Sarah Angliss – of infrasound and spacedogs (Part Two)

Posted on: 23 March 2012 by Alexander Hay

In the second half of our interview, the sounds get strange and heavy, and the puppets get roboticised

Sarah Angliss in mid-gig, image C/O Jenny AnglissMoving on, another area of interest for Sarah is infrasound, low frequency vibrations that humans can't often hear, being as they are, “on the cusp of perception,” but which can travel long distances and be 'felt' if the air pressure is high enough.

Sarah was inspired by a curious instrument. “I found it odd that many cathedral organs had pipes that were so long, they were creating infrasonic notes - sounds arguably you could feel rather than hear. Some organists claim these great pipes inject a sense of awe in the music.”

They may have had a point. Sarah cites the late researcher Vic Tandy, who proposed that everyday, naturally occurring infrasound could create strange experiences, even making people feel they had experienced the presence of a ghost or some other supernatural experience.

Intrigued, Sarah organised an experiment, featuring a “generator based on an extra-long-stroke subwoofer and a huge sewer pipe,” where a concert hall was flooded with infrasound during two performances.

The experiment seemed to have been successful. Audience members reported “everything from a shiver down the spine to a feelings of unease and the sensation of sitting too close to an old washing machine.” Even Sarah thought it was “a mighty odd experience. I was aware of sound in the room but it wasn’t audible, in the usual sense. And there were disconcerting effects, such as pieces of paper vibrating for no apparent reason, because of the sound energy in the room.”

Of course, the experiment may have been flawed. “The jury’s still out on how much this was down to the audience knowing the pipe was on. Follow up studies by Chris French and others have concluded that any effects of infrasound are down to suggestion,” Sarah says. But she adds, “It wasn’t clear if the experimenters were using pure infrasound at sufficient levels. So we need someone to run a definitive experiment that doesn’t have such pitfalls. I’d love to be involved in such a venture. Do you think I could set up a crowd funder?”

In the meantime, Sarah is introducing infrasound into her live performances. “I have mixed infrasound with another physical effect for the theatre company Punchdrunk and that created a very odd experience indeed. But we’re keeping the details of that under wraps…”

Moving from aural to visual strangeness, Sarah's sundry automata and robots are - shall we say – eyecatching. Sarah sources them from “tatty old dolls and other objects”, which are then brought to life in the workshop. Most of the work is by Sarah herself, but with help from artist Colin Uttley.

Making them work is only half the job, however. Then there is the aesthetic. The robots' worn, bashed together and improvised look is quite deliberate. “When people see the strings, motors and pulleys in action, it adds to the excitement of the show - it also adds to the sense of jeopardy (which is real),” she continues. That's not to say they are crude, however. Through an array of microcontrollers, “such as the Arduino” and “bespoke software patches,” Sarah is able, for example, to “move the robot’s mouths in real time in response to a vocal input.”

MOOOOOOOOOOOG, image C/O Sin BozkurtIn these days of high tech slickness, Sarah thinks this distressed, DIY approach to robotics is an antidote to the black mirrors screens and never-ending mouse clicking we fill our lives with today. “People are so used to seeing sophisticated computer graphics on their Nintendos and so on, it’s good to know they can still be thrilled by some simple real-world machines,” Sarah says.

And by thrilled, she means slightly creeped out. “I like to vary how I use and control the robots to keep the audience on their toes.” I didn't ask if Spacedog were available for children's parties.

Sarah's current obsession, however, is disembodiment. “How did people feel when they first heard disembodied voices on machines like the phonograph? How does the audience reaction vary when I create sound using physical machines or using a laptop? I’m still trying to get my head around those issues.”

She's also building her sister a new backing vocalist. “It’s called ‘La Voix Inhumaine’ and it’s a physical device, with pipes and plungers, which mimics my sister’s voice and duets with her live. I want to make a voice synthesiser that isn’t simply a black box. People will be able to see the synthesis in action. If all goes well, the first prototype will be on show at the Lovebytes Festival in Sheffield, 23 March. If it fails, well, at least I have a new way to unblock the sink.”

And finally, anything you'd like to add?

“Yes! I’m a member of David Bramwell’s Odditorium - a collective of speakers with an interest in the arcane. We’re going to be at the Horse Hospital, London on 21 April and Port Eliot in July. You can also hear Juice for the Baby online and buy a copy HERE.”

Special Thanks to Jenny Angliss and Sin Bozkurt for the images!

[CLICK HERE FOR PART ONE!]

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Alexander Hay

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