Reconstructing Chroma XII by Rebecca Saunders – a recording experiment
For lack of a better category, Chroma is spatial chamber (or turbine hall, or castle, or museum, or philharmonic, or baroque-gallery-with-anterooms and french garden) music. Its sounds originate from two pianos, two percussion sets, two violins, a cello, two double basses, an electric guitar, two trumpets, two clarinets, an (electric) organ, a large number of wind-up music boxes and a portable record player. In the composer's words:
Chroma explores three different key issues: the architecture of the space, the density of the collage in the given acoustic, and the nearness or distance to the different music being performed. So firstly, it’s about entering into a dialogue with an architectural space, exploring and emphasising the particular characteristics of the space.
[from an interview on the website of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2010, http://www.hcmf.co.uk/Pulling-threads-of-sound-Rebecca-Saunders-interviewed]
For each staging, Chroma is adapted to its new environment by the composer, and may grow a new musical module or two. The audience is invited to move freely around the place during the performance. Conditions permitting, the piece is performed twice in close succession, so that the listeners can explore two different paths through the soundscape.
To confine the intricate acoustic spaces and perspectives to a recording medium clearly requires an approach beyond two-channel stereo. From an engineer's point of view, Chroma combines the hardest problems of electronic and instrumental music: reproducing sounds from every direction around the listener including the balconies above, and preserving the rich instrumental sonority of classical instruments whose spectral and dynamic ranges are taken to extremes by advanced playing techniques. Synthetic soundscapes can trade tone colour for localisation to some extent, since there is no clear timbral reference. „Real“ instruments are trickier because everybody knows precisely what they are supposed to sound like. In other words, we have a great test case.
The excerpt you are listening to employs higher-order Ambisonics, a recording technique that aspires to be homogeneous (which means it has no favourite directions like Stereo or 5.1) and is agnostic of the loudspeaker setup used for playback. It has been obtained using a combination of traditional soundfield-type microphones, and more than 40 discrete spot mikes.
Unfortunately, you will have to remain seated while listening. To compensate, you will experience the acoustic scene change around you: from the reverberant interior of the huge baroque gallery of the Herrenhäuser Gärten in Hannover, Germany, to its no less vibrant but a lot less reflective garden.
You are offered a humble glimpse into Chroma XII in the hope that it is inspiring, enjoyable and doing the composition justice. But when, after laying 500 metres of fibre and another 500 of copper leads, writing some 70 tracks to harddisk, you see the waxing moon rise over the double bass player as he is immersed in his music in the middle of the beautiful garden, while the nightingales sing and the smell of a cool summer night fills your nostrils, you can't help but look down at the really expensive microphone in your hand and wonder what the heck you're trying to accomplish here.
Well, at least we got the nightingales.
is a freelance audio engineer currently living in Essen, Germany. He specialises in applied Ambisonics, maintains a web server at http://stackingdwarves.net and hates to write about himself in the third person.
Chroma XII, composed and directed by Rebecca Saunders
commissioned by Kunstfestspiele Herrenhausen 2010
performed by musikFabrik Landesensemble NRW e.V.
recorded by Jörn Nettingsmeier and Florian Faber
mixed at the IEM Cube by Jörn Nettingsmeier
Florian Faber, Stephan Flock and Claudio Becker-Foss,
Rebecca Saunders, Mark J. Baden,
Lukas Hellermann, Michael Bölter, Martin Schmitz @ musikFabrik,
Lilly Marie Weber @ Kunstfestspiele Herrenhausen,
Florian Trötschel + crew @ Galerie Herrenhausen,
Winfried Ritsch, Matthias Franz and Thomas Musil @ IEM.
Recorded and mixed with free software.