Tambambient: sound mixtures in surf, dip and bit dilations

DOI: 10.5920/DivP.2019.02


Brian Eno’s Discreet Music and Music for Airports have, since their publication in the 1970s, opened up new ways to conceive sonic worlds that listeners could “swim in, float in, get lost inside” (Eno B., 2004, p.95), using a vast electronic palette of sound.  Different senses of the immersive experience evoked by Eno have inspired our composition Tamba. In Tamba, we explore the possibility of generating electronic sonic temporal dilations of an immersive experience, using synthesized sounds programmed in Pure Data. Dilation is a way to stretch time so certain physical, emotional and mental dimensions of the processes we employ become perceivable. The moments where we skim the surface, dip into, and resurface from the immersive experience, are expanded in the composition, so they become ambient entities in themselves. In the following article, taking a dip into waters of uncertainty, creating ambient spaces within data flows, and resurfacing to new ‘sonic bubbles’ are explored as deviceful instances of the ambient composition Tamba.


Ambient@40, ambient music, uncertainty, space of flows, immersion, sound synthesis       


Tambambient: sound mixtures in surf, dip and bit dilations

A-Side: Immersion Stages
A.1 Surface

To ‘surface’ while listening to a composition, as opposed to utterly aiming to comprehend it, can be a way to grasp elements in the sounds or the relations between them that are otherwise hidden.  To surface, to surf – drawing on Maya Gabeira’s experience (Favilli, 2016, p.136) is an approach that will be creatively explored.

Maya Gabeira, a young Brazilian sportswoman with an impressive list of surfing accomplishments, stands on a balsa wood longboard to ride on the sea’s breaking waves.  On this longboard she experiences the ocean differently.  Eno’s words describing what it is like to be in transit in an airport “flying, floating and secretly, flirting with death” (Eno, 2009, p.96) could describe, to an extent, the surfer’s journey.  With waves ranging from waist high to more daunting several metres high, flying and floating become synonymous with new realms of bodily perception.

Four years ago, Maya Gabeira experienced a near-death wipeout in Portugal, when facing a massive wave caused by a storm.  She managed to get as close to the shore as she could before losing consciousness, so her friend and colleague Carlos Burle, who she knew was nearby, could save her.  After her recovery, she returned and surfed in the same spot.  Secretly, flirting with death as Eno writes, comes with the awareness of what can show up at the surface – whether the surface is a first layer perceived in a sound composition, the ocean itself, or the many kilometers below the stratosphere where an airplane flies.  The ripples on the surface can seduce, be terrifying or bizarre.

In our composition Tamba (Hernández & Hoyos-Gómez, 2015) we aimed at expanding the moments we lay on the water’s surface, dip beneath it, and resurface, drawn from the memories of matro-swimming lessons with our baby. These experiences are expressed through audible but slow shifts in timbre and non-functional harmonies.  Expanding these moments of the immersive experience led us to create first aural, and then secondly visual ambient environments.  Here are some images of the ‘surface’ section of the live performance of the piece (see Figure 1):

Figure 1: ‘surface’ section of Tamba

In this section we superimposed Maya Gabeira’s experience while surfing in the ocean, with our own memories of the matro-swimming lessons.

A.2 Dip

To dip or not to dip.  In the waters of uncertainty, taking a dip demands a combination of self-confidence, an authentic will to submerge oneself in the new medium, or the unwatchful innocence of an infant curious about their surroundings.  To publish or not to publish.  Brian Eno writes in his essay he would have hesitated to publish Discreet Music, his first ambient record, if it was not for the encouragement of his friend the painter Peter Schmidt.  Unlike other listeners in the music industry who, as he said, did not give a ‘warm welcome’ to this pioneering work, painters and writers at the time were receptive to the concept and experimental approach, and with this support the composer risked the dip.        

To cross mixtures.  Susan Werner Kieffer is a geologist who has been studying sound waves crossing water-air, water-steam, and magma-gas mixtures in volcanic environments and geothermal areas.  She realized that the sound speed of such two-phase fluids was, “dramatically different from the sound speed in either pure component.” (Kieffer, 1977, p.2895) It has been calculated and measured that the speed of sound is much slower in a liquid which contains air bubbles.  Does the composer create a medium for sound to cross? What kind of dip is sound expected to take in Tamba’s ambient/experimental landscape?

Dip Dip
Tamba Tamba
Tope Tope
Ñame Ñame

These words are intertwined with the sound transition between the ‘surface’ ambient environment in the composition and the ‘immersive’ ambient environment.  The sound dip is conveyed in the piece by the slow fade-in of a sinewave bass which oscillates between the fundamental and the fifth above. Our intent is that the audience gradually becomes aware of this rumble, until it comes to dominate their aural focus.  We are also taking into account the bodily vibrations which might be caused by the use of such low frequencies. A few seconds after the low rumble fade-in has begun, a gradual increase in the feedback percentage of a delay effect is used to process a distorted sinewave triadic arpeggio figuration. At times, the movements in the performance follow the sound; at other moments, the movements contrast with what is heard: slowness and even stillness is used to dislocate the synchronicity between the different perceptual channels, and convey a rich diversity in the elements of the dip experience we wish to convey.  The words ‘dip’, ‘tamba’, ‘tope’, ‘ñame’ reflect the simplicity and playfulness shared with our baby in these first verbal and nonverbal communication stages (see Figure 2). 

Figure 2: ‘dip’ section of Tamba

A.3 Fluid

Fluids are protean.  Their behaviour can change according to variations in temperature and pressure.  In addition, the change in their molecular arrangement from liquid form to steam or solid ice, is akin to a gradual morphing process from one state to another. In cyberspace, the changing data sets we encounter are flows of information.  Yet, when scrolling quickly through social networks news feeds, our experience of these miscellaneous sets of data is often one of discontinuity.

Music imagined as part of “the ambience of our lives”, “continuous, and surrounding” (Eno, B., 2004, p.94) as Eno writes, is an ongoing vision of many pioneers of the genre, despite the shortened, fragmented and discontinuous attention span of many people today.  Fluidity, a basic property and constituent of living organic beings, is borne in mind by creative practitioners excited with the possibilities of electronic sound, made from infinite digits suspended as sonic particles in the cybermedium.  Fluidity is a metaphor used bridge the continuous/discontinuous dichotomy.       

Stemming from Eno’s essay, the terms ‘ambient music’, ‘virtual space’, ‘cyberspace’ and ‘space of flows’ can be closely related when we consider conceiving the creation of music, the technological possibilities to produce it, and the social aspects of different listening contexts.   

Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells came up with the concept of a ‘space of flows’ (Wheeler, 2000) to refer to the dynamic properties of the space composed by information flows.  This space is not purely electronic: it is instead a mixture of the real and virtual, including the material support of a diversity of time-sharing practices.  Telecommunications devices allow, for instance, in the space of flows, the simultaneity of social practices without territorial contiguity.  Airports, which are nodes or hubs of large transportation networks, are also part of the material support referred by Castells.  Sound artists are adding a layer to this ‘space of flows’ by installing interactive devices which allow music and sound art pieces to be experienced collectively in new ways in public spaces.  An example would be Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, which was installed at La Guardia Airport in New York in June 1980 using four video monitors (Hyperreal, 2018).   The number of artworks exploring this artistic territory is growing – several sound art pieces by Janet Cardiff (Cardiff, 2018) or Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (Lozano-Hemmer, 2018) could be listed here. Such works engender a new awareness of what is individually and collectively perceived in public spaces; providing diverse groups in transit, an often playful, time-based opportunity for interaction and participation.  

A.4 Surround

Is there a critical aspect to the notion of music conceived as an environment? Eno writes in his Ambient Manifesto: “An ambient is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence, a tint”. (Eno B., 2004, p.96) He attempts to shed light on the creative potential of an environmental ambient composition which would not be considered as being akin to muzak played in retail stores and restaurants.  For Eno, for music to be experienced as ‘ambient’, a number of distinct features are in evidence: a sense of immersion which could lead the listener to feel “lost inside” the ambient soundworld; intriguing sonic aspects which would range from simply raising curiosity, to calling for a sense of awe or mystery; finally, and no less important, a sense of ‘uncertainty’ is a key element Eno wishes to retain in ambient music instead of shielding the listener in a safe sound bubble. 

What can these features bring to the audience in terms of participatory processes?  Within installation art, pieces such as the Infinity Mirrors series by Yayoi Kusama spanning over five decades, and presented in 2018 in a new version in Ontario, Canada (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2018), or the changing colours in the vapour tunnel of Your blind movement by Olafur Eliasson (Eliasson, 2010), challenge the perceived limits between the visitors’ bodies and the surrounding space.  In these settings, blurred boundaries encourage the perceptual fusing of the body and the environment. In doing so, they potentially open up new paths for movement, awareness of distance, and group interactions.  In these environments one can feel disoriented and weightless, floating or lost inside, just as Eno imagined with ambient music. The resulting impression, physically and psychologically, has the potential of overturning the notion of the self. 

It is possible to project political implications onto these participatory aesthetic practices.  Dealing with uncertainty, which the artworks discussed above invite us to consider, seems to be one of the major challenges of contemporary society.  “Uncertainty and anxiety throw you off the smug island of certainty and force you into the free waters of creativity and learning” (Brooks, 2017) writes David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times. He believes that we live in an age of uncertainty and anxiety led by complex changing social forces in action, and technological disruption.  The prospect of having to cope with endless uncertainty can appear to be a fearful one, perhaps because most of our classical cultural frames have prioritized authoritativeness, determinism and certitudes.  Conversely, turning the table on the apprehensive and often reductionist views that people embrace when they connect, for instance, to fanaticism as a palliative for anxiety, through openness and creativity, can twist and change perspectives.

In our performance of the ambient piece Tamba, we used drones and coloured lights to create immersive atmospheres.  We contrasted the sounds of the electronic drones, at specific moments, with analog sounds coming from one of our baby’s toys, meant to imitate a sea lion.  The effect on the audience seemed to be disorientation and surprise.  Questions were raised about the source of the contrasting sound as the toy was covered in black tape, and what was its intended purpose in the piece. The act of introducing this unexpected sound could have momentarily broken the audience’s feeling of being immersed in the piece.  In performing arts, there is a term coined by playwright Bertold Brecht (Willet, 1964) called the ‘distancing effect’ or ‘estrangement effect’.  Brecht believed that it was important that the audience did not become totally enchanted with the performance, characters, or atmospheres, but could keep a critical distance of acceptance or rejection, and an inquiring attitude towards the elements present on the scenes.  For the dip and immersion in ambient music not to become totalitarian, creators might take into account which factors in the composition or the setting surrounding the audience can stimulate turmoil, questioning, edginess, unsettledness, and awareness.                            

A5. Resurface

The moment we resurface after the immersive experience was also expanded in our composition Tamb
, to become a third ambient space. 

Resurface faces facettes
cada una de las pequeñas caras
de un poliedro
sonar sonar sonajero

It took several weeks for Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira to recover from nearly drowning from a massive wave caused by a storm in Portugal.  When recovering from such an event, people can be prone to reverie, and sometimes the experience can encourage the addressing of situations from new perspectives.  Accidents, storms, and long days confined to recovery in bed, are motives both in the surfer’s story, and in Eno’s account about how he realized what he was looking for with ambient music.  In his essay he writes:           

“It was raining hard outside and I could hardly hear the music above the rain—just the loudest notes, like little crystals, sonic icebergs rising out of the storm.  I couldn’t get up and change it, so I just lay there waiting for my next visitor to come and sort it out, and gradually, I was seduced by this listening experience.  I realized that was what I wanted music to be – a place, a feeling, an all-around tint to my sonic environment.” (Eno B. 2004, p.96)

At this stage of the mental drift, the loudest elements, perceived as sounds that could have been produced by little crystals, come to the fore of the listening experience.  We consider these sounds to as ‘sonic icebergs’ as just a small part of the complete sound is audible at the surface.  For the listener’s imagination these sounds are hints of what is to come, their wider references and associations are mysteriously hidden at this point.

In her Sonic Meditations (Oliveros, 1974), American composer Pauline Oliveros prefaced a listening exercise with the question: ‘have you ever heard the sound of an iceberg melting?’  This listening exercise is an invitation to alternate white noise at different volumes with sequences of lights engaging the participants in dark, dimmed and bright ambient environments.  The use of different coloured lighting is indicated as a possibility to create these environments.  Thus, synesthesia, the ability to link different sensory stimuli or cognitive pathways appears to be a key element in her exercise, in which the contrast between what is heard and seen  is an important part of the experience.  

While developing the concept of Deep Listening, Oliveros realized that listening engaged was a complex phenomenon reliant on the perception of space, as well as other physical and psychological aspects.  Oliveros described Deep Listening as:

“… learning to expand perception of sounds to include the whole space-time continuum of sound encountering the vastness and complexities as much as possible.  Simultaneously, one ought to be able to target a sound or sequence of sounds, perceiving the beginning, middle and end of them as a focus.  Such focus and expansion means that one is connected to the whole of the environment and beyond.” (Oliveros, 2015)

In our composition Tamba we explored our personal notions of ‘focus’ and ‘expansion’ as concepts that resonate with Pauline Oliveros’ vision of a deeper awareness of the environment through detailed and holistic listening.

B-Side: Bit Dilations
B1. Whose bodies?

To listen, to ask.  One card selected from the deck of Eno’s Oblique Strategies (Eno, S. 2013) stimulated us to explore the interactions between our inner and outer environments, our personal and shared ambients in Tamba (see Figure 3)

 Figure 3: selected card from Eno’s  Oblique Strategies
Figure 3: selected card from Eno’s Oblique Strategies

At that moment we were taking matro-swimming lessons with Karelia, our little girl, we came across these words: “And immersion was really the point: we were making music to swim in, to float in, to get lost inside.” (Eno, B. 2004, p.95) We connected Eno’s words with our experiences of Karelia’s first immersion into water and swimming attempts.  As many parents do today, we alternate between our intuition and following books and documents to try to navigate the waters of early childhood.

Infant development has been the subject of numerous studies.  In the last few decades, a number of concepts introduced by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, whose work pioneered a whole academic field in the 1960s, have been questioned or developed in some way.  One aspect of his work that has been developed is the idea of an infant’s egocentrism and the way it is related to the development of perception.  British psychologist George Butterworth published a number of articles in which he described his observations leading to the expansion in our understanding of the spatial mechanisms babies have at their disposal (Butterworth, 1991).  While Piaget stated that it was mainly from a self-centered perspective that babies developed this spatial sense, Butterworth wrote about shared attention with the parents and the joint visual cues infants and the adults taking care of them, use on a daily basis. Babies not only look at what they are directed towards, they are also curious to look at what others in their company find interesting.  Shared attention is expressed physically by the pointing gesture, often with the index finger.  It is a very special gesture appearing in the earliest stages of human evolution.  For Butterworth, perception and shared attention have been subordinated in discussions on cognition to intelligence: he thinks they are fundamentally what intelligence is in its origins (Butterworth, 1996).

We wish to draw a parallel between the collective experience of parents and children mentioned above, and the shared attention of the artists and the audience during the performance.  The performance is a journey of aesthetic exploration and discovery, where not everything can go according to a plan, and improvised elements are often present.  The piece being performed is familiar to the artists, while the audience in many cases is new to it.  Nevertheless, a number of contemporary performers long for the live experience to be much more than a reenactment of the ‘familiar’. Tim Etchells writes: “I ask of each performance: Will it haunt me? Will it change me? Will it change things? If not, it has all been a waste of time.” (Etchells, 1999)  One way to establish this condition of exploration for both the artists and the audience, in such an imaginative and complex way it can exist for parents and infants, is to introduce and experiment with contemporary media and the body’s interaction with the resulting environments.  We approached these ideas by working with cross-modal and generative sound and light compositions in Tamba.                       

B2. Frequencies and Colours in Tamba

The range of electromagnetic waves whose frequencies can be perceived by the human eye is called the visible spectrum. It ranges between wavelengths of approximately 400 nm and 700 nm – or frequencies between 750 THz and 428 THz, in other words, less than one octave. Colour perception is a physiological response to the radiation of light at different frequencies; the lowest frequencies are interpreted as red, the highest frequencies are interpreted as violet. However, the best way to represent how the eye sees colour is as a wheel where the lowest and highest frequencies meet and “blend into each other” (Rokeby, 2008). As well as the visual spectrum, we have the sound spectrum, the mechanical waves whose frequencies can be perceived by the human ear. It ranges in frequency from approximately 20 Hz to 20000 Hz – almost ten octaves, which means that if we want to directly map the visible spectrum onto the sound spectrum we need to go around the colour wheel ten times.

To match colour and sound in Tamba, we transposed the fundamentals of each chord in the piece up several octaves. For instance, during the surface ambient, a blueish green light is seen whose frequency corresponds, in the visible spectrum, to the frequency of the fundamental in a C6sus2 chord which is prolonged through this whole section. During the dip section, a deep blue light corresponds to E-flat; and in the resurface section a greenish yellow light corresponds to B-flat. Each colour ambient gradually transforms into the succeeding one and this behaviour resonates with that of the music – the piece can be divided into three moments with different textural densities, each aural ambient slowly fading out as the next slowly fades in (see Figure 4).

 Figure 4a: correspondence of lights and sound spectrums in  Tamba  – Blueish Green Surface, C6sus2
Figure 4a: correspondence of lights and sound spectrums in Tamba – Blueish Green Surface, C6sus2

 Figure 4b: correspondence of lights and sound spectrums in  Tamba – Dip Deep Blue, E-Flat
Figure 4b: correspondence of lights and sound spectrums in Tamba – Dip Deep Blue, E-Flat

 Figure 4c: correspondence of light and sound spectrums in  Tamba –  Resurface, Greenish Yellow, B-Flat
Figure 4c: correspondence of light and sound spectrums in Tamba – Resurface, Greenish Yellow, B-Flat

In his research on early stages of perception development, psychologist George Butterworth mentions Elizabeth Spelke’s work. Elizabeth Spelke is an American cognitive psychologist who carried out experiments showing babies videos in which the image and sound were alternately in sync and out of sync.  She expanded the experiments of Robert Franz concerned with ‘preferential looking’ to study cognitive faculties in infants, integrating into the analysis cross-modal perception.  In the experiment, when the gestures in the faces and the voices in the videos for the babies were in sync, Spelke noticed their attention was much higher than when they were out of sync (Butterworth, 1996).  For Spelke, this could be interpreted as evidence that babies carry innate mental skills to relate sensory stimuli which potentiate their cognition and creativity, questioning previous hypotheses stating these abilities are only acquired later on through education and experience. 

As artists, we experiment with our ability to interpret multi-modal and multi-sensory information. We seek to explore the extremes of such perception asking what happens at the boundary limits of color, the audible, and extended temporal perception?

B3. Time dilation at the vicinity of the colorful hole

If you approach a colour wheel
but a pixel step from its edge
and hover around it for ten minutes
of near colour-wheel-edge time flow…

We imagine that there is no fourth wall between the us and the audience when we are performing Tamba, but a fuzzy creative space-time, blurring the boundaries between sound and the visual.  In this respect, we draw inspiration from astrophysics.  The visible spectrum is such a substantial part of what we explore, we would not talk about a ‘black hole’ but of a ‘colorful hole’ when appropriating terms from astrophysics to the aesthetic entity we envisage emerging on stage when we perform.  We conjecture that at the vicinity of this colorful hole special exchanges and phenomena take place.

Tamba is the dilation in time of the three stages of immersion – surface, dip and resurface – that we have described. We realize that the term ‘time dilation’ is specific to relativity theory.  We picked another card from Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck – ‘distorting time’, thinking specifically of the poetics of this scientific term (see Figure 5):

 Figure 5: the ‘Distorting time’ card picked from Eno’s  Oblique Strategies
Figure 5: the ‘Distorting time’ card picked from Eno’s Oblique Strategies

In her 2015 TEDx presentation Pauline Oliveros commented that: “Listening or the interpretation of sound waves is subject to time delays.  Sometimes, what is heard is interpreted anywhere from milliseconds to many years later, or never.” (Oliveros, 2015) . 

Let us explore the interpretation of time dilation with the following time delays. Sixty-eight years earlier (relative to the year when Oblique Strategies were first published, that is, 111 years ago), gravitational time dilation was first described by Albert Einstein. He formulated in 1907 the equivalence principle which states that:

“In any small, freely falling reference frame anywhere in our real gravity-endowed Universe, the laws of physics must be the same as they are in an inertial reference frame in an idealized, gravity-free universe.” (Thorne, 1994, p.98)

A few days later, Einstein proceeded from this principle to predict that “if one is at rest relative to a gravitating body, then the nearer one is to the body, the more slowly one’s time must flow”. (Thorne, 1994, p.100) This is what Einstein called gravitational time dilation. Recently, three Danish researchers discovered that the Earth’s core is 2.5 years younger than the surface (Yirka, 2016), which shows that in terms of Earth’s age, keeping in mind that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, the difference is very small. Dilation would be more than significant in the vicinity of a black hole:

If you descend to just above a black hole’s horizon, hover there for one year of near horizon time flow, and then return to Earth, you will find that during that one year of your time, millions of years have flown past on Earth! (Thorne, 1994, p.100)

However, even if it is infinitesimally small and virtually impossible to detect, for us it is alluring to think that during the dip, when the body is covered and surrounded by water, it would also be closer to an imagined centre of gravity, and time would be slightly dilated.

 slightly dilated time
at the vicinity of a colorful hole

suspended chords, sus2/ sus4
inversions, 0-2-7, 0-5-7, arpeggios
extended chords, distorsion, drone-arpeggios

une vague, une houle

one pipi coco pico picosegundo
half the life of a bottom quark
the time between two ticks tic tic interrUmpo



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Photo credits: the images from Tamba (2018) were taken by Sam Gillies & Andie Brown, Laura Barbosa and María Alejandra Bulla during performances of the piece given at the Ambient@40 Conference (Huddersfield University, UK), ARTKA Live Act in Bogotá, and the Future Listening event (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá).

About the Authors:

Juan Hernández and Ángela Hoyos perform together as the Ulrica Duo, experimenting and improvising with the synaesthesic translation of sound – to movement – to colour. Their work explores immersive audio-visual performance that is in a state of continual transformation, morphing from one state to another. Ulrica Duo‘s music is created with the computer, and performed with wearable devices, and other physical interfac
es.  The duo has performed and presented sound installation works in galleries, exhibition spaces and theatres in the UK, Colombia, Sweden and Norway. 

Juan and Ángela lecture in the Department of Music (Arts Faculty) and the Department of Aesthetics (Architecture and Design Faculty) at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, in Bogotá. They are currently developing research projects at the university examining cross-modal perception in artworks involving media technologies, focusing on synaesthesia and kinesthesia. Juan has a BA in Music with a minor in Sound Engineering, and Ángela has a BSc in Electronic Engineering. Between 2007 and 2009 they studied on the C:Art: Media program in Gothenburg, Sweden, and graduated with a Master of Fine Arts with a specialization in Digital Media.