This image is so common that we no longer pay much attention to it, an image that is often synonymous with isolation, or even a desire to abstract oneself from one's surroundings: a passer-by with a helmet on his head. With Square, a work produced as part of his artistic research residency at Ircam and presented for the first time during ManiFeste 2017, Lorenzo Bianchi Hoesch has inverted the paradigm, making this image a symbol of the imaginary and a gateway to an exotic realm. Wearing headphones and carrying mobile phones to which they are connected, passers-by can travel in a new dimension. Here is a brief overview of the research that has taken them to this point and which is still continuing: Lorenzo Bianchi Hoesch is guest composer at IRCAM until the end of the year.
Proxemics: this rather barbaric term hides a concept imagined in 1963 by the American anthropologist Edward T. Hall to designate the relationship between individuals and the surrounding material space, and the notions of distance, notably the principle of social space.
« New technologies such as mobile phones equipped with headphones seemed to me a very astute way of working on this concept of proxemics," says Lorenzo Bianchi Hoesch. “For example, it became possible to provide a very intimate perception of a very distant sound and vice versa. We've all experienced the violence that can be caused by the intrusion of the unknown in our intimate space, and it's on this kind of perception that I wanted to focus. My hope was to operate like a translation: by working on space and time, I wanted to plunge the spectator into an ambiguous sound universe, to create a place that would be compatible with the real place on which our eyes are fixed, but different, shifted. I wanted to plunge the viewer into an alternative space-time, an exotic soundscape (in the sense of "from elsewhere") that is superimposed on reality. For example, in the first version of Square, which took in and around the Igor Stravinsky square in Paris, when the listener was in the church of Saint-Merri, they could hear recordings made in Saint-Merri, thus compatible with their present perceptions, but mixed with a chant recorded in a mosque in Cairo whose acoustics naturally coincide with those of Saint Merri.»
To carry out his project, Lorenzo Bianchi Hoesch approached the ISMM (Sound Music Movement Interaction) and Acoustic and Cognitive Spaces teams at IRCAM who would help him develop technological tools for telephones in the case of the former and for sound immersion (binaural listening, etc.) in the case of the latter.
A first installation, entitled Proxemic Fields, saw the light of day in different spaces at IRCAM. « The visitor was given a mobile phone and headphones at the entrance, says Lorenzo Bianchi Hoesch. The sound broadcast on the headphones by the mobile phone (via an open web page) guided his or her steps through the corridors of IRCAM and a series of virtual soundscapes were discovered that could be interacted with by moving the mobile phone. In this way, one composed one's own sound path and one's own sound. Finally, we entered Studio 1. There, the visitor had to imitate the motion of throwing a petanque ball with their mobile phone to move the sound he heard on the headphones to the ambisonic dome. If several people were in the studio at the same time, their respective sounds would blend together, as if they were all sharing the sonic intimacy they had each developed during the visit. »
Although this first installation was, in the eyes of its creator, only a stage in the project, it required intense work by the IRCAM teams. Benjamin Matuszewski, Norbert Schnell, and Frédéric Bevilacqua, from the ISMM, had to develop web tools to make the best use of the laptop's sensors and allow interaction with the soundscapes imagined by the composer, not to mention the final « sound launch », while David Poirier-Quinot and Olivier Warusfel, from the Acoustic and Cognitive Spaces team helped him record, mix, and diffuse the sounds as best they could, whether in the headphones (in binaural) or via the ambisonic dome.
« They had already worked a little on both subjects,” recalls Lorenzo Bianchi Hoesch. But never to this extent.»
There are many issues at stake. Concerning the motion capture, for example, it proved to be excessively complex to refine the system in order to obtain a semblance of consistency between the users’ gestures and the result in terms of sound morphology. « We made a lot of mistakes in developing this sound/gesture grammar. We tested all sorts of sounds. In the final installation, most of the sound timbres broadcast are vocal, simply because associating the morphology of the gesture and the prosody of the voice was semantically interesting and eloquent.»
« The other aspect that we were keen to improve after this first experience was the process: it was very embryonic and unsatisfactory. This is why we dedicated the following research to this virtual sound path in a real landscape, resulting in the creation of Square.»
There is no interaction with the soundscape in Square by means of the mobile phone: only the « compass » sensor is used. Nothing else. Not even the location tools. Simply because we found that it didn't work appropriately, says Lorenzo Bianchi Hoesch.
« The GPS signal doesn't work on the Igor Stravinsky square: the Centre Pompidou blocks it. And it wouldn't matter anyway, because the GPS accuracy is too low for what we wanted to do. So, we worked around the problem by using images: while guiding the viewer on his walk, we send him an image. It's up to him to find the precise location from which the image was taken. Then the compass allows us to give him the feeling of moving in the virtual soundscape, in order to manage the spatial universe and its rotation. This solution had the advantage of giving the image a central role in the dramaturgy of the piece. Square's whole game is to make the listener look very precisely at a place or a detail of that place. If the listener does what is asked of him, we know exactly where he is and where he stands. And all the recordings coincide from the point of view of sound immersion. In this way too, the device is more flexible, and we can organise indoor tours, in museums, monuments, etc.»
Square © Hervé Veronèse, Square © DR
Since this first version of Square, intended for the Igor Stravinsky square in Paris, Lorenzo Bianchi Hoesch has made his installation available in several Italian cities: Bolzano, Milan, Bologna, and Turin. These installations are still active today as a form of invisible Land Art. As a guest composer at IRCAM until 2022, he captures new sounds in each of these places and creates a new work.
« From a technological point of view, research has not progressed much. My interest in the « Square » object has changed: I now accumulate a lot of content on the places I visit, I interview the people I meet there to get to know them better. As a result, the journeys are longer and more intense. One of my compositional constraints now is only to play recordings that have a connection with the places I have visited. And the question of proxemics is omnipresent, in particular to change the spectator's relationship to the acoustic space.»