Art installation uses sound as self-reflection

By Rebecca Sirull, inside editor

Most art galleries have a “look, don’t touch” policy, maintaining the barrier between exhibit and observer, but not the new installation at Le Laboratoire gallery in Cambridge. Designed by music composer Tod Machover and his team at the MIT Media Lab, the exhibit is called Vocal Vibrations. It uses audio design to create an interactive sonic experience, encouraging participants to use their voices as a meditative tool and form of self-reflection.

The exhibit includes three main sensory experiences: the chapel, the cocoon and the orb. The chapel is the first part of the gallery, which visitors pass through immediately upon entry. With plush rugs on the floor, cushions scattered about and several benches, the chapel aims to provide an inviting and comfortable environment for guests. Surrounding the entire area are ten speakers playing a looped recording of a 25-minute track designed by Machover and his team. The music includes vocalizations from artists of various styles such as folk, early renaissance and a soprano soloist.

“It’s meant for people to sit there and kind of lose themselves in the sonic experience, the musical experience, and maybe in thinking about themselves and their own voices in a slightly different way,” Machover said.

Also included in the chapel is a chaise lounge designed by MIT associate professor of Media Arts and Sciences Neri Oxman.

“The inspiration came from the experience where the human body encounters voice for the first time, which is in the womb,” Oxman said. “The idea was to design a chaise or a reclining chair to quiet the human mind, so it is a reclining chair with a head piece that’s designed as an echoic chamber that allows you to absorb sounds very efficiently.”

Following the experience of listening in the chapel, visitors are encouraged to transition into using their own voices in the cocoon. Here, Machover uses white fabric to create a secluded area, where each individual can go and become more familiar with the sound of their own voice. A set of headphones is provided, playing a six-minute track similar to the one heard outside in the chapel, along with a microphone, into which participants are meant to make vocalizations, whether that means singing, humming or another form of sound.

The microphone is connected to what Machover calls “the orb,” a small, round device that transforms vocal sound waves into physical vibrations. In this way, participants can literally hold their voices in their hands, with the frequency of vibrations changing with pitch, volume and tone.

“I designed it so that the sound literally moves all over your head, Machover said. “It vibrates in your cheeks, in your nasal cavities, in your forehead, all over the place, and the quality of sound changes.”

While the recording heard in the chapel uses an ebb-and-flow style with no clear beginning and end, the recording in the cocoon is meant to be listened through from start to finish. This distinction creates two different sensory experiences – one in which the listener is lulled into a meditative state and one in which they are taking on a more active role.

One consistent characteristic of the audio tracks played in both the chapel and the cocoon is the use of the note “D.” This note carries through the entirety of both pieces and participants are encouraged to listen for it as a way to center themselves and find balance. In this way, the exhibit draws upon the practice of meditation, with the note “D” as the focal point.

“I think really what we’re breaking into is connecting mind and body and meditation,” Simone Ovsey, producer of special projects at the MIT Media Lab, said. “This just goes to the next level with the orb, an object that really allows you to tune in to what you’re doing and helps reinforce that.”

Not only is the exhibit designed to promote mental stability, but it has also been proven to have a positive effect on physical health. By working with scientists at MIT who specialize in circulation and cartilage, Machover and his team have discovered that doing directed vocal vibrations through singing can calm blood pressure, stabilize heart beats and keep joints healthy by reinforcing the cartilage that connects them to bone. This works by focusing on a single note like “D” and creating a uniform vibration throughout the entire body.

In addition to the physical aspects of the exhibit, Vocal Vibrations aims to reestablish people’s relationships with their own voices. Charles Holbrow, a research assistant working in Machover’s group, was interested in the personal implications of the project.

“Everybody has a voice and we all use it every day and there’s just a huge amount of information that we communicate through our voice,” Holbrow said. “Maybe if you really listen to your own voice, you can learn something about yourself.”

Besides having a connection with their own personal sound, Machover hopes the exhibit will change the way people interact with music in general. After attending the Juilliard School for performing arts, Machover envisioned himself composing music to be performed in front of an audience. However, over time, he came to the realization that people are less likely nowadays to completely focus on the music they are listening to.

“The world has changed and people love music in general, but most people have lost the patience or the ability to just sit down, tune everything else out and just listen with 100 percent of their personality,” Machover said. “The idea of just having the music fully take over and take you on its journey is becoming less and less common for people.”

This latest project, like many of his others, aims to present sound in an unconventional way, forcing listeners to pay attention and remember the power that music can have. Some of the previous pieces created by Machover’s group have included the Robot Opera, which synchronizes robots to interact with opera members onstage, and City Symphonies, which takes sounds created by different people in a given city and weaves them together into a single flowing piece.

“I try to use every technique I can figure out to make music important and relevant to as many people as possible without dumbing it down,” Machover said. “That usually means finding some way that people can actually be part of a music experience, not just listen passively.”

Photo courtesy Ron Farizon

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