Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Research Reports for the Ears: Soundscape Art in Scientific Presentations

by Jim Cummings

As presented at Sound, Environment, and Connective Technologies
University of California Riverside
May 12, 2006

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The relationship and synergy of art and science has typically been viewed through one of three general frames. The first, and probably most acceptable or interesting to scientists, is the idea that art has an interpretive function—building on the fact that artists are, at times, more capable of expressing the beauty or the complexity of science’s findings. There is a sense that the artist can reach the public at large, that imagery or film or sound can be shaped in ways that express the essence of what science is discovering in ways people can better grasp. The second is found in artists who are simply inspired by science, using it as a jumping off point for artworks that are idiosyncratic or compelling on purely artistic merit, while incorporating elements that involve nature or some sort of scientific imagery, but that are not centrally trying to share any concrete scientific findings or data. And finally, quite often, exercises in “art and science” engage the relationship on an abstract or philosophical level in which the artistic expression may not even bear any outward indication that science is involved—it’s more of a conceptual foundation or underlying trigger for the artist’s vision.

At the Acoustic Ecology Institute, we are beginning to explore a somewhat different approach to the synergy of art and science. We are interested in ways that artistic insights can frame questions about what science might look at and listen for. We are looking for art that both presents empirical scientific data in a way that can engage the public, and frames questions or hypotheses that are worthy of scientific investigation.

This particular angle of exploration is quite natural for us, in that the little community of acoustic ecology folk in northern New Mexico includes two people, both of whom serve on our Board of Directors, who have centered their own artistic lives on this theme. David Dunn has been an especially curious listener, recordist, and engineer. His most recent project delves deep into the bioacoustics of a species of bark beetle that is devouring our indigenous piñon pine forests; his recordings clearly suggest a diversity of sounds that are worthy of further research by entomologists. Steve Feld, by contrast, works in the social sciences. He’s an award-winning anthropologist and musicologist who has spent a quarter century championing a consideration of an anthropology of sound (not just music), and creating soundscape compositions as a way of sharing his field research findings and queries. Today’s talk will center on their work, but over the coming year, we fully expect to be able to highlight similar work by other artist/scientists.

Dunn says, in the liner notes to his bark beetle CD, The Sound of Light in Trees, "My foremost interest these days concerns ways that formal concepts and techniques of music and sound art can contribute to scientific research. Not only can sound artists reveal new phenomena within the natural world; their creative strategies for creating a compelling sonic experience out of the sounds of the natural world can have a deeper application within science itself." Part of his inspiration derives from his long-held conviction that there is a deep and profound intelligence innate to all of life, that, as he says, “what science now reveals to us about the communicative intent of other living things will appear comically shallow to us in a hundred years.” In this time of mounting ecological crisis, he is turning more and more, in his art and in his own personal inquiry, toward listening to what the life around us is saying. He spends long hours listening to bats through his unique omnidirctional ultrasonic mic, and to beetles in trees using probe and contact mics. He notes the addictive quality of having his aural sense expanded through technology: “It is truly amazing to sit for hours in the natural world with your ears technologically sensitized to be more on a par with the other forms of life around you… This means of focusing technology towards a kind of expansion of consciousness gives us access to listening beyond the boundaries of our usual human perception. It applies current technological breakthroughs in music and sound art towards a non-human centered and environmentally relevant art practice.”

David believes that the art world desperately needs to ground its imagination in a deeper understanding of the natural world, and that science is likewise yearning to reach beyond the limits imposed by science’s inherent need to be deeply rigorous, a rigor which by its very nature necessitates a kind of narrowness that can stifle or distrust our imaginative natures. As Gregory Bateson said: “Rigor alone is paralytic death, but imagination alone is insanity.”

So, what has David been discovering? And how has he framed this, how is he presenting this work, to the public and to the scientific community?


Sound Art : Mobile Art

Sound Art : Mobile Art

Cat Hope
Lecturer in Composition
Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University
2 Bradford St
Mt Lawley WA 6050
+61 8 93706826


This paper examines the role of sound installation and music composition practices in addressing the relationship between sound and telecommunications devices, in this case the mobile phone. The popularity of mobile phone artworks is rapidly increasing, with handsets readily available, artists excited about sponsorship opportunities, and the general push in the “electronic arts” area.
This role will be addressed primarily through the discussion of a work by Perth mobile phone sound art collective, Metaphonica, who explore many issues raised by this art form. “Phonebox” (2005) is a site specific sound installation where phones are called from a remote computer presenting a synchronized composition featuring sounds created by the artists installed on the handsets as ring tones; subverted by visitors to the exhibition location.

1. Mobile Phones in Art

John Cage: "I am here / , / and there is nothing to say / . / . . ." (1)
The use of telephones in art is not new. Lazlo Moholy Nagy is considered to be one of the first artists to experiment with telephones to create a so-called ‘telepresence’ piece in 1922, using a telephone to transmit directions for fabricating paintings. Similarly, in 1969 the Chicago Museum of Contemporary art organized an exhibition entitled “Art by Telephone” where artists would call through to the gallery staff and instruct them as to the creation of their artworks. British group The Disembodied Art Gallery has created several telephone-based works. “Babble” (1993) was a telematic art installation that received over 70 voice contributions from the public to an answering machine, later replayed into a gallery. “Temporary Line” (1994) was a telephone sculpture that activated the sound of whispering voices through handsets whenever a member of the public walked close to the sculpture (Figure 1). In 2005, “Zhong Shuo” Ian Mott, Ding Jie, the Chongqing Art Collective and the Li Chuan Group uses a the telephone for the collection and telling of stories from different locations around China.
Mobile phone works are a genre of electronic art which Frank Popper defines “communication art”. He describes the six main characteristics of this genre: it stages physical presence at distance; it telescopes the immediate and the delayed; it focuses on the playfulness of interactivity; it combines memory and real time; it promotes planetary communication and it encourages a detailed study of human social groupings. (2)
All mobile phone works could also be considered ‘telepresence’ works to some extent. Stephen Wilson defines telepresence as “a technology for a person to be present in some form in a distant place” (3). Mobile phone works can transmit a person in the form of thier creative idea and its content.

Figure 1. The Disembodied Art Gallery, “Temporary Line”

The focus of this paper and the projects it discusses is on sound art using mobile phones. Sound content in mobile phone art can be divided into two general areas: pieces using “real” sounds recorded by or stored in the phones; and pieces that use the pre fabricated sounds inside the phones (monophonic and polyphonic arrangements of MIDI sounds, pre set ring tones).

Mobile phones have been used in musical works as musical instruments in their own right. In 2003, Bernd Kremling, conductor the Drumming Hands Orchestra in Wuerzburg, Germany used mobile phone ring tones in orchestral works, set off by the musicians or by backstage hands a predetermined moment during the performance. Other projects, such as “” (2002) by British mobile phone artists The Phonebook Ltd, commissioned compositions using the sounds available in the phone handset software. “Dialtones, A Telesymphony” (2001) by Golan Levin is a well-documented example of a large-scale performed ‘composition’ that uses ringtones downloaded to visitors phones as they arrive to the concert hall. It used this as source material to create a composition. In “Pocket Gamelan”, by Greg Schiemer and Mark Havryliv, Java interfaces were developed to allow performance of music using mobile phone ensembles, with the intention of allowing large groups of non-expert players to perform music based on just intonation using their own phones. In “Mandala 3”, Schiemer and his collaborators swing their mobiles in bags in the air to create a interesting spatialisation effect.

Figure 2. Alison Craighead and Jon Thompson “Telephony”

“Telephony” (2000) by Alison Craighead and Jon Thompson (Figure. 2), is an installation where gallery visitors are invited to dial a wall-based grid of 42 mobile telephones, which in turn begin to call each other creating an arrangement of the prevalent NokiaTune.
Handsets have also been used as transmitters for live phone tone composition; Tim Didymus conducted a live concert in 2003 featuring music and sounds generated entirely on-the-fly using a mobile phone application called Intent Sound System (iSS), a suite of audio technologies that makes it possible to relay music composed live on the phone to another in real time.
Each of these works uses the sounds inside the handsets in a different way, determined to some extent by the amount of interaction the public has with the work. The recording of real sounds offers different possibilities for the mobile phone to take on more of a locative role. A predecessor to real sound recordings, voice mail has offered many possibilities for artists working with sound and telephony. The Disembodied Art Gallery created a CD compilation entitled “Answering Machine Solution” (Staalplat, 1996) of tracks created by artists to be used as answer machine messages. Ian Pollock and Janet Silk created “The Museum of the Future” (1997), a work that accumulated texts from callers using a phone tree where participants can listen to and leave messages. Jim Pallas created “Phoney-Vents” (1973), where he played works to people he chose to call, and “Dialevents” (1978), where people could call in to listen to sounds of his creation.
“Placing Voices” (2005) by Brian House is a mobile-sound-blog software which uses the built-in sound recording feature of mobile phones and MMS messaging to place sound fragments on a web-accessible map of the sounds as they arrive. The use of the Internet in mobile phone art is becoming more common as the phones themselves have increased accessibility to the Internet trough GPRS and WAP functionality.
Uphone is an internet project that archives calls to its web site. In 2003, the “Uphone Sparrow Report” by Kate Rich uses the mobile phone network to record and collect live data on the vainisheing population of sparrows in New York and London. Zoe Irvine created the “Dial-A- Diva” project, which coins the term “phonecasts”, described by the artist as “a person attending concert who uses their telephone as a a microphone to broadcast the sound” (4). The project invites and broadcasts songs made into phones over a 24 hour period.

Figure 3. Usman Harque “Japanese Whispers”

Perhaps the most interesting artist working in the area of sound and mobile phones is Usman Harque from the UK. His piece “Sky Ear” (2004) is a one-night event in which a glowing "cloud" of mobile phones and helium balloons is released into the air. People can dial into the cloud and listen to the sounds of the sky, which includes sounds of the atmospheric electromagnetic phenomena that are the audible equivalent of the Northern Lights. His piece “Japanese Whispers” (2000) was an experiment into the way sound changed when being digitally processed and transmitted through electromagnetic space using feedback loops created by the phone sounds (Figure 3). Both these pieces work within the premise of the phones as transmitters and receivers of sound as a primary, fundamental idea and use it to create and control other elements of the works.

Figure 4. Crispin Jones “Social Mobiles”

Sound may also be used to help users use their phones better, a premise explored in “Social Mobiles” (2002), a collaboration between design company IDEO and artist Crispin Jones (Figure 4). To quote the artist; “the phone requires the user to play the tune of the phone number they wish to call. “The public performance that dialing demands acts as a litmus test of when it is appropriate to make a call”. (5)
Mobile Phone art is alive and well in Australia, through digital art organizations such as dLux Media Arts, whoc feature mobile phone art through programs such as Future Screen Mobile and d>Art.05 Exhibition program. It does have a visual focus, however.

2. Metaphonica

Meta (Greek: "about," "beyond”) is a common English prefix, used to indicate a concept that is an abstraction from another concept. Metadata refers to data about data, information that describes another set of data. A metaphor, according to I. A. Richards, in his The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936), consists of two parts: the tenor and vehicle. The tenor is the subject to which attributes are ascribed, the vehicle is the subject from which the attributes are derived. Metaphonica is a title created by Western Australian sound artists Rob Muir and Cat Hope for their sound art for mobile phones collective, which aims to embody these concepts in their artworks.
Metaphonica create installations that are informed by the works cited above. They use handsets as networkable portable music players, loaded with the artists’ creations – digital storage chips with antennas and speakers. The sonic experience of the installation is in the listening, not the calling. They play the stored compositions no matter where either artist or object may be located, and they allow the audience to be part of the work if they choose.
Sounds are created and then systematically arranged into a composition for each Metaphonica installation. The component sounds may recorded directly onto the phones or other devices such as mini discs, then processed on audio software to achieve optimum audibility or other effects before uploaded to the handsets. These handsets are then called from a computer operating specially scripted telephony software (scripted by media artist Dave Primmer), according to the preconceived composition (Figure 6). The artists and visitors phones may also call the installation and interrupt this sequence, as all these numbers have so called ‘ring tones’ (i.e. sound works attributed to caller numbers)– artist 1, artist 2, computer1, computer2, unknown number etc. A landline calling a mobile from one network to another would ring for around 30 seconds. A mobile to one of the installation phones, no matter which network, would ring for around 60 seconds. The phones have no diversion set so simply ring out. No call cost is required to participate in the installation, for the artists or visitors, since the phones are never answered. The sounds just ‘are’ – they are no longer alarms symbolizing the need to answer.
“Phonebox” (2005) was Metaphonica’s first installation, a work that lamented the loss of the physical Phonebox on the Australian urban landscape (Figure 5). The handsets were placed in museum box style recesses in a wall, behind glass doors in a busy corridor at the Swanston Street Artspace at RMIT University, in the centre of Melbourne, Australia. Sounds were chosen thematically and equalized for maximum audiabitility through the thick glass in the busy area.
“Phonebox” was devised out of a challenge – the offer of an installation space 6000 kilometers away that was made up of cabinets with glass doors, without power, in a thoroughfare. The mobile phones as installation objects provided an excellent foil to this challenge; they are compact to post, rechargeable, lasting around 24 hours without charge, do not require the artists to be present to operate them (most people understand the operating basics of a mobile phone), and can have sounds shaped to travel through glass.

Figure 5. Metaphonica “Phonebox” (photo © Grant Hobson)

Challenges aside, a major source of inspiration for using mobile phones as transmitters for sound art came from the writings of Duchamp, credited as conceptualizing and producing the first ever ‘readymade’ artwork:
"It is very difficult to choose an object, because after a few weeks you start to like it or to hate it. You must approach a thing with indifference, as if you have no esthetic emotion. The choice of readymades is always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the complete absence of good or bad taste." (6)
This explains the position the artists took when sourcing the model of mobile phone handset. “Phonebox”, and indeed all Metaphonica works, encourage people to hear rather than see, hold or use their mobile phones; so their visual aesthetic is superfluous, and the handsets have their screens turned away. Mobile phones have limited audio quality, and this has become a feature to work with for the artists, rather than a hindrance to overcome. It provides an opportunity to make new timbres and contexts for sounds.

Figure 6. Metaphonica “Phonebox” composition example

People can interfere and interact with a Metaphonica work from any location; provided they have access to a phone line. Those who call from remote locations only have the knowledge that they are disrupting the composition (or maybe they just find the calling card provided at the installation and call the numbers to ‘see what happens’(Figure 7) as the number they call rings out. In this way, the audience becomes part of the composition by the very act of disrupting it. They become physical performers in the installation when they stand in front of it and call, or even when they call from elsewhere. Visitors to the exhibition can imagine the place the phones are being called from, or think about the sounds and the way they interfere with their environment. adding elements to the work that are not always immediately apparent. Locative issues are particularly useful for the artists – they need not be present with the installation. They and their pre set computer may call it from any location. This complex relationship between audience, creator and performance lead to interesting questions about the creation and control of artwork, and are new platforms for a sort of accidental improvised participation.

Figure 7. Metaphonica “Phonebox” calling card in use (photo © Grant Hobson)

Metaphonica aims to encourage people to think of these very personal devices in a different way – simply as sound speakers to listen to - remote receivers for a music composition that anyone can add to as it runs its course. They use affordable, readily available technologies to do it.
“Phonebox” was one of the top five picks from the Liquid Architecture Festival of Sound Arts in which it was featured. The public truly engaged with the work and were generally surprised by hearing mobile phones, for many a necessary evil, used this way.

3. Building Sounds for Mobile phones

There are several important audio considerations when using mobile phones for sound installation. Primarily the sounds are quiet, as the handsets are built to sound best at very close range (i.e. on the listeners ear) unless you have a pre set speaker phone function. The range of frequencies produced by the compressions and speaker ability is very particular. So sounds must be carefully equalized using audio software outside the handset to achieve clarity and volume tailored to their installation location theme.
Different handsets have varying audio possibilities. Many handsets have only MIDI (7) capability, and are only able to play monophonic or polyphonic compositions using a preset sound library. Many handsets now have mp3 and live sound recording and playback, using audio compression formats such as such adaptive multirate codec (amr) formats, although software companies such as Beatnik (working with Nokia) and Tao Multimedia are working with new platforms and ideas. Most of the scriptable mobile phone software uses Java programming, which operates as a plug in giving extra options on the handset menu. Sounds are uploaded from computer and phone-to-phone using Bluetooth, Infrared or cable, depending on the handsets functionality.

4. Future Developments

As part of funded research, Metaphonica are working with VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) models to make more lines available using less computers; up to now each calling line out to the phones has required a separate computer running the telephony software. However, without additional hardware, there is currently an issue with caller identification (caller ID); a vital part of Metaphonica’s system, as each sign belongs to a “caller”, and most VOIP providers do not provide caller ID to the outgoing calls from their service.

The artists have also been discussing with members of SIGGRAPH in Perth, considering the possibilities of making specific phone software, new plug ins, and Bluetooth possibilities to enhance the locative elements of the installations.
In late 2005, Metaphonica create a new installation, entitled “Conning the Text”. It is a work using similar principles and processes as “Phonebox”, and is based on an adaptation of poet Edith Sitwell’s work “Façade”. This work, originally performed in 1923 from behind a curtain with the aid of a megaphone, is a series of abstract poems where rhythms counterfeited those of music. The poetry in Façade is considered an important study in word-rhythms and onomatopoeia, making it an ideal text for adaptation to Metaphonica’s techniques of organization meeting interruption. Narrator Julia Moody records excerpts of Sitwells’ work that are then processed by artists and stored on the phones, then sequenced and interrupted in the same manner as the compositions in “Phonebox”


The author wishes to thank her collaborator Rob Muir, the ArtsWA BEApworks research grant program, Liquid Archtecture Festival of Sound Arts, WAAPA @ ECU and Dr. Jonathan Marshall.


John Cage: "Lecture on Nothing" Incontri Musicali, August 1959. [In: Silence. Lectures and Writings by John Cage. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1973, pp. 109-126.
Frank Popper, *Art of the Electronic Age*, New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (1993) p. 127Mackay, W.E. Ethics, lies and videotape… in Proceedings of CHI ‘95 (Denver CO, May 1995), ACM Press, 138-145.
Stephen Wilson, "Chapter 6: Telecommunications," in “Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology*, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (2002) p526. (accessed November 2005) accessed 10/8/05
Marcel Duchamp: "Apropos of ‘Readymades’." Art and Artists, 1, 4 (July 1966). [Lecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 19, 1961.
Musical Digital Interface

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Souza E Silva, A. Art By Telephone: From Static To Mobile Interfaces (accessed October 2005)
Scheimer, G and Mark, H , Pocket Gamealn: a Pure Data Interface for Mobile Phones, (accessed November 2005) (accessed October 2005)
Behrendt, F. From calling a cloud to finding the missing track : Artistic approaches to mobile music http:/// (accessed September 2005)
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Mott, I, Sound Mapping: An assertion of place proceedings of Interface, 1997.

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The art of sound Andrea Polli uses sonification to translate Antarctic science into an acoustic experience

The art of sound
Andrea Polli uses sonification to translate Antarctic science into an acoustic experience
By Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Sun Editor
Posted February 1, 2008

Artists who travel to Antarctica to express the continent’s jaw-dropping landscapes or its scientific importance rely on any number of mediums — photography, painting, the written word and even the ice itself.

Andrea Polli wants you to hear the continent, whether through the natural rush of water under its glaciers or the sizzle and hiss of scientific data translated into sound.

“I got into sound because I thought it was really abstract, really pure and abstract. … Now I don’t really think that as much after doing a lot of field recordings and listening to a lot of music and studying it,” says Polli, an associate professor of film and media and director of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Integrated Media Arts at Hunter College in New York.

"There really is a story that is being told by even the most abstract music.”

Polli works in an emerging medium called sonification, the translation of scientific data into sound. Her interest in sonification began with meteorological modeling and a project called Atmospheric Weather Works. She created a 16-channel sound installation in New York City from highly detailed models of two historic storms on the east coast — the Presidents’ Day Snowstorm of 1979 and Hurricane Bob in 1991.

The idea was to recreate the storms in sound so people could experience it, Polli explains. Her interest dovetailed into climate change research, culminating in a project called Heat in the Heartbeat of the City.

Four, seven-minute compositions in the piece interpret projected temperature increases in New York City through 2080 into an eerie symphony that builds in intensity. In such sonification projects, the changes in data are represented by corresponding fluctuations in computerized pitch, amplitude or tempo. For example, a rise in one variable, such as temperature, causes an increase in speed and pitch.

A subsequent project about the North Pole naturally brought her to McMurdo Station in Antarctica this season to complete a bipolar journey to meet researchers and gather sounds and data. During her seven-week stay on the Ice, she’s also interviewed scientists for material that she may use in a couple of different video and sound installations.

“It’s part of an investigation that I do, and it turns into a video about the process,” she says. “I’m always really open about learning from scientists and finding out what they’re doing, so this has been a great opportunity to talk to people and find out what is happening.”

The sound artist has visited several areas in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, an area of long-term research because of its unique lake ecosystem and exposed geology, among other reasons. Her recordings include sounds of waterfalls pouring off a glacier and the ubiquitous wind that whips through the valleys. She will manipulate that raw material to create a sonification that “will kind of be grounded in the real soundscape of Antarctica.

“I got some really amazing recordings of water moving on the inside of Taylor Glacier,” she adds. “That’s so bizarre and otherworldly. … It sounded like electronic techno music.”

The community at McMurdo experienced sonification firsthand with a Sonic Antarctica concert in January, with recordings made by Polli, science researchers, as well as support staff at the station.

Tia Kramer, who works as a communications operator at McMurdo Operations, also known as MacOps, figured prominently in the show. That’s not surprising considering the 28-year-old is an artist in her own right. In fact, she and Polli both attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

When Kramer learned that Polli, whose work she studied at the institute, would be in McMurdo on an Antarctic Artists and Writers Program grant, Kramer contacted her and the two collaborated on Sonic Antarctica.

“I think the thing about working with other artists that is encouraging is that she’s reminded me that I can have an art practice where I can spend all of my time working,” says Kramer, who has studied textile art in Asia and Africa. “As an emerging artist there’s lots of time where you’re doing jobs that don’t necessarily relate to your work.”

The term “emerging artist” is perhaps a bit misleading in this case, as Kramer has worked in the arts for the last decade. Her two summer seasons in Antarctica represent her only forays into non-artistic employment. She says Polli’s presence at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s logistics hub hasn’t only influenced her.

“Generally speaking, I think it raised a really strong awareness among the community of sounds. … I can see how artist’s works very strongly influence the community,” she says.

The influences work both ways. Polli says she’s gathered enough material in two months to last her for the next year as she figures out ways to answer acoustically the question of how science affects people’s lives and experiences.

She explains her drive this way: “I think it comes out of an impulse by people who do a lot of computer art and computer music to investigate things and find different types of sounds wherever they can. I think that’s where my motivation is: Looking for sounds in the real world and also looking for the kinds of sounds and the patterns of sounds that you can create with a computer.”

NSF-funded research in this story: Andrea Polli, Hunter College in New York City, .