When ambient composer Christopher Willits debuted his album Horizon this year, two sets of 50 people gathered at the new San Francisco venue Envelop at the Midway, sitting on the floor on pillows in the center of a network of 28 speakers, some on pillars rising out of the floor, others affixed to the ceiling. The sound moved around the audience in waves, coming now from in front, now from behind, now from above, now below, moving along a sphere of sensation that Willits called spherical, or spatial audio.
That audio experience, which Willits calls the next generation of surround sound, has been a preoccupation of the artist for years, and now with the San Francisco non-profit Envelop (pronounced like the verb, not the mailing accessory), he is bringing it to a wider range of listeners and artists.
“Spatial audio is different because takes into consideration the way we perceive sound through our natural consciousness which is in three dimensions,” Willits explains. “We don’t realize it but the music that we love and have been listening to for many years now, really for 55 years, the stereo sound is just coming at us from one direction. It’s alike a theatrical plane pushed at us. But the sound that we hear is actually three-dimensional. So when you align the way that the sound is mixed and composed with the way that we actually understand and perceive the sound, that’s spatial audio.”
Composers, especially those involved with electronics, have long been interested in having the ability to move sound around intentionally, but up until now the software for spatial audio mixes has been too costly and too complicated for most to access. Venue owners have been reluctant to create spaces in which spatial audio could be created because the number of artists and paying customers has yet to reach critical mass. That’s where Envelop comes in.
“Envelop is a non-profit organization and really our mission is to bring access to spatial audio to people. So we do that through software, spatial audio software, and we also do it through creating listening spaces. Our software right now is open source, so anyone who is using Ableton Live, which is a popular digital audio software, can actually create spherical sound,” says Willits.
In addition, Envelop has two listening spaces, Envelop at the Midway, a permanent installation located in the Midway creative compound in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, and Envelop Satellite, a portable space that travels to festivals. Willits and the Envelop board are currently talking to venue owners in other cities about setting up a spatial audio room, as well.
“Spatial audio is more like live because it’s more the way that we hear the world, is in three dimensions,” says Willits. “It gives composers the ability to move a sound around an audience, just like you would be able to change the tempo or shift a chord or something within a musical composition.” In addition to Willits himself, Envelop is currently working with artists like Ryuichi Sakamoto, Scott Hansen of Tycho, house DJ Snuise, Andy Niles and Edwardo Castillo to help them compose and remix in spatial audio.
In addition to sound, Envelop systems have visual capabilities as well. There are fully controllable LED lights in each of the eight speaker columns that surround the room. “We can make these lights audio-reactive to have a spatial dimension of sound, or you could just have something completely independent of the sound that’s some beautiful patterns of light that are happening,” says Willits.
And they’re developing more capabilities, as well. “In addition to the LED lights, we’re also working on a video, like basically projection mapping within the Envelop space. We’re working on that right now. What we’re going for is a complete shared, augmented reality experience for people that takes the experience of live music and live electronic music to the next level.”
Willits says that there’s an appetite for this kind of communal, musical experience, no matter how glued people become to their phones and earbuds. “People want to get together to listen to music,” he says. “It’s a foundation of culture. You look at any culture in the world, any ceremony in religions, any type of system of people gathering, there’s always music at the foundation of it.
“We believe that if we can create safe, diverse and creative spaces for people to gather and really initiate what we feel is the future of audio, then that starts to initiate other conversations that we need to have, too. It’s really simple. Come together and have a peaceful opportunity for people to dance, to celebrate, to essentially love, and other sparks are going to come out of that as well. It’s not just about the music. It’s about what music brings into our hearts and connects us to each other,” he adds.
Horizon is Where the Earth Meets the Cosmos
Willits latest solo album, Horizon was composed specifically for spatial audio, using processed guitar and field recordings of nature. “Horizon is really the deepest ambient music record that I’ve created. It’s something that I’ve been waiting to do because I’ve been interested in spatial audio for so long, but I just didn’t feel like the technology was really there,” he said. “But as the story of Envelop grew, I was like, this is an opportunity to launch Envelop in a physical space, Envelop at the Midway, and also really ground this album that I’ve been working on for a while. I’m really happy about it because it’s two really important paths coming together for me.”
The process of composing for spatial audio was inherently different, he explains, but also an extension of the way he’s always thought about sound. “Even when I am just mixing for a stereo field, I’m always thinking about space and how that space creates an environment for people. Even if there’s just two speakers and the sound is bouncing around, that sound is going to hit people in a three-dimensional way. But you don’t really have control over how it’s going to be bouncing around and hitting people. So that’s really the shift,” he says. “Using the space of the sound as really this enveloping agent that starts to paint the walls different colors. It allows me to, you know, really ground the space with a certain sound.”
Listen on headphones or in an Envelop space and you’ll hear the guitar sounds slowly rotating around the sphere that surrounds you. Field recordings, made with a three-dimensional microphone, bring in natural sounds, like birds and water. “I layered them on top of the guitars,” Willits says. “So what you have is kind of this photographic entity. This space that’s the field recording and then on top of it is this more kind of ephemeral melodic chord melody thing that’s happening with the guitar, that’s moving. For me, it’s like a blend of the physical world and the spiritual world blending together.”
Willits has played guitar since he was about 13. He got his first guitar after a football game when, out of the blue, his father suggested they buy one for him. (He’d played piano as a child, but up to this point, his main interest had been sports.) “I couldn’t really stand piano. It felt too boxy and classical,” he remembers. “I loved that dynamic energy of sports and the improvisation of sports. I played everything, soccer, baseball, basketball. But that’s really where my understanding of improvisation and teamwork came in.”
With his own guitar, he began playing all the time, trying to figure out the solos that he heard on his Jimi Hendrix records, and then forming bands in the psychedelic rock vein. Also a visual artist, he attended the Kansas City Art Institute, where he studied painting, then came to Mills College in California where he studied with Fred Frith and Pauline Oliveros. An ambient album released while still in college on Taylor Dupree’s 12K label launched his solo career. “From that point on, my focus was guitar and different types of processing and creating this space for people, which is really intended to be a space of peace, connection, and love,” he says.
For this album, he plays a custom Moog guitar (same Moog as the synthesizers), heavily processed so that it sounds only tangentially guitar -like. He combines this with peaceful sounds of nature. A wellness and meditation teacher, in addition to a musician, he says he hopes people can use the music to relax, to meditate or even just to fall asleep.
“Horizon is really about our relationship with the universe. The horizon is the boundary between earth and the cosmos,” says Willits. “That’s reflected in the materials of the music. There are photographic materials like that field recording and then there are more ephemeral chord melodies with the guitars. So the ephemeral stuff is more the horizon and the photographic stuff is more the earth. The horizon is where it meets.”
Willits is currently working on videos for each of Horizon‘s eight tracks. The first one, for “Comet”, combines NASA public domain footage from the Apollo missions with original photography shot via drones. There is a lot of blue sky, fleecy clouds, and open air. “The idea is to give this sense of space, horizon and that kind of big picture things because that’s really what the music’s about.”
Exploring the Possibilities of Spatial Audio
Willits worked on Horizon by himself, but now that it’s done, his life has again become a lot more collaborative. For one thing, he’ll be teaching at California College of Arts and the Art Institute of San Francisco, as well as leading workshops in spatial audio production at Envelop. At Overlap, another San Francisco collective, he teaches meditation classes and other wellness topics.
In terms of music, he’s recording a new album of mostly drums and voices, while also collaborating with Tycho’s Hansen on a project called Switchcraft. This latter project, a mostly live endeavor, should sound, he says, neither much like Christopher Willits nor like Tycho. He’s working with Snuise on some music as well, which will explore, among other things, bossa nova. And he’s helping other artists remix their own work for spatial audio.
Writers have a tendency to lump everything he does under the genre “ambient,” Willits says, telling a funny story about a noise band called Flossin he formed with Death Grips in 2004. “It was the craziest noise rock, free jazz stuff ever. But people still called it ambient,” he remembers. Even so, he makes it a point to shift things up. “That’s what’s actually sustained me as an artist, that I haven’t really played the same industry game where you like take this thing and just keep doing it and keep iterating on it and whatever. And even if you’re bored, do it for the fans. I’ve been like hey, I actually trust that people are like me out there. They want to hear different stuff. They want to hear someone who’s trying to pioneer new edges. I’ve trusted that and it’s really paid off in so many ways. I’m really grateful.”