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Busking the digital highway: the aesthetics of the exabyte.

"After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well."

Albert Einstein

1. Introduction

George Orwell's Big Brother looms large in the twenty-first century, ever closer to actualization in the form of the Big Data Cruncher. That the cruncher can be accommodated in your jean pocket may be unnerving, and the concept the source of unsettled laughter. Regardless, the ubiquitous "smart phone" is now capable of using complex data to assist in daily decision making--we should have departed for work; use this optimal route to avoid traffic congestion; the pet dog has strayed beyond the confines of the family home; your heart rate is too high--perhaps an appointment with the local general practitioner is in order. The technology in a smart phone may save money, time and even lives. The same data, however, can allow every electronic gesture and recordable action to be followed; an evolving centre of interest for advertisers, employers and governments. The ever-growing repositories of personal data present threats and opportunities to the "smart phone" generation.

Are there opportunities for artists? In the final years of the twentieth century the basic resources for sound artists moved from analogue to digital; from hardware to software; from darkroom to Starbucks. Rather than Terabytes, the hobbyist photographer may soon be talking of Petabyte and Exabyte image libraries. "To give a sense of scale, Berkeley University in California estimated that every word ever spoken by a human being could be stored in five Exabyte. However, Internet traffic this year alone is estimated to exceed 650 Exabyte" (Cumbley and Church, 2013: 602). In this brave digital world, what has been the artistic response? Ryoji Ikeda, immersed in Datamatics, has suggested that "The purest beauty is the world of mathematics. Its perfect assemblage of numbers, magnitudes and forms persist, independent of us. The aesthetic experience of the sublime in mathematics is awe-inspiring. It is similar to the experience we have when we confront the vast magnitude of the universe, which always leaves us open-mouthed" (Ikeda, 2011: 2). Ikeda seeks meaning in the raw material of art. He is representative of a thriving artistic effort emerging from the new connections of the modern world; heightened by the Internet and the digitization of sound, art, space and relations (Licht, 2009). Seeking meaning in the Exabyte; busking the digital highway.

2. Significant Sound

The search for meaning in the sonic has a lengthy history. Many composers have written pieces that aim to convey narrative, emotion, and meaning. Beyond the concept of absolute music, an abstract and non-representational music form which "found favour among classical composers in the late nineteenth century, but was famously denounced by Wagner who stated that 'art without meaning is not art at all'", there is consistent developmental thread of programmatic music (Barrass, 2012a; 2012b). The thread attests to the "temptation and of the 'pleasure' (as Aristotle says) found in mimesis" (Thomas, 2007: 259):

First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated ... Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for 'harmony' and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry (Aristotle, 1999: 5).

Improvisation through music finds a bravura muse in nature (Paddison, 2010). Before the emergence of sound as a category in the twentieth century, this improvisation was not aimed wholly at imitating the sounds in nature, onomatopoeia being artistically questionable, but rather producing by means of musical accents, depictions of the emotional states experienced by the composer. Music mimicked not outward objects but inner feelings produced by contemplating nature and the world (real or imagined) around the composer.

In exploring the representation of nature in music, some composers developed an arithmetically driven approach; from Pythagoras' early experiments with the monochord (and the subsequent conclusion that the world must be organized along harmonic ratios) to the adoption of ratios found in nature in the development of melody and harmony. In these forms music represented nature, not in its concreteness, but in its adoption of universal and necessary laws.

Doubts about the authenticity of this ordered and inward approach began to surface in the early twentieth century. At the time Debussy wrote, "can the mystery of a forest be expressed by measuring the height of the trees? Is it not rather its fathomless depths that stir the imagination"? (Debussy, 1927: 39) This was a clarion call to composers to explore not just nature through music, but nature through music and sound:

We don't pay enough attention to the thousand voices of nature around us; we don't listen out for this music which is so varied, which she offers us so generously ... this, according to me, is the new path (Potter, 2003: 137).

Our new path, our sonic big bang, reverberated with the invention of the phonograph. Edison's promethean desire to capture the human voice succeeded in not only netting its target, but in capturing the "reverberations of the room, the hum of electricity, the whir of the machine, and countless incidental sounds that make up the auditory field" (Cox, 2009: 22). In capturing a voice Edison had captured an event; an event with background noise that, for some, was more interesting than the voice itself. The introduction of recorded sound transformed both sound and listening, and the medium has increasingly assumed a prominence as an artistic raw material; continuing to be transformed through the cultural elaboration of technology (Kahn, 1999).

LaBelle's exploration of this background noise looks to John Cage as a progenitor of experimental music with its emphasis on "sound" as a specific category (LaBelle, 2006). Cage encouraged an avant-garde type of listening; to sounds and silence as music; a recognition of everyday noise:

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating . we want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments (Cage, 1961: 3).

Cage seized upon new technology in his music making pursuits (he used phonographs and amplifiers in Imaginary Landscape No. 1--an early example of electroacoustic music). He was also aware of the impact of the industrial and technological revolution upon our senses:

One of the blessings that the United States could receive in the near future would be to have her industries halted, her business discontinued, her people speechless, a great pause in her world of affairs created, and finally to have everything stopped that runs, until everyone should hear the last wheel go round and the last echo fade away ... Then we should be capable of answering the question "What ought we to do?" For we should be hushed and silent, and we should have the opportunity to learn from what other people think (Cage, 1927 cited in Gann, 2010: 39).

Cage's seminal silence work, 4'33", aimed to silence music itself. First performed in 1952, the score instructed the performer not to play the instrument for the entire duration of the piece. Cage completely removed the composer and performer from the creative process; any control of environmental sound was relinquished. LaBelle noted the confusion with which the piece was received, with one audience member standing and inciting the crowd to drive Cage and the musicians out of town! (LaBelle, 2006) Kahn suggested the piece rejected the "importance of whether a musical sound was present or absent", thereby "extending the field of artistic materiality to all the nonintentional sounds surrounding the performance" (Kahn, 1999: 158). Cage's musical sea-change "not only filled music up; he left no sonorous (or potentially sonorous) place outside music and left no more means to materially regenerate music. He opened music to an emancipatory endgame" (Kahn, 1999: 164). Cage let loose a world of noise, which otherwise remained obscure; he awakened our senses to a "noisy substrate of significant sound" a hallmark trait of "Sound Art" (Cox, 2009: 24).

3. Sound Art

Much debate surrounds the nature and definition of Sound Art. The term itself emerged much later than the first examples of artwork in the field (Cox, 2009; Engstrom and Stjerna, 2009; Licht, 2009). Most authors agree that Sound Art has a unique approach to space and time; a demonstrated understanding of sound in itself; and an encouragement of aural awareness (Cox, 2009; Kolber, 2002; Licht, 2009). Others argue, "much of what has been called 'Sound Art' has not much to do with either sound or art" (Neuhaus, 2000: 1). Recent research suggests that Sound Art works between categories; it moves back and forth between art and electronic music worlds; embracing the digitization of sound, art, space and relations (Licht, 2009; Johnstone, 2013).

The art form's history has been both personal and piecemeal; without a clear linear trajectory in time, location or personage (Licht, 2009). The disparity in chronology of prominent artists is particularly marked, many synthesizing their oeuvre before the wholesale adoption of the term by art galleries and museums. Indeed the term Sound Art was not conceived until 1982, some decades after the first works. At the time, Max Neuhaus cautioned against the temptation to freely label the emerging and experimental use of music and sound as Sound Art. "As a term and a category, he maintained, it did not constructively supplement existing categories such as music or sculpture" (Cox, 2009: 19).

The task of illuminating the art is further complicated upon scrutiny of the media harnessed by influential artists in the field, many of whom use sound in conjunction with other innovative elements and sensory modes (Kahn, 2006). That the artists involved in Sound Art are from many different backgrounds (music, theatre, film, technology, engineering) further accentuates the complexity in attempting to corral the term. Rudi (2009) suggests that the art is an evolutionary beast, emerging from works more easily categorized in terms of installation art, soundscape, poetry, film and new media; further confirming the fragmentary rise of Sound Art from a heaving artistic soup.

The fragmentary and ever-evolving nature of Sound Art and its taxonomic freedom are perhaps its greatest seductions; seducing arts beyond its ken, degrading resolution and clarity of form. Licht (2007) identifies the temptation to describe any innovative music of the latter part of the twentieth century as Sound Art. For the popular media the term is reasonably synonymous with any experimental music (Engstrom and Stjerna, 2009). For Kahn, Sound Art is a subsidiary topic within sound, aurality and modern art; a part of the synthetic nature of the arts, "the various intersecting social, cultural, and environmental realities wittingly and unwittingly embodied in any one of the innumerable factors that go into producing, experiencing, and understanding a particular work" (Kahn, 2006: 1).

Whilst the nature, and thus definition of Sound Art remains elusive, the art form has been consolidating its presence within cultural and academic arenas since the 1960s. Sound Art as an ex post facto categorisation has flourished, and continues to do so in this broadness and complexity. The intersection and collision of a multiplicity of disciplines allows for an inception, expression and manifestation that other art forms cannot reach. Perhaps Sound Art can be best understood as a "sonification of artistic ideas, or sonic representations of the same" (Rudi, 2009: 1).

4. Sound Art Insurgents

In the elementary rise of Sound Art and the sonification of artistic ideas, three advocates were central to the on-going revelation of new possibilities within the organization of sound: Max Neuhaus, Hildegard Westerkamp and Ryoji Ikeda.

4.1 Max Neuhaus

Max Neuhaus was a percussionist who was acclaimed for his performances of experimental compositions, including the works of John Cage, Morton Feldman and Stockhausen, among others (Licht, 2009). He is indelibly linked with the emergence of Sound Art as an art form whilst rejecting the label itself:

When faced with musical conservatism at the beginning of the last century, the composer Edgar Varese responded by proposing to broaden the definition of music to include all organized sound. John Cage went further and included silence. Now even in the aftermath of the timid "forever Mozart decades" in music, our response surely cannot be to put our heads in the sand and call what is essentially new music something else--Sound Art ... if there is a valid reason for classifying and naming things in culture, certainly it is for the refinement of distinctions. Aesthetic experience lies in the area of fine distinctions, not the destruction of distinctions for promotion of activities with their least common denominator, in this case, sound. Much of what has been called Sound Art has not much to do with sound or art (Neuhaus, 2000: 1).

Whilst Neuhaus argued that the term Sound Art is often applied to pieces that could also be categorized as music, others have argued that the term defines a unique category (Cox, 2009; Engstrom and Stjerna, 2009; Licht, 2009). The latter view may carry the day. At the time of his death in 2009 Neuhaus was "widely regarded as a, if not the, founding father of Sound Art" (Cox, 2009: 49).

Part of Neuhaus' problem with the term was that it emerged decades after he began creating installations with a specific focus on sound. As previously noted, Sound Art as a form has a chaotic history that has been both personal and piecemeal; without a clear linear trajectory in time, location or personage (Licht, 2009). In the early 1960s, Neuhaus viewed himself as an explorer of sound; how it defined and shaped our perception of space. He used the term "sound installation" to describe his practice, thereby differentiated himself from Cage (Cox, 2009). Where Cage encouraged listening to sounds in nature, as musical instruments, Neuhaus emerged as an artist working with sound as an entity. In working with the "noisy substrate of significant sound," he sought alternative listening environments (Cox, 2009: 24):

With our now unbounded means to shape sound, there are, of course, an infinite number of possibilities to cultivate the vast potential of this medium in ways which do go beyond the limits of music and, in fact, to develop new art forms (Neuhaus, 2000: 1).

As a performer, Neuhaus had become dissatisfied with the temporal nature of musical performance and admired the "relative durability of visual art, which allowed viewers to approach it in their own time," a view similarly expressed by Cage a decade earlier (Cox, 2009: 50). Working outside conventional cultural contexts Neuhaus began to realize sound works in public places. His sound oriented piece Listen! extended Cage's idea that environmental sound could be heard as music. He would invite friends to gather at specific venues within New York, stamp their hands with the word Listen! and lead them from power plants, to highway underpasses, through local neighborhoods where they were to appreciate each as instances of sound environments.

Considered his first sound installation, Drive in Music, 1967, consisted of seven short-range radio transmitters located along a stretch of the Lincoln Parkway in Buffalo, New York. The transmitters broadcast particular frequencies, defining an area with its own sound signature. Listeners interacted with the work whilst driving.

Drive In Music existed in the ether, as material picked up by an individual car radio and mixed by the driver's speed, location and trajectory ... Neuhaus invited an audience or listener to claim the work for him or herself, where shifting the location was suddenly enhanced to become one's very own musical performance (LaBelle, 2006: 155).

In seeking public space, Neuhaus explored installations in stairwells, subway stations, swimming pools and elevators. In his acclaimed installation Times Square (1977-92, 2002-) a "set of rich metallic drones emanate from deep inside a subway vent, blending with and subtly altering the din of New York City's busiest district" (Cox, 2009: 24). The tones were adjusted to compete with the aural environment; tracing an indefinite region in the general sonic flux; conversing 24 hours a day with the existing sound environment (LaBelle, 2006).

While the influence of Cage and experimental music may be felt strongly in these pieces, they begin to uncover Neuhaus' hunger for expanded arenas of performance, and a desire for his work to be encountered in everyday life. Max Neuhaus arranged sound to reveal the environment. His quest for alter native and public listening locations moves him beyond the confines of experimental music, inseparably linking him to the development of Sound Art.

4.2 Hildegard Westerkamp

John Cage presaged a key feature of Sound Art; a listening to sounds in nature; the natural soundscape. Max Neuhaus emerged as an artist working with sound as an entity; a sonic explorer of place. Emerging from R. Murray Schafer's World Soundscape Project of the early 1970s, soundscape compositions simulate a passage through a landscape--manifested by sound (Licht, 2009). Through soundscapes, artists aimed to raise awareness of the effects of sound on the human condition. Schafer analyzed and collated environmental sound through recordings, databases, community surveys, artistic and musical work, and research projects (LaBelle, 2006). Schafer's work demonstrated the potential for sound artists to work directly with the soundscape; exploring sound in relationship to life and society.

From mountaintops to city streets, lakesides to sidewalks, glaciers to small villages, the soundscape is that which exists and of which we are part, as noisemakers, as listeners, as participants. It locates us within an aurality that is extremely proximate--under our feet and at our fingertips--while expanding out to engage the radically distant and far away, from birdcalls from above to winds whistling from remote horizons (LaBelle, 2006: 201).

Hildegard Westerkamp was influential in the emergence of soundscapes and acoustic ecology. Her exploration of sound and environment focused on listening to the sounds of a site and highlighting the voices of that place. In her work one can journey "to inner landscapes and find unexplored openings in our sound souls. The experience of her music vibrates the potential for change. Her compositions invite interaction--a chance to awaken to one's own creativity" (Oliveros, 1996: 18).

Westerkamp's work embraced the use of field recordings as the foundation of sound composition. She used these sounds to create "compositional tapestries based on narrative, found sound, poetry, and electronic treatment" (LaBelle, 2006: 206). By directing our acoustic attention to sounds alien and accustomed, Westerkamp explores an inner world of hidden spaces. Like Neuhaus, she focuses on the sonic to reveal the place; oscillating across the real and the imaginary (LaBelle, 2006).

"A Walk through the City" was composed in 1981. The piece is based on environmental recordings in and around Skid Row, Vancouver; inspired by a poem by Norbert Ruebsaat. The author voices the poem throughout the piece; he is a human presence in an industrial soundscape. Westerkamp's musical instruments include car horns, rumbling trains, aircraft--and always the voice. Sounds may sometimes correlate with reality--and sometimes reflect an abstraction of the truth. Westerkamp manipulates the substrate of sound, creating alternative listening environments. Her work blends reality and composition to transform place (Westerkamp, 2002).

In transforming sound into acoustic and sonic theatre she moves from fact to fiction, "documentary to docudrama" (LaBelle, 2006: 206). It is here that she is most influential. She tells us not only about the city, but about a city composed by the artist. Whereas Neuhaus may have resisted the audio recording of his installations for fear such would undermine the sitespecificity of his work, soundscapes exist to bring the "alien back home" transforming the place of listening (LaBelle, 2006: 211). To listen is to engage with a poetic happening; to be present to the creation of the artist. Westerkamp's soundscapes move beyond revealing place; they dream the artist's experience.

4.3 Ryoji Ikeda

John Cage encouraged a listening to sounds in nature, leaving no sonorous (or potentially sonorous) place outside music; letting loose all noise as his artistic clay. Max Neuhaus admired the durability of visual art; arranging sound to reveal place. Hildegard Westerkamp transforms place using narrative, found sound, poetry, and electronic treatment. The media of sound artists has emerged from the broadest of dragnets; indeed, the emergence of Sound Art as a classification has been accompanied by an accelerating delineating obfuscation. Licht (2007) viewed Sound Art as an art operating between categories, with key contemporary artists emerging from different pedagogical disciplines, incorporating sound and new media. He quotes Brian Eno's ideal sound installation: "A place poised between a club, a gallery, a church, a square, and a park, sharing aspects of all these" (Licht, 2007: 210).

This defining characteristic of Sound Art has thrived in the interconnectivity of the modern world; heightened by the Internet and the digitization of sound, art, space and relations (Licht, 2009). Eminent among digital sound artists is Ryoji Ikeda. For twenty years Ikeda has been producing installation art that explores beauty, the sublime and the infinite through a deceptively simple combination of sound and light. He focuses on the minutiae of ultrasonic frequencies and the reduction of sound into its pure, most fundamental elements "working with digital detritus--buzzes, clicks, and glitches--to produce soundscapes for the laptop generation" (Licht, 2007: 211). The influence of the digital in his work is significant.

For Engstrom and Stjerna (2009: 13), artists like Ikeda are "not always associated with the art music or electroacoustic community, but rather with 'alternative' music" and are often to be found in the pages of art journals where sound-oriented artists are proffered as the embodiment of art world constructs; more so than music constructs. Ikeda's overall aesthetic reflects more a new media intensive approach, rather than a sound or image intensive approach (Licht, 2007). Indeed, his focus on fusing new media and technology is more a manifestation of the on-going influence of the Experiment in Arts and Technology movement of the late 1960s. In working between categories, he moves back and forth between the art and electronic music worlds, drawing in data and digital detritus; an appreciation without borders (Licht, 2009).

His on-going body of work, Datamatics, is a long-term exploration of data as the substance of image and sound. In the series, Ikeda makes transparent the ways in which we use data to understand and control the world; presenting an abstracted view of reality. In Spectra II (2002), part of the Datamatics series, a "narrow, ceiling-covered corridor fitted with strobe lights and coursed by high frequency sounds, continuously alters the visitors' sensory experience of the space" (Ikeda, 2011: 1). Darting between dazzling brightness and total darkness, navigation of the corridor depends on understanding the interaction between sound and architecture within the space.

In arranging sound to explore place Ikeda recalls Neuhaus' perceptual linking of seeing and hearing; the articulation of space and silence. Westerkamp's pieces are focused on aural perceptions and acoustic imagination; transforming the place of listening. Ikeda takes this transformative approach, and then obfuscates context so that the listener experiences his works as noncontextual representation; or in an entirely non-referential manner. The listener's experience is a data driven abstraction of reality; a soundscape reveling in its own sonic language (Dunn, 1997; Johnstone, 2013).

Working with this digital detritus, Ikeda slakes John Cage's desire that all sounds be listened to as music. His profound investigations in sound, time and space result in works both piercing and sublime. Spanning the microscopic to the infinite, his palette ranging from sine waves to sound pulses; pixels of light to binary infinitum. In his extraordinary new media amalgam, Sound Art evolves.

Where to from here? Cage, Neuhaus, Westerkamp and Ikeda were part of the revolution that revealed new possibilities for sonic conception and meaning. Collectively, these artists embody the foundation of a fertile sonic philosophy within which the emergent computer musician of the twenty-first century is able to drive an on-going innovative approach to Sound Art and composition. Cage especially shifted the artistic focus away from the composer's intention and toward the emergent acoustic space. Within the world of computational composition, one practice makes a broadening leap in terms of sonic language; going beyond the limits of music to develop a new art form--artistic sonification.

5. Sonification

The twenty-first century has witnessed an exponential growth in the digital "lifestyle." It is not unusual for citizens of the first world to digitally embed, sometimes unconsciously, manifold aspects of their lives--generating vast digital footprints. So too, we have seen massive and ever-growing repositories of data emerge within government and private industry. These big datasets have become invaluable resources for organizations that focus on data mining --turning data into information. Along with the risk that we indeed have Big Brother in our pocket, some of the more jarring uses of the mined data are in marketing and national security. Ultimately these massive datasets, which are evolutionary in nature and rich in structure, inspire the continual advancement of mining techniques. And with ever advancing techniques, new potentials emerge.

Data sonification, or the mapping of data to sound, first emerged in the literature on computer-human interfaces. The field has developed rapidly in recent decades, with a growing community of researchers focused on the meaningful, data driven creation of sound (Hansen and Rubin, 2001). In a recent attempt to define sonification, Hermann (2008; 2013) suggested the sonification technician should consider four key tenets:

1. The sound should reflect objective properties or relations in the input data.

2. The transformation should be systematic. This means that there is a precise definition provided of how the data (and optional interactions) cause the sound to change.

3. The sonification should be reproducible: given the same data and identical interactions (or triggers) the resulting sound should be structurally identical.

4. The system should be capable of incorporating different data, and also be used in repetition with the same data.

The use of these techniques for the generation of sound has a long utilitarian history. One can consider sonar and the Geiger counter--both produce a sonic representation of measured data (Johnstone, 2013). The use of these sonification techniques has been found to exploit the "superior ability of the human auditory system to recognize temporal changes and patterns" (Walker and Nees, 2011: 11). Research shows that utilitarian sonification is the preeminent modality for cognitive processing when the information being displayed has complex patterns or changes in time--including warnings, critical incident responses, monitoring and processing multiple auditory data sets, and rapid auditory detection, especially in high stress environments (Walker and Nees, 2011: 11). Within the utilitarian framework, multiple approaches to sonification have been developed, with parameter mapping the most widely utilised. Within this approach "data dimensions are mapped to sound parameters: either to physical (frequency, amplitude), psychophysical (pitch, loudness) or perceptually coherent complexes (timbre, rhythm)" (Worrall, 2010: 2). The approach proves useful when working with large datasets where multiple variables can be accessed concurrently--and these mappings are easily adjusted, allowing for an ever-shifting perspective within the same set of data (Worrall, 2010: 2).

Initially employed by scientists and engineers as an analytic tool, sonification experiments were often more concerned with algorithmic process than ease of interpretation--or indeed the nature of the resultant sound (Barrass and Vickers, 2011; Polli, 2012). The produced sounds were intended to exhibit the complex feat of sonification--with any attributed meaning falling within subsidiary outcomes. The nature of the sound was inconsequential. In 2004, Vickers (2004) identified a need to consider the aesthetic value of generated sound--recommending the inclusion of artists in any crossdisciplinary sonification teams. This was a sonic bang for the sound artist an opportunity to create beauty whilst retaining meaning; sound that was beyond utilitarian.

Sonification is not solely for exact representation of data in the audio domain. Science and art work together to discover the hidden world in the augmentation of reality that is embedded in the act of sonifying data sets (Gresham-Lancaster and Sinclair, 2012: 208).

It was recognized that a wide-ranging adoption of sonification would require methods that meet a key expectation of the naive listener--primarily, for a sonically satisfying experience. Sonification must employ engaging sounds rather like the graphic artist creates beautiful (and informative) graphs (Barrass and Vickers, 2011). This led to a concerted attempt by some researchers to work across art and science to make a "meaningful rendering of a massive data stream," and "distil the content and the structure of this collective communication" (Hansen and Rubin, 2001: 4; Whitelaw, 2004). The definition of a successful sonification shifted to encourage the fusion of a message that pointed beyond the medium--with an inherent aesthetic reflecting a grounding in the sonic arts. To consider sonification as only science (or only art) was seen to diminish its potential. It emerged as a cutting-edge practice that transcended both disciplines (Grond and Hermann, 2011).

Beyond working to produce attractive sounds with scientific teams focused on utilitarian goals, sonification has begun to emerge as an avant-garde tool for sound artists. In its seduction of new media, Sound Art is flirting with sonified data, almost as found sound. As recently as 2011, Gresham-Lancaster (2012: 212) highlighted the limited research investigating the use of sonification as a means of artistic expression and found that it "is a powerful, poorly defined and under examined part of the field. It requires inclusion, support and research as much and possibly more than any other aspect of this field". Artistic sonification as a constituent element of Sound Art inevitably leads to a further mediation of the link between big data and the sonic event. Rather than an arbitrary mapping of variables to a sound source, artistic sonification seeks to be a communicative expression where listeners are invited to engage with the underlying data events in an extraordinary way. Sound Art becomes an ideal vehicle for transforming place with sounds rich and strange--meaningful and aesthetic.

6. Sonification & Aesthetics

Artistic sonification naturally engages in the discussion of sound and aesthetics and here is the challenge for sound artists working with data: to what extent can sounds that emerge from a stream of code be more than utilitarian? To what extent can sonification effect an aesthetic transmutation, allowing for engagement with sound and source together? Ultimately, are any outputs from the transformation of large datasets more pleasing to the ear than a looped Geiger counter?

All humans have the "amazing capacity to structure and make sense of the complex sounds, timbres, pitches and rhythms that we tend to qualify as music" (Schippers, 2013: 1). There is also great potential for sonification to convey complex information via these musical means. As the raw materials of sonification increasingly stem from our virtual or digital surroundings, the challenge to the sonification process is to represent something that lacks a natural sonic reference point; and to create sounds that direct the viewer's gaze to the source rather than sounds experienced in other contexts. "A sonification that works is therefore the successful struggle to create a message that points beyond the medium" (Grond and Hermann, 2011: 221). As an emerging form, there is no vast body of traditional artistic sonification approaches to guide the creative process. In terms of utilitarian sonification, Hermann suggested the sound artist must consider four key tenets in working within the sphere of sonification; namely, sonification must be systematic, objective, reproducible and inclusive of multiple datasets (Walker and Nees, 2011). These tenets focus on the science of sonification rather than the aesthetics of the produced sound. A piece may meet all four tenets--but be unpleasant to the ear. For the same piece to be aesthetically transmuted, what guidelines can assist the sound artist?

It is here that the work of Cage and his successors is critical. Procedural approaches provide a fertile philosophy within which the field of artistic sonification can emerge. For the sound artist working with sonification, the aim is to provide a data driven/procedural soundscape reveling in an aesthetic sonic language. Above all, the data must direct the nature of the sonic output.

With this in mind, the selection of source data is a critical moment in the development of a sonification work. From the data comes a clear artistic directive. What does it mean artistically and aesthetically when the artist is sonifying data from the Hubble Telescope--as compared to e-commerce data extracted from Amazon? So too, the choices the artist makes are necessarily guided by the specificity of the installation site. Data that may naturally resonate in a museum of modern art may not acquit itself as well when installed in an outdoor site or local shopping mall. The structure of the dataset must also be assessed for its inherent sonic worth. Such an assessment may be possible by simply examining the associated metadata. A preliminary sketch of marine data may demonstrate a natural rhythm in cyclical tide and temperature measurements; the range of data items may demonstrate the literal extent of potential pitch variability; and relationship strength of observed measures may provide guidance as to the sonic relationships potentially layered within a Sound Art installation.

With the greater compositional flexibility inherent in the Sound Art form, the artist will seek to develop an immersive sonic event. The nascent sounds that arise from the data reflect the definitive tension within sonification pieces; the tension between artistic intent and data truth. Within this tension sound artists exploiting sonification techniques varyingly impose aesthetic instruments upon raw data. Vickers and Hogg (2006) provide a detailed examination of the potential outcomes of this interplay. At one end of the spectrum lie utilitarian sonic outputs where there is limited aesthetic manipulation. At the other lie sonification works that exist as pure art forms whose aesthetic purpose supersedes the aspiration to connect the sonic with the quantitative (Vickers and Hogg, 2006). Furthermore, the sounds employed by the artist tend to fall on a second spectrum of "indexality"--an indication of the relative similarity of a produced sound to the original data source. A highly indexed sound reflects purely data-derived acoustic properties. Low scoring sounds reflect the artist's more metaphoric or interpretive mapping of the source. Pieces fall across the index; ranging in form from concrete to abstract (see Figure 1) (Vickers and Hogg, 2006).


Whilst such an axis may be conceptually useful when considering the nature of artistic output, a fully realized aesthetic framework within the field of artistic sonification may prove more elusive. The requirements of scientific sonification are as clear as the aesthetic manipulation of such is obscure. Whilst a subjective assessment may place a piece within two axes gauging goodness of fit with the source data--can we map the tools available to the sound artist that influence this plotted value? Examination of sonification source material suggests we turn to the aesthetics inherent in mathematics focusing on "concepts such as invariance, symmetry, parsimony, proportion, and harmony" (Fishwick, 2006: 9). Geometric interactions and mathematical processes have inspired composers for centuries; from 1436, when Dufay employed the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon in the creation of his Nuper Rosarum Flores, to 1965 when Xenakis composed Metastasis using structured mathematical designs by Le Corbusier. This use of mathematical equations and algorithms is fundamental to the sonification process. Reflecting on this process, Xenakis held that mathematics is used to model sound rather like a "sculptor moulds clay" (Gresham-Lancaster and Sinclair, 2012: 68). The exploitation of algorithmic methods by sound artists has the potential to create sounds that are precise, simple and elegant. The artist shepherds the ear to sounds of meaning; to craft an environment of aesthetic truth.

The sound artist may also algorithmically alter the shape of emergent sound waves via a suite of artifices including attack, decay, sustain, and release effectively impacting on the indexality of a piece--or its concreteness. Do we hear liquid sounds when sonifying data from the sea? (Grond and Hermann, 2011).

Another potential tool for the artist is the integration of repetition. The symmetry of repeated sounds establishes similarity and difference within a sonified piece--the repetition of sonic events grounding the work (Grond and Hermann, 2011). Consider the sonification of environmental data--in which the artist may reference the cyclical patterns of night and day; the changing seasons; the movement of tides; the orbit of planets. "Repetition suggests that we experience more than just a unique event which, due to its singularity, can fascinate but cannot be understood" (Grond and Hermann, 2011: 215).

Along with sound synthesis and rhythmic grounding, the most salient aesthetic qualities of sonification are pitch and associated harmonic relationships. And it is here that the development of a broad aesthetic guideline falters--principally due to the wide-ranging musical modes to which a piece may be algorithmically oriented. Approaches of artists in the field range from tonal to atonal, from the electro/acoustic to glitch--each with their own distinct aesthetic. This apparent fragmentation of aesthetic approach provides the greatest challenge in the development of simple guidelines akin to the utilitarian tenets embraced by scientists. In the array of approaches to the treatment of pitch and pitch relationships, the scope to create a precise definition of "what works" in artistic sonification seems dependent on the background of the artist. More so than in other musical forms, artistic sonification represents a "wild west" of musical endeavor--where no one subset of skills defines the practitioner of the art. In its bespoke character, any sound artist working with sonification engages with their own unique musical practice, drawing the listener into an experience that aesthetically assimilates the scientific and the sonic. Ultimately, one must be able to sit back and allow the data to speak. The success of a sonification is then reliant on its reception. Is there a truth and beauty that transcends the sonic method? (Gresham-Lancaster, 2012).

7. Conclusion

John Cage's desire that all sounds be listened to as music fashioned a rich philosophy from which the sound artist of the late twentieth century was to emerge--brandishing a revolutionary attitude to sound, art and composition. Sound Art has been shown to be dynamic in its hunt for source data appropriating where it can. With the exponential growth in big data witnessed in the twenty-first century, it is not surprising that data has become the raw material for sound artists. Artistic sonification is an emerging creative practice at the intersection of mathematics and music, which sees this big data transformed into sound. Key to the artists' work is to produce sound that is beyond utilitarian--but retaining a direct experience of the data source.

These artists continue to drive an emerging artistic discipline; with an emphasis on "sound" as a specific category; sound that reveals and transforms; with a palette ranging from sine waves to silence; from digital detritus to the flows of the ocean; they aim for an experience of ardent listening carved from a raw mathematical source.

With practitioners of the art demonstrating radically divergent skill-sets across multiple disciplines--the creation of a single aesthetic guideline for all artists is unlikely. The history of Sound Art demonstrates the regular renegotiation of the practitioner role. With the seizure of sonification the role will again need to be re-defined and expanded. Whether aesthetic guidelines follow is debatable--and perhaps not entirely warranted. These may provide support in enabling a wider adoption of the discipline and it may be possible to frame such discussions in terms of the principles of physics, acoustics, mathematics and formal logic--but, to paraphrase Bernstein (1954), the successful Sound Art sonification may always remain somewhat in the realms of the mystical.


School of Creative Arts, James Cook University, Townsville

Robert Johnstone is a doctoral candidate in creative arts at James Cook University, Australia


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Date:May 1, 2015
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