15th May 2019

Sonic Symposium

With a line-up consisting of a music legend, a forward-thinking music technician, and an inspiring audio-visual artist, the Sonic Symposium was always destined to be the most insightful of evenings. DJ and turntablist, NikNaktreated the guests to a unique DJ set littered with her own soundscapes and music from the likes of Nightmares on Wax. “It helps build a certain atmosphere and tell a kind of story that I want to project on to the audience or whoever is listening” she said. The story told tonight was echoed in the warmth of the welcomes circling the foyer upon everyone’s arrival.

The evening began with a presentation from Vicky Clarke, who has worked around the world developing cutting-edge sound sculptures and working with live performers of the highest calibre. With a primary focus on the DIY aspect of music technology, Vicky’s work with Noise Orchestra aims to combine the functionality of electronic music performance with things that can be aesthetically pleasing, she told us. “I’ve come from a background of visual art & sculpture, and I have quite a big passion for electronic music, so what I really wanted to achieve was bring those two worlds together”.

Clarke, based in Manchester, placed a lot of her works influence down to Russian sound artists in the 1920s and she was keen to get across how the work of these pioneers can be brought into the modern musical landscape. “It was scientists and artists working together to try and figure out what the future of art would be. They were completely off the charts in terms of their ideas and most of them are still incredibly relevant and applicable to today’s world.”

As a means of showing how these ideas were put into practice, Clarke discussed her fascination with metal and, after taking a welding course, managed to put together a series of copper pipes to work in conjunction with a synthesiser. It became very clear that one thing Clarke is very focused on is combining worlds that otherwise never would have met, and this was achieved in the most breathtaking way.

One message which was put across throughout all the talks at Sonic Symposium was how these advances in music technology are going to be made accessible not just to the already established musicians, but the superstars of tomorrow. Clarke is a huge advocate of this mentality, “There’s a real DIY quality with electronic music. None of us at Noise Orchestra are trained sound technicians or anything like that – we’re all self-taught. We feel it’s of the utmost importance that we share that with other people through our workshops and lectures” she said with a deserved sense of pride.

Next up was none other than synthpop trailblazer, Martyn Ware. His work as part of both Heaven 17 and The Human League paved the way for a whole new music landscape in the late 70s into the 80s. “I would never have had a career, were it not for music technology”, he admitted. “It helped me realise that I’m not interested in technique or technical ability, what I’m interested in is sound”.

Ware’s presentation introduced Illustrious, a company which he founded in 2000 along with Vince Clarke from Erasure. The project, since its inception, has been focused on soundscape productions and the concept of immersive sound. He took the audience through a mind-blowing portfolio of projects that Illustrioushad worked on in the past two decades, which all created art which was tailored to the sonic palette. These pieces spanned areas all around the globe, including Mexico City, London, and Paris. Immersive sound is clearly a phenomenon which is taking the world by storm. A particular highlight was a series of lights which were embedded into a tree in order to make it look like a pair of lungs – the possibilities which were presented by the work of Illustriouswere endless.

“I feel like everyone is synesthetic in some form” he proclaimed. This was clearly something that he wanted to appeal to in his audience. He did this expertly by tackling something which anyone will have noticed, particularly in cities, over the years – noise pollution. “Cities are only going to become more and more noisy. Shouldn’t we consider positively modifying our urban environments from a sensory perspective?” he questioned. Ware was expressing the positive message of taking things which we consider to regular in society, and turning them into something which can deeply satisfy us on a myriad of sensory levels.

Ware also exhibited how his work with 3DAudioscape can be used in the music world, with heavy hitters in the industry. He put on a 3D DJ Soundclash with Red Bull Music Academy which saw Warp Records and Ninja Tune battle it out either side of the dancefloor, to bring the immersive experience to a club setting.

But just as Vicky Clarke was with her Noise Orchestra workshops, Ware was keen to communicate how his work was going to help out the aspiring musicians that make up a huge part of the creative youth today. “I believe the future of education lies within immersive sound experiences. There’s a whole generation now who are bored of the old style of teaching.” he said. And he went on to detail a project which is currently in the works – an immersive sound-based book which became interactive to the reader as they turn a page. Taking the idea of an audiobook and pairing it with the tactile nature of the traditional format. The work that Martyn Ware has been doing, and continues to do, with Illustrious, is constantly breaking boundaries and finding new ways to include people in the ever-growing immersive sound experience.

After a brief intermission where the Sonic Symposium audience were given a chance to take in the vast amount of content they had so far been presented with, we were treated to demonstration and electrifying talk from Adam Stark from music technology innovators Mi-MU. The mantra which the company’s new product, the Mi-MU gloves, run by is bringing expression to live electronic music performance. Something which anyone involved in the electronic music community will know is that there are many artists, who despite having buckets of talent, fail to make their live performances visually engaging due to being stuck behind a laptop. This is a problem which Stark aims to solve.

“If you read academic literature on music technology, they’ll often say that there needs to be a fixed relationship between how one interacts with an instrument, and the effect it has. But what we have discovered is that what musicians want is the complete opposite of that” he revealed. “The functionality of old music tech is predominantly based on the same few paradigms.” Mi-MU’s mission statement essentially seems to break those paradigms.

Stark explained his fascination with percussion, particularly within live music performance, he admits that he consistently finds himself watching the drummer of a band as opposed to the singer. But he makes it blatant that in order for electronic music to achieve this level of visual stimulation, music technology is going to have to evolve.

After outlining the story behind the gloves and how the idea came about, Stark picked them up to show us just how they worked. They act through flex sensors in the fingers, and variation sensors in the wrist to create a soundscape which the user can tailor to their own performing needs. Through a tidy, uncluttered software programme which is used together with the gloves, users can manipulate the gestural technology to enhance their performance. They can programme the gloves to make certain postures achieve certain commands. One of the many examples used by Stark was perhaps making a fist and turning it to add reverb to a certain instrument. The sheer simplicity of the software paired with the infinite amount of avenues which it allowed a user to explore, summed up a glimpse into the future which had jaws dropping around the room.

Stark went on to show us how the gloves, which are available for pre-order now, are already being used. Even world-beater Ariana Grande was shown using the gloves to manipulate her vocal performance in her live shows. If this technology is already being used in arena-ready environments, the concept of audio performance as we know it is surely about to be immensely transformed.

We spend our lives hearing new reports, almost on a weekly basis, of how technology is spawning the end of life as we know it, and this is often posed to us in a threatening way. But it’s events like Sonic Symposium that remind us that, when used in a positive way, technological advancement can be an utterly beautiful thing.

Written by George Webb