Pat and I have started performing pieces and sets of our music for clarinets and electronics at festivals and concerts starting in 2006. We released a CD of music, Willful Devices, in 2009. We have been on the lookout for opportunities to do what we do and develop new material and as part of my 2018 McKnight Composer Fellowship, we were able to spend a week at Sparta Sound recording studios in July.
Why headphones? We have lots of speakers at Studio Z.
I’ve been composing quieter and quieter music the past several years and wanting to do something with headphones for over a decade. I’ve made a couple small attempts, but this is really thanks to that week up on the Range at Rich Mattson’s Sparta Sound. We developed all of these pieces and recorded most of them, too. The thing about headphones is they allow us to work with really quiet sounds, impossible to hear without a lot of amplification. Over speakers, all that amplification would also amplify a lot of noise. Also, I can be very precise in creating a virtual 3D environment of sound for people listening on headphones, no matter where they’re sitting in the space. This will all eventually lead to live streaming the concert over the internet to the world, like Le placard concerts do, which were the inspiration for me to do this. Le placard started with musicians living in apartments with shared walls and strict noise rules who wanted to play their music. They ended up going inside the closet (cupboard) to isolate their sound from their neighbors. From there, they started broadcasting their performances in concerts over the Web.
Not compared to some of the more, let’s say, adventurous material labeled ASMR you might find on YouTube. But of course it is inevitable, we’re delivering sound to people over headphones, so there’s a good chance you’ll hear some sounds in an immersive and/or intimate way that may trigger a serious emotional or physical response—all good, I hope! But this does get at how listening to sound art on headphones and not speakers really can change a lot more of the experience than seems at first apparent. One interesting thing is how people are coming together for a shared social activity, but one where they’re experiencing it in the most isolated way that you can listen to music.
REALLY quiet sounds in headphones maybe can’t be heard by Pat when he’s playing clarinet. This makes some things I’d like to do more challenging to figure out, where the electronics are super quiet and I want Pat to be able to hear them and play at the same time.
A lot of times there’s still bleed through of sound in the room (including Pat’s clarinet) with the sound in the headphones. Instead of fighting this fact of life, it’s just part of the experience. If you sit further from the stage, then this is less likely to happen. And if you stream the audio over WiFi, then there is some latency between when it happens on stage and when it happens in your ears that might be, well, interesting.
HDPHN presents the audience with a new way to experience live electro-acoustic music performance. Similar to the “silent disco,” HDPHN imagines a shared audience experience dependent on the use of a technology, headphones, which is usually regarded as isolating. The music is performed live, but instead of being amplified through a set of speakers in the room, all sounds (both acoustic and electric) are delivered to the audience via headphones. Processed sound is also returned to the clarinet via analog ‘talk box,’ which is piped through the clarinet to be filtered by the instrument and amplified by the microphones, creating a feedback loop that is further manipulated by Pat on the clarinet. The use of headphones allows for a live concert of music that involves sounds that are often impossible to hear without amplification, and also for an extremely precise presentation of sound moving in space. Typically in concerts involving electronic and amplified sound there are a limited number of seats in the sweet-spot, but going straight to headphones eliminates that obstacle, and creates an egalitarian and ideal listening experience for each member of the audience.
HDPHN was created and is performed by Willful Devices: Pat O'Keefe (bass clarinet, Bb clarinet) and Scott L. Miller (Kyma, Keyboard). It was developed while in residence at Sparta Sound, a ‘Rock ‘n Roll Bed and Breakfast’ up on the Iron Range of Minnesota, owned and run by musician and studio engineer, Rich Mattson. The residency was funded by the McKnight Foundation, in support of Miller’s 2018 McKnight Composer Fellowship.