© Ray Lee - sound and wonder  ray@i-f.org.uk

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Updated: Nov 27, 2018

Photo: National Theatre Studio

I was sitting in a room, a rehearsal room, in the National Theatre Studio in 2012. With me I had some small aluminium spheres that I had fitted loudspeakers and a sound generator inside. The spheres made a sound. As I walked around inside the building and outside along The Cut holding a sphere, I noticed how other people were attracted to the curious silver orb in my hand and its peculiar pulsing noise. At that point I started to imagine many people also holding silver spheres all of which were beeping, pulsing, humming with sound, all moving along together in a procession, being drawn inexorably towards a location they did not yet know. So that’s how my idea for Congregation came about, a host of silver orbs being carried through a city or landscape, a strange science fiction ceremony, like an episode from Dr. Who….. and at that point a dim memory came into my mind of silver spheres moving by themselves, of Dr Who and the Yetis.

In the Dr. Whoniverse the Yeti are giant robot versions of the mythical abominable snowman. These robotic creatures are the army of the ‘great intelligence’ and are each controlled by a silver orb that beeps and moves by itself, homing back to the robot where it sits inside the robot monster’s body. I must have seen this on a black and white TV in the sixties when I was a young child and, although I hadn’t thought about it since, it permeated its way back into my consciousness through my art practice.

How do you make a sphere take someone on a journey through sound?

I imagined it like a game of warm and cold. The sounds would indicate whether you were getting warmer i.e. closer or colder, further away. The closer you got to the destination the 'warmer' the sound and conversely if you went the wrong way the sounds would be 'cold'. However, achieving this has taken, to date, about six years. GPS technology was the obvious place to start and with some R&D funding from the arts organisation Appetite in Stoke on Trent I set about trying to make the idea realisable. Working with creative media technologist John Twycross from Oxford Brookes University we looked at using GPS smartphones as the guts of the system and John’s idea was to use Waypoints to guide the sphere carriers. John’s initial app-based approach created a system where the sounds encouraged you to reach a specific point before setting you off to find the next point and so on. Although this system had potential I was getting worried about the practicalities of dealing with a mobile phone inside an aluminium sphere. How would it be started? Would it be reliable enough? By this time, I had become submerged in other projects and Congregation had to be put to one side to be picked up again at a later point.

The later point was a commission from Milton Keynes International Festival in 2016 for a version of the sonic spheres that could work indoors and synchronise with the giant floor projections of French video artist Miguel Chevalier. Fifty spheres would each be able to synchronise with a series of projected patterns to create a soundscape that changed in response to the images and that would also respond to the movement of the person holding the sphere.

I was very fortunate to be able to call on the help of Steve Symons, artist, technologist, part of the Manchester based Owl Project, who was able to design and create software for a system that could achieve these aims. The system we went for used Raspberry Pis contained in each sphere and a WiFi network that we set up in the main hall at Milton Keynes shopping centre enabled us to take information from the video projections and communicate with the network of Pis. However, if I’d known how astonishingly difficult it would be to make fifty WiFi enabled spheres with a built in amplifier and speaker that could be used by members of the public for day after day reliably, I may not have started in the first place....

The problem with multiples is that one specific task on one sphere might only take you two hours, another task thirty minutes and so on. However, before very long you need hundreds of person hours to get all fifty of these tasks done. My workshop quickly turned into a sphere making factory with teams of assistants (I think I had at least fifteen people working on it) spending hours doing repetitive tasks. Mostly thanks to Steve’s brilliance at programming and my amazing helpers we made fifty working interactive spheres and, although the timing was a bit close for comfort (we were up until three in the morning the night before the piece opened), the show was a success.

some of 50 spheres being prepared in my workshop 2016

Just prior to Milton Keynes I had been to visit my old friend Kaffe Matthews because Kaffe has a wonderful project called Sonic Bikes. Kaffe’s Sonic Bikes are GPS responsive and using her system she can map sounds/musical elements onto a topography and with the bike’s on-board sound system replay specific compositional elements to the riders as they cycle through the terrain. I was very keen to see if I could use her system for Congregation and I really liked the way that using her software interface it was possible to draw areas onto a map and assign sounds to them in a very direct and intuitive way. However, it didn’t quite have the sense that I was looking for of the sphere carriers being drawn to the final destination.

Steve was clearly the person that I had been looking for and, more to the point, his work Aura, shown in a number of galleries in 2008, was a GPS project using sound. Aware of my plans for Congregation Steve had designed a system into the interactive spheres for Milton Keynes that GPS could be added to at some point in the future.

The ‘future’ turned out to be a period of R&D supported by Without Walls, an organisation specialising in supporting outdoor arts, and support from 101 Outdoor Arts Creation Centre in Newbury, an organisation I have been involved with since it began.

Right from the start Steve had really ‘got’ the idea. The central location that the spheres needed to go to was like a magnet, magnetically drawing all the spheres towards it. Steve is a resident artist at Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol where I was also able to meet and talk through the idea with Duncan Speakman who has has considerable experience of making GPS controlled sound works in public spaces.

Continuing my work with Steve we experimented with different approaches to the problem. For example, as well as the idea of a congregating impulse should there be more sounds along the way for the audience to ‘collect’? In the end we felt that this was over complicating the idea.

The essence of the project turned out to be returning to the idea of getting warmer or getting colder. If you were going the right way you were getting warmer and if you were going the wrong way you were getting colder. This we turned into the sphere itself being either happy or sad. If the sphere was going in the right direction it would be happy, it would make a happy sound, and if the sphere was going in the wrong direction it would start to sound a bit unhappy and then progressively more and more unhappy until it was positively cross. Personalising the sphere helps to give it a character and plays on our human desire to anthropomorphise objects. It isn’t about where I as the sphere carrier want to go, it’s about where the sphere needs to go….

In our tests the sphere has successfully guided the sphere carrier where the sphere wanted to go. The interesting questions that we are exploring now are whether my idea of a happy sound or a sad sound is universally comprehensible....