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Sonic Practice on the Cutting Edge

Sonic Practice on the Cutting Edge

Since opening last fall, the spatial audio studio above the library has helped advance sound studies at RISD.

Visiting Artist Composer Yasunao Tone

Composer Yasunao Tone is one of several visiting artists to help signal a growing commitment to sonic experimentation at RISD.

Both on its own and in tandem with other expressive objects, sound is rich with possibilities for creative exploration. It is a key component for artists and designers working in many disciplines, and sonic practice is also tightly intertwined with RISD’s history, most notably in the DIY noise scene that students and alums helped establish in Providence in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In recent years, sound studies and sonic practice have also become more formally integrated into RISD’s curriculum and studio culture. Last fall these efforts culminated in the establishment of a dedicated spatial audio studio, located on the mezzanine level of the Fleet Library building. Offering a wide range of digital composition tools and a 25.4 loudspeaker array (25 independently addressable speakers and four subwoofers), this cutting-edge sonic laboratory gives students and faculty the tools they need to push the creative potential of sound in exciting directions.

Inside the spatial audio studio
Inside the spatial audio studio, an immersive 25.4 loudspeaker array creates a sonic envelope around an impressively equipped central workstation.

“With the tools in here,” explains Experimental and Foundation Studies Programs Head Shawn Greenlee 96 PR, “users can move up to 255 sound sources around the whole speaker arrangement or configure them to play in a specific area.” The speaker array is set up around a central workstation to form an acoustical dome—a hemispheric configuration that lets composers explore ambisonics, an intensely immersive surround-sound audio format.

“This has become the standard for media like 3D video and VR,” Greenlee says, noting that ambisonic recording can add a layer of complexity to multimedia art installations, as well. (Importantly, he adds, you don’t need 20-plus speakers for listeners to register the nuances of ambisonic playback.) Inside the sonic envelope of the speaker array, sounds take on an uncanny fidelity: rainstorms are indistinguishable from the real thing and, thanks to a collection of environmental simulators, voices hit the ear just as they would in a cathedral, concert hall, conference room or any other space.

Ji Hoo Kim MFA 20 DM and EFS Programs Head Shawn Greenlee 96 PR working in the new spatial audio studio
Ji Hoo Kim MFA 20 DM and EFS Programs Head Shawn Greenlee 96 PR working in the new studio

The latter technology carries great value for designers working in architectural fields, including those who engage directly with sound in their professional practices. “Sound is a real bridge between a lot of majors,” Greenlee says, “with students having interests in it for many different reasons. Having a proper space for exploring has helped create a nice community around this kind of work.”

“Having a proper space for exploring [sound] has helped create a nice community around this kind of work.”

experimental and foundation studies programs head Shawn Greenlee

Faculty in Digital + Media and the Computation, Technology and Culture concentration have also encouraged such community-building through courses focused on sound composition and critical issues, and by inviting contemporary artists like Olivia Block, Derek Holzer and Stephen Vitiello to illuminate their unique approaches to sound art and design through performances, workshops and lectures on campus. “Seeing these artists and performers come through RISD can really open up how students think about music and sound,” Greenlee observes.

Among the highlights of the series was a spring semester visit by Yasunao Tone, a pioneer in experimental music associated with the 1960s–70s Fluxus movement, who performed in the new auditorium at 20 Washington Place. Using image-capturing technologies to generate “no-holds-barred, glitchy digital noise,” Tone demonstrated to students how to push computation-based compositional methods to loud and abrasive extremes.

“Seeing these artists and performers come through RISD can really open up how students think about music and sound.”

“I can imagine a whole genre of music that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Yasunao coming along and breaking the rules,” says Greenlee, who notes that visiting artists like the 84-year-old Tone offer diverse perspectives on sound that—along with the advanced tools now available—are helping to fuel the flourishing sonic innovation at RISD. “Artists like him tap into the hacker impulse you find here, in people who are always asking, 'What can I do with this?’”

—Robert Albanese

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