New experiments in binaural sound technology

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Originally written for The Stage.

Binaural sound technology is nothing new. The technique of binaural recording, which creates the sensation of 3D sound for those listening through headphones, has been around in one form or another since the end of the 19th century, when it was used in the transmission of theatre and opera performances over telephone lines. What’s more novel, however, is its use in theatre.

Director David Rosenberg has long been aware of the potential of binaural sound. “I first came across it through my dad,” he remembers. “My dad was a physiologist working in the area of soundand he was doing work with binaural sound when I was about 10.”

The technology was not put to use in Rosenberg’s theatre-making, however, until he and sound designers Ben and Max Ringham started creating experimental scratch performances with theatre company Shunt, of which Rosenberg is a co-founder.

“Ben and I and David developed that interest together,” Max Ringham tells me, recalling their early experiments at the Shunt Lounge under London Bridge station in the mid-2000s. “First of all, we were working with an illegal radio transmitter and we would set up impromptu illegal radio stations to send audio out to people.” From these illegitimate beginnings, the trio gradually refined their use of the technology, eventually putting it to full use in the 2007 show Contains Violence at the Lyric Hammersmith.

In Contains Violence and subsequent shows Electric Hotel and Motorshow, Rosenberg explains that the use of binaural sound was “about trying somehow to bridge the visual gap between the audience and what they were watching”. In each piece, audience members were positioned as onlookers, with the sound pumped through their headphones immersing them in distant spaces, be those hotel rooms or car interiors.

But there are problems with this as a technique. “There’s a hierarchy of perceptions,” says Rosenberg, with sight at the top. “Sight occupies the very safe territory where lots of other sensations then attach themselves to what you see,” he continues, using the example of an experiment in which participants attributed different sounds to the same set of moving lips. “Sound is not a precise thing in the way vision is,” Ringham compares the two senses. “When you look at something you can see the clear relationship between a tree and a car, for example, whereas there’s an element of subjectivity with sound about where things are coming from.”

This explains why, for their latest experiments with binaural sound in Ring and Fiction, Rosenberg and his collaborators have plunged audiences into darkness.

“We wanted to completely change that hierarchy and have images created by the sound,” Rosenberg explains their thinking. “Deprived of other sensations, the audience become incredibly sensitive to the sound.”

Ring, created by Rosenberg, Ben and Max Ringham and writer Glen Neath, enveloped audiences in inky blackness and placed them at the centre of an unnerving aural experience. “With Ring, we were really looking at how to expand the role of the audience within this set-up and how to make them the subject of the piece,” says Rosenberg, “so they find themselves deeper and deeper within a performance that they have a role in, that they have a reason to be in.”

While audio performances often raise the question of what qualifies them as theatrical, it was this positioning of the audience that ensured that Ring remained a live experience and one that could not just be listened to at home. “The show for the audience is about being in a room full of people,” says Rosenberg. “You need to be in that situation in order for it to make sense.” Neath agrees, going as far as to claim that this work heightens the liveness of the theatre: “It feels like one of the most live experiences I’ve had in the theatre.”

Robbing the audience of their sight, meanwhile, has given greater scope for the sound. “The darkness is such a massive gift for us,” Ringham says. “It’s brilliant, because it means to start with everyone thinks you’re about 10 times better than you are. Your sense of hearing is so much more heightened in the dark and people’s focus is absolutely on what they’re hearing, because they have nothing else.”

As a sound designer, Ringham relishes the new opportunities that binaural technology allows. “The geek in me really enjoys throwing sounds around,” he says. He remembers a moment during Electric Hotel, in which the audio feed tricked audience members into believing that they could hear people speaking from among them. “Every night, watching 500 people turn around and look over their shoulder to see who was talking behind them when there was no one there, was quite a big thrill.”

Like any technological development, however, it has its challenges. “There are lots more facets to take on board when you’re trying to create it,” explains Neath, as well as lots of theatrical devices that are ruled out by the use of headphones and, in the cases of Ring and Fiction, the complete darkness. “There were so many things that you couldn’t do and you had to find a way round.”

Lessons have been learned along the way, such as the sound designers’ discovery that “people’s perception of things in a space has a limit; people can only hold three separate things in a 3D environment in their head and know where they’re coming from”. Ringham insists, therefore, that it’s important for theatre-makers working with this sound to keep it simple and not attempt to do too much at once. He also stresses that it’s “incredibly important” to use high-quality recording equipment in order to create the best experience. “There’s the KU100, which is the industry standard best and nothing sounds quite as good, to be honest.”

So what makes this technology so exciting for theatre-makers? “The main thing is a question of intimacy,” says Rosenberg. “With all live events we’re trying to create some sort of intimate relationship between the audience and what they’re seeing. How do you keep that intimacy when you have increasingly large audiences?” Binaural sound, which can create the sensation of a performer whispering directly into each and every audience member’s ear, is one answer.

Intimacy also seems to be the lure for audiences. Observing the growing interest in binaural sound across the theatre industry, Ringham suggests that “it’s more and more of interest to people as they’re more interested in an immersive type experience. It’s an incredible way of transporting people and putting them into different environments.”

This sensation of immersion is central to Fiction, the team’s second show using binaural sound and complete darkness. This time, the show puts audiences in two places at once: the room of the theatre, and the dream world that the sound transports them to. “The principal difference is that we’re taking the audience to a lot of different locations and there’s been quite a lot of discussion about how we actually record that,” says Ringham.

The effect of this sound, Neath hopes, is “something magical”, allowing audiences to suspend their disbelief even as they are made aware of the physical space they inhabit. “This is not real, but we challenge you not to believe it.”

Photo: Alex Brenner.

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Through the Looking Glass and Inside the Sunset

A round-up of sorts, on Light Show, Peter and Alice, Daniel Kitson, Dirty Hands, Ring, the heart-catching joy of reading John Berger, and everything else I haven’t had time to write about elsewhere …

“I can’t go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

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At the Hayward Gallery’s Light Show last Friday, while my retinas were being slowly, dazzlingly fried, a snatch of perfect poetic clarity suddenly broke through the low chatter of fellow visitors. In the first of Carlos Cruz-Diez’s series of interconnecting rooms, each intoxicatingly suffused with a separate colour – red, then blue, then green – a little boy, no more than about seven or eight, said “it feels like being inside a sunset”. And of course he was completely, simply, beautifully right. That was what it felt like, captured inside an intense, burning redness that seemed at first to be unchanging but gradually fluctuated the longer we were in the room, its shades altering with our shifting perception, just as the colours in a sunset slowly transform.

I’m reminded of something Alex Andreou tweeted a couple of months ago: “we are born poets, but it’s squashed out of us”. Listening to this carelessly offered comment in the middle of Light Show, or to the brilliant and often startling descriptions formed by children in Andy Field’s gorgeous audio piece for the Natural History Museum, this artless command of poetry seems to be confirmed. The imagination and simplicity of this particular sliver of poetry followed me quietly around the rest of the exhibition and continued to linger a step behind me in the thoughts that I shaped in the minutes, hours and days afterwards. Because of course none of my self-conscious observations could quite match up to that giddy childish delight – though giddy feels like the right word for Light Show.

As I write this, childhood, and memory of childhood, are particular preoccupations. The other night I went with a friend to see Peter and Alice – partly, it has to be confessed, upon the persuasion of Ben Whishaw’s cheekbones – which, despite its flaws, rekindled a heart-racing, book-gobbling love for children’s literature. Christopher Oram’s design fills the stage of the Noel Coward Theatre with outsized versions of the illustrations that are vividly etched onto my memories of childhood – Captain Hook, the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter. It’s one big picture book, but a theatre too, complete with a cardboard cut-out proscenium arch; this is where fictional worlds of all kinds play out.

But while the production asks many questions about childhood and growing up, fantasies and imagination, loss of innocence and the attempt to return to it, two things tugged at my mind. One was the profound effect that books can have on us as children, as I thrilled in the memory of that heady joy that used to come from jumping into a new story, a new adventure. Alice excitedly leaping down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass. The other was to do with perception, the way we see things and the way we remember. Like the Alice of the play, watching Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) developing one of the many photographic portraits he took of her and noting that in the time since the pose was captured she has already changed, we alter from moment to moment, our vision of things shifting constantly.

This chimes with my experience of Light Show, which just a week on I’m already struggling to capture with the same vividness that left me rubbing my eyes on the way out, bright dots scattering across my view of the South Bank. In lots of ways – and perhaps unsurprisingly – this is an exhibition all about perception. Light is, after all, something that we see, something that allows us to see. But the tingle of the skin next to the radiating warmth of Cerith Wyn Evans’ throbbing columns of light, or the almost oppressive sound of tumbling water in Ólafur Elíasson’s discombobulating ‘Model for a Timeless Garden’ – a magic trick of strobe lighting, revealing suspended forms both monstrous and exquisite – is enough to know that the other senses are equally vital here. It’s an exhibition that asks us to feel, in every way.

And there are surprises. Jim Campbell’s ‘Exploded View (Commuters)’ seems at first glance to be a merely pretty clutch of tiny, suspended, lightly flickering specks of light – a cloud of fireflies – but look at it for a moment and shapes begin to emerge. Inside the seemingly random collection of LEDs, figures appear to be moving, briskly striding across the field of vision. I immediately think of an atomised society of people rushing from A to B, all of us as individual dots of light, isolated yet together. In one of the sealed-off rooms that punctuate the exhibition, what initially looks like a single, curved shaft of light slicing through the space slowly bends, confining visitors within a tunnel of light that they pierce with outstretched fingers (Anthony McCall’s ‘You and I , Horizontal’).

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Then there’s one of my favourites, ‘Magic Hour’ by David Batchelor, an evocation of the colours of a Las Vegas sunset pouring outwards from a structure that is all found metal and exposed wires. For reasons I can’t quite pin down at the time, I think of Tim Etchells writing in Certain Fragments. Something about scavenging and piecing together different scraps of material, perhaps, of leaving the seams unapologetically exposed; also the way in which technology forms a constant backdrop for our lives, the neon lights (Etchells’ own work with this medium coming to mind) bleeding into the pinks and oranges of the setting sun.

Returning to the dazzling red of Cruz-Diez’s installation – another sunset – this brought back a sharp visual memory of a red-drenched scene from the Deutsches Theatre’s production of Dirty Hands, which I caught while on a trip to the face-numbing cold of Berlin last month but still haven’t found time to write about. Although surtitles supplemented my pitiful (i.e. non-existent) grasp of German, the memories I captured in the absence of taking notes are nearly all visual: the set’s astonishing revolving walls, dotted with blinking fluorescent tubes, twisting the protagonist tighter and tighter into a political labyrinth from which there is no escape; a pair of huge, cartoonish hands worn by one of the performers; the grey, solid bleakness of the wall that splits off the front of the stage in the opening scene; that violent red light (this trailer gives a fairly good sense of the aesthetic).

The play itself, written by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1948, sets itself in a fictional Eastern European nation in order to grapple with the political crisis surrounding the latter stages of WWII, revolving around the assassination of a leading figure in the communist party (to crudely oversimplify the intricately complex plot). Hard as it is to summon all the details from my memory now, I remember the experience of watching the production – which both my friend and I loved, by the way, despite his distinct apprehension of European theatre ever since I described Three Kingdoms to him – as being infected by the odd experience of walking around the DDR and Stasi museums earlier that same day. It was a reminder, perhaps all the more vivid for being away from home, of the contexts that inevitably inform our experience of theatre, framing the event in ways that the event itself can’t always anticipate.

But back to the chill and damp of London – almost as face-numbing as the bitter cold of Berlin in the past week or so. On Monday, after walking around the building at least three times and attracting a series of bemused frowns, I found myself in the Live Art Development Agency for the first time, at a Study Room gathering organised by Dialogue and Diana Damian to think about critical writing. For a start, that feels like a misnomer, as several people in the room (myself included) quickly expressed a certain discomfort with the term “critic” and its connotations. Personally I like the suggestion that we think of it not in terms of criticism, an idea associated with meanness, but as something critical – vital for the ecology.

While I mostly listened, people in the group spoke about collaboration, about responsiveness and responsibility, about institutions and sustainability (an ongoing battle), about thinking of the writing we do as creative practice. It’s a start, and an exciting one, but in spite of all its brilliant, impassioned discussion, the session left me punctured with self-doubt and uncertainty. The same questions keep tapping me on the shoulder, the same questions that attach themselves to every piece of criticism (if I’m even calling it criticism) I write: What am I doing? Why am I doing this? What difference is this making? And, always, could I be doing this better?

And then, later this week, by some sheer miracle of frantic web page refreshing that allowed me to get my hands on a pair of tickets, I went to see one of Daniel Kitson’s work-in-progress stand-up shows at BAC. A gorgeous muddle of anecdote, charm, self-consciousness and scattered notes, Kitson’s still nebulous show talks its way through the confused mess of his mid-thirties, a time when the certainty of youth has evaporated, bringing in its wake a crippling surge of self-doubt. I’m still only 23, but I’m not sure I was ever really in possession of that youthful certainty – or maybe I was, just in brief, flash-bulb moments. Existing in an almost permanent state of uncertainty as I do, then, I felt a shiver of recognition, the sort of comforting “me too” impulse that I suspect is part of the reason why so many of Kitson’s fans will sit poised over their refresh buttons at 11am of a morning. We like to feel that we’re not alone in our neuroses. He also spoke about how he’s seen, or might be seen, by other people, and about looking at his own beliefs and questioning them – preoccupations that haunt me more than they probably should. For that alone, my shoulders shaking with the kind of laughter that only comes from grimaced recognition, I probably would have loved the show.

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I started writing this on Friday, with every intention of clumsily blurting out my love for the Kitson show and leaving it at that. But on Friday night I was back at BAC again, this time to see (or rather hear) Ring. As I’ve been talking a lot about seeing, Ring feels like something of a break, as for most of its duration we actually see nothing at all. The show, conceived by Shunt’s David Rosenberg, situates its audience in a suffocating darkness, a pitch black not penetrated by any dot of light. We’re a long way from Light Show.

The first thing to say is that the technology behind this dark, disorientating experience is utterly, mind-bogglingly extraordinary. The piece uses binaural sound technology, which captures sounds in such a way that the recording exactly replicates the way we hear the world around us; rather than hearing everything as flat, at an equal distance, it can sound like someone is crossing the room, drawing closer, whispering in our ear. Ring is essentially an exploration of this technology, a physiological and psychological experiment that plays with our perceptions based on what we hear – hence the darkness. By plunging us into a world with no visual referents, the astonishing use of sound transports us, makes us create our own images.

It’s cripplingly hard to talk about the show without giving away the surprises on which its chilling grip depends. The set up is a sort of alternative therapy session, a gathering conducted in total darkness where we have come to be “transported”, to “imagine something, together something better”. With headphones covering our ears and the blanket of darkness wrapped tightly around us, every audience member is at the centre of their own experience of the show, positioned – despite the fact that we all sit still in the dark, not required to move – as the protagonist of the piece. It redefines the horribly overused term “immersive”, completely submerging us in a disturbing experience from which we cannot escape (unless, that is, it simply becomes too much and we raise our hand with a cry of “help!”, which one overwhelmed audience member did on the night I attended).

Still struggling to shake it off a full 24 hours later, it strikes me that it’s the sense of invasion which is most unsettling. Flooding our ears and robbing us of our other senses, the piece takes over the whole field of our perception in a way that theatre is not usually capable of doing. For all the talk of the illusion of naturalistic theatre, we can still see the proscenium arch, framing the show within a world that exists beyond it. But here, we are fully inside the piece that Rosenberg and writer Glen Neath have crafted; the seams, if not entirely invisible, can barely be traced.

The content, as a result of revelling so brilliantly in form, suffers a little. This is all about how binaural technology can be used to manipulate our perceptions of the world, but despite its sometimes disappointing content it can’t simply be written off as a case of style over substance, purely because that psychological examination of perception itself is so deeply fascinating, with myriad implications. Perhaps Ring‘s most startling achievement, other than how it deploys the dazzling technology at its disposal, is the way in which it makes us freshly aware of how much of our perception is based on what we don’t see, on what we imagine. And we can’t close our eyes on our imagination.

I want to finish with John Berger and one last sunset. This is partly because Maddy Costa’s latest blog (as well as prompting me to listen to Patti Smith on a loop) has me returning to my heavily highlighted copy of Ways of Seeing while itching to get my hands on more of his writing. But it also feels right for a set of musings that keep returning to “ways of seeing” – seeing art, seeing the world, seeing ourselves. Reading Berger often gives me that pleasurable jolt of someone else expressing an idea I’ve tortuously grappled with in such a way that it suddenly makes perfect sense; a feeling of simultaneous revelation and realisation, uncovering something new but almost half known. So here he is, making sense of our modes of perception far more eloquently than I could ever aspire to:

“It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” – John Berger, Ways of Seeing

A brief postscript: since writing this, I’ve gone away and read Matt Trueman’s brilliantly honest reflections on dipping his toe into embedded criticism at Ovalhouse, which feel urgently relevant to some of the questions being asked about criticism at the Study Room gathering. And while you’re there, read the reports from This is Tomorrow, which have been frying my brain and making me painfully envious all week.