The Sonic Arts Research Centre is Belfast's cutting edge aural institution
At first glance Belfast's Sonic Arts Research Centre seems innocuous. Outside, the centre's only architectural flourish is its brickwork, configured like an oscilloscope’s display, with sine waves flowing from left to right.
Yet inside, it wouldn't be surprising to find students bungee jumping from the ceiling just to gauge the pitch of the whistle in their ear, or for 'Doc' Emmet Brown to spring out, google-eyed with frayed white hair, lurching maniacally and jabbering about ‘one point six jigawatts!’ in a eureka moment of inspired lunacy.
For the centre, opened by electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen in April 2004, is an international hotspot of avant-garde aural activity, recognised for its cutting-edge work in composition, signal processing and spatial audio technology.
Chris McClelland is the man behind one of the centre's most publicised projects, biPolar. McClelland's installation, developed in Belfast, travelled to Washington as part of the Rediscover Northern Ireland programme. biPolar, essentially a visual projection that evolves and reacts to the real-time human movements of those who walk past a designated space, is but the tip of the technological iceberg.
McClelland began studying composition privately with Paul Wilson at Queen's University, Belfast. He gained a BMus(Hons) at Birmingham Conservatoire with Joe Cutler and Lamberto Coccioli and is currently a PhD student.
In 2002, he completed a semester at the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Paris. He also studied computer-assisted composition with Marco Stroppa, electro-acoustic composition with Luis Naon and Yann Geslin and real-time and interactive electronics with Tom Mays.
‘The department is interdisciplinary,’ McClelland explains. ‘A lot of the students come from mathematics backgrounds, computer science, physics - it’s actually very few musicians who come here. Students get to do all these crazy projects. Let me show you.’
In a suite of white computers, groups - mostly young men - are huddled around an array of projects, the scene a cross between a laboratory and an episode of Robot Wars. One group are experimenting with a wired, blinking glove that looks like it could crush a football.
‘There’s 30 iMacs here, and these guys are working with live performance systems and alternative controllers,’ says McClelland. ‘They're using standing controls for a virtual tour of SARC,’ he says, introducing a trio of students standing around what looks like the doormat of the future, a toast-thick slice of mottled plastic, embedded with LEDs and wires protruding from the top edge. It’s the sort of device that might scuttle off to clean itself after you wiped your feet on it.
In 2001 and 2003, McClelland had works performed at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festivals and in January 2002 he presented a concert of his music at Birmingham Conservatoire, featuring Ian Pace. He received a highly commended award in June 2002 from the Royal Philharmonic Society for the work he entered into their composition prize.
McClelland composes for both acoustic instruments and technology and he is particularly interested in interactive performance networks and computer-assisted composition. In 2002 he was involved in an interactive video and audio project with Australian moving image artist Emma Macey.
One project that McClelland enthuses about is the Interactive Audio Environment at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, re-imagining the hospital’s main corridor as a space that responds to the movement of the people who occupy it; an attempt to escape the idea of 'music as muzak' and install an aural backdrop that is the opposite of the mind-numbing loops that often blunt public spaces.
The Strings Apart performance is an initiative developed between the Sonic Arts Research Centre and Stanford University, California, using transatlantic communications technology to accommodate a dual piano and visual performance, one in which the participants play together despite sitting 7,000 miles apart.
The Centre recently launched Cube, a final project from the MA in Sonic Arts/Composition, aided with the instruction of artist-in-residence Johannes Birringer. The theoretical background of this project reads like the instruction manual to the most complicated computer in the world.
Following on from the collaborative production See You in Walhalla, a live action computer game that linked the cities of Amsterdam, Athens and Sofia, Cube consists of a series of levels made up of specific sonic qualities, to which the player must react in order to progress. The player emerges after a series of musical, audio and visual landscapes that treat the players’ imagination in a particular manner.
These projects, like many at SARC, feel like precursors to projects like Second Life, the online community or avatar-filled environment in which users create, live and interact with each other in a synthetic world. One corridor is a spine leading to custom-built studios for under- and postgrad students, used for experimentation, research and occasionally, musical recording.
‘There are two identical studios, both Dolby 5.1, loaded with all manner of software,’ says McClelland. ‘We do recordings in here from time to time too, with one studio used as a recording space, the other as a performance space. Both are daisychained together.’
Working within the checkerboard, soundproof surrounds of one studio is Luka, a student beavering to bring the practical aspect of his project into line with the theory. This is the crux of SARC's activity - trying to ground the most abstract and imaginative ideas in technology, which can then be applied to fields as diverse as education, agriculture and engineering.
‘I’m working on a piece that deals with different spaces,’ says Luka, elaborating in tentative tones. ‘I'm creating a Cathedral, the ocean; like a sonic journey.
‘The ideal is to have a room, nothing else, just a little sound that creates a mostly auditory experience using different spaces within the composition, ultimately arriving at triggering physical experience. Well... this is the theory!’