installation project proposal | James May

windowed | an immersive soundscape installation for field recordings and hanging windows

Around the room, speakers drone. Familiar sounds—water droplets, a storm, your neighbors’ chatter—flicker through windows and fade. (listen with headphones.)

windowed | project overview

windowed (working title) is an immersive soundscape composition that uses salvaged windows from New Orleans apartments as speakers, suspended at torso-level in a gallery space as processed field recordings play through transducers affixed to the panes. Audience members move amidst the windows, each of which emits a different sound, uncovering new spaces between the glass while a droning room tone hums from speakers placed along the gallery edge. The long-form electronic composition plays through iterative loops, cycling through different “scenes” of sound and invoking the witness and separation that these windows marked in their time. This piece is built on field recordings made by me, and evokes possible and imagined soundscapes of New Orleans and the Gulf South.

In this short video, you can hear the tactile quality of sound playing through the windows via transducer, and the spatial immersion possible with multiply displaced sound sources. The audio recording above places the listener in the middle of this pilot setup.

Meanwhile, photos of New Orleans (also made by me) project on and through the windows, shifting as the piece progresses.

The architecture of New Orleans witnesses histories

Windows weathering literal and social storms, beaten against their frames

Portals to other worlds, warping our knowing

windowed | installation proposal

windowed was supported by a 2024 Ucross Artist Residency to complete early pilot tests, field recordings, and compositional sketches. I am seeking a gallery or art space with which to collaborate on bringing the piece to fruition for its first exhibition.

I’m terrifically excited about this project. My previous work is primarily in music composition and improvisation, and this marks my first foray into installation work/sound art. I’m thus eager to find an organization willing to collaborate on the installation process, informing ideas like window placement, strategies for hanging the windows, possible layout designs including lights/projection, and gallery practices I’m yet unfamiliar with. I have suggestions (see Technical Requirements below) but hope to work closely with the hosting gallery to fully realize the work.

I’ve developed this piece in pursuit of two interests. The first is the climates of New Orleans, both socio-cultural and environmental. In a city whose architecture is one of many culturally distinguishing facets, how do components of that architecture witness the city? How do the folks on either side of these windows relate to one another, how do we witness each other’s lives and how are we witnessed, framed in return? And, what is the long view, the life or celebration or violence or storms seen by these windows? Do hurricane winds inhere their battering into the windows? What story can we trace through the warp of glass?

The second is a mirrored interest in the effect of physical material on sonic behavior. How do we hear differently through a window? How does a window frame the aural alongside the ocular? How, when activated, does this old glass distort and filter sounds, shading its physicality into a recording’s color? And then, as we re-hear our sonic frames, what do we make of the spaces the windows demarcate—the groans and mutters of old houses, humming appliances, drafts whistling humidity into joists?

windowed sets these frames, once literal portals separating public and private worlds, as new generative portals into possible soundscapes of their origin.

Technical Requirements

For this project, I will provide the following:

  • 4–10 windows (space depending), each approximately 2′ x 2′ – 4′ x 4′ .
  • 1–2 transducers per window (TBD upon further testing).
  • Speaker wire, enough to connect to each transducer, run up alongside the suspending ropes (see below), and connect into the audio distribution system (amplifiers).
  • Audio file(s) or computer program(s) to run audio playback, photo projection, and spatial distribution.

I request assistance constructing/sourcing the following:

  • Mechanism by which to hang windows from the ceiling. Ideally would be rope, suggesting the weighted pulley mechanism many of these windows used originally.
    • If possible, old window weights could hang similarly through the gallery on the “other end” of the ropes (though not functioning to counterbalance the windows).
  • Four powered speakers (6″+) with XLR or TRS input, with power cables and speaker stands.
  • 2 – 3 projectors with requisite hookups. 
Because this is my first installation I’m unsure on who typically sources the below—however, I’d be happy to collaborate on selecting appropriate equipment for this project!
  • Laptop to run max/MSP software.
  • Power for laptop.
  • Interface and amplifiers with at least 8–16 inputs/outputs.

Approximate Layout Diagram

This layout is based on a generic 12′ x 20′ room, and will be modified based on the space and resources available. This presumes that each window is hanging from the ceiling, and that each transducer is connected via speaker wire running up the window’s suspension rope, along the ceiling, and down to the audio interfaces. It also assumes requisite power supplies, and that the laptop/interface running audio and projection is contained in one of the projector stands or routed to a separate unit outside the room. The actual windows will vary in length and thus won’t be uniform as displayed here (ranging from 2′ to 4′ long).

About the Artist | James May

James May is a composer, improviser, photographer, and writer. His work explores unfurling, fragile spaces through notated scores, improvisation environments, live electronics, field recordings, extended vocal technique, and text. He’s especially interested in combining techniques to encourage exploration of new sound or generate unpredictable systems in which performers can dwell. He’s a member of Versipel New Music, has published writing in Sound American and RTÉ Culture, and teaches courses on music production techniques and field recording at Tulane University.

James has collaborated on performances and recordings with Versipel, Apply Triangle, Hypercube, Chamber Choir Ireland and Paul Hillier, Stephanie Lamprea, Will Yager, Jamie Monck, JACK Quartet, Echéa Quartet, the San Francisco Choral Artists, Longleash, and the University of Louisville Orchestra and Collegiate Chorale. He was a 2024 Ucross Artist-in-Residence, and winner of the 2019 Seán Ó Riada Composition Contest, the 2019 West Cork Chamber Music Festival Contest, and the San Francisco Choral Artists’ 2017 New Voices Project. His work has also been programmed and recognized by Birdfoot Festival, BRACE New Music Choir, New Music on the Bayou, and the Institute for Choral Creativity. He’s an active member of the New Orleans free improvisation community, collaborating with Justin Peake, Alexandria Smith, Byron Asher, Chris Alford, and others, and has collaborated on interdisciplinary projects with studio artist Cat Gambel. He’s performed as a bass with New Dublin Voices (IRE), the Louisville Chamber Choir and the University of Louisville Chorale (KY), and the Wooster Chorus (OH), and as a member of theatrical-performance trio AmiEnsemble.

James is completing a PhD in Music and Multimedia Composition at Brown University, beginning fall 2024. He was one of 12 recipients of the 2018-19 George J. Mitchell Scholarship, funding an MA in Experimental Sound Practice at University College Cork where he studied with John Godfrey, Jeff Weeter, and Karen Power. He previously studied with Steve Rouse and Kimcherie Lloyd as a Bomhard Fellow at the University of Louisville, and Jack Gallagher and Lisa Wong at The College of Wooster.

Full C.V.

Previous Work Examples

The below work examples demonstrate a range of my previous work, including exploration of acoustic phenomena, manipulated soundscapes, interdisciplinary artistic collaborations, and composed work for ensembles.

lullaby, for

natural water source, hydrophone, small speaker, collected trash, field recording

lullaby, for is an experimental improvisation environment. The work deploys a hydrophone in a jug of water, a Bluetooth speaker, a field recording, and collected litter to create an evolving feedback system. The performer must move the Bluetooth speaker (playing the field recording) around the jug to generate and explore different feedback tones; the trash when placed in the jar interferes with the wave patterns, generating new tones in the field recording playback. The piece combines performance instructions, electronic systems, and field recordings, positing an indirect relationship between feedback as “noise,” as a sonic pollutant, and the damaging effects of human waste on natural ecosystems. Every performance of this piece is a new opportunity to listen patiently to the system, and respond to what it shares.

thin places

Score Preview

fixed media track and free improvisers + responsive max/MSP video

thin places uses both an aural and graphic score to create an improvisation environment for performers. “Thin places” refers to a spiritual ontology in Ireland where specific times or locations allowed for close contact between our world and the spirit world. I find this analogy of “thin places” a fruitful one in considering improvisational practices, as improvisers navigate their body and their listening in accord with one another and move toward new sound possibilities. The various materials, the performances, and the video thus work as a media accumulation, offering multiple ways to engage with or approach the “thing” that is thin places.

Bayou La Terre + gliogarnach

weekend-long workshop devised and led in collaboration with studio artist Cat Gambel + sonic exercise text piece

Bayou La Terre was a weekend-long collaborative workshop in the spring of 2021 led by studio artist Cat Gambel and me. Participants formed and fired clay rattles, then performed a text piece I devised for the weekend, gliogarnach (page one below). Throughout, we each led discussions on identity in art making, the body in relationship to material and land, and how to cultivate creative senses like touch and listening in the service of our environments and communities.

dredge ii

Score Preview

alto saxophone, electric guitar, percussion, piano

“The [Mississippi] river is always switching direction as it seeks the path of least resistance, and the ocean is always fighting it, eating away at the sedimentary land… This watery maze is called ‘the bayou,’ and the individual streams in the maze are also called ‘bayous,’ as though each small waterway contained the complexity of the swampy whole. ”

—Jake Bittle, The Great Displacement

From 2019–2024 I lived two miles from the Mississippi River as it meanders around New Orleans. Nowhere in my life have I been more aware of the local climate, how the environment around me behaves and how it responds to humans. The Mississippi has always navigated its own way through the lower delta and into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving a meandering wake through the swamp. This structured meandering fascinates me, a singular entity pulling water from the entire country splitting and churning through its last inexorable motion. It’s a model that resonates with my sense of sonic material, a mass of content moving through itself and responding to its boundaries, dredging up a path in the process. In dredge ii the performers navigate fragile material through such a journey. The score encourages new movement and uncovers novel sonic behavior, letting the performers dwell with their sounds and the complex environment in which they find themselves, each sound simultaneously independent and part of the swampy whole.