“For thousands of years, the beauty of the Sonoran Desert has invoked wonder among its human inhabitants,” says Hunter Lohse when introducing the Sonoran Soundscape project that he and fellow University of Arizona Master of Landscape Architecture students Alizabeth Potucek and Christian Galindo created for the UArizona Wonder House at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.
That beauty provided the muse for the students’ immersive audio/visual experience that “inspires users to reflect on the relationships between the colors, form and sounds extracted from the desert.”
Displayed at the Wonder House’s in-the-round experience comprised of curving floor-to-ceiling video screens surrounding a circular stage, the forms, textures and colors of Sonoran Soundscape were abstracted from photographs and topography maps and then painted onto watercolor panels by the students. Nearly 50 soundspanels were then digitized, digitally rendered and categorized into three different periods of the day: dawn, noon and dusk.
Projected throughout the day and evening between scheduled presentations, the subtle yet stunning images were edited by video to create a slow, seamless transition. They were also accompanied by music scored by award-winning composer and video artist Yuanyuan (Kay) He, a UArizona assistant professor of music who teaches composition, electro-acoustic music and orchestration.
When UArizona Executive Director of Experience Misha Harrison reviewed the students’ proposal, she suggested they work with He, who produced three scores for the series.
“We felt strongly He should have creative control of her contribution,” says Lohse. “The results took our breath away. She perfectly encapsulated our vision with her beautifully haunting, sometimes menacing musical pieces.”
While more than 100 people could experience Sonoran Soundscape at once, the multimedia experience itself grew out of a 1’ x 1’ x 1’ idea: Bloom Box, a cube featuring plants and colors from the Sonoran Desert the students created in their first MLA design studio.
“When we were asked to submit an idea, we pitched a human-scale Bloom Box that someone could sit within and fully immerse themself in the projected images,” says Lohse.
That was in 2020. Then the pandemic happened—forcing Lohse, Potucek and Galindo to wait to experience the project themselves.
In-person SXSW events were postponed until SXSW 2022, when UArizona showcased its first Wonder House, a takeover of the Fogo de Chao restaurant across from the Austin Convention Center from March 11-13. The Wonder House and immersive Sonoran Soundscape were an immediate hit.
“The first time I saw it in person, I teared up,” says Lohse. “The project had been delayed for two years, so to finally see it at scale and observe attendees interact in the space was really satisfying.”
Sonoran Soundscape was not only a highlight of the Wonder House at SXSW—allowing Austin visitors from around the world to experience the subtle sights and sounds of the Sonoran Desert—it was also an inspiration and springboard for its creators.
“For many people, the barriers between themselves and the outside world are difficult to overcome,” says Lohse. “I’d like to continue to explore immersive experiences that break down these accessibility barriers to share the awe and beauty of our natural landscapes.”
View the full Sonoran Soundscape series on YouTube or learn more about the Wonder House at SXSW at sxsw.arizona.edu.