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Music Listening / Project Description

Creating a Sound Archive

by Lars-Christian Koch and Ricarda Kopal

Based on current plans, a new Listening Space with an innovative design and equipment will serve as the centerpiece of the ethnomusicological exhibition area in the Humboldt-Forum. The complexity of this space requires the early development and testing of program formats, a task which was assigned to the Department of Ethnomusicology, Media Technology and the Berlin Phonogram Archive. One central question for the current project status is how ethnomusicological archive content – in other words, sounds – can be exhibited and linked with other collection items such as photographs, film clips or video recordings, and other ethnomusicological exhibition areas.

A Listening Space Takes Shape

Existing blueprints and design plans for the Humboldt-Forum were used to construct a Listening Space, albeit one about 30 percent smaller than the future space. This space served as the platform for different programs which, owing to their conceptual diversity, all placed different demands on the space: specific technical equipment, sound and audiovisual material of divergent quality, or the availability of supporting information. These programs also covered a broad spectrum in terms of content. They ranged from finding an artistic approach to a specific sound phenomenon (“Activated sounds” by Werner Durand) to an introduction to Northern Indian Kathak dance (“Kathak dancing” by Nicole Manon Lehmann), as well as broadcasting a Sufi ceremony (“sufisonics” by Ulrich Wegner and Marcus Thomas) and, finally, channeling the noises of the North African megacity Cairo (“Ambisonic city” by Albrecht Wiedmann). The programs, which were played in a consecutive loop in the Listening Space, varied in duration from 10 to 28 minutes.

As part of the project “Music Listening”, designers and project participants also set out to discover how the audiovisual documentation of an intercultural instrument-making project could be prepared for an exhibition outside the Listening Space and made to interact with musical instruments from the collection. This culminated in “Making of ... Musical instruments – construction techniques, design, aesthetics of sound”. This area combined the presentation of string instruments from the ethnomusicological collection with audiovisual material developed in the course of the Humboldt Lab project to document the conversion of two instruments on display and give visitors impressions of how the instruments sound and how they are played. The audiovisual material was shown in a short format on a centrally positioned screen; two iPads were available with more in-depth project material. The room offered ample space to take a seat and engage with the comprehensive documentation (approximately 90 minutes total).

“Music Listening” coincided with the temporary exhibition “Phonographed Sounds – Photographed Moments”1. This overlap, in both time and space, was used to test how an audiovisual program could be used to embed historic audio recordings and archive documents into an existing exhibition. The Humboldt Lab program “Phonographic commission” by Friederike Heinze was on display in an intermediate space which connected the temporary exhibition above and the Listening Space. Image material was displayed on a wall using a projector; headphones attached to the opposite wall could be used to listen to acoustic elements.

Three-dimensional Sound

The Listening Space itself was built as an elliptical form and equipped with a wave field synthesis system including Ambisonics panning, installed by project participants from the Department of Audio Communication at the Technische Universität (TU) Berlin. In addition, this setup included a total of 21 speakers to enable a nuanced acoustic range. Both the technical equipment and the design of the Listening Space are based on current plans for the Humboldt-Forum. Project members from the TU Berlin describe how the system operates: “Ambisonics panning is based on decomposing virtual sound fields into spherical harmonics. On the playback end, this type of signal display enables a simple, real-time-compatible movement of virtual sound sources in a three-dimensional space. Added leeway in terms of design, like the ability to manipulate volume, spatialization, distance, range or tone can make this process interesting for artistic and creative applications”.

The program “sufisonics. Sounds of Mystic Islam in Hamburg” provides a good example of the technical options that come with the Ambisonics system. This sound program was conceived to introduce a Sufi congregation in Hamburg and convey an acoustic impression of a Sufi ritual. The recordings, interviews with congregation members, and sound bites were produced in 2014 and 2015 in Hamburg in a spatial environment similar to the Listening Space model. The Ambisonics system was used to develop this initial recorded material in an on-site artistic process in the Listening Space. The result largely retains the documentary character of the raw material. In this case, the main focus was on the auditory experience; spatial design elements were kept to a minimum.

In the Listening Space, a centrally positioned screen also provides the option to integrate image material (photos, film, and video). The different installations applied this possibility in different ways. “Kathak dancing” relies heavily on video material, for example to show movement sequences or how different accessories required for this dance form are worn. For “Ambisonic city” and “Activated sounds”, the screen displayed the program title as well as a brief description as a guide for visitors. Because the programs lasted up to 28 minutes, the Listening Space was also equipped with seating.

The Humboldt Lab experiment “Music Listening” was the first trial run for a Listening Space destined for construction in the Humboldt-Forum. Of the numerous ideas for possible audio installations in the space, some were chosen and tested. The main selection criteria were based on preserving a broad range of content and ideas, as well as the realization within a very narrow time frame. For subsequent planning, project participants generated a number of important discoveries: in the future, the focus will lie more squarely on the acoustic design of the space. Visual options should provide as much flexibility as possible so that purely acoustic installations can also be realized. To let visitors know what they are hearing when they enter the Listening Space, information needs to be provided about the programs (for instance in the form of a schedule). Explanations of the innovative technical features installed in the space need to be given, especially for the speakers and other technical components in the Humboldt-Forum, since they will no longer be visible later on. These findings will be actively integrated into further planning for the Humboldt-Forum and phased into both new programs and any possible changes to material generated during the Humboldt Lab project for their further use.

1 “Phonographed Sounds – Photographed Moments. Sound and image documents from WWI German prison camps” (from October 10, 2014 to May 3, 2015) involved a collaboration between the Department of Ethnomusicology, Media Technology and the Berlin Phonogram Archive at the Ethnologisches Museum and the Museum of European Cultures, Berlin.

Prof. Dr. Lars-Christian Koch directs the Department of Ethnomusicology, Media Technology and the Berlin Phonogram Archive of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin. He is Adjunct Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Cologne and Honorary Professor at the Academy of Arts, Berlin (UdK). His main research interests include theory and practice of Indian music, especially Northern Indian raga, organology, the intercultural study of musical aesthetics, interpretations of non-European music in historical context and music archeology.

Dr. Ricarda Kopal is a research associate and curator at the Department of Ethnomusicology, Media Technology and the Berlin Phonogram Archive of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin. In her research, she primarily focuses on (popular) music in and from Northern Europe, interactions between new media technology, music cultures and ethnomusicological research, as well as how ethnomusicology can approach “classical” music.

You can find further reading on this project here.