Most people assume, naturally enough, that perception begins with the brain… or at least with our peripheral receptors, such as the retina at the back of our eyes or the eardrum in our inner ears. This is, in fact, not the case. Our physical anatomy itself is our first stage of sensory process. We are, in a very real sense, a tuning fork – physically tuned to capture information from our environment.
This is particularly true and obvious for sound. The shape of our ears, for instance, alters the sound to which our eardrums dance in a very precise way. This is because the shape of one’s ear (the pinna, in particular) creates internal reflections that cancel, alter and disrupt the external sound waves. While there are good reasons for this, it means that the sound outside your ears is vastly different from the sound that’s inside it.
If you stop and think about it, this means that your eardrum has never sensed the actual sounds of the world, but the sounds that our head has already pre-processed. Because each of us has slightly different ears, it means that NO ONE has ever sensed the same sound as anyone else.
We can actually capture the sound that eardrums evolved to detect by fitting tiny microphones inside a person’s head. In other words we can record sound, not as it exists in air, but as our eardrum actually ‘hears’ it. This is a unique type of recording process called ‘binaural recording’, and the effects are astounding.
Because the recorded sound is just as the eardrum would have detected it, this means that the sound offered by the recording when listened to with headphones is phenomenally realistic. It’s as if you were there at the site of the recording… because in effect the sound you’re listening to was exactly as it would have been had your head actually been there.
Recording sound binaurally not only offers us the ability to explore how the brain makes sense of its (sonic) world, but also opens up new possibilities in musical composition. To begin to explore these new possibilities, and in doing so begin to raise new questions about how we make sense of sound and music, we have collaborated with the tremendous composer Larry Goves and the sound engineer Mike Walker (of Loh Humm).
You can listen to six different binaural recordings, which you MUST listen to with headphones for the proper effect.
The first three feature a Lottolab collaborator Ilias Bergstrom reading a poem in Greek, playing the drums and making metal clicking sounds.
The second set of recordings include music that was recorded in the Purcell Room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the South Bank Centre in London, and soundscapes from around London. Can you figure out where/what the sounds come from? The music is performed by a cellist, base flautist and a soprano folk singer.