During November, we have the pleasure of hosting Mark Fell at the Spatial Sound Institute. Fell is widely known for exploring the relationships between popular music styles, such as electronica and club musics, and typically academic approaches to computer-based composition with a particular emphasis on algorithmic and mathematical systems. 4DSOUNDs Casimir Geelhoed goes into conversation with Mark Fell about his new work created for the 4DSOUND system. Fell elaborates on his rejection of representation in art, the relation between the listener and the space and the role of sound in redefining our experience of self and the world around us. Evolving sound sculptures by both Fell and Geelhoed will be presented 18-20 November as part of the exhibition Ecologies of Listening.

Casimir Geelhoed: Hi Mark. You have quite some experience working with spatial setups already. How did working with the 4DSOUND system compare to earlier experiences? Did it differ from your usual way of working?

Mark Fell: Usually when I go to places that have a permanently installed multi-speaker setup, it tends to be either a sphere or a circle of speakers. Basically it tends to have speakers on the boundary of the space, directed at the center. What is unusual about the 4DSOUND system is that it’s a grid of speakers that actually come into the space; you can walk around and move between speakers. That’s quite different physically from moving within an area that’s surrounded by speakers.

One thing that’s not immediately obvious, is that although the system is in three dimensions, you can only move around in two of them, the horizontal plane. So in the up and down direction you’re always fixed. I think one issue with it is that you hear the nearest speakers first, and it masks the speakers further away. In response to this characteristic you could do something where you ask the audience to move around to experience the differences in space, but I decided to create something that has a little bit of variation in each speaker. You are not really aware of each speaker being different but you do get a sense of a kind of expansiveness. 

My initial idea was to have a synthesis algorithm in which I would map parameters to spatial dimensions. For example, one parameter change in the synthesis algorithm would be mapped from the front to the back of the system. That’s something that I wouldn’t have been able to do on a usual spatial sound system.

I think it’s interesting that the result of that is a sonic blend within the space. You don’t notice that the output of specific speakers are different when you’re in a particular position. The blending of the sounds happens in space and not in the speaker, which I think results in a sound that sounds really silky as opposed to sounding restricted. There’s a spatial depth to it that is maybe not immediately apparent but if it wasn’t there you would know it. If it would have come from one speaker it would have sounded very different.

For most projects on 4DSOUND, artists tend to use virtual sound sources. Why did you choose to work with the speakers directly instead of using these movable sound sources?

One of the reasons I do that is because I think when you do have moving sound sources it tends not to be very convincing. From all the experiments that I heard, I think the vast majority of things aren’t very convincing in my opinion. But even if it was convincing, I’m still not really interested in for example the sound of a car moving around… 

You’re not interested in using any dramaturgical methods?

I’m not interested in the illusion of having sonic objects in space that move around. It comes from an ideological position. For example, in visual art and sculpture in the 20th century there’s a move away from representing real shapes. Art was just an exploration of the materials and the form. So sculpture isn’t about representing an angel meeting God or some other representation, but it’s like: here’s this block of concrete, and this bit is bright blue and this bit is orange. Or here’s a piece of metal. It’s just about the concrete presence of the materials.

Nothing more than that?

Well, perhaps more than that because I’m sure culturally we bring beliefs and assumptions to work. So it’s not in some kind of entirely formalist realm outside of our cultural framework. But primarily the interest of the artist isn’t in communicating meanings or emotions. It is simply an exploration of the materials and their presence in the space. 

Though I don’t think you can ever remove that entirely from the cultural machinery. For examples if you look at vases, the point of the vases is to hold flowers or water or something, not to communicate meaning. But nonetheless to an anthropologist it will be clear that the vases do communicate meaning. It might be about status for example. I’m not saying that it’s void of meaning or cultural interpretation. I’m just saying that in one sense it’s primarily purpose is to hold flowers, not to communicate meaning.

The difference might be that there’s no fixed primarily purpose for artworks.

Well, the primary purpose of my work is to explore the things that I’m interesting in. I’m interested in how sound behaves in space, I enjoy positioning sound in space, I enjoy listening to it. Also for me there is a political dimension to the work I do as well. And a kind of rejection of the beliefs that I think are associated with the history of western philosophy and certain beliefs about the relation between the self and the world and the distinction between the self and the world. So it’s not just this kind of pretty distraction.

Could you elaborate on this?

I think there are a bunch of connected issues that I’m interested in. They revolve around this assumption that the self is a stable, fixed entity that endures over time. Like in three minutes you’ll be the same person that you were three minutes ago. Or in ten years time. I think in the history of western culture we have this belief that we are kind of rational agents that are essentially thinking things, that engage with the world in a logically driven manner and through forming intentions that we then carry out. But in a more contemporary sense in science the body is not a fixed thing, it’s just a collection of processes.

It’s basically a rejection of the position that what people are at their most basic level is a detached rational mind. That’s the basic grounding of a lot of my work: we are not detached rational minds that exist in a kind of interactive manner with the world through inputs and outputs.

I think because of this assumption a lot of artworks in western culture are embedded in that worldview. Think for example about the development of perspective in visual arts: it’s all about positioning you as a viewer in a detached relationship to the world that exist in the canvas. You occupy a certain first person perspective; there’s only one point where your being is in relation to the canvas. Or if you think about the development of theater: it’s about a fixed audience that sit and watch things unfold on a stage. if you think about music in a classical sense it’s often performed like that as well. Also even more abstract experimental music. This whole emphasis on the audience being static with events moving around them reinforces that prejudice I think. I think that worldview is not the most appropriate, so my work definitely aims to challenge that.

What do you want the audience to get out of your work? 

For me, the most important thing to me is always curiosity. I’m not trying to make them feel anything. To come away from something with questions about what you’ve experienced is the most important thing.

I used to say to people that you don’t need to know anything to enjoy what I’m doing: just go there and experience it and that will be enough. But someone said to me that actually there’s implicitly a lot of things you need to get conceptually in order to experience this kind of work. I remember when I first bought my first really weird record and I loved the fact that it was so weird. I think it was by Psychic TV, if you were quick enough to buy their first album you got a free album of this weird stuff of them banging of bits and scraping things. I loved it because it was just so weird. But when I listened to it I had no real framework to engage with it. If someone asked me to describe it or deconstruct it I probably wouldn’t have been able to. For me it just appeared different. It just was a thing that I’ve never encountered before. 

I played it recently after a long time and actually now it seems so simplistic! Structurally I can form a mental image of what the structure of the music is and actually place things quite easily. I think what you can learn from this is that there’s no such thing as just experiencing something in a raw sense, you always have to have some kind of conceptual or cognitive apparatus as a way into it. And I think that apparatus comes around through ongoing encounters with that kind of work. Just like learning to do anything I guess. 

Is it also about the connection between the listener and the space?

I think for me the best thing about this piece is that if you relax and listen you can really hear a kind of expansive sound field. You hear things osculating in the distance, like bits of tremolos, violins… It kind of draws you out of a point into more of an expansive listening experience. That’s the important thing for me. 

A friend of mine once said: the visual sense reinforces your separation from the world but the sonic sense reinforces your embeddedness. It erodes the boundary between you and the world. And I think when you do listen carefully to things and you’re in a kind of relaxed state of listening, you do have this sense of dissolving in it a little bit and you seem to drift into the thing you are listening to. You dissolve into the thing you’re hearing.