Alberto Gatti / Re-sounding bodies : 1/4 : The body has ears

Le blog des résidences artistiques

With the start of 2024 came a series of new artistic research residencies in IRCAM’s basement. Amongst them is the Italian composer Alberto Gatti, who chose to invest a new and rather peculiar sound diffusion technology, close to the body.

The Italian composer, sound-designer, and computer music designer Alberto Gatti initially studied music at the Florence Conservatory, before quickly finding in electronic music a privileged mode of expression. However, since his first steps as an acousmatic composer, and even more so during his Master’s degree in artistic research, he has wanted to explore different modes of sound diffusion beyond speakers, which are the prevailing medium. “Eager to get away from acoustic instruments, electronic music has developed through the medium of the speakers. My own practice led me to explore new alternatives, including what I call ‘instrumental objects’. Most of the time, they are simply objects I have found, that are sometimes producing light, and to which I attach transducers. This prompted me to think more about the connection between object and sound and between body and sound.”

Alberto Gatti was at this stage of thinking when, after completing his Master’s degree, he started an internship at IRCAM. This is how he met Claire Richards, a doctorate student working in the Sound Perception and Design team of the STMS Research Lab, whose research focuses, as its name suggests, on modes of sound perception. As part of her thesis, co-directed by Nicolas Misdariis, head of the Ircam research team, and Roland Cahen, Claire Richards developed a device that diffuses sound in a very uncommon manner: it takes the shape of a harness that resembles more a torture or medical device than a traditional instrument. This harness is actually a bone-conducting audio-tactile device containing several actuators that target strategic points on the skeleton. It works in a similar manner to those increasingly popular headphones that propagate sound vibrations to the inner ear through the skull, thus bypassing the eardrum.

To work properly, the harness must be perfectly adjusted on the subject. It contains nine actuators: five of which are placed on the spinal zone, two on the sides, and two on the clavicles. Without being completely uncomfortable, the harness still feels like wearing an old-time corset. But once the first tingling sensation has faded, the feeling of a generalized vibration – not unlike a shiver going down the spine – is startling, especially when the device diffuses the sound of instruments such as percussions, which gives the sensation of being stabbed by the impacts.

Because each actuator sends vibrations to a specific bone, we can therefore “feel” the sound in a tactile way, but not only: the vibration also travels through the body, from bone to bone, until it reaches the cochlea[1] which vibrates in turn. This way, perceiving sound goes through both hearing and touch. Alberto Gatti specifies: “We also ‘shut’ the ears of the listener by using earplugs and a set of active noise cancelling headphones, because we realized that if we don’t, the subject is less sensitive to body sensations, and the experiment is therefore less interesting. When I was conducting my first experiments during my internship, I had the opportunity to do some testing with the cello player, Marie Ythier. It was amazing! I could not hear sounds, but I had the feeling that she was playing my own body like an instrument!”

As part of his internship, Alberto Gatti also contributed to the development of a composition tool that was intended to spatialize sound diffusion within the harness. He also used this opportunity to work on three audio-tactile electroacoustic ‘Studies’.

“I already knew that the tactile dimension was an extremely important part of the musical performance of an instrument player, but I never thought about how important this dimension could be for the listener as well.”

Naturally, these first experiments made the young composer want to take his research a step further. That is how he came to apply for an artistic research residency, which he titled Re-sounding bodies. The main goal of this residency is to carry out several tests and analysis in order to determine the best conditions for the harness to diffuse sounds, whether it is in relation to an instrumental gesture or not, and find out what works and what doesn’t.

“For instance, we know that the human ear can perceive frequencies contained between 20Hz and 20000Hz. With this device, it is more between 70Hz and 1200Hz. However, when we reach a low-pitched sound, we can ‘feel’ sound with the whole body more than we actually hear it. As we get into high-pitched sounds, the sound travels up to the ear: the more we hear it, the less we feel it. In conclusion, we get the feeling that sound travels from the lower part of the body when it is tactile and low-pitched, to the top of the body and towards the head when it is high-pitched. 250Hz seems to be the ideal frequency at which both senses are stimulated equally. Of course, sensations can vary greatly from one individual to another.”

“That is exactly this multimodal aspect of sound perception that I really wanted to explore during my residency: the connection between sound and gesture but also sound and touch. I also wanted to inspect further the carnal dimension, within the body, of this new way of listening. How can we spatialize sounds within the harness to allow for a better sound perception but also to make sound serve the musical discourse? What happens when the source of the sound is not removed, as with any acousmatic discourse, but actually visible?
Can the player actually ‘play’ the body of the listener, like I have myself experienced with the cello player, and how?

Can they ‘touch’ us without physically touching us? This is what I meant by naming my residency ‘Re-sounding bodies’. 
And what about if we are not dealing with instruments anymore, bur with instrumental objects, such as a table or a box, etc.? And if the sound that we feel is completely disconnected from the sound we hear?”

Another approach to this could be, instead of “shutting” the ears of the listener, to make them wear bone-conducting headphones so that they are completely emerged in a sphere of sound. The goal of combining the harness and the headphones would be to give a new dimension to sound diffusion, and could be used to listen to music, but also to watch movies…

The ultimate goal, finally, would be to compose for and with the device.

[1] The cochlea is the part of the inner ear involved in hearing.