Psychoacoustic Cinema at The Color Inside

24 September 2018

This week, Landmarks staff attended a dress rehearsal of Rolling Ryot’s original sound installation for The Color Inside, a Skyspace by James Turrell. It was clear that the performance series would be a hit from the beginning. While reservations were booked within a couple of days, we want to encourage future partnerships with local arts groups that enhance engagement with the collection. If you didn’t get a reservation, then be sure to join our mailing list or tune into social media for announcements!

In the meantime, here is a breakdown of the magic happening in the Skyspace this week written by Rolling Ryot:


The human sensory system is an evolutionary marvel. It accepts environmental stimulus and delivers it to the brain where electro-chemical signals are interpreted, as perceptions of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. We rely on our senses for survival, communication, and entertainment. We rarely take objective, intellectual notice of them in our waking lives…until our ability to sense is somehow disrupted.

James Turrell’s work is deeply influenced by his interest in perceptual phenomena. His work with color fields – in particular the Skyspaces – play at the edges of the Ganzfeld effect, a natural response of the human visual system to generate hallucinated images when deprived of visual stimulus. This effect has been reported since the days of Pythagorus whose followers spent time in caves in order to generate the visions through which they expected to receive wisdom. These hallucinations are colloquially known as “the prisoner’s cinema”.

In the early 1960s cognitive scientist Roger Shepard discovered an analog to the Ganzfeld effect, an auditory hallucination known today as the Shepard tone. Whether crafted as scales or glissandos, this psychoacoustic phenomenon fools the human ear into hearing a perpetually rising or falling scale or tone. Psychoacoustic Cinema takes the Shepard tone as its foundation, much as The Color Inside leans on the Ganzfeld effect.

The Compositions

We perceive a marvelous analogy between Turrell’s color field effect of pure and imagined colors and the Shepard tone’s smear and blur of tonal pitch and direction. Is the sky blue or green? Is the tone I’m hearing rising or falling?

Each composer has taken his own approach to sonic interpretation of the Skyspace color experience. In three distinct segments, the work exhibits each composer's personality while exhibiting common elements: drones, minimal rhythmic content, and Shepard tones.

Each audio segment is also a generative work that evolves with the timing and color values of the Skyspace performance. A light sensor collects data in real time from the Turrell installation’s LED lights. This live stream of numbers is used as input to control parameters that shape the sound performance. Each composition uses this data in unique ways.

The Composers

Neal B. Johnson designs and builds interactive sound art installations. His sources of inspiration include immersive environments, field recordings, and bent circuits. Recent works include Ars Telematic for Sound Scene X at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and The Eyeball Arcade for Vision Gland’s The Vessel immersive interactive experience. Neal is a founding member of Rolling Ryot.

Lyman Hardy III is a composer, audio engineer, and percussionist whose work ranges from electronic and experimental composition, multimedia creation and performance, sound design and mixing for feature films and beyond. Recent notable work includes sound design and mix for Jameson Brooks’ Bomb City and Keith Maitland’s Emmy-Nominated TOWER, and performance and composition for maximalist multimedia ensemble Total Unicorn. Lyman is a founding member of Rolling Ryot.

Kyle Evans is a new media artist, sound designer, electronic instrument creator, educator, and performer. With a focus toward experimental music and sound art, his collective work ranges from music technology development to new media installation.


Rolling Ryot thanks Landmarks, The Public Art Program of The University of Texas at Austin for their unfailing support of this project.

The Extinction Project is funded by the City of Austin Cultural Arts Division and is sponsored by Big Medium.

Traditionally, the sunset light sequence occurs each evening without sound; make a free reservation to visit. 

All photos by Thomas Meredith