Ceremony uses speakers filled with water. Playing sounds through the speakers creates ripples on the surface of the water, and generates a visual and sonic patterns. The use of water in speakers references cymatics, the visualisation of sound waves using powder, liquids (water, glycerin, cornstarch) and even mercury, that was pioneered by Chladni and explored by Hans Jenny in the 1960s. Cymatics also inspired Alvin Lucier’s piece ‘Queen of the South’.

The classic experiments and pieces in cymatics focus on the varying patterns of standing waves that can be produced in a single speaker, akin to a physics demonstration. It is obviously a very direct way of visualising sound and addressing sound as medium. I am more interested in the aesthetic effect of ripples travelling across several speaker cones, like the wind blowing across a lake, and the idea that the water can revert from rippled to glass-smooth very quickly.

For reasons of equipment and time I was limited to a stereo amp for this version – which is really a maquette – but even with only 2 channels (powering 4 speakers each) some interesting aural and visual patterns were created, using two sine wave oscillators of around 100hz, with low-frequency modulation to make them rise and fall in volume. The LFOs were out of phase with each other (one every 2 seconds and the other every 3 seconds) which created some nice effects.

Observations

The first thing I noticed was the effect of the water on the sound – as soon as I poured the water into the speakers, the sound became deeper and more amplified. The piece seemed to be very interesting to people – it was the first one most people went to in the room, perhaps because of the visible movement? Visitors seemed quite intriuged by it, I think from a combination of interest in the work aesthetically, and confusion about how the piece was made, what the liquid was, what the frequency patterns were and so on. A positive confusion which draws people in for a closer look.

Update 280211

The process of making this piece is worth mentioning. I initially had the idea when I discovered these tiny speakers were waterproof (this is mostly true; the cardboard sealing ring around the speaker rim suffers over time). I tried some water in a couple of speakers and found that I could create cymatics patterns. I was playing mentally with the image of a large grid of large speakers that you can walk between. However as a first attempt I decided to make this small version, and some interesting things happened; the size meant that:

– the water quickly changed from clear to rippled when sound was played

– the size of the whole arrangement gives the piece a sort of jewel-like fragile quality

– the piece encourages you to lean in and take a closer look, it causes you to engage on its terms – the power relationship is altered

– the speakers looked different when viewed individually than when viewed as a whole.

There was something interesting in the levels of patterns in the piece as well. Each speaker had its own rhythmic pattern caused by the water rippling. But step back, and the rippled/clear patterns between the speakers becomes apparent.

Initially I wanted to make the piece with 8 channels and have patterns traversing the ring in different directions. Due to time this version used stereo (four speakers on each channel – N,S,E,W on one and NE,SE,SW,NW on the other) and a very simple phasing to the on/off patterns of the speakers – one set pulsed every two seconds and the other pulsed every three. The resulting 2 against 3 polyrythm is quite musical and can be clearly seen if one looks at the whole ring long enough. It is one of the cases though, where the simplicity of the method belies the perceived complexity of the results.

I glued the 8 speakers to the baseplate, added feet and wired up the speakers to an amp and a PC running a MAX patch. You could probably just as well do this with an MP3 player…

Finally, naming the piece. I wanted to get away from the usual cymatics focus on the physics of sound, words like ‘frequency’, ‘cycles’ and so on. The piece is exactly not about those aspects of sound, even though it uses cymatics. Instead the arrangement of the speakers and the hypnotic repetition of the patterns made me think of something ritualistic.

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