Is ambisonics the medium or the message?

This is a very interesting question.

Ambisonics is cast as a medium that allows the composer, or game designer or whoever, to model a 3D soundfield the experience of which is close to the sonic experiencing of real space.

I say ‘ambisonics’ but it could also be ‘wave field synthesis’ or ‘rendered binaural’ … or any near “reality-equivalent” sound systems. (I use reality-equivalent as defined by Dave Malham in ‘Toward Reality Equivalence in Sound Diffusion” 2001).

In an ambisonic work, is the message the content of the ambisonic work? Or is it ambisonics (i.e. the medium) ?

I’m beginning to think, more and more, that ambisonics is the message, not just the medium. I feel it is a message that has been burbling since Stockhausen attempted to simulate sounds rotating around the audience with his Rotationstisch … a spinning speaker recorded by 4 microphones organised in the same positions as the final speakers. This was an attempt to create a reality of a sounding object spinning around the listener when there was no object there at all.

Here’s a snippet of an interview with Ambrose Field, UK composer who has explored ambisonics:

Austin: That was what was distracting me. I was disconcerted when I first heard ambisonics, because it was too ‘‘real.’’

Field: This is a big issue. ‘‘Too real.’’ I absolutely agree with you. I would hate to take away the act of people’s engaging their imaginations with a sound or a piece or whatever from any form of composition. And you might argue—that’s the basis of what we said earlier about people in the audience—that we have to learn to decode sound diffusion. So we’re left with an ambisonic reality where everything has an accurate physical space, and so on. But that doesn’t mean, as a composer, you stop there. You think of other ways that you can allow the audience to imagine things—how you can transport them to other spaces that might not exist. Now, that’s powerful. If you can make a physical space which, at the same time, encourages a depth of imagination in the listener, then you’re really getting somewhere. There is a problem there with the reality aspect of it. Reality is always a problem, though, isn’t it? (Austin, 2001)

Ambrose goes on to draw a parallel between ambisonics and UK artist Damien Hirst’s piece Away from the Flock (a sheep in a tank of formaldehyde) which he describes as a work of art that makes ‘reality more real’.

That’s the message. That’s ambisonics’ message. Its about reality, experiencing a reality that is out of context, a displaced reality. Its anti-representational. I don’t want to use the term augmented reality. Ambisonics is hyper real, it can cast the listener into new / different / previously inaccessible sound worlds.

Part of the message is the desire to be displaced. And, I think, there is a romanticism in the concept of displacement by sound. There is also a contemporary buzziness in the concept of displacement by *3D* sound.

One doesn’t even have to listen to ambisonics to be inspired by it. The medium is so strong that just the thought of it is sufficient to insight the message. The excitement of the potential of a displaced reality. Imagine what is possible. In a way it is about empowerment… the empowerment of being able to experience something without being there.

In a way, this represents a safe listening position,  to be able to hear something but not physically being there … but its not just about a safe listening position… its also about being taken away. Being taken out of ones’s world and lifted into an other. In this sense, ambisonics represents an escape. An escape from the self! from the every day. Its like an empowered escape … empowered through a sonic reality. Its a sound-based transcendence. A sound driven transcendence.

What is the composer to do with this? How is the composer to layer meaning within a medium that already holds a very strong message … that of a desire to be transcended to an other place through a sonic virtual reality? An empowerment born of technology. Its a difficult, but somehow exciting question.

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4 Responses to Is ambisonics the medium or the message?

  1. I’ve been editing this post constantly for a couple of hours … apologies to anyone who has been reading whilst I edit. My natural writing style is exaggerated and full of polemics … I’m constantly needing to tone it down.

  2. Bogus Name says:

    You might have hit something, here. I find it is always helpful to think of examples. An example of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” is how young (pre-school) children receive information about the world. Before TV was invented, young children received all their knowledge from their parents (typically their mother). Mother was the fountain of all knowledge. Today, young children sit in front of a TV for an average of four hours a day, and the role of the parent has changed to that of a gatekeeper. The yound child’s knowledge now comes from TV. How young children receive knowledge has changed, and this is a fundamental change to society.

    Note that I have not mentioned what the yound child watches, the content. Obviously there must be content — a young child will not sit in front of a blank screen for several hours a day — but for MuLuhan, what is important is the effect on society of the presence of the medium (TV), not the content.

    You are saying that what is important with Ambisonics is not the content, but that the technology can better transport the listener to a new space. However, it is not clear to me how this will change society. Instead, it looks more like using technology for the sake of using technology.


  3. Lee says:

    Martin writes- “Instead, it looks more like using technology for the sake of using technology.”

    l’art pour l’art?
    “art for art’s sake”

    It is undoubtedly partly that for those of use doing it, making it work. Yet that’s not the driver, not what makes it interesting to others, not the source of the transcendence which makes the experience of the technology compelling. In the words of Oz- “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” The magic trick is the hyper-reality, the crossing of a perceptual threshold required to produce a “displaced reality”. That experience provides metaphoric window, or perhaps mirror, which serves to illuminate the nature of perception itself, providing a rare indirect glimpse into the true nature of reality- and ephemeral awareness that reality is dependent upon perception rather than the other way around.

    • There are probably many ways to create ‘suspensions of disbelief’ … one that has been around for a long time is narrative (whether as story, book, play, cinema etc.). Another is music. Another is magic.

      The point being that a composer does not need magic to create a displaced reality … they have music.

      Can a 100% convincing virtual-reality create a displaced reality? … yes but it is meaningless if the perceiver cannot compare it to the non-displaced reality. If a concocted-reality is 100% convincing then it is not concocted … it *is* reality. Why are we aiming for that?

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