Scrambled Grammar Served on Alien Ears

By Paul Welsh, 10 September 1997

Paul Welsh on Simon Yuill's Spector

To start with something ironic - calling Simon Yuill for a word on sound and machines, I attached a small plastic microphone to the telephone. In blissful ignorance of my real - not mediated - aural environment, we discussed his sound installation "Spector" at Dundee's Copper Gallery. Shortly before the thirty minute tape ran out, we stopped. Thinking back, we talked about the interaction of chaotic elements and structured wholes. The possibility of artificial intelligence. The deconstruction and reframing of Phil Spectre songs. The existence of ghosts. But you wouldn't know listening to the tape.

For the duration, the microphone listened to everything. Not only Simon's voice. After hanging-up, I discovered my home's unique sound had completely obliterated his contribution. Asian qawall on the radio. People shouting room to room. Feet clattering on wooden floors. All this was significant to the machine - not me - and playing the tape I realised a similar alien sensitivity underpins Yuill's work as well.

Described as "a computer generated poltergeist", his spector system features a PA hitched to a computer program. In linguistic terms, the program is a generative grammar but instead of producing Natural Language phrases and sentences, the machine generates new (possibly unique) composite sounds from a database of pop samples - the Phil Spectre connection. In addition, the machine controls sound distribution in the gallery by plotting coordinate points along two virtual axes. The result is a shifting presence simultaneously moving and fluctuating throughout the space.That's a simplified version of the theory, but like any quality supernatural occurrence, it's the experience that counts. Lying flat on my back in that cold blue space, I waited for any sign of life. I waited to hear.

Living with phantoms real or imagined in an unknown, unnegotiable space, the crucial feature of Spector is random possibility (mimicking a simple neural net, the program determines which sound is used when using a random number generator, thresholds and weightings). In the midst of a 'quiet day' for the machine, I listened to stretches of silence filled with a Cage-like score of hums, clicks, and rattles. Nothing to do with the artwork, these sounds were simply present in the building. But then Spector erupted - a roaring unrecognisable sound - which slowly decayed to silence. Independent and unpredictable, the machine had spoken and a simple tension appeared.

Yuill is the ghost in this machine, powering up a deterministic programme which lacks awareness but still manages to create. It would be trite to argue for machine intelligence, but there is intelligence encoded in the machine. A disembodied intelligence Ð a disembodied Yuill Ð the inventor who claims he always wanted Òto live as music ... to reverberate and evaporateÓ. And Spector manages to do this. Aiming to develop the work, Yuill wants to track the audience for Spector's coordinates and install the system in public buildings to generate architecturally specific musical structures in response to patterns of use. But a degree of person-machine interaction may only happen in the future. Right now, there's just something creepy living on a Dundee hard-drive.

[]Spector, Cooper Gallery, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee (18th - 25th April '97)

Paul Welsh