Artist Presentation: Journeys of the Human Spirit

Presented at The Art Of Immersive Soundscapes, University of Regina, June 2007

For my artist presentation at the 2007 Art of Immersive Soundscapes conference, I invited the audience to join me on a series of four imaginary journeys provided by a set of octophonic works that I have collectively titled Spirit Journies, and which have since been released on CD. This listening experience was intended to complement my keynote presentation about soundscape composition (Truax, 2002, 2008) and what interdisciplinary knowledge is available about the perception of acoustic space. The ability we currently have to document and recreate soundscapes, and to extend them with digital signal processing and multi-channel playback systems, gives artists and researchers powerful tools to experiment with the creation of virtual acoustic spaces (Truax, 1998). Moreover, audiences have responded enthusiastically to the experience of being immersed in a 3-dimensional acoustic space that both recreates and extends their experience of everyday soundscapes.

For many years I have been interested in the challenge of creating large-scale musical works, something that the current situation for the marginalized artform of electroacoustic music does not encourage. The typical duration of works selected for concerts is 10-15 minutes in North America, and somewhat longer in Europe. The pragmatic alternative for me has been to create works in pairs and larger sets that are individually self-contained, but which together allow me to explore various aspects of the central concept. I have also ventured into the field of opera with my Powers of Two, but the difficulty of securing a production (typically a 10-year process) unfortunately prevents this path from being a viable one. Over 20 years ago when I created my own Cambridge Street Records (CSR) label and started producing my own discs, I was able to control the entire process of composing the disc as well as composing the pieces on it. My previous LPs (Sonic Landscapes and Androgyne from 1977 and 1980 respectively) had themes, but were essentially collections of recent works. However, in 1985 with Sequence of Earlier Heaven, the first CSR disc and the last LP, I was able to present a set of four works, two per side, that included pieces inspired by the I Ching and one of its patterns of trigrams (Truax, 1988). I even exploited the two sides of the LP in a yin-yang manner, by placing the complementary works for instruments and tape on one side (East Wind and Nightwatch), and the two digitally synthesized pieces (Wave Edge and Solar Ellipse) on the other. Each piece was inspired by a particular hexagram and its title reflected the imagery of the I Ching (wind, earth, water, fire), and the directions of the compass (N, E, S, W). Two decades earlier, Morton Subotnick had been the first to compose electronic music specifically for disc (commissioned by Nonesuch and Columbia), but conventional practice by most composers has been to regard the disc as a means of distributing works, not a format to be composed for.

My first CD, Digital Soundscapes (1987), was admittedly a collection of previous works loosely linked under the soundscape concept (including the analog studio work The Blind Man), but thereafter, CD’s such as Pacific Rim and Song of Songs developed a specific theme, or brought together works related by their approach to sonic materials, such as text-based pieces (Twin Souls) and soundscape compositions (Islands). Therefore, around 2002, when I started thinking about some new compositional directions for my 8-channel pieces, the idea that they should work within a larger framework was firmly established in my mind. Four years later, the set of pieces was complete and ready to be issued on a CD, along with an introductory work, Steam, for alto flute and tape, that had recently been remixed and could act as a kind of overture. The four works are Temple (2002), Prospero’s Voyage (2004), The Shaman Ascending (2004-05), and The Way of the Spirit (2005-06), each of which represents a journey through acoustic space and time, based on different cultural contexts: spiritual, secular, aboriginal, Asian. These then were the four octophonic pieces presented together at the AIS event in Regina, the first such occasion where they could be presented as a set.

In my introduction to the audience, I mentioned that the word “spirit” in the collective title referred to the human spirit, one aspect of which might be described as spiritual or religious. The manifestations of the human spirit through art and culture have been so varied over time and across cultures that any specific references are arbitrary, but the ones I chose are some that have resonated deeply with me. The first two pieces, Temple and Prospero’s Voyage, are drawn from the European traditions of spirituality and humanistic thought, respectively. The Shaman Ascending was inspired by Inuit throat singing and the shamanistic traditions of Canada’s Arctic region, and The Way of the Spirit by Zen Buddhist aesthetics from Japan.

Temple is composed of choral voices and appears to take place in the reverberant cathedral of San Bartolomeo, in Busetto, Italy. This effect is achieved by convolving the three studio recorded voices (counter-tenor, alto, bass) with the impulse response of the cathedral which makes the voices appear to have been recorded in that space. Mixing and multi-tracking creates the impression of a large choir at various points in the piece, often with movement around the listener. Because the original recordings were mainly of individual pitches and short phrases, the musical content is somewhat neutral (possibly reminiscent of a spare Medieval style), except for the third section where the bass voice’s multiphonic singing might suggest Tibetan chant. However, lacking any specific Christian reference other than the cathedral acoustics, the work can be heard as a spiritual voyage in an imaginary temple (the choice of title being deliberately the more general term) whose acoustic properties not only reverberate the choral voices but reflect them back as ghostly after-images that suggest an inner space of vast dimensions. These after-images are created by convolving each voice with itself in order to bring out only the prominent frequencies in the voice and double their duration, hence creating an image that is somewhere between the embodied voice and the reverberation of the space. It is the presence of this disembodied element, as well as the complex spatial movements of the various sounds, that extends the work from being merely a recording of a possible choral event into the realm of the imagination. In order to enhance this journey, each of the middle sections moves away from the realistic voice material via granular time stretching, before returning to unaltered voices in the next section. By the end of the work, all of the voices are reduced to their most prominent harmonics, to create an ethereal and timeless ending.

Prospero's Voyage returns to the mythical island of my piece Island (2000) except that this time it is Prospero's island from Shakespeare's The Tempest. The work begins with a Shakespearean actor, Christopher Gaze, intoning Prospero's final speech from the play, "Now are my charms all o'erthrown …", which culminates with the phrase "Let your indulgence set me free." Hence the premise of the piece is what happens when Prospero leaves the island? Before he leaves, however, there is a rainstorm and a scene where Prospero is circling the listener intoning a fragment of the speech from the play. In the next scene, he walks towards the beach, and with a final incantation enters the water and is submerged by it. His underwater voyage is interrupted by several "surfacings", but eventually this underwater dreamworld leads to a very distant place where the piece concludes with Macbeth's speech that ends with "to the last syllable of recorded time." In other words, the work may be interpreted as a voyage of the imagination where Prospero, symbolizing the creative powers of the artist, leads us through the depths of the imagination to its furthest point. It is a lonely journey that is occasionally terrifying (“a tale told by an idiot … signifying nothing”) but ultimately one that accepts the human condition of what it means to be conscious in a vast universe.

The Shaman Ascending and its title were inspired by a pair of Canadian Inuit sculptures (The Shaman & Antler Face) by John Terriak from Labrador with collectively the same name, as well as by Inuit throat singing. The sculptures depict a shaman face that as it ascends through the spaces in the antler becomes more radiant, a progression that I interpreted as the shaman’s ascent towards a state of spiritual ecstasy. In one of those moments of fortuitous synchronicity, my partner acquired the sculptures while I was about a third of the way through composing the piece, and the two works became instantly bonded in my mind.

The aural effect of the 8-channel version of the piece is difficult to describe, but technically it is achieved by having the AudioBox, which is a digital signal processor that controls not only mixing levels but the spatial trajectories of each of its 16 input channels onto 8 or 16 output channels, spin all of the sound material around the listener at high rates. All of the sound in the piece is derived from two samples sung by the same bass voice as I used in Temple (Vancouver bass, Derrick Christian). As the piece starts, small phonemic segments of his voice (100 ms duration followed by a 50 ms pause) are heard rotating around the 8 speakers, one segment per speaker with no cross-fade between them, such that after 1.2 seconds, the pattern has completed a full rotation around the listener. However, as more of the 8 tracks are added (in a pattern such that each speaker has only one phonemic segment at any one instant), the listener can no longer follow individual rotations, but instead experiences a vibrating sound mass. Other rotational speeds are used with shorter phonemes (50 ms), the fastest being 100 ms per speaker (producing a complete rotation every 0.8 seconds) as well as at 200 ms. The patterns can proceed clockwise or counter-clockwise, advancing by either a single speaker or else skipping two speakers (e.g. the speaker sequence 1 4 7 2 5 8 3 6 1 …). Other processes used to treat the voice are granular time stretching at the original pitch and down an octave, along with convolution that brings out the voice’s inner harmonics, particularly with the multiphonic singing. In several sections, it is hearing these pure harmonics emerge out of the vibrating vocal sound mass that symbolizes the “ascent” referred to in the title. As with Temple, at the end of the piece, only the harmonics are left, which at the premiere at ZKM (who commissioned the work) in Karlsruhe, Germany, were projected onto a high ring of speakers above the audience, as well as during the earlier occurrences of these harmonics.

The final piece in the sequence, The Way of the Spirit, is my second collaboration with Asian music specialist and improvising composer-performer Randy Raine-Reusch. Our first collaboration, Bamboo, Silk & Stone, in 1994 established the practice that I composed the tape part of the piece from recordings of instruments in his extensive collection, with Randy then creating an improvised live part to interact with the pre-recorded and processed material. The lack of a fixed score for the piece allowed him, and later his partner, Mei Han who specializes in performing on the Chinese zheng, to create alternate versions of the piece, such as solo and duo zheng performances. In 2005, Randy suggested that we explore his long experience with Japanese instruments associated with Zen Buddhist traditions to create a new work. As a result, all sounds in the piece are derived from the two live instruments: the deeply philosophical Japanese one string ichigenkin and the shakuhachi end blown flute, both associated with Zen for their expressions of the duality of life and spirit, simplicity and complexity, material and immaterial. The inherently disembodied quality of the processed sounds seemed to be a perfect representation of the Zen concepts. In an era of globalization, it is tempting for composers to borrow from (or some would say “dabble in”) cross-cultural traditions, and there have been some thoughtful criticisms and proposed guidelines on the subject (Gluck, 2008). However, despite my misgivings about my ability to understand and be respectful of these Japanese traditions, I felt I was in good hands by working with Randy who had studied them in Japan with the masters of the instruments for several decades. Although Zen concepts such as mah are notoriously difficult to translate into English, I felt guided by the emphasis on asymmetry, the importance of silence and spacing of events, the lack of repetition, even a tolerance for the unintended or “irrational” gesture. The techniques used compositionally followed a similar pattern to those in the previous pieces, such as time stretching, and the repeated use of convolution on a single sound that progressively removed noise from the source material (the breathiness of the shakuhachi and the hard attack of the ichigenkin string) until only the fundamental vibration of the tube or string remained.

Given that The Way of the Spirit is the only one of the set to involve a live performer, its realization in a performance of the entire cycle, as well as the manner of its recording, presents an interesting challenge. The piece is the last in the cycle, not simply because it was the last to be realized, but also because I felt this deeply introspective piece presented the most challenging of the “journeys” in terms of the subtle and possibly unfamiliar concepts involved. At the Regina performance, Randy was not able to be present to perform the piece live, but fortunately we had just completed a studio recording of the live part, so it could be projected onto the front speakers as a kind of virtual presence of the performer. Given the sensitive interaction of the live performer with the tape, I abandoned my usual studio practice of piecing together on multi-track tape the “best” versions of each section of a piece, down to individual phrases. Instead, we recorded the piece all the way through three times, each inherently different in improvisational details, and then selected a minimum number of switches between preferred versions, in essence the ichigenkin parts from one take and the shakuhachi parts from another complete performance (where the two instruments alternate). On the Spirit Journies CD, the ending with Randy’s shakuhachi performance nicely complements the opening track with the breathy alto flute in Steam.

In conclusion, I personally felt that this unique opportunity to present a set of four works lasting a little over an hour was one of the best concert experiences I have ever participated in as a composer. The balanced ring of speakers provided by Charlie Fox provided a clear, well-defined, omnipresent and omnidirectional experience for the audience in the intimate space of the black box theatre. I introduced each piece before it began and responded to any comments or questions from the previous performance, and perhaps because most of the audience had been spending the previous few days together at the conference, the entire atmosphere was informal, intimate and felt more like a family get-together than an impersonal public concert. The sustained mood that was possible to maintain over the four pieces seemed to encourage a deeper, more thoughtful and sensitive reaction than might be expected in the more usual smorgasbord approach of even an expertly programmed concert. The feedback I got from the audience was tremendously encouraging, particularly the positive comments about The Way of the Spirit, which I worried might be the most difficult work in the set to appreciate. However, I am convinced that its positive reception (many said it was their favourite piece) can be attributed in part to the context of the entire presentation that led up to its inclusion.

Later that year, the CD version with the stereo reduction of all of the pieces was issued. The CD has the advantage of repetition and choice of listening environment, along with short program notes, but of course it lacks the intensity of the octophonic experience and the presence of the live performer and real-time diffusion control. These are essentially two different presentation formats, and it may be a personal preference as to which is more effective. Personally I find both formats far more satisfying than the “disposable mp3 download” practices that are the norm today, though clearly my music will not reach as wide an audience since there are few means to create that kind of audience and little external support beyond our own efforts as a community. Still, I find optimism in the possibility that an alternative experience is possible for an audience, and there is a reason for them to come to a live presentation, one that clearly surpasses even a 5.1 home theatre format. But even if we can attract such an audience, what “content” can we provide? Clearly, the almost tactile immediacy of the immersive aural experience is extremely convincing, but what I would also hope to provide is the kind of sustained artistic stimulation that can engage the listener, not just aurally, but also in terms of larger cultural issues. Soundscape composition is a powerful way to do this, and I find it satisfying that digital technology can be used to extend traditional discourses, such as the four referenced here.


Gluck, R. 2008. “Between, Within and Across Cultures”, Organised Sound, 13(2), 141-152.
Truax, B. 2008. “Soundscape Composition as Global Music: Electroacoustic Music as Soundscape,” Organised Sound, 13(2), 103-109.
Truax, B. 2002. "Techniques and Genres of Soundscape Composition as Developed at Simon Fraser University," Organised Sound, 7(1), 5-14.
Truax, B. 1998. "Composition and Diffusion: Space in Sound in Space," Organised Sound, 3(2), 141-6.
Truax, B. 1988. "Sequence of Earlier Heaven:  The Record as a Medium for the Electroacoustic Composer," Leonardo, 20(1), 25-28.