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The art of sound: sound design made its fourth appearance at PQ in 2015, with exhibits that ranged from the humorous to the startling.

2015 marked the fourth time sound design was part of the Prague Quadrennial. Sound was first included in 2003, and by 2011 had expanded to occupy a substantial footprint in the exhibition. While significantly less sound-specific content was included in PQ15, the quality of the content exhibited was exceptionally high.

As in PQ11, the National Exhibit spread across many venues in the Old Town of Prague. The unique challenges of each space resulted in individual exhibits using a variety of modes to address the time component needed for presenting sound design. As many theatre designers have observed, the traditional exhibit format promotes "visual grazing." While a painting or sculpture in a museum is a complete work, a scenic model or costume rendering is a physical artifact that doesn't show the element in time and space as intended and used. A costume on a mannequin might show off the craft of making the garment but not the movement of the garment on the body in motion and under light against the designed visual environment of the set. A photograph is a slice of time that reduces lighting to a moment on stage. There is no way to represent sound in space. The aural experience requires time, and in an exhibit it requires a commitment from the exhibit goer. Many hours have been spent in USITT and OISTAT sound meetings discussing a more ideal presentation method for the exhibition format. Some encouraging attempts were made in the National Exhibits to better showcase sound design and exhibit all the artists and the productions more effectively.

Many exhibits chose to incorporate sound into media presentations with the visual designs. Others opted to run the sound designs as accompaniment to the visual presentations. Some installations contained soundscores that were not production specific.


The US exhibit, Vortex of Our Dreams, had some of the best curated sound work at the PQ. Curator Veronika Vorel used both embedded presentation and an installation to showcase the sound. The exhibit was a construct of chrome tubes with digital tablets spread throughout. Each digital tablet had a pair of headphones available for listeners. Presentations and slide shows of production content featured soundscores and music accompaniment.

Hidden in the whirligig of tubes were a dozen or so speakers. Vorel solicited weather sounds from American sound designers and created an exhibit-specific ambient soundscore. The headphone option allowed those interested in hearing the sound work to do so with some isolation from the room. The ambient soundscore was often lost in the cacophony of the room, which included a merry-go-round (Bulgaria) in the old choir loft. Some viewers realized there was sound coming from the chrome construct and inserted their heads into the exhibit to hear the sound better. While that visitor/exhibit interaction may not have been foreseen by the exhibit team, the weather soundscore added a nice surprise for many viewers.


The Music and Performance Design in Israel exhibit embraced the temporal element by presenting the work in video format. Israel decided to focus on music in keeping with one of the PQ themes. The exhibit designers created an enclosed room in an attempt to isolate their space from the chaos of the Topic Salon. Once in the room, viewers sat on seats and cushions. Twelve three-minute videos composed of performance footage, still images, and design renderings ran on a large curved screen. Images of research and process material moved with the music back and forth from background to foreground sequenced with the production footage. This effectively showcased an impressive body of work.


The UK took a similar approach for Make/Believe, its exhibition showcasing the work of 33 theatrical designers, including 11 sound designers. The curators chose to organize design elements in a series of short video presentations (view image at These projections were mapped to cover the entire room. The videos alternated between longer production/visual design presentations and shorter sound design presentations. Like the Israeli exhibit, the expectation was for the viewer to commit time to experiencing the work. The exhibit was well executed and compelling.

The sound presentations were rich and informative and because of the inclusion of visual material from the show, the aural elements were well contextualized. Those visitors who stayed for the entire presentation got the clearest overview and experience of the range of sound work. This was the most successful sound design exhibit at the PQ. In the future, one hopes they will reconsider the a countdown timer that ran during the sound presentations, which indicated when the next "main" presentation would begin. This marginalized the sound work by giving the impression it was a time filler between the other work, rather than an integrated design of equal weight with the visual presentation.


The exhibition for Finland was a conceptual installation titled Weather Station. Staging Sound. The centerpiece of the presentation was performative sound: an installation of a half-dozen ice blocks with contact microphones frozen into them (visit PQfinland for more). Suspended above a basin outfitted with more contact microphones, the ice blocks dripped water as they melted, creating an evolving soundscore. This exhibit won the PQ Gold Medal for Use Of Media, although the jury's commentary acknowledged that sound was the central focus of the exhibit.


The most talked about sound work in the Countries and Regions Exhibits was Poland's Post-Apocalypsis, with a sound design by Rafal Zapala, which won the PQGold Medal for Sound Design. The exhibit was presented in a white room with six logs fixed into place with steel rebar braces. An ambient soundscore was broadcast into the room via speakers hidden in the floor and controlled by a user-accessible panel. This panel allowed participants to select various locations with their corresponding weather on a map. Each of the locations was a city that had experienced a nuclear reactor incident; the exhibit's austere visual elements of the partial trees, raw metal, and white space took on a loaded meaning. Each log was fitted with a wooden protrusion that contained a transducer. The transducer amplified the audio vibrations but without a diaphragm, there was no sound until the participant put his/her forehead on the protrusion. The audio was heard via bone conduction. Hearing though bone conduction puts the sound right in the middle of the listener's head. Because it bypasses the ears, the brain makes the determination that the sound must be inside the skull. The audio from the trees contained text that called into question the human view of nature as a backdrop for our achievements and mistakes.

While the exhibit was expertly executed and emotionally compelling, it was interesting to note that none of the viewers I questioned were able to relate the content of the tree text. The effect was so amazing that many did not actually listen to the words.


ListenHear, a sound design event run by the OISTAT Sound Design Group (SDG) at World Stage Design and the Prague Quadrennial, consists of sound designers giving short, timed PowerPoint presentations with embedded audio. The presentations describe a current or recent project. The intention is to allow groups of sound designers to introduce themselves and their work quickly and informally. While in the past, ListenHear was usually held within the SDG activities, this year's presentations were given more public venues, presented during both OISTAT Celebration Day and the Sound Kitchen. Curated by Richard K. Thomas (US), the presentations proved to be interesting to a broader audience in the way they illuminated sound designer's process. While the more public presentation was prompted by the planned venue becoming unavailable at the last minute, the SDG might consider keeping these presentations open to a broader audience in the future.


The most compelling and engaging sound performance offered at PQ15 was Play Underground, a video/audio walk created by Jan Mocek and Tana Svehlova. Experienced in the parking garage of the historic National Theatre, Play Underground gave participants an iPad and headphones to navigate a mysterious and anxious world over a tense 15-minute walk. Holding the iPad in front of them, the audience member followed where the video led them, moving through several levels of the parking garage accompanied by a binaural recording in headphones (see sidebar on page 63). The effect was a strange immersive environment: 360[degrees] sound and a screen that directed the eye. Sometimes, the visual on screen was identical to the live visual, sometimes it was different. The performers of the story were all on screen so the only live "performer" was the audience member. The spatial sound was often startling--on several occasions, one heard action happening around the next corner and then viewed the aftermath when that section of the garage came into view.

A compelling part of the experience was the viewer being thrust into a story for which they had no understanding of the situation or characters. The most unnerving moment of the piece was an elevator ride that occurred midway through the experience. Meticulously timed, the participant calls an elevator, which arrives live and on screen at the same time. The participant enters the elevator and observes that it is empty as the doors close and they select the next floor. As the elevator began moving, the participant heard via the surround soundtrack another person next to them. A strange man moved into view on the video, smiled at the participant, then moved back out of the video and disappeared. The strange man was clearly modeled on Robert Blake's Mystery Man from the movie Lost Highway and the experience was startling and more than a little creepy.

The climax of the experience involved sitting in a van and watching an angry man approach the vehicle and smash the windshield with a golf club. Even though there was no danger and the violence was not actually happening, it was unnerving. The entire experience was well paced and cleverly structured to an effective climax.

Although the creators considered this experience a video walk, it was the best executed sound walk I have ever taken. The tablet video directs the viewer where to look, which maintains the relationship of the eyes and the ears. This spatial integrity sustains the immersive experience of the audio. (Watch the Play Underground trailer at


Another of the PQaudio highlights was 5 Short Blasts, an Australian boat tour/sound installation presented on the Vltava River in the early morning hours. The title comes from the nautical practice of ships giving five short blasts on their whistle to express doubt about an approaching ship's intentions or to signal that there is danger of collision. Likewise, the piece explored the ideas of uncertainty and navigating the unknown. It was originally presented in the Melbourne on the Yarra River and designed by Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey. This version was adapted especially for the Vltava River in Prague.

A ticket for 5 Short Blasts was difficult to get even for a show that started at 7 a.m. Fortunately, the designers streamed each voyage live online and the archives are still available for viewing (http://fiveshortb lasts prague. com.) They also posted the audio at the same site for those wishing to experience it while boating on the Vltava River.

Sound designer Jeremy Lee (US) made a binaural recording of his experience on the trip, which he synchronized with photographs he took on the journey and posted on YouTube (view at While Lee's recording doesn't capture the smells and feeling of being on the water, it presents a clear record of the deft layering of recorded sound, musicians, narration, and the live environment of Prague waking up around the river.


The largest of the sound themed events at PQ15 was the three-day run of the Sound Kitchen. Premiering at PQ11, the Sound Kitchen was created by the late Steven Brown (UK), who wanted to create an opportunity for sound designers and sound artists to present their work live in a sound-friendly environment. Preference was given to performances that didn't support visual material. The inaugural run consisted of 25 performances over five days.

This version, curated by Karen Lauke (UK) for OISTAT SDG in conjunction with the PQ, received over 70 applications from three dozen countries. She selected 41 performances and scheduled them over three days. Starting at 10 a.m. and running until 5 p.m., the schedule made each performance roughly 20 minutes with a 10-minute turnaround between pieces.

The range of work was astonishing and inspiring. From pure improvised noise to computer playback of more traditional music composed for plays, the artists pushed boundaries in audio created for performance.

The highlights of Day One included Sciany Szumow by M. Frank and J. Frank (CZ) and The Mercury Survey by Erik T. Lawson (USA). The Frank brothers spent a day and a half setting up an installed network of wires in a nook of the Nova Scena third floor lobby. This network was hooked up to home-brewed sound generators and processors. In the performance, contact microphones captured vibrations on their web of wire while an electromagnetic palm reader worked a block of old-fashioned audio tape affixed to the marble railing. These signals were fed into their array of noise devices and processors.

Lawson's The Mercury Survey used climate change data to organize and influence pre-recorded musical textures and phrases though a custom programmed patch made in MAX/MSP software. Arranged in three movements, the beauty of the sound and music unfolding belied the complexity of the structures controlling and guiding it. It was perhaps the deftest combination of complex technology and concept, tempered with creativity and artistry, presented over the three days. Extracts can be found on Lawson's website (view at

Day Two featured a vast array of styles and approaches to making sound, from pure vocal improvisation to a performance on a rare Buchla Easel synthesizer to complex video/sound mapping of data. One standout was Marbh Chrios (Dead Zone) by Softday (IE). The two artists, Sean Taylor and Mikael Fernstrom, attired like lab technicians, created an audio performance built around data from dead zones, which are areas of the sea that have too little oxygen to sustain life. Utilizing both high- and low-tech sound generation, it was one of the most memorable (and humorous) presentations of the three days.

Day three continued the showcase of artistry; the highlight was a performance of The Outsider by Stuart Bowditch & John Kipps (UK). The pair built an eight foot, light blue obelisk fitted with contact microphones and speakers they used as an instrument. The interaction of the microphones, the structure of the object, and the speakers generated the resonant frequency of the obelisk, which Bowditch and Kipps manipulated into an abstract soundscape that filled the space.

While the pace of the Sound Kitchen was furious, the rewards of showcasing so much unique and compelling sound work in such concentrated doses left the attendees wishing for another day. Hopefully, the PQ will comply with an expanded menu for 2019.


John Collins, one of the founders of Elevator Repair Service and sound designer for artists like The Wooster Group and Richard Foreman, was the sole sound designer featured by PQ His presentation on the dramaturgy of sound design, Setting The Scene Through Sound, talked about sound design as "an actor in the show, not just something used to help [the audience] understand the scene." One of the most intriguing ideas he put forward involved ways to mediate the performance through sound. He suggested that the sound can function as both an actor as well as an element "performed" by the sound operator. This resonated both with the older sound designers in the audience--those who worked pre-computer playback--and with the younger designers who hadn't perhaps considered this as an opportunity.

Collins made a strong case for the idea that of all the theatrical elements, sound was the best at telling the audience something that was not true but making them believe it. He played a number of archival clips from productions he'd designed where reality was extended beyond the visual space through sound. It was really a treat to experience so much production archival material that actively demonstrated his sound design ideas. A lively 30 minutes of Q&A followed that allowed Collins to elaborate on specific designs as well as his ideas about design. Collins' work was terrific and prompted much discussion after the presentation. No other sound design guests lectured at PQthis year, which was disappointing.


While PQ15 had many highlights, a general sense of dismay was felt in the sound community. Following PQ2011, where four sound design guests and a dozen presentations, plus several sound-specific exhibits were featured, PQ15 offered little enrichment beyond performances. This year was a bit of a transition for the PQ, with some changes to the structure, specifically the removal of Scenofest. Hopefully, the next PQwill re-establish the positive trajectory of sound design from the three prior exhibitions.


The success of the video/sound walk Play Underground was largely due to the spatial audio track which put the viewer into a 360-degree audio space. This was accomplished by using a binaural recording.

The brain localizes sound by analyzing the difference in arrival time and intensity between the two ears. A sound on the left arrives sooner and louder at the left ear than at the right ear. We know the sound is on the left. Our brain is able to use this delay and loudness information to place sounds in our environment. Humans are particularly good at this on the horizontal plane. How do we know if a sound is in front of us or behind us? Frequency muting as well as extra loudness variations are caused by the sound going past the back of the pinna or outer ear. These are head-related transfer functions or HRTFs. Typical stereo recordings use loudness and arrival cues to give localization information for the spectrum from left to right but don't contain this "rear" information. Binaural recording is a technique that creates a surround sound experience by using two microphones located in the exact position of the ears. More specifically, fake ears mounted on a fake head with a microphone in each ear to capture volume and delay and HRTF information.

Binaural recording has never been widely used because of limited playback options. The playback must have the speakers in the same position as the microphones for the brain to process the information into surround. This usually means headphones. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in binaural recording driven to a certain extent by video games. Games have progressed into virtual worlds and the use of immersive audio has become key in making those worlds convincing.

Joe Pino teaches sound design at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama. He also serves as the current head of the OISTAT Sound Design Group. For more photos and audio from The Sound Kitchen, visit the OISTAT SDG website.
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Author:Pino, Joe
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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