Spacelab: On 4DSOUND and the future of techno
Sydney Schelvis holds a BA and MA in musicology and recently graduated the research MA Art Studies (all at the University of Amsterdam) with a thesis on the spatialisation of techno. This thesis project, on which the following blogpost is based, included a one-month artistic research residency at 4DSOUND’s Spatial Sound Institute in Budapest, Hungary, facilitated by the KVNM’s Albert Smijers research grant. A longer version of this text was recently published in the latest issue of Simulacrum.
Spacelab: On 4DSOUND and the future of techno
Florian Schneider, the recently deceased multi-instrumentalist “music labourer” of Kraftwerk, was once asked live on Brazilian television whether he liked the new generation of techno music. He responded with a brief ‘ja,’ after which the interviewer asked him whether he considers himself the father of this generation. He then awkwardly looks away before saying ‘What shall I say? I don’t know’. Regardless of this unworkable answer, Kraftwerk truly have been the trailblazers of techno. Their 1978 album The Man-Machine became their biggest success since the international release of Autobahn (1974), in part because it signified the shift from their distinctive minimalist idiom toward a more danceable style. Though not necessarily a fan-favourite, the album’s second track, “Spacelab,” stands out as one of Kraftwerk’s most danceable works up until then.
This blog concerns “spacelabs” that provide artists and researchers with sound-spatialising technologies. Such institutes swap the universal standard of a stereo speaker installation for a grid of omni-directional speakers that can accurately project sounds in the studio space. While spatialised sound is all around in the outside world, stereophony prevails in music. Taking techno, a genre initially defined by its futurist philosophy but now sonically signified by the four-to-the-floor beat as played by techno-superstars such as Charlotte de Witte and Dax J, as my starting point, in this essay I set out to evaluate what spatialising technologies have to offer for its musical materiality and how they link in with techno’s ontology.
The studio at the Spatial Sound Institute (© Sydney Schelvis)
Kraftwerk’s “Spacelab” is not so much an ode to spatial sound institutes, but is rather about space exploration. The fact that in outer space there is no sound goes to show that the term “space" in itself is highly ambiguous. I hereby define space as the three-dimensional extent in which media — gaseous, liquid, or solid — are able to vibrate or propagate, allowing for the sensation of sound. My use of the notion of spatialisation in itself is not too straightforward either, as one could easily argue that “all sound is spatial.” Indeed, sound requires space as a prerequisite, since no space means no vibratory means. Spatialisation of sound, then, implies artists and researchers intentionally using spatialising techniques and technologies in the interest of generating unique effects.
At the base of sound spatialisation lies the human capability to localise sounds. This capability is a human trait that is above all functional as a passive navigational mechanism. Through binaural hearing, the relative time-difference by which sounds reach the ear, and this is a case of milliseconds, enables the listener to localise the sound source. This is only the top of the iceberg in sound localisation though, as the shape of the (outer) ear, side of the head, shoulder, and jaw; the movement of the sonic object as well as that of the listening body; and the pitch, timbre, and amplitude of the sound object all interlace in the process of aural sound localisation. Then there are ways in which one senses sound’s spatiality other than by aural hearing alone, for instance through the lamellar corpuscle (tiny nerve endings in mammal skin) and through one’s bone structure. These are limited in their accuracy, yet demonstrate that sound localisation is a full-body process in which the embodied mind connects the various sensory data to spatially map one’s aural ecology.
The work station in the Spatial Sound Institute studio (© Sydney Schelvis)
In 2007, Dutch composer Paul Oomen founded 4DSOUND: an interdisciplinary project exploring spatial sound as a medium, currently stationed at the Spatial Sound Institute (SSI) in Budapest, Hungary. This permanent artistic research facility dedicated to the spatialisation of sound serves as a sandbox for artists, sound engineers, sonologists, musicologists, and others with a serious interest in spatial sound.
One of 4DSOUND’S first major projects was Techno is Space. This project ‘explored the nature of spatial forms and energetic movements within techno […]. By reinterpreting techno through spatial sound, [the project] intended to open up new scope for sonic exploration, artist performance and audience experience’. While a “normal” club setting makes use of a circumferential setup that directs its sonic energy centripetally at the audience, in a 4DSOUND setting, sounds continuously move around the dancing subject, potentially adding to the depth and vividness of the music.
Nevertheless, techno today relies on the physically perceived pulse of the bass and beat. Implementing this energetic pulse in a 4DSOUND setting in part eliminates the possibility of having intricate spatialised sounds, as they will be eclipsed by the pulses's acoustic dominance. Hence, an adherence to techno’s stylistic essence — the continuous isochronous bass-heavy pulse — results in a de-spatialisation of all other musical material, and thereby in a loss of spatialising potential. Conversely, deconstructing techno so as to utilise its individual components in a more modest fashion — for instance in alteration — eliminates the energetic current that runs through a techno event. The technoer relies on the embodied entrainment to this constant mono-pulse for the immersion forming techno's telos. Considering this paradox, it seems that current spatialising technologies have little to offer for an embodied interaction with techno as it manifests itself according to its telos today. Technoers expect a bass-heavy beat to interact with, one that drowns out all spatialised sounds and thereby renders the use of sound-spatialising technology ineffective.
For the advancement of techno’s spatialisation, a reconsideration of techno’s ontology may be required. Techno-inspired pop-star Björk’s use of the term techno as an adjective is already indicative of its potential to be something that its logos has for a long time not enabled it to be: fluid and flexible. In artistic research in fields beyond music, techno’s sub-/club-cultural connotations and metric simplicity have already transcended and crystallised in, respectively, performances of para-religious practices on the dance floor and dome-filling kinetic light shows. Considering techno’s initial technophilia in combination with today’s technology, spatialisation seems like a logical way to regain its explorative nature and reshape its sonic signature.
Techno’s ontological shift in focus from explorative to danceable in the 1990s — paralleling Kraftwerk’s shift toward a more club-friendly style — underpins the paradox in techno’s logos: the musical stylistics that once signified a futurist sound have become a fixed norm themselves. This norm, in turn, engendered techno’s telos as an immersive embodied engagement with these stylistics. An ontological shift could then restore techno’s progressive drive at the cost of doing away with old forms of technoing. Super-star-fandom incongruent with techno’s origins will, presumably, not vanish overnight, meaning that most techno will, for the foreseeable future, remain fixated on its current sonic characteristics, and thereby on its current telos. Yet with electronic dance music studies rapidly gaining ground as a result of a generation of students whose musical youth was soundtracked by a variety of such musics, I hope future artists and (artistic) researchers of techno will continue to explore the potentials of spatialising technology, and thereby continue to put techno’s telos to the test.