Phonurgia Novissima: Sound Meets the Internet

By Eleonora Oreggia, 12 July 2011

The recent edition of the Netaudio festival, staged in London, posed the question of the sonic and musical properties specific to the internet. Multimedia artist and musician Eleonora Oreggia went to see if it twiddled all the right knobs

In his 339 year-old work Phonurgia Nova, Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher - often described as 'the last renaissance man' - theorised a future in which the union of the mechanical and physical arts and nature would produce machines able to transmit sound to remote places.1

This projection entailed the rebirth of acoustics in connection with architecture, sound, interactivity and machinery. The book, whose title (which is Greek transliterated into Latin) means 'a new method of sound production', has only recently been rediscovered. Kircher embodies the syncretic and multidisciplinary range of interests typical of renaissance erudition and the Baroque vision of the 'marvellous', in which science, magic and the arts play together in order to amaze, create, deceive and surprise. The meraviglia (‘wonder') of such experiments used to be explained at the end through a mixture of calibrated hermetism and exact science. The figure of the renaissance scientist, blurred with that of the artist and the inventor, closely resembles the archetypal contemporary new media artist. Ideally an artisan and hacker, s/he is also musician and programmer, as well as poet and painter.

Image: Illustration by Athanasius Kircher of the construction of a statue able to emit both articulated and inarticulated sounds,

Phonurgia Nova, 1672

Kircher, who was dreaming of incredible machines and architectures which embedded non-electronic amplifiers avant la lettre, described diverse solutions to the transmission of sound at a distance, or of music to a different room, or for devices which could amplify voices rendering every word, even whispers, distinctly audible (delectationes).2 He also analysed the phenomenon of echo and other effects of sound architecture, finally planning the construction of a talking statue with moving eyes and mouth, connected to a spiral tube inserted into a building which gave onto a public space. The tube, acting as conductor, distorter and amplifier, would transform the wind into breath, and the sounds of the public space into human or animal voices. Kirchner, through his conception of sound as amplifiable signal, was probably beginning to consider noise - its propagation and gain - as possible material for the production of music and artefacts.

Continuing a related discourse many years later, Netaudio - the international festival dedicated to the sounds of the internet, first showcased in Switzerland and Germany in 2005 - took place in London between 13-15 May 2011.

The opening concert at Café Oto featured two special names in contemporary European electronic music: Valerio Tricoli and Robert Piotrowicz, who performed in solo and duo. Tricoli performed with his inseparable Revox tape recorder. His acousmatic music recalls the spatialisation of an inner vision, where memory and dream project an imaginary dimension over the present, allowing the site of listening to mutate and deform, structuring the development of a partially abstract narrative. Their incredible duo struck an elegant and literate note, initiating the festival's program.

The night continued at Apiary Studios in Hackney, where a sequence of house and deep techno sets - including Dave Congreve, Alex Fisher, Leif and Chris Box - allowed festival artists and attendees to meet and interact, slipping from one room to the dance floor to the yard, drinking a beer or burning yet another fag.

On Saturday at the Roundhouse the Sonic Maze art exhibition opened up its circular labyrinth of small rooms, each dedicated to a different work. The themes of memory in relation to time and languages (of codification), and that of sound in relation to space and individuation (or the subjective listening experience), emerged as central motifs recurring throughout the festival, especially in the case of real-time music production and diffusion.

Monomatic's gentle response to the era of the iPod's development was Modular Music Box, a series of interconnected devices creating a beautiful electro-magnetic carillon, a clockwork musical instrument whose shape and function narrate the poetic and stormy relationship between digital and analogue, memory and object, reproduction and execution.

The theme of memory was also present in No Numbers by Andrew Black, where John Foxx's electronic music track Mr No was transformed into a sequence of numbers, the digital codification of the sample. The visitor was invited to copy with pencil and paper the sequence of strings, facing an impossible task which addressed and differentiated human and machinic capabilities.

Image: Installation shot of the Sonic Maze exhibition for Netaudio, Roundhouse, London 2011

In the next room, the work Listen In by Dan Scott shifted the focus from systems of notation to the materiality of the signal's transmission and its intrinsic fragility: 20 portable radios were reproducing the experience of listening to radio Heart FM from 20 different locations across London. Each broadcast occupied a 1Mhz range running across the FM spectrum from 88Mhz to 108Mhz, locations and listeners ranged from a man listening via his mobile phone on the bus to a mother in a living room to a carpenter in a Peckham workshop. These 20 radios, all playing identical content which sounded slightly different according to the device and its context, revealed both the central role of the listener and the characteristically plural identity of live signals, which can be simultaneously equal and diverse if the reproducing system or listening modality changes.

Robertina Šebjani? and Luka Frelih's Pufination went one step further, abstracting the concept of the net as a mythical tale: there is a sensitive network of artificial biospheres ready to emit music and sound by incorporating the visitor into its ecosystem. There is no completion without external interaction, and the sensor interface becomes the point of contact between radically different entities: humans and biospheres. Through their conjunction Pufination can speak, becoming a hybrid instrument of hard and flesh-ware.

Duelling Fans was another gesture of re-appropriation of everyday industrial sounds, objects and commodities which produced an aesthetic interpretation of listening. Two fans, posed one in front of the other like two guitars in a rock ‘n' roll band, were presented like musical instruments. Noise was also the subject of Jody Rose's Singing Bridges, an installation which uses bridges as musical instruments; the sound of vibrations in bridge cables is recorded over a nine-year period, in various locations around the world. Time and space are contracted, and architectural elements again become musical instruments.

On Sunday afternoon, in the centre of the maze, B Channel Audio Programme, organised in collaboration with Call & Response, was an 8-channel immersive event playing pieces by Sarah Boothroyd, Eric La Casa, Robert Van Heumen, Jeremy Keenan, Matt Lewis, Kaffe Matthews, Tom Slater, Ralf Steinbrüchel and Jacob Kirkegaard in rotation, all specifically created for an 8-channel spatial listening experience. While the sound become tactile, the listener's movement through space was central, and this subjective listening built a relative, mutable and active experience.

At the same time, the Netaudio Open Platform animated Roundhouse Torquil's bar with an afternoon of live music showcasing emerging artists selected by public submission. The community chose London based Cuntbucket, Regolith, Preslav Literary School, Jan Liberbarek, Jo Thomas and Tidy Kid.

Netaudio also offered a number of free workshops to explore the thematics emerging from the festival. Procedural Audio by Andy Farnell was a 90 minute high-speed introductory tour to Pure Data, an open source graphical programming environment for real-time audio, video and interactive systems. The Los Apps Workshop with RJDJ, held by Robert Thomas and Joe White, focused on the process of delivering interactive music projects using mainstream applications for mobile phones. The Soundcloud Workshop, 'Giving the Web a Voice' looked at SoundCloud, a platform for audio self-publishing and sharing. Among the few respectable social networks that Web 2.0 has produced, SoundCloud allows musicians to share, upload and listen to each other's music in a fast and simple way, offering the possibility to comment on specific points of the track's time-line. The workshop focused on Airtime, a free open source software for remote radio station scheduling and management.

Netaudio, in trying to reflect and convene discussion alongside staging performances and an exhibition, gave the Sunday conference at the Roundhouse a central position. The core theme, subdivided into three main sections, was the exploration of the internet's intersection with other technologies and cultural practices.

The morning panel, Politics, Protest and Sound, looked at music as a form of resistance, a left-wing way of making politics. In fact, according to keynote speaker Matthew Herbert - who wrote a manifesto in 2000 titled 'Personal Contract for the Composition of Music' - music is political all the time. Aiming at a radical shift in musical forms, he enumerated a number of crises: those of technique, synthesis, distribution, listening, the philosophy of musicians and of confidence and context. iTunes music presents no credits and no context, and there is a lack of ambition behind the capitalist mode of consumption. According to Herbert, the politics that inform practice must come from elsewhere, as an example he discussed an appeal he had addressed to the Palestinian and Israeli witnesses of the conflict, an invitation to collect and share recordings of 10 good and 10 bad sounds, which became material for composition. The question of ‘what to do next at the forefront of music production?' emerged, as well as the perceived need to stop recording in studios and to stop using pre-existing samples, to which could be added the supercession of the loop as the basis of electronic compositional structure.

Mark Fisher, blogger, academic and writer for The Wire, looked at what's happening to music culture during the shift towards a ‘post-capitalist' world; a world where capitalism is not understood as the only possible alternative and neoliberalism has failed to satisfy those desires whose promise of fulfilment had once driven its widespread acceptance. Now that technological development allows new forms of social collectivity there is, he argued, a new space for refining the formal qualities of that utopian dimension which was, once upon a time, lost in history.

Anthony Iles, co-editor of the anthology Noise and Capitalism and contributing editor to Mute, defined the two terms of the book's title: 'capitalism' is understood as a social relation, it refers to a system of production based on exploitation. 'Noise', besides referring to a genre of music, is everything that is not part of the original message in information theory and the physics of signals transmission. ‘Noise' is that which is not apparently relevant, a redundancy or interference, disturbance or effect of encoding and decoding. In times of turbulence, the sound of disturbance becomes the encrypted answer to the practice of music as commodity.

So what is a musical commodity now that music is virtually free?

Seeking an answer to this question beyond the much touted and fetishistic return to the object, another question comes to mind: is virtually free music really free? In a platform such as the net, hardware and software can also assume an ethical and political value. The widespread use of proprietary formats and codecs, outdated forms of licenses and closed software and hardware for the creation and reproduction of music can still bind virtually free music to the idea of commodity.

Image: Liliane Lijn on the Digital Futures and Analogue Survivals panel, Netaudio, 2011

A speaker from UK Uncut, the last panelist of the morning, narrated the story, of the campaign's multi-directional conversations through which they tried to raise consciousness over the cuts using Twitter and other not-necessarily-political online tools. At the root of these experiments was the urgent need to modify and create alter-spaces, as well the occupation of spaces.

After some consensual applause, the panel continued as a conversation with the public, which raised a number of key issues such as a general reflection on the use of silence, as much as noise and music, as a way of creating awareness and expressing protest. Matthew Herbert reminded us that recorded sound has only existed for a relatively brief time, but every other conflict produced its politics through sound - sound which we can now only imagine.

The conversation turned towards the production of music today and the relation between sound and noise, which imply each other. At the end the key question of sustainability was broached, considering open publishing, file sharing and free transmission on the one hand, and the problem of distribution on the other. What's happening to the market? And also, how do collaboration and creativity relate to each other and what new frontiers and modes of creation are opened today by current technology?

In the afternoon the panel entitled Creativity and Collaboration in the Internet Era continued the discussion with Michel Bauwens' presentation on different domains of openness, as in the practice of openness, open movements and all that can influence our consciousness. Bauwens, founder of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives, spelled out a message more or less as follows: let's try to envision the future in a way that allows us to change it!

Artist Tamara Barnett-Herrin presented her collaborative work 'Calendar Songs' from 2006. In this project, she used the internet to involve ‘users' in the process of creation and remix, surpassing the idea of sharing towards a more imaginative method of composition. Her tracks, uploaded monthly, could be downloaded, reworked and successively uploaded on her website. At the end of the process there were 400 remixes with eight included in the final CD. Sharing became a process of liberation, with the creative process ceasing to be a secret and isolated activity, and the work becoming public without being finished, allowing future listeners to contribute. Her project questioned the passive television-like attitude to internet use so often treated as a pool of downloadable content, and legitimated the practice of remixing.

Matthew Fuller's presentation reminded us that, although it is common opinion that the main impact of the internet on music (industry) has been piracy, it has also generated new peculiar forms of network economies. He presented and commented on two projects: Flattr - a social way to get paid online and donate money to projects you like - and Bitcoin, the peer-to peer virtual currency. Whereas Flattr's centralised system transforms the traffic on a person's site or weblog into potential profit and, counting the amount of clicks on a special button, literalises a 20th century concept of audience as a more actual and voluntary declaration of support, Bitcoin is a new revolutionary approach to the production of currency and symbolic value. It is a digital currency system based on the open source software developed by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2009. Using a distributed database spread across nodes of a peer-to-peer network, new coins are generated by a network node each time it finds the solution to a certain mathematical problem. As the number of people attempting to generate new coins changes, the difficulty in creating new coins increases.

Whereas a fiat currency acquires value through government regulation or law, Bitcoin experiments with the nature of belief in the simulation of value. Its non-centralised structure makes it unfeasible for any authority to manipulate the quantity of Bitcoins in circulation, and its value is horizontally produced by people's willingness to accept it in exchange for goods. Although some questioned the potential security of this encrypted system, what Fuller wanted to underline was the possibility of money's reinvention, approaching the idea of currency in a different and creative way.

Christoph Brunner from SenseLab tried to translate into philosophical terms his analysis of the internet and its characteristics: the internet includes more than one mode of expression and, while the subject is a collectivity, and this collectivity is built by a system of relations, through the development of digital networks the production of subjectivity becomes both collective and trans-individual.

The last panel, Digital Futures and Analogue Survivals, began with artist Liliane Lijn, whose multimedia work emphasises the relation between matter, light and energy. She gave an overview of her career and the transformation of her practice from Moon Neme, her first digital work, to Power Game. This latest one, a gambling game, was translated into an online game for Netaudio as a response to a commission by Resonance FM. Using Twitter as a platform, she discovered hidden rules that were not declared in its terms and conditions.

Andrew Blake, Professor of Media and Cultural studies at University of East London, analysed the transformation of listening and recording devices in relation to their function, use and integration into people's life and living habitats. If the high-fi unit was assimilated into domestic design, the Personal Computer didn't make its way into the living room, and the exposure to music became individualised. When the CD began to die, the manufacturers engaged with internet and began to approach streaming technologies.

Olga Goriunova closed the conference reading a text which develops around the questions ‘what is "avant-garde"?' Avant-garde - she answers - is a recurring phenomenon that has to do with time and change; time is always a projection of the future in the past, change is related to technology and technique. Looking at the history of video processing, for example, from the analogue object to the generated flow of a real-time patch, she suggests a parallel with Guattari's definition of being and becoming: a materialist ontological revolution is taking place in the production and reproduction of video. Avant-gardism only exists in the future, and this doesn't mean it's utopian, rather it presents a special relation with time, creating a line of differentiation and demarcation with the present, which has a special relation with duration. The future and the past of the avant-garde are not circumscribed by the now, they offer a multiple dynamic becoming, something that happened but did not yet really happen. There is always something that did not happen and still remains a potential of the future, in this sense avant-gardes are multiple. Goriunova's research, starting from this reflection, will look into software and its special relation to time.

From this perspective, we may add, the phenomenon of Steampunk can be explained as an opposite mechanism: the projection of the past becomes the image of a future which doesn't exist anymore, subsumed by the sentiment of a progressive, as yet unrealised, apocalyptic end of time.

A short discussion on the binomial relation culture vs avant-garde brought the panel to a close. If in a discursive context such as cultural studies it is provocative to talk about 'avant-gardism' rather then 'culture', Liliane suggested that within fine art the opposite is true, substituting avant-garde with culture could be a way of generating interesting new thoughts.

So what is avant-garde in the net, and how can we define its ontology in relation to time, especially considering that music and sound are time-based phenomena? Somehow the footprints of this conference only approached the very edge of this topic.

If a calendar is an attempt to possess the fourth dimension we live in, rendering it comprehensible, controllable, subject to determinate annotation and definition, URLs could be said to create a structured grid where the abstract space of the net can be dominated and locations can be recognised by a multiplicity of entities, including humans, bots and machines.

The internet's pseudo-spatial structure can be compared to real-world abstract time structures. Similar to our need to orientate ourselves within abstract temporal schema through our use of calendars and clock time, the net flattens past, present and future into the abstract form of the archive. The difference here is that technology doesn't distinguish between past, present and future; it doesn't know about the future.

Walter Benjamin, in his essay 'On the Concept of History', describes the historical materialist vision of present and future. If the present is the zero hour where time originates, and

History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in

homogeneous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by

the here and now (Jetztzeit)3

then the future is empty time, in contrast to the messianic future which is defined by the constant potential for something to happen - something which has not yet happened.

Similarly and in parallel, in the net the here and now is the static time which includes present and past and can be interpreted as history or archive, whereas the real-time dynamic present is the only actual future possible.

Goriunova's ontological revolution is taking place because there are two types of time: static and dynamic. Static time refers to being, whereas dynamic time - that of live streams, generated pages and other ephemeral phenomena, is the time of becoming, and it's only in that becoming that there's space for a potentiality which makes it the only possible present and future.

Image: Andrew Liles from Nurse with Wound at Koko, for Netaudio, 2011

If the conference seemed to focus mostly on the static manifestations of sound in the net, it is in its becomingness that the internet's avant-garde can be found, because an intrinsically different way of making music is developing through the use of simultaneous streams and dislocated performances.

Back to the chronology, the final concert at Koko featured the elegant sound palette of Radian, the eclectic performance by Nurse with Wound and a special collaboration between Mika Vainio (ex-Pan-Sonic) and Bruce Gilbert (ex-Wire) commissioned by Netaudio.

Whereas Nurse with Wound's long career and experience did not erase the experimental and hybrid flavour of their music and the eclecticism of their performance, Mika Vainio and Bruce Gilbert's performance, despite being beautiful and masterfully executed, lacked a certain hazard and emotional charge to make it unforgettable.

Although many of the experiments conducted at Netaudio concerned memory, actualisation, the spatialisation of sound and the sonification of space and architecture, nevertheless the ubiquitous sounds of the internet remain - enigmatically - a matter for the imagination. They are as obscure as Athanasius Kircher's fantasies of marvellous machines or the sounds heard and produced throughout time, before recording technologies were introduced.

The internet, like a mysterious alien instrument, offers more than a new system of fruition and distribution, and the encounter of sound and the internet is still generating new perspectives and possibilities for musical creation because, echoing Spinoza's words about the human body, we don't know (yet) what the internet can do.

Eleonora Oreggia <root AT> is a multimedia artist based in London, UK,



1 Athanasius Kircher, Phonurgia nova, sive conjugium mechanico-physicum artis & natvrae paranympha phonosophia concinnatum, 1672.

2 L. Tronchin, I. Durvilli and V. Tarabusi, ‘The Marvellous Sound World in the "Phonurgia Nova" of Athanasius Kircher', in: AA.VV., Proceedings of Acoustics '08 Paris, PARIS, SFA, 2008, pp. 4183-4188 (atti di: Acoustics '08, Paris, 29-6; 4-7-2008).

3 Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History', Gesammelten Schriften I:2., Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974.