INTRODUCTION Original text by Rolf Gehlhaar

SOUND=SPACE is an electronic musical instrument that is played - by one person or several at the same time - by moving around in an empty space. It consists of a system of ultrasonic sensors - an ultrasonic echo location system - that very accurately picks up the positions and movement of people within the space, linked to a computer and a synthesiser and/or sampler that produces sounds accordingly. The effect is like walking or moving some part of your body across imaginary keyboards which are spread around the floor of a room.

The system can be programmed to accommodate spaces of almost any shape and to produce many different styles of music, employing an endless variety of sounds, e.g. instrumental sounds like sitar, drums, piano, trumpets, sampled sounds, sounds of the environment and even spoken words.

SOUND=SPACE is one of the most exciting applications of high technology and computers in the field of music, projected images and communication. It has colossal possibilities for education, entertainment and therapy, for the general public, for the disabled and the unsighted alike. It was conceived and designed by Rolf Gehlhaar in 1984 and the first version of it was developed in 1985, in collaboration with P.Prevot and LIMCA, a small computer music studio in Gascony, France. A second, improved and expanded version was developed in the UK in 1987-89, assisted by the technical expertise of ZINGARO Designs Ltd. and the formidable programming skills of Per Hartmann. The latest version, much enhanced, was developed by Rolf Gehlhaar in 1998/99, employing the object oriented music programming environment MAX / MSP with a parallel possibility of using the measurements in the context of Director programs to manipulate images and generate graphics which are projected onto the walls that delimit the space.

For a detailed description of SOUND=SPACE see: Rolf Gehlhaar: SOUND=SPACE, the interactive musical environment, CONTEMPORARY MUSIC REVIEW, Vol 6, Part 1, ISBN 3-7186-5116-5, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1991

The Function of SOUND = SPACE

There are many ways in which SOUND=SPACE may be used

  1. as an interactive creative musical environment for music and movement workshops with musicians, children, the disabled;

  2. as a fixed or mobile installation in a museum context, an interactive acoustic / visual environment in which visitors to the museum may explore this exciting and unique high-tech creative experience;

  3. as a highly versatile interactive installation for the acoustic/musical animation of exhibits within a museum, either consciously controlled by the visitors (e.g. for information retrieval) or functioning in the background, acoustically (visually) illustrating the exhibit areas;

  4. as a musical environment for dancers, creating in real time the music to which they are moving; . . V. as a virtual instrument for performers, controlling a variable host of electronic musical instruments and ancillary equipment (e.g. light, real-time computer-generated images, QT video, etc);

  5. as a teaching resource for musicianship skills (ear training), composition, performance and computer music programming.

SOUND = SPACE setups and diagram


SOUND=SPACE is a multi-functional computer controlled interactive electronic environmental musical "instrument" played by moving about in an empty space surveyed by an Ultrasonic Ranging System. This system, employing ultrasonic echo-location, very precisely measures the positions and movement of any persons or objects within the surveyed space. These measurements are employed by a computer in the context of the SOUND=SPACE program to generate sounds (via the signal processing capabilities of MAX) and / or MIDI commands that control sound synthesisers or samplers.Generally speaking, the SOUND=SPACE Programme consists of a trunk program with several branches. The trunk programme provides the measurement algorithms and background structure; the branch programmes provide different musical topographies (ways of structuring the space musically and controlling the synthesisers). Each branch of the programme may exist in numerous versions: every version creates a different kind of music - based upon different organisational principles, offering different types of control by the players, different sounds, rhythms, pitches, harmonies, musical styles, etc.).


SOUND=SPACE is a new way of encouraging and assisting people, especially those with special needs, to create music in a user friendly way; it does not require dexterous handiwork to be played and is not restricted by any traditional framework, in a way that playing piano or a guitar might be, particularly for beginners. SOUND=SPACE offers its players a wide range of opportunities for free-form self expression.

At present, there is a permanent SOUND=SPACE Centre in Scotland, operated by ARTLINK, a community arts organisation in Edinburgh, with a further Centre being planned in Armidale, NSW. The Edinburgh Centre operats a regular series of workshops aimed primarily but not exclusively at special needs groups such as children with behavioural and learning difficulties and persons with various physical and mental disabilities. In these workshops the participants create and perform their own multi-media compositions of movement/music. The focus of the workshops is on the dynamics of empowerment towards creativity and group interaction.To be creative in the SOUND=SPACE requires no expertise and it can be fine-tuned to such an extent that it can be played by persons who have very little movement; it is due to this that these workshops often present the very first opportunity for self-expression through movement and music to many participants.


The first SOUND=SPACE was installed in 1985 for 4 months in the Centre Pompidou, Paris, during the grand Post-Structuralist exhibition Les Immateriaux, curated by F.Lyotard. This installation occupied an area of approximately 36m.sq. and proved to be extremely popular, with as many as 400 persons coming to explore it daily. SOUND=SPACE was also chosen in 1986 as a permanent exhibit for the new French National Museum of Science and Industry - La Villette - in Paris. It was installed in a space of similar dimensions, large enough to accommodate 6-8 persons simultaneously. It was programmed to operate entirely automatically, with the visitors able to select from among numerous musical styles and sound options.

Since those first installations, SOUND=SPACE has undergone considerable hardware and software development, allowing the system to take advantage of the latest developments in digital sound synthesis technology in the context of a very wide range of creative applications. It has been installed throughout the world at numerous music and multi-media festivals.III. Interactive musical, visual, and or textual animation of exhibits This type of implementation has proved very useful for art and science exhibitions, as the system is extremely flexible. If a general acoustic / visual animation is desired, responding variously with musical sounds or texts (stored in samplers) or projected images (via Director or Quicktime movie clips) triggered and or controlled by the presence and particular movements of persons in several independent areas of a space, but silent if no-one is present, then the current software (Mac or PC based) provides the framework into which specific requirements can be embedded.


Rolf Gehlhaar has collaborated with a number of choreographers, both abroad and in the UK, over the past years, including projects with Laurie Booth and with Olu Taiwo of the dance company Landing Sites. The flexibility of both the physical system and the software provide a very powerful tool for the creation of dynamic, exciting musical/acoustic environments for dancers in which the spatial nature of the choreography can be given a clear and structured musical or acoustic counterpart. In some of these performances the Sound=Space System is also used to place control over the flow of several Quicktime movies and the lighting directly under the real time control of the dancers in the space.


SOUND=SPACE has been used as a performance instrument or environment for a large number of electronic / instrumental works, both by Rolf Gehlhaar and other composers. The sophisticated music structuring software is easily programmable and particularly well suited to the creation of independent accompanying electronic layers under the control of musicians at the same time that they are playing their instruments. The type of influence or control musicians in an ensemble have over the system may vary: individual musicians may have complete control over their own independent sounds or events, triggering them at will, or they may have collective control over all events, or one musician may have the main control while the others have only peripheral influence. The possible combinations are manifold.


One of the great strengths of the SOUND=SPACE system is the physical and software flexibility embedded into its fundamentally high-tech environment. This is not only a great attraction to young people interested in performance, music technology, sound, computers and multi-media, but it also allows for almost unlimited scope for creativity and creative teaching in these and related fields.











Have SOUND=SPACE, will travel...

Original text by Rolf Gehlhaar

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