Signal Path Podcast: Institute for Sound and Music

Marc Young | 05/01/2021 Signal Path Podcast: Institute for Sound and Music

Hear the stories behind the music with the Signal Path podcast. Tapping a global network of musicians, producers, engineers and other sonic innovators, Shure brings you exclusive interviews with the people shaping the world of audio.

Episode 46 – Institute for Sound and Music

For the latest episode of Signal Path, we spoke with Nick Meehan from the Institute for Sound and Music (ISM), a non-profit initiative based in Berlin dedicated to sound, immersive art and electronic music. In the podcast, he discusses his earliest audiovisual adventures in Boston, the ISM's plans for a cultural center in the German capital and what it's like to watch Brian Eno create ambient music on the fly.

Marc Young: You've worked at the intersection of Sound and Art for a long, long time. And I was just wondering, when was the first time you remember really connecting the audio and the visual together?

Nick Meehan: Yeah, it was really I say it was really in Boston where these topics started to merge in my mind in terms of the impact of an experience when you have not only the visual element, but the sound element as well.

It's it really started, I'd say, with the courses that I was taking in Boston, the programs that I was involved in, the space that I created there in Chinatown was a very multidisciplinary space. Very DIY, but it was \ catering to a lot of the students at the time that I was in classes with looking for a place to express themselves and to play music, but then also to complement it with, you know, a bit of an immersive, rudimentary, immersive experience.

And so this had, of course, some visual elements to it. But it also encouraged you to use the space in more ways than sound alone. This was at Berkeley, we should say. Right. This was Berklee College of Music. And I also was I was I was part of the pro arts consortium taking classes for through the school. And this was specifically with our video art program. So and at the time, it just felt like the perfect combination of two worlds that were meant to be together, although those two courses had their focus for you there.

There was always that connection.

There was absolutely, there was an alignment. To have the opportunity to create an environment that that that stimulates visual and auditory senses, I think I wasn't really able to articulate it back then, but I think that was always the general aim. How can I create an environment for a channel for experience and communication in that kind of thing? 

You said in Boston it was a very DIY affair and nothing seems more than DIY than Berlin in many ways. So how was it you left Boston to come to Berlin?

Well, it's actually it's one of my favorite stories, actually. I can hopefully this doesn't take too long, but I'll summarize it. I was studying music synthesis and electronic production and design at Berklee College of Music and at the time.

I was in a band, we were not so great, but we played with mainly with synthesizers and computers and controllers and this kind of thing, and we really had a hard time finding a place to play. And I would like to believe that it was mainly because of what we were putting forward, but not because of our scale at the time.

Can we still find the band? 

I don't know. There might be some something buried deep in the internet somewhere…

A MySpace page?

I'm certainly not going to leave any breadcrumbs here. But anyway, it was but it was it was a lot of fun. It was it was really a lot of fun. But the other side to it, was Boston at the time, I mean, it was very difficult to find a gig unless you were in a jazz band or an indie rock band or a DJ. So three guys with computers and controllers at the time was not very in demand. It's changed a lot since we left. So we got together and we found a large industrial space that we, DIY meaning we built walls. We lived out of the space. It was it was gorgeous, actually. And so these massive white walls and put in put in a bit of a sound system.

And it really was a place for us to play. And the remarkable thing was or the fun factor was really when we realized that everybody else that we were in classes with also wanted a place to play. So we started having these nights where it was like, you know, ten acts in a night, sometimes more 20 minutes each rapid fire kind of progression through, you know, so many different ideas musically and visually. And this really started to catch on.

We had some great events there. And we would also do workshops, we did we did Ableton user groups and Ableton had caught wind of what we were doing. I think some videos were posted of one of our nights, which was actually a really good one. And they ended up sending a couple of guys to one of our one of our events. And so there was another really good event. And throughout the night there were these two guys kind of standing in the background.

And at the end of the night, I was sweeping up, just cleaning up some bottles and things like this. And they approached me and they said, ‘What is this? What is this space?’ And I was like, ‘Well, we're doing a dance, but I'm in a band and, you know, keep the band together. And I live right in this room over here.’ And they're like, ‘Oh, OK. So what's your what's your plan after this?’ And I said, well, I'm graduating in a couple of months and my band mates are from Germany. So I'm hoping to keep the band together and go to Germany. And then they said, ‘Do you need a job?’ Well, it wasn't so easy, but he handed he handed me a card. And I remember I did my best to keep it cool just but then the next day I ran into ran into my school and was showing this business card around like it was like it was a golden ticket to the chocolate factory kind of thing.

So basically, I had to kind of sell everything that I owned down to two suitcases over the course of a few weeks. I think I came to Berlin with like two suitcases and seven hundred euro or something like that. And I had never been to I had never been to Berlin, I'd never been to Germany. I didn't speak German. And it was kind of like dropped right into it and had to find my way to work the next day.

I guess that brings us to the focus of today, the Institute for Sound and Music, known as the ISM for short here in Berlin. So I take it a lot of the people you were maybe working with or those contacts that you had, those are the people that helped you set up the ISM or how did that work?

Institute for Sound and Music as a non-profit organization dedicated to the history and culture of sound, immersive art and electronic music. So our long term goal is to establish a home or a place for sound, immersive art and electronic music to flourish and to have it be an impartial entity or an organization that serves as a crossroads for the community and the community that exists here in Berlin, the vibrant sound and music community that exist in Berlin, but also to connect with entities, organizations and institutions that that align with certain principles.

And then we should be speaking of big projects that we should talk about the Hexadome, which was your successful first large project, large in this in the scope, but also large in the physical sense. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about what exactly is the Hexadome?

It's a 52-channel sound system that's arranged in a dome configuration surrounded by six massive screens with advanced laser projection technology from Epson that is designed to create a stunning spatial audio immersive experience that is intended to create the clearest possible channel between the work of the artist and the audience.

The structure itself, it fits in pre-corona times about 200 people, but it's intended to have multiple functions. So one is sort of like a performance function and the other is, which is this the strength that I'd say behind that is the installation serving as just a standalone installation. So we've commissioned at this point, I'd say I think it's I think we're at 18 works and a number of those premiered in Berlin.

We actually had the Dutch audiovisual artist Tarik Barri on a previous episode of Signal Path. He worked with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke on his program. But maybe you could give us a rundown of some of the other artists that have either made performances or installations for it for that first run.

The first artist that we worked with, which was remarkable, was Brian Eno. We had created a list of potential locations and potential artists that, you know, best case scenario, who would it be?

And it was one of those moments where it just was it just felt like this magical alignment of every everything that you could possibly hope for. The team just had this energy that just was so intoxicating. The structure coming together in the way that it did, we hadn't tested it. And before we built it, you know, it's there was no way to understand how this was going to work, really. I mean, the technology for the sound system, we could experience that.

But the structure itself, in a museum environment as opposed to a controlled environment was a big question mark. And so when we set it up, when we finally got all the pieces together at the Gropius Bau museum in Berlin, within 12 hours, Brian, you know, is going to be the first person to step inside it and start using it, using it as an instrument.

I was just going to say, as an aside, I remember an ISM member who shall remain nameless, describing Brian Eno's preparation for his generative installation as an as an “ambient jam”. And that was meant really as high praise. But I just thought it was kind of funny, the idea of the preeminent ambient artist that he was doing a jam, so to speak, in this huge structure of the Hexadome. Can you kind of describe what it was that he was doing?

Well, I don't know if I would call it a jam. It was a surreal experience. I mean, he's been a hero of mine for many years. I think originally the intention was we were going to showcase something that was already done. But we picked him up at the airport and he just wanted to drop off his bags and go straight to the location. So within about 40 minutes of being in Berlin, he was standing in the middle of the Hexadome and snapping his fingers and clapping his hands, trying to get an idea of what the room sounded like, just 12 second reverb and all these things.

But the center space, was this big open area where the Hexadome existed, it's a gorgeous space. And we had an agreement with his team that this was the quiet space. You know, we couldn't be running around in there. It had to be, you know, a place where, you know, he could really focus and get into his work. And so as the chaos is kind of engulfing us in terms of getting something like this together for the first time, if it ever got too much, you could just walk into the space and quietly sit behind him.

And there he was just making beautiful sound that reflected the environment, that reflected the, you know, the acoustics of the space and going in all sorts of different directions. But, you know, never having a beginning, a middle or and just an exploration. And it was so it was like being in church or something like that. I mean, I'm not a I'm not a religious person, but I can imagine, you know, this sort of, you know, contemplative experience, you know, when, you know, your world is being kind of turned upside down and you just can go in a place and sit and reflect.

The high priest of ambient presiding…

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Marc Young

Marc Young

With a background in journalism, Marc is an editor for Shure covering anything and everything that has to do with sound. He tries to compensate for his mediocre guitar-playing skills with his writing. He is based in Berlin, one of the best cities in Europe for music.