Sound Mandala surrounds audience on all sides

Installation of Sound Mandala. Photo by Jae Shanks
Installation of Sound Mandala

In the summer of 2015, Tom Mardikes (UMKC Theatre chair) and four graduate design students created “Sound Mandala, a 48-speaker sound system that surrounded the audience and gave the designers the chance to experiment with using sound to affect how an audience perceives a theatre space. The idea for the experiment goes back twenty years, when Tom Mardikes set up a smaller, similar system on the main stage of the KC Rep to experiment with moving sound. That experiment had some success, but lacked the scale needed to become fully realized.

Fast forward to 2015. Tom assembled a team of three graduate sound designers (Jon Robertson, Jae Shanks, and Jason Bauer) and one technical direction student (Adam Terry) to design, build, and experiment with a bigger, more complex system. First, Studio 116 (UMKCblack box theatre space) had to be dampened by hanging curtains and laying down carpet. Then the system was assembled. Composed of 48 separate speakers, each with its own custom-built enclosure, the “Sound Mandala” surrounded the audience on all sides, with 35 of the speakers forming a wall-of-sound that reached from floor to ceiling. The rig took three weeks to build. After it was built, each speaker had to be tuned to create the best balance for the space. Once it was set up and adjusted, the team began their experiments.

At first, Professor Mardikes and the team experimented with sound placement, or how to move sound around the space. Each of the designers would spend time experimenting, then meet and share the techniques and results they found. As the experiment progressed, they moved on to mixing multi-track recordings, moving the individual tracks around the system. The team held performances periodically, showing the system to audiences, as well as students and other audio and theatre professionals. 

At one of the later performances, Jon Robertson played pieces he had recorded/produced with the local artist group Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes. One of the pieces consisted of 96 separate sine-waves, each slowly changing over the course of approximately 80 minutes. Another was made from recordings of snow falling and synthesizers. As you moved through the room, the sound changed based on your location. Even if you turned your head a little, what you heard changed. Another piece, created by Jae Shanks, consisted of a ghost chasing a child around the room. As the footsteps moved, the sound of the child running away created the illusion of depth, as if the child was running into the distance.

As successful as the experiments were, the team wants to take it further. Jon Robertson described what he saw as his next step. “Ideally I would create a brand new theatre piece where a small cast is in the center of the room, the audience is all around and the sound [system] is all around as well, and you’re story-telling through sound and live action, but sound becomes a main character.”By building “Sound Mandala, Mardikes and the team have pushed the limits of what sound can do theatrically, exploring the way sound interacts with and affects an audience. They’ve found new techniques to transform a theatre, creating new worlds in familiar spaces. The possible applications are endless, and as they move forward in their exploration, no doubt they will give birth to a new form, a new experience, and a new theatre in which sound will be more powerful and more dynamic than ever before. 

by Ethan Zogg