Visitors to the Block Museum exhibition “Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt” have been transported not only by the ancient objects on display but also by an ambient exhibition audio track that heightens the meditative experience in the gallery. The exhibition audio is the result of the course “Museum Sound Design” taught by Stephan Moore in the Department of Radio/Television/Film. The Fall 2017 course explored contemporary sound design for museum exhibitions through presentations, discussions, field trips, and technical demonstrations. As a final project, students produced creative soundscapes for the exhibition. The curators chose the winning proposal: Abyss, a site-specific multi-channel composition, by Thomas Molash.
We sat down with both Stephan Moore and Thomas Molash to learn more about this extraordinary project.
Interview with Stephan Moore, Professor, Northwestern University Department of Radio Television and Film
Can you share a bit about the field of Museum Sound Design? Is the audio element of exhibitions something that is becoming more widely addressed in museums?
As a field, museum sound design is experiencing a renaissance. Historically, much sound design in museums has been little more than a loop of atmospheric music played in certain spaces to reinforce certain ideas about what viewers are reading or looking at — saloon-style old-timey tack piano played behind a Gold Rush-era scene, or the sounds of waves and seagulls to reinforce an “ocean” or “beach” environment. There have always been exceptions (some early Disney park sound designs, for example, were quite sophisticated in their layering and sequencing) but the widespread use of modern approaches to museum sound design are fairly recent. Now, designers can use multichannel audio systems with many speakers to control the evolution of a sound environment through space. They can use sensors to track the audience’s actions and respond to them. Sound no longer needs to be looped, it can be generated on the fly. Highly directional speakers can restrict sounds to specific locations. These developments have allowed designers to embed nuanced ideas and attitudes into their soundscapes, things that will be consciously appreciated by some visitors, but probably viscerally and subconsciously conveyed to many more. It helps that our cultural expectations of sound design in other media (film, television, games, etc.) are also becoming more sophisticated.
How did this course come to be developed?
This course began with the initiative of Essi Ronkko, who approached the leadership of the Sound Arts and Industries Master of Arts Program in RTVF — Professors Jacob Smith and Neil Verma — in early 2017. Her idea, as I recall, was to collaborate with students and/or faculty to create a sound design for an upcoming exhibition. I was put in touch with Essi and it quickly seemed like a class focused on Sound Design, with the final project of designing sonic elements for this actual exhibition, would be a workable and desirable idea. I was inspired by the practical orientation of the class, as it prescribed a set of assignments and experiences that I hoped would bring all of the important issues into focus in time for the students to be prepared to make something great. The collaborative support and communication from Essi, the Block (particularly Dan Silverstein), and the other curators was crucial to the course’s design, and to the success of its execution.
What examples did students in the course consider when building their own audio tracks?
We visited the Museum of Science and Industry to see how they deal with sound in their media-intense environments. We considered the work of international sound designers like Soren Bendixen and artists like Herman Kolgen to see what of their ideas could be applied to our projects. We also looked at the existing exhibitions in the Block, featuring the work of Carrie May Weems, and the huge swath of artists inspired by James Blake, for practical examples of how sound design was being crafted in the spaces we’d be working in, with the equipment we’d have available to us. Brice Puls, an interaction designer from the Museum of Science and Industry shared with us anecdotes and design concepts he has worked with, and the artist Geof Oppenheimer gave a talk demonstrating the ways he thinks about deploying sound in his sculptural artworks. All of this in addition to our ongoing conversation with the curators of the exhibition, who were very generous with their time and their thoughts, and provided a lot of inspiration in sharing their divergent approaches to creating the exhibition.
What elements are important for designers to consider when designing for exhibition spaces? What makes a museum sound design succeed or fail?
This was largely what the class ended up being about. Ultimately, there is no one metric for success, but there are many levels at which our intentions as sound designers need to be given consideration. We learned that effective sound designs don’t necessarily call attention to themselves. At their best, they provide a medium for the meaning of the exhibition to be more readily conveyed. They can provide an additional set of ideas that deepen the layers of information present, or they can reinforce particular points by transporting us into different spaces. Museum sound design also has various audiences to consider — the thoughtful visitor who may spend a long time in one place, the rushing visitor who may need to be encouraged to slow down, and the docent who may be stuck listening to the sound for hours on end. All of these hypothetical audiences should be considered and treated respectfully. This is complicated by the acoustics of museum and gallery spaces, which can be problematic. A reverberant room draws sounds out, decreasing the clarity of details (such as diction in speech) and causing sounds to bleed into adjacent spaces where they will be heard regardless of their appropriateness. Modifying the surfaces of the space (i.e. with carpeting and/or sound-absorbing materials) and carefully placing the loudspeakers helps us to control this, so we considered this aspect as part of the final design documents produced.
How did the proposed designs that came out of the course differ?
There were seven students and, in the end, seven very different takes on how to design this exhibition. To mention a few: SAI graduate student Matthew Test used data from Professor Marc Walton’s Material Science lab to realize a mysterious and beautiful “sonification” (i.e. data expressed as sound) of the red, green, and blue values taken from a scan of the mummy portrait’s eyes. Theresa Nguyen was inspired by her conversations with Professor Taco Terpstra to make an interactive soundscape informed by Egyptian theological concepts and irrigation practices. RTVF junior Anna Haverman produced an abstract, shimmering set of interlocking sound environments based on a modal tonality that fit well with the subject matter of the exhibition. RTVF senior Joy Park‘s design was chilling and minimal, giving the viewer the sense that they were slowly descending into a crypt as they ventured further into the exhibition, and leaving the mummy at the end in stark silence. And then there’s Thomas Molash‘s sound design, which is the one you can hear in the exhibition — I’ll leave it for him to describe. I was really pleased with the diversity of directions these projects followed, and, as always, by the hard work and inventiveness of the students.
Interview with winning sound designer, Thomas Matthew Molash, Class of 2018
What drew you to this course, and to studying sound design in general?
I have been interested in music since I was rather young–I did everything from singing in choir to taking piano and guitar lessons to playing in a high school band. When I came to college, I went in search of more ways to get involved in sound and discovered the world of theatre sound design. My first few years, I worked on several student productions as both a designer, responsible for creating soundscapes and musical compositions to accompany and augment the play, and as an engineer, responsible for the technical execution of the creative design. I later started to take sound design classes in the Radio/Television/Film department, which is how I found myself in Stephan’s museum sound design course this fall. The course stood out to me for its novelty–museum sound design wasn’t something that I had really ever thought or heard about, and I was interested in learning more about it. An added bonus was that we would be doing work for a real exhibition, which pushed everyone in the class to invest themselves fully in their work.
Can you tell us a bit about how the sound was created?
My design is a multi-channel musical composition created using a few different software instruments and some samples. The version you can hear online is a stereo mix-down of the full design, which involves visitors wandering through different pockets of sound as they experience the exhibit.
How did you develop this track? What emotions or response are you trying to elicit from the viewer?
In their initial pitch to the class, Essi and the other curators expressed their desire for a sound design that would provide a respectful and contemplative tone for the exhibit. I was reminded of the work of a few composers whose music conjures a similar atmosphere for me, including Brian Eno, Philip Glass, and Aphex Twin, so I let their work influence my own ambient, minimalist composition for the exhibit. What was most important to me was augmenting the art in an almost subconscious way, so that visitors would fall into a meditative state that would allow them to focus their minds on absorbing the contents of the exhibit. In class, we talked a lot about declining engagement times and short attention spans, so my hope is that the composition can help adjust visitors to the ‘museum tempo’ as they journey through the exhibit.
What inspiration did you find in the exhibition content?
The exhibit explores funerary tradition and beliefs about the afterlife, both of which touch on the innate human desire to better understand death. This is a topic that any person thinks about every now and then, but especially when standing in an exhibit such as this. While composing, I focused on those existential thoughts of death and infinity and allowed them to influence the melody and tone of the composition. I’m intrigued to visit the exhibit and experience everything together, to see what realizations might come out of this unique marriage of art, sound, science, and history.