The rustle of petticoats, or snap of a lipstick case, may not count as music but they are just as evocative as any fanfare or lament. That is the thinking of Martyn Ware, musician, composer and founder member of pop bands The Human League and Heaven 17, who designs soundscapes for sonic branding and serenading
It is hard to imagine that big business has not already harnessed every possible resource in the appliance of brand management. But, says music producer and performer Martyn Ware, we have seen almost nothing of the opportunities that lie in the careful and controlled use of sound. An evangelist of the hugely affecting properties of sound in all its forms and combinations, Ware is aware that sound can – and should – be approached as a design process, just like graphics and user interfaces. Yet, of all the companies listed in the Fortune 100, ‘only about five are taking this seriously’, he estimates.
Ware’s experience in sound and electronic music runs deep. Originating in pop music (he is a founder member of The Human League and Heaven 17), his career now spans composition, production, multi-disciplinary collaboration, as well as the creation and curatorship of the experimental Future of Sound events. He also recently led a project to create a sensory space for children with special needs at Three Ways School in Bath. Meanwhile, Illustrious Company, the venture Ware set up with electro-pop peer Vince Clarke in 2001, continues to explore and push the possibilities of 3D ‘soundscaping’, where sound becomes disconcertingly untethered from the point of source speakers that are generating it.
A further venture, SonicID, lies well inside the world of design. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of sonic branding is the sound ident itself; think of Intel’s irritatingly catchy ‘bong-bing bong-bing’ motif. But Ware quickly expands, talking about a suite of sounds like that could represent an organisation in any number of environments. Special compositions might play out on telephone ‘hold’ music or in reception areas; another piece might introduce company speakers at live events, while a website may demand a cluster of music and effects. Just as a company follows visual communication rules laid down by graphic designers in a tome of brand guidelines, so they might also manage all the sonic elements of their communication.
Ware describes the process of creating these elements in terms indistinguishable from a graphic design exercise: mood boards, selection routes, iterative refinements, and so on. Composing, or designing, sound in this way is like any other design process and – just like any other design process – the results are better when there is ‘buy-in’ at the top level of the client’s management. ‘Unfortunately, sound is used in a haphazard manner by most businesses and not many take it seriously,’ he says. ‘Also, they don’t have the vocabulary to talk about it, so we do the same as other designers and create mood boards of positive and negative attributes, and from there we start with maybe a handful of basic, sketchy compositions.’
Music and sounds for events, websites, advertisements and the like is arguably the obvious stuff, albeit much overlooked. But again Ware extrapolates further. In the coming years, he says, we will see more research into the sounds of products themselves, the click of a lipstick case or the closing of a car door, for example. This is not music, but sound as a component of experience and therefore of great interest to brand builders.
And it’s the experiential possibilities of sound that occupy much of Ware’s attention. Later this year, London’s Leicester Square will host the latest of Ware’s 3D soundscapes in a project called Soundlife London. Co-created with local community groups, associations and schools, material gathered by hand-held field recorders will be composed and organised spatially by Ware. In this way, sounds relating to, say, a church to the south-east of Leicester Square will appear to emanate from that direction when triggered by the installation.
And an even more wholly immersive experience is planned for London’s BFI Imax theatre next April, when a non-stop, 24-hour stream of performances and compositions will position sounds at various heights, as well as laterally and fore and aft of the audience. Ware plans to collaborate with ‘smell artist’ Sissel Tolaas, as well as present some pieces in darkness. ‘What I’m detecting is a desire for large-scale, communal public experiences, evidenced by the explosion in gatherings for live events like festivals,’ he says. ‘It’s a relief to move away from screens. For me, it’s all moving towards a totally immersive experience. People pay good money for these experiences.’