Hidden Encounters – The Global Composition 2018

Excerpt from video footage by Neil Dallhoff

From the Global Composition 2018 Conference Proceedings
Hidden Encounters: seeking unpredictable yet responsive interactivity
Ann Warde
Independent Composer, Sound Artist, Researcher
Ithaca, New York, USA

Hidden Encounters is a set of interactive sound installations. Each instance is intended to be located, with its equipment hidden and concealed, in a space that people normally walk through on their way from one place to another. It can be situated in a museum or gallery or installed in a public space not devoted to artwork. Using a computer with Supercollider audio control software, an Arduino-based motion sensor(s), and from 1 to 3 wireless Bluetooth speakers, recordings of sound(s) made by animals are initially played back in response to movement occurring within the bounded space of the installation. Further movement in that space is intended to alter various parameters of the sound, but there is no recognizable, direct mapping between types of movement and specific changes in the sound. After some period of time, the installation ceases to respond to movement and becomes silent — again, there is no recognizable link between a specific type of movement and the point at which the sound stops. The sounds used are intended to be unusual but nonetheless recognizable to listeners familiar with the species that makes them. And the alterations to the sound are based on those that might normally be perceived — amplitude and spectral shifts that accompany the perception of the sound-source at different distances and within different kinds of environments. However, timing changes (speeding up and slowing down of the sound) may also occur. Sounds are intended to appear out-of-place, yet striking. What made that sound? Where is it coming from? How and why is it changing? Gently surprised by unexpected, unusual, and responsive voices, listeners encounter an opportunity to engage with the very different perceptual worlds occupied by the animals who are their sources.

Hidden Encounters attempts an investigation of the questions: What if an African Forest elephant whispered into your ear? Or, even more improbably, what if a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale spoke directly to you? What if listening to a humpback whale’s mysterious song was for you as striking as any other musical experience you have had? If it became part of the sound world you carry with you, with its collections of emotional meanings and its ability to capture, and to spontaneously evoke, memories that reveal aspects of your own personal history? Would you remember these experiences far into the future? Might you feel both more clearly the difference between yourself and these animals, yet somehow also akin to them in some new way?

In order to get even somewhat close to this kind of an encounter requires a situation in which one is not certain whether or not an animal might in fact be attempting to communicate — to respond . . . a glimmer of disbelieving possibility, accompanied by a profound uncertainty. Thus, my intention has been to incorporate both unpredictability and responsiveness — an evocation, a personal experience of an interaction of some kind of with the sound-maker.

An evolving Project
So far two realizations of the installation have been undertaken: in Nicosia, Cyprus, and here at The Global Composition 2018 conference. Each builds on the other in a progressive investigation of the goal of highly responsive but unpredictable interactive system.

Hidden Encounters and the Interfaces project, Nicosia, Cyprus
The first realization of Hidden Encounters was exhibited on July 24-25 in the Meres Bookstore, Nicosia, Cyprus as part of the European University Cyprus Interfaces project [1]. The installation was implemented using an ultrasonic range finder attached to an Arduino micro-controller, driven by Supercollider code. The equipment was hidden in a box. Sounds and altered sounds, among others including the voices of kittens belonging to the famous Cyprus cats (recorded at Kykkos Monastery), a native Cyprus warbler, wheatear, Scops owl, and tree-creeper, and a hooded crow, were heard as people approached the vicinity of the equipment, while in the immediate acoustic surroundings a call to prayer was sung, and vehicles passed by doorways open to the very warm weather.

The system’s range finder computed the distance to a fixed object. A sound file was almost always played when another object (typically a person) came between the sensor and the fixed object — that is, the probability that the system would play a sound file was high, but it was not 100%. After playback was complete, the system waited for an arbitrarily determined fraction of the time length of the sound file. Then it played the file again, with alterations: arbitrarily-determined segment lengths of the file were played back at changed rates, transforming both the frequency of the sounds and their time lengths.

A facet of the installation’s mechanism is the notion that it might encompass a kind of partially-effective attempt to translate between perceptual systems: the animal and the human. So playing back a very fast-moving, high-pitched bird song at an altered rate — one which brings it into a time-frequency range more familiar and comfortable to humans — might elicit a sense that the animal is perhaps whispering or talking to us.

This system also embodied a kind of prescient, embryonic, and rudimentary kind of responsiveness. It became clear though my experience of this first realization that the degree of perceived responsiveness of an interactive system appears to depend to some extent on the ability of the system to reveal and amplify, to bring to light, very slight distinctions within the medium (or media) it works with. Very slight gestures appear to produce significant responses; tiny, nuanced distinctions within specific features of sound: small timbral shifts, fraction-of-a-second hesitations, rhythmic disruptions before a specific sound is heard — perhaps just that much later than it’s expected, slight alterations in frequency . . . Because the details of these changes may be almost imperceptible, our experience of perceiving them can be felt as uncommon, surprising, unexpected.

Hidden Encounters at The Global Composition 2018
This second realization continues its attempt to achieve the elusive experience of a whispering African Forest elephant, an extraordinarily memorable conversation with a right whale, the apprehension of sounds one encounters throughout one’s day as a very long piece of music . . .

To draw listeners more directly into an interactive relationship with the system, I am working with data that capture movement over distance. That is, I’m using the range finder’s measurements as indicators of movement and gesture. I’m continuing to emphasize unpredictability, to make situations in which unanticipated responses may arise due to inherent indeterminacies in how the system interprets, classifies, and/or identifies specific kinds of gestures. The range finder itself necessarily filters the gestural information available to the system, since its measurements are taken from a single straight line. A person’s movement must intersect that line in order for the system to observe it. And because the sensor is hidden, and because the way the system works is not immediately apparent, the gestural data captured by the system will necessarily be incomplete. Three-dimensional aspects of movements will either be missed or reduced to two-dimensions. From my perspective, this partial information handily facilitates the system’s avoidance of predictable one-to-one mappings from specific gestural movements to specific changes in sound playback. The challenge, of course, is to make enough of a perceptible connection between changes in the sound and a listener’s movements so that one might continue to suspect a direct response from the system.

Hidden Encounters is one of multiple installations and performances supported by the Interfaces Network, sponsored by the European University Cyprus, co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. I would like to gratefully acknowledge the support of all the people involved with this project in Nicosia, including both my resident artist colleagues, for their congeniality and enlightening conversation, and those who so enthusiastically and thoughtfully facilitated and documented our work. And I thank the Meres Bookstore for their generous support and kind assistance.

[1] See: http://www.interfacesnetwork.eu/post.php?pid=50-residency-for-electronic-music-artists-in-nicosia-cyprus