A Celebration

To celebrate the success of our first presentation of the Sonic Womb Orrb at the Brain Forum two weeks ago, Julian, Eric and I booked at Dans Le Noir, a restaurant in Clerkenwell where you are served dinner in a pitch black dining room. We wanted to experience what it was like to switch off the sense of sight. Would our hearing become somehow acutely heightened?

We were welcomed in an ante room and bar, and asked to select our menu (vegetarian, non vegetarian or “surprise”) and drinks. Then we were led to a corridor to wait for our blind guide to take us into the dining room. Our guide was the dynamic Fabio, from Palermo. He asked one of us to place our hand on his back, and the others to follow in the same way in a mini conga line as he took us into the darkest environment I have ever encountered. Not a single flicker of light for your eyes to latch onto. The noise of the other diners and their conversations was strangely unhelpful as a means of orientation to the size and shape of the room.

As we sat down, it took me some time for an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia to subside. The aggressive cacophony of diners around us gave rise to an irrational fear of being trapped in the dark forever. As I strained my voice to be heard above the noise level, it sounded to me as if it were disembodied. The three of us found ourselves seeking the reassurance of touch by linking our hands together across the table. After a while, and the distraction of the first dish being brought to the table, the habituation to the new environment set in.

If one had to decide which sense takes over from sight in this environment it would definitely be touch, not hearing. Trying to put food inside your mouth you find that using your fingers enhances the taste, as it helps define what the ingredient is. Simple ingredients are easily identified: orange zest, chocolate, strawberries. But any mixed ingredients become impossible to figure out, and indeed we know that food and drink are predominantly identified by smell and sight, not taste.

The most enjoyable part of the evening was at the end of the meal, when we remained the last table of diners, the noise of others having disappeared, and the waiters and waitresses started clearing up. Surrounded only now by the light sound of clatter and our own conversation it starting feeling more like the sound of one’s own home.

 

Day Two at the Brain Forum

Second day at the Brain Forum and I think we can confidently say we are one if the main attractions on the exhibitor’s level. Our booth is mobbed with people interested in experiencing the Sonic Womb and we have to set up a queuing system.

Reactions are incredibly varied:

“Interesting and shocking”

“A connection with the environment more truthful than the outside world”

“Meditative, calming, psychedelic”

“Awesome and curious”

Here is the impression of Hafida:

It was great for us to speak to people about their impressions just as they came out of the Sonic Womb Orrb, some of which we’d never have anticipated.

A young man said he experienced feelings of weightlessness. He felt he was coming back into his body when the filter was turned off at the end of the soundtrack.

One lady comes out crying. Her late father during her pregnancy used to tell her “be respectful of the baby in your womb, don’t fight with your husband, sing to your baby, and listen to music.” Hearing the simulated sound world around her viscerally brought back her father’s advice to her.

We are grateful to all those who shared their feedback with us. They will help us create great new soundtracks for the Sonic Womb Orrb.

First reaction to the Sonic Womb

Here we are today at the 2016 Brain Forum, a unique multidisciplinary annual gathering of neurologists, neuroscientists and engineers working on brain research. And we want to share with you the first reaction to the The Sonic Womb Orrb at the Brain Forum.

But going back 24 hours in time, Julian and I arrived yesterday afternoon to the  Swisstech centre on the campus of the engineering school EPFL in Lausanne. To our delight, the space was beautiful, letting in wonderful amounts of sunlight.

The shiny white Sonic Womb Orrb was waiting for us on our booth. Our friend Lee the designer had driven it himself from the home counties all the way to Lausanne in a van. Aurelie was already hard at work, cabling it up. Inevitable last minute issues had to be fixed (dimming the lights inside the Orrb, resolving a slight rattling noise…) but then we could get on to the fine tuning of the experience.

As the sound inside the Orrb distributes itself between speakers and transducers, to mimic the fetus’s experience of hearing through the body rather than the ears, it is important to get the balance of vibration and sound just right. Too much airborne sound doesn’t reflect the experience. Too much vibration distracts from the experience. This is where Aurelie’s sensibility as sound artists really enhances our scientific project. We can circumscribe quite well our knowledge of what is available for the fetus to hear and how the fetus hears but adapting that experience to a fully grown adult is more art that science.

So having fiddled endlessly with our soundtrack to make it near perfect, you can imagine how excited we were to have our first reaction to it.

Jasmine was the first non Sonic Womb Productions listener to enter the Sonic Womb Orrb. She was the conference’s medic, who was called to our booth when Aurelie cut her finger. Fittingly, today was Jasmine’s birthday.

 

 

 

 

 

Swimming in Sound

What we know about the sound environment in the womb is quite limited. But we can make some approximations.

In humans, we know that the fetus develops the faculty of hearing by 24 weeks (six months of gestation) as the middle and inner ear are formed. By 26 weeks the fetus responds to sound stimulation with an increased heart rate, indicating that they are sensitive to sound.

However, the eardrum of the outer ear doesn’t function in the amniotic fluid of the womb. So the sound waves reaching the middle ear do so via the skull. The whole surface of the fetus’ body is sensitive to vibrations transmitted through the amniotic fluid.

This is something we can replicate by listening to sound underwater. Underwater we all hear through the skull and entire body surface – not our outer ear. Sound is transmitted 4 x faster than in the air and across a much broader frequency range. You can actually try this in London by going to a Wet Sounds event.

Swimming

Julian and Aude did. Eyes, closed and with their ears underwater, listening to nature sounds and choral music diffused from the bottom of the swimming pool, they found that sounds have no specific location in space – they appear to come from every direction. More intriguingly, with plugs protecting their ears, and thus a heightened sensitivity to their own heartbeats, there seemed to be no difference between inner and outside sounds – no sense of self as separate from one’s acoustic environment.

If consciousness arises from a sense of separateness, what if the Sonic Womb project could return a listener to some kind of pre-consciousness state?

Sonic Womb Ladies

Rarely has a multi-disciplinary collaboration drawn more varied profiles than the Sonic Womb research project. Here are portraits of some of the individuals involved. Ladies first.

Aude (Thibaut), co-Founder

Eric and Julian’s original idea for the Sonic Womb soundtrack consisted of a “sound walk”, the walk of a pregnant opera singer to her place of work, the opera house. We would follow the singer as she wakes up, brushes her teeth, chats with her family at breakfast, walks to the tube (an extraordinarily noisy segment included an encounter with a jackhammer). As she arrives at the opera house, she starts with piano rehearsals then moves on to a stage performance with orchestra reaching a pinnacle of glorious applause.

This would allow the listener to experience the full range of sound sources involved in the fetal environment, external sounds, internal bodily sounds, and most intriguingly, the mother’s voice, whose pathways are both external and internal to the fetal experience.

A financier by training, Aude had the wonderful privilege of working for several years at the Royal Opera House, basking in its music, which even in the administrative departments, literally pours out of the walls though an internal speaker system. No less of a privilege, Eric delivered her twin babies, who were just a little too impatient to meet the world, and had to spend a few weeks in a neo-natal intensive care unit (NICU) incubator. Having spent her pregnancy exposing the twins in utero to the high culture sounds of Wagner, Mozart and Britten – with Bottom’s bass voice in rehearsal a particular favourite of “twin 2” – she was amused to find her newborns enjoying their NICU feeds to the frequency of Kiss FM.

Orchestra

Aude fell in love with the idea of exploring the auditory environment of the womb, hopefully leading to a better sound-optimised design for neonatal incubators.

Aurelie (Mermod), Sound diffusion system, concept & technique

Aurelie is a sound artist. After graduating from the MA in Sound Arts at University of the Arts London she is now a teaching assistant at the University of the Arts in Zurich. Her current project, Detroit Effect, experiments on the fascination with visual decay, towards a more complex and critical approach to the situation and future of Detroit, with sounds/noises aiming to be heard with the body rather than the ears.

Aurelie joined the project in 2015 to design the audio system inside the Orrb. She found it really interesting and challenging to articulate the research and ideas of the team into practice. It was a long process with interesting discussions on the high expectations of a sound concept and its diffusion system. She also really enjoyed meeting and learning from sound professionals to work on the concept and production: sound technicians, sound artists, professionals in acoustic, sound foam producer, and also designers.