point for any good artistic project”.
“Ritual” uses a collection of sensors controlled by light, so a recording of a prayer is played each time a candle is lit. What Yann did not expect was how its visitors chose to interact with it. “It was fascinating to quietly sit back and watch people come in and light a single candle, listen to one prayer request, and to really concentrate on it, but then be quite afraid to blow that candle out,” he says.
It is these unexpected behaviours that fascinate Yann. In his talk at The Edinburgh Festival of Sound, he will discuss another of his projects, “The Book of Knowledge of Impractical Devices”, which is loosely based on the 11th-century text The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Its author, in a bid to build the world’s first robotic clock, is credited with inadvertently inventing materials like plywood. Yann argues, based on this, that by building music technology with no obvious useful function, we can encourage the sort of critical thinking that leads to radical new creations. “The best interfaces are ones that people are able to use in surprising ways that the creator doesn’t necessarily expect,” he says.
This is an idea familiar to Brendan McCarthy, part of the start-up Ray Interactive. He is bringing to the festival a giant replica of the Roland TB-303 synthesizer, one of the first synthesizers developed to replace the need for recording studios by replicating the sounds of real music instruments. “It didn’t sound anything like an actual drummer or a bass player, so I think these products almost failed initially,” he says. “But then they got taken up by bedroom producers. People making house and techno spawned from these machines, so the 303 has quite a cult classic heritage”.
The giant replica is instantly recognisable to those who know its history, but its strength is that it appeals to anyone. Kids are entertained by the noises and flashing lights, while adults enjoy making organised sound together, be they amateurs or old-hands at music production. “What we’ve noticed is that it brings people together, sometimes random people having a craic with each other,” says Brendan. “High fives and fistbumps all round. It’s a giant toy more than anything else”.
“Sound is hilarious, right?” says Yann, when asked about the importance of play. “It’s one of the reasons why I really like running workshops. When you get a group of people together and you explore making music in new ways, they will inevitably make things that make them laugh”. That we refer to music performance as play is key, he argues. We play instruments, we play radio, and we play sounds. Perhaps interface designers would benefit from remembering that element of fun when building new products. “I love things that require huge gestures to make a sound,” he says. “Why not? Let’s make stuff really silly”.
One such interface is Ray Interactive’s dance wall. Based on the Kinect, it uses a camera to detect movement that it then turns into visuals and sound, acting both as a midi controller and as a visual particle system. “We’re trying to push the kind of sounds made and how you control them with the Kinect,” says Brendan. “To create a system where the movements feel like the sound. The movement is creating the sound rather than the other way round”.
At the moment, this installation is part of a feasibility study and its precise functionality is still up for grabs. That it is stimulated by dancing in front of it means that it has so far been more appealing to kids, who have fewer physical inhibitions than adults, but it could have some potential in dance performance settings. How would it be to choreograph a piece where dancing creates the music, instead of fitting around it?
For now, the dance wall is still in play mode, which for Yann is one of the best things about interactivity. “All these questions get opened up through a workshop where you’re just kind of playing around with speakers and oscillators and making a synth,” he says. “I think that is a really great method for discovering new or at least quirky, interesting, and fun methods for sound generation”.
There is a whole new world to be discovered in audio, and interactive installations can open that up by making it more accessible to the public. If Yann and Brendan are right, then the users’ playfulness could also teach sound professionals a lot in return. By toying with different interfaces, they show us what sounds, uses, and ideas they are missing, prompting us to keep pushing the limits of how we go about making sound.
Ray Interactive will be bringing the Giant 303 and Interactive Dance Wall to #TEFOS2018. Yann Seznec will be giving a talk at North AudioTEK and also doing a performance of one of his many quirky audio experiments at The Study Sessions on Friday 16th.