Martyn Ware talking at Leeds College of Art

Mr Ware’s opening slide after his intro flashed up a long list of black and white text with bullet points. Just then, a huge man dressed in combat fatigues, stood up at the back of the lecture theatre, produced an AK47 from under his jacket and commenced blasting Mr Ware with machine gun fire whilst screaming in a thick guttural Austrian accent, “Vot do you tink of deez bullet points!”

Then I woke up from my fantasy and realised that yes, Mr Ware was actually reading out the list from his slide and that no intended irony was being employed whatsoever by him doing so.

Jumping ahead somewhat, one of Mr Ware’s criticisms of our current culture, is that it just doesn’t ‘get’ his product when he tries to sell it to them (his main product is sound as an emotional and physical experience). Part of the problem, he maintains, is that the language of sound simply isn’t in place yet. Let me offer a rival theory.

In our current culture, the visual language is well established. It is so well established and so overused in fact,  that only the strongest visual signals register on our consciousness. That means if you have a particular message that you want to get across, you cannot afford to have a weak signal. The language of PowerPoint has been well documented and developed. Bullet-points are visual equivalents of profanity. Perhaps if Mr Ware applied some of his thinking around the language of sound and applied it to his visuals, he might get a better response to his message about his sound product.

OK, rant over, what is this language of sound? Mr Ware described a particular installation he did in some city square. A large number of speakers were placed around the square at different heights and a computer program controlled the projection of sounds and moved them around the square. Thus, the sound of a helicopter could be made to ‘appear’ overhead and move the sound across the square, or the sound of traffic could be channelled down certain avenues. I must admit, this particular example had me amused with its irony. Surely such effects could be achieved by simply sitting in the middle of a city square? A similar irony was raised when he talked about electric cars.

Electric cars make no noise when they move at low speeds and so pedestrians are particularly vulnerable to the danger of walking out in front of them. New legislation would require all silent cars to emit a noise when moving. The question is, what sort of noise should they emit? The obvious solution is to make them sound like cars but this demonstrates an enormous poverty of imagination. Anyone who lives by the side of a busy road will testify to the nuisance noise caused by traffic (that is if they can be overhead). If the opportunity is there to have silence, it should be investigated thoroughly – is there some other way of alerting pedestrians of the presence of cars? If silence is not an option then a more pleasing sound should be considered than that of a clapped out diesel engine. What about using the sound of a woman having an orgasm, or one of children laughing? What about natural sounds – a swarm of bees or the sound of a stream? Running water would be a good choice as an increase in traffic volume, such as on a motorway, would result in a roar similar to a giant waterfall.

To my mind, the one area of real interest regarding the soundscape idea lies in the direction of evoking emotional states. It would be intriguing to experience the movement and texture of sounds from the past, for example, but a large part of me is not convinced that it can ever be more than just a novelty in the same way that 3D cinema currently is (although some people are claiming we are on the verge of a new age of cinema).

It could have been a fascinating evening if Mr Ware had dispensed with his slides and instead rigged up a small demonstration of the soundscape in the lecture theatre so that the speakers could have done the speaking instead. We could have even had some fun. Incidentally, I am available if anyone needs the power of their slides boosting to a stronger signal.

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