Musical Experience and Online Communication

Dante Tanzi
Laboratorio di Informatica Musicale
Dipartimento di Informatica e Comunicazione
Universitá degli Studi di Milano

Abstract. Online communicative practices have succeeded in placing relationships between individuals and communities inside a new public space. They have also attenuated the distinction between producers and consumers, especially in the creative sphere. For the last thirty years at least, the use of the computer has allowed sound materials to become part of the processes of digital transformation, but it is only thanks to the widespread use of the Net that digital music can now be manipulated by so many people. While cultivating their listening activities, net users improve their musical skills to the point of being able to look for forms, map musical processes and bring out meanings by putting together heterogeneous elements. It is therefore quite possible that simultaneous sharing in heterogeneous musical communities promotes – without excluding some degree of confusion – more opportunities for interpretation. But the more the intelligibility of musical events is entrusted to online practices and the more cultural differences are approached with apparent nonchalance and without any preliminary presentation, the more the experience of immediate access may pre-empt the possibility of any cultural mediation derived from the assimilation of musical content.


Net technologies modulate the transformation of individual spaces and interests by favouring the decentralisation of decisions, the mutation of production models and the appearance of new areas of knowledge. Regarding either relational or cognitive changes originating from the Net [24], experiences from disciplines like Computer-Human Interaction and Actor-Network Theory seem to agree that belonging to an online community implies a contamination of interlocutory styles. In the sphere of musical communication, the reiteration of negotiation processes produces a semantic transfer of terms like ‘participation,’ ‘author’ and ‘meaning production,’ towards references which no longer coincide with the inclusive relationships involving community and individual, nor with role identifications. Such a transfer seems to call for a more suitable theoretical elaboration; at the moment neither disciplines working on usability of digital artefacts, nor theorisations engaged in delimiting the fields of perceptual and aesthetic trends in cyberspace can meet this demand. In fact, the online musical experience tends to place itself beyond the map of coexistences that we know. This is why it needs to be suitably described based on relations between bodiliness and sociality and on the encounter of production with consumption. This type of experience seems to express itself through a certain degree of heteronomy of the communicative events (both musical and non-musical), which introduces some instability in the contextualisation of musical contents. The recognition of such a condition constitutes a frame for interpreting the phenomenology of musical experience in the context of the Net.

Velocity and Relationships

The communicative relationships in the environment of the Net have been described both in enthusiastic and catastrophic terms. In this regard, I would like to suggest a more optimistic reading of so-called ‘absolute velocity,’ seen as a consequence of instantaneous access to a multiplicity of contents and relationships. According to Paul Virilio, such a condition would imply a complete renunciation of physical transfer [26]. In my opinion, neither the remarkable topological features of the Net, nor the possibility of instantaneous access to a large quantity of contents represents a factor capable of pushing us towards some kind of communicative deadlock. It is true that in telematic communication propositions like ‘distance = zero’ and ‘velocity = absolute’ seem to deprive the terms velocity and distance of their usual features; but even when taken to the extreme, in their semantic field they still maintain some relational attributes. For William Bogard, the crossing of environments with different cultural density calls for different bearing [2]. Each planned space mirrors a model of social order which is arranged by (and based on) relative velocities. While on the one hand relative velocities channel the perceptual spheres, on the other hand they provide access to diverse social spaces. There is no reason why instantaneity of access should mean that medial spaces (since they are plans or arrangements of social orders) have to be rescued from this order of considerations. In fact, nobody could experience a context change without considering the swerve of relative velocities, which corresponds to different cultural densities and bearings. As far as music is concerned, we know that listening implies an immediate acceptance, mixing but also preserving different densities of meaning, which are sonorous and symbolical. In fact, besides being a technology of sounds, music is also a technology of memory, capable of condensing, arranging and identifying temporal ‘vanishing-points,’ by offering a multiplicity of semantic confirmations [1]. Thus, the immediate access (read: that done with maximum velocity) to a great variety of musical contents should not represent such a novelty as to justify the abandonment of the idea of music as a flow of events characterised by relative velocity. But certainly, one can add to this meaning that remains others that put in question the concept of the uniformity of the listening space. While becoming clearer through interaction among a plurality of subjects, such meanings will have the possibility of being expressed by tracing creative paths and making everyone's skills and inclinations visible. Besides active listening, the exchange of information, procedures and technical knowledge stimulates autonomous (learning, creative, productive) courses; nevertheless, typical net performance and interactive features can re-collocate, de-centralize and re-classify musical experience paths, which up to now have been ascribed to subjective faculties [23]. Certainly, just exactly how the accessing and the comparison – in a musical sense – come about, can represent a crucial factor. For this reason, the evolution of environments for online communication requires particular attention, since these have to make musical content more or less accessible, clear, open to practice, as well as offering means, instruments and guides aimed at manipulating musical information.

Velocity and Individual Contours

Being on the Net means having a chance to redefine our own identity, as well as remodulating it on a series of different interlocutory levels [21]. Running parallel to real-life identity, identities on the Net have to come to terms with the features of a new medium capable of conditioning communicative events through a continuum of multiple accesses and simultaneous paths. As a consequence, online communication implies a different curve of cognitive parameters: while learning how to manage the flow of information coming from that reality, one has to balance the divergence between online and offline narratives. It is the matter of living in a composite reality that – as Virilio points out – requires the development of a sort of ‘stereo perception’ of events that relies on two separate orders of reality [27]. It is quite evident, thus, that friction may spring from both the overlapping and comparison of analogue and digital: among ‘local times’ and ‘the time of the Net,’ but also among ‘local’ velocities and ‘the velocity of quartz pulsation.’ As Maurizio Lazzarato pointed out, such processes seem to contribute towards the development of a sensitivity based on the breakdown of the solidarity of time with sensory-motor workings [12]. In such a way, the disjunction between empirical observations and what is felt within a flow of experience may spread from a narrow to a wide scale due to the Net. Besides, the Net highlights the emergence of a temporality of machines, which shows itself through the polarisation between a minimum and a maximum of velocities. Thus the opposition between fixity (crystallisation, minimum dynamism) and simultaneity (vanishing, maximum dynamism) appears to be the very ontological consistency of digital technologies. Besides allowing the production of superimposable realities, digital technologies make every configuration of change accessible. In doing so they influence our common sense in a hitherto unknown way. Of course, all this has some consequence for musical experience. At the conclusion of the article ‘Downloading Musical Signs,’ Fernando Iazzetta and Fabio Kon remark:

At the same time that the institution of cyberspace tends to shift the gravitational centres where music language has its foundations, the Internet stimulates and emphasises the immediate character of our music realisations. While our musical life is guided towards the preservation of tradition and the creation of an omnipresent language, the Internet stimulates the exposition of instantaneous ideas and personal views. The Net is the medium of the present: it grows and evolves as a living organism, which is constantly adapting itself to current conditions. Thus the semiosis acquires a virtual character; instead of accumulating signs of the past and connecting them to different territories, cultures and lands, the time of Internet is now, and its locus is here. Its mode of operation is not devoted to the preservation, but to dissemination of signs [8].

Digital Aesthetics and Technological Events

Even a phenomenology of change directed toward digital environments has to take into account the conditions that permit the mutation of communicative styles and the gradual appearance of a new rhetoric. While analysing such conditions in depth in the book Estetica dei Media: Avanguardie e Tecnologia, Mario Costa verifies the pre-eminence of communicative rather than creative activities. In order to explain this, he has proposed a distinction among aesthetics: the aesthetics of representation, the aesthetics of simulation and the aesthetics of communication. While the first two embody the aesthetics of new technological forms (like video-art or electronic music), the aesthetics of communication emerges as a true and proper phenomenology of technological events [4]. At the same time the author warns against using excessively restrictive interpretations with regard to the meaning of technological events. He is right. In fact, processes like hybridisation (mixing between erstwhile distinct features in the same digital domain) and metamorphosis (conversion of digital data from one digital domain to another) can extend the ways digital objects exist. Digital codes that appear in the form of images, sound and text, can be represented within different domains, as well as transferred and re-connoted within different contexts. The same digital objects can be placed within different domains: what has been a sound can be converted, or remapped, to colour, what has been a text-line can become a sound-cluster. In this regard, Lev Manovich explains:

It is possible to think of all representational art as a kind of mapping: taking the wealth of the experiences of an individual and/or a community and reducing it to a single image, a narrative, or another artistic structure. It is also appropriate (and more interesting) to use the term mapping for describing what new media does to old media. Software allows us to re-map old media objects into new structures – thus turning media into what I call ‘meta-media.’ With software, the data can be mapped into another domain – time into 2D space, 2D image into 3D space, sound into 2D image, and so on. In addition, the media object can be manipulated using all standard interface techniques: search, filter, zoom, multiple view, summarize, etc. More complex and unusual mappings are also possible – and the search for such new mappings that allow us to access old media objects in new ways congruent with information interfaces we use in our everyday life – represents one of the most fruitful research directions in new media art [13].

Thus, the aesthetics of digital communication not only sets the concept of an artistic event within a practice of multiple technological domains, but also develops and incorporates the remaining aesthetic forms. Timothy Murray hypothesizes that digital aesthetics can address the comprehension of change as an interval of becoming [16] or – as Derrida would say – a horizon of difference, where the becoming-space of time meets the becoming-time of space [5]. In this regard Murray considers that

Digital aesthetics, in this context, is foremost an interval of becoming. It thus opens to the spectators an amoebic, fractal space of the temporal continuum of becoming, one enveloping past, present, and future, one that foregrounds the creative enigmas of the many dialectical tensions driving modernism's ideological fantasy: being and non-being, resemblance and simulation, body and spirit, material and simulacrum [16].
With regard to sonorous events, Murray notes that the eventuality of an infinite repetition ends up by provoking an ontological crisis, through which the user deals with the ‘non-localizable exteriority of serialization’ [16, my emphasis]. Murray refers to an artistic typology that commits a narrative function to serialisation, while producing a gradual deterioration in the condition of listening. And this is, in fact, what happens if one tries to place a succession of sonorous patterns in the domain of a visual perspective, where succession in space is represented by a contraction – perhaps the metaphor of an escape towards the depths. But, once transferred to the domain of sounds, the same metaphor allows an escape from the relational character of listening space, so that the ways by which aurality reveals itself as emotion or as a mark of a relationship can be contracted or minimised.

Repetition and Representation

The term ontological crisis could be used to describe both the consequences of a climax – a communicative catharsis – and the consequences of an episode of deprivation, whether linguistic or psychological. In the case in question, Murray refers to the crisis caused by the reiteration of sound patterns and by the triggering of episodes of spatialisation of listening time. Usually repetition, seen as a part of the communicative process, takes place in various spheres (ritual, symbolic, sonorous, syntactical etc.), where the cultural models facilitating the interpretation and elaboration of meanings are already present. In music, the ‘re-statement of the same’ can take place in various ways, for example through the variations of frames which accompany the reproposal of a theme, but also through the use of different timbres and through the modification of the pre-eminence and the functional position of the repeated ‘same.’ Nevertheless it seems that Murray's analysis above all foresees the possibility that reiteration can lose efficacy as a communicative model, and that the ‘re-statement of the same’ may not take place, due to an interruption of the continuum of temporal-subjective frames that render it possible. In fact, the phrase ‘non-localizable exteriority of serialization’ evokes a dimensional and phenomenological leap, calling into question the conversion of the time of reiteration into space, and thus the very intelligibility of the becoming-space of time. Hence, just how the relationship between digital aesthetics and ‘becoming’ is to be expressed becomes a subject of enquiry. In fact the study of such a relationship, without ignoring the linear narrative heritage, will be increasingly forced to assess the results of artistic activities introduced by accessing discontinuous semiotic spaces. In this sense, one of the tasks of digital aesthetics is to reveal and represent the contradiction between ‘manifold navigability’ and memory; between the power of transferring digital objects and identities to diverse domains and the difficulty involved in describing them and their changes. Nevertheless we cannot expect that experiences usually connected to linearity and predictability can be immediately re-interpreted in the sense of multidimensionality and unpredictability. In this regard what is meaningful is the mutation of the relationship between representation and repetition: each has to be ascribed a specific dynamism in the formation of meaning. But it is quite plausible that the remarkable extension of power of the first can alter the functional features of the second. Digital representation mutates the meaning of repetition, by compelling it to migrate from the sphere of its own intelligibility to a reality that mirrors the contents and distributes them through a pattern of multiple accessing and replacement. This is what happens in online communication and in cyberspace, both because the crossing of properties of digital objects prevails over the conservation and the mere extension of such properties [1] and because the identities themselves are becoming an object of auto-manipulation (with the possibility they are becoming aesthetic objects). Certainly, the hypothesis of negotiation of relational and semantic spaces is today more useful than ever for understanding the emergence on the Net of a plurality of sonorous spaces, whether they are originated by cultural differences or provoked by digital technology. But such appearance of multiple realities needs to be followed by communicative instruments capable of taking responsibility for the impact of multidimensionality and the loss of control caused by perceptual and situational transfers.

Sonorous Spaces and Cyberspace: Plurality and Immersion

Sheldon Teitelbaum explained how cyber-architects are often called upon to plan temporal rules governing the production, access and exploration of cyberspace environments [25]. As a consequence, the planning of medial spaces can be compared with the design of musical events, trying to put the time features and the organisation of sonorous matter in relation with the ‘immersive liquidity’ of cyberspace [17]. One could object that cyberspace offers far more possibilities for navigability than music; but this is only partially correct. Such an objection could hold provided that nothing but a linear dimension is ascribed to musical listening. In reality, a musical piece can be ‘browsed’ in many senses: by working backwards through the emotions of the listening, through remembering the main episodic or narrative cadences; but also through the analysis of musical functions or the direct surveying of sounds. In fact, browsing the musical matter takes place with the opening of ‘windows of attention’ that work over time while considering it as a linear flow. Nevertheless, the process of following musical events is analysed both as chronological sequence and as a connection of formal relationships [22]. Adopting such widely different views implies the coming into action of both interpretative and predictive capabilities that, in turn, produce quite a different shaping of the observed object. If throughout the twentieth century the discovery of cultural dimensions that found musical expression to be of interest only to some passionately dedicated scholars, in the twenty-first century, passing through different musical landscapes seems to have become normal, common pre-linguistic practice, of which online communication represents an emphatic objectivation [10]. For this reason it seems quite plausible that as a communication theorist, Marcos Novak suggests thinking of the features of musical experience as a multidimensional space.

It is possible to stop seeing music as singular, as a street between point a and point b, and to start seeing music as multiple, as landscape, as atmosphere, as an n-dimensional field of opportunities. If music is a landscape then it is possible to extract as many types of conventional music as there are trajectories through that landscape. The new problem for composition is to create that landscape [18, my emphasis].

Imagining music as a ‘field of opportunities’ can make it laborious to represent musical events through the usual visual-linear maps. Nevertheless, our way of considering listening spaces is changing: we can no longer see them as mere containers of events, since they are playing an ever-increasing role in co-determining the communicative paths. On the other hand the idea of multidimensionality should be clarified still further. In fact one could ask whether the fragmentation and mirroring that affects sonorous and symbolic spaces are to be considered a loss or a gain of dimensionality. Such processes depend in great part on the variety of ways through which digital technology disjoints and re-shapes the relationships between ‘spaces of meaning’ and cultural spaces. So it is quite understandable that the technological devices that at the moment allow online listening, manipulation and composing use all sorts of cognitive approaches to deal with such a motley variety of relationships.

Mapping Online Musical Processes

Even without musical competence, net users can recognise some performed musical structures. By analysing the basis of temporal patterns, they can reproduce many types of temporal models and compare, order and put together musical structures. By activating appropriate models and using them to interpret new information, they can assimilate the new information back into those models, reorganize the models in light of the newly interpreted information and then use those newly enlarged models to explain, interpret or infer new knowledge. This process should also encourage the recognition of musical forms as a plurality of listening conditions, whose variability depends on the condition of local, individual reception, as well as on the characteristics of musical features. Given that there are many aspects of internet collaborative works that go beyond the idea of enhancing the established acoustic communication paradigms, this section will focus on some applications that have achieved recognition in this sense, while at the same time each one presents different models and paths in experiencing music.

Created by Tod Machover and his team at the MIT Media Laboratory, the Brain Opera is an attempt to bring expression and creativity to everyone, in public or at home, by combining an exceptionally large number of interactive modes into a single, coherent experience. The project connects a series of ‘hyperinstruments’ designed for the general public with a performance and a series of real-time music activities on the Internet. Audiences explore the hands-on instruments (i.e., Harmonic Driving, Melody Easel, Gesture Wall, Rhythm Tree, Speaking and Signing Trees, etc.) as preparation for the performance, creating personal music that makes each performance unique. The Brain Opera attempts to redefine the nature of collective interaction in public places, as well as to explore the possibilities of expressive objects and environments for the workplace and home. Brain Opera experiences have been designed to stimulate audiences to reflect on such questions and on how the independent fragments and layers of music come together to form complex yet unified sonic images. As Tod Machover wrote for the Ars Electronica Festival, it is this kind of audience involvement that makes the Brain Opera truly an ‘opera’:

Although the work does not have a linear narrative, which I have avoided at every step of the design process, it certainly has LOTS of voices – professional and amateur, singing and speaking, individual and communal – and the whole texture is actually very vocal, very ‘operatic.’ More significantly, the Brain Opera does have a significant dramatic progression, which is the voyage of each audience member through the maze of fragments, thoughts and memories, to collective and coherent experience. Just the process of understanding the scenario of each instrument – how it is played and what it means – and seeing how these turn into full musical structures in the performances, is a very rich and involving story in itself [14].

The Brain Opera toured worldwide from 1996-1998 (Europe, Asia, United States, South America), and has since been updated and expanded, including the addition of an entirely new culminating experience, the Future Music Blender. This definitive version of the Brain Opera is permanently installed in Vienna, Austria in July 2000, at the new House of Music.

Cathedral, by William Duckworth, is excellent as a web-based interactive environment for music making. It illustrates the basis of a project whose aim is building a virtual instrument capable of allowing listeners to play along in real time through the site. After a technical description, Duckworth explains the interactive features of two virtual instruments. In the case of first, called Sound Pool, the lines of hidden MIDI files are triggered individually by the user accidentally or randomly clicking on one of the nodes located within a web of multicoloured geometric patterns. Successive clicks both alter the visual pattern and build up a mosaic of sound. Since the lines of music change location randomly among the nodes, each user creates his or her own unique experience and never encounters the same Sound Pool twice. Users with varying degrees of musical ability can play a second instrument called Pitch Web, by selecting and manipulating shapes (circles, squares, triangles, and diamonds) that are mapped to individual sound samples. But ‘users can also select or manipulate individual sounds from a sound palette; produce sounds by entering words or predetermined combinations of characters in any language, which are automatically converted into musical passages through an auto-play function’ [6, p.15]. The goal is to bring traditionally passive audiences closer to the actual creation and performance of music. What is important to outline here is the dialogical process between users and Cathedral creators: apart from any judgement about the musical results, new relationships are constructed, based on habits which are not casual, but related to suitable paths. Duckworth sees web music as a ‘group-responsibility’ between the creators and the listeners, who have to be up to date with the plug-ins required to hear the music and view the site. Says Duckworth: ‘Our goal is to make web music accessible to everyone, not just those fluent in the latest Internet technology’ [6, p.16-17]. Such accessibility, however, is mainly based on the growth of abilities, which are built step by step, during a constant dialogue. What appears as a novelty here, as in some other web-based music applications, is the attempt to theorise the creation by users of their own space for expression, which springs from their attempts to combine sounds through graphical and alphanumerical maps. While users try to do something, they are actually learning to do it. By learning one way to map their musical experience, they also realise that many others are possible. The more chances offered by a online collaborative environment, the more negotiation processes will be started regarding different levels of awareness and differently oriented skills [6].

Following this discussion of the interactive features of Cathedral, I am inclined to consider INTEGER, Telemusic and FMOL as applications that reveal meaningful differences both in cognitive and creative paths through the net-music experience. We know the identification of musical phenomena can take place on vastly different representational levels, which are in turn influenced by differences in approach and culture. Sometimes online musical applications make the temporal functions of a piece of music comprehensible, but they often do not provide suitable representations of musical knowledge (like scores, pentagrams, event-lists, sound shapes and envelopes, and sound synthesis processes). After all, a musical process can even be defined as a succession of transformations, applied to single or grouped parameters: think of the modifications applied to the pitches and duration of a musical fragment, or to the envelope of a sound. When such transformations are described with relative simplicity, musical processes can be controlled just by using a mouse [23]. The INTErnet GEnerated Radio audio installation for live radio and Internet (INTEGER), created by Michael Iber, is an example of how to connect the high-resolution audio transmission of radio broadcast with the interactive controlling facilities of the Internet, in order to generate a new piece of music. ‘At the beginning of the live radio broadcast, the listener will be guided to the INTEGER homepage, where he will find a remote-control-unit with 16 programs . . . to choose from’ [9]. The rules depend on the frequency of mouse clicks among participants:

  1. If there is only one click within a 10-second period, INTEGER will switch to the selected piece.
  2. If there is one click per 4-second period, INTEGER will switch to the most selected (favourite) piece among participants.
  3. If there are several clicks within a 4-second interval, INTEGER will switch to the sound-processing mode. ‘The frequency of the clicks and their duration . . . deliver the parameters of this modus. Both [the] frequency of all clicks and the duration of the personal clicks will be shown to the participant to enable him to learn how to control the music’ [9].

The idea of Telemusic, an installation conceived by Randall Packer, is that of ‘making audible’ the networks which encircle the globe, transmitting a constant stream of electronic impulses that pass well beyond the limits of human perception:

In Telemusic #2, the viewer enters this electronic sphere, sonically defined by a live stream of telematic source material – television, radio and net broadcasting – processed in real time and fed into a 6-channel sound system. The viewer is immersed in the constant fluctuations of the network, its numerical impulses transformed from the virtual to as a sensory experience. No longer abstracted, the network's activity is rendered as physical sensation, tangible, embodied, audible [20].
With Telemusic #2, there is the possibility of tracking the flow of cyberspace's digital data through their sonorous representation, so that the real-time data derived from internet traffic and web interactions can be ‘interpreted, reconfigured and modulated as sound texture based on densities, velocities, movement, and the subtlety of its dynamic change [20].’

The first version of Telemusic was performed at the Sonic Circuits VIII festival in 2000:

With Telemusic #1, the demarcation between physical and virtual space, between online and local proximity, between the self and the network, converges and blurs into a shared, participatory experience through sound and our attention to its spatial and transformational qualities. [...] Here, the source for the distribution of sound is the live presence and interaction with the network, communications technologies that have brought about the dissolution of temporal and geographic boundaries since the invention of the telegraph [19].

A different approach is based on the traceability of the musical transformations, by extending the awareness of online interactivity. In that sense, there are applications which propose collective and evolutionary compositional practices: for example, instead of a typical sequential approach, pasting small fragments one after the other to create a single entity, Faust Music On Line (FMOL) proposes a ‘vertical’ approach. After the first, a second composer can add new sounds, or even distort or modify previous ones, but cannot make the composition last longer. And the same applies to a third and a fourth author. To handle this, the FMOL score files support various layers or tracks, and the server organises the score-files database, not as a simple list, but as a tree. Each time the program accesses this database, it receives and updates the tree structure of the composition, allowing the user to see all the branches, with the detailed information of each node. The user is then able, not only to upload his new compositions, but also to download and hear existing ones, and, if he wishes, to enrich or modify them. In that way, a musical idea brought by one composer can grow and evolve in different directions. The tree structure that stores all score-files allows up to four composers per piece and the addition of two audio tracks per composer each, and also allows any previous tracks to be reprocessed. Although the maximum number of users (or layers) per piece is reduced to four, there is no limit to the number of variations that each layer may generate. As the pieces are done in real-time and last for only 20 seconds, the delay between an author sending a germinal composition and checking the composition's descendants can be a few minutes. And this process can be re-iterated an infinite number of times. As Álvaro Mendes Barbosa states in his doctoral research, Brain Opera, FMOL and Cathedral

can already be considered as being in the frontier between two different approaches:

To face the internet as a (a) media [sic] to provide connections between performative spaces in an event driven perspective performed by a specific group of users, or as a (b) distributed On-line shared space, suitable for collective sonic creation by generalist and anonymous on-line community, which is more oriented towards improvisation paradigms [15, author's emphasis].

The proliferation of internet-based digital audio libraries has spurred the creation of tools that work as digital audio browsers. These tools make it possible to measure the similarity of musical structures in terms of recognition of a number of musical parameters such as pitch and duration as well as harmonic relations. Systems that use pattern recognition to measure similarity are relatively simple and well known in the case of literal texts, but are more complex in the case of audio. In fact a retrieval system is aimed at discovering and highlighting the relationships between audio and score for any musical signal whatsoever in input. Once traced, score events (notes, chords) and physical events (singular or clustered pitches) can be recognized and put in relation in their right place and order. The Digital Audio Navigator (DAN), a research project developed at Laboratorio di Informatica Musicale (LIM) of Milan University, deals with the automatic recognition of correspondences between spatial positioning of musical symbols within orchestral or single-instrument scores and the timing instantiation of timed symbolic codes (such as MIDI, MPEG4 SASL, MUSIC V, etc.) or digital audio signals (such as PCM CD-DA, WAV, MP3, WMA, SHN, etc.). The downloadable demo of DAN refers to a particular application of the more general technology under development at LIM: the automatic synchronisation between audio signals and MIDI music scores, both orchestral and single instrumental. In the DAN system's multimedia player, score visualisation is synchronised with audio waveform visualisation and audio playout so that it is possible to watch a music score and listen to different executions of the same piece collected as MP3 files from the Net. The synchronisation process allows the automatic extraction of temporal indices that relate symbolic score events with acoustic audio events [7]. Synchronisation type can be either Complete or Partial. Complete synchronisation collapses all the symbolic orchestral score events into one sequence (events having the same start time are considered as a part of the same event). Partial synchronisation uses only the symbolic information that belongs to an instrumental score. Since DAN can perform synchronised playbacks of both complete and partial information, it is possible to choose a MIDI track for the visualisation and to browse within the piece by partial information.

The Construction of Cultural Frames

This section will look into two examples of projects that construct cultural spaces against the background of a critical analysis of artistic practices within the frame of net-interactive technologies: Jerome Joy's evolving co-operative audio database, Collective JukeBox; and Sabine Breitsameter's web site Audiohyperspace, created for Southwestgerman Radio's cultural channel SWR2. Collective JukeBox is open to all contributors and is activated by their ‘engagement’ through sending unlimited audio contributions and evaluating proposed interfaces. It functions as a forum, and its participants can make proposals to modify the project. Just as the creator of Collective JukeBox, composer Jerome Joy expects his project to open ‘a new resistant space for digital audio emergent practices’ [11], the main goal of Audiohyperspace according to editor Sabine Breitsameter is to create an aesthetic-communicative experience within a culture of listening. The site selects, presents and reviews network- and web-based audio art, acoustic media art and its related discourses while investigating the aesthetic potentials of digital networks ‘beyond the utilitarian purposes of Internet & Co.’ [3, p.303]. As a consequence, ‘the principal aim of Audiohyperspace is to develop new dramaturgies for acoustic media art in the digital networks’ [3, p.305]. Both Joy and Breitsameter envisage participation in an artistic context as an exchange between subjects within a collective dimension. In fact both their projects are aimed at offering a social service, though in different ways. Audiohyperspace functions institutionally, selecting and presenting material as a part of the SWR2's online radio art program. On the other hand, although a private initiative, Collective JukeBox is a dynamic, collective endeavour, ‘a continuously evolutionary and updated resource’ [11]. Referring to their own projects, Joy and Breitsameter offer further considerations regarding the peculiar effect of net technologies on artistic practices and on listening spaces. Breitsameter's analysis regards the identification and consideration of cultural shifts of production and perception caused by the network's new prerequisites:

These shifts also imply difficulties and new challenges for the artistic concept and the dramaturgy itself. [...] If the framework and its rules are not enough defined, the aesthetic statement becomes arbitrary. If the rules and the frame are too complicated, the recipient is overwhelmed and might use the artistic offer to participate in a superficial or trivialising way. If the frame is too simple, the value of experience is little and the motivation to participate as well. There is also a risk of loss of editorial and artistic responsibility, if it is the user who is supposed to produce the artwork. Therefore, the invitations by the artistic framework to the recipients have to be balanced delicately [3, p.305].

Starting from a more theoretical frame, Joy analyses the shift between languages, reality and identity of artistic practices. According to Joy, the practices of artistic presentation and the conditions that rule the diffusion of artworks no longer seem adequate to ‘languages’ developed nowadays, especially those using elements that are more and more dematerialised and free from the ‘principles of reality.’ Joy states that the fields of artistic inquiry tend to be displaced, while presenting themselves more often in the shape of ‘device,’ than in the form of ‘laboratory’ or ‘platform.’ There is a process of adaptation that opens new spaces to artistic practices and requires them to be reformulated. In fact, without being too explicit, they infiltrate peripheral domains (computer science, communication, social relations) and thus modify their identity. For Breitsameter, the combination of broadcast and network media could be the right answer for problems deriving from operational interactivity. Such an approach is based on the consideration that more choices, more channels and different paces of conversation may improve the intelligibility of listening spaces.

An interactive audio art piece can be tried out in its non-linear, multi-optional aesthetic behaviour by the users on the Internet. A radiobroadcast can serve as a meta-channel for the same work: by airing it as a linear program, its artist can demonstrate its aesthetic refinement, which in most cases will probably exceed the users' trials and errors. By this the audience can also experience that the artist's claims, which are formulated in the interactive concept and setting, can be fulfilled and don't stay mere intentions. By the linear broadcast, which requires listening, also the possibility of contemplation, which is a prerequisite of understanding, can be made accessible for the audience. Finally, experiencing the artwork on the Internet will be an individual experience, whereas a broadcasting is a shared one. The broadcast program can be understood as a window on the processual and interactive artistic network setting in a certain moment.

Accordingly with these premises, Joy's strategy is that of planning a device characterized by different forms and functions: an audio compilation, an audio intervention group, a networked jukebox.

The project is continuously evolutive with different public and ‘work’ interfaces, and its system of development is really close to a system of ‘groupware.’ [. . .] Collective JukeBox began on Internet for building the network of contacts between a lot of artists (and non-artists) to build a place of exchange and of conversation, and very quickly, the project requested the construction of interfaces for the exchanges and for the public broadcasting. These interfaces have first appeared in ‘real world’ with actions and a consultation board: a CD-player juke-box, which represents today the ‘sound-system’ of the project, before the finalization of the ‘internet-system’[11].

Nevertheless, it is quite clear that ways and attitudes in which participants approach Audiohyperspace and Collective JukeBox may be different, since the two projects imply slightly different conceptions of interactivity and cultural exchange. While in Audiohyperspace strong attention is paid to the quality of results, in Collective JukeBox the quality of musical pieces can be left out of account:

There is no selection for participating, and the project is now invested by many and many artists. Those ones take part in freely by sending to the project their audio and musical contributions, and the Collective JukeBox Project ensures their visibility and listening. The free mode of consultation and sine qua non activation by the listeners allow the installation of a user-friendly space for the public, as a cafe or a cafeteria or an ‘audio-lounge,’ with a jukebox machine. The project opens not only a ‘forum-room’ and a space of ‘scan’ (artistic scan), but also a permanent laboratory [11].

Breitsameter instead says:

An interactive radio art needs the user, who is taken for serious as a creative one and who is asked to give a qualified aesthetic input. [...] [The aesthetic-communicative experience] can be compared to the satisfaction given by an excellent conversation: A conversation exists within a frame of topic and behaviour, which is filled by the improvisational liberty and the intellectual and emotional qualities of its participants. If they apply constantly the framework, then the conversation is directed and redirected towards sense and meaning. This does not only need the participants' operation and action, but also very essentially their faculty and willingness to listen, in order to understand each other [3, p.306].

Certainly online interaction is causing a general reconfiguration of consumption. Different modulations of attentional spaces guide the subjective capabilities towards completely different fields. Vice versa, only through complete control of semantic and perceptive balance can the modulation of cognitive and aesthetic relationships come about. Many of these differences in stressing the quality of participation may be related to the role and the specificity of each project: in fact, while Southwestgerman Radio is an organisation with an institutional reference, (adopting both cultural and managerial criteria), the initiative of Jerome Joy (which follows the ‘bazaar’ or ‘autonomous zone’ models) tends to favour the achievement of a cultural autonomy and of an adaptive/cooperative organisation, since he is firmly convinced that they can be mutually supportive. According to Joy, the Collective JukeBox project could provide a model of a new economy (associated with these new methods of artistic work), which could cooperate or coexist with the existing and legitimated commercial systems (here those of the music industry, the art market and artistic institutionalisation) without seeming to be an element of pirating (copyright violation).


As has happened with other media, the Net has altered our personal questions and our perceptions of the world, as well as the principles of the differentiation of reality. A change of paradigm has followed, conditioning the relational and communicative processes. Similar considerations can be applied to the features of sonorous spaces that belong to net-based environments. The description of such spaces should take into account the modes of fruition of a sound object in the frame of online communication, the mutations that could eventually affect the rules of perception, but also the possibility of tracking the flow of cyberspace's digital data through their sonorous representation. The possibility of choosing whether and when to interact with a multiplicity of interactive options and sonic ambiences may be the same as posing the basis for creating various mixtures of listening attitudes. Besides conditioning the formation of semantic spaces, the scattering of communication on the Internet, the multiplication of production-reception chains, the exchange of role between maker and listener [28] and the peculiarity of online musical applications can give rise to an artificial plurality of musical spaces, constituted through options of cultural ‘localisation.’ Consequently, we should ask ourselves whether the appearance of artificial features of musical spaces is going to be an addition to, or simply a replacement of the ‘natural’ ones. Given that musical spaces can be considered plural in the sense that they are determined through different ways of production; given that they can be oriented with regard to different musical intelligibility, they would have to be in tune with a varied range of conversational frames. But it is not at all certain that a strong diversification of communicative trajectories can guarantee the level of semantic stability that a certain type of musical communication usually requires. Besides, the intelligibility of such events is also connected with the difficulty in tracing the sources and authors. This can be seen when there is an overlapping of performances, and in the case of musical projects like Brain Opera and Cathedral, which theorise the invisibility or disappearance of authorship. In such cases, the inadequacy of the terms ‘origin’ and ‘destination’ should be recognised, since their use designates specific relationships and intentions, whereas terms like ‘presentation’ and ‘re-presentation’ seem more appropriate to express the recurring nature and the multidirectionality of online musical experience. Therefore, it is a matter of trying to understand if and how all these changes can give rise to a sonorous and symbolic universe, based on much greater accessibility and articulated on smooth transitions between different cultural models.


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About the Author

After majoring in Philosophy with a dissertation on the problem of rationality in Max Weber's methodological writings, Dante Tanzi went on to study composition, electroacoustic music and musical analysis. Since 1985 he has been working at LIM, the Musical Informatics Laboratory, Department of Computer Science and Communication, University of Milan, under the scientific direction of Goffredo Haus. Besides taking an active part in the many scientific and artistic initiatives of the laboratory, he has participated in research projects on the development of software tools for musical performance and pilot projects for organizing, digitizing, and preserving the phonic archive of La Scala (Milan) and Bolshoi (Moscow) theatres. This variety of experiences has led him to explore the intersections between Humanities and Musical Informatics, while investigating the relationships between compositional activity and scientific experimentation. This investigation, in turn, has been influenced by a reflection on the general changes in the communicative processes brought about by the advent of online technologies.

The research conducted at LIM primarily concerns the study of methodologies for the analysis, the formal description and the synthesis of musical processes, and the development of software tools for multimedia performances.

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