Art of the Immersive Soundscape :: Michael Fowler

20 – 22 June 2007, Regina Canada

Currently in its second year, the Art of the Immersive Soundscape is a workshop and conference that brings together practitioners within the realms of electroacoustic art music, soundscape composition, electro-acoustic improvising, cultural theory and sound art.

The AIS2 workshop was running concurrently with the conference and I used my early arrival to Regina to investigate the activities and classes that were being offered to participants in a number of specialized areas including sound editing, ambisonics, MaxMSP and recording techniques. The facilities at the University of Regina were exceptional in terms of production and playback. So too were the people involved in disseminating technological expertise to a mostly student audience for the workshops. The sound artists and composers Darren Copeland and Charlie Fox ran these classes, and provided authoritative insights into all of the aforementioned areas.

The conference started on the second day after my arrival with a meet and greet, to which I re-acquainted myself with two of the towering figures within soundscape composition and analysis, Barry Truax and Hildegarde Westerkamp. I had met both previously in Toronto and Japan, and their enthusiasm for my obviously long and dedicated journey from Melbourne gave me a sense of purpose.

Most of the people that I encountered at the conference were North Americans, particularly Canadians, and this didn’t surprise me given that the whole notion of soundscape studies was created by Truax, Westerkamp and R.Murray Schafer through the Vancouver Soundscape Project of the 1970s. The conference differed to what I encountered in the workshop by the age of participants: mostly academics or mid-career sound artists and composers. This seemed at first that it may be a problem, but I later came to understand that the breadth of multidisciplinary engagement through teaching by many of the presenters means that the whole scope and work of soundscape studies may see a fruitful manifestation in future generations.

My paper “Revealing the Unheard: re-contextualising the aurality of a Japanese garden” was the second to be presented on the first day. I was glad for this because it meant that I was able to hear many other people’s presentations. Many of the presentations were informal, and many involved a discussion of new technologies or performance practises relating mostly to sound art or processes of improvisation.

The highlights came with the evening concerts of electro-acoustic soundscape compositions, particularly a concert dedicated to Barry Truax’s most recent work. Within this concert Barry presented a new 8-channel work called “The Shaman Ascending” which is a bookend to perhaps his most famous soundscape work “riverrun” (1985). Just as “riverrun” had used innovative technologies for its time (through granular synthesis techniques) “The Shaman Ascending” presented a number of different sound layer/trajectories traversing 8-channels of sampled Inuit throat singing. Other concerts featured Dr. Ellen Waterman performing music of R.Murray Schafer as well as her own solo improvisations and a new work for flute and MaxMSP. All the concerts were memorable and the immersive 8chhanel system created and managed by Copeland and Fox provided a truely unique listening experience.

Of particular interest were a number of round-table discussions on the role of soundscape studies today, particularly the question posed for the last session “Why is immersion a creative compulsion for audio and Media artists.” Barry Truax also held an open masterclass/demonstration in which he played a number of works from his students at Simon Frasier University, all multi-channel spatial soundscapes created for an 8-channel system. The quality, integration of soundscape materials and production values for each of the 5 works he played were simply amazing, and given that all the works were from undergraduates made it even more compelling.

The impact of the conference and workshop on my artistic practise has been extremely valuable. The constructive critiques and comments from other presenters regarding the work I presented at the conference (a paper detailing an 8-channel ambisonic sound installation) were helpful, and the atmosphere of engagement provided by Truax and Westerkamp enabled me to freely discuss a range of technical and aesthetic issues pertaining to composition strategies and the role of soundscape studies within design practise.

I was pleased to be also invited to contribute a book chapter and audio track for a DVD of the work and papers presented at the conference. Having so many of the composers and sound artists active within the Canadian sound industry has given me a host of new contacts and avenues for the creation of new works and publications.

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