Andrea Parkins: "Sonic Spaces for the Stray”: (Dif)Fusing Dis-location in Sound Installation and Performance


About the Project


The focus of my research during my fellowship has been on the body’s relation to materiality, sound, space, site and situation.  Through creation, documentation, and reflection I’ve been working toward a deeper understanding of my own sonic and embodied “tacit knowledge," considering the potential for that knowledge to activate and extend my sonic gesture into physical, acoustic, social and even metaphoric space, creating both sonic and visual traces of this intention and action.


This project, initially titled, "Explorations in Embodied Experience, Gendered Subjectivity and Interactivity in the Context of Spatialized Sound Installation and Performance,” proposed investigation of the concept and embodiment of gendered subjectivity through application of interactive electronics in the creation of spatialized fixed-media compositions and sound performances. The project posed the following research questions:


• How can interactive, spatialized sound installations and performance serve as a site for theoretical inquiry into embodied experience, gendered subjectivity and psychoanalytic feminism?

• What is the role of psychoacoustics in this context?

• What bodies of work can be created with this knowledge?


Below are the research methods I planned to employ during the project, the expected artistic results, and the context for the project:



Studying methods and applications for the investigation of psychoacoustics and spatialization in sound installations by artists such as Maryanne Amacher, along with a study of the interaction between physical gesture and algorithmically-based technology tools in real-time composition by artists like George E. Lewis, will be foundational to my artistic research. Through these means, I wish to explore an experimental and theoretical inquiry of gendered subjectivity and embodiment.


In consultation with acousticians, I will engage in a study of psychoacoustics, aural architecture, and spatialization theory and technologies, with the goal of developing a new dedicated spatialization system for my multi-channel sound compositions and performances.


In consultation with computer/technology programmers, I will work to develop new, gestural approaches to applying my interactive electronics systems in the context of multi-channel sound installation and performance.


Through literature review, I will examine the thought of Julia Kristeva, specifically her concept of abjection, which has already informed my work as an electroacoustic composer and performer.


My practice-based research will focus on an ongoing series of investigations, moving between a dedicated fixed-media/installation workspace and multi-channel recording/diffusion studios (for example, at NOTAM in Oslo), where I plan to work with acousticians and recording engineers to develop diffusion systems relevant to a gestural body’s engagement with interactive electronics in an acoustical space.


I will develop structures and rules-based processes for rigorously examining my gestural and embodied interaction with my sounding materials, which include live-processed amplified objects, amplified drawing tools, and electroacoustic instruments. I will document this work with video and sound recordings, and engage in ongoing reflective writing about my activities, addressing the presence of psychoacoustic phenomena and implications regarding aural architecture in the work. This practice-based research, along with my inquiry and reflection on Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection will inform my consideration and experimentation with solutions for multi-diffusion sound spatialization as I develop a body of fixed-media works and performances.


As an outcome of my ongoing reflection on my project, I will write and publish a series of articles about my research. I will also participate consistently in discourse and knowledge production addressing spatialization, electroacoustic music/sound, and gendered embodiment. This will take place through dialogue with peers and advisors at the Norwegian Academy of Music in the context of discussion forums and project teams, as well as seminars that I will lead with students at the Academy and elsewhere on topics related to my research.


As an integral aspect of my schedule of activities, I will also present my compositions and performances in Oslo at the Norwegian Academy of Music, and seek international opportunities to disseminate and discuss my work at relevant conferences and exhibition/performance venues. Potential venues include EMPAC at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York; Pioneerworks and Issue Project Room in New York City; The Lab in San Francisco; and Usine C in Montreal. Institutions/venues with which I have ongoing relationships and where my work can be presented include Experimental Intermedia, NYC (Phill Niblock, Director), New York University’s Steinhardt Center (Paul Geluso, Associate Program Director, Music Technology); and Q-02 Workspace for Experimental Music and Sound Art, Brussels (Julia Eckhardt).


Artistic Results

I will create a body of new multi-channel spatialized sound performances and fixed-media compositions and installations, employing an embodied and interactive approach that addresses themes in psychoanalytic feminist thought. An important aspect of the project will be my development of a dedicated multi-channel spatialization system that highlights interactivity between gesture and sound. The work will be documented on video; recorded in stereo audio fold-down for digital, LP or CD release; and exhibited and/or performed at the Norwegian Academy of Music, other sites in Oslo, and internationally. Additionally, I will create an anthology of reflective writings focusing on my research.


Through my research, I plan to develop new perspectives on the creation of multichannel composition, accessing spatial acoustics and psychoacoustic phenomena. This will add to the development and understanding of my work’s relationship to aural architecture, and strengthen my embodied approach to composition and performance. It will also provide new knowledge production and potential for transmission of interdisciplinary knowledge to practitioners in the field of electroacoustic music. My project will advance the discussion of multi-channel performance/installation and the artistic legacy of women in the history of electronic music.


Context for the Project: Background, Influences, and Recent Sonic Practices

I am an artistic researcher with a background both in music and the visual arts. My primary material has been sound, and my projects have resided within the contexts of music improvisation, spatial fixed-media composition, and intermedia performance and installation. Most of my pieces are created by working directly with interactive electronics as material as well as process. I’m drawing upon knowledge I have developed through my work with interactive electronics and generative processes, my somatic experience as an acoustic musician, visceral engagement with materials, and responsiveness to site and space.


My sonic practice is influenced by understanding and synthesis of my critical studies and practice as a visual artist, through which I have explored the visual representation of gendered subjectivity. I also engage intensively with relationship to site, and have been influenced by the late 20th century discussion of site-based work across disciplines, and more recent conversations about site as a social space. I have worked to develop a gestural approach with objects and instruments—including my electronically processed/prepared accordion on which I investigate noise, harmonics, overtones, electronic feedback and drone—mining a wide array of densities.


For the past 15 years, most of my projects have been spatialized performances and installations featuring acousmatic sound, or material that is created through my manipulation of amplified objects, as well as sonic textures and feedback from acoustic and electronic instruments.


These elements are processed through what has become my primary tool for composition and performance: "goldberg," a custom-designed software instrument that was originally inspired both by composer George E. Lewis’ Voyager, as a machine-based improvising partner, and Rube Goldberg’s machines, with their convoluted approach to achieving a simple task. 


Built into the instrument’s programming is the possibility for intentional relinquishment of my control as a composer/performer, utilizing what appear to be “randomized” sonic events to highlight and/or alter specific frequencies and densities, with emphasis on repetitions and interruptions, and moments of stasis, glitch and gap: with the goal of arriving at an indeterminate sonic outcome. (So, for example, there might be surprise glissandi, a few too many delays, outbursts of unpredictable electronic feedback, and even no sonic response at all, just when I was sure I’d set something  into motion.) Of course, such an instrument promotes an interaction with an improviser that is highly dynamic; the performer’s response to such unforeseen sonic events can create a fast-moving exchange between the player and the instrument, as sound sources are morphed and incorporated into a structure from which compositional “sense” can be made in real time.1


As a performer and composer I seek to connect physical gesture to acoustical space to sonic result, whether I am working with acoustic, electroacoustic, or electronic instruments.  My relationship to gesture is rooted in my background as an acoustic pianist, and my awareness of sound production and articulation through bodily shifts of weight and movement. Working with a laptop computer represents a challenge to me, as I want to maintain a gestural language with it that derives from my physical relationship to acoustic instrumental performance. With my custom-made software instrument's processing, these differences seem even more profound to me. I notice the effort a (my) body must make in order to play my instruments, and how I anticipate/experience that an immediate electronic gesture “back at me” can thwart this effort: reversing intention yet creating new (unforeseen) ways to make sound and to listen.


Frequently, I improvise with multiple instruments in simultaneity, and often experience myself in this context as physically awkward, even clumsy, or that my instruments and processes may suddenly—and literally—exceed my grasp. I want to retain that precariousness or the feeling that something easily can—but doesn’t quite—collapse. Thus, with goldberg, I set out to build elaborate systems that could manifest an improvisational logic and decision-making process emphasizing idiosyncrasy, fragile states (of being and sounding), movement from disruption to stillness, and even total disintegration. A dialogic relationship is manifested between improviser and processing instrument that can be articulated much as Lewis describes his virtual instrument/composition, Voyager: a “computer partner” or an “independent improviser” offering “responses that are not necessarily predictable on the basis of outside input." 2


There is pleasure and engagement in systems and structures, but also in their misfiring as a means of exploring tensions/interactions between the body and mind of the performer/composer. With my instrument, I have proposed an irrational condition or system for processing of my sound sources, the output of which serves as an irrational improvising “partner."


Julia Kristeva and the Sonic Performance/Manifestation of “Abjection” 

"Film theorist Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytically-framed thinking has always been a touchstone for me—in thinking about women and others (who are marginalized ) as un-mirrored/displaced objects of the gaze, rather than subjects who can look back. I believe it’s possible to engage subjectivity via the auditive: reciprocal sonic manifestation/utterance, call and response. [Julia] Kristeva’s notion of abjection can also address sonic performance practice as the experiencing and reception/rejection of performers’ psychophysical intention and enactment ... My understanding of abjection has to do with two separate strands of thought: ‘connection’ to the (maternal) body and the threat of becoming encompassed in its visceral messiness, and the potential for things (perhaps one’s own body … ) to fall apart, to fail." 3


My early investigations in the 1980s with electronic music engaged with both concrete music and analogue synthesizers. Since that time, I have worked primarily with digital concrete music, sampling, digital sound processing, and algorithmic music. My installations have explored room acoustics, psychoacoustics, and multi-channel sound spatialization, and are informed by my visual arts practice.


In recent years, I’ve been exploring theory by philosopher and psychoanalytic feminist thinker Julia Kristeva—specifically her concept of “abjection"—to see if it can address this experience of psychophysical intention and enactment within my performances and installations. Literary scholar Dino Felluga writes that for Kristeva, “The abject refers to the human reaction … to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other." 4   


So “abjection,” in the context of a performance or composition that features the kind of misfiring I am talking about, and which attracts me, might imply the moving, encumbered body of the performer, and the potential for its physical control or articulation to lose fluency, or even to fail. This interests me as a site of creative potential; here, abjection might be, as Kristeva writes, “… something rejected”, but (also) something from which “one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself.” 5


The gesture might fall flat. That is to say, the sounding body might be sapped and not able to continue, or the sonic dialogue— between improviser and instrument—might  be moving so fast that the performer ceases to understand what is actually happening in real time. That dialogue—between the artist and her materials/instruments, between a performer and others, between the subject and her own understanding of herself as a sonic generator—breaks down. I think: here a place where something new might happen.


Kristeva finds the abject in literature and poetry as, “a place where boundaries begin to break down.” But at the same time, it is in literary expression where she finds the sublime.6 Thinking about poetry, which engages not only with linguistic structures and metaphorical meaning—as well as the implication of sound and sensation—as a site where abjection and the sublime are in uneasy balance with each other, I’m exploring the potential for my own work in sound to ride that precarious line.


Artists who have engaged in practices that address the areas of inquiry on which I have wished to focus include Maryanne Amacher (psychoacoustics) and George E. Lewis (interactivity). Carolee Schneemann and Joan Jonas address embodiment and gendered subjectivity in their work as performance artists. Imogene Newland’s “’Blood Piano’ Music, Femininity and the Abject: A Practice-Led Enquiry,” addresses Kristeva’s theory of abjection, but this project does not engage with interactive electronics-based compositional process realized as spatialized sound performance or fixed-media works.


Trajectory of the Project: What Actually Happened

Throughout my PhD project I engaged with a range of research methods as a means of developing my experimental and theoretical inquiry into embodied experience through the utilization of interactive electronics in sound installation and performance, as well as concepts of  subjectivity. In this context. I moved away from the notion of a “gendered” subjectivity as this seemed to foreclose a broader and more inclusive consideration of subjectivity in relation to embodiment.


In consultation with acousticians and in practice, I explored concepts and technologies of sound spatialization. Additionally, I worked with a Max/MSP programmer and an instrument-builder to develop gesturally-engaged software and hardware instruments, with the intention of using them in conjunction with my software instrument, goldberg, in spatial audio installations and sound performances. These activities were intended to address my stated goal of developing new systems for spatialization of my works.


As a theoretical jumping off point, I embarked on a literature review that would provide the opportunity for me to more closely examine the thought of Julia Kristeva, specifically her concept of abjection, which, as I have described in my project description, already informed my work as an electroacoustic composer and performer. In addition to my close re-reading of Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, I read literary scholar Alice Jardine’s recent biography of Kristeva, which gave me some insight regarding the political context from which Kristeva emerged, offering Jardine’s speculation that Kristeva’s experience as a young journalist in communist Bulgariaoften writing in "the kind of  palimpsestic (multilayered, often purposefully opaque) prose used by dissident intellectuals on the communist side of the iron curtain"accounts for the density and abstruseness of her later writing. 7

This is a characteristic in Kristeva’s language that I find very compelling, as it leads me consider her language as an open text and to experience its sound before its meaning. I also read Space in Theory: Kristeva, Foucault and Deleuze by literary theorist Russell West-Pavlov, who presents a comparative analysis of the three theorists’ engagement with space. This, along with other reading I pursued in the field of sound studies, such as Will Scrimshaw’s critique of immersion in his book, Immanence and Immersion, and Barry Blesser’s and Linda Salter’s Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture, began to shift my conceptions of what space might be or could mean within the context of my research; the artistic results of my project; and the field of artistic research in music and sound. I was shifting away from the focus of my original project proposal, which considered affordances of spatial audio technologies to create “diffusion systems” for the realization of my research project. Instead, I was moving toward a deeper exploration of the experience of embodiment and subjectivity within a wider consideration of performance and installation contexts.


In addition to my reading, I sought to engage in reflective writing about my activities. I traversed into another mode of reflection, one of  “thinking through doing." For example, I set aside time to improvise with my software instrument, until the moment when the improvisation itself seemed to pose or resolve a question (for example: “Is immersiveness a problem?), or to describe a sensation or state of being that engages with both physical affect and psychological state (for example: “bouncing against surety”), about which I would then write a reflection.


Most crucially, I engaged in practice-based research, focusing on an ongoing series of investigations in my studio, which has four-channel audio available to me, as well as space for interdisciplinary artistic research focused on movement and drawing. I also engaged in research at recording studios, such as Notam in Oslo, and EMS (Elektron Musik Studion) in Stockholm where I was an invited resident artist. During the spring and early summer of my first year in the PhD program, I  worked with technicians and recording engineers toward the creation of my first ambisonic composition, still attempting to pursue the goal I set out in my project proposal: to develop or discover diffusion systems for my works in sound that could be relevant to a body’s engagement with interactive electronics in an acoustic space:


By the end of my first project year, my project was shifting, and distilled into three separate, yet seemingly related strands of research, which I planned to pursue as a means of opening up my ideas regarding what "spatialized" sound could mean. The three research strands were:

1. An amplified drawing project: through which I consider my awareness of subjectivity as a body in space: by moving in a space, extending musical gesture into the "room" without concern about creating a refined sonic result, and then leaving a visual trace of that gesture (with drawing materials). This is also without concern regarding the visual “result.” I was seeking to move past mastery, to get to "something else," and to discover what that something else might be. 


2. Ongoing creation of spatial audio performance and fixed-media works: exploring different configurations and contexts, while attempting to make works in music and sound that engage with embodiment, either directly or by implication.


3. Designing and building of a prototype for a new instrument: an amplified, outsize, and unwieldy accordion-like object with which I could performatively interact. I came to this through my examination of how I play my electronically-processed accordion, which already explores feedback, timbre, texture, embodiment, and gesture.  Since the 1990s, I have been imagining an electroacoustic accordion-like instrument that does this in more extreme ways: one that greatly expands upon the size and scale of the accordion that I normally play,  thus maximizing the awkwardness and physical effort that it takes for me to work with it. In this case, the accordion becomes a very large interactive object with performative potentialities and spatial presence. I intended to find a way to amplify and spatialize the instrument's sound without using an amplifier, and also considered using transducers with the instrument rather than loudspeakers. For me, this would be a new means for researching spatialization and room acoustics, while also fully engaging my body as I work with the instrument.


During 2019-2021, I advanced these research strands within my studio practice: first, by developing structures and rules-based processes for rigorously examining my gestural and embodied interaction with the sounding materials that were already elements of my work. These materials include live-processed amplified objects, electroacoustic instruments, and a more recent addition:  amplified drawing tools. I documented this research with video and sound recordings, and spent a great deal of time viewing and listening to the results, considering what I saw and heardespecially the documentation from what later became the "Drawing Project"as potential compositional or improvisational material. 


The studio-based research, in conjunction with my theoretical inquiry, informed my approach toward thinking about and working with the technologies of spatial audio, as I began to develop a body of performances and fixed-media works. During the first 14 months of my research project, this included the creation and presentaton of two versions of my ambisonic composition, entitled Studio Drawing, 27-4-2019, and a series of performances that were diffused in 4-channel or double stereo format. One of these performances, de-centered/on centre, was presented in December 2019 at Experimental Intermedia in New York City. The performance featured video projections of recordings that I had made in my studio: a series of two minute-long filmed close-ups of my hand, with each film portraying performance of a single and sustained chord cluster on the electric organ. Other films presented during the Experimental Intermedia performance showed my sonified explorations of a proscribed and constrained area in my studio, which I later edited into a single film called Nine Floor Studies. For the performance at Experimental Intermedia, I worked with the video sound as a real-time improvisational sound source, complicating and intensifying the difficulty of my playing technique by performing with two laptop computers, rather than one, as I normally do. I also used the video projections as an interactive visual element. Working with the sound and video in this way began to open up some ideas for me about proximity and distance: between the performer and his/her mediated image; between the present and what is rememberedhistory; about subjectivity and autoethnography; and place and spacewhat is here and what is over there.


Consideration of distance and proximityrelating to site and situation within a social spacealso came into play during the summer of 2020, when I performed an outdoor, socially distanced solo concert along the docks of the Spree River in Berlin. Sound recordings of the concert were made from both sides of the river. My reflections on listening to these recordings, as well as my recollection of the circumstances of the performance, informed my organization of the recordings and other concert documentation materials into:  river spree: far side/ near side, which I conceive of as a future gallery installation. Issues of absence and presence, location and dislocation are also addressed in Two Captiva Pianos, a work-in-progress multi-room fixed-media piece that I composed in my apartment in Berlin during the coronavirus lockdown in 2020-2021. My interest in finding solutions for dissemination of fixed-media works or sound installations, which are meant to be experienced in a live context, led me to re-imagine my long duration multi-room fixed-media electroacoustic composition, Two Rooms from the Memory Palace/The Third Room. Two Rooms became a 53:47  minute stereo recording for CD release. It is accompaned by The Third Room, a webpage that presents a random playlist of short or fragmentary sound pieces. Liner notes for the CD and information on The Third Room webpage is meant to encourage listeners to diffuse both streams of sonic material at the same time, using loudspeakera, rather than headphones. Two Rooms from the Memory Palace and The Third Room will be released on 19 November 2021. I hope to receive feedback from listeners who can inform me if my dissemination strategy for the work is worthy of sharing with other researchers. 


My progress toward the creation of an extended and outsize accordion-like instrument has been slow, and this strand of my research was not fully realized during my PhD project. In spring 2019, I sent out a proposal for the instrument to potential builders and designers. I quickly located an experienced designer who suggested that he could create what I was looking for, if I was ready to go forward with the project immediately, and with the understanding that he would complete the project within two weeks time. I made the decision not to go forward in working with him, because it seemed important for me to first gain a deeper understanding of what my embodied experience could be as I moved large objects and materialsincluding those larger than than myselfaround in a space. I also recognized that because I had been thinking about and drawing different images relating to this instrument for many years, it was necessary for my research to include practical experimentation with and deep reflection on the materials that I might want to use for the instrument. So the accordion had not yet been built. However, I was able to assemble a model of a very large accordion bellows that rests on wheels. Its frame is made of several wooden clothes-drying racks. Draped over the frame is a large stretch of untreated canvas, which I have painted with several coats of liquid rubber latex, in homage to the beautiful latex sculptural works of Eva Hesse, the artist whose work I loved most when I was a young art student.


The idea of an accordion sits behind me now in this room, as I write. 

© Andrea Parkins / Norwegian Academy of Music