Most of the time, we consume music. But what if a song wasn’t a linear event with a beginning and end? What if it’s a three-dimensional landscape you’re meant to dive into, explore, and shape with your gestures? A new installation at the New Museum is exactly that.
Part of New Inc, an experimental arts incubator, DELQA is an interactive soundscape. It took a small army of media artists, architects, musicians, and programmers to build the immersive installation, which shows yet another application of the versatile Kinect, a motion sensor Microsoft originally developed for gaming.
“Musicians like Nine Inch Nails, Kanye West, and Aphex Twin use Kinect technology in really amazing ways,” says Steve Milton, a founding partner of Listen, the creative agency who produced DELQA. “We were really interested in exploring visually and sonically how Kinect might offer a cool experience.”
You could describe DELQA as a sonic forest. The Principals, a Brooklyn-based architecture studio, built a 24-by-32-foot aluminum frame and hung panels of spandex and netting throughout the structure in undulating shapes that mimic landforms. A 44-channel speaker system and eight Kinects are installed behind the panels. As you push into the fabric or climb onto the nets, sensors detect your movements and trigger lights and sounds.
“Typically music is printed to a stereo track and you listen to it and take it in passively,” Dave Rife, one of the artists who designed the musical interactions, says. “With this piece, you as the audience are meant to change the composition. You have agency to change the song. There’s something really interesting about that.”
Matthew Dear composed the piece, which was then spliced it into different tracks. Each of the tracks was assigned to a different quadrant in the installation so that activating a certain area corresponds to a particular sound. For example, there’s a section for percussion, for arpeggios, and for atmospheric noise, plus a track that continues to play independently of the interactions. The music is synthesized via computers in real time. All of the elements sound good together no matter how they’re “played”; each participant in the space changes the musical structure, rhythmic densities, and timbre. Prismatic lights in the space are activated by specific gestures and others correspond to the overall vibe of the song—kind of like synesthesia in action.
“The tricky part was finding the balance between how far I could push the song into randomness but yet still have its cohesive core at the base of it all,” Dear says. He compares the sound sculpture to a living organism. “It grows and breathes and changes because of the people playing with it. [The installation] allows people to interact with music and media on a different level.”