Freeze Frame: A Snapshot of Music Making on the Internet



with Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid

Paul D. Miller’s Preamble:

In an era of intensely networked systems, when you create, it’s not just how you create, but the context of the activity that makes the product. Operating systems, editing environments, graphical user interfaces—these are the keywords in this kind of compositional strategy. During most of the spring of 2002 I was working on an album called Optometry. I thought of it as a record that focused on “the science of sound—as applied to vision.” Think of it as a kind of “synaesthesia” project navigating the bandwidth operating between analog and digital realms. Optometry was constructed out of a series of audio metaphors about how people could think of jazz as text, of jazz as a precedent for sampling—of jazz as a kind of template for improvisation with memory in the age of the infinite archive. In sum, the album was a play on context versus content in a digital milieu using sampling as a “virtual band” of the hand. Flip the situation into the here and now of a world where file swapping and peer-2-peer bootlegs are the norms of how music flows on the Web, and Optometry becomes a conceptual art project about how the “hypertextual imagination” holds us all together. Seamless, invisible, hyper-utilitarian.

What’s new here? In 1939 John Cage made a simple statement about a composition made of invisible networks that was called Imaginary Landscape. The piece was written for phonographs with fixed and variable frequencies (consider that there was no magnetic tape at that time), and radios tuned to random stations. The idea for Cage was that the music was an invisible network based on “chance operations.” As Cage would later say in his famous 1957 essay “Experimental Music,” “Any sounds may occur in any combination and in any continuity.” The sounds of one fixed environment for him were meant to be taken out of context and made to float—think of it as audio free association, and you get the first formalist ideas of the origins of DJ culture. But what does this have to do with jazz?

In a speech before the Library of Congress, Ralph Ellison would flip the mix and build a template for a new kind of literature—that’s the echo of “Imaginary Landscape” that intrigues me. “So long before I thought of writing, I was playing by weather, by speech rhythms, by Negro voices and their different timbres and idioms, by husky male voices and by the high shrill singing voices of certain Negro women, by music by tight places and wide spaces in which the eyes could wander…” Again, the invocation of an imaginary landscape made of the hyper-real experiences of living in a world made of fragments of experience. The idea of being made from files of expression put through places that are not spaces, but code. Gesture is the generative syntax, but once the sounds leave the body, they’re files. And that’s the beginning…

When computers communicate over a network, they do so through sound. Before information can be sent over wires running between computers, it must first be translated into tones. The composer Luke Dubois, of Columbia University’s electronic music department, has described the static you hear when a modem connects as a hyper-accelerated Morse Code, a billion dots and dashes sung each second, too fast for the human ear to discern. This has been true since the dawn of networked computing. When the first two nodes of the Internet, at UCLA and Stanford, were brought online in 1969, Charlie Kline at UCLA famously initiated the connection by typing “login.” After keying the letter “l” he received the appropriate echo back along the phone line from Stamford. The same with the letter “o.” But when he hit “g” the system crashed; the audible reply from Stanford never reached its destination.

In 1972, Ray Tomlinson modified a program meant for ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet, that would let people send each other data as small “letters.” He chose the @ sign for addresses for a simple reason: the punctuation keys on his Model 33 Teletype made it easy to type; it was a convenient way to lend a geographic metaphor to an otherwise abstract place made up of data and people’s interaction with the nodes that hold the data together. In one fell swoop, Tomlinson signaled that data could be both a place and a linguistic placeholder for digital information as a complete environment. By using the @ symbol, he restated what modernist artists and composers had been pointing out for over a century: when information becomes total media in the Wagnerian and the Nietzschian sense, we arrive at the “Gesamkunstwerk” or “the total artwork.” The Situationists referred to this as a “psycho-geography.” Antonin Artaud wrote an essay about it called “Theater and It’s Shadow;” for him it was based on the interaction of different forms of alchemy. When Artaud coined the term “virtual reality” in his 1938 essay “The Alchemical Theater,” he anticipated a realm where signs, symbols, letters, and ciphers were all placeholders in the rapidly changing landscape of a society that faced the surging tides of industrial culture’s mad race to become an information culture. It was a phrase to describe a mind trying to make sense of the data road kill on the side of the information highway being built in the minds of artists whose dreams punctuated an immense run on sentence typed across the face of the planet as technology carried the codes out of their minds and into the world. In the 20th century, one symbol—”@”—ushered in a new world linked by the intent of people to communicate. This is a world of infinitely reflecting fragments, vibrating, manifesting a hum, making music.

The connection between sound and networked computing is more than the product of technical convenience. It can be traced to the first visionary articulation of the digital age. In his seminal essay from 1945, “As We May Think,” Roosevelt’s science advisor, Vannevar Bush, proposed the creation of a device he called the memex, which provided the inspiration for what later became the networked personal computer. Bush’s memex system had the ability to synthesize speech from text, and, conversely, to automatically create text records from spoken commands. He wrote enthusiastically of the Voder, which was introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair as “the machine that talks.” “A girl stroked its keys and it emitted recognizable speech,” Bush wrote. “No human vocal cords entered in the procedure at any point; the keys simply combined some electrically produced vibrations and passed these on to a loud-speaker.” Bush also discussed another Bell Labs invention, the Vocoder, an early attempt at a voice recognition system. Central to his vision of the memex was the notion that sound would circulate through the system, available for easy retrieval and manipulation.

Today that ease of access and malleability is transforming the way musicians conceive of and make music. It is now simple to convert sound into digital streams, so it can flow anywhere across the computer network, to be manipulated by a continually growing array of software. Real time collaborations between musicians across the Net are becoming common. Online collaborations that are not real time are commonplace. The combination of databases (for storage), software (for manipulation), and networks (for interactivity between databases, software, and musicians) is challenging many long held notions of what music making can or should be. Established boundaries are blurring.

This blurring comes from a basic premise behind computing: that all information can be translated from its original form into binary code, and then re-articulated in a new form in a different medium. Texts can be stored in a database as ones and zeros, and later output as images or sounds. Ted Nelson, the man who coined the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia” in the mid-1960s, was among the first to appreciate the full range of opportunities that networked computers make possible. In 1974, he proposed the playful idea of “teledildonics,” a computer system that would convert audio information into tactile sensations. Why should music only enter the body through the ear? Why not through the skin, or through the eye?

Artists have been using computer networks for collaboration at least since 1979, when I.P. Sharp Associates made their timesharing system available to an artist’s project called “Interplay.” Organizer Bill Bartlett contacted artists in cities around the world where IPSA offices were located, and invited them to participate in an online conference—essentially a “live chat”—on the subject of networking. At the time this technology was rare and expensive; artists had no access to it. “Interplay” is often referred to as the first live, network-based, collaborative art project.

Around the same time, the innovative use of satellites by artists such as Nam June Paik, Joseph Beuys, Douglas Davis, Kit Galloway, and Sherrie Rabinowitz were connecting performers across great distances in collaborative, interactive pieces. A dancer in New York would improvise to music played in Paris, while video of the two would be edited into a single performance for broadcast in, say, Berlin. Although these pioneering telematic works did not make use of networked computing—bandwidth and processor speeds were not yet great enough to allow for it—they set precedents for the real time network-based interaction between artists that became possible in the 1990s, as the technology improved and costs came down.

Online collaboration today takes many forms. Using Web-based music technologies, artists are working together to create new music. There are online studios that connect artists across great distances, and Web-based jams between musicians who have never laid eyes on one another. At the same time, even more popular are “collaborations” between artists who are not even aware that a “collaboration” is taking place. Referred to as “remixes” or “bootlegs,” digital files of a wide range of recorded material are being cut up and manipulated into entirely new works of art—blending distinct and unlikely source materials into singular creations. Of course, this kind of unsolicited collaboration challenges some long-held notions of intellectual property, and an artist’s unique affiliation with his or her own output. But at the same time, it brings back the idea of a shared folk culture, where creative expression is the property of the community at large, and can be shared for everyone’s benefit. Digital technology may be a route that reconnects us to aspects of our tribal roots.

As new as these techniques are, however, they retain a continuity with pre-digital compositional approaches. The network simply allows musicians to perform together online, replicating the experience they have always had when jamming in the same room. At the same time, the mixing of distinct aural elements certainly does not require digital technology; analog sound mixing dates at least to John Cage’s 1939 performance of Imaginary Landscapes, which featured a mix of turntables and radios. From this perspective, computer networks simply contribute to long-standing tendencies in composition that preceded the digital era.

However, some composers are exploring a wholly original, uncharted musical terrain, one that is unthinkable without networked computers. In these works, the sound experience is created through the real time participation of the listener in the making of the performance itself. These online sound art pieces rely on the interactive engagement of the listener, who helps to shape the specifics of the performance through personal choices and actions, which are communicated to the music-making software over the wired network. In this way, the traditional distinction between “artist” and “audience” begins to melt away, as the “listener” also becomes a “performer.”

Inner Pages:

Composing with Software

Interacting With Intelligent Networks

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