EMPAC’s Wave Field Audio System Travels to Montreal for the Akousma Electroacoustic Music Festival

By Inside Rensselaer

October 26, 2016

From Inside Rensselaer.

From Oct. 17-20, the audio team from the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) presented the new 496-speaker “wave field synthesis” audio system at the Akousma Festival in Montreal. The premier international gathering of composers working in “electroacoustic” music—a genre of immersive electronic music that is traditionally performed in the dark—Akousma asked the EMPAC team to demonstrate the unique system’s capabilities and conduct a series of workshops for composers and students who have never had access to such a system.

EMPAC completed construction on the system this spring and debuted its capabilities to the Rensselaer community this fall with Professor Rob Hamilton’s performance 108 Troubles. Only a handful of such systems exist in the world and EMPAC’s system has the ability to spatialize sounds with an exceptional degree of precision.

“Almost no one [at Akousma] has seen wave field before,” said music curator Argeo Ascani, “although they’ve all heard about it.” Wave field synthesis has been a mathematical principle within the field of acoustics for a long time but, due to the logistics and cost of constructing such an array, very few composers and acousticians have had the opportunity to experience the holophonic audio effect.

Part of the citywide music festival, the system was set up at Eastern Bloc, a digital arts center committed, much like EMPAC, to the development of new media at the intersection of art, science, and technology. Ascani presented the system’s artistic capabilities, while audio engineers Todd Vos and Jeff Svatek discussed the technical configuration and process of construction. Workshops were open to festival attendees and included many students from Concordia, McGill, and Conservatoire de musique du Quebec.

On the last night of the festival, Hans Tutschku, composer and director of Harvard’s electroacoustic studios, presented a talk and performance using the system.

“There has been a wide range of interest,” Ascani said, “from students to professionals. I think what we’ve learned is the subjectivity and objectivity of the system. Some elements require cognitive leaps to really grasp what is going on [behind the sound], and so everyone experiences it a bit differently.”

In past years, Ascani has hosted three Akousma-related showcases at EMPAC, often using the voluminous public spaces of the building for the composers to perform within. After presenting the wave field array at this year’s festival, he’d like to bring many of these composers back to EMPAC for further exploration of the system. “Since the technology is so rare and unknown, we thought we would do an introduction to the Montreal electroacoustic community to give them the opportunity to get past the novelty of the system and move forward with serious contemplation [of project possibilities].”