I am so stoked about my new sound installation 路口, currently on display at the Art+ Gallery, located at 22 Fumin Lu, near Yan’an Lu, in Shanghai, 上海市富民路22弄2号, 近延安路. (Note new address! This is the first show in their new space.) It’s part of a show called 无为 Being and Nothing, on display from September 9 through November 1, 2009, Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-7pm (closed Mondays).

路口, or Lukou, means “intersection” or “crossroads” in Mandarin. It’s a four channel sound installation, programmed in Max/MSP, that manipulates some field recordings I made of Shanghai traffic at various intersections around town. As with all of my sound installation work, the sound is produced by a computer program running in real-time, to ensure that the sound never loops and never repeats itself. These pieces are extensions of my thinking about non-linear, time-based structures, honed over 13 year of videogame development. Lukou has no beginning or end; instead, each listener creates her or his own beginning and end by entering and leaving the space. It’s more of a sonic environment than a musical composition.

Here’s the blurb I wrote about it for the show:

Lukou 路口 is a four-channel sound installation that manipulates recordings of a busy Shanghai intersection, dramatically slowing down the sounds to create a lush, meditative environment. The piece seeks to focus concentration by reframing everyday sounds, encouraging people to listen to and evaluate aspects of their environment that they might otherwise ignore. Borrowing techniques from videogame audio design, Lukou presents a continuously evolving, real-time soundscape, generating new juxtapositions and permutations as long as people care to listen. Being stuck in traffic often leads to rash impulses and flares of temper, but at a time when the world’s eyes are riveted by Shanghai’s breakneck development, Lukou provides an opportunity for reflection, forging something beautiful from the city’s chaotic detritus, while also questioning those aspects of our environment and ourselves that we might change for the better.

I started thinking about this piece back in 2004 or 2005, back in my first Shanghai apartment. I was recording something in my living room (I think it may have been a draft of Mobile 2, which you can hear on my MySpace page), and I happened to catch the sound of a passing scooter’s squeaky brakes. For whatever socio-economical reasons, electric scooters with squeaky brakes are a unique and ubiquitous characteristic of Shanghai’s cityscape. It’s a complex, metallic sound, high and piercing (perhaps best served by the French term grinçant), so I thought it might be fun, since I already had it right there in Sound Forge, to futz with it a bit, the way I have often futzed with recordings to create videogame sound effects. When I slowed the pitch way, way down, the recording revealed an interior world of slowly shifting overtones that evoked whale song, an impression aided by the wash of low frequency noise into which the rush of traffic transformed. I was fascinated by this sound and bookmarked it, to use as the basis for a future piece.

In the summer of 2006, abetted by my pal Zhou Jing 周静, I went out and made some field recordings of traffic sounds, to make a study of this idea and see how it might work as a sound installation. These recordings also proved rich in potential for manipulation, and I built a simple Max patch to test my deployment ideas, but put the idea away again until such time as I could find a proper venue in which to present the piece in four channels, which was central to my conception of the work. I also recognized the need to record additional source material at a higher sampling rate, so as to minimize aliasing noise when the recordings were slowed way down.

In the time since, I had presented my Lukou studies in a live performance at D22 in Beijing and in a RESO show at Yu Yin Tang here in Shanghai, but the opportunity to fully revisit the piece as an installation finally came when Diana Freundl approached me about participating in the opening performance of the new show 无为 Being and Nothing that she was putting together at the Art+ Gallery. One of the artists already confirmed for the show was Cindy Ng Sio Ieng 吴少英, and in addition to her visual art on display, she was seeking a sonic collaborator for one of her live video performances, in which she creates slowly evolving images by pouring ink, beer, milk, and other liquids onto a glass plane, which are captured by a video camera and projected onto a wall of the gallery. I found a clear resonance between my Lukou idea and Cindy’s flowing, evolving forms, as well as in Diana’s concept of exploring non-intention; after talking it over, it became clear that Lukou would work not only as an opening party performance, but as an installation that would run as part of the show for its duration.

The deployment of the sound in the piece is actually pretty simple, especially compared to my other sound installations (such as Kaleidoscope Wallpaper or Breaking New Ground). The program picks one of fourteen wave files, picks a duration for each phrase, chooses a point in the original source file at which to start, and chooses volume and pitch offsets. As each phrase plays, a random envelope generator gives it shape. At some point in the second half of each phrase, a new phrase begins; how close to the end is constrained by a random walk, so that there’s a larger scale ebb and flow between dense and sparse textures. The four speakers are arranged in a square in the corners of the room, suggesting a traffic intersection, and each phrase is played on two adjacent speakers (preserving the stereo imaging of the source material), randomly chosen.

That’s about it, really; I toyed with more complex procedures, but I was so pleased by the diversity (and consistency) of this simple formula that I kept it pretty close to my original prototype. When I got the piece running with all four speakers, I knew I had made the right choice.

Have a listen to a 2-channel demo.

From a curatorial perspective, this show is a dream come true; I couldn’t have asked for a better forum in which to present Lukou to the public. Diana has an academic background in Eastern religion, and she sought to bring together a collection of artworks that examine or address aspects of 无为 (wuwei), which can be rendered as “non-action,” and is primarily associated with Taoist or Buddhist meditation, but can be equally applied to Sartrean philosophy. Check out her articulate introduction to the show. In addition to Cindy and I, the other artists exploring these themes in the show are Shi Zhiying 石至莹, Wang Hui 王辉, and Wang Jun 王俊.

Here’s a blurb I wrote about the connection between 无为 and my own practice for the show’s catalogue:

Traditionally, the main thrust of Western art music is drama; whether the music is overtly programmatic or abstract, composers are trained to develop their music along dramatic lines, creating tension and release through contrast, and employing harmonic development, changes in dynamics, and various other developmental techniques to play with memory and anticipation. Or in the case of music for the stage or, later, cinema, the music’s purpose is to follow and support the drama unfolding in another medium. From the time I began developing music for videogames in 1996, however, I realized this paradigm was ill-suited to the kind of unpredictable, non-linear environment that videogames represent.

So I turned my attention to a less prominent, but more ancient, strand of music history: sacred music. Sound is by definition always moving, but in music composed for meditation or ritual, the difference is that sound is not moving towards a specific goal. Of course, this means that the sound is constrained in some ways, but it also provides freedom within those constraints to fill the sonic space with endless permutations and juxtapositions. In the liturgical Lutheran music culture into which I was born, the notion of endless permutations is usually only suggested by the contours of a fixed work, or by the call and response chanting of Psalms; but in the socialized, participatory West African drumming around which I grew up and the Buddhist chanting in the temples of my adopted home in Shanghai, this perpetual mutability is overt. When you don’t know where the music will go next, you focus your attention on the present.

This ethos of non-intention fills the work of the pioneers of open-form composition in the 20th century: John Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and, in several subsequent works, European composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and Witold Lutoslawski. These artists realized that by incorporating chance operations into the execution of their works, one idea could find infinite incarnations, with no two performances ever being the same. As John Cage put it in 36 Mesostics re and not re Marcel Duchamps (1970), “Say we have a problem and one hundred solutions. Instead of choosing just one of them, we use them all.”

In a videogame, this means that the music is able to turn on a dime to follow the emergent dramatic trajectory of the game itself. But the benefits are not simply practical (and let us pause for a moment to consider how amazing it is that 50 years after the experiments of these avant-garde composers were considered by some to be hopelessly inscrutable and irrelevant, they may now be considered a practical precursor to videogame audio design). These kinds of real-time, algorithmic structures provide the tools to define a different kind of sonic space, one that is not linked to the drama of the concert hall, but to the non-teleological, continuously evolving, unpredictable processes of nature. In the same way that Merce Cunningham could point out the window at passing traffic and explain to a student that his work was about “that,” real-time, algorithmic sound in an installation can propose new ways of thinking about the environment around us, our interactions with others in it, and ourselves.

Not only is the show a good thematic match for my work, but Diana has also achieved exactly the kind of imaginative presentation of digital media that I was calling for a while back. The bare minimum for presenting works with a sound component is isolation; so many shows, such as the Fat Art show in which I was involved last April, present sound-producing works in such a way that they overlap each other and become impossible to evaluate or appreciate in any significant way. But to go beyond that bare minimum and present digital media works that complement each other takes a great degree of sensitivity, and Diana has accomplished exactly that in pairing my Lukou installation with a video by Cindy Ng. Both pieces share a sense of inevitable, natural evolution, of one form opening up and unfolding into the next, to the extent that visitors to the show are often surprised that the pieces weren’t developed in collaboration. And in addition to the insightful curating, the show is very well-presented overall, with thoughtful titles, layout, and lighting; it’s a privilege to be associated with such a professional production.

One of the reasons the show has gone so smoothly is that I finally carried out my threat to provide all my own equipment, which allows me to ensure that everything’s up to snuff. For Breaking New Ground and Kaleidoscope Wallpaper, I dutifully outlined my sound equipment needs well in advance, but when it came to set up, the equipment provided was not what I had requested, and in both cases resulted in a lot of unnecessary last minute scrambling. For Breaking New Ground, I had to go buy a new sound card at the last minute, but the end result was satisfactory (if a bit wasteful); at Fat Art, less so. So this time I arranged to provide all my own gear and rent it to the gallery, which means I’m running this show at a loss, but I plan to make it up with future installations (and I’m able to leverage the sound card from Breaking New Ground). (Especially after checking out this year’s eArts exhibit at the Oriental Pearl Tower a few days ago, where about 1/3 of the pieces weren’t working or calibrated correctly, I’m a big fan of operating within one’s means and not relying on other people to supply gear and set it up for you.)

There are just two things of which I want to make a note, so I can try to improve them in future shows (and it’s great that the show is so well presented that my only quibbles are so minor).

One is that the air conditioner at times can be a little loud; this gets back to the ventilation issue we overlooked in constructing our Kaleidoscope room at Fat Art; it’s intermittent, and it’s not egregious, and no one has commented on it, but it reminds me nonetheless that this is a problem that must be explicitly considered at each installation.

The other thing is in the presentation of Cindy’s video (which also affects how my piece is perceived, as visitors experience them simultaneously). The content of her video is an abstract unfolding of natural processes, implicitly suggesting they might continue indefinitely; in acknowledgement of this characteristic, the piece is titled 无垠, or No Limit. But in fact the piece does have a limit: the video loops every 5 minutes. Longtime readers of my blog know that I adhere to a strict “no loops” mantra, and while I do think the piece would be better served by a real-time deployment mechanism that could generate endless permutations of the source video, that’s not really the main issue. What’s distracting is that the loop is emphasized by having the words “The End” come up on the screen, followed by a credits screen, which seems almost comical in the context of a piece called No Limit. From my observation, viewers often interpret this as a cue to leave, like being told a park is closing, even though my sound piece continues to play. I don’t mean to come across as unduly critical, but having spent a lot of time in the installation since the opening, I feel this is a phenomenon worth mentioning, that we may all learn from it. I feel the place for credits in a video installation is the same as for a sculpture or painting: on the wall next to the piece. Flashing these credits interrupts an experience that I had hoped would be indefinitely continuous; it turns the piece from a video installation (part of a continuing space) into just a video, which in this case seems inconsistent with the video’s content.

For completists, here is a list of the intersections that were recorded as part of Lukou:

Summer 2009
Damuqiao Lu 大木桥路/Xietu Lu 斜土路
Ruijin Nan Lu 瑞金南路/Quxi Lu 瞿溪路
Ruijin Nan Lu 瑞金南路/Xietu Lu 斜土路
Ruijin Er Lu 瑞金二路/Zhaojiabang Lu 肇嘉浜路
Tianyaoqiao Lu/ 天钥桥路Zhaojiabang Lu 肇嘉浜路

Summer 2006
Xiangyang Lu 襄阳路/Fuxing Lu 复兴路
Xiangyang Lu 襄阳路/Huaihai Lu 淮海路

Lots of people helped with this piece. Big thanks to Jutta for her help and encouragement, particularly with helping to design the suspension mechanism for the speakers and helping to mount all of the equipment in the gallery (she clearly wears the toolbelt in this relationship). Thanks to Zhou Jing for her help with the initial field recording sessions and for encouraging me to see this project through to the next phase. Thanks to everyone at Art+ Gallery, Ana and Agnes for being incredibly sweet and encouraging, and especially to Diana for inviting me to participate in the first place, as well as helping out with countless details, large and small. Being part of this show has been an absolute joy!

Reminder: you have until November 1, 2009, to go and hear the piece for yourself!