The Sonic Spaces Project

The Sonic Spaces Project, is an ongoing artistic and research project that I have been engaged with since 2012.

This project was originally inspired by the perceived relationships and energy transfer principles within nature and the soundscapes of the woods.
The research and compositional output of this has resulted in a number of `sonic ecosystems’, which reflect these principles.

The resulting compositions have created engaging interactive opportunities that touch on notions of computer agency, experience-based art, and site-specific couplings.

This page describes these system in more detail and also presents links to the compositions and research outputs that have resulted.

  • Narrative Introduction

    Along the river there were docks that you could sit on at night to listen to the world...

    When I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I spent a lot of time by the Huron River. My apartment was just up the hill from this river, and I could actually see it and the train tracks that ran alongside it from my bedroom window. Along the river there were docks that you could sit on at night to listen to the world and stare at the stars. There was a dam where, during the day, you could stand in the middle of and look all the way up-stream. There were also lots of great Michigan woods to wander. I would say these woods were quiet, but what I really mean is that the woods on the south shore of the river, where I would walk, did not have an excessive amount of human caused or anthrophonic noise. The woods were actually anything but quiet, as there was an enormous diversity of sound events occurring. The big trees would audibly creak and sway, mixing above and below the light trickle of the dammed river against the edge of the shore. Atop the constantly evolving pastoral sounds of the water and trees; birds would sing to each other, and squirrels would chatter in response to the accidental crack of a twig beneath my foot or the song I might sing.
    Wandering and listening are part of my soundwalk practice, which builds on the practices of Hildegard Westerkamp and R. Murray Schafer (Schafer 1993; Westerkamp 2002). During these soundwalks, I try to follow the ideas described by Barry Truax of being as present, and aware as possible to all of the sounds occurring within my soundscape (Truax 1999). I listen to the sounds created from the chatter of squirrels and bird songs; more specifically I consider the relationships between these sound-making agents. Asking myself questions, such as; “Where did that sound specifically come from?”, “Was this sound near or far?”, or “Did a single agent, or a collection of agents, such as a group of birds up high in a tree behind me create this sound?”.

    During soundwalks, I also consider how the sounds of the landscape, created from the creaking and groaning of the big trees, plays into the emergent composition that I am experiencing. What is the mix of the sources in relation to each other? Where are they spatially located? Are the sources moving around me? What meaning does this emergent composition have, if any?

    The sounds I hear, and the way I perceive or understand these sounds and their relationship to each other or myself at a specific location and moment in time, is known as the soundscape. I listen and try to actively consider the soundscape I am part of in these soundwalks.

    During my time in Michigan, I began to notice relationships between the sound making agents emerging from this complex soundscape. In order to accomplish a representation or description of these relationships I turned to my strength as an artist and started to explore ways of composing these sonic interactions through interactive installation art. In order to better understand these relationships, it was necessary to find ways of composing what I perceived during my soundwalks into an interactive music system. The goal of this work was to further explore these sonic interactions and agent relationships through music making. This work allows me to explore representations of the interactions and relationships that I have perceived or experienced occurring in the natural soundscapes of the woods of Michigan, and the mountains from my home state of Colorado.

Dissertation

This project was also the focus of my Ph.D. Dissertation. For more information please visit the dissertation page.

Definition of Terms

Sonic Space Ecosystem

Sonic Space Ecosystems, are a sub-discipline of interactive music systems, which attempt to represent, adapt, and explore principles of other systems through an open sonic interface. These systems create a complex network of interconnected agents, based on artistically inspired relationships and principles from real-world ecosystems. The characteristics of these compositions create open-form, spatio-temporal, interactive music systems. This model creates flexibility in the presentational and participatory aspects of the systems, as well as creating engaging interactive opportunities that touch on notions of computer agency, experience-based art, and site-specific couplings.

The practice of composing Sonic Space Ecosystems is defined by a number of characteristics. The first, which I consider as a strict requirement, is that the majority, if not all, of the interaction between agents of the system (human and/or software) exists in the open sonic space of the room. This means that the sonic space of the chamber in which the system is installed serves as the interface for information exchange, with microphones placed throughout the space.

The emergent musical properties of the system should be capable of creating a dynamic and diverse range of soundscapes, able to move between states of stability or stasis and states of volatility as the system works towards reestablishing equilibrium.

Ecosystems imply some source of energy exchange and energy use between agents of the system. Typically, for the system to maintain stasis, this energy needs to be balanced throughout, and the influx of new energy controlled. Since the interface for a sonic ecosystem is the sonic space, this implies that the major form of energy for agents is in the form of sonic energy.

Finally, as this is intended as an interactive art form it is important for participants to experience these systems. Participation should provide opportunities to reconsider one’s relationship to other systems through experience-based play. Software agents also need to be capable of collaborating and engaging with the human participants in the system. In order for this to occur, the sonic ecosystem must be capable of handling unknown types of sonic energy by human-agents. This sonic energy should stimulate and potentially direct the emergent music of the system.

All of these ideas are encapsulated in the following, formal definition;

Sonic Space Ecosystems (clarified here to refer to feedback-based sonic ecosystems) are classified as both cyber-physical systems and interactive music systems, comprised of hierarchically related elements that together perform a system function that is greater than is possible by the individual elements. The primary function of this system is to create a controlled music environment which exhibits emergent qualities of self-organization created through inter-reliant relationships between internal elements in the digital system, and relationships between the digital system itself to the physical sonic space that it is installed within. These elements are made aware of their physical world through microphones that act as input transducers, allowing them to use sonic energy that they then transform according to their individual function (algorithms) as a way of surviving themselves. This transformed sonic energy is then returned to the sonic space through loudspeakers that act as output transducers as a way of potentially affecting the system as a whole. A healthy system is one that exhibits self-regulating states of growth, decay, or steady states and is capable of recovering from unexpected or extreme environmental changes. These systems are open and require external contributions of sonic energy by human-agents/participants or non-living external elements in the environment. This sonic space ecosystem then fulfills Jørgensen’s requirement that “an ecosystem is a dynamic complex of elements, agents, communities, and the nonliving environment, interacting as a functional unit,” (2007, 20) while at the same time fulfilling the ideas of interactive music systems.

Open Sonic Interface

Open Sonic Interface – This implies that the entire room, chamber, or space that the system is installed in becomes the interface for data exchange between agents. Human-agents are naturally able to do this by being in the space and hearing the total music emerging. Software-agent are afforded this capability by placing a microphone or array of microphones around the space so that the entire emergent music can be heard. This is opposed to the more common direct-mic’ing technique that would try to capture or encourage participants to focus on making music directly into a microphone.

Agent

Agent – A component of a system that exhibits a crucial role in the decision-making process or actions of the system. At the top-level of the sonic ecosystem this includes software-agents and human-agents. A software-agent may be itself, a multi-agent system, with individual agent-modules, responsible for singular tasks, sharing their information internally with the other agent-modules of the software-agent. This creates a hierarchical relationship of module-agents to the software-agent, which itself is just one part of the full multi-agent, interconnected ecosystem.


This project will stay at a high-level when considering agency, recognizing that from a human-perception standpoint, “routine, purpose, and judgment all constitute important dimensions of agency, [with] none by itself [capturing the] full complexity” (Emirbayer and Mische 1998). From a computational systems standpoint, autonomous agents within the Sonic Spaces Project adapt the definitions proposed by Franklin and Graesser (1997);

An autonomous agent is a system situated within and a part of an environment that senses that environment and acts on it, over time, in pursuit of its own agenda and so as to effect what it senses in the future.

As well as by Wooldridge (2010);

Agents are computer systems with two important capabilities. First, they are at least to some extent capable of autonomous action – of deciding for themselves what they need to do in order to satisfy their design objectives. Second, they are capable of interacting with other agents – not simply by exchanging data, but by engaging in analogues of the kind of social activity that we all engage in every day of our lives: cooperation, coordination, negotiation, and the like.

These definitions do not aim to offer an absolute, but instead to clarify the oft-used term in order for it to be useful in work describing systems with respect to the agents of the system. Perhaps, more importantly, these definitions do not restrict the use of the terms to specific instances, and allow for the containing environment, of an agent, to be another agent.

Interactive Music Systems

Interactive Music System – A music system where every participating agent (software-agent or human-agent) has an equal opportunity to contribute information and thereby affect the state of one or more collaborating agents. With regards to human-participants, this should allow for self-directed construction of meaning relative and pertinent to the participants own lived experience. Furthermore, the primary goal for the system is for musicking or the act of creating, listening, or considering music.

Sonic Energy

Sonic Energy – The audible sound/music occurring in the installation space. Sonic energy is the sound or music in the space that can be acquired through microphones and converted to a digital representation for analysis by the digital system. This sonic energy is analyzed and described within the system in terms of its acoustic properties.

Participant

Participant – A human-agent who is physically present in the space of the system. This person may contribute music or sonic energy to the system, or simply listen. Regardless, their presence in the room will affect the acoustic properties of the space in slight ways, and therefore they become a part of the system.