Tune in to the fifth episode of The Sampler Audiozine with Eiliyas (Mixtape Menage) and Diego Hernandez. Eiliyas interviews Diego,…
“It is important to acknowledge how we are working with it as a group, the approach we are taking and the community aspect of it and how, for some reason, we have ended up as a group of mainly women who are currently working with it at Greenwich.” – Brona Martin, on working with the IKO as part of a women-led research group
These four composers unpack what it’s like to work and create new music with and for IKO, a unique 3D inside-out speaker, as part of a research group at University of Greenwich. What is IKO, and how is it different to multichannel speaker setups? How does it affect one’s practice to work with new technology like this as part of a collective, and why is it important that women are engaged in this work?
Emma Margetson 00:00
Hello, and welcome today to a special Audiozine for International Women’s Day 2022. And so this Audiozine today is going to share recent compositions and work and re search with this incredible tool for spatial audio composition, the IKO.
Emma Margetson 00:19
And so, to begin with, let’s start with introductions: my name is Emma Margetson, I am a sound artist and electroacoustic composer based between the Midlands and London in the UK. And over the past six months, I have had the wonderful opportunity of working with the IKO as part of an Arts Council England funded residency through the Developing Your Creative Practice grant. And we also have Angela McArthur, Angela has worked with audio-visual media in studio, live and location environments all across the world. And she actually initiated the first UK tour of the IKO back in 2019. So how about you Brona and Nikki, tell us about your work with the IKO as well, and if you have any works that you’d like to share with everybody.
Brona Martin 01:23
Hello, my name is Brona Martin and I’m a composer and sound artist. I recently received Develop Your Creative Practice funding from Arts Council England, which I am using to work fund my IKO project. My main aims for the project, are to just expand my creative skills within the area of spatial audio and immersive audio visual experiences. So I’m working with field recordings to create an immersive soundscape, which relates to visuals which will be projected onto panels within the space.
Brona Martin 02:01
For a previous project I created a virtual soundwalk in Unity game engine. So I really wanted to develop my skills and learn a little bit about game design, and I created this virtual soundwalk where the player can walk around a natural environment, such as a forest and a small beach, and experience soundscapes from these places. The aim of the project was to create a virtual space, where people could go and experience a calming natural environment, places and sounds that perhaps we were all missing because of COVID restrictions to travel. So now I’m translating this concept into an audio visual work using the IKO and video projection.
Nikki Sheth 02:47
Hi, I’m Nikki, I’m a sound artist and composer who works with environmental sound. I received Develop Your Creative Practice funding from the Arts Council England. I’ve just started my residency working with the IKO speaker, and I’ll be exploring how environmental field recordings can be used with the IKO. So far as part of the residency, I’ve been listening to environmental recordings on the IKO and exploring spatial practices and workflows. I’ve yet to start composing with the IKO, but here are some of the field recordings that I’m working with. The first is a hydrophone recording and the second is a recording of windmills in Finland.
Emma Margetson 03:59
So first things first, what is the IKO?
Angela McArthur 04:05
The IKO is an icosahedral loudspeaker, so that means it has 20 faces. And therefore 20 speaker drivers, it’s one of only a handful in the world and it’s also the most compact speaker system for higher order ambisonics in the world today. However, unlike the usual outside and multi-channel speaker systems, this is an inside-out system in 360 degrees.
Angela McArthur 04:29
Well, what does that mean? It means it’s a spatial sound experience unlike any other. It’s unique beamforming technologies propagate sound from its 20 drivers in a way that brings the materiality of a site to life. It also elicits a really powerful effect on listeners. Working from direct as well as reflected sound, the sonic definition of spatial sound sources is exceptional. The creative and collaborative potentials of the IKO are vast, we’re only starting to get a sense of what that means, and we feel really lucky to have won in the Sound / Image group at the University of Greenwich. It’s great that it’s appealed to so many female composers, this is quite unusual. There is no substitute for listening with the IKO.
Emma Margetson 05:15
So over the course of the past six months, I have been working regularly with the IKO. And as part of that, I was very fortunate to be a composer and residence as part of the Sound / Image exhibition in December . So that meant I had, over the course of the exhibitions, time working within the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, and I created a site-specific, site-responsive work with the IKO for that space that was then presented within a concert and so here is a short extract of the composition created for the gallery space.
Emma Margetson 06:51
And so important to ask really is what does it mean for you, as composers or sound artists, to work with the IKO?
Angela McArthur 07:02
Working with the IKO is an extraordinary experience, space becomes truly compositional, and this is unfamiliar territory. Even for those of us that have worked with multi-channel sound for years, there’s something also incredibly precious about the journey one takes personally with the IKO when they spend time with it.
Angela McArthur 07:21
I have a feeling there may be some common themes in terms of this process, but I also think one of the most exciting aspects of this is how diverse the system is, and what it can reflect back to you artistically. When we consider this level of personal relevance, personal meaning, and personal artistic possibility in the context of diversity in the kinds of people working with the IKO, things get more exciting. I’m not kidding when I say that the IKO can help us realise that we are divergent, and yet we share common ground common sensibilities. We’re certainly trying to find ways to make the IKO accessible to a more diverse range of artists. I’m in my fifth year of working with the IKO and I’m only scratching the surface of what it can do. It’s the one technology that has significantly altered my practice in terms of artistic concepts, and also the way that I think about that process.
Brona Martin 08:18
So my background, I come from an electroacoustic composition background, that’s what I did my PhD in, and I create – I work with field recordings, and I create immersive soundscape experiences that are often experienced in a concert hall, perhaps with lots of usually with lots of loudspeakers. And the reason I was looking at Unity game engine was because I – it was another way of me taking my research practice to new audiences and not having to rely on these spaces, and all of these lots of loudspeakers. So really, getting my work out of the concert hall and finding a way to get it to people perhaps in their own homes. Which, you know, is nice because you can bring your work to new audiences.
Brona Martin 09:12
As Angela said earlier, we have to take a different approach to working with IKO. I have composed multichannel works for outside-in systems such as 5.1, or a ring of eight loudspeakers. And what we mean by that is, these systems are projecting sound into the space where the speakers are located at the edges of the room. But with the IKO, it project sounds into the space from the inside out, and relies on reflections and the architecture of the space in order for sound to be spatialized.
Brona Martin 09:48
So, this involves a lot – lot more thinking in terms of spatializing our sound as a result, I have to think about the space a lot more, so for example, if I want the sound to come from the rear right of the room, this can be quite easily done on a 5.1 system, for example, like you, you can pan the sound to the rear right speaker and it will come from that space, it will come from that corner. With the IKO, we can pan the sound to the rear right of the space, but depending on the type of sonic material we are working with and the reflections within the space, the sound may still appear to be coming from the IKO, from the speaker itself, rather than the rear right corner of the room. So, as a result, I spent a lot of time listening to the behaviour of the sound within the space trying really hard to get that sound to come from the rear of the room, rather than it coming from the speaker that you could – it’s kind of the sound is sitting on the speaker.
Brona Martin 10:51
And, for me, this takes a lot of time and experimentation, working with a lot with EQ and ambiX plugins, which are plugins which facilitate sound spatialization within a 3D image. So I suppose as a result of this, I now spend far more time composing the space rather than the music, and really paying attention to the psychoacoustic effects of the sounds within the space. So I feel while I’m sitting at the desk, and that speaker is in front of me, and I’m listening, like I’m – I think I’m listening far more intently, it’s like I have to listen really hard in order to really understand how that sound is behaving in the space, and the impact of reflector panels which we use, and the impact of the materials in the room – whether they are absorbing or reflecting the sound.
Brona Martin 11:51
Working with the IKO, just to go back to the point that I was making about working with Unity game engine, to try and bring my work to new audiences and not having to rely on concert hall environments for performance. Because the IKO is one speaker, it’s portable. And we can bring it to different spaces, so rather than having to set up a system with lots of loudspeakers, which, as many will know, it’s a lot of work, we can take this one single speaker and create really nice immersive spaces and experiences. But it’s – we’re constantly learning because every space you bring it into, it behaves – the sound behaves completely different. So it’s almost like you have to tune your piece to the space by using the space and by using the reflector panels that we also have.
Nikki Sheth 12:51
Working with the IKO is completely different to other spatialization systems I’ve worked with before. As Brona and Angela mentioned, working with the IKO means projecting sound, and relying on the reflections and architecture of the space. I feel that the way I’m working and thinking about the space being transformed, and so have the types of sound that I’m working with. Working with the IKO is really developing my spatial practice and making me pay attention to the architecture and acoustics of a space. This knowledge will go on to inform my practice in the future, whether I’m working with the IKO or other spatialization systems.
Emma Margetson 13:29
And considering today, that is International Women’s Day, why do you feel that it is important to promote women in electronic music and audio?
Nikki Sheth 13:41
As a BAME woman working in electronic music and audio, I’m in huge minority. It’s super important to me to be promoting women in electronic music and be representing and encouraging cultural diversity in the field. Within my teaching, I always try to use examples of female artists to show that it’s not only the man who can work successfully in the area. To be a part of the group of female composers that working with the IKO at Greenwich University is really inspiring. We are all supporting each other, and it’s hugely important to promote our work and to get it out there to increase female visibility in the field, and also to be a role model for any future female spatial composers out there.
Brona Martin 14:31
As a member of the Sound / Image research group at the University of Greenwich, I have the wonderful opportunity to work with artists and researchers who work with spatial audio and gaming technologies. But what’s really great about this project is working with a group of women all who are willing to share their ideas and experiences of working with the IKO. So like, we are all learning from one another, it’s a really welcoming and inviting space.
Brona Martin 15:00
From previous experiences of composing, the life of a studio-based composer can sometimes be lonely. And sometimes you only get to meet other women at events and concerts. So, you can be in a studio maybe for six hours, and you might not see anybody, and you only really get to share your work in the concert, at the concert. And I find often, even when you do share your music at the concert, sometimes there isn’t enough time to have conversations about the process, and perhaps how listeners, how the audience have experienced your music, because maybe there’s another concert or everyone’s rushing off to get a train or go for dinner.
Brona Martin 15:41
But at Greenwich we are engaging with one another throughout and during the compositional process, and we share – we’re sharing works in progress and techniques, and geeking off about plugins, and it’s so much fun! So if I’ve, if I’m in the studio with the IKO and I’m down in London, everybody knows I’m there, and I’ll often get a knock on the door and Angela, or Emma or Nicky or other members of the Sound / Image group will come in and say, “Hey Brona, what are you working on?” And I’d be like, yeah, come in, listen to this, what do you think? And we start to have conversations about what is happening with the sound within that space, which is really important because we’re – well, for me, I’m still trying to find a language, and words, to describe my compositions and how I’m working with IKO, so the more we talk about it, I think the easier it will become to coherently discuss our compositional process, and how we are working with the space.
Brona Martin 16:50
And so because of this really great working environment, and – I feel it’s really, really inspiring. It is important to promote our activities and collaborative approach for working with IKO, so we can get really get excited that we have this speaker at Greenwich, there’s only a handful in the world that are being used, and we can get bogged down in the technology and how amazing it is, but it is important to acknowledge how we are working with it as a group. It’s important to acknowledge the approach we are taking and the community aspect of it, and how, for some reason we have ended up as a group of mainly women who are currently working with it at Greenwich.
Brona Martin 17:38
So it’s important to celebrate that and promot it. And I know firsthand what it is like to be the only woman working in music technology, being in the minority. When I did – I did a master’s in music technology and I was the only woman on the course working with 17 men. And don’t get me wrong, it was a brilliant 12 months and I learned so much from these guys, but on the first day of lectures, and for a while, you know, I sat there going – where are the other women? I think because of this – because being in the minority, I definitely worked harder and really pushed myself. But it was intimidating.
Brona Martin 18:22
And I’ve also lectured on courses and music production and studio composition, and I’m really conscious of my teaching approach and ensuring that women feel comfortable and excited when working in technology, particularly like young women who may, for example, this is just an example like coming from a classical music background, where they’ve, they’re really fantastic on the instruments, and they have grade eight violin or piano, but they’ve never really dabbled with technology, but they’re curious and they would like to learn. But it can be overwhelming – it can be totally overwhelming. So I have received many comments over the years from students who were like, so happy to have a female teacher, and that I inspired and encouraged them to work with the technology. And in my classes, I promote women in electronic music and audio so that the visibility of women working in this area is strong, that they see other women doing this and they’re like, “Well, I’d like to do that too.” So it’s, it’s – and it’s doable.
Brona Martin 19:24
I just have a little story, another little story. For example, I recently bought the Arturia Buchla Easel plugin, because I got to work with the Buchla Easel at EMS studios in Stockholm during a residency. So it’s like a modular synthesiser, which I don’t really – I’ve never worked with before, so it was a huge learning curve and I recorded some really amazing sounds with it. And obviously it’s very expensive, like you can’t go and buy on your own unless you win the lottery. But if felt that I could learn more about it by buying the plugin.
Brona Martin 20:04
And the funny thing is that I became interested in modular synthesis because of women. I was inspired the work of Suzanne Ciani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. And it is because of women that I bought this plugin. Which is really funny because when you go to the Arturia community page and go to the section called our artists, it features mostly men who are working with Arturia products. There are a few women mentioned, but like you’re just scrolling and scroll – you scroll for ages, there’s loads of artists, it’s predominantly male. And I’m just looking at it going – Mm this is a bit strange considering the reason I bought the plugin was because I was inspired by women’s music.
Brona Martin 20:51
So we have a bit to go yet, we definitely have a bit to go yet. I was at a conference and some concerts last year and was a bit shocked at how there was an audiovisual concert that had 12 pieces and only one was a woman. Then there was another concert that they had, and it was all men, and then there was another concert and they had one woman and I just thought – so why aren’t they programming more women? Is that because they’re not getting the submissions, or they’re just not even aware of the diversity, the lack of diversity, within their programming? So, there are great projects like the Donne Women in Music Project, which is really working hard to promote the music of women. So yeah, that’s my story. And thank you for listening.
Emma Margetson 21:44
And so with this in mind if you’re interested in working with spatial audio, with the IKO or and with the Sound and Image research group at the University of Greenwich, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with myself, Angela, Brona, Nikki, and thank you so much for listening.