the stuff of hope

….the elegance, fragility and strength of a feather affected by sound, provides a rich semiotic kind of hope, and I want to know why.

Ignore the disorienting camera wobble. Ignore the silence (it’s an Aphex Twin track, without rights clearance). There is a correspondence between feather and sound. And that correspondance is the thing. The plastic sheeting is on hold. Creative (or more accurately, pragmatic) energies were re-assigned to the task of working out what could be moved by sound waves. Sure, there is research out there about having objects levitate as a result of harnessing standing waves. The spectacular is not what this work is aiming at, however. Though it is spectacular.

Acoustic levitation. A popular 1980s television commercial featured a man being blown backward by the sound coming from his stereo. Though a speaker’s pressure field isn’t nearly that strong, acoustic pressure can suspend millimeter-sized objects against the force of gravity. New work by Pierre Lambert and colleagues at Belgium’s Université libre de Bruxelles compares existing theoretical models, numerically computes the strength and direction of the acoustic forces, and validates those results with experimental measurements on objects suspended in standing waves.

Fitzgerald, R.J., 2011. Acoustic levitation. Physics Today64(9), p.23.

We demonstrate that acoustic levitation can levitate spherical objects much larger than the acoustic wavelength in air. The acoustic levitation of an expanded polystyrene sphere of 50 mm in diameter, corresponding to 3.6 times the wavelength, is achieved by using three 25 kHz ultrasonic transducers arranged in a tripod fashion. In this configuration, a standing wave is created between the transducers and the sphere. 

Andrade, M.A., Bernassau, A.L. and Adamowski, J.C., 2016. Acoustic levitation of a large solid sphere. Applied Physics Letters109(4), p.044101.

“A phenomenon called near-field acoustic levitation (NFAL) has been reported by the author’s research group where planar objects of several kilograms in weight are levitated in the air a few hundred micrometers away from a radiation surface.”

Sadayuki, U., 2002. Phenomena, theory and applications of near-field acoustic levitation. Revista de Acústica33(3-4), p.21.

But back to the task at hand. A short-list of potential materials.. “stuff”… was drawn up:

• Gift wrapping paper
• Rice paper
• Origami paper
• Writing paper
• Newspaper
• Cellophane
• Coffee grinds (think cymatics)
• Latex
• Balloons of all/ any description
• Wind spinner material
• Feathers
• Thin wire

Something has to redeem the original vision of an audiovisual work which connects materially, surely? It’s hard to know without trying, so I started, with a hesitant residual rumble of self-doubt as accompaniment (“..maybe I’m just simple-minded and it’s obvious to the rest of all of the everyones, that sound cannot move materials”).

The mind is like a rat in a maze where it thought it smelt something delicious, but ends up disoriented from its own zealous movement to chase down the prize.

Paper would be taut and make too much noise. Coffee grinds would succumb to gravity unless there was a system for segmenting and limiting their movements, all of which still ultimately succumb to gravity. And this is all speculative, based on years of embodied experience.. which is good, but imperfect for imaginings.

And maybe all of this would be so subtle that listeners would need to be perched on top of the IKO to experience any visual counterpoint, and then the sound levels would need to be quieter, and then the levels wouldn’t suffice to move the materials. Am I sure I smelt the delicious thing? Is it me or the world around me, spinning?

Perhaps I could issue earplugs at the door and hope that IEM’s insurance covers any casualties? No, I couldn’t on principle. Hearing is too precious. So then, when the effects of disorientation and fatigue set in, the thing that promises possibilities is a thing of hope. Is it a coincidence that feathers happen to be graceful, alluring thing of beauty and symbolism? That they represent the individual and collective at once? No… for this hope has been recognised before.

Hope is the thing with feathers (254)
Emily Dickinson – 1830-1886

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

From The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)


In order to understand better the failure, I documented the materials which had shaped the ideas in my mind. Had I missed something fundamental? Was there something in the materials that had spoken to me which I could no longer hear, because of my focused sense of utility in applying them?

Turns out, yes.

They are exquisite. They may not work with the IKO as planned… but I could watch them move in their own ways, for long minutes that could extend and extend beyond time and into duration. Their delicacy reminds me of the exchanges and interplays at work here. Ideas are not fixed, and these materials ask for no more than attention to being. Though less does not work.

Luckily, both time and duration are on my side, for now. Ideas rise like waves, swelling and spilling, again and again. One may barely remember to breathe beneath their number.

Thank god the first one failed….

first attempt… first fail

Some artists work backwards towards the realisation of a piece based on what they know they can do. That’s strategic. For me, it’s the inverse. I have a concept or vision, often pretty well-formed in the first instance, and spend my time figuring out how to achieve it. Definitely not strategic, but definitely interesting (for me), process-driven, and challenging.

It does mean lots of time spent experimenting (always a good thing?) and much failure. But failure is good. Wild glitches are ephemeral, and all failure is unintended (wild). That doesn’t make it pleasant… or easy…

So, the vision was harnessing the IKO’s highly directional beams to move highly delicate physical materials, and in doing so, create a parallel visual and embodied element to my first composition. Currently, imaginatively titled ‘sound01’. The issue is, even beamformed sound waves are too weak to do much. The material meanwhile needs to be pulled taught over the surface of the driver (without touching it) and less flexible materials are more suited, and also noisier. The point wasn’t to add a sonic layer, at least not an obvious one.

In order not to feel bad about the note I’m ending on… I’m cheering myself along with an image of the latest IKO prototypes, more clearly in the Death Star tradition than the earlier IKO. I hope these wee fellas get developed further, as they can go 4th order (I know!) and would be a lot cheaper. Moore’s Law and all… However it’s Sod’s Law which seems to be affecting me right now.

getting started

I fell in love with the IKO upon first hearing it. Many times I have heard reproduction technologies (either with or without pre-emptive hyperbole) and been left flat. I have backed some things on Kickstarter because I like to support development where I can, and I have queued for demos of technologies in the promise of something special. I won’t provide examples of the disappointing systems here. Auditory perception is subjective and I imagine some people will like the sound they offer. Why spoil that?

An example of a technology I was impressed by the sound of, is the Bacch 3D sound system (

3D reproduction using just two loudspeakers. Defined. Convincing. But it will cost you, and I did struggle to think of relevant applications for me. There is also limited translation before things degrade. But all said, it’s a treat for one’s ears.

If you wish to learn more about the technical aspects of compact spherical loudspeaker arrays info is available via IEM here (and fuller information about the IKO’s history and potential can be found here). I have tried over the years I’ve been working with spatial sound to understand some of the maths and technologies pertaining to spherical harmonics… it’s not easy but the challenge is one of the things that makes spatial sound so interesting. To have a practice, you do need to know more about the technologies and theory than in other forms of sound.

Artists who work with sound in space often work alongside engineers (to varying degrees of mutual (mis)comprehension I’m sure). It’s a curious thing, after centuries of progressive specialisation in academia and beyond, to address a realisation that phenomena may not always be best understood or explored in isolated conceptual structures.

The IKO is a unique proposition and having some months with it will be magical. Perhaps the works I make for it will only occupy a most extreme niche. I care not. It’s a privilege to be working intimately with it for 5 months. I just hope I remember that when things start failing, as they will.