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, 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.")


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 or Yahoo's, 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.


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.