Columbia Student Mines Peer-to-Peer Networks…For Art’s Sake



“I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit.”

This quote from Twelfth Night was the first phrase I uttered into the telephone almost two year’s ago when I first experienced Jason Freeman‘s infectious Telephone Etude #1, more playfully referred to as Shakespeare Cuisinart. The official instructions asked users, who called a toll-free number to access the program, to speak their favorite lines from Shakespeare and soon the telephone spat back a short musical piece, chopping, splitting, and splicing their voices into a hyperactive sound collage. I kept calling, racking my brain for every line of Shakespeare I knew: Hamlet, Lady MacBeth, Puck, Julius Caesar. But then I realized that I wasn’t limited to Shakespeare. I began singing songs, telling jokes, and making noises. This is when the depth of the project came to light. I was in charge of my own compositions, making choices about what would sound good after being submitted to Freeman’s sound blender.

Freeman, a doctoral candidate in composition at Columbia University, also favored creations that strayed from the instructions. “I finally figured out what I really, really liked to do was sing a couple of verses of ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,’ and I never found anything that I enjoyed more than that. I must have done it dozens of times.”

On April 9, 2003, after having received 35,000 calls during its 2 year run, Telephone Etude #1 was dismantled, much to the chagrin of many newly made “composers.” Fortunately, those who caught the sound collage bug only had to wait a few months before Freeman launched his next effort, an online slicing and dicing program with the technofile appellation Network Auralization for Gnutella (N.A.G.).

Whereas Shakespeare Cuisinart required users to simply have access to a telephone, N.A.G. requires being a bit more tech savvy. Although Freeman sites the ideal N.A.G. user as “someone who has at least some familiarity with what file sharing is…and maybe some background in music,” even novice computer users can easily navigate Freeman’s user-friendly interface.

With N.A.G., users are provided with an instrument that essentially “plays” the Gnutella network. Gnutella is a post-Napster file-sharing protocol that operates as a decentralized network of computers allowing individuals to swap MP3 audio files and is the engine behind many popular peer-to-peer networks like Morpheus and BearShare. Although such networks have been a virtual free-for-all paradise for pop music fans, those whose taste leans a bit more towards classical and the avant-garde are often disappointed. But thanks to Freeman, who concurs that peer-to-peer leaves a lot to be desired for those with fringe tastes, N.A.G. sets out to make file-sharing a bit more interesting.

Once installing N.A.G. (which is available as a free download from turbulence.org, which commissioned the projection), users can set out to create their own sonic collages. After typing in a set of keywords, N.A.G. scans the Gnutella network and automatically begins to download files that contain the keywords in their information. Freeman’s design then continuously checks the downloads, prioritizing segments according to speed of download for real-time playback. The result is a shuffle of sound files cutting in and out as they download, overlapping snippets into an aleatoric sound collage. The results can be further manipulated by altering the algorithm, selecting how many songs may play simultaneously, how quickly N.A.G. moves amongst songs, and whether N.A.G. varies playback speed and volume in proportion to the download speeds of each song.

Freeman initially conceived of N.A.G. in January of 2002, but it wasn’t until December with a grant from New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc. under the auspices of their net art project turbulence.org, that he proceeded full throttle with the project. What drew Freeman to the Gnutella network was not the final goal of having a hard drive full of songs, but the process of searching and downloading, and the imperfections inherent to this system. “The goal was never really to get the final MP3 file downloaded completely but to sort of watch the whole thing unfold… I wanted to turn it into a more engaging medium and since it’s MP3 files that are passing through the network, and they’re already audio, it actually made sense to turn the whole thing into an aural experience.”

Not only is N.A.G. an aural experience but it is also an active one, which, like much of his other work, succeeds at breaking down the barriers between composer, performer, and listener. The project aims to allow people who hadn’t had the same musical opportunities as Freeman to be able to have a creative experience with sound. “It’s also comes a little bit out of a frustration with the way that music is consumed, not only just in society in general but in music circles,” he continued. “Even in new music, when I go to concerts in New York…there’re a lot of people in the audience, I can tell, that are just totally tuned out.” With N.A.G. it is impossible to be passive, because without the input of the user, the work cannot begin.

Freeman openly acknowledges the influence of John Cage‘s Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951), for 24 performers manipulating the controls of 12 radios, Imaginary Landscape No. 5 (1952), created from 42 phonograph records, and Alvin Lucier‘s Music for Solo Performer, which converts brainwaves into sound. All of these works converted real-time phenomena into musical works, a concept that has proliferated in the information age.

Today, media is transmitted instantaneously and progress in the computer age seems synonymous with speed. Such an environment has bred a younger generation of artists fascinated with the infinite possibilities of exploiting the media through technology. Matthew Biederman‘s Aleatory TV, which was part of the MATA Festival this year, gathered television signals from all over the world, bouncing from emission to emission based on certain aural cues. And Listening Post by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, featured last year at the Whitney Biennial, scoured live chat rooms from all over the Internet and pulled phrases that surrounded keyword searches.

Web Shredder>, masterminded by visual artist Mark Napier and available at potatoland.org, scrambles the codes of Web pages, creating abstract collages of the original material. British artist Stanza also turns the Web upside down with his 3D interface Subvergence, that “uses and abuses data from our computers.” Peter and Gregory Traub’s Sibling Revelry scans the web for keyword-related sound files to be played on a sampler on their site. Another web-specific sound art project is Chris Chafe‘s Ping, originally presented at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art‘s 010101: Art in Technological Times exhibition, is now available in an online version. The program makes music in real time from Internet ping times.

But the resulting sounds from N.A.G. are less reminiscent of the ambient sound of other media artists than they are of John Oswald‘s controversial Plunderphonics, which reworked the music of pop icons into incomprehensible jumbles. And like Oswald, Freeman also must face the record companies as he ventures into the minefield of peer-to-peer networks. With file sharing being a giant sore spot for the recording industry, such a project cannot exist without some scrutiny into its lawfulness. Freeman easily shrugs off worries about offending the powers that be. His program makes use primarily of very short segments usually no more than a few seconds long (and as we learned from the James Newton vs. the Beastie Boys case, 6 seconds of music is “unoriginal as a matter of law” and therefore not subject to copyright restrictions…) In addition, there is no built in way to record N.A.G. creations, although Freeman insists that this is more of an aesthetic and technical choice than a protective one. “I haven’t put in the recording function, more than anything, because it would be incredibly difficult to do…[and] partially because I feel like a lot of it is the moment of the experience and not really something that people should want to preserve.” And what about the demonstrative sound samples on the N.A.G. website? “If someone sends me a cease and desist letter, I’ll probably just cease and desist and take the samples down, but I don’t expect that will happen.”

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