Writings, recordings and software

This page will contain open access and open source publications that are outcomes of the Sonic Writing project. Other related publications can be found on Thor Magnusson's publications page

Sonic Writing: Technologies of Material, Symbolic, and Signal Inscriptions

Sonic Writing explores how contemporary music technologies trace their ancestry to previous forms of instruments and media. Studying the domains of instrument design, musical notation, and sound recording under the rubrics of material, symbolic, and signal inscriptions of sound, the book describes how these historical techniques of sonic writing are implemented in new digital music technologies. With a scope ranging from ancient Greek music theory, medieval notation, early modern scientific instrumentation to contemporary multimedia and artificial intelligence, it provides a theoretical grounding for further study and development of technologies of musical expression. The book draws a bespoke affinity and similarity between current musical practices and those from before the advent of notation and recording, stressing the importance of instrument design in the study of new music and projecting how new computational technologies, including machine learning, will transform our musical practices. Sonic Writing offers a richly illustrated study of contemporary musical media, where interactivity, artificial intelligence, and networked devices disclose new possibilities for musical expression. Thor Magnusson provides a conceptual framework for the creation and analysis of this new musical work, arguing that contemporary sonic writing becomes a new form of material and symbolic design--one that is bound to be ephemeral, a system of fluid objects where technologies are continually redesigned in a fast cycle of innovation.

[The book can be purchased with this discount code: “GLR MP6” on the Bloomsbury Academic website. Further information about the book in this blog post and reviews of the book can be found here.]

The migration of musical instruments: On the socio-technological conditions of musical evolution

Music technologies reflect the most advanced human technologies in most historical periods. Examples range from 40 thousand years old bone flutes found in caves in the Swabian Jura, through ancient Greek water organs or medieval Arabic musical automata, to today’s electronic and digital instruments with deep learning. Music technologies incorporate the musical ideas of a time and place and they disseminate those ideas when adopted by other musical cultures. This article explores how contemporary music technologies are culturally conditioned and applies the concept of ethno-organology to describe the nature of migration of instruments between musical cultures.

[The migration of musical instruments: On the socio-technological conditions of musical evolution - the article can be downloaded here]

Ergodynamics and a Semiotics of Instrumental Composition

This article examines the techno-philosophical aspects of how we create and understand musical systems in twenty-first cen- tury computational media. Arguing that processor-based media have exploded the compositional language of new music, the article proposes a set of concepts that might help us navigate this new space of instrumental possibilities. The term ‘ergodynamics’ – and related concepts – is proposed as a useful concept when describing the phe- nomenological, historical and aesthetic aspects of musical instru- ments, as well as a lens for looking at new compositional practices that can be defined as being either ‘idiomatic’ or ‘supra-instrumen- tal’. The article explores the difference in composing for acoustic, electronic and digital instruments, and suggests that new musical practice can be characterised by a move from composing work to inventing systems.

[Ergodynamics and a Semiotics of Instrumental Composition - the article can be downloaded as a preprint here]

Echoes of other worlds: sound in virtual reality [REVIEW]

There is an open season for VR sound. Echoes of Other Worlds ends with a section with this title, and its author, Tom Garner, is right in pointing to the innumerable interdisciplinary possibilities represented by sound in virtual reality. The book is part of the Palgrave Studies in Sound, an excellent series with a unique take on the vibrant research field of sound studies. Edited by Mark Grimshaw-Aagaard, the series attempts to understand the relational nature of sound: how it connects with other cultural domains from the perspective of social and aesthetic theory. The author is a Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth, specialising in sound design for virtual reality. The book provides a solid outline of the nature of sound in virtual reality from a broad techno-philosophical perspective that should benefit anyone creating or analysing virtual reality content.

[Echoes of other worlds: sound in virtual reality - the review can be downloaded as a preprint here]

Ergomimesis: Towards a Language Describing Instrumental Transductions

This speculative paper proposes a terminology of ergomimesis for engaging with the way new musical instruments derive their design from previous music technologies. What new instruments translate from earlier technologies are not simply the simulation of an interface, but a whole constellation of embodied contexts, where trained movements, musical actions, human-instrument relationships and other processes are transduced or moved over to a technology of a different material substratum(from organic to digital material). The concept of ergodynamics in a musical instrument is subsequently contextualised in relation to the semiotics of mapping, from the background of the Peircian analysis of the sign.

[Live Interfaces - the paper can be downloaded here]

The Ensemble as Expanded Interface: Sympoetic Performance in the Brain Dead Ensemble

This paper reports on an interactive and interconnected music ensemble from the perspective of the interface. More specifically it aims to canvass the dynamic relationships established within the Brain Dead Ensemble. It describes how the reconfigured relationships between performers and instruments are inherent to this ensemble from a technical point of view. In addition, it aims to survey the phenomenological aspect of the relationships established between the performers of this ensemble and how these relationships suggest the possibility of an ensemble itself conceived as interface.

[Live Interfaces With Thanos Polymeneas-Liontiris, Alice Eldridge and Chris Kiefer - the paper can be downloaded here]

Performing with Patterns of Time

Music is a time-based art form often characterised by patternings; manipulations of sequences over time. Composers and performers may think in terms of patterns, although the structure of patterned sequences are often not made explicit in musical notation. This chapter explores how musical sequences can be created and transformed in real-time performance through patterning functions. Topics related to the use of algorithms for pattern-making are discussed, and two systems are introduced - ixi lang and TidalCycles, as high level and expressive mini-languages for musical pattern.

[The Oxford Handbook of Algorithmic Music - the chapter can be downloaded from here]

Musical Organics: A Heterarchical Approach to Digital Organology

Gaining a comprehensive understanding and overview of new musical technologies is fraught with difficulties. They are made of digital materials of such diverse origins and nature, that they do not fit comfortably into traditional organological classifications. This article traces the history of musical instrument classifications relevant to the understanding of new digital instruments, and proposes an alternative method to the centuries-old tree-structure of downwards divisions. The proposed musical organics is a multidimensional, heterarchical, and organic approach to the analysis and classification of both traditional and new musical instruments that suits the rhizomatic nature of their material design and technical origins. Outlines of a hypothetical organological informatics retrieval system are also presented.

[The Journal of New Music Research - the article can be downloaded from here]

Contextualizing Musical Organics: An Ad-hoc Organological Classification Approach

New digital musical instruments are difficult for organologists to deal with, due to their heterogeneous origins, interdisciplinary science, and fluid, open-ended nature. NIMEs are studied from a range of disciplines, such as musicology, engineering, human-computer interaction, psychology, design, and performance studies. Attempts to continue traditional organology classifications for electronic and digital instruments have been made, but with unsatisfactory results. This paper raises the problem of tree-like classifications of digital instruments, proposing an alternative approach: musical organics.

Musical organics is a philosophical attempt to tackle the problems inherent in the organological classification of digital instruments. Shifting the emphasis from hand-coded classification to information retrieval supported search and clustering, an open and distributed system that anyone can contribute to is proposed. In order to show how such a system could incorporate third-party additions, the paper also presents an organological ontogenesis of three innovative musical instruments: the saxophone, the Minimoog, and the Reactable. This micro-analysis of innovation in the field of musical instruments can help forming a framework for the study of how instruments are adopted in musical culture.

[Proceedings of the 2017 New Interfaces for Musical Expression Conference (NIME) - the paper can be downloaded from here]

Interfacing Sound: Visual Representation of Sound in Musical Software Instruments

This chapter explores the role of visual representation of sound in music software. Software design often remediates older technologies, such as common music notation, the analogue tape, outboard studio equipment, as well as applying metaphors from acoustic and electric instruments. In that context, the aim is to study particular modes in which abstract shapes, symbols and innovative notations can be applied in systems for composition and live performance. The chapter presents the development of musical software as a form of composition: it is an experimental activity that goes hand in hand with sound and music research, where the musician-programmer has to gain a formal understanding of diverse domains that before might have been tacit knowledge. The digital system’s requirements for abstractions of the source domain, specifications of material, and completeness of definitions are all features that inevitably require a very strong understanding of the source domain.

[Musical Instruments in the 21st Century - my chapter can be downloaded from here]

Writing with shaky hands (editorial)

In his introduction to the Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault objects to be defined as a writer of a solid identity in order to be able to move, change, and explore the unknown – labyrinths and underground passages – admitting that such writing is at times done with a ‘shaky hand’. This journal issue explores live coding, a performance practice that operates in a similar spirit of writing as an adventure and exploration, of deliberately rejecting definitions, of being heterogeneous in nature, and continually challenging its self-understanding through the practice of writing and rewriting – of defining and redefining – as a public performance.

[The Live Coding issue of the International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media. View the editorial here]

Notating the Non-Notateable: Digital Notation of Txalaparta Practice

This paper explores notation practices related to the ancient Basque musical tradition of the txalaparta. It presents the txalaparta practice, introduces the improvisational rules of txalaparta playing, and describes our attempts in creating notation systems for the instrument. Due to the nature of txalaparta playing, Common Western Notation is not a suitable notation, and we will present the notation system we have developed as part of the Digital Txalaparta project. This system captures the key parts of playing and could potentially serve for both playback and a rich documentation of what players actually perform.

[Tenor 2016 Conference download PDF]

Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Live Interfaces

The proceedings of the Live Interfaces conference are the outcome of a five-day gathering at the University of Sussex's Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts in June 2016. The biennial ICLI conference is interdisciplinary and practice-based, unique in that it focuses on the role of performance interfaces across all of the performing arts. This year it became clear that ICLI has become an established platform for people operating in diverse sections of the arts to meet and discuss the embodied use of technology in live performance. With a focus on practice, the conference emphasised the role of performances, workshops and installations as well as papers and posters.

With submissions from musicians, dancers, roboticists, brain scientists, visual artists, philosophers, animators, sculpturists, and more, the proceedings illustrate the range of activities encompassed by this lively platform for knowledge exchange and new performance practices. The proceedings were peer reviewed and include long and short papers, doctoral colloquium papers, performance installation and workshop descriptions, as well as some documentation of the event itself. Much of the conference was also filmed and can be found on the conference YouTube channel.

[Live Interfaces 2016 Conference link to PDF proceedings and video channel]