Speechmarks - Caroline Wright - Elise Chohan

Speechmarks installation with Caroline Wright

When I was first approached to work on an installation with an artist working in non-time-based media, I was firstly terrified, as installations to me seemed to be the hardest medium in which to successfully convey time-based arts, particularly time-based visual arts, but also sound to some extent.
However, really in the terms of a collaboration, things were discussed on a purely ideological level, so there was much less sharing of knowledge-base between our two media's technical requirements. It was more an exchange of ideas, and swapping material to inspire each other, and provoke artistic response, and less skill-swapping than, for example the Sonimation.

Caroline used her mouth as a pin-hole camera, and took pictures of people, to convey the idea of communication, from the point of view of words coming from 'inside' to the outside.


We interviewed Sharon, who lost her hearing as a child, and most of the sonic material came from this recording. Caroline had originally put forward the idea of trying to portray the problems of communication in a medical environment, but this was put aside once we had the recording of Sharon, as we decided it would be easier to share a simpler theme: simply the question of words coming from inside a human. This very simple and broad theme allowed for a lot more flow of material, rather than having to leave out things that didn't 'fit' with a medical theme.

As a sonic artist, and not a literary one I wasn't terribly interested in my samples for their semantic meaning, but purely in the emphasis, elocution, emotion and intonation of her voice. We decided between us, however to leave certain words and phrases untreated as Sharon herself was extremely articulate, and came out with some extremely significant phrases that added weight to the work. It was nice to have a third, unplanned input where the subject inadvertently decided a lot of the material used. Serendipity in the composition.


This also occurred in a different way, in that throughout my research, I had been playing with PD, in order to familiarise myself with certain aspects of it. One of the patches I had been playing with included a very basic random pitch shifter, which I originally built for the humorous sounds, and to learn about arrays. I ended up using this to create some of the material for Speechmarks, as the wide pitch range gave some very rich sounds.

streamed sample (ogg vorbis mp3) of pitch shifter output through PD

My main fear of installation was always how to give the piece form. Having been mostly made tape pieces before, where the beginning, middle, and end dictated many aspects of the material, and where I felt I could easily justify certain gestures in their appropriate place of importance in this frame, an installation where the sound needed to be ongoing gave me fears regarding the structure of the piece.

My original idea was to use PD to trigger a large bank of sounds at different times, possibly organising them so that shorter sounds occurred more regularly, and longer sounds less often. I was planning to use a soundfont with Larry Troxler's iiwu~ object as this seemed to be the best solution for storing and playing lots of soundfiles. However, this would mean taking a laptop out of action for a couple of weeks, and the iiwu~ object had not yet been ported to the Microsoft Windows version of PD.


Weighing up the pros and cons and the time it would take to implement this, Caroline and I decided it would be best to stick to a more reliable method. A CD on repeat would be sufficient. I felt that, in order to be satisfactory, and to avoid the monotony of repeat, the work would need to be as long as possible: around 70 minutes. This again worried me, as I have never created a piece of such a length, and I wondered how to procure over an hour's worth of material that was intelligent and interesting.

The recording from Sharon actually gave me plenty of source material, so I was able to apply filters and effects on long samples, which gave me a lot of material fairly quickly, which was rich and variable enough to then make more sounds out of. This was a typical example of what Sarah Waterman had described as my 'organic' way of working. I made sure that if a sound was used more than once, it had to have been altered since the last time, and any sound that was used as a recognisable reference point had to be used in different contexts, or developed. This way, mostly using Cool Edit Pro, I managed to build up a piece of 70 minutes which, although it might not hold a listener's attention for long as a piece in its own right, when wrapped around a visual stimulus seemed to work very well.


I had carefully thought about, and discussed with Caroline, just how intrusive the sound could be, without overtaking the images. I wanted the level of activity to be enough that the balance between aural and visual information was the same. This was enhanced by a factor that I had been anticipating as a problem: the fact that the room itself was extremely reverberant, with hardly any soft furnishings to absorb the sound. I had been worried that the sounds would be lost in the room, but in the event, the high ceiling provided the piece with an almost ethereal sound, so that it was hard to tell that the sound was actually in the room. The speakers themselves had been placed half-way up the room, with muslin covering them, to keep them from being too obvious.