Part mixing board, part Ouija board

Local musician John Brinker (top) says the Eight Channel Seance is electronica, but it’s not dance music. Listeners are invited to walk around the sound installation and experience the music from all angles. Photo by M Fortune

In the olden days there was (sonically speaking) mono, which meant (like in the Otis Redding/Carla Thomas chestnut, King & Queen) if two people were going to sing on an album, one stood near the mic and the other shouted from the back of the room. Then there was stereo: double the speakers, double the listening fun. After that came Surround Sound, blasted into our ears from movie theaters nationwide. But how to follow up multi-directional enhanced audio? With three-dimensional sound, that's how.

Eight Channel Seance, to be held at the Masonic Temple this week, is exactly that. No mere concert, this is a sound installation, according to local musician and Seance event coordinator John Brinker. "We're working with eight channels, which gives us a huge amount of freedom to play with space," he tells Xpress. (Stereo is two channels, Surround Sound is five.)

The idea for the event is a cube of speakers set up in the two-story round space of the Masonic Temple's theater. "There may be some performance elements," says Brinker, "but what we're looking at is essentially playback of material that has been composed ahead of time by the seven artists who are involved."

The artists include Liz Lang (aka Auracene), Randy Spiers (aka Lux Vestra), Patrick Olin (aka Aetherael) and George Kierstein (aka Miss Interpret). Brinker’s own background includes rock bands and African music. Elisa Faires is a trained opera and classical vocalist and pianist. Kimathi Moore (aka Kimathir) says, on his Last.fm bio, that his work is "strongly shaped by the Polish surrealist paintings of Jacek Yerka," among other influences.

The other performers are "people who've been around and involved in Asheville's more experimental music scene for a number of years and have been around and involved in some of the things related to the Black Mountain College Museum," says Brinker. Some used to perform at Vincent's Ear, the former downtown coffeeshop and music venue.

The musicians, says Brinker, perform mainly in the electronica genre "but not dance. It's real listening music to stimulate the ears and the mind, using a variety of techniques from synthesizer sounds to samples to field recordings."

The music for Eight Channel Seance was composed almost entirely for the event. One reason for that is many of the artists will be working with a little-known process called ambisonics. The multichannel mixing technology was developed in the ‘70s by Michael Gerzon of the Mathematical Institute in Oxford, England.

According to Brinker, "It's the audio equivalent of going to see Avatar and putting the glasses on and having your mind blown." But, despite being around four decades, ambisonics has found few applications. It’s used for gaming and, says Brinker, "a small segment of the high-end audiophile culture will listen to ambisonic recordings of classical music," mainly due to technical limitations. It takes a lot of speakers, eight being the simplest, but multiples thereof (16, 32, 64, 128) are possible.

"This is not something that the average person is going to set up in their living room, and it's also technically complicated to route the sound to where it needs to go," says Brinker. "It's also very technically complicated, using the Ambisonic format, to compose, because there are so many more decisions to make at any given time."

Fortunately, there is free software on the internet, and the Eight Channel Seance has a wizard-behind-the-curtain (Brinker calls him a real genius; an engineer who sets up sound systems around the country for giant raves) to assure the system is properly installed.

The idea is that listeners will not just sit in the Masonic Temple’s seats, but move around the open space. The theater was chosen for its shape and for its somewhat Gothic charm — the name "Seance" was inspired as much by the Masonic Temple building's spooky feel as for the play on channels and channeling.

"We've set up a small version of the system to try things out on, and it's really just unbelievable," says Brinker. "Especially if you have your eyes closed, you'd swear you were experiencing sound in a cavernous space or a tiny little box or really anything the composer chooses."

The group is excited to present something rare and unusual — they hope to make this a biannual event featuring different composers. Says Brinker, "It's something most folks have not gotten to experience."

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

what: Eight Channel Seance
what: Three-dimensional sound installation
where: Masonic Temple
when: Saturday, June 18 (9 p.m.-1 a.m., $5 suggested donation, facebook.com/event.php?eid=172996479423663)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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4 thoughts on “Part mixing board, part Ouija board

  1. Martin Leese

    Nice article, although it would help to know in what city, or even continent, the Masonic Temple sits.

    I did spot one technical error. The number of speakers for full-sphere Ambisonic Surround Sound is not limited to 6, 32, 64, 128. 6 or 8 is the minimum, but pretty much any number above that will work. Speakers arranged on the faces of Platonic solids (6, 8, 12, and 20) or in rings of regular polygons work best.

    More information is available on Wikipedia at:
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambisonics

    There is also an FAQ (which I created and maintain) available at:
    members.tripod.com/martin_leese/Ambisonic/

    Regards,
    Martin

  2. Alli Marshall

    The Masonic Temple is located at 80 Broadway Street, Asheville. That information is included in the event link found in the info box. Some information about multiple speaker formation is in the eighth paragraph.

  3. Martin Leese

    Thank you for the location; obvious now I look. I thought you were a website, and didn’t spot that you were a newpaper actually printed on real live dead trees.

    Thanks again,
    Martin

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