Sound Context (Introduction)

In our project statement, we outline how Rhythm of Life is an investigation of alternative means of representing bodily data. The first reaction for many data designers to such a challenge is to produce visualisations, and indeed we have taken this approach in the past – see The Aqua Vita Project, for example. But in Rhythm of Life we are concerned with something that does not primarily lend itself to the ocular: we are concerned with time, and to be more precise, with rhythm.

It is our aim to sonify photon-emmissions in such a way as to expose the temporal patterns in the data. We want to discover if different people have unique rhythmic signatures, and if so, what it might say about their physiological or mental condition. With such questions, our interpretation of rhythm becomes an integral aspect of how the work will eventually be experienced. The sound must remain analogous to the data, without introducing noise or extraneous complexity. By the same token, it must remain interpretable, and give some insight into the individual being recorded while demarcating them sufficiently from other individuals’ rhythmic signature.

So before I continue further, perhaps I should define ‘rhythm’ so as to place it in the correct context. In Rhythm of Life, we can understand rhythm as being a series of perceivable punctuations in time. The exact form of these punctuations and the manner in which they punctuate are currently being explored, but it goes without saying that the possibilities for sonification are incredibly varied. To help us sculpt the right sound, we are currently exploring sounds from diverse sources: we are researching tribal forms of music where the links between rhythm and the body remain synonymous; we are exploring the “music under a microscope” improvisation long-forms of the Australian jazz trio The Necks; ambient music and its effects on how we perceive the space around us; and of course the conceptual, minimalist, and systems music explored by Fluxus and other composers of the mid-20th century. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting some examples of such works that are informing our approach to the form, manner and atmosphere of these sonic ‘punctuations’.

John Cage – Dances for Prepared Piano

In line with his interest in the aleatoric, John Cage stuck pieces of rubber, springs, and other sundry items into the strings and hammers of a piano. When the hammer strikes the strings, the family familiar timbre of the piano is undelivered – instead a muted, rattled, or otherwise unexpected sound rings out.

Cornelius Cardew – The Great Learning

An example of an evolutionary (and arguably revolutionary too) chorale systems-composition based on the ancient Confucian text, the I-Ching. The algorithm provides the following rules: the choir members the opportunity to begin the recitation at a pitch and tempo of their choice, but on commencement of every ensuing line of the text, they must choose a pitch sung by another member of the choir. Over time, some pitches gradually die out through this “negative feedback” of pitch reduction, culminating in the group singing the final lines in unison.

The Necks – See Through

One half of a double-album by The Necks, See Through is a single 61 minute track of dense piano, rolling drums and pizzicato double bass. It has a noisy musicality, sustaining a high level of energy that is so static you might forget you are still listening to it – that is, until the music is suddenly punctured with intermittent shocking silences. Incidental environmental sounds provide colour in these transparent sections, and bookended by the bouts of piano/bass/drums, they gain a new musicality in their own right.