Whether through his work as one half of German electronic music duo Mouse on Mars or through his 2016-17 tenure as an MIT guest lecturer, Jan St. Werner has spent the better part of the past 25 years exploring the limitless potential of sound.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that, when Mouse on Mars premiered their new album “Dimensional People” at the MIT conference/sound festival Dissolve Music this month, they did so through a “spatial installation” that might be their most ambitious sonic experiment yet.
The premiere of the album — which will be released to the public April 13 — unfolded at Somerville’s Warehouse XI in a room where the floor, walls, and ceiling had been outfitted with an array of speakers. As listeners moved about, they could hear more or less of certain instruments depending on their location, yet no matter where they stood in the room, that sound would always appear to be coming from the same place. A small fleet of robots added visual flair, striking percussion instruments in time with the music.
MIT cultural anthropology professor Ian Condry, who organized the conference with St. Werner and musician DJ Rekha, called the spatial mix “surround sound on steroids.”
“Imagine that you can place the cello anywhere in space, and you can place the timpani drum anywhere in space,” says Condry. “Now imagine that each of those instruments can run away from you, towards you, or around you. That’s the kind of creative potential a system like this enables.”
“Dimensional People” was particularly well-suited for such a presentation. Not only does the album feature a diverse buffet of sounds (many contributed by guests like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner), it’s also the first album ever to be mixed spatially. The German speaker company d&b audiotechnik had previously taken its spatial system on tour with another innovative German electronic band, Kraftwerk, but Mouse on Mars wanted to incorporate the technology into the recording process.
“You think you have a stereo system and that’s what you need because two speakers equals two ears, and that is basically a wrong assumption,” says St. Werner, who taught a course called Introduction to Sound Creations at MIT in 2016. “If you have a production that includes a bunch of sounds running at the same time, the sounds are getting squeezed through a stereo system.”
So Mouse on Mars — Andi Toma is the other half of the duo — went to Backnang, Germany, where d&b had just finished work on the first studio capable of spatial mixing. Condry, who St. Werner befriended while he was at MIT, sat in on the mixing process. Enthralled, he insisted that Mouse on Mars bring the technology to Dissolve. The group agreed that it would be an ideal setting for the album’s debut.
“It was kind of perfect timing,” St. Werner says. “So many things fell into place: The date was right, the situation was right. It’s a little miraculous to me.”
Condry considers the spatial installation a perfect sonic metaphor for Dissolve. With its rapid-fire “lightning talks” and DJ dance parties, the conference was conceived as a more participatory corrective to “the unidirectionality of learning and communication” endemic to academic conferences.
“In general, we have this experience of facing toward knowledge that comes directly at us from a single direction, but that’s not how learning works,” Condry says. “Surprising sounds and information can come from behind us or places we weren’t looking. I like the surround sound system as a way to experience that.”
St. Werner noticed that attendees seemed happy with the freedom the spatial mix provided. Rather than having to find a single spot where the acoustics were just right, they could roam around and choose their sonic experience.
“I feel it’s what a good party actually should be,” says St. Werner. “You don’t wait for someone to tell you what the party is; you just go and decide what you think it should be about.”
While Mouse on Mars will bring a spatial installation to some of their upcoming festival dates, most of these performances will have to be in stereo. Of course, those listening to “Dimensional People” at home will have no choice but to hear the album in stereo, yet St. Werner believes that those listeners will still be getting a richer experience.
“I think it translates because the way we constructed music is very light and kind of casual,” he says. “Most of our records have always had that, as if you were in an imaginary space.”
Though spatial mixing had only been exhibited at trade shows before Dissolve, Condry believes that it will eventually become part of mainstream audio technology. He wants to help facilitate that process by founding a space where artists can experiment and present their work to the public. Condry also hopes to hold future Dissolve conferences, setting his sights on fall 2019 for the next one.
Though St. Werner’s professorship at the Academy of Fine Arts, Nuremberg, limits his availability, he and Condry would both love to work together again.
“I just got an e-mail from Jan that says, ‘Yeah, I think we’re pretty good collaborators,’ and I have to agree,” Condry says. “He’s a bundle of energy and a bit mischievous — maybe a lot mischievous.”