Maelstrom: An Installation Deriving From A Virtual Treasure Trove Of Internet Sounds

<p>This installation uses sound material from the internet to create a shifting wall of audio.</p>

Jun 4 2012, 1:00pm

What does the internet sound like? A whirring fuzz of white noise? An electronic beep chiming continuously? Or the endless cacophony of cats screeching, while Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black destroy pop music to a background of screaming teenagers and the sounds of a billion email notifications?

Daniel Jones and James Bulley’s sound installation Maelstrom goes a little way to finding out by enclosing the listener in alternating walls of sound derived in real-time from the mass of audio content uploaded to the web, creating an instrument whose output is a reflection of global internet activity. To accompany this cybersonic orchestra is a specially composed score playing an endless series of chord variations, dynamically generated by an array of live processes. The installation is part of the FutureEverybody Art Exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry in Castlefield, Manchester—running now until June 10th.

This isn’t the first time they’ve dabbled in audio explorations. They previously worked together on another generative musical experiment Variable 4, which used weather patterns as the basis for generating sounds.

To find out more about this new sonic undertaking, we sent them a few questions about the piece.

The Creators Project: What was the idea behind the project, to bring some kind of harmony to the user-generated chaos of the Internet?
Daniel Jones and James Bulley:
Maelstrom is a sound installation that surrounds the listener with shifting walls of audio, made up of thousands of constantly-changing audio fragments, downloaded and organized in real time from the endless mass of internet-hosted sound material. The work questions both the exponentially increasing volume of distributed media and the changing role of the artist: where do the boundaries lie between the composition, instrument, musician, and conductor?

The physical installation is made up of 12 separate channels of audio, heard by the listener through repurposed hi-fi speakers, suspended in a spiral from floor to ceiling. The speakers are all second hand, and were sourced from flea markets and the streets of London and Manchester. Their repurposed physicality echoes the fragmentary nature of the audio component of the piece.

How did you, musically, make structural sense of such a vast array of content?
The piece is organized by way of a conventionally notated score, which is written for eight instruments: double bass, cello, French horn, violin, piccolo, flute, and two “drone” parts. The audio material for this arrangement is downloaded in real-time from the internet, using a tagging system which enables us to select elements appropriately.

This material is filtered as it is added in to the score to remove noise (distortion, applause, etc.) and silence. The material for each instrument is then organized into thousands of microscopic, pitched fragments, which are triggered by notes within the score. If the violin part requires a middle C, the note is formed from dozens of middle C notes from dozens of different audio recordings uploaded by anonymous users to the internet.

The score defines a series of characteristics for each instrument. These include pitch, duration, and the movement of the sound around the spiral speaker system. During the installations, the score builds a series of long cluster chords across the octet of instruments, exploring their individual pitch ranges and the nature of the constantly varied audio material.

In creating the project, what sort of uploaded audio did you come across and utilize in the installation? Soundcloud profiles, YouTube clips…?
Maelstrom currently incorporates audio from YouTube and FreeSound, although in future iterations of the piece we plan to expand the variety of sources that we obtain the material from during the installation—it is intended to not be tied to any one source of material.

There have been a number of complexities in developing a piece of work for arbitrary sources of audio. For example, when we first started downloading media with the “double bass” tag , we were inundated with hundreds of double kick drum recordings! We remedied this (as amazing as it sounded), by excluding the word 'drum' and adding the tag “solo.” It is also quite astounding just how much clapping there is in any given musical performance on sites like YouTube.

We have plans to utilize some of the methodology that we have developed for this installation to create a series of sound studies, using tags that explore the sound world outside of the conventionally “musical.”

Would I be right in saying that your installation is the answer to the question, “What does the internet sound like?”
The piece does not so much seek to explore the question of what the internet sounds like, but uses the wealth of user-uploaded sound material as an infinitely varied and ever-changing instrumental palette. There is an element of collectivity within the work, whereby we are working with thousands of unnamed musicians to enact the score written for the installation.

Is there too much information on the internet?
This is a really interesting question. As long as this information remains openly accessible, well curated, and searchable, this proliferation of information can only be a good thing.

As time goes on, these systems of organisation and retrieval are improving by leaps and bounds, allowing for a greater democratisation of information, and enabling the archiving of this information for generations to come.