Sonic Vanishing Points

I’ve always been attracted to vanishing points, so I’ll discuss them a little bit and describe how we experience a similar type of phenomenon sonically everyday.

Here’s a photo I took a couple of weeks ago while thinking about this post. I was looking for the quintessential vanishing point and think that I might just have succeeded!

Another photo I took a few years ago inside the abandoned Silo no 5 in Old Montreal. For more photos and info on a cool sound installation by the user inside that same building, check out Silophone (2000).

From the above photos, it’s also probably becoming evident that I’m attracted to urban decay. I’m sure there will be more to come on that subject, but back to the one at hand.

A vanishing point is a point in the distance on the horizon towards which the orthogonal lines (which are otherwise parallel) converge when going from foreground to background.

We know that objects are smaller when further away, so then is the distance between objects which is why these lines must converge. In the above cases, we’re looking at a one-point perspective meaning there’s only one vanishing point and we are facing it directly. In the photos, the tracks and conveyer belt (which form the orthogonal lines) are converging on the vanishing point where the lines going in the other directions (from the left to the right or the floor to the ceiling) remain parallel.

Here’s a drawing that has a two-point perspective. We’re looking at the staircase at eye-level but at an angle, so there are vanishing points heading diagonally back towards the left and the right:

Looking from above or below something, we can get a three-point perspective.

Here vanishing points are heading back diagonally to the left and right side, but there is a new vanishing point up above.

Julie Zhao – 3 Point Perspective

A 4 point perspective contains the same vanishing points as the 3 point perspective above with an additional one heading down towards the ground.

Continuing with examples from Julie’s work, here’s her 4 point perspective.

And my favourite, her 5-point perspective – breaking into perspective 3D, we have our 4 point perspective receding in each direction off a plane plus our new Z axis (altitude) forging its way into depth.

Let’s simplify a little and head in another direction. Roger Shepard took only partial cues from one-point perspective and had a bit of fun. The vanishing point is there, but the figure’s size remains constant making it seem like a figure is being chased by a giant version of itself.

Roger Shepard – Running Monster (from Terror Subterra)

Now, let’s play around with relativity for a moment. In the above picture our eyes tell us that we have one large figure and one small figure running through a tunnel. Looking at it from a different perspective (probably the artist’s perspective), we have two figures that are the same size running within a distorted tunnel that is deceptively mimicking a vanishing point. (check out this interactive version)

It’s a very similar idea to the amazing kitchen scene from Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind:

This is also achieved through a play with the vanishing point. Clearly, objects are not getting smaller as they get further away from the camera. The vanishing point seems to have been inverted and is in fact on our side of the screen and not in the distance (called reverse perspective). The entire kitchen expands on orthogonal lines away from that point allowing the kitchen table (and everything else but Michel himself) to get larger the further you go back while maintaining appearances. This isn’t really a camera trick in the end but a much more labor intensive feat of set design. The camera’s position though is integral to the success of the effect; moving it away from the reversed vanishing point would quickly throw the perspective and alert us that something fishy is going on. Reverse perspective has also been used to different ends in Byzantine and Russian Orthodox figures, as well as in cubism and other modem art. It’s theorized that this reversed perspective was originally meant to show that the subject is looking upon you or that the subject is omnipresent. A new spin on Eternal Sunshine?

How does this all relate to sound?

Well, for starters both our eyes and ears work together in stereo (visually or phonically) and, singled out, each eye or ear has a single point (or mono) perspective on the world. If you close one eye, depth is still hinted at in the relativity of objects and lighting cues like shadows, but it’s definitely more difficult to perceive than when using both eyes. Similarly, with one ear you might be able to gain clues within a space, using direct and indirect sounds, their timings and relative amplitudes, but the full image is much more apparent when you’re using both ears. The obvious difference between the two senses is that your ears are on either side of your head where your eyes are facing the same direction (interestingly because we are predatorial).

Given these physical similarities, though, are there then sonic vanishing points? Despite any trickery, vanishing points will always extend away from your eyes (or if you’re looking at an image, your transposed eyes). The point is so far away that anyone standing there would be reduced to a small indecipherable dot, because, as we know, as something visual recedes into the distance it gets smaller. We can start by drawing a comparison between an object receding visually and sonically.

A brief interlude:

Let’s say that Nicolas Cage is freaking out in front of you and, as he’s doing so, he’s walking backwards away from you. As he recedes, he’ll appear increasingly smaller and the amplitude of his freak out, as well as certain frequencies in his voice that don’t carry as well, will diminish. Visually and sonically then, he’s getting smaller.

There’s one thing missing though. Visually, a vanishing point recedes into the distance while drawing orthogonal lines into it. In other words, our example is better with not just one Nicolas Cage freaking out (one orthogonal line) but two or more! For your safety, let’s say just two Nicolas Cages are freaking out as they’re walking backwards away from you. To be more precise, say they start on either side of you and walk backwards along parallel lines a few feet apart (like railway tracks). Now we’re really getting somewhere, we have a sonic version of train tracks!

So what happens?

Well, we already know that the amplitude of their voices and the frequency content within them will diminish as they get further and further away from us, but something else will happen as well. When they are close to you, you’ll be able to clearly distinguish the Nicolas Cage’s freakout on your left from the one on the right. As they move back however, and despite the fact that they are moving along parallel lines, they will move stereophonically towards the centre. Here’s what it looks like:

As the X’s on each side get further, the direct path of sound converges on a line that extends straight out in front of you. For those of you more mathematically oriented:


Where h is the distance from your head to the track, d is the distance travelled along the track and a is the angle of the sound’s path from stereo centre right in front of you…

a = tan-1 (h/d)

As d gets larger (or as the sound moves further down the track), h/d will get smaller since h is constant. As h/d approaches zero angle a will approach 0 degrees, which is equivalent in this case to centre on our stereo spectrum.


So, in the same way that visually parallel lines come together towards a central point in the distance (the vanishing point), so does sound move stereophonically towards a central point as it moves away from you.

And that, my friends, is a sonic vanishing point!

To end the post, here’s a beautiful photograph from Eugene Richards (I think it’s from him anyway):

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Earmarks and Perspective

On the tail of the last post about earmarks, I’ll write on a few related topics that will hopefully also segue into a number more.

Each earmark that I identified, or any spot on the tableau for that matter, contains a unique mix of sounds; a blend determined by your traversing the sound spaces and as a result your position in relation to the sounds around you. Similar to any music you listen to, the mix is fundamentally made up of the choice of sounds, their placement stereophonically and their relative amplitude. As a listener choosing an earmark then, you are playing with multiple perspectives: combining your personal choices (i.e what points on the tableau appeal to you based on the content, position and amplitude of the sounds you hear) with my own (having composed the tableau in the first place). Strictly speaking this is something that is only permitted through interaction (note 1).

Visit the tableaus to create your unique mixes.

From the Book of Optics, a seven-volume treatise composed by the medieval Muslim scholar Ibn al-Haytham, known in the West as Alhazen (965– c. 1040 AD):

Book of Optics cover

There are two forms of artist-chosen perspectives involved in the above image: the geometrical perspectives (the focus here obviously) and the content / position. What is lacking in relation to sound tableaus is the spectator’s ability to manipulate their perspective. The framed picture is static and two dimensional. As noted above, the only additional perspective afforded here is in the interpretation of the artist’s choices.

Here’s another for consideration, Pietro Perugino’s fresco The Delivery of the Keys (1481-82):

In photography, these artist-chosen perspectives translate to framing and content choices, which is ultimately what defines the work. Of course, there is a bit more to it than that but I think that many of the other nuances involved like choice and settings of the camera, lighting, etc. can be translated to the more detailed elements in other media as well. Jeff Wall spends a lot of time preparing a shoot so that he can assure complete control (similar to a tableau vivant). Here’s one of his plays on perspective, A View From An Apartment:

A View from an Apartment 2004-5 by Jeff Wall born 1946

Here’s another perspective-centric work: New Moscow by Yuri (Georgy) Ivanovich Pimenov (1937).

New Moscow

Of course there are more pronounced manipulations of perspective. Artists have moved perspective towards the more abstract, famously explored in cubism.

Frankly, I could put any piece of art up here and have it apply to perspective, from a 3 year-old’s finger painting upward (or downward to some). Here are a range of pieces that have been on my mind recently that reflect some of the different personalities of perspective.

With some near photographic detail:

Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler (Mrs. John Jay Chapman) by John Singer Sargent (1893)

With a little added expression:

Man With The Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker) by Cecilia Beaux (1898)

A leap towards abstracting the two (geometric and content):

Marc Chagall – The Drunkard (Le saoul) 1911-1912

And further abstraction with a healthy dose of expression:

Willem de Kooning – Woman (1953)


Axonometric Art by Gustav Klutsis (1920)

A discussion of perspective in art wouldn’t be complete without Escher:

M.C. Escher – Relativity (1953)

Where geometry isn’t quite right:

Paul Cezanne – The Kitchen Table (circa 1880 – 90)

Geometry abstracted. (In sculptural form, this has more similarity to a tableau since it changes depending on where you’re standing. More at this dedicated MOMA site.)

Picasso – Guitar (1914)

Symbolism and narrative:

Peter Bruegel – Big Fish Eat Little Fish

Abstract Expressionism:

Paul Jenkins

And where situational perspective thrives, in the public space!

Mark Jenkins

Let’s once again consider the tableau vivant. Take this example, a Vanessa Beecroft creation for Jeffrey Deitch from an article in Harper’s Bazaar (Sept 2000).

Despite the fact that we’re looking at a tableau vivant, it is also a photograph that is limited to static two dimensionality. The perspective has been chosen for us. If, however, you were able to move around the set, you would be able to experience different perspectives and determine which framings (mixes / earmarks) you appreciated the most. We looked at a Picasso sculpture that leaves the flatlands behind providing different perspectives when viewing it from different angles, so let’s now consider time-based arts.

Here’s an interactive site that allows for some very powerful perspectives on a work. It’s for choreographer William Forsythe’s “One Flat Thing – reproduced” no less. I’d encourage you all to spend some time investigating this one: Synchronous Objects.

We can also consider cinema, video, theatre and even gastronomy. The latter offers the most obvious interactivity and some other interesting ties to sound tableaus strangely enough.

Imagine first that you’re making a soup or a stew. You spoon some to your mouth to see how it’s coming along. At first you taste some saltiness that settles into a more complex sweet and savoury taste followed by.. wait what’s that? Something is missing!

By this point we’ve already learned a few things: certain tastes emerge earlier than others, taste evolves over time and tastes can combine to form a composition (flavour) larger than themselves. These are all very familiar when you think of the characteristics of sound: amplitude, envelope (attack, decay, sustain and release), frequency and timbre.

On top of that, once your dish is served, we know that (as redundant as it may seem) taste varies between people, meaning there is an element of personal perspective involved in gastronomy the same was as there is in art. So then a sound tableau is quite similar to a plate of food; there are different flavours in different areas of the plate that are made up of different tastes. You might prefer the lamb over the salad (or you might enjoy them both) the same way as you might appreciate different areas on the tableau.

Consider these from Ferran Adrià at elBulli Restaurant / Foundation:

Getting hungry? elBulli will only open again in 2014! In the meantime, here’s a synesthetic view of sound:

Wassily Kandinsky – White Stroke (1920)

What about this one???? Mmmmm…

Giuseppe Arcimboldo – The Cook (ca. 1570)

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Earmarks: Tableau Sweet Spots

I added some pointers to a few of my favorite places on each tableau. Each place is indicated by a small blue circle on the help screen (push the space bar or click the question mark in the bottom corner). I’m calling them earmarks. Put your mouse pointer inside any of the earmarks to listen.

If you’re interested in doing your own earmarking: go to the help screen, hone in on your sweet spot and note down the percentages you see in the bottom right of the tableau. Then, you can easily find those spots again in the future or share your earmarks with me or others.

I started earmarking the newest tableau Winter. I’ll add earmarks to the other tableaus in the next couple of weeks. I’m open to suggestions!

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Second Tableau of 2012

Here is my new tableau: Winter.

It’s a slightly sombre dedication to a season we all know well here in Canada. I looked for frequencies that reminded me of the subdued blanketed outdoors and being sheltered and warm, deep in a den of hollowed out snow (a perpetual fantasy of mine as a kid and even now).  As winter days differ, the melodies vary on a theme, the spaces between capturing the dissonance and noise between a storm and a sunny winter day. There is quite a bit of sound material so give it a minute or two to load and take your time when exploring. Feedback is welcome. Enjoy!

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I put up a page for on facebook. It’s an easy way to keep track of site updates as new tableaus become available. Just click the link below. on facebook

I realize I haven’t been writing much, but I will be updating my blog shortly. In the meantime, take a look at another take on tableau vivants in our digital age:

Some might say that transforming a work like that is heresy, but I like to think of it as a sort of remix.


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This blog will be about various subjects dealing with space, sound and interactivity. These will range from the sound tableaus (or tableaux) on this site and their history, to surround sound techniques and speaker configurations, to ambisonics (3D sound) to interactive tools.

First, I’m going to write a little bit about the sound tableaus

Sound Tableau

I landed on this term after much debate. I initially wanted to use ‘sound boards’ but I learned that these refer to a page of sound clips used mostly for pranks on the radio. Other terms I came up with were dry and scientific (sound fields, audio planes) or just didn’t sound inviting. I was finally attracted to ‘tableau’ (the french word for ‘board’, as in chalk board) after learning of the history of the term ‘tableau vivant’ in the theatrical and photographic arts. Here are some definitions of tableau from Merriam Webster:

1 : a graphic description or representation : picture <winsometableaux of old-fashioned literary days — J. D. Hart>
: a striking or artistic grouping : arrangement, scene
3 [short for tableau vivant (from French, literally, living picture)] : a depiction of a scene usually presented on a stage by silent and motionless costumed participant

More on the ‘tableau vivant’ from wikipedia:

“The term describes a striking group of suitably costumed actors or artist’s models, carefully posed and often theatrically lit. Throughout the duration of the display, the people shown do not speak or move. The approach thus marries the art forms of the stage with those of painting/photography, and as such it has been of interest to modern photographers.”

Tableau vivants can be quite captivating. Each scene has been carefully arranged the way some dramatic paintings are constructed. Here’s a painting by Karl Briullov that comes to mind from 1833, titled The Last Day of Pompeii:

There’s a lot going on in terms of movement and emotion, and there’s a story that can be inferred with each subject’s pose and expression. Of course, it’s unlikely that a framed snapshot could be so dense with such perfect formations of expression and meaning, but with all the goings on in this frozen moment in time, there is still the sense that this image was captured spontaneously. The strong sense of movement in the painting and the subjects’ unawareness both lend themselves to create this effect. That to me is the beauty of this type of construction. There is a lot of information included, and you can spend a lot of time on the different areas of the painting, but there is much mystery left in the events leading up to and following this still.

The tableau vivants both ‘live’ and photographed have similar traits. Theatrically, tableaux were sometimes used to reconstruct a narrative scene by scene. By creating similarly strong representations in poses, a story can be produced with more depth than one might expect from a form that does not use words or motion. There have also been live recreations of famous paintings. In photographs, these types of compositions can be equally compelling when expertly composed. They can also be extended further through the use of digital manipulation allowing the artist more flexibility.

Here’s a famous photograph ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind’ by Jeff Wall:

A Sudden Gust of Wind

Sound tableaus draw from both of these art forms: they are meticulously setup and composed and the feeling of spontaneity is present through the listener’s observation of ‘unaware’ sounds and the chance interactions with and between them. The difference however, and this an obvious one for time-based media, is that sound tableaus are not frozen in time. Their life, however, is frozen in the sense that each sound is a recording that does not change; it is confined to its content (captured in the same way a photograph is).

To continue the comparison, I’d like for you to imagine that you are a spectator standing in front of a live tableau vivant: a recreation of ‘The Last Day of Pompeii’. Now imagine yourself exploring the scene, as you would be able to, walking to the left and examining the woman huddled with her two daughters. Imagine continuing around the pillars to take a closer look at the men shielding themselves from falling ash and debris. Through unique perspectives on the work, you’d be able to more personally experience the scene, to get inside it if you will. This ability is afforded to you through the interactive nature of the sound tableau. With your mouse you can explore the composition of each scene, listening from unique vantage points. So, if you’d like, consider these sound tableaus as sonic tableaux vivants.

Please take the time to explore each sound tableau. If you have any comments I’d love to hear them. You can email me personally or leave a note in the comments section.

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