"......made me realise the huge range of abilities that can gain from using the Soundbeam"
".......the information was well presented and easy to understand - gave confidence to try the equipment out"
".......in friendly informal settings a lot more sinks in - this was! Soundbeam can do far more than I first realised"
".....if only all the equipment we bought came with a course like this!"
".....The degree of shared understanding is one that I have never encountered on any previous course. One of the most enlightening sessions was the informal Saturday evening music making which gave me immense pleasure and satisfaction…the sort of empowerment I hope I can enable pupils to experience."
".....I am still on a high. I enjoyed the course so much and have ideas buzzing around in my head for school".
".....no aspects which I did not find useful. Because of the nature of our specialism we tend to work in isolation and the opportunity to network in future is a terrific idea. I came away having made new friends and acquired considerable inspiration. Many thanks."
"..the development from basic information to creating environments and sound activities was wonderful…"
So there's this machine, it shoots out beams of sound which we you can't hear, but if you move within the beam, you can generate almost any sound you wish to hear. It was invented by a well renowned Electro acoustic Composer (Edward Williams) to be used with live dance performances, in order for the dancers to effectively generate their own accompanying music. Yet, it was widely adopted for use within Special Education, and also as a performance tool, and has the capacity to be used for art installations both as a sensor or control medium, and has many other possible uses yet to be realised.
Sounds bizarre? This was exactly the reason why I attended a weeklong Sound beam course in Todmorden.
Location-wise, the Lumbutts centre is fantastic, ranging from scenically traditional rolling English countryside to beautifully dark foreboding moors, depending on the weather. Both sides of this became evident during what set out to be a brief evening sojourn to the nearby Napoleonic Beacon, and eventually turned into a two and a half hour trek around the hills of Lancashire. The walk was marginally enlightened by a story about lifting a cow out of a ditch from Mark Newbold, who apart from being central to the programming and technology element of the desktop Soundbeam, and composing for dance performance, is also a farmer. The centre is well equipped to be a home to this type of course, and before you shudder at the thought of corporate style bean-bag throwing and other embarrassing 'ice-breaker' games involving revealing insignificant details about yourself to total strangers, the course brings people together without being in the least bit cringe worthy or awkward.
Finding myself as the lone musician amongst those working within Special Education and the Social Services, I was initially slightly worried about whether I was in the right place at all. This was soon dispersed as I discovered personal experiences and perceptions of those using music to interact with people who wouldn't usually be able to operate standard classical or popular instruments, which completely enlightened me and broadened my pre-determined ideas about what is possible through music. A late night jam involving a box of percussive instruments more akin to an early school environment soon required that I dropped any pre-conceived musical snobbishness and indulged in an amazingly entertaining and amusing evening which served to uplift all those involved, without the pressure to impress or perform that is often involved when playing with musicians for the first time. This was essentially, for me, the focal point of what the Soundbeam and the Soundbeam team are trying to achieve - communication between people without the need for any intellectual learning or bravado, which so often clouds our musical interactions.
My own reasons for attending the course were two-fold. Having studied Music Therapy whilst at University I was interested to see the possibilities for musical communication that the Soundbeam presented, being able to act as a control medium for those with very limited movement or vocalisation. This approach to music therapy seems to be a lot more constructive than a therapist using classical instruments to communicate with the client who is usually restricted to a very limited range of output sounds, using simple percussion or chime bars. One video example which was particularly inspiring featured a blistering 'mid-air' Hammond organ solo from a child confined to a wheelchair with obviously severely limited motor skills, the timing and expression of which I was quite jealous. My second interest was to see the possibilities of using the Soundbeam as in interface device for an idea for a series of sound installations based around the theories of musical cognition and interaction. These installations featured a MAX/MSP program, simulating musical interaction using artificial intelligence based on theories of tonal music. The installation allows the user to musically communicate with a series of virtual 'creatures', which react both to each other, and the user. The Soundbeam is an excellent interface device for this purpose due to the eradication of the need for the user to have any previous musical training at all, whilst being able to fully appreciate the resulting improvised composition that they had generated. I felt that the Soundbeam team really worked hard to accommodate my interests, particularly as it was out of the usual remit of what was covered within the course.
My personal highlight of the week involved being tutored in Thai Chi by fellow delegate and social worker Alisdair, and then performing it (badly for my part) within beams loaded with Shakuhachi flutes and Kotos. This preceded a bout of parading around the room with two other delegates pretending to be a Chinese dragon, triggering cymbal crashes and fireworks as we went. This was all perfectly necessary in order to reflect a project, which Alisdair was planning, based upon the Chinese New Year. These group performances also featured an amazing piece of performance art, which demonstrated breaking the beam in a hugely different array of innovative ways, including pouring water and throwing or rolling objects as triggers. Support for these exercises was especially helpful and constructive from Mark, Tim and Adrian. The set-up of our performance patch was a great demonstration from Mark of what can be achieved in a short space of time using the desktop interface. I was particularly interested to see the possibilities for interfacing with other software packages for triggering images, film, live video manipulation or any other software or hardware which can utilise midi information, such as sequencing programs and samplers. These demonstrations showed how quickly people were coming on in terms of their own knowledge of the Soundbeam and in their very approach to the possibilities of its use. One demonstration in particular was quite dazzling as Phil Hodson mimicked the ancient and mystic art of snake charming within the beam, before then progressing to sit on a chair whilst plucking an invisible harp. This was all after he had delivered a fantastically entertaining evenings lecture, involving dance, on the seemingly un-entertaining sounding subject of Midi Switches.
Overall, an enlightening and enjoyable weekend, working together to appreciate different approaches and uses, with everyone taking away ideas and perceptions, which I'm sure, will enrich and expand their own lives, and the lives of those they work with.
Musician and composer
The one drawback about Soundability was that we didn't learn the most important thing until late evening on our penultimate night in Lancashire. If you leave all the wires and components of Soundbeam very peacefully alone, they magically assemble themselves. Had we known this sooner, we could have saved some valuable time on the course, not bothering with all the connections and had more time to play with Soundbeam 2's amazing features…ah well…
Sadly, Dave Mills' entertaining opening animation sequence to his video presentation was pure fiction: you won't wake up in the morning to find that the microphone stands have popped up into place and that the sensors have levitated up into the clips, nor will the cables have slithered snakelike out of their bag and sorted themselves out into the right sockets. However, what Dave's fantastic animation (was he actually an Aardman plant checking up on the course they were sponsoring…?) did do was inject a huge amount of humour into what had been an enjoyable but exhausting few days. But like all the video presentations on the course, Dave's challenged our whole approach to Soundbeam. The three evening presentations (the others by Phil Ellis and Israeli music therapist Shmuel Ben Dov) became real hotbeds for discussion over the course. The delegates were a friendly but eclectic mix of personalities and professionals. We had varying degrees of knowledge about the technical capabilities of Soundbeam but we all had quite specific hopes for how we anticipated using it once we returned to the reality of the real world armed with the magical knowledge of how it worked!. What each of the video presentations did was to force us to take a step back from our "play" with this magical new toy and actually witness Soundbeam at work. The mad crucible of half-baked ideas that were spinning around in all our heads as we learned a new technical capability and immediately started devising ways of using it, was forced to cool down and separate. We started asking ourselves the most fundamental question - why use the Soundbeam at all? Was the Soundbeam itself essential to our ideas or would we just be using it for the sake of using it? The video presentations gave us a springboard to argue philosophical points from, much more focused on our own strengths in our own fields of practice and our own client groups, and less obsessed with how much technical jargon we had absorbed.
That being said, the technical jargon was certainly invaluable. The days were all broken down into such manageable chunks that the hands-on, technical, getting-to-grips sessions flew by, leaving us shattered but very confident. Although there was some excellent back-up material on paper, there was absolutely no way Tim, Mark or Adrian were going to let anyone skulk about with a manual - we were all destined to press buttons (or die trying!) Of course, that left them prey to the scattier delegates, like myself, who were forever going off at tangents, mastering one sequence and immediately trying to link it to another.
Despite the hard work and the mind-blowing plethora of new information, the whole atmosphere of Soundability was incredibly relaxed. There was the extremely sensitive issue of where on earth could we watch the England v Germany match from Wembley and the even more dangerous negotiations with the local pub landlord, who seemed convinced that we were forming some sort of hostile, take-over committee and who carefully monitored all our seating arrangements. The fact though that we were taking over the pub as one strong cohort was testimony to the atmosphere on the course. For me personally it was a great experience to spend a few days away from the rat race in the company of so many like-minded professionals. Our backgrounds were all diverse enough to avoid any clashes of personality or competitiveness, yet we had similar platforms of experience for us all to chat comfortably as friends and work hard as colleagues. I think most of us experience the day-to-day solitude of working in quite specialist areas and relished the opportunity to exchange ideas with people whose eyes didn't glaze over when we started getting too intense. The surroundings also helped enormously. The Lumbutts Centre itself was so hospitable and the Pennines location absolutely stunning.
The course structure really was excellent. Having spent all day Friday getting to grips with Soundbeam 2 itself and learning basic ways not just to set it up but to get practising and creating, the options groups which ran throughout the Saturday were a great way for everyone to dive off at their own tangents and tag on more specialist information and ideas. Exploring a wider range of available software was invaluable, especially after Shmuel's video on music IT the night before. The planning and evaluation session was also a really popular option and, again, focused everyone back on that vital issue of learning to identify exactly where, how and why, Soundbeam can be an integral tool to our work - a skill that will be invaluable given the sad reality of today's social climate where we will be constantly asked to justify not just our resources and their expense, but our own work.
Saturday night, however, was the best wind down we could have had on our last night - the much anticipated jam session (after the equally anticipated pub session). Although we'd all talked so much over the few days, it was great to actually finally get to see each other in a genuinely "musical" context as we busked our way into the early hours. (Mark's prowess on the melodica we found from somewhere was quite a revelation!)
All that remained was for us to survive through the Sunday. I have attended one training course after another where the dreaded "plenary" was a pressurised "OK-Prove-How-Much-We've-Taught-You-And-You've-Learned" session, and I went into our group deeply apprehensive. Our mission: to put together a musical sound-scape using the Soundbeam. Simple enough, but we immediately started falling into the usual platitudes and cliches. I was kicking myself inside as I suggested exploiting our surroundings and trying to create an autumnal sound-scape. I think fear and desperation was pulling every twee idea out of us all! Then, the real magic of the Soundbeam took over. As we started to sample sounds and explore them through the beams and switches, we found that the Soundbeam itself started sculpting our ideas. Having Dalit's dance expertise in our group helped enormously and our sound-scape started to evolve into a surreal, dramatically driven fusion between Wuthering Heights and Rapunzel! It suddenly stopped being a technical exercise that needed to be got out of the way before we were free to escape and actually became a great deal of fun - absorbing and, above all, creative. For me, the most insightful detail was wearing the head tilt switch. I suddenly appreciated how Soundbeam had been born and Edward's passion for its use within dance. There is this delicious, organic fusion of the movement and the sound it produces through Soundbeam. Obviously, it is the movement that triggers and dictates the sound, but the sound itself influences the movement the second it is created. It fills every momentary shift in space with a myriad of creative possibilities as the movement and the sound get inextricably caught up in an exchange of mutual influence. Whereas usually, I'd have felt like a blushing muppet, performing to a group of people by solely moving my head - attractively adorned with a strip of blue velcro, I got totally caught up in the creation. I was actually very, very proud of our piece. It was obvious, from the other groups' offerings that everyone had got caught up in this genuine spirit of creation. I had certainly had an immense amount of fun and was leaving with a lot of knowledge, a lot of practical information and an over-loaded mind full of ideas.
The best thing is that in the two and a half months since the Soundability course, back in the reality which is, for me, being Music and IT Co-ordinator at an inner city school for pupils with Severe and Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties, that I am already seeing most of those ideas come to fruition.
Shara Lyons, Jack Tizard School, London
I am Co-Artistic Director of a Carnival Arts company, Sambawamba. We had the good fortune of a Lottery grant to buy a Soundbeam kit to expand our range of participatory music work and I signed up to Soundability when I realised that I had all the gear, but no idea. I was hungry for gaining insight into how other people used their kit, tips for workshops, the inside knowledge.
The task of the group I had signed up to was to create a piece of music that could have only been made with Soundbeam. This was more like it! A challenging task that cut to the heart of whether midi controllers were musical instruments or simply entry devices.
My colleagues for the two days ahead revealed themselves over dinner to be an affable bunch, and they came from a variety of backgrounds with varying degrees of experience at "beaming". Most were staying in the main house at Hazelwood, with a few of us staying up a very spooky road in some deserted cottages. A quick scout round the main activity area revealed a mass of useful publications and handouts which I greedily secreted into my bag and headed off up Haunted Hill.
Tucked up in bed I slept soundly and woke early for a run around the magnificent grounds. Not a mechanical sound could be heard: no cars no planes no tractors, just absolute peace. This is an amazing place to create just about anything. After a delicious breakfast my group trooped off to the Chapel. Well, what better place to make music?
The morning sessions were split into those who wanted to know what lead to plug into where and what to do when no sound came out; and those who pretended they already knew this and were ready for another challenge. Mild mannered facilitator, Bournemouth Orchestras music animateur Andy Baker, coupled with unfeasibly jolly Mark from The Soundbeam Project informed my group that our task (should we choose to accept it) was to collect sounds from around the grounds for use in our piece, learn about Reason (a fab studio-in-a-box piece of software which was going to be used to edit and part-sequence our piece) and get our heads around fiddly, odd bits of Soundbeam that most of us liked to ignore like a drunk uncle at Christmas - controllers and offsets. Luckily we had in Mark a technical whizz who could communicate well with folk.
Sounds were dutifully collected - girls in water, bees, Tim Swingler's perfect Radio 4 voice - whilst other sounds were played into the software using a Soundbeam scale and controller presets. Throughout the whole day, Andy was so relaxed I suspected some form of chemical enhancement, but no - it is just his great way with people. I have rarely met such a consummately able facilitator.
Thankfully for us mortals, dinner came to rescue and was followed by Tim's speakeasy at the Chapel which ended messily in the early hours. But it was worth it.
Next day, slightly hazy from our spontaneous music making the night before we all got out our acoustic instruments and added our penny's worth to the soundworld we had created through Soundbeam. That is, until Andy tactfully whittled down the number of contributors to Debbie (violin) and himself on bass. Suddenly- thankfully- the piece came together, and not a warbly 80's synth line to be heard. It was a great collage of sounds created through Soundbeam and played for the most part with beams and switches. It included simple triggering of the sounds of water, bees, breathing and leaves (all heavily effected) through switches and beams, a duet between a violin and a beam playing a flute, beams controlling filtered gorgeous chord pads, and a joystick which sent Tim's processed voice spinning around the room.
I thought the piece was great and listening back to it just the other night (Jan 03) for the first time since the course I still think it could stand on its own merits. Well done, Beamers!
I entered the course a callow novice; I left hungover. However, what I learned on the way has helped me enormously with the both the mechanics of the devices and the controller system; bags of ideas for using the beams and switches with other computer software; and best of all a real grasp of what it is that Soundbeam can do in composition and performance that other electronic devices can't.
Mat Anderson, SambaWamba, Nottingham