Animal Collective's Guggenheim Installation Transverse Temporal Gyrus Arrives On Your Headphones

<p>Geologist of Animal Collective and software engineer Stephan Moore discuss how the installation transitioned to its new online hub. Plus, details on the limited-edition record release.</p>

In 2010, Animal Collective and their video collaborator Danny Perez told us about their psychedelic 53-minute film ODDSAC, breaking down the process behind the warped imagery, the sublime sounds that accompanied it, and the added dimensions that made it so much more than just a surreal movie. Following their trend of experimentation later that year, Perez and the band descended upon the Guggenheim Museum, transforming the space into an immersive installation called Transverse Temporal Gyrus (TTG).

Along with a visual experience, the center of which featured the costumed band members, the project employed dozens of sounds created and compiled by Animal Collective and arranged on the fly by a piece of software developed by musician and sound engineer Stephan Moore. The program projected the sounds in varying patterns through 36 speakers aligned within the Guggenheim’s trademark spiral column, sending audio hurtling through the air in different patterns and configurations. It was a truly one-of-a-kind experience. The good news is that you can now get a taste of it through your headphones.

To go along with Animal Collective’s Record Store Day release of a 12" packed with the music of TTG, Moore has created an online version of the application that runs its audio. There’s also an accompanying webpage that gives you the visual experience. All this media is to be used in conjunction, granted you can handle some level of audiovisual insanity, because the full-on experience blaring through your speakers and pumping through your screen will undoubtedly entrance you, altering your mind via several natural senses, and perhaps a couple you didn’t realize you had.

Experience the audiovisual experience of TTG here.

We spoke with Geologist of Animal Collective, and separately to Stephan Moore, to get a full spectrum of the experience they created and how they developed it. Let’s start with Geologist.

The Creators Project: How did the band members go about creating sound for this project? Was it purposely done in a certain way to fit with TTG, or did the audio come about in the way you guys usually make music?
Geologist: The music for this project was made completely individually. Part of that was conceptual, in that we knew we wanted there to be a large element of surprise and randomness when they were combined into one group, but also because we were in separate places and unable to play together. The last few Animal Collective records have been written with each person doing a lot of individual work at home, but this was different because in those instances we were working on the same song and each adding parts on top of one another until it was ready for us to start rehearsing it live. But with this we didn’t add to what each other created.

We each set out to make about 30 minutes of sound which could be whatever we wanted, and then as each of us finished a chunk we would send it around to see if it at least fit the overall vibe of something that would sound good when played in a space like the Guggenheim and among Danny’s visual ideas. When it was all done, we decided there were certain pieces that would not sound good if the computer program randomly chose to play them at a certain time, and that is when we decided to start writing some parameters into the randomizing. So we asked Stephan to write the program in a way where if it chose one piece, it would exclude certain others from being selected with it.

Following the installation, what made you want to present it in the form of this website? Does it aptly convey the experience you guys want it to?
I don’t remember when we had the idea to devote a website to the event, but it was some time shortly after we talked about how, if at all, we would release the sounds we made for this. Since [the installation] was meant to go along with Danny’s visuals, much in the way that the music for ODDSAC was, we didn’t want to just release [the music] without something from Danny being a part of it. So we talked about Danny designing a website and just putting the sounds into a playlist that would stream out of it.

Somewhere along the line, we started wishing we could get the playback of the tracks to be similar to what happened live where there was a random collage element. We asked Stephan if he could adapt the program from the event to be a downloadable audio player and he said, “Too easy.” So it comes as close as it can to recreating the experience in that everyone who listens to each will get a new and unique playback each time. No two will probably ever be alike. Obviously, the playback will be two channels now and not 36 channels arranged to create 360-degree panning, and listeners won’t be in as immersive an environment as the one Danny created in the Guggenheim, so we fall slightly short.

Now let’s hear from Stephan Moore, the man behind the code of TTG.

The Creators Project: How would you describe TTG
Stephan Moore: The project has had all these different phases. The performance at the Guggenheim was really just crazy. Danny did an amazing job of transforming the inside of this space into a really psychedelic environment, with all these crazy moving lights and moving images and projections. The part of it that I really got into and enjoyed was the ability to throw a sound installation of that magnitude into the Guggenheim. The folks there told me that nothing like this had been done there before, which kind of surprised me because it seems like such an obvious space for that kind of 3D sound.

The way that we did it is, there are six floors in the Guggenheim and we put six speakers on each floor. That led us to basically having six evenly spaced columns of speakers on each floor going all the way up, with a total of 36 speakers. I wrote the software to make the sound do two things. It chose which sound to play next from this huge pool of sound that the Animal Collective guys had given me, and it was also choosing how to move that sound around the room and where that sound was going to be located. Sometimes the sound would move up and down in one place like it was on an elevator, or it would spin up and down in a spiral. And sometimes it would just fly in loops or different shapes around the space. We worked on a lot of sophisticated movement patterns for the sound. It was kind of funny to go to the edge and look down into the column and hear the sounds moving in all these strange ways, sort of performing acrobatics.

How does the software function as far as selecting which sounds to play and in what pattern? Is it just random or is there a method to the madness?
There’s a lot of method. It is based on random choices, but they’re informed random choices. There was a real structure to how we were flipping the coins, so to speak. Throughout the event, which was supposed to take about three hours, there were a number of songs, or just tracks, that were meant to be played together—performed songs. Over the course of the three hours, there were things that were supposed to happen, so you might have a four minute segment where things really coalesced into a particular tune or a particular sound that wasn’t meant to happen. Then it would kind of go back. We called them “Pools” and “Chaos.” There were all these pools, and we played each of the pools just once over the course of the three hours. Then we flipped back into the larger state of chaos, which was just dozens and dozens of other sounds that were kind of layered. The result of it was that certain structures would emerge from this insanity.

There would be these pools of particular tracks that would happen together, and then the chaos section would be pieces of all these other source material files. All four members of the band contributed the sounds individually, and in the end I think I had well over 100 pieces of audio.

So that was the installation, and only a small part of it is on the record that’s being released. It’s stuff they mixed together in the studio drawing from all those sources, and also drawing from recordings that they made and also from the tests we did the night before the show. There are a couple of spots where you can actually hear conversation happening while we’re talking about how it’s going.

Then there’s the version of it we’re putting on the website with the player, in which we’re trying to give people the same experience as what happened at the Guggenheim. The whole thing unfolds in more or less the same way. The main thing you’re missing is that you’re not hearing it over the 36 speakers, you’re just hearing it through your headphones.

Can it be applied to the music of other bands?
I definitely designed this specifically for this situation and one of the things that I love about it is that it’s a visual record of the quick thought process. Me and the guys from Animal Collective sat down and had a meeting about how all this stuff was going to work. Then I had to turn it into software very quickly. If you look at it, it shows some of the haste and the fever of trying to work very quickly. But it was made specifically for this piece.

Having said that, there’s no reason why, with some modifications, it wouldn’t work well for somebody else. The software probably does contain a few ways of making decisions which are really specific to this project. But by changing a couple of numbers around in the software, it could definitely be adapted to other bands. And I would love to see more bands working this way—thinking about their pieces as not just one fixed thing that happens from start to finish but as a range of possibilities that work themselves out over time according to a set of rules. In that sense, the composition becomes as much about making interesting rules as it does about making interesting sound material.

The program you wrote played a big role in the realization of this project. Do you consider code to be art?
I actually do. The kind of programming language I work with is a visual language and actually it’s not just a lot of text. There’s a lot of stuff happening graphically on the screen. I’m not making it to be self-consciously artistic, but as a record of a thought process, or a record of a decision-making process. I think it’s really fascinating in a visual sense, and it’s beautiful in its own way.

There’s a poster that comes with the vinyl record that’s really just the entire piece of code that controls the installation laid out on one screen. That’s a situation where we have turned the code directly into art. Once it’s on a piece of paper, it doesn’t work anymore, but you can look at it. For me to look at that is also really fun and really interesting.

All images screenshot from the TTG web experience.