Robert Mackey

Strata Sequence: From musical rocks to palaeo-soundscapes

Strata Sequence is a body of work comprising a range of creative outputs, including compositions and installations. The work represents a series of collaborations with museums and festivals related by the theme of geology. The first created work, Living Waves, is a multi-channel composition interweaving field recordings from the Lake District with readings from the writings of John Ruskin alongside recordings of a specially created lithophone (the Brantwood Musical Stones) played by Dame Evelyn Glennie. An interactive audio-visual installation, Strata, was subsequently created utilising the Xbox Kinect sensor with custom software created in Max/MSP. This allows participants to play a virtual version of the Brantwood Musical Stones via hand movements in front of a video screen, and is designed for touring. An on-line geological soundmap of Cumbria is also being created to represent sounds above and below the ground. The final part of the sequence is the recreation of a Jurassic soundscape entitled Re-imagining the Jurassic. This was created for a 16 month exhibition at Scarborough’s Rotunda Museum called Scarborough’s Lost Dinosaurs.

Synopsis of the creative outputs:
• Living Waves (Fixed media composition, 5.1 format, 8’18”)

Living Waves has been inspired by the thoughts, writings and paintings of Ruskin. It is the sub-title he himself gave to Deucalion, his book on geology. Mountains are viewed as fluid and dynamic forms, living waves created by the shifting of the earth’s crust.

Through the compositional process I have tried to mirror Ruskin’s visual explorations from a sonic perspective, using a range of transformational techniques to convey repeated patterns at both the micro and macro level. It features sounds naturally occurring in nature; speech and the sound of manmade machinery; and instrumental sounds (in this case improvisations, on the Brantwood Musical Stones, played by percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie).

Strata (Interactive audiovisual installation)

This installation was commissioned for Coastival 2013, Yorkshire Coast’s annual arts festival. It enables participants to play virtual versions of the Brantwood Musical Stones. Using the Xbox Kinect sensor with open source software Synapse (created by Ryan Challinor) and custom software built in Cycling74’s Max/MSP, the participant’s movements are tracked in order to play back the lithophone samples. Each hand is mapped to a pentatonic scale allowing simple melodies, harmonies and musical gestures to be played which are pleasing to the ear, even for inexperienced users. The left hand triggers samples of keys played with a hard beater and the right hand, a soft beater, for timbral separation. The participant’s movements are reflected in a visual display created in Jitter, which maps the movements of the hands in order to encourage further interaction.Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 09.15.30

Figure 1. Screen shot demo and simplified floor layout of Strata.
Re-imaginging the Jurassic (Palaeo-soundscape for installation, 5.1 fixed-media, continuous loop)

The final part of the sequence is the recreation of a Jurassic soundscape entitled Re- imagining the Jurassic. This was created the for a 16 month exhibition at Scarborough’s Rotunda Museum called Scarborough’s Lost Dinosaurs. The exhibition itself recreates a scene from 165 million years ago, when England was part of the super-continent, Pangea. Research was undertaken into species alive at the time, based on fossil evidence. The sounds of modern mosquitos and dragonflies were included, as those species have not evolved significantly since the Jurassic. In addition, re-synthesised sounds of a Jurassic cricket, Archaboilus musicus were included in the exhibition soundscape. This was under special permission from Dr Fernando Montealegre Zapata, from the University of Bristol, who re-synthesised the sound from fossil evidence. Since crickets create their calls from stridulation, the sound can be re-synthesised by examining groove structures located on their forewings. Zapata’s work and that of his colleagues is published in the journal PNAS.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 09.16.37

Figure 2. Scarborough’s Lost Dinosaurs Exhibition at the Rotunda Museum, Scarborough. All artwork by Robert Nicholls (Paleocreations). Photo by Tony Bartholomew, courtesy of Scarborough Museum’s Trust.

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