The Journal of Sonic Studies

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol01/nr01/a04

Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 1, nr. 1 (October 2011)


Björn Hellström, Per Sjösten, Anders Hultqvist, Catharina Dyrssen, Staffan Mossenmark


This article’s pivotal theme is: “How to compose a site-specific sound-art installation for a commercial space in order to improve conditions, while taking perceptual, social, aesthetical, temporal and spatial criteria into account”

The interdisciplinary, art-based research approach is derived from the concept of acousmatics, i.e. the process of apprehending any sound, the source of which is invisible. Acousmatic perception concerns the everyday identification process; when lacking visual contact with the sound source, we automatically seek references, such as social (what produces the sound and what is my relation to it?), aesthetical, spatial and temporal (e.g. orientation and demarcation). The acousmatic concept identifies phenomena based on individually, culturally and spatially conditioned experiences.

Today, a shopping culture dominates urban space. Indoor malls expose us to all types of acousmatically perceived sounds: jingles, signals, music and muzak from public loudspeakers, mobile devices, etc. In this respect, one could claim that the soundscape of the shopping culture embodies an acousmatic environment.

In 2009, the research and sound-art group Urban Sound Institute (USIT) created a permanent sound installation in a shopping mall (Gallerian) located in downtown Stockholm. This installation serves as a case study for the present paper. The artistic assignment involved the creation of a meeting place without material devices as well as the enhancement of the overall atmosphere. The research objective was to elucidate different qualities of the sound installation in regard to the acousmatics of the shopping mall, promoting discussions on the articulation of sound-space configurations in relation to time and site-specific context, issues on musical-architectural qualities as well as objective, subjective and inter-subjective interrelationships between the experience of the sound-art installation and the experience of the shopping mall soundscape. Other applied, interrelated concepts are metabolic environment and masking- and cutting effects.

Introduction to the Subject

Into Noise

We live in noise. Acoustically, noise consists of overlays of sounds that mask each other. Culturally and aesthetically, it is an essential part of the contemporary flow of information and today’s urban environment. It is a common notion that noise is homogeneous and impermeable, made up of incessant traffic noise and the constant droning of fans, escalators and music. But in fact, noise embraces a large number of masked sounding objects, details and nuances. Abstract and yet universal, the sounds around us express information that may be social in character but may also unleash aesthetic experiments. Noise is more than noise; it develops networks of relationships that are vital for our actions in a physical space.

In the book Noise Design (Hellström 2003), our rich and complex sound world is examined. The author adopts a structural approach to sound-related issues in general, particularly to urban acoustic space, and explores the concept of transparent and fluid spaces as a central principle for architectural conception. Urban acoustic space is understood as transient and immaterial, making public and private spaces less predictable, less monotonous.

Urban Sound Institute: Research Project

This article focuses on semi-public commercial spaces, primarily shopping malls. A sound-art installation in a shopping mall is presented, launched in 2009 by the sound-art and research group Urban Sound Institute (USIT). The installation is also integrated into the research project Into Noise – Art based musical, architectonic and acoustic investigations of contemporary urban sonic space, funded by the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet), 2008-2010.

USIT consists of two composers/sound artists (Anders Hultqvist, Staffan Mossenmark), two architects/sound designers with musical backgrounds (Catharina Dyrssen, Björn Hellström), and one acoustician/sound designer/music producer (Per Sjösten). The composition of the team enables a fusion of academic and professional practice, primarily between the Academy of Music and Drama at Göteborg University, the Department of Architecture at Chalmers University of Technology, and the University College of Arts, Craft and Design (Konstfack) in Stockholm.

Background: Art-Based Research

Understanding sound as a spatial condition, as a quality related to place and as an integrated aspect of architecture and urban planning, requires a transdisciplinary approach (Nowotny 2004; Nilsson 2006: 271-292; Gibbons 1994: 31-44) where art-based research can be fruitful. In contrast to natural science and social sciences, the aim of art-based/artistic research is neither to establish generalisations and verified results from well-defined experimental setups, nor to apply certain theories or methodologies in case studies. Instead, artistic research triggers reflections through action and performance (Schön 1983: 144-145).

Artistic research departs from embodied realism, a recognition of the fact that perception, conception, invention and experimental action cannot be separated into sequences of cause and effect, but are intimately intertwined, forming a basis for human cognitive processes and the construction of meaning (Damasio 2003: 252-270; Lakoff and Johnson 1999: 17–22, 37, 77, 102). It is also assumed that these cognitive mechanisms are socially and culturally constructed. Theoretical frameworks are generally combined from different disciplines. The objectives are to gain new insights by way of explorative experiments; disclose hidden qualities by intervention in specific situations; invent and produce projective examples of possible solutions; raise questions and discuss working methods. Artistic research generally employs the use of full-scale modelling in situ, changing conditions on site, and the ongoing reflection and processing of findings and possibilities. The modelling activity can deepen the understanding of complex issues, propel associative thinking, and inspire further actions by drawing conclusions from within the specific context. Thus, precision in art-based research is achieved through constant interaction with the context of the issue and the acceptance of socio-cultural change and heterogeneity (Dyrssen 2010: 225, 229-236).

Art-Based Research Project: Into Noise

The research project Into Noise, funded 2008-2010 by the Swedish Research Council, aims to understand and develop sound as a part of urban space in terms of architectonic, aesthetic and social qualities, including the development of knowledge about spatial and temporal qualities of sounds as well as how people interact with these qualities. The main approach is transdisciplinary, with the team combining knowledge in the fields of music, acoustics, sound design, architecture and urban design, and with the conceptual premise that sound both constitutes space and shapes the communicative components of spatial contexts.

The project is designed as a sequence of investigations, of which one particular investigation and implementation was a permanent site-specific sound-art installation in a shopping mall (Gallerian) located in downtown Stockholm. By using art installations as a means to try out sounds in specific architectural situations, we can learn more about how sonic space is created, how sound is integrated with architecture and urban design as open musical-acoustic-architectural compositions. This includes questions as to how sounds correspond to the environment and work in collective spaces that are accessible and usable for many people, at different times, for periods of various durations. Other central questions are how sounds may enhance the sense of place, promote qualities such as sonic spaces and specific atmospheres, and infuse new meaning to the urban surroundings.

Central concepts

The Concept of Acousmatics

The concept of acousmatics deals with the process of apprehending any sound, the source of which is invisible, or, in other words, a situation where one is prevented from verifying a sound source by visual means (Schaeffer 1966: 91-102). According to the French Larousse Dictionary, the adjective acousmatic derives from the Greek, and refers to the circumstances where a sound is apprehended, but the visual association to the source is detached. Acousmatics was used in Ancient Greece when a lecturer hid behind a curtain to put the focus on the speech itself.

The concept of acousmatics circumscribes sounds connected to perceptual criteria, not only from a theoretical point of view, but also from a methodological and pragmatic perspective in that the understanding of the concept enriches our aural sensitivity. It is also an applicable tool when exploring the relation between musical aesthetics, urban sounds and the user’s space.

The English music theorist Denis Smalley discusses the concept in terms of varying acousmatic conditions (Smalley 1991: 21). He states that the concept of acousmatics is broad in that it can be treated within a wide frame of references. According to Smalley, the heart of acousmatic perception concerns the everyday identification process; when we lack visual contact with the sound source, we automatically seek references. These associations may differ in type, such as musical (aesthetical qualities) social (who/what produces the sound and the listening subject’s relation to it), spatial (orientation, boundaries) and temporal (change, movement), etc. The strength of the concept is therefore that it identifies phenomena that are based on experiences—seeing as we learn to detect sounds by experience—that are generally culturally conditioned (how do we perceive the surroundings when meeting a new culture for the first time?) (Hellström 2011: 178-179).

Acousmatic Environments in Commercial Space

Today, urban space is dominated by a shopping culture. Most public activities are connected to shopping: town centres, suburbs, streets, airports, hospitals, schools and the Internet. Shopping does not only dominate urban activities, it practically constitutes the construction of the city (Koolhaas 1995; Koolhaas 2002). In shopping environments, we are exposed to all types of sounding artefacts: jingles from public loudspeakers, signals from mobile phones, computers, technical installations, appliances, toys, etc, as well as music and muzak directed towards consumption. These sound sources often generate a sonic hubbub, or schizophonia (Schafer 1977: 90-91). Since in most cases there is a lack of visual contact with the sound sources, one could claim that the sounds of the shopping culture embody a kind of acousmatic environment (Hellström 2010: 18) where one does not deal with isolated sound objects, but operates with sounding objects as an ensemble.

Thus, acousmatic perception occurs in relation to sounds that are distributed by loudspeakers. But, in accordance with the concept's original meaning, as applied in antiquity, acousmatic perception is also induced by naturally related sounds (e.g. voices, footsteps, vehicles) in contexts where you do not have visual contact with the sound source.

So the acousmatic environment – the sounding products and activities as an ensemble – constitutes a new type of infrastructure, which is problematic for different reasons. The major reason is that we do not have any natural connection to most of the sounds, as they are not directed to our personal activities or associated with individual use in a collective space. Neither can we verify the different sound sources visually. In other words, the acousmatic environment may disengage people, activities, functions and products from each other, and thus the sonic condition becomes even more blurred and sometimes confusing. One obvious consequence is the increasing use of mp3-players and iPods in order to protect oneself; music becomes a substitute for urban sounds (Bull 2004). One may therefore ask: How does the acousmatic environment affect people’s behaviour in a commercial space as regards to social, perceptual, temporal and spatial criteria? How can it be used to enhance the quality of a public place? This question will be further discussed below.

The concept of acousmatics is not an absolute concept, but rather a variety of acousmatic conditions (Smalley 1991: 21). One extreme might be considered the sound that is easy to verify visually, for instance the sound of an airplane passing overhead. The other extreme is a sound that is impossible to tie into a visual context of say, a ventilation system. We therefore introduce the concept figurative – non-figurative acousmatic condition, which specifies this polar condition on a dynamic scale.

The concept of acousmatics concerns the relationship between auditory and visual configurations. However, in order to handle the problem of sound installations in shopping locations, one should also scrutinise the temporal, spatial, aesthetical and social dimensions of sounds.

Metabolic environment and figure-ground

A central concept is the metabolic environment (l'effet métabole), defined at the French research institute CRESSON (Augoyard & Torgue 1995: 86-91; Hellström 2003: 107-142, 222-224; Augoyard & Torgue 2005: 73-77). A metabolic environment is a structural and perceptual concept. Simply explained, it concerns a sound environment that is stable over time, while the individual sounds that create this environment are perceived as being in constant flux. Thus, there is a paradoxical situation in that one perceives the sound environment (for example in a mall) as homogeneous while the individual sound objects (e.g. voices and footsteps) are difficult to perceive over time.

Spaces with a long reverberation time such as terminals, railway stations and shopping malls are typical examples of metabolic environments, where the ability to perceive individual sound sources is reduced. It is not easy to communicate in such an environment because you are in an ambivalent situation where voices become part of the metabolic environment – the more one tries to make oneself heard, the more the characteristics of this environment are reinforced, thereby making the speaker an involuntary (co-)designer of a metabolic environment (Augoyard & Torgue 1995: 88).

Thus, the concept of metabolic environment formulates a central principle of structural representations of time, and this has implications for our understanding of the urban soundscape. It opens up a wide field of neighbouring concepts, such as figure-ground. The concept of figure-ground (Wishart 1996: 93; Maconie 1991: 58), which originates in psychology, can be briefly described in terms of a sound that stands out in relation to a background; at the same time it is masked, entirely or partly, by other sounds. It is also possible to apply the concept to temporal and spatial configurations, and in relation to the concept of acousmatics. In the field of psychoacoustics, the concept of masking (Augoyard & Torgue 1995: 78-90; Hellström 2003: 219) is more frequent (mainly expressed in terms of sound energy, measured in decibels, and its frequency range) and relates to the perception of sound, as well as acoustic conditions and properties of the inner ear (Zwicker & Fastl 1999: 61-109). These, and other, concepts related to metabolic environments are further described in the discussion below.

Case – Permanent Sound Installation

This chapter describes the design work with a permanent sound-art installation launched in 2009 at Gallerian, a large shopping mall and a well-known key point for visitors in downtown Stockholm. According to the client and owner of the mall, AMF-Pension, the main purpose of the installation was to create a meeting place within the mall, close to its entrance. The project was a collaboration between Urban Sound Institute (USIT), a furniture designer, and the company Swarovski.

The client expressed a strong desire that the sound installation endow the meeting place with an identity and produce a warm atmosphere that would encourage visitors to sit down and relax for a while. But not for too long – they should also go shopping; the sound installation should not interfere with the shopping activities in the mall. The place should have clear spatial demarcations as a transparent sound space, with a clear-cut boundary between Gallerian's soundscape and the sound installation. However, there were not to be any physical borders around the place. The installation should integrate a sitting area with a number of plastic "blob" furniture pieces, designed by Catarina Kent, and Scandinavia's largest crystal chandelier, hanging from the high ceiling with an LED light system that could be altered over time. In addition to the meeting place, the sound installation included sonic designs for two entrance walkways into the mall, approaching the meeting place.

A detailed description of the artistic process is presented below.

Phase 1 - Site Analysis

The work began with a site analysis and inventory of the following criteria in the mall: spatial qualities (various sound spaces within the mall, architectonic qualities, spatial directions and movement spaces); orientation (how to orient oneself, and sound information at different locations); dynamics (spatially stationary noise sources that change over time, sound sources in motion, the mall’s general soundscape and its changes over time); artefacts (sounding functions in the mall); activities (social and retail activities); aesthetical interpretation of the soundscape. In addition to this, visual assessment criteria regarding functions, activities, and spatial formations were studied, and a number of field recordings were carried out within the mall.

One obvious condition that occurs in this relatively reverberant environment is its metabolic environment. The individual sound sources at Gallerian almost blend together – no one source dominates another. In this climate, the sounds in the background are less distinct.

Phase 2 – Simulation

The second phase consisted of sound field simulations in a studio. In short, this part was an investigation of the interaction between the metabolic sound space of the mall – replayed in a quadraphonic sound system – and a number of crafted sounds. These sounds were recordings of various sound sources in our everyday life, transformed by different studio effects into acousmatic sounds. This way, a library of compositional elements was assembled as a foundation for the next phase – composition. Typical sound candidates for modification were wind, water, some artificial "birds" and crystal glass. Unaltered natural sounds, like birdsong, were avoided at this stage as they would draw too much attention within the overall metabolic space. The crystal glass sounds were the only direct reference to the visual landmark of the place, the chandelier.

Phase 3 – Composition

The third phase, the composition of the sound-art work in the mall, was largely moulded around the theoretical concepts of acousmatics, metabolic environment, figure-ground, atmosphere, cutting and masking effects. One of the main goals was to create sound atmospheres that in themselves express metabolic environments, stable and homogeneous, although constantly changing. The sounds were carefully selected so as not to interfere with the soundscape of Gallerian but rather create a kind of sounding space within a space.

Three spots in the mall were to be shaped by different soundscapes. The main location was the meeting place under the big chandelier, and the two others were walkways leading up to that place. Even though a significant part of the sounding material was identical in the different spots, the walkways were given a slightly more forward-leaning musical structure, with different articulations between the sound layers.

The main sounds used in all three places consisted of running water, rainforest, and wind. In the meeting place there was an addition of crystal glass bead sounds combined with hissing and clicking from a bass clarinet and a flute, and more sparse accent sounds of water in a steel bucket and a digital ‘ping’ processed with various filters. One cannot trace the sounds to the original sources, but in the composition they form single accents, approximately heard once every three minutes, and coming from different directions as a kind of sonic relief to the homogeneous sound atmosphere, and indicating the outer borders of the sounding virtual room.

The sounds were then composed into a sound atmosphere. Referring to the previous discussion, one could say that the composed atmosphere operates in between a figurative and non-figurative acousmatic condition. One could make the association to figurative conditions when recognizing the sounds as water, wind, etc. However, since the sound atmosphere was so diffuse, one could not really trace the individual sounds to their sources. Thus, the atmosphere evoked a kind of ambiguous listening effect.

The ‘crystal-composition’ formed a central part of the soundscape around the meeting place and was built upon seven rhythmical layers constructed from individual versions of a Fibonacci-structure laid out in different tempi. This aimed to create a constantly changing ‘cloud’ of sounding events. Because discernible musical phrases repeating themselves quite quickly lead to fatigue and irritation, it was important to maintain the possibility of a metabolic, and at times subliminal, listening process.

The sounds for the composition were carefully selected to relate to the soundscape of Gallerian but with a discernible sonic identity, primarily by having a higher frequency spectrum. This also made it possible to project the sounds with high directivity, thus demarcating the sound space of the meeting place. Lower frequencies would have spread in more directions and blurred the borders of the place.

Phase 4 – Installation

To accomplish a space within the space with no room-separating elements, the sound-art installation used two sets of quadraphonic sound systems consisting of highly directive speakers. By using a 4-channel sound design with lower speaker levels than the metabolic background level in the mall, an acoustic “hot-spot” was created at the centre, with very little spill-over to the neighbouring activities.

The first set consisted of four Audio Beam speakers (Sennheiser) which contain a matrix of ultrasonic transducers, and produce an extremely narrow ultrasonic carrier wave. This wave was modulated with the audio signal, thus producing audible pressure variations along the beam. The lower frequency limit for the Audio Beam is around 400 Hz, implying that this speaker can be used to pin-point medium and high frequency sounds at specific locations. The Audio Beam was also used in the walkways, where they were directed at convex surfaces to create diffuse sound sources.

The second set of speakers were custom-made parabolic speakers, using 80 cm satellite dishes for TV reception with midrange drivers mounted on them. The dishes were coated with a vibroelastic damping material in order to create a solid, non-resonant, acoustically reflective surface. The parabolic shape creates a directional acoustic beam that becomes more focused at higher frequencies, but still works reasonably well as a spatial demarcation down to approximately 200 Hz. As a result, this speaker set produces a warmer, more natural sound for the meeting point. All speakers were mounted onto the ceiling, above the crystal chandelier and about eight metres above the floor.

This design made it possible to create a spatially well-defined sound space, where one can enter and leave the sound space without noticing the sound sources, and which forms a transparent architecture in the existing environment.

The average background sound level at the mall during rush-hours is 64 dBA, and the average overall sound level, with the sound-art installation included, is 66 dBA. The background level changes over time, which implies that the sound level for the sound installation should ultimately be continuously controlled by measurement of the background level. This is feasible, using one or more microphones and the proper hardware, but was excluded for economic reasons.

Additional sound installations in the mall

Two walkways constitute side entrances to the shopping mall from two different directions, also connecting to different street levels. Both walkways end up close to the meeting place, reinforcing its character of an intersection or hub. The sounds added to the walkways, apart from the ones listed above, were some rhythmical vocalisations, different porcelain sounds and the sound of a symphony orchestra tuning before a concert. To this there is a sparsely added voice calling out for attention by somebody (anybody) with a barely audible ‘Hello’. The orchestral ‘hunt for the A’ was set to a barely audible level so that only a sense of focusing atmosphere is left to perceive.

In essence, the main idea was to give the sound installations different characters and, as they approach the meeting place, integrate more of its sonic material with the aim of intensifying the identity of the place.

Analysis and discussion

Reflections on the Gallerian design work

The commissioner and owner of the mall showed great trust in the professional competence of USIT and took an active interest in the conceptual dialogues. From the given conditions, we had extensive artistic freedom and support from the client, which was of great importance. But the spatial-acoustic-artistic-technical-social complexity of the project could not have been handled without the interdisciplinarity of the team, and the long experience of cross-over discussions generated through a series of art and design installations and experiments. This also reflects the necessity in artistic research and within so-called 'making disciplines' not only of 'knowing what' but 'knowing how', and of developing value-driven knowledge. The sonic material and overall architecture of the Gallerian project had to be changed several times, due to our own on-site check-ups as well as to complaints or remarks mainly channelled through the owners. Traditional qualitative evaluations resulted in too vague, general or unfruitful feedback, as the sound art work was so discreet. A combination of technical analysis and artistic reflection seemed more proper to achieve continuous improvement. However, it is important to discuss qualitative aspects on a theoretical and more overall methodological level, as will be done further on in this article.

Experiences developed from artistic experiments

The sound design commission at Gallerian was one project in a series of art and design works developed by USIT of which a few have been described in other publications and at the USIT website (Dyrssen et al 2007b: 136-156; www.usit.nu). Some of these works were customized to accommodate client specifications, others involved more considerable artistic autonomy and freedom, in art exhibition contexts, but they were all site-specific. Conclusions from these experiences, including the Gallerian project, have generated an open methodology involving some qualitative key aspects to be considered:

1) The importance of carefully, but not too obviously, evoking a connection to sounds of the environment.

2) To choose and create a basic sonic atmosphere for a specific place.

3) To establish a few points of reference or orientation in the spatial design.

4) To add or open up for a certain heterogeneity in the sound design in order to enhance the sense of urban quality – an overly homogenous sonic space may render the character of a "hotel lobby".

5) To carefully consider the narrative aspects of sound – sounds can easily be recognised as having specific meanings or referring to certain objects or places (church bells, birdsong, motorbike engines, melodic fragments, etc).

6) Time and repetition aspects; as even small fragments of sounds can easily be recognised as formations or figures, or ascribed with meaning, even sparse recurrences can quickly have an irritating effect.

7) That every sound installation needs to be carefully modelled according to the complexity of time, space, users and activities of the site and situation.

Qualitative Tools for Sound Analysis

Can qualitative tools be adapted for the analysis of acoustic spaces, especially when activated through noise design and artistic interventions? If so, what are their operational values, i.e. interdisciplinary criteria and generic concepts to be used on an intermediate level, as a link between different disciplines? Such concepts could be used to identify and describe, with sufficient precision, the vast amount of configurations that arise between sound-sources, user’s space, built environment and perceptual criteria (Amphoux 1993; Hellström 2003: 143-172).

A second aspect concerns the interpretation of sound; when listening, we never attend to the sound itself, but we attend to its context, e.g. spatial, temporal and aesthetic dimensions. A third aspect concerns the expression of sound. In daily life, we are to some extent always aware of sounds in that the given sonic information works as a guide to inform us how to act in the environment. Consequently, this aspect concerns social interaction and people’s practice. The French researcher Pascal Amphoux defines urban acoustic space as, firstly, a collective space, which is characterised by a principle of accessibility to all people as well as by its spatial limitations, which do not necessarily follow the visual limitations of urban space, and secondly, as a place of sociability, which is characterised by the establishment of certain types of reciprocal listening behaviours between people, but also by the establishment of impersonal social relations, which induces a suspension of strategic and/or of functional interactions between people (Amphoux 1993: 37-38; Hellström 2003: 162-163).

According to Amphoux, every urban location has a distinctive sound identity. This identity can be scrutinised from a subjective as well as an objective perspective. The subjective perspective involves individual experiences, correlated to the relationship between environment and activity. Different value judgments can be linked to those individual experiences in terms of assessment, idealization and imagination. The objective perspective comprises distinct and measurable dimensions in terms of scale, volume, tempo, speed and orientation. But one can also scrutinise the concept of sound identity from an inter-subjective perspective as a kind of consensus view – by sharing our personal interpretation of the sound identity with others, a collective understanding is gradually established. In this sense, a specific place that "sounds good" is not necessarily quiet, but it is rather a place where the sound identity is considered proportionate to the individual's perception and expectations, that one shares with others. The inter-subjective perspective can be illustrated in terms of representation, expression and reflection (Amphoux 1993: 35; Hellström 2003: 116).

The inter-subjective perspective indicates that acousmatic sound environments, e.g. in shopping malls, do not necessarily bring about a negative environmental impact in terms of stress, disorientation or discomfort. This can be explained in the sense that the soundscape is interpreted in context, in relation to the situation and location. For shopping mall visitors, this means that the acousmatic sound environment is consistent with their expectations. This may involve potentially negative health effects which are not covered in this article (Jackson 2003: 194).

The selected vocabulary is, in itself, an important basic tool for sound analysis, when qualifying different criteria of sounds, from a descriptive as well as an operative point of view. An ordered set of concepts has to be developed regarding the specific problem area, but concepts may also be borrowed or transformed from one field of application to another (Hellström 2003: 145). In artistic research, as conceptualization, perception and action are closely interconnected, concepts are often used on both descriptive and operative levels. The concepts of acousmatics, acousmatic conditions, acousmatic perception and metabolic environment were important for the initial analysis of the situation as well as for setting the frameworks of the sonic-spatial composition. Figure-ground formations, with figurative and non-figurative conditions were also useful for analytical mapping and in the design process. Masking and cutting effects belong to a general acoustic terminology also used in the artistic work.

The cutting effect, as defined by CRESSON concerns a sudden fall of intensity, which is signified by the abrupt change of the spectral envelope or reverberation (Augoyard & Torgue 1995: 38-51; Hellström 2003: 216-218). The cutting effect is one of the most important modes of sonic articulation of different acoustic spaces, in that it establishes the passage between them. There are two distinguishing categories of cutting: 1) regarding the sound emission i.e. the cut of a sound source; and 2) regarding the spatial propagation of sound, i.e., the manner in which space is organised. In Gallerian, this effect particularly concerned the composition and the organization of the sonic material in space, from choices of frequency range (higher frequencies can be more precisely directed) to the use of Audio Beams and parabolic speakers. Thus the cutting effect can play a structuring role in spatial and temporal perception, which makes it possible to distinguish or to differentiate parts and sequences of sounds.

Another central concept is atmosphere. The concept is, perhaps, most associated with the German philosopher Gernot Böhme. Atmosphere has, referring to Böhme, developed into a scientific concept. The difficulty with the concept is that it deals with phenomena that operate on several levels. In the article The Great Concert of the World Böhme writes (Böhme 2007: 48-49):

Atmospheres are something between subject and object: They can be characterised as quasi-objective feelings that flow out indeterminately into space. Equally, however, they must be characterised as subjective, in that they are nothing without an experiencing subject. But it is precisely in this being-in-between that their great value lies. They link together what has traditionally been separated as the aesthetics of production and of reception.

Böhme states that the aesthetics of atmospheres are examined with reference to the objects that produce them. But it should not be understood from an ontological viewpoint (from within the nature of the objects); instead it is about the qualities that radiate into the room through the objects. Urban sounds are thus not interpreted as if they were independent of the acoustic space, but they are connected to the listening subject, place and situation.

Atmosphere was used in the design work as a precondition – the meeting place was to have a warm, relaxing atmosphere, inviting visitors to sit down, but the objective was also to forge a connection with the activity of the surroundings in order to stimulate shopping. Böhme's concept of atmosphere presupposes a phenomenological and, in essence, an idealistic approach to aesthetics; that an environment is presented to the experiencing subject through its qualities and that this environment is inherently inclusive in character. But a complex communal space such as a shopping mall is to a much larger extent ruled by its social activities and implications. At Gallerian, the commissioners explicitly described the mall as a generous, public space for all visitors, one which was not exclusive, not "branding" a special set of commercial activities, or addressing a certain audience. In the design process we discussed at length the difference between, for instance, creating a sound design for a hotel lobby or a single boutique. The main character of the meeting place was to be a restful crossing point and a landmark. Therefore it was more important to accomplish a cutting effect, a separated acoustic space, but at the same time to strengthen the identity through coherence with the visual landmark, primarily the chandelier, and with references to the other social environment of human voices, "cafe sounds" and the "whispering" and "murmuring" acousmatic and metabolic conditions. Thus, aesthetic choices were founded in the social and cultural context of the place. In turn, this implies that a wide-ranging concept such as atmosphere is socio-culturally conditioned. A thorough discussion on that topic goes beyond the aim of this article, however, we will reflect on sound design as manipulation.

Manipulative Sonic Tools in Commercial Space

Various types of music distributed by loudspeakers are now the norm in public places, thereby generating a variety of acousmatic conditions. This is a growing trend which is expressed in different forms ranging from purely commercial messages to artistically aesthetic expressions. Muzak, also known as “elevator music”, “sound perfume” and “sound wallpaper”, operates discreetly with the intent to control the emotions of the consumer. It was around already in the 1920s, mainly in department stores and in restaurant chains. Today Muzak is controlled by multinational companies and distributed via digital networks (Stockfelt 1987: 1-13; Hellström 2010: 18).

Nowadays, music has taken over the role of Muzak in stores, restaurants, malls, garages and stations. Some users are very aware of ​​what the music aims to convey, and employ music as an identity and a trademark. Others simply play music without any articulated goals, or they may use music as masking, in order to camouflage disturbing sounds, or as part of urban aesthetics that are more actively and commercially noisy (Kreutzfeldt 2009: 129-147). It is important to point out that even sound-art installations in any form can be manipulative. It is therefore important to consider ethical aspects, related to site analysis and the artistic process.

Acousmatic Modelling – A Method for Permanent Sound-Art Installations

A common problem with permanent sound-art installations in public spaces is that they are not sustainable over time. This is why there are so relatively few permanent sound-art installations in public spaces. Installations in public spaces are often perceived as a kind of interference, rather than a quality, particularly by those who are exposed to them on a daily basis. In one sense, they confront the site with aspects of social interaction and define the space not as an enclosure or environment, but as multilayered and heterogeneous (Dyrssen 2007a: 23-27), or as a relative and relational space, as described by geographer David Harvey (Harvey 2006: 117-154). The Canadian sound artist Robin Minard states that (Minard 2006: 24)

Sound-art and sound installations are not about making loudspeaker music for open spaces, "acousmatic music for open spaces". The process is more convoluted than that. It is about the social relationship that is established between the recipient, the location and sound.

One essential strategy for sustainable installations is to closely interact with the site, as public space is supposed to be accessible to all. There is, thus, a need to consider spatial, functional and social matters as well as the artistic positions of the installation. The increasing amount of speaker-distributed sounds in public spaces often creates problems, but can also be a resource. A key concern is how to create sustainable, site-specific sound installations with regard to the site's existing sound.

Referring to the discussions above, most of the sounds in public space are acousmatically perceived. Consequently, one main issue when creating acousmatic sound-art installations concerns how to control the interaction between these acousmatic entities. Therefore, we introduce the concept of acousmatic modelling – i.e. the relation and interaction between two acousmatic sound environments, as a tool when dealing with this problem. The concept of acousmatic modelling opens a vast field of opportunities related to issues regarding site-specific, simulated and manipulative forms of expression. The issue is very much about the relationship between architectural, social and auditory representation.

A site-specific sound installation, distributed on a demarcated space, can for example be achieved by composing a sound atmosphere that operates in the background. Such a speaker-distributed installation can also perform a dual function in that it masks the site’s soundscape, while it can also bring about a sense of a private sphere in the public domain. New speaker technology makes it possible to distribute spatially directional sound installations. Such an installation may be subliminally perceived, locally distributed in the room, with the intention to create an unobtrusive sound environment that differs from the site's sound environment.

A key aspect concerns metabolic environments, which are commonly found in shopping malls. One strategy is to destabilize the metabolic environment with a sound installation, and thus to articulate the homogeneous noise with sound installations linked to the architectural and social space. In other words, with this strategy, the installation masks the metabolic environment and generates a variety of auditory qualities. There are a number of different qualities to be considered. Representative criteria in this process are, e.g., communication (interaction, context), space (orientation, boundaries), time (dynamics, flow), aesthetics (artistic qualities, atmosphere), representation (identity, site-specification) and social structure (comfort, public-private). As we most often interpret sounds in context, related to the situation, environment and social interaction, an interdisciplinary understanding is required.

Regarding the concept of sustainability, there is no obvious connection between acousmatics and location, e.g. that the less perceived acousmatic environment means a greater opportunity for permanence in the public space. Previously, the concept of figurative – non-figurative acousmatic condition was discussed, which defines the relation between acousmatic sounds related to a visual context. One can easily be led to believe that figurative installations, with sounds that are recognizable in a visual context, would be a successful design strategy for creating sustainable sound-art. However, the main factor is rather the installation’s dialogue with the architectural and social space. For this reason, a non-figurative acousmatic sound-art installation could, for example, be manifested through a spatially distinct atmosphere which consists of 'abstract' sounds.

Returning to the heading of this section, acousmatic modelling: When making permanent sound-art installations, it is essential to have in mind that one operates in-between two kinds of acousmatic conditions—on the one hand the site’s existing acousmatic environment and, on the other, the acousmatic sound-art installation.

Phase 5 - Analysis

One obvious consequence of forming a spatially well-defined art-work is the sudden change of sound climate, the cutting effect. In Gallerian, the installation appears as a screen between the other sources and the listener. The idea of a fluid and continuous space as an expression of transparency is generally accepted in today's discourse on modern architecture and urban planning. These concepts are strongly influenced by the visual sense and may frame a type of homogeneous sound space in comparison with the previously mentioned heterogeneity and interactivity. In consequence, it should be stressed that visual ‘transparency’ and continuity may differ from sonic fluidity. Thus, the cutting effect makes it possible to reveal different types of fluid and continuous spaces (Augoyard & Torgue 1995: 38-51; Hellström 2003: 216-218), and the described situation illustrates the effect of cutting as an essential structuring function of urban space.

One could also discuss the sound space of the art-work at Gallerian in terms of an interior-exterior relation. In fact, this sonic demarcation directly affects perception at the place. It was noted that many visitors alter their behaviour when sitting on the furniture blobs under the crystal chandelier. Not infrequently, one can see mothers breast-feed their children, or visitors just sit back and relax.

In fact, when asking the visitors questions such as “What do you think of the sound installation?”, about 70-80 percent reply: “What sound installation?” The reason why so relatively few people pay attention to the installation can probably be attributed to its structural composition, i.e. that the art-work expresses a metabolic environment, where it is difficult to distinguish the constituent basic sound elements of the global sound space. However, we are dealing with two types of metabolic environments: Gallerian and the art-work. One reason why people do not notice the installation may be that its structure does not catch their attention; the sounds that make up the atmosphere are perceived as being in the background. The visitor moves from one metabolic environment to another, and since no sounds constitutes figures, the art-work is not actively perceived.

Nevertheless, it is evident that the art-work to some extent masks the sounds of Gallerian, and accordingly has an impact on the visitors’ behaviour. In this case it is not about energy masking, that the sound level from the art-work is so high that it cancels out the sounds of Gallerian. The type of masking provided is rather akin to what in psycho-acoustics is called informational masking (Durlach, Mason, Kidd, Arbogast, Colburn, Shinn-Cunningham 2003: 2984-2987; Watson 2005: 502-512), meaning that a new sound draws the listener's attention so that existing sounds become inaudible or weaker. The hypothesis is thus that the art-work involves some form of informational masking and as a consequence, evokes a contrasting private space in relation to the public space of Gallerian. A prerequisite is that there are no sounds that catch the visitors’ attention. In this case the listening perception operates on a subliminal, non-attentive listening level. According to Pierre Schaeffer, this represents a passive listening form that he denotes in terms of hear (ouïr), i.e. a kind of unconscious, unarticulated listening (Schaeffer 1966: 116; Hellström 2003: 72-75). But this assumption must be handled with caution, since the installation has not been evaluated by psycho-acoustic experts. However, without drawing any hasty conclusions, the informational masking effect in combination with the structural composition and the aesthetical expression of the art-work seems to be a plausible model of explanation for its perceptual and social impact on the visitors’ behaviour.

Acousmatic modelling is a usable concept in reverberant public places such as malls, stations and terminals. In Gallerian, the art-work does not manifest itself by the modelling of figurative sound objects, but is modelled in the form of a sound atmosphere that operates discreetly in the background and which consists of a new acousmatic condition, structurally non-figurative (forming a metabolic environment) and stripped of associative meanings. The aesthetic expression is embodied by the interrelation between the art-work and the soundscape of Gallerian. The process is related to the experience of the actual sounds and not to the causal connections that produce them. This means that the art-work is not perceived as an external object, but is linked to listeners, place and situation.

The art of acousmatic modelling is not normative, neither is it possible to fully systematize. But with the help of adequate concepts to structure the analysis of the problem setting, the design work, like all design processes, needs artistic competence and experience to read the complexity of the site conditions, use and social context in order to achieve a fruitful result. In turn, these design results can always add fuel to theoretical and conceptual discussions.

Conclusion and Implications

A starting point when creating sustainable sound-art installations is that they are site-specific, which means taking into account the site's existing sounds in relation to its activities. This can be supported through other, previous interventions in situ, for example artistic experiments. A concept that can deepen our understanding here is acousmatics, combined with the concept of metabolic environment. One can say that urban culture is made up of acousmatic sounds, since in many situations we lack visual contact with the sounds generated in space through products, activities and functions. A metabolic environment is about structural and temporal configurations of sounds; such an environment is a place where the architectural and social space tends to be merged, as sounds perform independently of functionally and individually related criteria.

So, the soundscape of the shopping culture embodies an acousmatic-metabolic-environment. One should therefore ask questions such as: To what extent does an acousmatic-metabolic-environment support the consumer culture? Is it a coincidence that most malls sound the same, or is the soundscape the result of a deliberate acoustic design strategy? Are there specific acoustic criteria that represent a "mall atmosphere"?

The acousmatic-metabolic-environment is a representative sonic emblem of the shopping culture. But even if such an environment can be said to represent an anonymous space, it most likely represents the purpose of sonically intervening in such a space – resulting in a shift from a private personal sphere into a public impersonal sphere. This might be the essence of the specific purpose when acting in such environments.


The video was produced by Gunnar Cerwén.


Björn Hellström, PhD, musician and architect SAR/MSA, is professor in Sound-Art in Urban and Acoustic Environments, Faculty of Art, Konstfack (University College of Arts, Crafts and Design), and docent in architecture at the School of Architecture, Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm. He is also acoustic designer at the company Tyréns AB. He is engaged in interdisciplinary research, combining art, urban planning, architecture, music, acoustics and psychology. He has made several sound works in public space, for instance four permanent installations in the city park Mariatorget, Stockholm, and also nine sound works at Arlanda Express, a high-speed rail link between Arlanda airport and Stockholm. The sound works are installed at platforms, elevators, escalators and transport passages.

Per Sjösten has been working for more than 30 years in acoustics and music production. In 2003, he received a PhD in Applied Acoustics with the thesis Active Noise Control Of Enclosed Sound Fields, after years of research at Chalmers, Göteborg and Blekinge University of Technology. He is now working as an acoustic consultant in room acoustics and music recording. Per was a founding member of USIT and is the chairperson for the Swedish section of the Audio Engineering Society.

Anders Hultqvist is a composer, sound artist and researcher. Besides writing for different Orchestral-, Chamber- and Electracoustic settings he has also been involved in theatre- and film projects as well as producing different kinds of sound art performances. Besides working within the USIT-group he is currently also participating in the project ”Towards an expanded field of art music” where composers and musicians are trying to formulate new interpretational strategies within our musical tradition. He is currently Assistant Professor and head of dept. at the Academy of Music and Drama, University of Gothenburg and has also been the director of the GAS-festival (Göteborg Art Sounds) during the period 1998-2004.

Catharina Dyrssen, Architect SAR/MSA and Musicologist, PhD, Professor in Architecture, Department of Architecture, Chalmers University of Technology, Goteborg, Sweden. Teaches architecture, urban design and artistic research methodology. Research profile: Architecture, urban space and sound; architecture and music, cultural buildings; public space; urban space and mobility. Member of Urban Sound Institute, USIT, and leader of research projects Transmission and Into Noise.

Staffan Mossenmark, sound artist, composer, associate professor, teaches in sound art by the Academy of Music and Drama at the University of Gothenburg. Mossenmark’s compositions have been performed at concerts at the radio and TV, as well as around Europe as in USA, Canada, Japan, China and Australia. Mossenmark is often hired as a lecturer and leader of workshops at art, architect and design schools both in Sweden and internationally.


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