Saturday, 16 December 2017

Environmental sensuality, and composing with sounds we can't hear: I talk to Samuel Hertz about his DARE Art Prize project

Sam Hertz
Sam Hertz
How does a composer write music using sounds which we can't hear. Samuel Hertz is keenly interested in Infrasound, sounds below the level of human hearing, and he won the first DARE Art Prize in 2017 with a project to collaborate with scientists to use Infrasound. DARE was founded by Opera North and the University of Leeds to encourage collaborations between artists and scientists, and as part of his prize Sam is working towards a final presentation in 2018 based on his project which won the prize. Sam is a USA-born composer resident in Berlin, and I caught up with him by phone to find out more about this intriguing combination of science and art, using sounds we cannot hear.

Samuel Hertz at the National Science and Media Museum
Samuel Hertz at the National Science and Media Museum
But as Sam explained, we might not be able to hear Infrasound but we can feel it, we feel the vibrations and he is interested in talking about Infrasound as a tactile experience. Sam is also interested in the way Infrasound is produced, either naturally by large scale planetary events such as glacial or seismic activity or thunderstorms or artificially, created by humans and human made structures.

At a dance club people can feel the vibrations from the sub low bass, and we can have a meaningful conversation about this as a sensual activity. Sam wants to extend this so that we can talk about an earthquake or glacier in the same way. Sam calls this environmental sensuality, the understanding the environment in a sensual way. And it is this combination of sound, feeling and environmental concerns which is Sam's particular interest.

He has been extrapolating how Infrasound is used in scientific experiments, and wants to consider how humans understand natural events using Infrasound (and not vision) as a way of creating a different understanding of large scale planetary events. These might not be musical as such, but are sound events which with this way of thinking can become tactile.

Transmission - multimedia piece conceived by the late Becs Andrews during her time as DARE Cultural Fellow in Opera-Related Arts (Photo Chris Nash)
Transmission - multimedia piece conceived by the late Becs Andrews
during her time as DARE Cultural Fellow in Opera-Related Arts
(Photo Chris Nash)
Sam is still working on the final shape of his presentation next year. Most recently he created an event at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, which gave him a unique opportunity. He produced a film for the museum's IMAX cinema as a sound installation, A Shadow Feeling, and as people navigated around the museum there were listening points where people (and feel) could hear the sound reflections through the walls, and to these Sam added musical material to the harmonic bass floating through the museum's building. It was an experience which combined the audience's listening to sound with their feeling of Infrasound.

Other events which Sam has been involved in as part of the DARE project included writing a song cycle for two singers from Opera North. This combined the singers with a tapping machine (which is normally used as an architectural measuring machine) and four sub-woofers. The end result was semi-improvised song over, and responding to, both the sounds and the vibrations being produced.

Sam realises that it will be difficult to bring Infrasound into his final presentation, and he would not want to promise lots of Infrasound but he hopes to explore the concepts. Infrasound waves exist on a different spatial and temporal scale to sound waves, being far longer and so he hopes to use this idea as a compositional method, adapting the differential of temporal scale (large to small) to the scale of the performance. So the result will be a durational event, something happening over three to five minutes, something else over 20 minutes and something else happening over two hours, all simultaneously.

Maryanne Amacher in 2006
Maryanne Amacher in 2006
Next year as a lead up to his final DARE presentation, Sam has two residencies. He will be composer in residence at Visby International Centre for Composers in Sweden, and plans to use the time to write the music for Opera North. Then during February he is in residence at the Tetley Centre in Leeds and here he will be bringing in another idea central to the DARE concept, that of collaboration. He will be bringing in collaborators and researchers to give lectures, take part in discussion groups and talk about their researich. He will also be working with a performing company to develope ideas for the performing aspect to his final presentation. And of course, whilst he is at the Tetley Centre there will be public engagement too, particularly on the environmental themes which are key to Sam's thinking.

Sam studied composition at Mills College and he has always been interested in the way sound and space works together, so that his graduate school compositions took place in surround sound and he worked with the architecture, articulating the space. He has also always been interested in collaboration, often working with dancers, and has continued this in the field of geography. He became fascinated at the way geographers were interested in sounds, the way sound reflected a sense of place and identity. So felt that the opposite was fascinating too, composers becoming interested in geography.

Here he references the work of Maryanne Amacher (1938-2009, an American composer and installation artist, for working with a family of psychoacoustic phenomena called auditory distortion products in which the ears themselves produce audible sound, see her album Sound Characters.), And Sam worked with her archive and other composers whose work related to hers.

Pauline Oliveros
Pauline Oliveros
The result is a concern with the way people think about identity in terms of environment and concern with climate change, the idea of creating an artistic relationship with the environment, a listening exercise. His development has been a slow process, thinking about how human bodies are creating climate change, working on the way sound can identify space can lead to new ideas of the way our hearing interacts with the environment.

Whilst at Mills College, Sam was able to study with Pauline Oliveros, he took a compositional class with her and also did private interviews with her discussing her compositional process. So he was studying composition, but also doing a research project into Pauline Oliveros' compositional methods, understanding her early electronic music. Sam found her both knowledgable and aurally sensitive, but she was also an amazingly encouraging teacher. For one project, he recorded the faint reflections of transducers played on the handrails of the college. Oliveros liked his project, and told him she had listened to all the hand rails in the college and gave him a list of her favourite ones!

In a 2011 paper, Oliveros talks about the sonosphere, articulating the space of the body in the environment. We are always living in some sort of sonosphere, and the term makes us think about understanding space through sound, to think about why we exists and understanding this sonically.

Dominic Gray, Projects Director, Opera North; DARE Prize winner Samuel Hertz; Prof John Ladbury, Dean of the Faculty of Biological University of Leeds
Dominic Gray, Projects Director, Opera North; DARE Prize winner Samuel Hertz; Prof John Ladbury, Dean of the Faculty of Biological University of Leeds
Samuel Hertz' final presentation as part of his DARE Art Prize will take place in Leeds in April 2018.  You can read Sam's DARE Art Prize blog on his website.

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