Garden of Light
A night-time walk-through event of music and light at the University of Dundee’s Botanic Gardens
Study of the sound design and installation
I have been lucky enough to be involved in sound design and composition for many years, but not until recently did such an exciting and challenging project and installation present itself. Brandon LaBelle explains ‘it seems relevant to explore some ideas with the desire to arrive at definition, or understanding, of what we call “sound installation” so as to have a sense of parameters, or geograph, in which such a subject, and practice, can be situated, however temporal or idiosyncratic.” (LaBelle, 2004). The sound design was commissioned by the Electric Company for an installation event at the University of Dundee’s botanic gardens. The remit dictated that the sound design reflected the individually planted zones of the garden, each featuring species indigenous to different continents was to be approached the same way, including the green-housed desert and jungle zones which made for seven separate pieces to be considered. The main exception to this ethos was the newly completed Evolution garden that featured heavy wooden constructions and Andy Goldsworthy inspired dry stone walls.
Working alongside the installation engineer, Mark Lindsay we quickly decided which zones would feature sound effects on a loop and which zones would have individual soundscapes or specially written compositions. The greenhouses already mentioned featured appropriate soundscape effects, as did the seashore zone. The main areas for musical pieces were the Scottish Hillside with guest vocals and lyrics by Scots Gaelic singer Aileen Ogilvie, the Australasia zone, featuring obvious synthesized didgeridoo and the outro section, a walk through indigenous Scots pines and firs to a traditional Scots folk inspired composition.
The most challenging soundscape to design for was the evolution zone, which instead of a musical piece a four-minute composition was designed to evoke the process of evolution. A Buddhist prayer bowl runs throughout the piece with various sound effects constructing a soundscape through time. From my library I used some recordings of the Ardival harp and the Essendy drum, both reconstructed Pictish instruments recorded at Pictavia museum, Brechin, Scotland.
The sound design and compositions can be listened to via Soundcloud:
With the sound design complete the next step was the design and installation of the sound system along with the lighting design and system. Bob Lamb the site electrician and partner with Mark in the Electric Company installed the lighting design. Mark and Bob had devised a system that was independent of each zone, each having a mono or stereo loudspeaker system and a dedicated playback device, in each case Apple laptop computers and in the case of the Outro sequence, an iPod. The nature of the event meant that our audience was able to wonder around the site in their own time. Initial planning discussions ruled out a timed performance style approach in favour of each zoned lighting and audio playback system on a synchronous loop. This best suited the transitory nature of the audience participants.
Active Mackie SRM 350 loudspeakers were used for all of the outdoor installation and after much deliberation a mix of stereo or mono dependent on the landscape was decided. The opening of the newly completed Evolution garden led us to invest more time and resources into this zone that signified the start of the outside route through the gardens. The playback system installation featured an RCF sub unit hidden behind one of the dry stone wall features and a stereo pair of SRM 350’s. The evolution sound design piece was mixed in stereo and in the case of some of the sound effects, fully panned either left or right to try and create a more dynamic and immersive soundscape. Small, active Fostex loudspeakers were used throughout the green houses all featuring stereo playback of atypical night forest and desert soundscapes, mainly insect noise appropriate to the planting. Due to the elevation and central position of the Hillside zone a wide level of sound propagation was achieved from only a mono SRM 350.
Due to day-to-day running constraints of the gardens, time allocated for light and sound system installation was restricted to two evenings prior to the opening. The power distribution and main cable runs were installed on the first night, all lights and audio systems installed and tested the following evening.
With the main audio playback systems in place the relative playback volumes and sound propagation was tested, to achieve this Mark and I walked between zones and adjusted volume controls accordingly whilst maintaining communications over walkie-talkies. Using the same means the position and angles of the playback systems were also adjusted in an attempt to minimize spill from one zone to the next. The environmental factors of the gardens were of utmost importance at this time; the gardens are located off the busy Perth road in Dundee to the North and a railway line, although down a steep embankment to the immediate South of the site. The city location also meant there were residential factors involved and due awareness of noise legislation had also to be taken into account. A local council health and safety officer would be inspecting the site later that night to ensure legislation was adhered to and walked the entire route with a sound meter to check the dB count. Final sound system installation was still being checked as the events audience were s beginning to arrive, but within minutes the system was up and running.
The garden’s boundary is a 10 foot wall to the North where the main occurrence of residential buildings stands. The route around the garden had more planted out zoned areas along the North side where the Evolution soundscape, Scottish Hillside and Australasia compositions playback systems were installed. The council health and safety officer, as anticipated spend the most amount of time checking the route along this site boundary, after an adjustment or two, the installation was deemed safe and within legislative limits. The South route followed close along the top of the banking down to the railway line. To exacerbate sound checks, to the immediate South of the railway line runs a main dual road, Riverside Drive and adjacent to that Dundee City Airport, a small airport that is shut down every evening in time for the event opening. However during sound checks we were hampered a little along the South route where some small jet aircraft were taxiing to park up for the night. After reaching the limit of the walk the South route follows past the Scottish Seashore soundscape and finally outro music through the tall firs and pines.
A short BBC Scotland news article can be viewed here:
An exit poll of 35 participants showed that audience members generally enjoyed the entire event and the fact that the audio playback sequences were original commissions, but specific questioning led to some interesting findings. The more traditional musical compositions the Scottish Hillside and the Outro music being generally the most favoured audio sequences. The musical composition for the Australasia zone was also popular being a stereo playback system that worked in the most traditional sense. The Australasia zone was located at the limit of the walk through of the gardens, where generally the audiences paused to watch the light and listen to the music. The lighting projection centred around a wall of trees and undergrowth indigenous to the Australasia’s, with the stereo audio playback system set on either side creating a staged environment. However the Evolution zone featured a staggered stereo playback system that produced a pronounced ping-pong delay, this unfortunately was not evident during sound check. When questioned about this zone, the audience generally found it the least successful sequence of composition, partly due to the wide stereo spacing and the fact that there was no awareness given before hand of the intended theme to each zone. There was a considerable amount of feedback suggesting that upon entry into the gardens the audience would have liked to have been supplied with a map similar to the post event analysis images presented here. Overall the event was considered a great success with the gardens suggesting a follow up event over a longer period the following year. The analysis of exit poll data has led to an understanding that stereo playback systems work best when presented traditionally to a relatively static audience and if I were to repeat this type of sound design event I would take this into account to make the experience even more evocative.
The rambling thoughts and musings of an audio engineer/sound designer turned archaeoacoustician