||Program Notes for the Melbourne International Festival Exhibition
A weed, so easily crushed underfoot, can push its way up through a tarmac path, creating a sizeable fracture in what appears to us to be an impervious surface.
One might postulate that if the weed could see the bigger picture, it might have decided to grow two feet to the left in the flowerbed or the grass. There is clearly an analogy here to our own birth, in which we appear to have little or no say (depending on one's religious beliefs).
It is exactly this chaotic behaviour of the natural world that informs the Reeds project. Whilst human kind tries to harness or tame the chaotic forces of nature, or to explain it in terms of quantum theory and fractals, humanity cannot perceive a truly chaotic state. The forces of nature that dictate the growth of plant life fall into this category. It is not possible for us to predict with certainty the meteorological conditions from day to day, let alone year to year, and certainly not on the micro scale of the weed in the footpath. It is precisely these chaotic variations that are used in Reeds to conduct the sound score - to control and dictate the output of the real time synthesis process.
The software design process predetermines the general structure and aesthetic of the sound, but the momentary output is unique. It is unlikely that the combination of wind speed, wind direction, solar radiation, and temperature that occur in this instance will be precisely replicated in any other moment. This chaotic variation is the very source of diversity, which I propose is the structure that creates such beauty in nature.
Reeds uses the relatively static external facade of the sculptural form as a way of representing the paradox observed in organic plant life, where the apparently static external face of the plant contrasts the hidden, dynamic activity of photosynthesis and nutrient gathering that keeps the plant alive, and drives it's growth.
The reed pod sculptures, appearing as lifelike presence's on the Ornamental lake at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, support two remote weather stations, gathering wind speed, wind direction, temperature, and solar radiation data. The meteorological conditions, vital to the plants' life processes, are transmitted back to a land-base where the data is transformed into eight channels of musical sounds that is broadcast back out to the reed pods. These sounds give a voice to the secret inner life processes of the plant.
The viscous and fluid aesthetic of the sound material is an attempt to capture something of both the dynamism of the processes that maintain life and the ever-changing, silken thread that is the presence of life, the life force itself. The fact that the sound material is generated on the basis of meteorological conditions is a way of drawing, as tightly as possible, the bond between the processes of nature and the processors of the Reeds installation. The sound material cannot then be avoided, being the voice of the processes of nature.
Sound and music is in many ways a unique media, for it is not an external artefact. Sound literally penetrates the body. It is also impossible to concretely tie composed sound or music to a representation of anything beyond a communication of emotional states and journeys.
As an artist my interest lies in exploring ways of contextualising digital art processes within the natural organic environment. I have little interest in the purely synthetic, that is the synthesis of sound or images from purely academic or theoretical viewpoint; but prefer, as is illustrated in the Reeds project, to take a fundamentally organic source as the basis for the synthesis process. In so doing, I hope that some quality of that organic material will permeate the work, thereby bringing the synthetic output at least a small way towards the organic world, and therefore within the human context.
The technological structure of the Reeds installation is based on the concept of the organic life cycle. This idea is represented in the project by the use of the weather data as the generative seed. The weather data, gathered by small remote weather stations installed in the pods floating on the lake, is transmitted to a land-based computer, which having analysed the incoming data uses the results to conduct the sound synthesis software. The synthesis software consists of a number of algorithms that generate music in realtime, producing eight channels of digital audio. These eight channels of sound (which you hear emanating from the Reed pods) are then broadcast back out to the Reed pods using Sennheiser EW300 in-ear monitoring systems. These systems allow the broadcast of high quality stereo audio. The return of the audio signal to the Reed pods, and its dispersion to the listener/observer completes the life cycle. To flesh out this technological life cycle, I will separate the process into stage headings as follows:
Collection of weather data
There are four pieces of weather data collected from each of two weather stations: a) Wind Speed b)Wind Direction c) Temperature d)Solar Radiation. This data is collected using custom built weather stations comprising sensors manufactured by Davis, and data processing, transmission and reception units designed specifically for this project by Microscan in Adelaide. The weather sensors produce a sliding voltage scale representing the current conditions, with the exception of the wind speed output which is calculated on the basis of the number of rotations per 1.25 milliseconds (one rotation equals 1.00615 meters of air movement). A data processing board inside the pod, converts this data to an ASCII data set in the form: Battery Voltage, Temperature, Solar Radiation, Wind Direction, WindSpeed.
This data set is transmitted by the weather station once every 90 milliseconds to a land based receiver which pipes the data into a Macintosh G4 computer as RS232 data.
Weather Data Analysis
The weather data is fed into a software application that analyses the incoming data, dynamically scales it, and passed the result in the form of MIDI Continuous Controller messages to a Supercollider application, containing six audio synthesis algorithms.
The Supercollider application creates the audio you hear. Each of the instrument algorithms is allocated one or more of the weather data streams (i.e. Instrument one uses wind speed and solar radiation from weather station number 1) which control variables within the algorithm, thereby changing the pitch or texture or intensity of the sound. Instruments one and two produce a stereo signal which is panned across the installation, whilst the other four instruments produce a single audio channel. The audio is directed to the eight analogue audio outputs of a Digidesign DIGI001 digital audio interface.
The generation of realtime sound means that a digital audio sample must be generated every 1/48000 second when using a sample rate of 48 KHz. As there are eight independent channels of sound in the Reeds project, the synthesis process must create 384,000 audio sample per second
The audio signals produced by the Supercollider software are fed to four Sennheiser EW300 In-Ear Monitor transmitters. The EW300 transmitters each broadcast stereo audio of high quality. Sennheiser EK300 stereo receivers, installed in six of the Reed pods receive the broadcast signal (each receiver has its own reception frequency matched to one of the four broadcast frequencies). The stereo signal of each receiver is then separated into its two mono components, which are fed into the two adjacent Reed pods.
Each sounding Reed pod contains a battery powered 40 Watt amplifier. The amplifier feeds five speakers: One ten inch full range Misco waterproof driver, (built into a hat on top of the Reed pod) and four small 40 mm speaker drivers (clipped to the reed stems) which are fed via a crossover, to ensure they only receive signal over 2000Hz. The main speaker carries the full range signal, whilst the smaller 40mm drivers carry the high frequency material that give the crisp edge to the sound. The speakers are placed in a position that allows the sound to bounce across the water surface.
The Reed pods containing the audio equipment are fitted with light sensitive switches so that they turn on at dawn and off at dusk, thereby conserving battery power, and allowing the wildlife the tranquility of the night.
I am greatly indebted to Syntec (Australian Sennheiser agents) for their generous support. Without their EW300 IEM systems, the audio could not be broadcast out to the pods. I am also indebted to Microscan and SolarFlare for their ingenious solutions to my need for small battery powered remote weather stations (something the large companies told me was impossible!!)