Image tile for the podcast Calais 2037 and album cover for Brian Eno's boxed set Music for Installations

We’ve put on our headphones and escaped into the ambient worlds of the Calais 2037 podcast and Brian Eno’s boxed set ‘Music for Installations’. Here’s why they are great to listen to with ear goggles.

Calais 2037

The motivation for Serial – the gateway podcast for many ears – was talking books. Investigative journalist Sarah Koenig is a little embarrassed to admit it now, but when she was planning the landmark series, her inspiration was talking books. In many ways, talking books were the original podcasts – serialised audio in another medium. Limited by the length of a CD, an audio tape, record or reel if you want to go that far back.

This year audio on demand is coming full circle with the emergence of several scripted fiction podcasts. Marvel’s Wolverine: The Long Night was one of the most eagerly awaited when it launched earlier this year. Written for the podcast format, it’s received mixed reviews.

Calais 2037 is a British production that launched around the same time. It claims to be the future of storytelling as a First Person Immersive audio drama that promises to immerse you into the world it creates. They apparently have a room set-up with four speakers to create a surround sound experience, and have you believing that the story is taking place around you. But for us mere mortals they’ve refined it down to a stereo image that we can enjoy in our headphones and speakers.

Unlike the recent refugee crisis that Calais has been dealing with, in Calais 2037, the refugees are members of the opposing UK political party. They are gathering overseas in an attempt to regroup and overthrow power.

But I was mainly listening to hear how the binaural recording was being used to tell a story.

So, I put my headphones on, pressed play and almost immediately I was transported back in time to my childhood, when I devoured the audio stories available from our local library. Dad had an enormous ghetto blaster next to his bed with a pair of headphones and I’d lie there for hours, just listening.

I worked my way through audio books and BBC radio dramas. From the classics to contemporary radio plays. I must have listened through The War Of The Worlds at least once a month. I loved it.

Sadly, for First Person Immersive audio stories, Calais 2037 sounds just like an old radio play. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a bad thing. I just don’t think what we’re hearing here is the future of storytelling. It’s just that we’ve got a new appreciation for what we had in the past.

I think one of the main challenges for this form of audio is that sounds in real life are very difficult to replicate in audio. Imagine any sound that you’ve heard on an audio tape, or even in a movie, then compare it to that sound in real life. Cars are a great example! In movies the tyres squeal when they stop, engines roar when they take off and doors make a crisp ‘click’ when they open.

In reality, if your tyres screech when you stop you normally have to peel yourself off the windscreen before you compose yourself. If the engine roars when you take off, it still sounds dull and muted inside the car. And doors make all sorts of noises, depending on the size and type of car.

In Calais 2037 there are scenes set around a kitchen and a cup of tea where somebody appears to be rifling through the cutlery drawer to let us know that’s where they are. Whoever is serving the tea has a very shaky hand, so we understand they are using a cup and saucer.

The other audio difficulty they struggle with is the placement of other actors in the stereo space. As they move around they sound like disembodied heads, just floating from one position to another. The things around us sound very different in our head to what they sound like on an audio recording. That’s why we’re usually surprised by the sound of our voice when we hear it back on a recording.

The other skill we have as humans is to focus on the sound we want to hear, rather than all of the sounds that we CAN hear. How often has somebody said, “Can you hear that?”, about a noise that you couldn’t hear, but now you can’t stop hearing it.

I think audio drama would work better with a less realistic approach. Actors voices can just appear in our heads, with minimal differentiation on the stereo plane. Natural and ambient sounds can be used to move the story along or to set a scene, but they aren’t required throughout the story.

But what’s the story like? It’s very Orwellian with its references to the party and the fear of being found out for not supporting the party. Overall the production is more like a play than a movie. The story is gritty and realistic in a very British way. It’s more like Black Mirror than Handmaid’s Tale.

Brian Eno – Music for Installations

Written & Recorded is participating in Mindful in May and we are failing badly. But as many of the meditations in the program tell us, when we realise that our minds have drifted off, this is a mindful act – just bring them back gently. So, I guess by realising we are failing, we are actually being mindful.

Music for Installations is a great support for our efforts. Brian Eno’s instrumental album is part compilation, part new work and part work-of-art. It’s a ‘boxed set’ of music he has composed (for installations) since 1986. Although in the modern world, ‘boxed set’ simply means ‘quite a lot of music on Spotify’.

A lot of the Music for Installations has been composed by algorithms and played by machines in installations. In the 1980s, Eno used multiple tape players with tape loops of different lengths. In essence they were performing in the round, except there was no strict rhythm to adhere too. While the possibilities of the song created weren’t endless, each performance was almost guaranteed to be different from the one before.

As technology has improved, so has Eno’s abilities to create devices that can perform his algorithms. As a result, there is music here that is not in the control of the creator, but its impact and beauty is not reduced by that fact.

When I started exploring music as a young man, I often discovered Eno’s ambient albums in second hand record bins. I wasn’t that interested in the music at the time, but on the back of the records, there was often a diagram and instructions for an alternative way to wire up stereo speakers. For example, instead of having two speakers, Eno suggested connecting a third speaker by piggy-backing its cable onto each of the original pair. It created a triangular surround sound experience from his stereo record (a lot simpler than the Calais 2037 version above!).

This taught me in a physical sense, what Eno is saying with his music – there are no restrictions. But that doesn’t mean Music for Installations is a challenging listen. Nor is it boring.

One of my roles at Written & Recorded is to listen to a lot of music that’s available for free with a creative commons license. This is music created for the love of music, which the maker would rather set free to have an audience, rather than asking that audience to buy it. It involves a lot of average electronic music which is often created with computers, which is disturbingly reminiscent of a lot of the electronic music in my record collection! But still, there’s nothing there that comes close to Eno.

Every song on Music for Installations, from the 1’56” ‘Vanadium’ to the 44 minutes of ’77 Million Paintings’ is a joy to listen to. It’s perfect for the office playlist, burbling away in the background. And it’s even better in your headphones, immersing you into an ambient world and helping us all to be Mindful in May.

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