Interface for John Roach and Willy Whip’s Simultaneous Translator
New Music and Globalization 2: Networked Music

New Music and Globalization 2: Networked Music

Interface for John Roach and Willy Whip’s <em><p class=Simultaneous Translator " width="600" height="450" class="size-full wp-image-268653" /> Interface for John Roach and Willy Whip’s Simultaneous Translator

Globalization today is almost synonymous with the internet. The net has not only enabled globalization’s modern-day form, but also, in its early days at least, served as its ideological model: thanks to the network, the world would become one of universal access to culture and resources, flat hierarchies, and the smooth and unimpeded flow of information.

That ideology spilled over into the first experiments in net-art and net-music in the early 1990s. As musicians began to experiment with the net itself, however, it soon become apparent that these hopes were far from realized or, in some cases, actually unattainable. In this post, I want to take a look at how networked music has addressed those early ideals and come to terms with their shortcomings. The question of information flow has received the most attention, so I will focus on it first.

It didn’t take long before the ideal of unimpeded global communication ran up against the realities of bandwidth, buffering speeds, and browser capabilities.[1] Even setting these limitations aside for future solution, we can’t get around basic physics. As Álvaro Barbosa has calculated,[2] even if data were to travel at its maximum speed, the speed of light, across a perfect network with unlimited bandwidth, the delay between two opposite points on the globe would be at least 65 msec—or more than three times longer than what the human ear will perceive as simultaneous. This has a direct impact on music: acceptable synchronization between geographically remote performers, such as an orchestra might easily achieve on stage, is not possible. Because such synchronicity is a founding value of most “good” musical performances, it was soon clear that net music would have to build itself on new foundations.

Bill Duckworth's Cathedral in its first incarnation

Bill Duckworth’s Cathedral in its first incarnation

Latency—the unavoidable delay of a networked system—is now accepted by net musicians, and either worked around or incorporated as a feature of their art. The Japanese-American artist Atau Tanaka is among those who have given most thought to this. In works like NetOsc (1999), written for the Sensorband trio of himself, Edwin van der Heide, and Zbigniew Karkowski, he considers latency as the “acoustic resonance” of the net, analogous to the resonance of a cathedral. (The analogy inadvertently points to one of the first, and most acclaimed, works of net-music, William Duckworth’s Cathedral, launched in 1997.) John Roach and Willy Whip’s Simultaneous Translator (2007) uses live data about the lag of router-to-router transactions across the net to shape certain musical parameters. Of course, by the 1990s musical innovations in open form, free improvisation, aleatory, parametrical composition, acousmatic music, and so on were well enough bedded in for there to be no real need for dramatic innovations in musical form or technique. The battles that made networked music aesthetically possible, at least, had all been fought.

When it comes to considering the web as a flat, non-hierarchical landscape, an important early work is Randall Packer’s Telemusic #1 (2000), made in collaboration with Steve Bradley, Gregory Kuhn, and John Young. As Packer describes it, one of the principal concerns of Telemusic #1 was “dissolving the spatial and temporal constraints of the performance environment and transforming the World Wide Web into an unseen ensemble of audience participants.” Performance of the work takes place in two spaces simultaneously: the physical performing venue and cyberspace. Online participant-listeners could navigate a 3D Flash environment populated by bits of text. Clicking on a text would trigger an audio sample of those words, which would be processed live and projected or streamed back into the physical and virtual spaces. (In the physical space, these texts were spoken aloud.) Participant-listeners would then hear a composite of the activities of themselves and everyone else participating in the work. The idea was developed further in Telemusic #2 (2001). Here, each participant-listener’s IP address was used to create a unique sonic identifier, making it possible to hear the virtual space as a plurality of individuals, rather than an undefined homogeneity.

Packer's Telemusic pieces

Packer’s Telemusic pieces: Screenshot of texts on the ‘telematic condition’

In net-works like these (and these are just two, relatively early, examples among many), art becomes about constructing an environment that the user enters, rather than delivering a precisely conceived message.[3] Packer expresses his own vision of this future utopia as follows: “Innovations in multi-user gaming, chat rooms, teleconferencing, MUDS and so on, point to new opportunities for radically new compositional forms for the online experience, a form of music that is no longer dependent on the location of the audience member, or even the location of the performance space.”[4] This is analogous to the shift that took place in site-specific art over the same period, from the 1970s and ’80s to the 2000s, although in music’s case it was driven as much by technological expediency as political critique.

Packer’s vision is seductive, and it may well come to pass in some form. He is not alone in thinking it. (Although it is interesting that more than a decade on it hasn’t, in spite of the accelerating pace of technological change.) Yet his vision is built upon the principle of technological sophistication, and therefore privilege. This brings me to the final ideal that I listed at the start of this post: universal access. This has proved the hardest issue to resolve, and appears to have received the least attention, at least among those artists that I am aware of. The fact is that engaging in net art—whether as a participant or creator—requires certain privileges that remain far from universal: a good quality computer and high-speed internet connection (or access to a relatively well-appointed gallery where such a work may be installed), sufficient leisure time, and appropriate physical abilities to work whatever interface there may be.

It is no coincidence that despite the ideology of access, net art’s key developments remain centered around North American and European research institutes like CCRMA at Stanford and SARC in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Until net composers address this question, net music must surely remain an incomplete metaphor for contemporary globalization.

*

[1] Helen Thorington’s article “Breaking out: The trip back,” published in Contemporary Music Review, 24(6) (2005), pp. 445–58, gives an excellent survey of the early history of networked music. An indication of the technical challenges connected to networked music can gained by reading the publications of the SoundWIRE research group at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. See: https://ccrma.stanford.edu/groups/soundwire/publications/.

[2] Á. Barbosa. “Displaced Soundscapes: A Survey of Network Systems for Music and Sonic Art Creation.” Leonardo Music Journal, 13 (2003), pp. 53–9.

[3] See Pierre Lévy. “The Art and Architecture of Cyberspace.” Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, ed. R. Packer and K. Jordan (New York: Norton, 2001).

[4] Randall Packer. “Composing with Media: Zero in Time and Space.” Contemporary Music Review, 24(6) (2005), pp. 509–25, at p. 524.

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2 thoughts on “New Music and Globalization 2: Networked Music

  1. Michael Robinson

    “The net has not only enabled globalization’s modern-day form, but also, in its early days at least, served as its ideological model: thanks to the network, the world would become one of universal access to culture and resources, flat hierarchies, and the smooth and unimpeded flow of information.”

    The net is certainly a tremendous resource, and there is much truth in this statement, but it still takes one-on-one, in-person interaction with a master teacher in order to begin to decipher the essence of a musical culture from another land, let alone our own land. (Yoga demands to be taught in a similar fashion, and some feel that yoga classes are both perilous and relatively useless given the individual attention required to learn this discipline properly.) Superficialities abound when reading about music as well. Just yesterday, I listened on YouTube how Robert Christgau believes that Modern Times by Bob Dylan is a more substantial effort than Love and Theft, which is akin to stating that Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony is greater than the Third, Fifth, or Ninth Symphonies. Sophistication and subtlety in expressing ones thoughts about music in writing (or speaking) does in no way guarantee that there will be substance of thought, or that the most important subject matter will even be considered. One glaring example outside of music is how The New York Times managed to overlook The Holocaust before, during, and after it occurred, only jumping on the bandwagon, so to speak, after that cataclysmic occurrence. And currently, that publication we have traditionally if hopelessly relied upon for truth is managing to miss and mislead the story of the drought in California, which threatens the existence of arguably our greatest state, deserving to be awarded countless dunce caps, if its possible to joke about such tragic developments.

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  2. David Mendoza

    I sense a theme with this series of articles on globalization. In the last one there was this ideology of collaboration (I wish I knew what it was.) now we have the ideology of access. I think the creators and composers know that there is no such thing as universal access. Not everyone is going to have a computer or internet connection. It probably, as you write, “received the least attention” because they are probably not concerned with it. They probably wanted to create something interesting and contribute to their field. You write,

    The fact is that engaging in net art—whether as a participant or creator—requires certain privileges that remain far from universal: a good quality computer and high-speed internet connection (or access to a relatively well-appointed gallery where such a work may be installed), sufficient leisure time, and appropriate physical abilities to work whatever interface there may be.

    It is no coincidence that despite the ideology of access, net art’s key developments remain centered around North American and European research institutes like CCRMA at Stanford and SARC in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Until net composers address this question, net music must surely remain an incomplete metaphor for contemporary globalization.

    First, is there some upper-middle class, white, American privilege book that I’m not reading? Since when do composers apologize for this? Second, are you saying that only North America, Europe, and Ireland can have net music? Have you researched the electroacoustic research centers in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea. Several of the projects you mention have expired so I wasn’t able to test them on my seven year old computer. When you write that other people of the world need the “appropriate physical abilities to work whatever interface there may be.” Are you saying that people in India or where ever don’t have this ability?

    Reply

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