“Aren’t you coming over?”
The long-awaited moment had arrived early; I’d thought I had two more days.
By now the woodland of the Wild Center in upstate New York was well known to me. I had been coming here for two years in a noisy little eight-seater plane from Boston, my head pressed against the ceiling as we flew at cloud level into the six-million-acre wilderness of the Adirondacks. Now came the culmination of all the work.
Before me was the iForest. Twenty-four speakers had been placed on telegraph poles hidden throughout the woods with cables running underground to each from a central hub that housed multiple racks of amplifiers and interfaces. In my hand was the thing that would bring it all to life: a hard drive containing a choral piece that featured the Grammy winning choir, The Crossing, singing primarily in the Indigenous Mohawk language. What made it unique was that each of the 72 voices was separately recorded and assigned to a location throughout the woods. It was all fine in theory – the question that now weighed on me was: What would actually happen when I plugged it in?
I made my first sketches for immersive sound pieces back in 2000. It took until 2004 to make my first piece. Simultaneity recorded various locations simultaneously then played them back together to create a “God’s ear view of the world.” I began what was to become the iForest in 2005, as a room full of iPods titled iPod Forest. Since then I’d created all manners of works that, as well as using pitch, rhythm, tone and dynamic, also used spatiality. By 2014 this had led to apps that synchronized choirs across cities such as with And Death Shall Have No Dominion across Manhattan.
There were plenty of setbacks. When I started out, gear was specialized and expensive. Worse, the whole area in the UK seemed to be run by a sonic-arts clique and if you wanted funding, the funders, not knowing this world, would call the clique who would duly cast doubt on your work (it’s dog eat dog at the waterhole) and then get grants from those same people.
But I was convinced that immersive sound was part of the future. I grew up in Gloucestershire, a beautiful rustic area of the UK. As a teenager I played guitar in Led Zeppelin-inspired bands, but I was transfixed by the sounds of birds singing at dawn; each had its own unique song yet the song was part of an extraordinary whole and the experience constantly changed depending on how you moved through it. It was a million miles away from theories of music harmony or stereo reproduction. Throughout my entire career as a composer, I have tried to find a way back to those moments. Now, in these woods, that time had come.
Dave, the site manager, was waiting for me at the hub. Unflappable and unstoppable, he’d done the hard work of getting all this in place.
“You ready to give it a try?”
The hub was an intimate space, tall enough to stand in, crammed with electronics and countless mosquitos and black flies. I connected the drive. The interface whirred to life. The amps were all powered. There was no more reason for delay; it was time to find out if all the work had been worth it.
I’d spent time imagining sound in the woods. I’d listened to birds, to animals, to people, to the whispers of the wind. How far away was that sound? How much could you detect its direction? What happened when the weather changed? When the season changed? There were so many ways it could fail or disappoint. But instead, something magical happened: I pressed the button and suddenly, through the woods to my left, a vast choir began to sing. It was answered by a second choir to my right and then by a third directly ahead. Then they sang together, as though a synchronized choir of 72 voices was all around us. It sang back and forth across the woods in ways surprising and inspiring to me. It was more than I had hoped. We grinned at each other, listening.
In its first year, iForest received around 160,000 visitors. One of the nice things about it has been the feedback. Countless people have described being moved to tears: “Now I know how angels sound,” said one child. A man recently wrote: “It was an amazing, remarkable, beautiful experience. The music seemed to heighten all of my senses and brought back the awe and wonder of being a child exploring the forests. I could smell the duff and the pines, feel the breeze, and see the forest as if it was for the first time. The sounds of the forests were amazing, almost as if they were part of the music. Red squirrels and chipmunks scampering about, chittering and chipping; birds singing and chirping; winds blowing through the trees. The feeling of tranquility was almost overwhelming. I had tears in my eyes as I came to the end of the trail…”
This deeper sense of connection to nature is my chief aspiration. For me, placing humans out in the woods alongside all the other species is a way to experience ourselves as a part of nature (I titled the choral work I Walk Towards Myself for this reason). The nice thing about iForest is that it can constantly reinvent itself. I am currently developing two new iForests in the US and installing new material to the iForest at the Wild Center for next year. As it spreads and develops, it may help generate not only a deeper connection to nature but new creative opportunities. Spatialized sound offers a whole new approach to music-making and it’s my hope to mentor new composers and sound creators to explore its numerous possibilities. It would be nice to think of iForest still growing, long after my time.
(Top image: Song of the Human commissioned by New Sounds, WNYC for Brookfield Place, Manhattan and performed by The Crossing. It used 18 independent speakers above, around and below the palm trees of the main atrium. It was performed live then ran as an installation for 3 weeks in October 2016.)
Pete M. Wyer is a composer and musician from England whose works often involve storytelling and innovation, especially in the area of immersive sound. He has created scores for the London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Juilliard, the orchestra of Welsh National Opera, The Crossing, BBC Television and the Royal Opera House as well as writing seven operas and music theatre works. His immersive installation The iForest opened in a permanent home at The Wild Center, in the Adirondacks in 2017, receiving 160,000 visitors. It was described by Inside Hook Magazine as “Like hiking through Fantasia”.