Mastering Outside the Studio (5/5): Nadine Schütz

Decipher new mastering practices outside the studio walls with Nadine Schutz, sound architecte and guest composer in research at IRCAM.

Can you illustrate the circumstances that lead you to use other media—or leave the studio—to mix / master in specific conditions where your music / sounds will be listened to?

I consider myself to be a sound architect, or as an environmental interpreter. My creations are all dimensioned and created in function to the specific places where I work. I study the space’s acoustic qualities and sound patterns, which I incorporate, transform, and recompose. The resulting work can take very different forms: installations, scenography, acoustic atmospheres or environments, environmental instruments or sculptural sound objects.

I question the role of sound in the relationship between people and their environment. I am particularly interested in movements and changes, temporalities, life and memories, dynamic ambient aspects, themes that I consider to be the carriers of an inherent and intimate relationship among landscape, space, and sound. In this sense, what I do could be considered environmental art, and therefore my sound creations are only truly complete in their intended environment.

The scales on which I operate are very different, from temporary interior scenography to permanent "outdoor" interventions in public spaces or complex urban developments, as well as independent exhibition installations or sound gardens. As a trained architect and landscape designer, urban projects guide my compositional approach. Designing, composing in an urban or landscape environment almost always implies working with a given site, its physical structure, its social conditions, its uses and users. It is more recently, and especially during my residency at IRCAM, that I rediscovered the pleasure of composing in a virtual or abstract space.

Photo 1: Nadine Schutz © IRCAM, photo: Sébastien Calvet
Photo 2: Jardin des réflexions (La Défense) : Installation – sound furniture for the Place de la Défense. Acoustic measures of the space with IRCAM’s Acoustic and Cognitive Spaces team © Nadine Schütz, photo: Clément Willemin

During a specific mixing / mastering session, what type(s) of audio transformations do you apply to your music / sounds? Do you think that a dedicated form of listening is necessary for this practice? Has this type of operation(s) changed the way you work in general?

It seems important to me to point out that often the device (the design of the instrument) is as much a part of my work as the sound content (the composition). In this sense, the devices are not a neutral diffusion device. They are tailor-made to contribute to the sonic development of the site, sometimes by working with the lighting (the Acoustic Niches for the TGI square), with fixed urban elements (the Jardin des Réflexions at La Défense) or the structure of a bridge (Les Instruments Élémentaires in the Franchissement Urbain Pleyel in Saint-Denis). Their arrangement can also be part of the mixing / mastering process in situ. The freedom I have at this level depends on the degree of their "incorporation" in architectural elements, on their interfaces with other installations (i.e. light). This work on the device is also a balancing act between the frequency rendering in relation to the resonances of the installation space. To distinguish these resonant frequencies, I sometimes use the voice. In the case of the installation - sound scenography Chorus: Water and Voices for the exhibition One Planet One Future at the Westbeth Gallery in New York, this "low-tech" procedure eventually became part of the work itself: by singing harmonics to the amplified and predominant frequency of a disturbing technical noise present in the space I managed to mask it by integrating it into the human chorus.

Niches Acoustiques: Sound system for the plaza in front of the  Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris at the Porte de Clichy, collaboration with Moreau Kusunoki architectes.
Visit of a site with the architect Hiroko Kusunoki. - Schemas for the spaces in “Niches Acoustiques” with the sound fields © Nadine Schütz, photo: Giovanna Carrer

In terms of composition, I work a lot on the stratification of auditory space, the spatial behavior of sound objects, and their interaction with the physics of space. The sonic and musical rendering of these compositions can only be finalized in situ. There, these sound figures find themselves confronted with often changing spatial dispositions, with pre-existing sounds in addition to all the other multi-sensory impressions found in the space. In most cases, I find myself reducing, separating, de-densifying, slowing down, i.e. "filtering" on different planes and dimensions what I had prepared in the studio. Reduce complexity, make it more transparent, give time to listen.

To do this, it is essential to exercise  critical listening that detaches itself from the sound imagination developed during the preparation in the studio and to listen anew. It is also a humble sort of listening, which takes into account that, especially for sound works in urban space, the audience that will hear the sounds is not there specifically to listen. Of course there is always a hope to awaken, to stimulate an auditory curiosity, to embellish the sound experience of the place - all this by admitting that this hope is positioned for listeners on their daily journey to work, between home and subway station. I consider this condition of listening to be an important constraint in my interventions. I want to offer users of urban spaces in which I intervene a free listening, give them the choice. This idea of freedom is part of a continuous learning process on this type of operation, and consists in exposing oneself to a dynamic of negotiation between control and non-control in creation, which can be destabilizing, but above all inspiring.

How do you adapt to possible variations in the listening characteristics of the specific place or medium? dissemination, such as, for example, different types of environments around the listener (presence of other people, variable background noises, additional music,...)?

The adaptability and evolution of a composition to the fluctuations of environmental conditions and uses is central in my reflection on these creations. They seek to make a composition naturally "alive", like a landscape.

Currently, I am working on several works in which I am experimenting with systems of interaction and environmental harmonization: how the landscape can become a kind of conductor for what will be heard at different times of the day, at different seasons, in relation to the current sound data of the site and according to the weather. The answers are multiple, but all go through a requirement and a long iterative mixing / mastering time in situ.

For electroacoustic works designed to remain in place for an extended period of time, it is also a question of reflecting on a method for the periodic renewal of sound content, which can go hand in hand with the development of remote management and control tools. In the long term, it is always a question of finding a good mix between in situ and remote work, to manage and program. Nevertheless, the methodological work on this mix is also required for the entire composition process for specific places.

With IRCAM I am developing a composition methodology in different stages: the restitution of the acoustic quality of a site and these sound atmospheres in the studio as a basis/context for creation, then the transition/transposition of the composition and simulation work / prefiguration in the studio and finally its destination, its installation in situ. If I have the choice, I prefer to work in the studio, using the ambisonic technique (HOA), for this purpose— using in situ recorded ambiences and impulse response measurements to mix the sounds of my creation—because wearing headphones on the ears always encourages a certain internalization / individualization of the listening, whereas what I seek is a shared listening. It seems important to me to achieve a certain continuity and reciprocity between these stages. Even if the site is sometimes not yet there....

Visual: Instrumente élémentaires (wind): installations and sound sculptures for the Franchissement Urbain Pleyel in Saint Denis, collaboration with Marc Mimram. Drawing of the instrument “wind” and its eolian memory © Nadine Schütz

Chorus – Water and Voices

Installation - sound design by Nadine Schütz for the exhibition One Planet One Future in the Westbeth Gallery in New York, 2016. Photography: Anne de Carbuccia, architecture: Ombra Bruna, Studio BEMaa, lighting: Alessandro Arena