ARRAY Organisers Discuss Their 360 Degree Online Festival

The organisers of this weekend's extraordinary ARRAY festival discuss their innovative approach to an online event, which features stunning audiovisual work by the likes of Dave Okumu, Kamikaze Space Programme, Imogen and more

ARRAY was destined to be unique, even before the coronavirus lockdown forced its creative team – made up of pioneering immersive sound agency Call & Response, production company Social Convention, NX Records and the Goldsmiths Music Department- to dramatically alter their plans. Originally intended to take place at The Albany in South East London, making use of a cutting-edge speaker dome specially engineered by audio experts Genelec, rather than cancel the event entirely in the wake of lockdown the organisers decided to move the event online.

Although that might have forced a compromise, ARRAY have in fact managed to use it as fuel for innovation. The new ARRAY festival will take place online tonight and tomorrow, featuring unique 360 degree art videos from the line-up, utilising immersive ambisonic audio technology to place users at the centre of a “sonic sphere”.

From 8pm BST tonight, Dan Samsa (aka Warsnare) has curated the likes of a drum n bass/breakbeat mashup from DJ Kamikaze Space Programme, new work from Luke David Harris, plus a performance of his own that makes use of material from his next LP, influenced by club music, contemporary classical, jazz and afrobeat.

From 8pm BST tomorrow, meanwhile, ARRAY will feature much-lauded hypno-pop newcomer Imogen, a collaboration between Tokyo noise artist Atau Tanaka and installation artist Uta Kögelsberger, Hejira reworking their latest album Thread Of Gold, and a final set from the brilliant Dave Okumu, super-producer and leader of The Invisible. Tickets for the event are free, but a £10 donation is suggested. The performances will stay available for a month after this weekend’s broadcast. You can get them here, along with more information.

To find out more about ARRAY, tQ spoke to performer and curator Dan Samsa, executive producer & co-founder of Social Convention Natalie Hall, and the event’s artistic director Tom Slater of Call & Response.

Can you tell me a bit more about your specific roles in the ARRAY project?

Tom Slater: The idea for this project was cooked up by myself and Dan Samsa. Back in 2016 he approached me and asked if I could produce a live immersive version of his most recent album. We began working in the studio to unpack his stereo mixes and re spatialise them across our surround system. I then had to design a much larger version of our studio speaker array for the live show we had planned. The venue was the Albany Theatre in Deptford SE8. Their main theatre space is perfect as it is circular and doesn’t have fixed seating which allowed me to create a large speaker dome that was 8 meters high and 10 meters wide.

The event went down very well so we were invited back to curate a larger festival of immersive live music. We were only a few weeks away from the first show when Covid-19 happened and everything turned upside down. We were faced with 2 options: either we postpone with no idea of when things could go back to normal or, we move the whole thing online. Obviously we chose the latter as we thought it really important to respond positively to the crisis and get the work out there.

Dan Samsa

Natalie Hall: My company Social Convention produced the festival. Dan Samsa is a mate and collaborator – we’re producing his new opera – and he brought me and my business partner Cimeon Ellerton-Kay in for a chat with Tom Slater in early 2019 to discuss the idea for a 360 festival they were talking about. Immersive, audience-focussed work is at the core of what Social Convention does so we were really keen on the idea.

At what point did it become clear that ARRAY would have to become an online event? What were the initial conversations like when that became apparent?

NH: I distinctly remember having a meeting at The Albany about two weeks before London went into lockdown with the rest of the creative and production team and saying at the end “Oh by the way, I think we should talk about this Covid thing, just in case”.

Beyond the coolness of the main gigs, which we were all so excited about, we were just about to launch a partnership with the guys at Aaja Deptford and Deptford Craft Beer Fest to do a series of radio shows and afterparties and a beer garden with a headphone-based sound installation with Bose AR. It would have been a real Deptford family effort, so it was pretty heartbreaking when it became clear very quickly that none of this was not going to be happening live and IRL.

Our priorities were ensuring that the artists and freelancers were paid and that those commitments were honoured, as we were seeing paid gigs just evaporate overnight so because of that we wanted to forge forward. Beyond that, we wanted to share the work and try to see this as an opportunity to get creative and open it up to a much larger audience. We were really grateful to Arts Council England and PRS Foundation for maintaining their funding so we were able to pivot this way.

TS: Our main goal with this online version was to maintain as much of the immersive nature of the experience as possible.

I get the impression that you’ve embraced the fact you’ve moved online, rather than see it as a compromise. What do you think ARRAY gains from being an online event?

NH: Yeah, you’ve got to roll with it! I think having these 360 visual and sound environments that you’re experiencing in-headphone makes it this really personal, intense experience. Especially if you have a VR headset to hand. It’s kind of a meditative, really immersive thing – which is different, obviously, to being in a room with 300 other people but has its own special energy.

What makes me really happy is that we’re seeing people getting tickets from Taipei, Oslo, San Francisco, Rome, Barcelona, Manchester, Seoul…we wouldn’t have been able to do that with the live event.

ARRAY is described as having “fully spatialised immersive audio” – could you explain a little more about what this means and how this is achieved?

TS: There are a handful of ways to make immersive audio content. Most people would have heard of Dolby Atmos. We use a similar technology called ambisonics. This allows us to place a sound anywhere within a 360 degree sphere. We then place the listener at the centre of that sphere and they can experience the sounds swirling around them.

For the online version we needed a way to stream this complete sonic sphere and the best way to do that is to use a 360 video as a container. This gives the online audience the same vantage point as they would have in a live experience and gives them the ability to focus on certain parts of the sonic sphere by rotating the video with their mouse cursor or using basic VR headsets like Google cardboard. If they notice a sound in their left ear or behind them they can turn around to focus on that sound and it will appear in front of them. This is a great way to give the audience a much more personalised experience and the freedom to explore the sonic sphere.

Dan, You played a 360 degree show for your last album Warchestra at The Albany, how do you remember it?

Dan Samsa: It was really interesting observing the audience’s reaction – you know, it was kind of tearing up the rules when it comes to a normal gig format, with the audience being surrounded by the performers and this spectacular 29-channel dome of speakers. It challenged the audience’s perception of what a live gig could be and also added this element of confusion where people were seeking sounds and visuals all around them. It was incredible to realise and reconstruct that really multilayered album in this 3D space, because you’re no longer thinking in stereo, you can place the kick drum at the bottom centre of the space but place the high hats in the ceiling, so you’re working in a vertical axis as well.

How does the ARRAY gig relate? Do you see it as a ‘follow-up’?

DS: We learned so much from that first performance, and the 360 performance I did for Nonclassical last July where we combined the multichannel speaker system with the unit 137 dub sound system sub scoops. That performance was a real bombardment of the aural and physical senses. So for the ARRAY gig we wanted to continue to refine that speaker set up, how to approach the musical material, how to work with the audience and placing the performers in the space. It also affected the creative process as well as I was writing this album. The 360 mic experiments came about because I wanted to incorporate the 360 technology and concepts into the writing process early on.

Do you have any particular favourite performances on the line-up?

TS: Imogen really stands out for me. She’s very young and about to graduate from Goldsmiths. I didn’t really have to do much to her music as it was so well arranged and layered it works beautifully in surround sound. Dave Okumu wrote 3 original pieces for this and he really has made incredibly effective use of space with highly detailed and well-placed guitar FX. Also Hejira have made something beautifully textured and enveloping- Rahel’s vocals are sublime and provide the most emotionally compelling experience of the whole show.

DS: I’ve known Luke [David Harris] and Chris [Jarman, Kamikaze Space Programme]for a long time and know their music really well. Although all three of us have worked in the electronic dance music world we all come at it from completely different angles – Luke from this sound design angle, my classical background, and Chris’ deep involvement in the dance music scene. So it’s nice to be sharing the programme with them. In terms of the other acts I really wanted to wait until the night to experience it properly- I didn’t want to ruin it!

Dave Okumu / Hejira

Dan, your performance is a taste of the next Warsnare album, what can you tell us about it?

DS: Because of the lockdown I had to pause recording of my new album which was a massive disappointment. The work you’ll be hearing from me is a combination of the 360 microphone experiments and some improvised bass I’ve been working on which will form part of the elements of the album – which is going to be recorded and mastered for immersive sound. I’ve been recording performers in unique acoustic environments like the Southwark Cathedral and the Greenwich foot tunnel, placing the 360 mic in the middle of the spaces and moving performers around the space and then editing the results to create musical shapes and structures. Visually, our Art Director for the festival, Hannah Mason, put together some really incredible textural visuals to accompany this.

Do you see events like this as having a future beyond lockdown and social distancing?

NH: 100%. The pandemic is going to have a lasting effect on the entertainment industry where you’re seeing a big (if forced) push to experiencing things digitally and I think that’s going to continue even after this period ends. It doesn’t (and shouldn’t) replace live events – it’s something else, and we all have to see that as a rich creative vein that totally opens up possibilities for access, global conversations, and deeper interaction with artists and gig goers. So how can we keep pushing for more interesting ways of doing that past a livestream? How can you start to blend live and digital experiences? That’s what we’ve got to work on.

DS: I certainly do, yeah, because I see this as an abstract piece of online immersive art. It’s not trying to be The Albany performance, it’s taking what we had planned and written and creatively adapting it for an online experience. That makes it stand out amongst this suddenly crowded livestreaming space. I think these concepts can be built upon and adapted after the pandemic in really interesting ways and support live performances as well – the experience doesn’t have to start when you arrive at the gig.

ARRAY takes place from 8pm tonight and 8pm tomorrow (June 5-6). For more info and tickets, click here

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