Towards Hypermusic

Originally published at MIT‘s Leonardo On-Line in 1998
While connecting to the Internet, the screaming of two modems arguing about their handshaking protocols finally stops when they come to an agreement. The modem speaker is turned off, but the modem continues to translate digital information into an acoustic signal: music for machines, perhaps. It is odd that such an energetic acoustic experience should begin such an unusually silent experience.

Bits come streaming down the line from a huge data cloud. They get sorted into containers; the contents of the containers get identified and things begin to coalesce. The screen blazes with activity; there are moving images of fire, waterfalls, birds, dancing mailboxes and more, but something is very wrong. Silence fills the air; it has almost palpable weight.
It is possible to slip an audio compact disc into the CD-ROM drive and play some pre-recorded music, but the result is a very disconnected experience. A quick search on the word “sound” produces links to words and pictures about sound. Digging deeper, some of these words about sound lead to containers of actual sound. A sound is selected. A long time passes. The download is finally completed. The sound plays. This feels better for a moment, but somehow it is ultimately unsatisfying in the present context. All the other information presented can be navigated. Text leads to other text, text leads to images, images lead to images, images lead to text, endlessly. Images illustrate text; text illuminates images. The sound leads nowhere. It plays from beginning to end and stops. It seems to exist as an object from another dimension, merely intersecting with this world without end, not merging with it.
Travel through the data cloud reveals other options. Some sounds are delivered in streams that begin to play almost at once. Some of these streams allow the user to move forward and backward in the stream, in a sense, time traveling. This is not the level of interactivity desired, but it is a move in the right direction. Almost by accident, a new approach is stumbled upon—a page that contains text, image and sound. The sound starts automatically and plays while the document is read. This is both a step forward and a step backward. The sound is partially integrated, but functions only as background music. It cannot be manipulated, and it leads nowhere. It is a frozen experience, lacking the dynamic qualities of the other information on the page.
As various approaches are explored and discarded, the density of the desired information in the data cloud gets thin. It will take the sensing ability of a shark to detect one bit in billions. The search for the word “sound” reveals 56,000 links. A similar search for the words “interactive music” reveals only 7,000, most of those leading to documents about music, but containing no music themselves.
Cinema Volta and a section called Web Phases. The first thing that attracts attention is the word “Silence” repeated four times in four frames across the top of the page. Clicking on a button labeled “1” following the words “Phase 1″ replaces the word “Silence” with “Phase 1” in the first frame. Almost immediately, music begins to play. Clicking on the button labeled “2” causes the same thing to happen to the second frame. There must be heavy traffic on the network, because it takes a while for the music to begin playing.
There are now two copies of the same melody playing out of phase. Two more clicks, and “Phase 2” and “Drone 1” are playing in frames three and four. The musical loops are different in length, so the relationships are constantly shifting. The start times of each loop were affected by the nature of the traffic on the network that existed when they were being downloaded. Essentially, the composition being generated contains a picture in sound of the state of the Internet and the connection to it at that moment.
After a time, the phasing of this generation of the music becomes familiar; a click of a button changes that. A reggae drum pattern replaces the music playing in the second frame. The composition turns up tempo, becomes less reflective. A new picture of Internet traffic has been overlaid on the earlier one. On a whim, a new drum pattern is added to the composition, replacing the drone. This pattern’s tempo, length and feel are completely different from the reggae pattern. The result is very jarring. A click of the “Silence” button removes the reggae pattern. The second drum pattern is selected for all four frames. It sounds like six sloppy drummers playing in perfect time and paying no attention to each other. An entirely new picture of Internet traffic is created, and the composition takes a new direction.
Web Phases consists of a number of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) “loops” of varying length, tempo and content, and a web page divided into five frames: one control frame and four target frames. I chose to use MIDI because it is a very compact data type and can be downloaded very quickly, even over slow connections. The user selects a MIDI loop and sends it to a specific window, where it automatically plays, once it completes downloading. When a user selects another loop and window, it plays concurrently with the other loop or loops, generating a continuously changing composition due to the “phasing” of the loops. The nature of the phasing comes not only from the different lengths and tempi, but also from the data traffic on the Internet and the speed of the user’s connection. If Internet traffic is heavy and the downloading time is slow, the start time of the various loops will be affected. In essence, the composition generated contains a “picture” of the current state of the user’s connection to the Internet.
Web Phases is an interactive piece of music that I created for two reasons. First, I wanted to explore my ambivalence toward most “interactive” music on the Web. Most of these pieces are neither truly interactive nor specific to the Web. The second reason was to work toward the creation of a musical equivalent of hypertext.
I find that most interactive music works only give the illusion of user participation and freedom; the hand of the artist very tightly controls the users. No matter what choices are made, the result is what the artist/creator wants it to be. There are very few works that allow the option of mediocrity. Interactive fiction and some role-playing games are notable exceptions. Myst [1] allows the option of aimless wandering. In both Bad Day on the Midway [2] by the Residents and the text adventure version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [3], if the user takes too much time to accomplish certain tasks, the possibility of winning the game is removed and the user will wander through the game forever, interacting with the other characters, exploring the environment, neither dying nor making any progress toward the conclusion.
I wanted to create a piece that would allow a user a satisfying experience with a minimal amount of participation, yet allow a deeper involvement if desired. I viewed the concept of “satisfaction” as involving, in part, a feeling of accomplishment. Therefore, it was necessary to allow the user to generate a composition that might sound unpleasant.
Without that, there could never be the sense of accomplishment that accompanies the generation of a “pleasant” composition.
Words can take on many layers of meaning in hypertext. A word that is used as a hypertext link contains, in a sense, the information to which it points. That new information is colored by the word that has led to it.
In a document with many links, each reader experiences these layers in a personal way, based on their choices. Web Phases attempts to do the same with music. The nature of each loop selected is colored by the ones that come before and after.
Sound in the real world is a rich source of information. Why should cyberspace be silent?
References and Notes
1. Myst is an interactive CD-ROM that has become the best-selling computer game in history. In Myst, the user gathers clues and solves riddles to unlock the secrets of Myst island. The game combines beautiful graphics and an engaging soundtrack to create an immersive experience for the user.
2. Bad Day on the Midway by the Residents is an interactive CD-ROM by the avant-garde rock band and performance artist group. Bad Day on the Midway places the user behind the eyes of several different characters over the course of the game. The soundtrack is a major component, combining an ambient soundscape, background music and songs.
3. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a text-adventure role playing game released 15 years ago by Infocom. It was created by Douglas Adams, the writer of the Hitchhiker’s series of books.
Originally published in 1998 as part of “Words on Words” from The Leonardo journal published by MIT Press