“Sound is a spatial event, a material phenomenon and an auditive experience rolled into one. It can be described using the vectors of distance, direction and location. Within architecture, every built space can modify, position, reflect or reverberate the sounds that occur there. Sound embraces and transcends the spaces in which it occurs, opening up a consummate context for the listener: the acoustic source and its surroundings unite into a unique auditory experience.”
The spatial metaphor
Over the years, the relationship and analogy between music/sound art/sound design and architecture has been explored in several aspects. In the same way architecture works over the solid materials, visual spaces, geometry, abstract realities or social contexts, it does over the aural realities, the sonic dimension. When it comes to space, sound can be valued in an architectural process, just as architecture is also sonic.
Although when it comes to music, there has been a discussion on the validity of the analogy between the musical space and that of architecture, and there’s also some way of relating both concepts in the role of sound design, since it doesn’t rely in a fixed language as some music is, and it’s always open to the contexts in which it evolves or in which it is developed, such as a film. Space in terms of sound design is immensely important, both in terms of the visual/outer spaces projected in a particular audiovisual medium, but also in the inner, abstract or invisible faculties of a piece like a film or a videogame, thus introducing the possibility of creating architecture with aural elements in the same way the visual aspect creates its own spaces and objects.
Here’s a quick article dedicated to explore some notions behind that relationship and analogy, focusing in the process of the sound designer in a supposed relationship to architect’s role, not trying to close the possibilities of dialogue between both disciplines, but trying to leave questions about the sonic space and its process in relationship to the art of developing spaces and building physical realities/structures.
The one who deals with sound, creates spaces from different relationships between resonances, echoes and physical proprieties of supposed materials, which in the case of sound design also get into the worlds of storytelling, emotional illusionism, metaphoric design or poetic forms of giving sense to certain content, dealing not only with the exterior/acoustic aspects of the space being developed, but also designing sound in the roots of the story itself, the inner space.
“Architecture is an exterior medium, film is an interior medium: an architecture for the interior of the mind. The patterns of image and sound and story of a good film have to have a certain entertainment value, but ultimately they also last in the mind as sort of a template or matrix of how to organize reality.”
Sound design has a strong connection to architecture not just in the common terms of the word, but in multiple conceptions of it. The act of designing sound can bee understood as some as an architectural process that works in the field of acoustics but also transcends it in order to go deep into perceptual, intellectual, narrative, emotional, referential and aesthetic dimensions. Any sound designer is creating spaces, spaces with certain features and qualities, with particular notions and realities.
As talked about it in other articles, it has in a way to be linked to what Walter Murch thought when coining the ‘sound designer’ term, the role of sound design is similar to the one of an interior designer into a space. But the simile or the analogy can go further if we follow the proposed logic, finding that the sound designer is in a way also responsible of developing the space itself and in that process of decorating interiors, he/she gives shape to the place itself, also creating notions of materials, dimension, distance and embodiment. As talked in a previous article, when creating sound, we’re also creating space.
There’s an invisible architecture, a sonically perceived space that is not necessarily dependent on the visual stimuli. In that sense, sound design is not just about matching the supposed acoustic characteristics of a visual space, but also a way of altering the narrative and emotional aspects of a story by actually altering the space itself in terms of a character, a circumstance, a specific event or a certain sense of place. In that way of resolving the subjective-objective and diegetic-non diegetic dynamics, there’s in fact so much creative possibilities, an architectural process of sound available.
It is not just about accompanying the visual, but establishing alterations and new perceptions of the spatial dimension, getting into a virtual sonic architecture, an imaginative conception of space that is not just physical in terms of the context, but audible, perceptual; aiming to be open to different notions of the space itself either acoustic or acousmatic and actually creating a space between both conceptions in order to develop a game between fidelity towards the visual, causal or narrative, and the expansion of those elements itself by adding its own characteristics, as a way of altering the landscape from the soundscape.
“The existence of this virtual acoustic space, however, presents us with new creative possibilities. The acoustic space which we represent need not be real and we may in fact play with the listener’s perception of landscape. This aspect of sonic architecture was not an aspect of the traditional craft of the musician because, before the invention of sound recording, it was not open to the composer or performer to control”
– Trevor Wishart (On Sonic Art 136)
In fact, architecture per se has a lot of musical and sonic qualities. The resonance in a place is also recorded in a sound, not only in the terms of capturing impulse responses for convolution procedures, or using worldizing techniques, but also in how architecture constantly affects the material-form contract in a particular sound effect (or groups of it). The creative challenges and routes opened with the possibility of developing notions of aural architecture in the process of designing sound events, are endless, just in the same way that there’s a lot of possibilities in the mere act of listening to a place.
Space, matter and transformation
The design of (in)audible spaces in the sense of the developing architectures in a virtual, imaginative or perceptual soundscape opens the possibilities of and embodied experience, an immersive journey, and a profound drawing (in terms of sound) of spaces, as it occurs with mixing techniques, surround distribution, etc. But the gestation of space not only concerns to the mix, in the same way architecture is not just an organization of materials or objects in mathematical or geometrical patterns. It also has a performative instinct that gets into the fundamental procedures towards the constitution and the shape of the materials used in that organization as such.
“[…] On every film I try to think as deeply as I can about the implied acoustic space of each scene; I then try to tailor the reverberant quality of the sound, and the tonality, to the spaces that we’re looking at. It’s endlessly fascinating, particularly because this technique flies “below the radar” of the audience. The filmmaker can have an effect on the audience without the audience knowing where that effect is coming from. Which I would guess is something that architects enjoy playing with, too.”
And following the analogy, there’s a similarity with sound editing, where the aspects of timbre, texture or the spectromorphology implicit in the development of sound also affects the formulation of space. Actually, if we think about sound as a single continuum, mixing is in a sense, a way of editing, and editing is a way of mixing (ie: the layering processes and the distribution of sounds over time) and both together are the responsible of the fabrication of spatial structures, both physical and cognitive, as it happens in architecture.
A clear example of this transformation of sonic matter just by experimenting with spatial architecture is that classic piece of Alvin Lucier, “I’m sitting in a room” in which a speech gets reproduced several times into the same space, adding more echoes each time, and getting into non-semantic realities where the sonic material is detached from the original source, thus integrating the place in morphological procedures.
“What happens in I am sitting in a room, in his own words, ‘depends on the physical dimensions of the room and what wave- lengths fit it’. Rooms are infinitely variable with no uncertain principle of what surfaces, objects and bodies may occupy them, no telling whether the weather will be dry or humid; thus, the composition will sound differently in different rooms.”
The piece not only introduces an exercise that reflects directly on how the space and sound relationship is always being related in between, but also showcases, in terms of sound, how space can be malleable and put in the disposition of the artist, who in this case proposes notions of space, form, structure and dissolution that are not only dependent on the common notion of the “spatial” term but also apply to a new way of understanding the possibilities of that method of architecture over time, actually finding an axis on the activity of echoing structures themselves, the resonant elements and the propositions behind the reflection-refraction dialogue, here used with creative, aesthetic, material, dissociative and expansive intentions, as if space were some kind of instrument or bridge able to capture and reveal altered sonic states inherent to the ghostly phenomena of echoes.
“Lucier’s articulation of what philosopher Edward Casey called ‘ancient dialectic of place and space’ suggests that the phenomenon of cumulative reverberation will happen in any given space, a cloud of echoes inferring infinite space, yet his example beings and ends with himself, seated in a specific place of known provenance, also impregnated with secret history. As David Lynch said, interviewed by Chris Rodley, architecture itself is ‘a recording instrument’.”
– David Toop (Sinister Resonance 212)
It is interesting to perceive how the different qualities of a particular building affects the sounds actually by re-recording the content several times, to find new states of the sonic phenomena themselves. It can be achieved not only by recording the materials several times in a room, but also in a bottle, a metal can, or using an artificial processor, as the case of a plugin like a reverberator, a delay, “manual” multiplication, or some convolution tool like Speakerphone or similar process.
It would also lead us to explore some aspects of feedback, the effects of combining recordings with different spaces, or even the varieties of the spatial experience when time is also modified in terms of editing. Reverb effects themselves have a lot of possibilities, since algorithms can simulate surreal spaces and physically impossible buildings (although is worth to note that there are a lot of fascinating acoustic structures already in the world as Trevor Cox points in his Sonic Wonderland book, such as an oil tank in Scotland with a reverb tail of 112 seconds, hear below)
Resonance and emptiness
It’s also interesting to note that besides the transformation of sounds in terms of emotional or narrative significance/meaning of the materials, sound design also deals with the technological element in a way not only dedicated to alter the sonic forms and important not only for just processing sounds, but also for conceiving, visualizing and comprehending them, like using technology in the way of applied science, similar to how music theory/language can be understood in a direct relationship with mathematics or geometry, this time also getting extended to the engineering and architecture perspectives.
A clear example of this can be found in the work of Iannis Xenakis, both in his music and his architectural project, which are very inspiring if examined together, and although he valued both disciplines in their singular spatial terms, the relationship of composition and architecture processes showcase a very interesting reflection of the physicality of space and the role of scientific/mathematic process in both sides.
“In architecture and in music, Iannis Xenakis employed mathematics as a means to structure thought and composition, searching for a reductive, spare and articulate voice with which to address classic philosophical reasoning. The music and the installations initiated considerations of spatial discourse as fundamental compositional strategies. Mathematics was the threshold of departure, geometry is the discipline of its development; and these geometries need not necessarily be based in the rigors of linearity. With the advent of technological innovations in computation and fabrication, architecture can engage and propose new paradigms; music and acoustics generate the clarity of pure sound. It is the sound, which punctuates the choreographed occupation of the space and most eloquently gives it meaning.”
– David J. Lieberman (from the foreword to Music and Architecture book on Xenakis’ work)
That can also lead us to understand the huge importance of resonance in terms of defining sonic spaces. It is essential to understand that relationship, since it’s from that resonant faculties on which sound finds its value. It can also lead to the use of sonic-absence, a creative use of implicit silence that is similar to what happens in the conception of “empty space” in architecture, which is in fact strongly related to the material-form procedures, but also to the emotional faculties of a space.
That silent or open spaces in the soundscape make place to introduce another possible term that we should value in the parallel of sound design and architecture, that is light; and with it, shadows. The reproduction of light (and particularly the sunlight) has been very influential in the conception of architecture and the creation of building and architecture structures, specially because of the way light can create different shapes and visual spaces depending on the characteristics of a particular construction.
If we relate those empty spaces to an implied silence or a kind of space, we can also understand how the absence of sound creates shapes and possibilities, an eloquent silence; just as shadows and empty spaces in a building can lead to special perceptions of a place or environment. This silence has been approached wisely in films and videogames, not only as a way of making contrast with other sonic events, but also for creating different emotions and playing with emptiness as a metaphor for drama and emotional levels of narrative, like opening space inside a building in order to let it open for other silhouettes; a still and broad space for reflecting the psychologic and even abstract relationships between different elements.
“An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into its forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.”
– Junichiro Tanizaki (In Praise of Shadows 33)
And in the sense of resonance, we can also find that sound is constantly propagating and resonating actually depending on the characteristics of the architecture, either specific buildings or natural environments which cause different actions of reflection or refraction, by molding (from resonance) sound objects on its essence. In addition to the influence on the shape and material, it would turn by directly altering the information provided as well, both from the variation of the sound source and from the new space that it seeks to raise; also adding the fact that the listener will ultimately culminate the process, giving life to the notion of the proposed territory.
“As a spatial proposition, this mingling between inside and outside creates a sense of immediacy,granting a flexible relation to questions of spatiality. We can extend this by appreciating how sound originates from a source and travels towards a distance. […] Secondly, to add onto this initial spatial proposition, sound also carries messages. It functions as a communicational medium. As a physical and spatial movement, sound carries a collection of information related to the conditions of the original object or body, and the related environment. Importantly, this information also grants animation to things: by stemming from an object or body, sound signals that movement is occurring, and more so, that life is happening.”
Resonance has a strong connection with the notions of propagation and immersion, and the process of sound design takes a lot of both, evident for example in how, in the computer, sounds can be stretched, combined, repeated, echoed. Resonance becomes almost plastic, malleable, something that is possible to create and manipulate, including the propagation of echoes and repetitions and with that the fact of being able to invade the listeners’ ears for exposing immersive experiences or developing the illusion of a theater, of sonic forms that move in a space that may not exist as such.
It’s possible to understand that spatial/physic structures in terms of sound are not just a mere conception of an architecture of acoustical dependent scaffolds or functions, but also a wider exploration, in which the space created with sound has a wide amount of creative possibilities that can actually give the notion of spaces not yet known in visual or solid mediums. The vibratory faculties of a designed sonic space are in the control of the designer not just in the associative and semantic interests, but also the emotional, perceptual, and other objectives placed in the practice of sound design itself.
“The relation of sound and space brings forward a variety of possibilities as well as tensions. Such dynamic may at times spark the imagination with a sense of wonder and fantasy, while often leaving the route towards pragmatic realisations occluded.While acoustics most readily applies to the making of sonic architectures, and which no doubt contributes important elements to crafting space, it also generally limits its view towards pragmatic goals.”
In that order of ideas, sound design is in much sense a way of the mentioned “aural design”, in the way that the spaces built or proposed by the sound designer are often based on what is possible (or not) to be listened, relying on the audible possibilities for developing its own architecture that doesn’t need to be limited to a mimetic proposal over the acoustical (or visual, tactile, etc) proprieties of a certain space or cue because it also finds its source in the development of an inner space for the audience.
“Physical acoustics and aural architecture, while directly related, have profoundly different emphases. The former uses a scientific language to describe the way in which spatial acoustics changes attributes of sound waves, while the latter considers the experiences and behaviour of inhabitants in a space. One emphasises discrete measurement and modelling, while the other explores a complex interactive phenomenon.”
This would not only lead us to sound design but also it should invite us to the territories of sound art, where sound and space are intertwined both as conceptual and applied elements, leading to interesting discussions and possibilities. But let’s leave it here, as there’s already enough information for illustrating the topic.
Maybe it is possible to conceive that game of architecture in terms of the sonic phenomena, but although the analogy serves the goals, it needs to be treated in a particular way, actually more expansive and in ways different from the metaphor of the solid and the visual, since the sonic element has a particular dependence on time, making the space a resolution of it. That’s what opens the possibilities of narrating the spaces not just in conventional or realistic ways, but in subjective, aesthetic and even performative forms that are in the charge of the sound designer as much as they are in a correlative situation with visual editors, photographers, architects or painters
Space is also born in sound and is there where it actually finds its peculiar material structures, always related to the ephemeral nature of the sonic phenomenon and its intangibility, which in turn lies in the ambiguity of the malleable, putting space in different situations: at the same time aim and medium, question and process, basically some kind instrumental faculty for the sound designer, an open perspective that is as variable as listening itself, like if sound could not only be an architectural analogy but also the vibratory principle of it, similar to how Goethe wisely called architecture: as “frozen music”.