Future of Sound: The sound of science

Future of Sound brings together the talents of scientists and artists for avant-garde happenings. Chris Mugan reports
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The Independent Culture

It is potentially the oddest tour of the year, with a musical instrument that responds to brainwaves, gloves that move sound and a demo of the trance-inducing properties of Neolithic tombs.

Such is the travelling circus that Future of Sound takes on the road this month, a collection of scientists and artists that work on the boundaries between music, art and technology. At the heart of it all is event organiser Martin Ware, founding member of both electro pioneers Human League and Eighties mainstays Heaven 17.

Rather than a simple line-up of acts, Future of Sound brings together various performances and presentations. It began as a series of London-based events that emerged out of Ware's project The Illustrious Company, which he founded with Erasure's Vince Clarke to explore the possibilities of 3D sound, specifically a system of speakers that gives the impression of the output rising and falling around the listener.

"Illustrious was a deliberate attempt to get back to the seed conditions of what I was trying to do in the first place," Ware explains. "You get used to trying to sell stuff and I wanted to strip that away and create something for the sake of art, passion and fun. I got sick of doing one-to-one demos of the 3D sound systems, so thought lets get a bunch of eclectic and diverse people in to talk about how they envisage sound being used in the future and giving them access to the kit."

Having established Future of Sound in his current home city, the Sheffield-raised musician now wants to take his sonic menagerie to new audiences.

"The idea is to completely immerse the viewer by having some form of audience participation and also breakout areas surrounding the event. Some works rely on people's movement to create effects and we also hope to mesmerise them with 5,000-year-old trance music. It's a funny thing for me to supervise this mad scientist activity - friends say I'm like a Bond villain - because these lecture series don't usually emerge from a pop practitioner background. I didn't finish my O-levels, let alone go to university."

In the past, this sort of event has been aimed at a particular audience, though the Sheffield-raised performer is keen to make his show relevant to the public at large.

"As someone that has worked in popular music for a long time, it's in my soul that I want to appeal to that broader range of people, though this is not going to be shallow. There will be some elements people get immediately and some they will have to take away and think about. We want to enthuse people about the idea of collaborative art and science projects."

Ware has brought together a variety of creative talents that have found an increasing amount of support in recent years. Among them is Paul Devereux, the archaeologist who discovered that certain tombs in burial mounds were constructed to resonate at a frequency of 110Hz, enough to put people into a trance.

A more futuristic practitioner is Luciana Haill, who has developed a device that turns a person's brainwaves into a composition, that plays in different parts of a venue depending on their intensity. One of the most experienced artists is Robin Rimbaud, also known as Scanner. Notorious in the early Nineties for recording people's mobile phone calls, the artist has expanded horizons with a variety of projects that range from installations for a special needs school to a device that turns outside noise into music.

When he started out, Scanner was seen as a creator of ambient music, in the same ballpark as The Orb, though with a penchant for using background urban sounds. Since then, he has broadened his horizons and worked more in site-specific projects. Scanner has also appeared on previous Future of Sound bills.

"We've done a few things together and what I like is that it's professionally improvisatory. You're not sure where you're going to go with it, which I always enjoy."

Scanner has no fixed idea of what he may talk about or perform, though as a veteran of Ware's soirées, he knows how predictions can quickly become dated.

"Two years ago we weren't anticipating the communal success of YouTube and MySpace. The acceleration of new technologies is a little overwhelming at times, so in some sense what we will be doing is reflecting on this rapid change in ways of listening and consuming sound."

Ware first approached Scanner after the artist had done his own surround-sound piece based on animal mating calls and recordings of them having sex - for a Valentine's Day event, naturally. For Scanner, though, it is the mix of audio and visual that makes such projects more accessible.

"With music in movies, people have grown accustomed to an exploratory use of sound. If you played them the soundtrack outside the cinema, it would be really demanding. Images seem to assist in that process."

Increasingly, artists such as Scanner are learning to work with like-minded individuals to develop higher-profile projects. Also collaborating on Future of Sound is the sound-artist collective Cybersalon. Among their artists on tour is Chris O'Shea, creator of the gloves that manipulate Illustrious's sound system. Also on show are exhibits that people can play with. Among them is a modern take on the Victorian music box, where instead of feeding in a roll of paper with punched holes to create a tune, people rip strips off flyers to affect its pre-loaded melodies.

Cybersalon director Lewis Sykes is convinced that there is an audience for this tomfoolery. "If you go to clubland, you see people enjoying the mix of sound and visuals all the time and they enjoy it every day with their home entertainment systems."

Just as Cybersalon has joined forces with Illustrious, the indie outfit Pram recently went on the road with the installation designer Blissbody and the duo Project Dark. Turntable terrorists may be a bit of a cliché, but Ashley Davies and Kirsten Reynolds are infamous for blowing up decks in the name of art. Just as alarming, The Photophonic Experiment collaboration involved making music out of high-voltage sparks. For Sykes, such cooperation is vital if avant-garde music makers are to escape their niche.

"Together we can achieve more than if we worked individually," he says, a viewpoint with which Ware agrees. "We love becoming a magnetic for people interested in combining their talents with other disciplines. That's the future of art. We're exiting the peak of the ego-driven, gallery-based art world and entering into something more of the people, of the virtual street. We're sharing ideas on a global scale and the underground is available to everyone."

As well as Future of Sound and Night Haunts, you can also look forward to the annual festival of the London Music Collective, a group of experimental musicians that last year took over the Institute of Contemporary Arts. These organisations rely on support from public bodies such as the Arts Council. Though as Sykes points out, practitioners need to be self-reliant.

At least avant-garde music is starting to find a home in major cultural institutions. In London you can find it at the Hayward Gallery, Tate Modern and Victoria & Albert Museum, with an increasing presence in venues such as Liverpool's Foundation for Art and Creative Technology and the Sage Centre in Gateshead. Future of Sound will show just what kind of audience there is for such happenings.

The Future of Sound tour starts at the Millennium Galleries, Sheffield, on 18 January; for further dates, see www.futureofsound.org

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