Fluid Narratives of Virtual Music

When I started building an engine (3DBARE) to allow the listener to walk inside a piece of music, I thought it was a tool to help me carry on doing what I was doing – just a better way of listening.
Listeners at geo-located music with noTours for Android
But allowing a listener to determine the temporal content of music by their position and route through space means that all or many of the former controls held by the composer / performer / producer are removed.
The listener is in charge: they are attracted or repelled by sounds and their combinations, and they negotiate a path ‘blindly’, feeling without signposting for a way through the experience.
If the ‘work’ presented tells a story or – now more likely – allows a series of associations between the materials experienced and personal memory, visceral responses to these, thereby giving the listener the tools to construct their own narrative, how can we determine the outcome, some aspects of the whole?
Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumori
The narrative of a ‘classical work’ is necessarily abandoned. Its message resides as firmly in form as in tonal colour and harmonic content.
The formula – of embarking on a sometimes choppy but ultimately protected journey before returning to the comfortable shores of the original key (and ‘tune’) – has, for all but a few music-makers, become necessarily historical.
The scope which we now enjoy for example of the exploration of textures was simply impossible in the pre-electronic age.

Digital transformation of the familiar and unfamiliar into and through each other lets us explore weird new identities.
The skewed reality of dreams becomes communicable, merging and overlaying in impossible but plausible juxtapositions allows music to reflect the complexities of our sensory and cognitive experience.
Music is not something we present people, like a cake or a pair of shoes.
Music is the ordering into communicative structures of sound.
You cannot touch, see or smell sound.
You cannot write anything about it that approaches the reality of hearing those sounds.
So why have we spent a couple of centuries telling ourselves that the musical composition was an object like a cake, like shoes, like a painting?
I refer you to the million-word discussions of others on this thorny matter.
Morton Feldman
My business is struggling to make the er, not-stuff, that music is.
So if we want a narrative in our music, let’s put one there.
I witness stories on the top deck of London buses, as I drive through landscape, sit in a city square.
Amalgamations of snapshots, overheard snippets, accents, phrases, references, calling up an un-knowable back story from every voice, each noise that flashes past and evaporates.
Composers cannot hope to control the tale they tell: there is no more agreement about the import of a Mozart string quartet than those of Morton Feldman.
We do though, have access to an unprecedented level of complexity in the material we present to our audience and the combinations in which these may, endlessly, be sensed.
The big issue for me has been how to deliver all this magical, vertiginous potential: no one can play it, read it, hum it.
Sounds that cannot be reproduced.
Combinations that cannot be heard if sounding all at once.
Varese composing Poeme Electronique

Here’s what we do: let the listener combine the materials as they proceed, like Amelie collecting photo booth snaps, or Cage with his same-different-same seas of traffic.

Why don’t we present the listener with a shoebox full of letters (maybe some distractions thrown in, certain pages strategically removed) – and ask them to tell us the life story of the unknown protagonist?
Then we can proceed beyond the need for a narrative altogether: removing the imposition of structure, particularly the temporal, is not an act of abandonment, of irresponsibility – it is the most generous gift you can make to an audience.
To present them with a collection of the most closely, finely wrought pieces of work possible, in placements and combinations that have been tested, over and again, until the swirling whole, this whirlpool of memory and desire, amusement, terror, revulsion, meditative curiosity, rage, sleepy contentment, laughter become not a fixed structure but like the inner and outer worlds flapping like Einstein’s dimensions against each other as we walk between them.

Painting landscape with sound

It is the fluidity of virtual narratives that can bring the virtual to life.

Acoustemologies of Space

No more time
Considering timelines in musical construction and the role of recall, remembrance or the search through ‘sound art’, ‘musical composition’, for full form of partially reconstituted former experience,  we might imagine the possibility that a musical object does not necessarily evolve over time,  or only over linear time.

Monophonic lines
The monodic phrase may be an extension or exploration of a finite set of pitches. It is an investigation of the relations, by sequentially altered permutations between those pitches and what may be conveyed or perceived, metaphorically, within those pairings or groups and they range covered by them.

In denser sonic structures however the interplay between distinct elements is important also. 

Texture happens over time?
Is it possible entirely to remove time from the musical work, for all pitches, timbral characters and separation throughout a physical space to be simultaneously heard?

Soundwords and Story-telling
The monodic line, the developmental polyphonic texture and the orchestral climax belong to species of sonic narrative where our conditioned associations presuppose a quasi-linguistic exposition of ideas whose correlative is founded in the same ancient urges whence mythic, religious and metaphorical representations of existence and experience emerge. 

Other forms

In the visual and plastic arts, in film, literature and dance, the design of buildings and their interiors, of objects functional and decorative, it has become accepted that form may in many instances equate to, be the sum of, the work’s content.

Stories and just Things Themselves
If, with the removal of temporal development or change, we are able to extract from the work its shackled association with ‘expression’, forms are inevitable to emerge that will permit the listener possibilities for transcending communication altogether.
In this way, the musical artifice speaks, if it speaks at all (for why should it, having no words?) solely of what it is, rather than a pale mirror to other forms.
But since all events must have duration of some perceptible value for there to be agreement that they occurred at all and arguably a somewhat greater durational value  than merely the perceptible, for the senses to take the opportunity to receive, process, respond, remember the occurrence, is the negotiation of change over time unavoidable?
Yes and no.
The slightest sonic pinprick may in fact be represented by fluctuating horizontal lines, describing continuous variations in the frequency and amplitude from opening attack through its decay, sustain, release or disappearance. 

Universe in a bead
Even the note produced by a plucked string or struck bottle, singular and momentary as this may appear, has a duration, albeit so small as for the duration not to be considered to constitute a primary characteristic.
However briefly though, each note or sound perceived of course still has a duration.
With the changes that occur during that time it may be said that rhythm, with all its generative, evolving, progressing patterns, originates or is at least suggested.

Time standing still, machine rumbles on

It is equally possible that the passage of time be used as a tool for the depiction, evocation or replication of stasis, in sorts of counter-developmental resistance. 
Examples of change within repeating patterns, or unaltered wholes whose constituent parts continually change, are to be found in the mechanical, electrical and digital as much as the natural.

Music in a cemetery toilet
Working many years ago at a cemetery office, my most pleasing diversion from the macabre mundanities of my working duty was to sit shivering in the vast, catacomb-like porcelain-lined lavatory, listening to the endless shifting and yet never changing balance between two echoing water drips, never ceasing, never simultaneous, flowing like parallel microcosmic waterways reduced to sequent enumerations of  their minutest parts, like a coastline falling through a miniature hourglass.

The music of roundabout systems
Eight years earlier, a comparable experience occurred from the chance discovery of an entrancing sound kaleidoscope both random and the result of collective, simultaneous mass action and response.
The inside floor plan of the Arc de Triomphe is a church-sized cross with similar acoustical properties but for the missing four end walls, arched ears to the acoustical convulsions of the city.
At its centre, the listener is as though inside an enormous resonant stone head, drawing from all around passing snapshots in sound.
They are so fleeting and frequent as to form a continuous flow of impressions.
They are so dense as to be opaque, so infinitely numerous, small and diverse are its elemental constituents as to constitute the river itself, where only the fluctuations of the whole can be quantified.
The Arc is at the centre of L’étoile, the star-shaped intersection at a monumental centre point of six of the city’s largest thoroughfares.
Six lanes of rotating, competing traffic of all sizes continuously swimming around, across, alongside; wheels on tarmac, revving engines, coughing exhausts, squealing brakes and above all, a mechanical mayhem of klaxons, despairing, warning, cajoling, threatening, pleading, celebrating, echoing.

Tuning of French klaxons
By the way, these horns were for the most part, diatonically attuned. My only explanation was the French preference for cars by one of their two principal firms and the possibility therefore that the klaxons’ slight variation from diatonic unity was based on (almost) any given vehicle being one of two makes, pitch-limited to the white notes of the piano, depth depending on size of the vehicle. 

River <- Soundscape -> Machine
At other times, while the auditory river’s flow remained unabated, effectively unaltered, it was possible to tune focus to given pitches or rhythmic imitations and again, through the unending alteration and rotation of atomic detail within, there was above all a character of constancy, of unification, whose effect was to stay the very passage of time.

All perception of time passing or changing was removed during these peaceful meditations which in memory appear to repeat like time-phase photography or an acoustical strobe.

Therefore, given the fascination of these and other phenomena, what appeared like the sudden realisation of a new concept (new to me at any rate) emerged, like all others, from a combination of reflection over an extended period and the search for alternative solutions to questions of time found in much music of the past few decades.  

Centuries-long music

Perhaps one of the best known of these is John Cage’s conceptual composition for organ “As slow as possible”, performance of which began in 2001 and is scheduled to run for 639 years.

Arguably the performance did not begin until February of 2003 due to the seventeen month rest with which the current rendition began but perhaps this is a question for a separate enquiry.

Questions of how time is represented, ridden, distorted have always occupied composers.
It has been understood that music exists more in time than space, in waiting or remembering than in an extended present sensual interaction such as may be had with an image or sculpture.

To return therefore to a notion for music from which the passage of time – used to generate along its line, arrayed patterns and relations with a correspondence or analogue in verbal expression, the emotions, in narrative or figurative representation – is removed, carrying off these external, unachievable distractions, to permit the construction of pure sound, unencumbered by the minute semiotic histories of our finite range of sonic gestures:

Sound like colour and smell

Through the separation of sound from putative intentions to be of or fundamentally connected to other forms of communication or activity, perhaps we can permit, by infinite multiplications, the expansion of our ‘sonabulary’, our ‘sonicon’, a new ‘acoustemology’ beginning to grow from the threads remaining, which do not carry the weighty burden of impossible ambition to relate an art with no inherent meaning to systems of signification.

Unknown writing on ribbons of sound
3DBARE is coming. Time will no doubt have a role but this is about pausing clocks, holding one time river up against another and watching the combinations of signals blow out sound bubbles from their auditory embrace, across the wide open arena of a space filled with undulating voices, tones, beams of sound, infinitely variable in combination, unending, borderless like the ocean’s horizon when the world was flat, like inner space and the dreams that float there.

Painting the landscape itself. No, I mean really, actually painting it. Oh, and in sound.

If ever you decide to demonstrate your crazy, arcane research, the ideas you dream about and discuss with yourself, sometimes inadvertently aloud – then find you’ve accidentally instigated the biggest, most exciting and terrifying project of your life, don’t call me to complain. I will only laugh.
I was working on how to motion-track listeners so they can walk inside a piece of music – we’re getting there, with amazing work from composer-programmer Iyad Assaf, it’s called 3D-BARE.
I called music tech guru and composer Julio d’Escrivan for advice.
He put me in touch with Enrique Tomas, whose noTours software uses GPS and does a similar – well, different – thing to what I was working on but with such interesting results and rich possibilities that I was hooked.
noTours lets you edit a place with sounds: overlapped, interlocking, spliced, hovering in the landscape.
When a composition is complete, I now do something additional with it – splitting it into horizontal and vertical fragments, spreading it across a garden or along the Thames, then inviting people to come and listen.
I recorded singers a few months ago, one at a time, then combined them into a ‘virtual’ choir, in a setting of a poem called “Take Me By The Hand” for Southampton’s Musical Alphabet weekend.
There’s now a version spread between the paths and trees, buildings and water of the university campus. Singers and the place, sonically and physically bound together. Blurring and augmenting the heard reality of a place allows us to do strange and interesting things…
So I’ve been constructing musical compositions embedded in landscape and decided to make more systematic my approach to recording the landscape itself and, more importantly, the people in it.
Six months on, I’m coordinating the Audio Portrait of Southampton – to capture the place, the year, its noises, sounds and music. An immersive sonic montage spread across the green spaces of the city for listeners to walk inside and investigate, like a virtual city built only of sound.
Southampton Music Hub and Art Asia have recently come on board, bringing fantastic, diverse musical talent to the Portrait and I was recently interviewed by Xan Philips on Voice FM.
We’ll be demonstrating on 11th October at the University’s next Creative DigiFest, SXSC2. Come and hear for yourself!

Music You Can Walk Inside


After several years working outside of academe and music, I returned at last to composing and then to study for a PhD in 2010.

I visited ISVR and encountered their 3-D speaker systems and realised a problem for studio-based composers could be solved by a little invention. 

I proposed a means for listeners to walk inside a piece of music and investigate its parts at will, hearing it differently on each audition. They’ve taken it on and the construction of our 3-D Binaural Audio Rendering Engine is under way!

Here are two reasons to do this: composing in the digital studio, your music can exist either as a data file or be heard using speakers. 

But why would anyone go to a concert to see no-one actually playing? 

Concerts are about far more than listening to sounds among other people – we witness live ‘interpretation’, a musician’s struggle to create beauty and meaning by moving horse hair across a string, blowing down a pipe or banging things together.

Music has always been in flux, perhaps now more than ever. 

But the two ways we listen, at least to what is still differentiated as ‘classical’ – or worse ‘contemporary’ – music have effectively been the same since the gramophone and wireless became widespread, around ninety years ago. 

We either listen to a recording or go to a concert hall and sit still in awed, reverential hush as though the composition were an inviolable object to be revered and recreated.

So, secondly, the idea that a composer’s score somehow is the work has been a part of this problem: of course it is only an approximate transcription of what the composer imagined, just as is the performance. 

They are both attempts at reaching something magical, beyond. 

So if music is produced in a studio, without possibility of being ‘performed’, does the output we hear suddenly become this strange, fixed object that we imagine a composition to be? 

How terrible, if there were only a single way to hear a piece of music, in all its deep-seated reference and memory, refraction of experience and heard sounds!

The 3-D BARE is some way from completion but promises to shed new light on both listening and the compositional process as we rethink how to present work in this way. 

Meanwhile, I have hooked up with a collective of composers and engineers called Escoitar.org (“Listen” in Galician), who have built the amazing tool noTours (notours.org), for situating sounds in a place by way of an android phone connected to GPS, a map the phone can read of where the sounds have been placed, and the sounds themselves, all stored in the handset.

In the last year I have composed pieces where the audience enter a space and moves freely, investigating multiple threads and layers that emerge at different rates, in different forms, around the art gallery, foyer, hangar. . . 

Each listener encounters a different version of the music, a combination of interwoven lines, intersecting at changing points in time, according to their physical position.

Then, they step outside with noTours and, under the satellites that encircle the planet, are guided through the same music, transformed now into an invisible structure, stitched and piled, locked together or floating free, in the landscape itself.

Composing like this is about using a space, integrating with it, reflecting it and its sounds back into the musical world you are constructing. 

The real ambient noise of the place is blended with (and played with, repositioned by digital smoke and mirrors) and replaced in the space, transformed and transposed. 

Now, what is the composition and what is the space becomes hard to determine, and less relevant. 

The experience, I am told, is immersive – the sonic reality of a place is both distorted and augmented at once, heightening awareness both of the sounds constantly around us and of the music situated within it.

Next project, an Audio Portrait of Southampton, a snapshot of the city in 2012: 
   a geo-located composition based in song, music and oral accounts of life in the city. 

Contributors sought: please get in touch now!