Tickling the Ear With Sounds That Are Almost Tangible | Modern Society of USA

Tickling the Ear With Sounds That Are Almost Tangible

Tickling the Ear With Sounds That Are Almost Tangible

A few of Ms. Barrett’s electronic pieces without live performers, including one recorded from inside a balloon, were presented at Empac’s first spatial-audio seminar in 2017. At last week’s edition of the seminar, there was a concert of her so-called ambisonic pieces on Friday. The night before, she screened “Pockets of Space,” a short 3D film made with the digital artists Marc Downie and Paul Kaiser.

As the often abstract visuals of “Pockets of Space” transform from febrile, subatomic squiggles to more recognizable depictions of a tree, so, too, does Ms. Barrett’s score evolve — with initial, dry tendrils of percussive sound steadily giving way to more resonant passages, suggestive of prepared piano.

Originally commissioned by Ircam, the French electronic-music institute, “Pockets of Space” also exists in a virtual-reality version. After strapping on Oculus goggles and headphones, a viewer can choose where to gaze inside the digital environment.

At one point, during my second trip through the VR edition, I tilted my head to allow an approaching cloud of red dots to pass over my face. As I did, a slow-rolling pattern of Ms. Barrett’s tones — sounding like a great many packing bubbles being popped in sensuous slow motion — seemed to approach and wash over my head, too. This synchronization of perspective, across audio and visuals, was made possible by the fact that both elements of the film were being rendered anew by a computer in real time, based on the tilt of the goggles on my head.

“I’m really concerned with the idea of tangibility,” Ms. Barrett said during our conversation, shortly after I removed the goggles. “Sound is invisible, but we can do things that make you want to reach out and touch it.”

One of her tools is binaural recording, which uses multiple microphones inside a dummy head that is designed to be generically reflective of human auditory processes. It places the listener, Ms. Barrett said, “more ‘into’ the space of the sound,” instead of being merely sandwiched between left and right channels.

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