Meara O’Reilly

The perception, memory, and illusion of sound

November 13, 2019 / Interview by Jamin Warren | Photography by Chantal Anderson

Why does our language for talking about what we hear seem to lag behind our language for talking about what we see? And what can we do about it? Los Angeles-based composer and sound artist Meara O’Reilly explores these questions, as she creates new ways for people to interact with, investigate, and articulate their experiences with the hearable world. Her body of work courts auditory illusion and synesthesia, drawing from such diverse sources as psychoacoustics, folk music, and geometry as it does so. And whether she’s teaching a class on musical perception at the Bauhaus or collaborating with Björk on visuals for the Biophilia tour, O’Reilly’s projects consistently invite listeners to better attune themselves to the sonic elements embedded in their everyday lives and to linger in those spaces that make miscible the seen, heard, and felt.

We spoke with O’Reilly about teasing out the visual elements of sound, her work on the app Rhythm Necklace, and how growing up in rural California shaped the way she perceives and plays with sound.


Where did you grow up?

I grew up largely in Northern California, north of San Francisco, adjacent to a horse farm.

Were you an outdoors-y kind of kid? 

Definitely. My parents tricked us when I was little, when we moved to the country. They said we couldn’t have television, there wasn’t service—which I found out later was not true. They just didn’t want to pay extra for service, and it meant that I spent the majority of my childhood outside hanging out in the woods, basically. Being outside and just being around nature was a huge part of my childhood.

So much of your work involves sound. I’m just curious if, during those outdoor experiences, you felt more attuned to it.

I definitely grew up feeling very attuned to my environment. I think that if I had grown up in the city, I would have learned to tune things out more readily, but because there was less to listen to, it was more interesting.

We lived very close to a lot of eucalyptus trees, which are not native to California, but have taken over in a lot of places, and the sound of the wind in those trees was almost like a barometer for what time of year it was, or what time of day it was even, because there would be these patterns of when the wind would pick up. And in the winter, the storms were insane. They would knock over some of the trees. You would feel like you were actually on the ocean; the sounds of the leaves in the eucalyptus trees were so voracious that you felt like you were in a ship at sea or something.

I’ve also never been a particularly visual person. Sound was my primary way of navigating and taking in the world from a very early age. So I think there was a part of me that always knew I wanted to do something with sound. 

What was your first foray into turning this interest into something concrete?

I had gotten really into field recording, as a listening practice, and I arrived at college with a bunch of weird recordings of things like vacuum cleaners. I knew that I wanted to study auditory perception and was trying to figure out a way for that to happen, because my initial reaction to being excited about perception was to recreate experiences that I’d had, ones that wouldn’t necessarily come naturally to someone else. So when I was in college, I was very, very obsessed with the idea of physical resonance. That’s how I got interested in Chladni patterns [visual representations of resonance that typically involve vibrating a thin, metal plate covered with sand or salt] and started working on different ways of visualizing these invisible concepts. 

Some of O'Reilly's Chladni plates.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you define that field of auditory perception?

A term for what I spent a lot of time studying is psychoacoustics. It’s essentially the intersection between how sound moves in the physical world and what our brains do with that information. Because the sensors in our bodies are imperfect and they don’t actually recreate the world exactly as it is. They’re obviously very subjective, even from person to person. So, I’m very interested in the connection between what we think we know about sound and what we’re able to study about how people actually perceive it. 

Do you have an example of something that people take for granted about the things that they listen to? Because I think, in general, we tend to trust our senses. 

It’s a lot easier to objectively define visual objects and locate them in space, but there are probably still people arguing about the color of a dress on the internet somewhere! It’s especially slippery with sound. People often take for granted what they hear because it’s so hard to reach a consensus. Auditory illusions begin to clue us into some of these assumptions, and how they might be false. 

For example, with the album of hockets I just released, people often assume that the sense of motion that they are hearing is the result of panning, when it’s actually created by glitches in their own perception.

Also, I think because we are a very visual society, there’s actually so much more language that is allocated for talking about visual things. And so, for me, I think the reason that writing or talking about sound is harder is that we literally lack the vocabulary for it. We don’t have the same storytelling in place for it in English as we do for visual phenomenon.

I’m very interested in the connection between what we think we know about sound and what we’re able to study about how people actually perceive it.”

What was the first project you did that explored the idea of auditory illusion? 

I guess the very first thing, or one of the larger things that I did, was in Chladni patterns. I got very excited about the idea of physical resonance and standing waves. The idea of making those visible to other people was very appealing to me. So, that was a first step toward getting people to actually pay attention to what their ears are telling them. 

I made an exhibit at the Exploratorium that allowed people to interact with a Chladni plate, vibrating it with their voices. It meant that they were able to have a feedback loop, as in, “Oh, when I do this, it gets closer to creating a picture. When I do this, it goes farther away from creating a picture.” And it sort of makes them interact with something invisible, even as they’re getting immediate visual feedback.

You’re starting from a place of unknowns, and then you’re making it even more mysterious.

My tale of woe! Even when I’ve done presentations about auditory illusions, it’s really been important for me to visually show people what is actually going on. Meaning, if I’m showing an auditory illusion where they could hear something as either going up or down in pitch, it’s very helpful for them to see the building blocks of that. So that they’re not just like, “Oh, well I’m hearing it going up, so obviously it’s going up.”

But over time I’ve gotten more interested in creating environments where it’s not necessary to have the visual component. It’s there if you need it, you know? I can still make a visual correlate or whatever, but I’m interested in creating something that can stand on its ownthat by listening to the music that I wrote, it’s possible to simply discover that you alone can hear something different depending on where you’re standing, or from one time listening through to the next. Like, “Oh wait, actually this is engineered so that I can’t hear it the same way twice. What’s that about?”

Photos from A Curious Summer, a children's summer camp that O'Reilly curated around the idea of sound and resonance.

You’ve talked about bilateral symmetry. Are humans unique in that respect or is that just kind of a function of all animals, or at least mammals? 

Yeah, I mean, bilateral symmetry is definitely not unique to humans. I’ve always wanted to do a project that explores more of the electromagnetic spectrum that all animals have access to. Meaning, we’re just perceiving this narrow range of all the vibrations that are possible out there, essentially. So, the way that we perceive is unique, the way that we hear is different from how another animal hears. 

Obviously our music is much more relevant to us than it is to birds, you know? Our music has evolved to be interesting and moving to us because of exactly how our systems are wired to perceive the input.

I wanted to ask you about your work with hockets, using these single notes. I was curious about how you came across hocketing as a practice, the history of that project, and how you came upon this particular interaction with auditory perception. [Hocketing is a rhythmic technique in music that involves passing the notes of a given melody back and forth between performers.]

Yeah, so the practice of hocketing is a very old one. It dates back to, I think, the 12th century in Western Classical music. But it’s actually found in folk practices all over the world that are possibly much older than that. 

My first interaction with the idea of hocketing was actually a record from this label called Ocora. It’s music from Burundi, and it has a duet between two young girls, called an Akazehe. To this day, it’s one of my favorite examples of hocketing because it’s so effortless. It’s this single melody split between these two singers, and they’re singing so closely with each other that it sounds like there are tape splices in it. It seems like it’s not possible for them to be as interlocking as they are. It sounds like a single melody that’s been edited by a human, rather than sung live. Literally, it’s just two voices, but creating something that just sounds so otherworldly that it feels like there has to be some trick to it.

Cover image of O'Reilly's recently released EP, "Hockets for Two Voices" (Cantaloupe Music, 2019). Sculpture by Tauba Auerbach, titled "Where there had once been a snag in the fabric." Photography by Field Studio, MOCA Cleveland 2018.

When I go to concerts, there’s a sense in which I think a lot of music that people listen to is through headphones or it’s in the car, and this piece was created in an environment where you can move around. I was curious about how you think about the space in which your pieces will be performed, and if that influences the work itself? 

I think what is really exciting to me about hockets is that it’s built into the piece, that this stereo separation of the singers is incredibly important. Meaning, if you were to hear the piece live and the singers were singing too far apart, you would actually break the song.

So that’s one of the principles of auditory scene analysis by this guy Albert Bregman, who came up with this framework for understanding the conditions under which you group things into perceptible streams, based on similar characteristics. One of the conditions has to do with the listener’s spatial relationship to the sound sources. Basically if two sound sources are too far apart, they start to break into two different perceptual streams. At a certain point, if they’re standing too far apart, that breaks them and you literally hear two separate lines that don’t really make sense together anymore.

You describe yourself as a multi-instrumentalist, and I saw on your Instagram that you play the harp. And you’ve done some work with Björk, who’s also well known for introducing “new instruments” into her work. How do you think of yourself as a composer? Do you have an instrument that you lean on, or is it more that you figure out the tool that will help express the idea in your head, and then work from there?

I’ve always been very interested in instrument design. I built a lot of experimental instruments. And through that I sort of realized that I thought of instruments, or interface design as a compositional practice itself. If you’re designing the constraints of an instrument, you’re actually choosing the key you want to write in, or the tempo, or the rhythm. It’s a very similar practice, basically.

O'Reilly performing a piece for glass bells (left) and a hocket (right)

This stereo separation of the singers is incredibly important. Meaning, if you were to hear the piece live and the singers were singing too far apart, you would actually break the song.”

So, I’ve never really attached myself to one instrument because I’m very excited about the idea of a new instrument creating new ideas. Whether that’s inventing the instruments to begin with, creating a new tuning system, or changing the way that I physically interact with an old instrument, that sort of shapes the music that comes out of it, I think. And I feel that’s true of all musical tools. I don’t really have a primary way of making music, I guess, other than my voice, which is the longest running instrument that I’ve ever engaged with.

Do you think that we have locked in what instruments are possible? I’m just wondering if you think that the term “musical instrument” has a bias that discourages experimentation?

The main limitations in musical instruments are often that the majority of Western music is in equal temperament. And so, that’s an across-the-board constraint. It kind of discourages people from being like, “I found this pan lid that sounded really good,” because they realize that it might not easily fit into the canon of instruments that are most often used. I don’t think that should discourage people from making music with new objects though!

I am mostly interested in things that draw people in on a visceral level or an aesthetic level, and it doesn’t matter if they understand it or not. But I always love there to be something underneath it that they can engage with if they want to. For example, with the Rhythm Necklace app, I was really excited that a three-year-old could play with it and have a good time, and learn.

Screenshots taken from Rhythm Necklace, an app that allows you to visually sequence rhythmic loops, created by Meara O'Reilly and Sam Tarakajian. (Available in the App Store)

Could you tell me a little bit about the history of Resonance Games? What got you interested in play and games as a place to explore specific points of view?

It’s necessary to interact with auditory illusions in order to understand them. So a lot of hocketing, as it sounds around the world, actually comes in the form of a game. It’s something kids do.

I used to spend many hours in the bathtub when I was a kid, and I would listen to how things would sound above the water versus below the water. So it wasn’t a game per se, but there was definitely a sort of comparing of variables, essentially. And that sort of developed as I went to college. One day as I was walking past a park that I walked by every day, I noticed that because it was colder, all of a sudden the reflections of the sounds from the cars were different. So it’s kind of a game for me to be able to perceive differences. 

Now that I think about it, Marco-Polo is a game almost entirely about the ability to perceive where sound is coming from.

There’s a concept in music cognition, I think it’s a larger concept in cognition called expectancy violation. And it basically describes how we tend to like a little bit of surprise; it’s like the sweet spot of surprise. Too much is scary and we don’t like it, but if there’s not enough expectancy violation, then it’s boring. But there’s this edge that we really enjoy as humans. And I feel like games ride that edge of being exactly exciting enough.