Design for installation exploring themes of conservation, transmutation and exposure in relation to the erosion of Prince Edward Island. Featuring custom built light-soundhouses, novel spatialisation, projection and sound. Proof of concept stereo demo below.
“To take the process of erosion seriously means following its mobility along multiple non-exclusive trajectories – exploring how it comes to matter in different ways, how sound can be one of these ways, and how sound’s mattering is also erosive.” —Samuel Thulin
The sound installation I have designed is based around the phenomenon of erosion. The effects of erosion on Prince Edward Island (Epekwitk), the island province from which I come are visible, audible, measurable and of increasing concern. Intense tropical storms and hurricanes which have become increasingly common are accelerating the rate and scale at which the island is disappearing. Capturing the sounds of the shrinking coastline, both from the perspective of the eroded (land) and the eroding (sea and air) is at once an act of ecological exploration, preservation, and defiance. It provides a space for reflection, applies pressure towards action, and serves as an aide-memoire for impermanence. When reflecting on this topic, three parameters stood out as distinct vantage points from which I could examine erosion. These are conservation, transmutation and exposure.
Capturing the ephemeral voice of the wearing away
I was interested in the contrast between the idea of conservation as a means of preventing destruction or loss and the principle of the conservation of mass which states that no matter how the constituent parts of an object or a collection of objects rearrange themselves, their mass does not change. The sandstone foundation of PEI is deceptively solid, but near the coast the evidence of its fragility are inescapable. The large sandstone slabs fall from the cliffs as boulders, which in turn are worn down into large stones, and further worn into ones small enough to carry in one’s hand, smaller and smaller until they form the sand of the beach, eventually losing most of their distinctive red colour at their finest granularity, becoming a light pink as they form into the shifting sands of the dunes. The landscape may change, but its basic building blocks remain the same, and so the impetus of conservation becomes about preserving the form, and not the substance. From an artistic vantage point this concept is rich with possibilities, but in my time spent on the coast I was well aware that from a practical, geographical perspective this erosion has very concrete and practical implications for Islanders.
My goal was to capture sonic snapshots of the coast, creating a library of coastal (typically foreshore) and inland field recordings across the province, with an aim to produce a collection in which synchronic reference points which would localize the recordings in a specific time period, typically human activity, are largely absent.
In addition my aim was to use hydrophones to capture both inshore and offshore underwater environments of the Atlantic ocean as well as other smaller bodies of water which provide the geographical boundary for the island. Lastly, by recording at high elevations, I would be able to interface with a sonic environment in which air and wind are most evident, in which the typically ‘undesirable’ sounds which wreak havoc on microphones are themselves primary sound sources.
Stone to sand to sea to sound
As the global climate shifts and changes “even little old PEI” is changing – the Islanders I spoke with in discussing this project all related to this sudden shift in perspective, of being suddenly thrust into the consequences of decades of environmental neglect. The viewpoint of the island as separate is not strictly limited to a geographic sense, there has always been a sense that the island is insulated and protected by the ocean that separates it from the mainland. This perceived distance is eroding in parallel with the actual boundaries of the province itself, as the foundation of the island’s geology is broken down and re-absorbed by the sea. It’s not just the perspective of islanders that needs to be updated – this localized case study of a dramatically different landscape shaped by climate change can serve as a self-assertion and call-to-action to non-residents, an urgent wake-up call from a province that is visited annually by a tourist population which outnumbers those who call it home.
In a sonic framework the disparate field recordings taken on land, in air and within the sea are blended and processed to facilitate new perspectives. Some of the erosion-analogous techniques and practices I have explored to evoke the nature of the coastal erosion include granular synthesis, spectral transformation, resynthesis, filtering, bit reduction and wavefolding.
Conversations at the foreshore
My goal with this project is to simultaneously illuminate the identities and interplay between acoustic spaces of land, sea and air and to invite participants to explore their relationship with geographic boundaries, the idea of permanence and the effects of environmental change on a place and its inhabitants.
The installation will take place in a blacked-out room measuring approximately 30’ x 20’ with a raised platform LED floor. Digital representations of Prince Edward Island (Epekwitk) in timelapse of forecast erosion patterns over the next 300+ years will be displayed on the floor. When the installation timeline reaches its end, the participants will see the projected “Prince Edward Islands” in which each of the seven sound/lighthouses would by this time be completely underwater.
Seven large structures resembling lighthouses featuring LED “lanterns”, surface sound ports & containing networked audio interfaces with crossover-style signal splitting into two rotating speakers (similar in design to a Leslie speaker system) are installed in fixed positions on the floor “across the Island.” Field recordings of coastal and inland sounds, underwater sounds, high altitude sounds processed digitally with techniques analogous to the theme of erosion. The spinning rate for the speakers will vary from one sound/lighthouse to another as the installation timeline advances, painting the room as a canvas of sound using textures, space and sonic fingerprints derived from the field recording and sound treatment processes.
Current Status (Fall 2020)
Several hours of coastal recordings have been captured and catalogued with additional field recordings to fill in the gaps from a number of locations. A stereo pair of hydrophones will facilitate inshore recordings of coast and inland water systems, with offshore recording via chartered boat as a possibility. Lastly, independent high altitude recordings (helium balloon rig) to be tested and if feasible recordings to be made. Tall buildings and lighthouses can be used as a backup plan.
As a compromise between my practice of non-standard multi-channel diffusion methods and the limitations of working in stereo currently, I have developed a (virtual) speaker placement and rotation simulation using surround panning, this gives me a ballpark idea of how speaker proximity and rotational speed will affect the listening experience from various points within the installation.
The development of an inexpensive, modular, easy-to-assemble and deploy light/soundhouse form would take a not-insignificant amount of time with access to laser cutting and 3D-printing tools. Networked audio, drivers, speaker rotation mechanisms, floor-mount screens and the curved/flexible LED arrays will need to be broken down into component costs and a budget created before proceeding too far with this project. The current state of reduced in-person access to sound installation facilities due to the ongoing pandemic will allow me to develop this idea until such a time where something of this nature is more feasible. I would like to construct at least one sound/lighthouse in order to explore the relationship between spinning-speaker spatialisation/diffusion and applied electroacoustic processes.
Barrett, Natasha. “Spatio-Musical Composition Strategies.” Organised Sound 7, no. 3 (2002): 313–23. doi:10.1017/S1355771802003114.
Smalley, Denis. “Space-Form and the Acousmatic Image.” Organised Sound 12, no. 1 (2007): 35–58. doi:10.1017/S1355771807001665.
Truax, Barry. “Soundscape Composition as Global Music: Electroacoustic Music as Soundscape.” Organised Sound 13, no. 2 (2008): 103–9. doi:10.1017/S1355771808000149.
Brøvig-Hanssen, Ragnhild, and Anne Danielsen. “The Naturalised and the Surreal: Changes in the Perception of Popular Music Sound.” Organised Sound 18, no. 1 (2013): 71–80. doi:10.1017/S1355771812000258.
Samuel Thulin, ‘Eroding Together: Mattering Processes of Sound‘, Journal of Sonic Studies, 18 (2019) https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/653460/653461/0/0 [accessed 07/10/2020]