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Acoustic analysis influences traditional musical composition

29 April 2013

A British composer is using advanced acoustic analysis techniques to help create ground-breaking choral music designed for a particular performance venue.

The Ebor Singers performing Architexture 1 at the Guildhall, York. Photo ©Kippa Matthews (www.kippamatthews.co.uk)

While composers have written pieces ‘for’ spaces for many years, the link between venue and composition has, until this point, been relatively imprecise.

Now Dr Ambrose Field, from the University of York’s Department of Music, is using architectural acoustics to inform traditional musical composition processes.

Information about how a venue might sound is gathered from three-dimensional acoustic analysis or from a combination of visual materials, measurements and subsequent acoustic modelling.

Dr Field, a composer recorded on the ECM records label, said: “Unlike existing ‘spectral’ or ‘algorithmic’ composition methods, the scientific results themselves are not directly translated or mapped into musical notes. Under my method, acoustic information is used as a guide, specifically to help obtain a better blend between the acoustic of performance venue and the notes on the stave.

“Through this technique, I am able to create lush-sounding vocal music that is unique to specific choirs and locations.”

On May 1, Dr Field will present a new choral composition, Pod Twoja obrone, written specifically for the Polish National Chamber Choir, Polski Chor Kameralny, at St. Catherine's Church, Gdansk. Scored for 25 singers, the work treats the church acoustic of the performance venue as a 26th performer. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Polish composer Henryk Mikolaj Górecki on what would have been his 80th Birthday.

Dr Field said: “When you have a great building, it is fantastic to be able to write a piece of music that perfectly matches it. This composing technique allows a piece to be sculpted around the acoustics of that venue.

“Science is used very precisely to inform the traditional ‘pen-and-paper’ composing process, and the combination of voice and acoustics permits some extraordinary sounds to be realised.”

Dr Field’s first piece using this method, Architexture 1, was written for, and performed in, York’s historic Guildhall by the Ebor Singers in September 2012.

Working with colleagues from York’s Department of Electronics, the research enabling this composition involved carefully positioning microphones around the venue and taking three dimensional impulse response measurements. These were then used to create a high resolution map of the acoustics.

Dr Field said: “During the compositional process, the harmony, the speed of vocal entries, and the way they overlap each other in time, are sculpted with knowledge of the architectural acoustics of the space. Specific chords can be made to linger in the air, resulting in a beautiful unity of space and notes.”

Hear the results of this work here.


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