Berlin is often seen as a city that is supportive of innovation and creativity. With Germany’s strong role in technical research and development, it’s not surprising that those interested in sonic experimentation are drawn to the country’s capital. Nicholas Meehan is one of a long line of American citizens who have been attracted by the creative possibilities that Berlin offers.
After graduating from Berklee College of Music and working in Boston, he’s settled in Berlin to explore immersive audio with the Institute for Sound and Music (ISM). “We’ve reached this time where the technology is there and we have the ability to communicate to the public that sound plays as much of a role in our lives as visual architecture,” says Meehan. “So, this is at the foundation of my interests and the many others who are part of the organisation today.”
Meehan had a loft space in Boston where he was running what he calls ‘DIY’ events, providing a venue for all the “nerdy kids with synthesisers and laptops,” sometimes doing ten performances in a night, each lasting twenty minutes each. “It just turned into a series that went really well,” he says. “Ableton caught wind of what we were doing because everyone we worked with was using their software. They sent a couple people over to check out the space one night and offered me a job – which was quite exciting at the time!”
Meehan’s focus has always been on the relationship of the installations and performances he’s been involved in with the community aspect of the projects, but his involvement with Ableton gave him some insights into how companies see their own particular priorities. “It’s a very different thing to be on the outside of a company looking in and seeing this amazing tool they’ve created that builds communities and makes musician’s dreams come true. From the inside it’s a very different story. You realise that it is a business that needs to serve a specific purpose.”
On his arrival in Berlin, Meehan began to create similar kinds of events to those he’d worked on in the US. “It was immediately clear that there are so many innovative artists in Berlin, but while the small to medium-sized spaces were great in many ways, they lacked any focus of attention to sound and acoustics, which we felt was important.” Meehan’s first thoughts were; how does one attempt to innovate in a city of innovators? “So we went, how do you give something new to a city that has so much? You really have to find something that is missing. And we then thought, ‘Let’s just try to get the acoustics in the spaces we’re working the best as we possibly can and see what happens.’”
As in Boston, Meehan started attracting the local experimental artists to his events. “We met a lot of people creating surround sound and audio-visual works,” he says. ”Berlin has always held a fascination as a city for me and, for many years, a lot of the music and artists that I’ve been listening to had been coming from here. I imagined Berlin as a sort of mythical place where there are countless open spaces that let you be free to do what you want. I often say the American dream is alive and well in Berlin!” When Meehan arrived in the capital and began scouting for spaces for his events, a chance meeting with a small group of travelling graffiti artists was illuminating. “They were asking me what my plan was and what I was doing, so I said I’m working at this software company, but I want to create events and make music myself. One of the artists said that it doesn’t matter what your interest is, as long as you’re passionate about something, Berlin has a place for you. I can’t think of another capital city in the western world where that really resonates truer than here – maybe New York several decades ago?”
The ISM itself consists of a core administrative team of active volunteers and an extended advisory board, consisting of businesses, creatives and technologists, including Daniel Miller of Mute Records and representatives from the likes of Native Instruments, Apple and Soundcloud. “All of us share the responsibility in part for programming and curation,” says Meehan. “The great thing about the administrative team is the reward – everybody has a say in the process. The extended advisory board consists of people in the community that have strengths in terms of experience in sound or music in some way or in the fields of technology. So they effectively act as ambassadors for the ISM.”
Meehan sees the role of the ISM to bring together artists and technologists to create events where both innovation and sonic excellence can co-exist. “The process often begins with having a coffee, or a beer, or a lunch or whatever with friends who are also artists,” he says. Meehan looked at various technologies the ISM might use to enable this ongoing process, including the wave field synthesis technology installed at the Technical University in Berlin. “They have an incredible system built into the walls of their auditorium,” he says. “I believe they have 700 seats and over 800 speakers there. It’s very impressive. I remember sitting there as Robert Henke (Monolake) gave a demonstration to a select audience and it was stunning how the localisation worked in this space, in this academic environment.”
However, as Meehan was attempting to create an installation that could be moved into various sympathetic spaces across the city, this approach would have proved impractical – hence the development of the Hexadome itself. This construct is a relocatable immersive audio/video structure consisting of a six-screen, 360-degree multi-channel audio-visual system with a 54-channel speaker/sound system, all available for use for innovative multimedia artists. The Hexadome was developed by the ISM in collaboration with design studio Pfadfinderei and the ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, using their Zirkonium software. Once Meehan and his team had found appropriate technologies and a partner to help with the sonics, they then had to focus on the visual aspect of the installation. “We had a number of very rough mock-ups of ideas and concepts and, at the end of the day, we ended up working with Pfadfinderei. They’ve done some incredible work with several established artists on many commercial events.”
The initial design for the ISM Hexadome was, well, a dome – an enclosed environment where people would enter to experience the installation – but this proved problematic, as Meehan explains. “The problem with this type of installation is that, to get the best experience without distortion, you need to lie down at the very centre of the dome,” he laughs. “And that doesn’t work for anyone on the outside of the installation.” So, the closed dome became the more open six-screened Hexadome structure, allowing the performer and audience – or maybe participant is a better term – to gain the maximum immersive experience in both sound and vision. “You are very aware of your presence in this space,” says Meehan. “And one of the more remarkable things about this is not only this sense that you have when you’re inside of it, but it’s equally as impressive when approaching it or walking around it. It’s similar to the sense of when you’re approaching something like Stonehenge.”
One of the striking things about the ISM is their skill in getting some serious collaborators on board with the Hexadome project. “We were about two months away from when we needed to start building the Hexadome and we still didn’t have all the technology we needed sorted out,” says Meehan. “So, I went to ISE (Integrated Systems Europe) in Amsterdam. I was told that Helen and John Meyer (of Meyer Sound) were going to be there, so I bought a train ticket and went to see if I could have the chance to speak with them.” And he managed just that. “We talked about their history together – in ‘60s San Francisco and the company’s history,” he says.
The conversations were obviously successful, as boxes full of speakers – the same make as those found at Disney, Skywalker Ranch and NASA – began to arrive at ISM. Meyer Sound supplied some technical support in setting up the Hexadome as well. “Just to be in the midst of the dialogue between the experts from Meyer Sound and the experts from ZKM and seeing this kind of magical structure unfold was quite remarkable,” he adds.
Immersive audio is a relatively new area of sound experimentation outside academia, so standards are few and far between. This makes reproducibility between performances a problem. Meehan, alongside his colleagues at the ISM has been part of a working group, the Immersive Pipeline Workshop, at Goldsmiths University in London trying to identify common standards, so that artists in this field can have some assurance that their works can be more easily translated between installations. The ISM has managed to attract a wide range of artists to ‘perform’ in the Hexadome, including Ben Frost and MFO, Frank Bretschneider and Pierce Warnecke, Tarik Barri and Thom Yorke and, alongside his collaborator Peter Chilvers, Brian Eno. “Peter sent over some examples of his and Brian’s work together. We’d literally only just set up the Hexadome 24 hours before their arrival,” says Meehan. Eno has a track record of working in these kinds of immersive environments, such as the Bloom: Open Space installation in Amsterdam (covered by AMI in April 2018) and, of course, is no stranger to the creative and cultural attractions of the city of Berlin itself.
“To start the Hexadome events with Brian and Peter was a bit unnerving, as you can imagine!“ laughs Meehan. “We got everything set up and connected and it was an amazing moment when we turned everything on and it just worked.” Eno’s example pieces consisted of audio stems and some of the visuals from Chilvers that they could use to test the system out. “Brian and Peter arrived the next day,” explains Meehan. “They literally dropped off their bags at the hotel and went straight to where the Hexadome was set up in Berlin’s stunning Gropius Bau Museum. Brian was looking around and checking things out, clapping his hands and getting into a sense of the space.”
Since the ISM Hexadome installation series concluded in Berlin, the Hexadome has been selected by the Goethe Institute to tour North America throughout 2019 during the Year of German-American Friendship, before voyaging further internationally. Beyond this, what are Meehan and the ISM’s plans for the future? “We’ve started to shift our focus from the tour to the next exhibition – which will be entirely separate from the Hexadome,” he says. “Our long-term plan takes us back to trying to answer the question posed earlier – how can we demonstrate to people that sound is as important in our lives as any visual experience?”