Musaic, the merging of all sound spaces

published: 
June, 2000

Musaic was originally written for the music and new media festival Futuresonic. There it was noticed by Kathleen Forde of the SFMoma who asked whether it could be included in the online sound art exhibition Crossfade, which was a collaboration of three art institutions: ZKM, Walker Art Institute and the SFMoma. Musaic also appeared in Sandbox magazine in New York.

(This image was borrowed from the website visualcomplexity.com, purely for illustration purposes. It shows a screenshot of a software tool "The World of Music, by researchers at Standford, MIT and Yahoo!," which "intends to render the music space in an unprecedented way. This visualization shows 9,276 artists and how they are related to each other.")

 

 

Musaic

 

 

The soundtracks of life are merging. Emerging technologies allow

for the appropration, on a large scale, of a soundspace which is

mass medial, musical and habitat at the same time. We enter the world of

musaic. Musaic is like a tapestry, a mosaic, or an ocean of soundbites

and samples ranked and ordered according to individual taste. Musaic is

the direct, involuntary product of the extensions of the world of music

and sound through the internet.

 

Sampling technologies and digital storage have radically changed

the world of music about two decades ago. The internet however now

adds a dimension which is not merely producing a larger sum of

possibilities through especially the use of the internet as realtime

long distance collaboration tool and through the net's huge archival

function, but which amplifies older, especially avantgarde musical

techniques as well.

In other words, the outcome is more then the sum total. In fact, the

world of sound is sort of stretched out. The novelty of sound on the net

lies in the additional array of possibilities inside every individual

step of sound production and of sound 'consumption', plus it lies in the

way these then get entwined. Digitized sound can now be assembled from

various locations, realtime or from archives, and there are various

pieces of software and editors to process it both online and at home.

Live performances and existing soundworks or stored sound can be blended

over large distances and the difference between realtime and recording

is further from any audience's grasp then ever. One interesting

soundsource that is sensitive to tricks with time and reality is the

aural version of the webcam: the webmike. Also environmental sound can

travel large distances 'realtime', without being connected to the

focussed or specific listening that is the aim of radio or television

broadcasts. There are not many examples of webmikes. Tetsuo Kogawa, the

mikro FM pioneer from Tokyo, has used this technique, and is a promoter

of it. The 'bangbang' project proposed by the Bureau of Inverse

Technologies, in which camera's triggered by loud sound 'explosions' are

to be connected to the net, is a nice variety of this type of sound

technology in the arts.

 

Experiments in music like the soundwalks by the originally German artist

Hildegard Westerkamp (a wonderful sound artist about whom you can find

texts and information quite extensively on the web), can serve as a

metaphor for the experience of being a listener to sound on the

internet. Strolling through the web, sometimes with a particular goal, many

times surfing at random, the listeners' focus is the key to the final composition.

The digital sound realm consists of a crumbled music experience. Sound can

be scattered so fine that the original source, its historical reference and its

emotional memory, can become impossible to trace. "An Ocean of Sound",

as David Toop described ambient music in his famous book by the same title,

is now very near our daily environment. Our ship, our submarine, our tool

and our peddling will in the end define the soundstream that reaches our ear.

We define our music, we define our radio, and they become one. The limits

an artist sets, the limits of the tools we choose, the limits the creator of the

software we use and of the web events we visit constructs within the work,

are the most important way by which individual style or atmosphere (of

artists, of radiostations, of companies etcetera) can still be forced upon us.

They are the most powerful way musicians and also radiostations can still

shape their identity in the soundrealm of musaic, an identity which then

is built into the interface. Well known, common examples of such a

restricted use of the digital arena are commercial radio sites, like

netradio.com or Yahoo's broadcast.com, that offer links and search

possibilities within a specific, limited range only, instead of allowing its

audience to use its interface for the entire net. There the limitations are

supposed to create something that looks and feels as close to an ordinary

radiostation as possible. The interactive possibilities in these cases serve

as cheap content producers under the guise of audience participation.

Artists in general can be just as dominant in their molding of an audience.

Their work however is less easy to define or place within the everyday

cultural setting, and it is of course in this appearant disfunctionality where

both its usefullness and strength lie.

 

The popular sound environments as we know them are not disappearing.

They are simply going to be signs of an even clearer mass

consumerism. Logging onto a commercial radiosite for instance might in

the near future be an unfashionable choice for relaxation on slow,

lulling waves of tradition. Designers of sample machines and software,

datajockeys and musical performers will set the musical trends, which

we, the former audience and listeners, not only imitate, but which each

of us can also expand individually. Listeners become musicians when the

combination of the tools they use and the playfulness they exhibit

allows for distinguished, surprising or new compositions in sound,

whether the final product is good or bad, interesting or kitschy.

Additionally, in musaic an overgrowth of sampling rises to a level where

older aspects of music (memory, repetition and basic experience of

beauty and originality) can get lost completely in a dense sound

experience. Small bits of known musical scores, repeated and/or rhythmic

sound'lines' and universally appealling sound qualities can become

unrecognizable in the world of musaic. Everything, all sound and all

sound properties, is of equal importance and equally superfluous. The

personal touch of the musicianer (listener and musician in one), and the

input and manipulation of given sound material by the user start to

represent the subjective sound experience. A pleasant or otherwise full

immersion into the digital networked sound experience depends on the

amount of involvement in its creation or, at the opposite of it: a

conscious absence of involvement. Can we still make a clear distinction

between listener and musician? If yes, how? Like with all art on the

net, the matter of the identity of both the sound artist and the musical

composition is fundamentally obscure until clearly affirmed.

 

controlled performance:

keeping the distinction between artist and audience

 

The identity of everything online needs to be a conscious creation.

Neglectance of image and general reception equals death in the public

eye, it causes disappearance and 'evaporation' of presence. To be an

artist in the digital sphere means excercising control over data outcome

in some way. There are basically two ways to do this. Firstly, through

constructing limitations in either the tools or sources available. And

secondly, by boosting the personal mark of an artist to the heights of

style or trend. Most artists or musicians will use a mixture of the two.

 

It is said that even John Cage's broadening of the sound field by

including his version of silence, or rather, by changing our perception

of silence and its role in our worlds entire sound environment, was a

smart excercise in control instead of liberation. In this way, Cage

shows himself as a brilliant manipulator, and as an artist disguised as

theorist or liberator, who puts the world of sound to his hand.

Let me quote from the book Noise Water Meat by Douglas Kahn:

"As the mass media introduced more and more sounds, individuals became

generationally capable of apprehending sounds in their social complexity

and at an accelerated pace. It was a period of media expansion that

began to forcibly usher in the lightning-quick delivery of the din

today. It was no coincidence that Cage's progressive expansion into -all

sound- and -always sound- occurred at the same time, that his emblematic

silence was founded on a silencing of communications technologies, that

he diminished and eradicated the sociality of sounds of the auditive

mass media throughout the 1950's and 1960's (..)"

The example of Cage's amplification of personal preference or style into

musical practice and even musical theory shows the importance of

selective listening. Selective listening can be taught, or forced on an

audience. Different worlds of sound are created by manipulation,

creation and differentiation of audiences, these not necesarely meant

negatively of course. When art on the internet is a specific form of

communication or exchange between artist and audience, in which the

audience gets a larger role in defining the artpiece, yet where the

artist defines the stage and the props, music on the net is a further

detoriation of the horizontal, democratic model the internet

implies. The digitized world, especially the world of sound, is one of

endless possibilities and non hierarchical structures. The freedom this

appearantly creates by default, a freedom that allows for all known

truths and traditions to be reconstructed, re-invented and rebuilt as if

from scratch, is a much debated and defended one amongst net artists,

activists and hackers. There is a rather strong movement which puts

forward strong suspicion towards constructed limitations in choice,

influence and navigation. It is questionable however whether these are

always problematic: to an artwork they are often essential. A musician

online, from the need for distinction, has to play a manipulative role,

which ranges in power from totalitarian to subtle, or from steering to

stimulating. In this way a perseverence in making music, or creating a

musical profile online, is like offering the audience the opportunity to

be the orchestra to perform the musical score defined by the artist.

Following the stylistic, technological or conceptual structure of the

artist leads the audience away from its subjective interpretation of its

own sound environment, and leads it into the sound realm of the artist.

 

A rather clear form of audience control is the game model. I have had a

lot of discussion about this term, so I want to emphasize it is meant in

the broadest sense. A computergame is a designed digital environment, in

which visitors may or may not be able to create new things, and in which

the amount of freedom and the activities of the user depend on the

structure of the environment. Using the sort of interface to music that

follows the structure of games, the artist is able to create limits to choices

in sound sampling and sound structuring which in the end lead to the

specific style that is the individual artists' mark. In this sense, the soundwalks

of Westerkamp have been created quite literally yet inadvertently inside

computergames like Quake, in which the sound is one signifier of the route

and place of the player. Sounds of computergames are sources for techno

music today, yet these same soundscores could very well be intended as

musical pieces tomorrow. Some creations of sound artists, like for instance

Jerome Joy's project Interludes, and in my opinion even the software

, are related to the computergame structure, whereby position

and activity of the player influence the soundscore. The outcome is

strongly defined by the artists though. Not always can the user record

his or her own samples inside the given musical game or tool. The

freedom or prominence of personal mark within this type of work informs

the artists style, whereby visuals or the absence of visuals further enhance it.

Here we see also the fusion of the VJ and the DJ.

 

Music is not only a mediated experience though. Live, physical

performance of music is the most direct and clear manifestation of

distinguished artistry in a networked society. We see the physical

representation of musical manipulation of sound. It can give insight

into the creative manipulation of sound samples and sound structures,

or insight into method might intentionally be blurred to provoke a

comfortable cloak of myth around the artist and the artwork.

Whichever the artist prefers: s/he stays at the visible centre of

the action. Performance has won new interest in the evolving new media

environment, its popularity keeping pace with the general re-examination

and evaluation of the body in cyberspace. Whether the musical

performance consists of a person sitting behind a mixing panel, or of a

group of dancers, actors or musicians on a stage (whereby dancers and

actors are somehow producing a sound piece/environment) does not matter.

The difference with musical performance before the use of the internet

is that within the merged soundspace of musaic, in which audience and

musician are one and network connections could be anywhere, the role of

the performer as master of the musical score is not evident upfront

anymore. The stage has become the extension of the musaical environment,

on which the performer has to proof his or her mastery.

 

finally

 

Lifting the musical performance out of the network or enscribing it

into the network both create what might be called meta-music: music

which is in some way distracted, condensed from the musaical

environment. Musical practice, like art practice, has to face its

innate, positive restrictedness and the meaning of its alledged

limitations or boundaries.