Institut für Elektronische Musik (IEM) residency: Sonic Explorations with the IKO loudspeaker


This is unexpected. This is beyond me. This is something else. This envelops and suffocates. This is sublime and so, dangerous. This is the second work, and the seconds it covers are yet unknown. This is my past. This is their past. This is what makes sense to me, for me. This is what I know, when I know I don’t. This is something which is personal and impersonal. This is the people I have loved, hurt and been loved and hurt by.

This is the people who feel pleasure in pain. This is the honesty and the dishonesty of that. This is every opportunity shaped as a sledgehammer that broke me. This is the calluses on the hands of those wielding judgement that splits one into two. This is an acceptance of perpetrator by victim. This is a sinking into the symbiosis of master and slave.

This is the darkest humanity, and the lightest of human angels. This is the inherent contradiction of life. This is incompleteness, an exception upon which rules are predicated. This is my frustration at those I would be saviour to. This is their frustration at my arrogance. This is my gratitude for all of it. This is neither black nor white. This is surrender.

friends that play together

I am very grateful for the friends that have come out to play with me in 3D space, using sound. They come for the IKO, because they can hear the thing’s incredible beauty and wonder.

I have seen this effect, where they become captivated and yet overwhelmed at what’s possible. And then they may play with sound materials of their choosing, and again they hear something magical in the way the IKO sounds those materials into the space. And there is this to-ing and fro-ing of rapt attention in listening and inner wrestling with preconceptions, awe and overwhelm, frustration and potential.

I’m grateful mostly for having others so interested in the thing(s) I’m interested in. And for the kinds of sensitive beings with which I have an affinity and some kind of resonance which transcends reason.

Being around this kind of technology, and in very left-brain environments, that is not guaranteed. I often end up feeling like the odd sock. Not recently.

Thank you Giulia Vismara, Axel Drioli and of COURSE Gerriet Sharma.

I’ll see you soon, and hear you sooner.

mixing spaces

There is something strangely un-pin-down-able about what it means (to me at least) to work with physical space in a compositional sense. The first piece I created was borne of a recital hall. The sound materials met IKO (and its reflectors, shown in the video below) in the space. I worked on a synthesis of the two, and at a point reclined ironically on a formal chair, satisfied. I thought it sounded great.

Then I transposed the piece (physically and sonically) to a different space – IEM’s CUBE. It sounded pretty bad. Which was partly a feature of the fact that the guys from Sonible, IEM’s Franz Zotter and Daniel Rudrich, and my visiting friend Axel Drioli were sat in rapt attention, listening.

There’s a whole slew of writing that needs to be inserted here about the range of listening quality and experience which different kinds of attention potentiate. I cannot be sidetracked into that field right now. Though I’m tempted.

So, I set to work to make things right, albeit after the horse had bolted (there’s a German equivalent of this saying – “den Brunnen erst zudecken, wenn das Kind ertrunken” which rather brutally translates as “cover the well after the child has drowned”).

I adjusted the piece for the CUBE, which I imagined would mean a site-specific mix. It kind of does. But it’s also in excess of mixing. When space is involved, and when you listen to that space, it’s a very different process to a regular mix. Levels were fundamentally changed, beyond any usual parameters. The arrangement was changed. The trajectories of the sound materials were changed. Everything had to be reconsidered for this space. And this space isn’t wildly different. Acoustically, yes, but not as big a leap as it would be if moving to a space with very disimilar proportions, size or reverberation. The IKO requires a level of commitment which fascinates me. It felt like an almost entirely re-worked piece. I am eager to try it in a third space and listen to what it asks for.

objet de curiosité

So, I’d see all of these images of my friend composer Gerriet Sharma who is the person who has worked most extensively (and intensively) with the IKO, where he is peering at it in the way you might peer at a cone of grey ice cream or a neatly folded pair of trousers left purposefully on a street corner… something of that nature (I’ve never seen either of these but now I’m tempted to look).

And then, bam! You start working with the thing and it bewilders and bewitches you, and the evidence is in the peering.

It’s overdue that Gerriet is formally introduced:

Now before we go any further, I must insist that you take a look at his body of work:

Though Gerriet was the person that first talked me through the multichannel DAW setup for the IKO, I must admit, I prepared my sound materials in stereo. There is a ‘virtual IKO’ setup for Reaper (the vIKO) but it doesn’t come close in comparison, so I just thought I’d get the materials processed, bounced down, and into a rough arrangement in stereo. Then take it to the IKO.

The IKO makes EVERYTHING sound spectacular (sorry Debord, I mean that in positive terms). I could have thrown noisy phone recordings at it and it would have tuned them up and shone them out of itself like the rays of precious ethereality it always, generously, offers. It’s a relief to fall back in love with the object of your desires after time apart.

the stuff of hope

….the elegance, fragility and strength of a feather affected by sound, provides a rich semiotic kind of hope, and I want to know why.

Ignore the disorienting camera wobble. Ignore the silence (it’s an Aphex Twin track, without rights clearance). There is a correspondence between feather and sound. And that correspondance is the thing. The plastic sheeting is on hold. Creative (or more accurately, pragmatic) energies were re-assigned to the task of working out what could be moved by sound waves. Sure, there is research out there about having objects levitate as a result of harnessing standing waves. The spectacular is not what this work is aiming at, however. Though it is spectacular.

Acoustic levitation. A popular 1980s television commercial featured a man being blown backward by the sound coming from his stereo. Though a speaker’s pressure field isn’t nearly that strong, acoustic pressure can suspend millimeter-sized objects against the force of gravity. New work by Pierre Lambert and colleagues at Belgium’s Université libre de Bruxelles compares existing theoretical models, numerically computes the strength and direction of the acoustic forces, and validates those results with experimental measurements on objects suspended in standing waves.

Fitzgerald, R.J., 2011. Acoustic levitation. Physics Today64(9), p.23.

We demonstrate that acoustic levitation can levitate spherical objects much larger than the acoustic wavelength in air. The acoustic levitation of an expanded polystyrene sphere of 50 mm in diameter, corresponding to 3.6 times the wavelength, is achieved by using three 25 kHz ultrasonic transducers arranged in a tripod fashion. In this configuration, a standing wave is created between the transducers and the sphere. 

Andrade, M.A., Bernassau, A.L. and Adamowski, J.C., 2016. Acoustic levitation of a large solid sphere. Applied Physics Letters109(4), p.044101.

“A phenomenon called near-field acoustic levitation (NFAL) has been reported by the author’s research group where planar objects of several kilograms in weight are levitated in the air a few hundred micrometers away from a radiation surface.”

Sadayuki, U., 2002. Phenomena, theory and applications of near-field acoustic levitation. Revista de Acústica33(3-4), p.21.

But back to the task at hand. A short-list of potential materials.. “stuff”… was drawn up:

• Gift wrapping paper
• Rice paper
• Origami paper
• Writing paper
• Newspaper
• Cellophane
• Coffee grinds (think cymatics)
• Latex
• Balloons of all/ any description
• Wind spinner material
• Feathers
• Thin wire

Something has to redeem the original vision of an audiovisual work which connects materially, surely? It’s hard to know without trying, so I started, with a hesitant residual rumble of self-doubt as accompaniment (“..maybe I’m just simple-minded and it’s obvious to the rest of all of the everyones, that sound cannot move materials”).

The mind is like a rat in a maze where it thought it smelt something delicious, but ends up disoriented from its own zealous movement to chase down the prize.

Paper would be taut and make too much noise. Coffee grinds would succumb to gravity unless there was a system for segmenting and limiting their movements, all of which still ultimately succumb to gravity. And this is all speculative, based on years of embodied experience.. which is good, but imperfect for imaginings.

And maybe all of this would be so subtle that listeners would need to be perched on top of the IKO to experience any visual counterpoint, and then the sound levels would need to be quieter, and then the levels wouldn’t suffice to move the materials. Am I sure I smelt the delicious thing? Is it me or the world around me, spinning?

Perhaps I could issue earplugs at the door and hope that IEM’s insurance covers any casualties? No, I couldn’t on principle. Hearing is too precious. So then, when the effects of disorientation and fatigue set in, the thing that promises possibilities is a thing of hope. Is it a coincidence that feathers happen to be graceful, alluring thing of beauty and symbolism? That they represent the individual and collective at once? No… for this hope has been recognised before.

Hope is the thing with feathers (254)
Emily Dickinson – 1830-1886

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

From The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)


In order to understand better the failure, I documented the materials which had shaped the ideas in my mind. Had I missed something fundamental? Was there something in the materials that had spoken to me which I could no longer hear, because of my focused sense of utility in applying them?

Turns out, yes.

They are exquisite. They may not work with the IKO as planned… but I could watch them move in their own ways, for long minutes that could extend and extend beyond time and into duration. Their delicacy reminds me of the exchanges and interplays at work here. Ideas are not fixed, and these materials ask for no more than attention to being. Though less does not work.

Luckily, both time and duration are on my side, for now. Ideas rise like waves, swelling and spilling, again and again. One may barely remember to breathe beneath their number.

Thank god the first one failed….

first attempt… first fail

Some artists work backwards towards the realisation of a piece based on what they know they can do. That’s strategic. For me, it’s the inverse. I have a concept or vision, often pretty well-formed in the first instance, and spend my time figuring out how to achieve it. Definitely not strategic, but definitely interesting (for me), process-driven, and challenging.

It does mean lots of time spent experimenting (always a good thing?) and much failure. But failure is good. Wild glitches are ephemeral, and all failure is unintended (wild). That doesn’t make it pleasant… or easy…

So, the vision was harnessing the IKO’s highly directional beams to move highly delicate physical materials, and in doing so, create a parallel visual and embodied element to my first composition. Currently, imaginatively titled ‘sound01’. The issue is, even beamformed sound waves are too weak to do much. The material meanwhile needs to be pulled taught over the surface of the driver (without touching it) and less flexible materials are more suited, and also noisier. The point wasn’t to add a sonic layer, at least not an obvious one.

In order not to feel bad about the note I’m ending on… I’m cheering myself along with an image of the latest IKO prototypes, more clearly in the Death Star tradition than the earlier IKO. I hope these wee fellas get developed further, as they can go 4th order (I know!) and would be a lot cheaper. Moore’s Law and all… However it’s Sod’s Law which seems to be affecting me right now.

getting started

I fell in love with the IKO upon first hearing it. Many times I have heard reproduction technologies (either with or without pre-emptive hyperbole) and been left flat. I have backed some things on Kickstarter because I like to support development where I can, and I have queued for demos of technologies in the promise of something special. I won’t provide examples of the disappointing systems here. Auditory perception is subjective and I imagine some people will like the sound they offer. Why spoil that?

An example of a technology I was impressed by the sound of, is the Bacch 3D sound system (

3D reproduction using just two loudspeakers. Defined. Convincing. But it will cost you, and I did struggle to think of relevant applications for me. There is also limited translation before things degrade. But all said, it’s a treat for one’s ears.

If you wish to learn more about the technical aspects of compact spherical loudspeaker arrays info is available via IEM here (and fuller information about the IKO’s history and potential can be found here). I have tried over the years I’ve been working with spatial sound to understand some of the maths and technologies pertaining to spherical harmonics… it’s not easy but the challenge is one of the things that makes spatial sound so interesting. To have a practice, you do need to know more about the technologies and theory than in other forms of sound.

Artists who work with sound in space often work alongside engineers (to varying degrees of mutual (mis)comprehension I’m sure). It’s a curious thing, after centuries of progressive specialisation in academia and beyond, to address a realisation that phenomena may not always be best understood or explored in isolated conceptual structures.

The IKO is a unique proposition and having some months with it will be magical. Perhaps the works I make for it will only occupy a most extreme niche. I care not. It’s a privilege to be working intimately with it for 5 months. I just hope I remember that when things start failing, as they will.