Exploring Modernism Through Sound - Maine College of Art

Sam Richardson ’15

I like being able to give people a new way to interact with art.

When the Portland Museum of Art was looking for a way to allow visitors to create soundscapes in response to paintings in their O’Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York exhibition, for their PMA360 series, Digital Media Professor and Program Chair George LaRou ’88 recommended they get in touch with Sam Richardson ’15, which resulted in the Exploring Modernism Through Sound project.

Sam came up with some ideas for a reactive space that would generate sounds or a live performance, but eventually the concept of leading people through a creative process emerged as the central theme. The problem with programs like Pro Tools and Logic, software that professionals would use, was that they were much too complex for a casual untrained visitor. “Even GarageBand was too much for a situation where you want visitors to focus on the paintings and not get caught up in the interface,” Sam said. “My solution was to custom-build an app inspired by these programs, but streamlined to the point where no one would be too intimidated to pick it up and make their own composition.”

“My background is in things like computer coding, electronics, digital media — my BFA is in Digital Media — so making an app wasn’t totally new to me. It was my first time making what I’d consider a ‘functional’ app though, using standard developer tools and libraries that could work well enough to stand up to three hours of use. The process of actually building the app involved: collecting ambient sound recordings that evoked the time period and scenes depicted in the paintings; sketching out interface ideas; researching programming solutions; writing code; designing the text and graphics; and testing and tweaking the code and design many, many times.”

Sam had about three weeks to pull together the project, from conception to final product. Using Swift programming language and AudioKit, an open source audio toolkit for Apple platforms, he was able to create a grid of 10 or 16 sound loops that the user could tap to start or stop and which could be combined to make a composition. Tapping a menu icon below each sound opened a list of effects such as volume, pan, pitch, and reverb that could be edited to customize the sounds even further. The sessions could be saved and titled, as well as listened to or added to, by being accessed from any location. “This sort of took the place of a live performance by various sound artists,” Sam said. “Visitors’ own compositions became a part of the event that was displayed.”

Despite a few technical glitches during the test runs, the project was successful. “The museum staff who worked with me were really happy with the direction and how the whole thing turned out. It was a surprisingly well-running installation, by my standards,” said Sam. “I think the event went very well, better than I had hoped. I saw all sorts of people use the app in different ways — one visitor went to every iPad and spent minutes making intricate soundscapes, others played with it in passing, and a few picked up an iPad and carried it from painting to painting. Everyone seemed to get something different from the experience. My favorite was a little girl whose face lit up whenever she played a different sound. I had a few great conversations with like-minded people too.”

“I like being able to give people a new way to interact with art. There’s something about mixing new media and traditional media that appeals to me for whatever reason. Maybe I just want to be able to work in programming and art at the same time and not deal with some kind of ‘left brain vs. right brain,’ ‘science vs. art’ distinction. It all feels the same to me.”

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