Francis Preve

Sound designer. Producer. Professor. Journalist. Author.

The origin of scapes

Painting. Photography. Sculpture. Architecture. Fashion. Film.

We have countless art forms for expressing visual creativity. But hearing? It seems like music has been our only outlet for millennia.

That’s a testament to the power and versatility of music itself, but after working as a sound designer and producer for three decades, I found myself asking “Why aren’t we more ambitious with this, the most pervasive of senses?”

In the 20th century, Brian Eno, Erik Satie, Terry Riley, John Cage, Philip Glass, La Monte Young, and Steve Reich all expanded the vocabulary of what we call “music”, but largely, the approach remained within the traditional canon due to the general reliance on tuned instrumentation and/or percussion (John Cage’s 4’33” is a notable exception). Of course, Eno veered toward a soundscape aesthetic for his iconic “On Land” album, which broke new ground in this milieu.

Concurrently, expressionist audio compositions were explored by Musique Concrete pioneers like Pierre Schaffer and Halim El-Dabh, in addition to Bebe and Louis Barron’s extraordinary mid-century contributions to the area of cybernetics and synthesis.

The only modern artist I’m aware of who explored this territory through synthesis is Malcolm Cecil, who experimented with recreating natural sound via his TONTO megasynth.

That said, this backstory isn’t intended to be an exhaustive analysis of the history of electronic music. It’s simply an acknowledgement of the many innovators that inspired these experiments.

Realistically speaking, the 20th century ushered in the infancy of synthesis and studio technology — and we're just beginning to understand the power of sound itself. Cymatics, the undertone series, oscilloscope music... There are so many possibilities ahead for the fields of sound and music.  I’m certain there are countless other examples of previous work and current exploration in this territory. I’d love to research earlier pieces. If anyone has more information, please contact me.

My goal is to apply the methodology of visual arts to the medium of sound as a (possibly) new art form, or at least a thoughtful experiment. The first example of this concept was a piece I did two years ago called “The Haunting” — an exploration of recreating the sounds of a “haunted house” via synthesized Foley effects. I figured the subject matter might inspire others, but I haven’t yet heard other iterations of modern work in this vein. Yes, of course, film and television explore this territory, but not as standalone pieces.

Continuing the endeavor, I developed a few more examples of what I’m envisioning (Isn’t it interesting that language itself reinforces a visual bias in creativity?) and called them "Scapes", because “paintings” was taken — and, well, I didn’t use any paint. From this perspective, field recordings might represent “photography”.

Every piece in the collection was entirely synthesized using Ableton Operator and Live’s effect devices. There are no samples of any kind. And like painting, they are not exact reproductions but detailed simulations, a bit like the Realist works of Mike Dargas.

All Scapes are accompanied by downloadable Ableton Live files that require either Live Suite 9.7 or Live Standard with a license for Operator. You can also examine them in “demo” mode in Ableton, if you simply want to inspect the brushstrokes. Just don’t forget to exit demo mode when you’re done ;)

And if you’re inspired to use any of these elements in your own work, please note that they’re released with the following Creative Commons license terms: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike [CC BY-NC-SA]

Other than self-expression, the only intent here is to stretch my own ability and hopefully inspire other synthesists to explore the edges of sonic creativity. Music will always be the foundation of audio-based art, but I’d like to expand our canvas a bit.

Back to the Scapes Download Page