The MP3 Phenomena and Innovative Music

The potential of Internet sound art is immense. It is allowing composers to have direct interaction with audiences. It usually necessitates that composers collaborate with artists of other disciplines. It breaks down geographic boundaries. It redefines the roles of composer, performer and audience.

Currently though, Internet sound art is plagued with a variety of problems. The net is still not good for live interaction due to time delays. The low bit rates required for streaming deteriorate sound quality. Interactive instruments only allow multiple-choice-type mouse-clicking by the audience, with no opportunities for creative subtlety. The audience is limited by their amount of computer memory, Internet connection speed, and availability of programs needed to participate in the piece.

For many of these reasons, German composer Michael Iber chose not to use streamed-audio for his work Internet Generated Radio, but instead used a combination of interactive clicking and a normal radio broadcast of the results. Iber states:

“My basic concept was to use the Internet for controlling only and use the radio for high quality and REAL time audio transmission. The RealAudio-stream actually was a compromise I had to take imposed by the SWR, who wanted a more international output due to their extensive advertising campaign. It finally showed that the Internet stream had a delay of 20 seconds to the live-performance: obviously too much to realize the effect ones click on a button would have to the sound processing.”

While Iber believes the total amount of participants numbered around 500 people, only about 50 of them listened to the webcast via RealAudio, probably due to bandwidth limitations.

American composer William Duckworth‘s Cathedral is one of the first large-scale works of music and art created specifically for the World Wide Web, first going on-line in June, 1997. The extensive “Cathedral” site, created by a team of designers overseen by Duckworth, incorporates interactive sound and graphics, creative text and streamed audio. Periodically, live acoustic performances, which incorporate contributions by Internet audience participants playing virtual instruments, are broadcast via RealAudio streaming. Audience participants may also contribute their own Midi files to the piece.

In live performance, the audience contributions are blended into the piece via filters created by the composer. The contributions do not arrive exactly as the audience may have intended them, or with any individual identity, but rather are manipulated and homogenized. Ultimately, Duckworth appropriates the audience’s contributions and retains control of the piece.

Rather than trying to overcome or marginalize obstacles presented by the current limitations of Internet sound, Atau Tanaka‘s “MP3q” incorporates these limitations into the work. It accepts the current state of affairs and mirrors the social and time dynamic of the Internet. Tanaka calls his piece a “shared online sound space.” The site itself avoids use of any graphics or other memory-hogging devices.

When a visitor enters the “MP3q” site he or she sees a track list. Each track is a series of URLs that link to MP3 files on other sites. The visitor selects a track and then sees the list of URLs inside a frame surrounded by images of stationary arrows. The visitor may click on one or more tracks at any time to begin streaming an MP3. The visitor glides the mouse around the screen to make the group of files move around the screen and become larger or smaller. These variants in the placement and size affect the gain (loudness or softness) of the files. Tanaka’s concept allows participants to realize the mix in real-time on their own computers.

Anyone can contribute an MP3 link to the site by following simple prompts on the site. The contributed file must be low bitrate and available on a web server somewhere on the Internet.

The implications of Tanaka’s piece are many. The actual sound files do not exist on Tanaka’s website, but rather are located on servers around the world, emphasizing the Internet’s sociological connections, and also reducing the draw on any one server and keeping the site’s hard-drive from becoming quickly jammed with too many soundfiles. Tanaka’s piece does not require the audience to participate at a certain time, but rather they may participate at whatever time they choose. Interaction with Tanaka’s own compositions is not necessary, unless the visitor chooses to mix one of Tanaka’s pieces into his own mix. The sound material may be collaged into an original work created by the site visitor. The requirement of low bit-rate sound files gives the work a cohesive sound quality, and yet serves the double purpose of making the file extremely small and easier for computers to handle without crashing. The piece functions simply with a browser and a Shockwave plug-in, no MP3 player is needed. The fact that the site is programmed with Linux, an open-source free operating system, also makes a political statement.

Tanaka does not dictate or manipulate the data that is entered into his structure, and in fact, even the structure has flexibility. He does not seek to appropriate the material for his own creation but rather leaves his creation as a frame to be filled in by contributing artists, and mixed and played back by site visitors. Tanaka does well in redefining, and even bringing into question the necessity of, the individual composer.

Interestingly, when I visited the site I found that a contributor had linked a copyrighted popular song to the “MP3q” site, thus immediately drawing Tanaka’s work into the raging international controversy over intellectual property. The International Federation of Phonographic Industries has stated that linking to illegal MP3 files constitutes contributory copyright infringement.

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