Aki Ito & Jean-Philippe Lambert 1/4 : Astérismes

Artistic Residencies: The Blog

The very name they have given to their project reveals its origins: Asterisms. It is indeed a question of stars and their delicate mechanics.

“If I don't rely on the observation of astronomical phenomena to compose, I am certainly inspired by them," says Aki Ito, a Japanese composer living in France. In a stellar system, each celestial body has its own period, and that's what I like to do in my music too: to have several 'modules' of different periods cohabit within the same piece. Initially, these modules are apparently independent of each other but, as in astronomy, all the stars in a system (stars, planets, satellites, etc.), such as the solar system, interact with each other, sometimes significantly modifying their periods.

A phenomenon of gravitational interaction called 'orbital resonance'," explains Aki Ito. It is thanks to this type of phenomenon that scientists have managed to detect the presence of Neptune (by studying the perturbations in the orbit of Uranus) - and, more recently, a staggering number of celestial bodies, even extrasolar ones - to the point of determining their exact orbits around their stars, without ever seeing them.

Photo : Jean-Philippe Lambert © Bastien Defives

For his part, Jean-Philippe Lambert, a researcher associated with Aki Ito in the Asterisms project, is a regular at Ircam. Working in various teams at the Institute (Sound-Music-Movement Interaction, Acoustic and Cognitive Spaces, Sound Analysis and Synthesis, etc.),  a few years ago he took part in a research project on the use of web browsers for sound diffusion. Ircam contributed to the WebAudio tool included in the fifth version of the html standard (HTML5, the current standard), in a desire to go beyond the mere technical device to make it a real tool for sound experiments and productions, even concerts.

Thus the idea of Asterisms was conceived: a form of concert that could be described as "participatory and immersive", without a stage, and in which the sound diffusion is distributed in the audience, each of its members becoming an independent sound source evolving in  space. And the key to this broadcasting can be found in almost every pocket: the smartphone.

Web standards are relatively open," says Jean-Philippe Lambert, "and this openness has varied over time and will certainly continue to vary. As things stand, when a page is opened in a smartphone browser, the host website can access the display, of course, but also the device's speakers, its motion sensors, and even a portion of its computing power..."

There are many technical pitfalls in broadcasting music in this way: synchronisation of all the devices, sending the sound (without saturating the browser's memory or connection capacities), the quality of the sound obtained, mixing, etc. "Even getting a sound to come out correctly from a remote telephone required a lot of work," says Jean-Philippe Lambert. Then, we have to manage to make several of them hear, to establish a link between them, to create an ecosystem, and then to orchestrate it.

The development of the tool thus becomes closely linked to that of the musical work: the intrinsic constraints of the former (such as having to mourn the loss of knowing exactly where the sources are located and their relative positions in real time) become catalysts of creativity for the latter. Certain technical constraints are thus resolved by musical creativity, even proving to be very inspiring, opening up new possibilities, which are then developed musically. And vice versa, in a back-and-forth exchange of ideas: "Our (many) respective constraints are often resolved by the other," emphasises Jean-Philippe Lambert.

Asterisms project in the Ircam studios

"I try to fill the sound space without invading people," says Aki Ito. And the work appears each time under a different face not only because I interpret it differently (I manage all the sounds from a tablet), but because the instrument I play (the phones in the audience, each of which has its own audio characteristics, and the audience itself, which can walk around the space, causing the quality of the sound synthesised by the ensemble to fluctuate at all times) undergoes variations - perhaps greater than those of a traditional instrument - to which we must adapt..."

In the following episodes, we will look in more detail at each aspect of this work, as well as at the members of the Ircam scientific team who are particularly involved in it.