the love of sound
Time, Interactivity - a Utopia - Rob Godman

Not all cultures define or experience time in the same way. Obviously, the are a number of phenomena in nature – the waxing and waning of the moon, day and night, the regular cycles of the planets – many different things that lead us to believe that our view of time is principally cyclic in nature.
There are certain facts in life that lead us to believe that time is not only linear but that it moves in a certain direction (from the past to present to the future). Most societies have constructed time measuring devices that are both cyclic and linear. More importantly, most societies in the world have a clear understanding of what time is.
Surely, if time is linear and potentially cyclic (with a second being a second the world over), there can be no confusion about time and no discrepancy?

From the programme note for Hymn (ten days lost forever) - for Eb Clarinet and Pre Recorded Audio - Rob Godman

This work started life as a very different piece. Over the summer months I read ‘The Calendar’ by David Ewing Duncan (Fourth Estate, London). The book chronicles our attempts at resolving the issues of regulating time, taking into account the rather awkward length of our year – namely 365.242199 days.
The issue of time moving in and out of phase with our lives was to be the impetus for my piece, ten days lost forever being the title of one of the chapters and an account of how the calendar was changed back in 1582 to compensate for these phase problems. The result appears to have been much confusion!

*"I grit my teeth, but my mind is always ten days ahead or ten days behind: it keeps muttering in my ears: ‘That adjustment concerns those not yet born.’" - Montaigne 1588
* In fact, Montaigne actually wrote ‘eleven days’, his mistake, and just to add to the confusion for all.

The Calendar
In fact, there has been much discrepancy! The rather annoying length of the day, it taking 365.242199 days to complete one earth year, means that the seasons could potentially go out of phase (corrected by a leap year). Most subdivisions of the calendar are astronomical. A week is one of the exceptions.
Different religions have had different calendars. Not everyone in the world is in the year 2002! For instance, the Islamic Calendar Hijra is based on a 30-year lunar cycle of 12 lunar months and of 30 and 29 alternate days.
The date 1st January 2000 of the Gregorian Calendar would be: -
• 19th December 1999 - Julian Calendar
• 23rd Tebeth (the fourth month) 5760 in the Jewish Calendar
• 24 Ramadan (the ninth month) 1420 Hijra in the Muslim Calendar
• the 25th day of the 11th month in the year of the rabbit, and the 16th year of the current 60-year cycle in the Chinese Calendar
• the 11th day of Pausa in the year 1921 of the Saka era according to the civil solar Hindi Calendar

Time Keeping Devices
There have been many attempts across the ages to find devices that will measure time. The sundial was one of the earliest accurate devices (sadly dependant on the ‘sun’, and not quite as accurate at night!).
From as early as the 3rd Century BC, geared mechanisms had been used throughout Europe to create time keeps that provided astronomical information. References to mechanical timekeeping reappear around the year 1000 and developments in the clock continued steadily until modern times. A dramatic watershed event occurred in the middle years of the 17th Century when Christian Huygen introduced the pendulum to clockwork in 1656 (although Galileo had argued the devices importance some years earlier). It could be argued that the pendulum was the most important horological invention ever made – or at least up and till the realisation of atomic time, possibly a time when time becomes too accurate for its own good!

The Experience of Time
• Architecture – Frozen Music
• Photography – an isolated instance frozen in time
• Aboriginal Australia – infinity is more graspable as part of the present. Also, ‘dreamtime’ is as much a part of the present and the future as it is of the past.
• Psychological perception – time flies when you’re having fun, I’m bored by this lecture – it feels as if time has stopped! This work is old fashioned – it is out of date.

Music and Time
Whether silently read or performed, music exists only in time. As such it processes the potential to do something that can be accurately measured; a language that moves through time and can be articulated within it. The urge to quantify music as precisely as possible through written forms is not common in all musical cultures. African drumming and Indian Ragas have remained predominantly oral traditions, passed on from generation to generation (until European musicologists began to ‘recording’ them).
The development of notation has played a hugely important role in music. Musical structures using canons, number, isorhythms etc. were only possible thanks to the precision of new musical notation.
Technology through the ages has also assisted in developing our understanding of time. The metronome (a device capable of clicking at certain rates; invented by Dietrich Winkel around 1812) changed notation for composers. Rather than having to give unclear markings as the approximation of a tempo (i.e. Adagio or Presto), it was now possible to give exact tempo markings. However, the metronome was not a perfect solution, for instance; many of Beethoven’s tempo markings are often disputed.
Importantly, compositions have been considered to be linear forms of work. They begin and end at a specified time. The duration is largely fixed (to a greater or lesser extent). Arguably, digital technology is allowing us to break away from this linear concept of time. Interactivity means that potentially all previous fixed parameters can become variables and this applies equally to time as any others…

Interactivity – a Musical Utopia?
The following is taken from Adam Lively’s book ‘Sing the Body Electric’ (1993, Chatto and Windus)
In the autumn of 2064, Paul Clearwater, a celebrated composer in voluntary exile from New Venice, arrives at Wellfleet, an old-fashioned town perched on the brink of the untamed sea. He describes in a sequence of letters to his sister his faltering friendship with the taciturn local fishermen and his stormy involvement in the town’s musical and social life. A great Sea Symphony begins to take shape as he paces the windswept shingle. The date of the first performance nears, though he feels a sense of impending catastrophe.
Clearwater’s letters form the novels overture. The response - the second movement - is an unexpected one, carried to him by the warm and wild Luisa Delaware. His maturing relationship with Luisa forms a languid adagio. But his music comes between them, as Clearwater ponders his sister’s excited descriptions of the startling new invention that is revolutionising music in New Venice. The final movements follow the composer’s dramatic return to the city, and his quest to expand the boundaries of music, and of creativity itself.
Part symphony, part love story and fable, Adam Lively’s new novel embraces many themes and ideas, from the dangers and attractions of utopianism to the impermanence of desire, but at its heart is a bold, exhilarating exploration of the art of music. Moving, funny, profound and surprising, Sing the Body Electric is a novel of great originality and power; an enthralling read, a challenging account of artist endeavour, and of the struggle to make real the life of the mind.

Adam’s book deals with a new invention - the neurorch
" Clearwater ponders his sister’s excited descriptions of the startling new invention that is revolutionising music....." This is a device that is capable of transforming thoughts, feelings and emotion directly to sound. The actual interface or technique for this is never discussed - simply accepted. In practice, Adam’s invention uses a technique that allows the user to convert thoughts directly into sound. As composers, imagine not ever having to write your ideas onto paper, never having to learn how to ‘play’ an instrument or use new software. Surely, this would be the invention of all inventions?

How real is this?
A composer and inventor called Hugh Lusted worked on a device called ‘Biomuse’, a brainwave MIDI controller. Other devices have included attempts at capturing electrical signals from the brain or electromyograms to detect muscle tension or elctrooculograms to detect eye movements (music while you sleep for rapid eye movement whilst dreaming?). Its effectiveness remains unclear! In the case of the Biomuse, sensors have been used to convert electrical energy to MIDI data (by using a voltage to MIDI converter – similar to the iCube Sensor Box).

So, are we looking for improved interfaces?
Well, possibly! Let’s look at the variety of different input devices available for today’s digital equipment.
Switches, pushbuttons, linear potentiometers or faders, rotary faders, motorized faders, trackballs, joysticks, game paddles (US terminology), light pens, keyboards, hand held mouse, digitizer tablet, touch sensitive pads, touch sensitive display screens, 3D keyboards, thumbwheels, footpedal and switch, drum pads, breath controller, instrumental MIDI controllers, microphones, video detection, theremins, ultrasonic detectors, in fact any sensor of any description… - are we not trying to reinvent the wheel? More on interfaces later…

See pages 626 to 640 of The Computer Music Tutorial (Curtis Roads) for more information on these devices.

What are the consequences of a Utopian Musical Instrument?
It would mean that everyone could express himself or herself musically. It wouldn’t matter if you ‘couldn’t sing’ or ‘aren’t musical’. No more playing Bb major scales on the piano. Technique and instrumental skill would be things of the past and we could all go around expressing ourselves in our chosen language – music.

Interactivity – making comparisons
Digital technology has allowed artists to hand over control of their works to other people. An interactive musical composition may have no direct input from the ‘composer’. The word ‘composer’ itself becomes open for discussion. If your definition goes along the lines of "an organiser of sound events" then if you hand over these organisational issues to someone else, are you no longer a composer?

Interactive - 1. reciprocally active; acting upon or influencing each other. 2. (of a computer or other electrical device) allowing a two way flow of information between it and a user.

The definition above makes a point of there being a two-way flow between user and device. When artists create inventive interactive work this element is often the key to the work. The device may be making a series of comparisons based upon information that is being fed into it by the user.

For instance
‘two clicks of the mouse’ = ‘play a sound file’
‘when the lights are turned off’ = ‘say "goodnight"’

If we start to look a little more logically behind such a simple operation, we see that the user is defining an event and the device corresponds with an action. This isn’t really a two-way interactive experience, but it’s a start.
Imagine the code (because that’s what we’re beginning to write here) becoming a little more sophisticated: -
‘two clicks’ = ‘play sound file until further clicks’
This is becoming an interactive experience. The device is playing a sound file until it receives more information.
Using the Max/MSP programming language or C++, the expression might be shown as follows: -
[If $i1 == 2 then set start else set stop]
$i1 is a variable that might be set up to count the number of mouse clicks.

Where might this type of interactivity be found the most?
Computer games make these types of comparisons over and over again. Imagine playing a driving game. It is very difficult to replicate your previous drive exactly (unless you are able to record your performance in some way) owing to the fact that you are constantly inputting new data that the computer is analysing in some way. The likelihood is that the computer will move the graphic display in a corresponding way to the movements of your joystick (or whatever controller you are using). The programme may introduce a random or loaded random element meaning that it is not quite as predictable as at first thought.

[if $i1 < 7 then set start else stop]
meaning – if the variable is less than seven then start, if it’s over seven stop.

Journeys through the Roman Empire
(Channel 4 Learning, British Museum, and Braunarts)
This educational game was programmed using Director (a multimedia authoring tool). Variables are set up within the authoring software and it makes comparative actions as you input information. Some of the comparisons are more complicated than others. Owing to the nature of the game, you are required to explore the virtual environment you are in meaning there is no right or wrong answer. Interestingly, the decisions relating to the sound are kept very simple. This isn’t an interactive score as such. Sound files are played back in a linear way with the amount of user interaction affecting them kept to a minimum.
Warp Records are the label outputting Aphex Twin albums amongst many others. Their site has recently won the Prix Ars Electronica award for one of the best interactive site. As well as being a place to merchandise their products, the site also allows you to create your own sound tracks within an interactive environment. In affect, the site gives you a fixed pallet of sounds that you can then organise to suit your wishes. This is one example of interactive music. One question may be relevant here – who (or what!) is the composer of the sounds you hear? Is this an important question?!

Audio Installation – Rob Godman
This project has been shown in a number of environments including a gallery space in Gloucestershire (Prema Arts Centre, shown below).

Technically, the work functioned in the following way.
1. A pre-composed linear audio file was played back continuously (in reality it looped after four hours).
2. Four other audio loops (consisting of processed speech and recorded ticking clocks) were ‘mixed’ into the linear material by interactive control. In this case, the controllers were light dependant resistors (LDR’s) that sent voltage information through to a voltage to MIDI converter (iCube). The MIDI numbers were used to control a wide range of parameters within the Max/MSP software that was used to programme the installation.
3. The input data from above was also used to control a light display placed upon the black boards at the side of the gallery.

Rob says, "This work was partly about addressing issues of interactivity that have and still do concern me. The only label I still try to stick to is label ‘composer’ because I do just that - I organise sounds. So does writing an interactive work mean that you are no longer composing? Well, the boundaries are becoming ever more hazy and it probably goes to show that labels are more trouble than they are worth!"

The example above is taken from a Vitruvian Drones Generator (and used within the work detailed above). It shows ten random number generators and how decisions are made on each random number [if $i1 < 5 then set 0 else set $i1]. This code means that if the variable (the random number input) is less than 5, then output zero. If it is 5 or over then output that random number. This isn’t an interactive work as such but it does show how a variable can be used within this context. It would be a simple task to replace the random number generator with some kind of external ‘audience generated’ response (mouse clicks, MIDI information – anything in fact).

The Search for the Perfect Interface
Virtual reality
It is likely VR research will lead to more sophisticated musical controllers. One line of VR attempts to monitor the gestures of a person and transmit to that person synthetic sensations correlated to their gestures. In some VR set-ups, the user wears ear and eye-phones. When looking up or moving your head, one hears sounds and sees images that follow one’s gestures. It is not difficult to imagine the musical potential of such systems, wherein ‘exploring musical space’ becomes a literal experience.

Interfaces as Hardware
As has been demonstrated there are hundreds of different controllers available (in this case, we are thinking of controllers that form an interface to some kind of digital equipment). It is worth comparing this type of controller to another kind – say a live musical instrument.
Some years ago the percussionist Evelyn Glennie was experimenting with different percussive MIDI controllers. A frequently seen device from the late 1980’s was the MIDI KAT. This device was basically a MIDI drum kit that took data from the pads that were struck with conventional drum sticks (or any ‘striking’ input). What became clear was that the sensitivity of the KAT was nowhere near great enough for Evelyn Glennie to be able to use the instrument to create the same amounts of expression as she would with conventional instruments. In this case, it was an obvious example of the limitations of MIDI. It can be assumed that other MIDI controllers suffer from the same inherent problems. It also demonstrates the degrees of complexity that are required to emulate a ‘real’ instrument.

But what about other Art Forms?
Clearly it isn’t just music and sound that are capable of being controlled through interactive means. Sensor technology has been used to control video and other forms of moving image. The Audio Installation detailed above used four light dependant resistors for measuring the amount of light in a particular space. A light dependant resistor (LDR) is by its very nature a variable resistor whose variation in resistance is produced by light. The corresponding change in voltage is then measured by the sensor box (an iCube Voltage to MIDI converter in this case). Any resistor (variable or otherwise) is capable of producing this type of information.

Some examples for Dance and Theatre
• Create your own music in real time as you move
How? Video detection and motion capture, LDR’s, contact sensors, bend sensors placed on moving joints - converting voltage into MIDI, MIDI information used for synthesizers etc.
• Create your own light show in real time as you move
How? As before but with the MIDI information controlling a lighting desk.

The implications of this are that we can produce true hybrid collaborative performances. Needless to say, there are huge philosophical and artistic issues when dealing with such a collaborative idea (whose work is it being one!).

Philosophical Issues relating to the Composer and Interactivity
Whilst the emulation problems of ‘real’ instruments are perhaps obvious, one of the huge issues of interactivity relates to empowering the audience member in performance.
Audience as composer (arguable points!)
1. Interactivity allows the audience to same control over the musical work as the composer?
2. The audience is the composer and produces sound material of equal merit to the composer?
3. The composer no longer is a controller of musical material?
4. The composer has liberated the audience is a similar way to Adam Lively’s ‘nueroch’?
5. Interactive musical works are free from issues of hierarchy?
6. Good or bad interactive music are unable of definition?

Some further thoughts
Interactivity is a complex issue relating to how we as composers relate to potential audiences. Interactive art differs from other art across the centuries in that it allows an audience a direct input into what they are experiencing. The role of the audience is no longer passive. Clearly this introduces a considerable element of risk for the art works originator. You are no longer in control of as many parameters as you had previously been used to. The audience is making decisions for you (?).
In our piece of code (demonstrated earlier) –
‘two clicks’ = ‘play sound file until further clicks’
Here a variable is being introduced into the interactive equation. There are three possible outcomes.
1. Nothing happens – no one presses the mouse resulting in apparent silence
2. A sound file is played and it continues playing for an infinite period of time
3. A sound file is played and then stops when the user clicks on the mouse again

The programmer has assigned the interactive parameters and potential responses. There are, apparently, no other possible options. If the work were to be expanded it would be possible to introduce further variables within those that already exist (for instance, if the sound file plays for more than 10 seconds play another sound file on top of it). Musical applications of this type of ‘interactive composition’ can be seen and heard on national television frequently (examples being quiz shows – ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’, ‘The Weakest Link’ plus news stories when music is played over the top of the news readers story which could be of a variable length).

Good interactive art (RG personal opinion looming…)?
It is likely that we as composers can produce more interesting structures than the general public left with infinite possibilities (would interesting interactive art be a piano placed in the middle of a gallery with instructions to the audience to go and play it as they see fit? Would it not be likely for a trained pianist to be able to produce a more interesting result? Again, arguable possibly!). If a composer leaves a variety of parameters that can be manipulated by the user then a more pleasing result may occur. Interesting installation or www spaces are frequently those where you can be left to discover the very nature of the interactivity. What’s causing that sound? Is it me or would it be there without my input? What is the connection? Are these sounds appealing to me? Am I being provided with all the answers or is this work making me question the purpose behind me being in this space? Is this work interactive purely because the composer hasn’t got any decent ideas of his/her own? Is the sound simply being used as an ‘explainer’ of the visuals? Am I being patronised by this piece of work in front of me? Why can’t intelligent people enjoy the experience of interactive art (!!?)? - (they can…)…

Source - Rob Godman
Adam Lively’s book ‘Sing the Body Electric’ is published by Chatto and Windus. The extract is used withy the kind permission of the author.

Rob Godman
4 Mill Close Wotton-under-Edge
Gloucestershire GL12 7LP
United Kingdom
T. (44) 01453 521895
F. (44) 01453 844447

© Rob Godman February 2002