The Surface of Tyrannos: Sonic Illustrations for a Fantasy World

Program Note

It is of upmost importance that The Surface of Tyrannos: Sonic Illustrations for a Fantasy World is listened to with the visually illustrated accompaniments on-hand if listening at-home in a stereo surround sound experience (preferably through headphones), as the visual elements are of equal importance to conveying the world as the audio is. To understand specifically which sound belongs to each creature and environment, it is advised to view the ‘Environment Sounds Example Videos’ and ‘Creature Sounds Example Videos’ within the ‘Headphone Listening Scenario’ folder before listening to The Surface of Tyrannos: Sonic Illustrations for a Fantasy World.

If listening to The Surface of Tyrannos: Sonic Illustrations for a Fantasy World recreationally with headphones, the same composer-crafted ‘ideal performance’ rendition of the piece is presented to the listener. This is the same audio mix of creatures and ambience as heard in the small-scale exhibition setup, only in a stereo rendition rather than being routed as a stereo-to-4 channel speaker setup.

In essence, The Surface of Tyrannos: Sonic Illustrations for a Fantasy World is somewhere between sound design and acousmatic music, presented as an interactive exhibition. Its four soundscapes – based upon four regions of the planet – include a blend of sound design based upon my own illustrations of fictional creatures, with elements of ambient acousmatic music based upon each region’s ambience. My initial ideas and research for the composition began when watching the 1999 BBC documentary Walking With Dinosaurs in May 2021 which spurred my inspiration to create my own land of prehistoric, speculative zoology-inspired creatures. Although the dinosaurs in the program are notably outdated in their features (as expected for a 22-year-old documentary), the concept of a world untouched by human philosophies and inhabited by diverse, unusual creatures was enough for me to begin sketching my own versions of strange animals. This began the creative process wherein I would sketch my own creatures, whilst remaining conscious of some traits exhibited by Earth’s own creatures (respiratory and cardiovascular systems, eyes, ears, mouths etc.).

Around mid-way through the project, I stumbled upon the 1981 Dougal Dixon illustrated novel called After Man, and subsequently the 1990 novel Man After Man. I was informed of these novels – and about speculative science – through the YouTube video The History of Speculative Zoology – Part 1 by Ben G Thomas. In the video, Thomas touches upon details of the creatures within After Man, the creative process(es) of crafting the book, influences behind Dixon’s work, and other speculative zoology authors and illustrators.

A parallel to note between After Man and The Surface of Tyrannos: Sonic Illustrations for a Fantasy World is that Dixon ‘created the whole world of After Man by illustrating all the creatures that inhabit it fifty million years from now’, which is much like the creative process and methodology I developed on my own terms when creating the fictional world of Tyrannos.

In The History of Speculative Zoology – Part 1, Thomas intrinsically dissects the history of speculative zoology and shares his own informed opinions on various aspects of the fictional science, and how it has developed over the 20th century.

Personally, I find that the annotated illustrations and fictional setting of After Man and Man After Man to be rather similar to my own work, although I did not draw particular influence from the novels when beginning my project. If I was to undertake a similar project in future, I would likely source some direct inspiration from them and better educate myself on the more realistic and objective sciences behind the works, rather than taking a more romanticised fictional route.

Where The Surface of Tyrannos separates itself from these books of speculative zoology is with its blend of sound design and acousmatic ambient soundscapes to audibly illustrate the fictional world, rather than presenting purely visual illustrations. The piece’s originality is presented through its use of acousmatic ambiences based upon four different environmental regions of Tyrannos, which is layered with synthesised, manipulated and foley audio of the creatures which inhabit the world.

Composing the piece’s audio consisted of two primary elements; the creature sounds, and the environmental acousmatic soundscapes. To craft the sounds of Tyrannos’ creatures, I took some amount of influence from the audio studio Skywalker Sound who worked the 2009 James Cameron blockbuster film Avatar. Lead sound designer Christopher Boyes describes in the Avatar extras video ‘Creating the Sounds of the Banshee’, how the vocabulary for one of Pandora’s (the jungle moon which the film is centred around) flying creatures was created. He explains how the sounds for the creature were taken from ‘baby cougars, baby swine, [and] baby cubs of various different natures’ which – when combined with field recording from rainforests on Earth – allowed for sounds that were ‘… animal-like, but not like any animal you’d heard type-of-sounds…’.

I recently researched Boyes’ work on Avatar under Skywalker Sound in a short essay titled Evoking Pandora’s Sonic Atmosphere in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). In the essay, I developed awareness of how sound design is tackled within a cinematic sense for the modern film industry, and was enlightened as to how approachable sound design of creatures may be when using simple processing effects such as pitch-shift and reverb. This essay has also provided me with a degree of influence when composing The Surface of Tyrannos: Sonic Illustrations for a Fantasy World, and without it my creative process would not have been as informed.

Creating the second primary element of acousmatic environmental ambiences was not too challenging of a task (relative to the sound design of the creatures) and required some basic field recording of wind, rain, foliage, distant birds, grasshoppers and a mixture of natural background noise combined with soundscape synthesisers (supplied by Logic Pro X and Spitfire Sounds) to add an element of ambiguity and a sense of an alien atmosphere to the ambiences. Once the environmental ambiences were completed, the creature sounds were simply – yet judiciously – layered atop them to create ubiquity between both elements of the environments and specific creatures.

In regards to the interactive exhibition of The Surface of Tyrannos: Sonic Illustrations for a Fantasy World, the balance of these two elements (the sound design and acousmatic soundscapes) is in the hands of the listener(s) who may choose the piece’s structure and texture themselves, with an added procedural element of one of their chosen sounds being emitted from a random speaker in the multi-speaker setup. Additionally with the added choice of multiple creature buttons, they may choose the timing between each creature’s sound playback, or perhaps to not play one creature’s sounds at all. To prevent – for example – somebody pressing all of the creature and environment soundscape buttons at once, only the creatures which belong within the currently-playing environment soundscape are active, lit-up and read-to-press, and will enter a cool-down state for 30-120 seconds once triggered to prevent somebody from repeatedly pressing the same button again and again. All other buttons are disabled and un-lit if their suitable environment soundscape is not currently being played through the speakers. As previously stated; to change between environment soundscapes, the listener would have to press the desired environment’s button (below the watercolour painting of the region) and the currently-playing soundscape will seamlessly crossfade into the newly-chosen one, and the newly chosen region’s creature sound buttons will be activated, light-up and become ready-to-press.