What is Pain? As a Chamber Ensemble for improvised electronic music, we have specialized in connecting with the audience during our performances. This was done through the interaction of the spatial environment, its materiality and meaning and the music, the spatiality of sound, the disclosure of musical communication and by trying to find an immediate form of communication during the performance.
For quite some time now, there has been a need in our work to deepen this musical approach in a specially designed space. The plan was to create different spatial test arrangements in a pilot project at different locations and to explore extended musical ad-hoc forms of communication. Further site-specific work was planned as well. Due to the unavoidable measures to combat the current pandemic, these plans have been postponed until further notice, with no clarity as to how long this situation will continue. The question arises what the potential of music could be in times of social distancing.
We would like to try to create a form of electroacoustic music that can only be created under the present circumstances. Due to the isolation and the physical distance involved, we are forced to rethink our work in order to remain active within our practice. The materiality of sound and the real-time interactions between us, and the audience should continue to be the focus of our work. This requires the transmission of music in real time and a high quality of reproduction. That is why we have decided to create a virtual environment, called Pain. Pain responds to the current situation of social isolation worldwide. Performances will be transmitted live via headphones, thus creating space and network at the same time. We want to seize the chance of the current situation to use headphones as the most sensible way of distributing sound and to explore its advantages.
The search for new forms of communication has been a topic in art and culture for centuries, and not only since the social lockdown due to the circulating COVID-19. However, rapid changes in assimilated structures always demands for new forms of communication. Public life, in the physical sense, is not an option anymore, which forces us to shift the public completely into the digital world. At least for the next few months.
Music has always developed radically when, due to abrupt, structural changes, new technological achievements have led to the questioning of historical forms of music. The restructuring of the economy and society after the war and the associated technological achievements such as the radio and broadcasting technology have led musicians and composers to question the definition of sound, musical form and language, strategies of composition and ways of receiving music in the most fundamental way.
The radio as a medium for transmitting music or other kinds of information to the living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens of households within the broadcasting radius has forever changed the way we perceive space and time. It has also been the breeding ground for the definition of a new music. Much of the development of electronic music took place in radio studios, was understood as radio music and was not intended for the concert hall.
Now in times of collective isolation, we see ourselves forced to bring the concert hall back into our bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms. This fact leaves a big void behind. Because much of what seems essential for the experience of music disappears. On the one hand, the architecture in which we all come together to listen to music in real time is disappearing. Without it, sound is neither reflected nor can a physical proximity be created between us. With the disappearance of the physical proximity, the non-verbal communication between us, and the audience, which was essential for us to find new forms of musical communication, also disappears. But we are slowly beginning to understand that within this process of dematerialization and distance lay hidden potentials. Communicating over a large spatial distance often generates a certain sensitivity and uncertainty among those who communicate, since the important non-verbal information is lost. We would like to explore this kind of fragility. To do so, real-time reproduction and reception is extremely important. Only in the knowledge that the audience is listening live can the above-mentioned fragility be created.
Today, the transistor radio is no longer culturally relevant. "Broadcasting" takes place digitally via the Internet. Digital radio stations (e.g. NTS Radio), podcasts, YouTube, Soundcloud, Mixcloud, Spotify, Bandcamp etc... are all Internet platforms and formats that ensure the mobile playback of music on any smartphone or computer. In addition to new possibilities of mobility and networking that can send the music into every pocket, the techniques of sound reproduction of these mobile devices have also changed significantly. The poor speakers quality of transistor radios were replaced by headphones when the first portable Walkmans hit the market. Since Internet access via mobile phones has become normal, sound reproduction via headphones is probably the most popular format for the reception of music worldwide.
Headphones are so advanced today, that affordable models already provide high quality sound reproduction. The trend in mobile models is towards isolation techniques that largely isolate the listener from the acoustics of the physical room, so that the experience is as undisturbed and intense as possible. The listeners spatial surroundings, at least in a acoustic sense, is eliminated - just as COVID-19 has removed the space that surrounds us all. But up to now it was exactly this environment that was the connection between all the present people within our space-specific arrangements for concerts or installations. It was often immediately formulating the content of the music - the way we deal with spatial conditions centrally determines the way we play, the musical content and is often even becoming part of our instruments. The disappearing of this common spatial surface requires a rethinking of our practice.
The functioning of the human ear, audio physical findings and the broad accessibility of qualitatively acceptable headphones, form the basis for a spatial and musical exploration in which no specific space is required. The sense of hearing uses several acoustic parameters in order to recognize and locate the perception of space and sound sources in our environment, to ensure orientation in space and also, to recognize a collectivity. However, hearing is fundamentally altered by headphones. The human cognitive system assumes that both ears are in the same medium for the recognition of the environment. Normally, this medium is air, and since air carries sound, it always reaches both ears. However, because sound moves relatively slowly through the air and is altered by obstacles, obstacles like our head, there are temporal shifts and tonal differences between what is heard in both ears. These minimal differences cannot be perceived directly, but among other things, they allow us to determine the distance and position of sound sources. When wearing headphones, however, both ears are separated from each other. By means of certain techniques, the acoustic parameters that contribute to the location and perception of spatiality can be emulated to a large extent. Despite the fact that spatial perception is less resolved and that there are clear limits to the ability of localization, there are also advantages. Unlike in a concert hall, with headphones, everyone is located in the best possible listening position, the smallest space that’s ever represented is not determined by the location of the performance, and the dynamics aren’t limited by a relatively high background noise, as is often the case. What is particularly interesting, however, is the fact that both ears do not have to hear the same thing. This allows for techniques that are out of question when using loudspeakers and this can cause a variety of psychoacoustic phenomena. The development of these techniques makes it possible to broaden the conception and form of music; the integration of rarely heard spaces and sounds, the conscious stimulation of the subconscious, the treatment of sound details that cannot be easily highlighted in the concert hall, playing with large social distance, but especially also playing with absolute proximity.
Times of physical distance trigger an existing need for perceiving the proximity of others and for creating a common sensory experiences within a shared space. But the fulfilment of these needs seems to be far away. For us, the prescribed isolation means having to rethink our form of working together. Thus the physical proximity of the audience, as well as the physical proximity of us to each other, was an important part of our musical practice, which was connected to the perception of space and actions, and their effects simultaneously. Pain is a musical space without a shared physical space, a space that is adapted to the cognitive perception specific to headphones. This enables an activation of the individual bodies to a form of a whole body, a collective, immediate musical space.
The simultaneous, collective listening of a sound event holds the possibility of establishing proximity without being physically close to each other. Sound as a part of the acoustic perception process is perceived directly, specifically and without a meta-position - in this way listening is able to create a connection to other people, kind of a resonance which can free from a possible self-centeredness. The body, its physical constitution, its material reality, to which we are greatly exposed in times of isolation offers the possibility of being activated by listening together, as a place of shared experience.
Sound is particularly suitable for this activation. Sound waves reproduced by headphones set innumerable ear hairs into more or less synchronous oscillations. The synchronicity of the movement of the hearing organs involved is made possible by an invisible, yet undeniably real connection. The promise of real time enables the knowledge of a collectivity. Sound is not only captured by many hearing organs simultaneously, it is also translated into music by many cognitive apparatuses simultaneously. The awareness of the existence of this common experience can create an emotional and affective connection. This promise of real-time broadcasting also promotes a connection between the audience and the players. Whoever produces what is heard does so under similar circumstances, isolated and connected only by hearing and by the intangible consensus of translation.