Living Coasts, Swash (2003)

Swash is a twenty-four channel sound installation based entirely on underwater sound recordings. The piece responds to the winding tunnel in which it is situated, while also using the speaker system, as a site in itself; a space defined by the sounds it contains.

Swash was commissioned by Paignton Zoo, for the Living Coasts visitor attraction in Torquay, which explores coastal habitats from around the world, with exhibits including sea birds and mammals.

All the sounds used in the final work were sourced from recordings of water. Following early conversations with Dr. Sarah Bass and John Lovell of The Institute of Marine Science at the University of Plymouth, we researched the sonic character of underwater environments and we were drawn to the fact that one of the primary sources of natural sound in the ocean is that of the transference of energy within bubbles as they make their way to the surface. Unlike the familiar sounds of the sea recorded with conventional microphones above water, the underwater environment was quieter, more sparse and often subjectively suggestive of synthetic, rather than organic sources. We made recordings at sea, in rivers and also in the laboratory od the Institute of Marine Science. By recording in this controlled environment we were able to develop more abstract sounds from the recordings of individual bubbles and isolated waves etc. Finally, we set up a recording environment with 24 microphones in the studios at Dartington College of Arts. The signal from each microphone was assigned to an individual recording track and in turn, a loudspeaker in the final 24-channel system. In this way, we were able to create an extremely complex simulation of the original space, which would have been impossible by means of artificial panning.

By specifying a sound system in which each loudspeaker could be controlled independently, we were able to move sounds seamlessly through space according to a series of ‘movement models’ we had devised. These models shifted the expected sonic frame of reference beyond the walls of the existing tunnel and in so doing changed the acoustic experience of the space. This spatial dimension to Swash was an essential compositional parameter and the models we devised ranged from simple, monaural ‘steps’; where isolated sonic gestures moved from one speaker to another, through to complex ‘wave’ motions modelled on the movement of ocean waves in the swash zone, where the speed and flow of energy can be moving in a number of directions simultaneously. At times, all 24 speakers are used together to create immersive textures, while at other times, monaural sounds are caused to ‘swim’ through the space by means of continual panning from one speaker to the next. One of the techniques we found most effective was the re-mapping of sound sources to movement models. The ‘wave’ model, for example, based on the energy behaviour of a wave, was applied to another sound source which was made to rush through the space from the exit tunnel round to the auk viewing area before crashing into the tunnel and drawing back like the undertow of a wave into the welcome ramp.

As much of the composition work had to be done prior to the on-site mixing with only eight channels of studio monitoring, a great deal of work had to be done speculatively. In early studio work, we explored the movement implications of a sound in a small-scale environment with a view to exploding those movements onto a macro scale later on. During this period, we also became interested in trying to incorporate implied movements into sounds even before they were physically spatialised. One example of this was our application of the ‘Sheppard tone’ principle onto complex, highly textured and in many cases noise-based sounds. Put to this end, the technique creates a barely perceptible sense of ‘descent’ in keeping with our approach to the physical articulation of the space.

Trevor Wishart describes the creative possibilities of working with loudspeaker arrays as virtual spaces in his book On Sonic Art:

… The loudspeaker has in effect allowed us to set up a virtual acoustic space into which we may project an image of any real existing acoustic space … The existence of this virtual acoustic space, however, presents us with new creative possibilities. The acoustic space which we represent need not be real and we may in fact play with the listener’s perception of landscape ” (Wishart, Trevor – On Sonic Art, 1996. p136)

However, Wishart describes here the notion of a virtual ‘sonic landscape’ where the loudspeakers are placed in a nominally neutral space; for example, a concert hall. Whether listening environments are ever neutral is a moot point here, but Swash was installed in a real environment, which has many visual stimuli of its own that do not relate directly to the sound sources. It is interesting that when there is a removal of visual clues to the original source of sound, the visitor will substitute the visual clues of the space surrounding them. These visual clues, interact with the soundscape causing the visitor to make links that were not actually there. By recognising that we could locate our work between real and virtual space, we were able to construct a soundscape that augmented the spatial and temporal qualities of the existing site by going beyond the confines of the real space and into the realms of imagination. The combination of both the real and virtual provided an experience that expanded the visitor’s expectations and therefore heightened their awareness of the perceived space. This perceived space that lies between the real and the virtual, we choose to call a ‘sonic space’.

Melanie Thompson, who was artist in residence at Living Coasts, instigated the Swash commission. The project was funded by RALP (Regional Arts Lottery Programme), Arts Council South West. Swash has now been decommissioned following a successful five-year installation.

Project Team: