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Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer, 2015. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Science fiction films (with a few notable exceptions such as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey) often show rockets and spaceships exploding loudly in outer space. Yet, there's no noise in empty space. What we call "sound" is actually vibrations in the air.

In a similar way but with more scientific backing, Sam Conran, a recent graduate from the Design Interactions course at the RCA, has been looking at the 'sonification' of live macrocosmic phenomena that are actually not producing any sound. The result of his research is the Kabbalistic Synthesizer, a fully functioning prototype that uses the combination of electric signals in order to simultaneously synthesises variations in the Earth's magnetic field with cosmic rays and Jupiter's magnetic storms.

The device is comprised of a Helmholtz Coil and Magnetometer to create a uniform magnetic field and read local variations in the Earth's magnetic field; an 18 tube drift hodoscope to detect cosmic rays and their trajectory from other galaxies; a fractal reflector and loop antennae mounted on a robotic base that tracks Jupiter or the Sun and picks up magnetic storms coming from these celestial bodies. These instruments can be modulated from a control panel.

The project has ultimately been a quest to understand sound design as a gnostic utility and fundamental precedent to the way we might interact and value our environments..


Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer

Hi Sam! Why do you think it was important to speculate on sounds that don't exist? What guided your design of these sounds?

I guess being what, I am I have a relationship with sounds that don't exist - that's maybe why it's important for me, I'm passionate about exploring sound design that changes perceptions in real life as opposed to just on screen. My project was guided by this and an example called 'the Singing Comet' is useful. This was a sound that went viral and was the main talking point of the ESA Philae mission in the media.

What's interesting is the way the sound was portrayed in relation to the science and the aesthetic relationship the designer made to film sound. We all have this collective idea of what space sounds like which is guided by the big sound designers and the first filmic experiences of space - I think what the singing comet demonstrates through its success is the desire we have for space to be animistic as opposed to a vacuous dead zone. What guided my design approach was the way this sound had been pushed into the world as being real. The sound of the singing comet was designed and made by compressing data from days into seconds and mapping this to parameters of effects within some sound software.

I personally thought it would be nice to focus on the idea of creating real sounds and real time relations that we can perceive in relation to our own perception of time - not compressed and not stretched. As a result, the only parts of which I can say I have designed are the ways in which the user of the synthesizer can play and manipulate the raw inputs - the rest is process. It has been more about the pulling together of already present techniques for monitoring these phenomena than designing sounds to fit them. The sounds are not being determined by me but the ways in which they are listened to, which is guided by these processes.

The radio telescope is a noise input receiving raw noise coming from the cosmos and Jupiter/Sun noise emissions at 21mhz. The Magnetometer is translating real-time 'micro Tesla' fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field to a process called FM Synthesis, an already existing theory of natural sound synthesis invented by John Chowning in 1973 (Stanford department of AI). The Cosmic Ray detector doesn't make sound at all but is acting as a random event generator - as the arrival of cosmic rays are truly random I liked the idea of using them to trigger processes on the other sounds, like a keyboard on a traditional synth. 

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Helmholtz Coil and Magnetometer. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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18 tube drift Hodoscope. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Jovian Receiver 21.1mhz and Fractal Loop Antennae. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

How much of the technology already existed and how much have you had to develop yourself to create these 3 instruments?

The technology for all the devices was already invented but it's not off the shelf. Each device was designed and hand built, needing a lot of help in the end to produce. I have not read physics so the process has relied on many generous people at Imperial Blackett Lab and online. There was a lot of googling. 

I was also curious about the reasons behind your choice of phenomena to explore: why magnetic storms, cosmic ray, the Earth's magnetic field? What did you find particularly interesting?

I ended up replacing the usual functions of a synthesizer; noise - signal and operator/keyboard with object-based experiments that could replace these. In the Synth the noise is coming from the radio telescope the signal is coming from the Helmholtz Coil/fluxgate and the Keyboard is operated by the Cosmic Ray detector. There is no real reason beyond that - they are all fascinating phenomena and I became aware of some strange theories about the Earth's magnetic field along the way but it wasn't my intention to sign post anything like that. During the show that's something I had to be clear about - this is a synth that takes raw inputs and allows you to adjust, play and filter the outputs, in the end its all about the theatricality of the sound and its source and how that changes our perception.

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Calibrating the magnetometer. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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View of the installation at the work in progress show, Royal College of Art. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Are you planning to expand the project and work on other macrocosmic phenomena?

I am looking into ways in which I can streamline it, make it more portable. I would like to get it to a stage where I can start to collaborate with it, the synth outputs a standard control voltage so the cosmic rays could be used with other modular systems. I think next steps is to have all the software self contained in the synth. I'm trying to figure out the best way to do this at the moment.

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Research phase at Imperial College. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Your work is called Kabbalistic Synthesizer. I get the Synthesizer part but why Kabbalistic? Why introduce this element of esoterism in the work?

Kabbalistic is a very loaded word, but I feel it could not be anything else. The name was the starting point, it came before the project had begun to develop and has stuck all the way. It fits the process which definitely on the technical side of things has pushed me into a new world - It's inherently esoteric if you're not a proper physicist I think. It's how I've felt all this year. The name also fulfills a role as a brand name for the device, everyone can relate to that I think - it frames the synth as a product. Hooking into the macrocosmic through sound is quite desirable I discovered. A lot of people during the RCA show approached it as a genuine attempt at innovation. 

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Cosmic noise. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

One of the final paragraphs in the Creative Applications article about your project says: 'The Kabalistic Synthesizer is an alchemists approach to sound making and ultimately a project that seeks to understand and debate the psycho-social implications that could occur when science is experienced/accessed through a commercial medium and how 'sonification' can be combined with the synthesizer to access and objectify the unknown.' Could you explain with more details the bit about "the psycho-social implications that could occur when science is experienced/accessed through a commercial medium"? What did you mean by that?

What i'm trying to get across is really summed up in the comments section of the singing comet recording. I intended the project and its sounds to provide a kind of critical ambience to think about design strategies that might incorperate mindfulness through immersive/hedonistic tech. I'M A BIG FAN OF THIS BTW.

Do the instruments function in any type of place, environment and condition? What are the best conditions for the instruments?

The best time and place would be up a mountain during a solar storm. 

At the show, you mentioned that you were going to do some performances with the instruments? Where will this happen? And what is a performance like? Do you just let the instruments pick up and create the sound or do you actually intervene and modulate them for example?

I'm doing a performance on the 8th August at Wilderness Festival; it's a show and tell as a backdrop to a talk by John Thackara about "ways of knowing and monitoring the environment in real-time as the starting point for a new economy". I'm hoping to get good signals as its in a forest outside of London - I will play with what's there, have a listen. It's all dependent on what's picked up and then there are the controls that make it more of a performance, its a lot like tuning a radio, you can dial in.

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Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer, 2015. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Thanks Sam!

You can listen to some of the sounds produced by the synthesizer on soundcloud.

Sponsored by:





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Aernoudt Jacobs, Induction #4, 2014. Photo Kristof Vrancken for Z33

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Aernoudt Jacobs, photophon #1

Aernoudt Jacobs is an artist fascinated with sound in all its forms and possible expressions. He collects fields recordings around the world but he also creates installations based on Bell's photoacoustic effect that reveals the sonority of any material hit with a strong beam of light, builds sound microscope that magnifies the freezing and melting process of water or suspends coils, magnets and 1000 tin cans into the air to play with the laws of electromagnetic induction and generate tiny vibrations that produce sounds. It is as if everything in the visible and the invisible world provides him with endless opportunities for sound exploration.

Like most of his other installations, Jacob's latest work is half scientific experiment, half art piece. It involves using a membrane made of electroactive polymers as a sort of "living" speaker to autonomously manipulate the playback of a recording he made in a Romanian forest. Which might sound a bit confusing in words but gets instantly clearer if you take a look at the video that documents it:


Aernoudt Jacobs, Color of Noise

Under their peaceful, impeccably engineered and elegant appearances, Jacob's installations evoke phenomena that pertain to perception, psychoacoustics, physics and scientific processes. Alluring as they are on youtube and on the pages of his website, his works gain all their dimensions when experienced in situ. Sadly, i never got that chance. Hence my desire to interview the artist:

Hi Aernoudt! I was expecting you to have trained as an artist or musician but i discovered in your bio that you studied Architecture in St. Lukas Ghent. How did you get to go from architecture to sound? How is your architectural training helping you approach your work with sound?

First there was sound/music then I discovered architecture and after that I came back to music/sound again in a professional way. Sound never really left me. I needed more freedom, the kind of freedom you rarely find in architecture. I left the studies after 4 years because real creativity is only a very small part of the job. Anyway that is how I perceived it. But the study itself is extremely broad and it gives a lot of insight. So I never build anything, I did a few years of assistance.

In a way, making sounds/installation is a very architectural process. And a lot of elements of the studies just came back in my actual work (like technological research, using 3D software, material science, philosophy, anthropology, ...) I'm very glad with that background. I just regret that the aspects of acoustics in architecture or even aural architecture was not developed at all in the courses at that time. I think my path would have been completely different if I would have started the studies today. I hear and read that a lot has changed in this regard. Also much more research and publications have been done in the field of building acoustics. There has been an exponential increase in knowledge during last 25 years. And still yet too many buildings have awful acoustics, even spaces where acoustics should be a primordial preoccupation.

There is no sound without space, that is the link between sound and architecture. And I think it is also the main reason why you find a lot of composers who studied architecture.


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Aernoudt Jacobs, Permafrost, 2009

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Aernoudt Jacobs, Permafrost, 2009

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Aernoudt Jacobs, Permafrost, 2009


You are sound artist. But your installations are visually very elegant. Could you talk to us about the visual aspect of your work? How important is it to you? And how does it complement the sound work?

I am an artist that works primarily with the medium of sound. The seed of any work starts with a sonic aspect, and so to speak it progresses from that in a visual way. In general I never disconnect the sonic from the visual in my installations. They are always in tandem. Only a few times I was commissioned to make a 'speaker or headphone' installation because of certain limiting situations (like a public space or imposed infrastructure, ...) and even then the sound was indirectly evoking images.

The visual is also quite important because I tend to work on the transition between what you hear and what you see. The visual is a kind of an interface that brings the medium into motion, into the space, or into something that you can listen to. This interface can be highly technological because I am interested in phenomena, science, experimentation. Or it can be low-fi because I'm an autodidact mostly interested in carrying out research by myself, interested in the first hand experiences of phenomena. In fact, I see it a bit of prolongation of my field recording work where I hunt for sounds or when I try to grasp the origins of sounds.
Neither of my installations are loud, that is another reason why the audible elements shifts easily into the visual because the balance has been carefully weighted.


A couple of your works investigate the photoacoustic effect, a discovery made by Alexander Graham Bell. The technique consisted in creating sound by exposing certain materials to focused beams of light. Light creating sound! That's pretty fascinating. Do you know if there are applications of this effect in non-artistic contexts? Have you ever dreamt of everyday life applications of the photoacoustic effect?

Actually there are a couple of applications that came from Bell's photoacoustic research: fiber-optic communication and the CD player. But those inventions came only definitively through many years later when lasers were invented. 



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Aernoudt Jacobs, The Photophon Principle

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Aernoudt Jacobs, The Photophon Principle

I was reading the description of The Photophon Principle. It says that with the work you were trying to  provide a certain kind of musicality: "but in the form of an installation, not of a playable instrument". Why was it important to underline that this is not about making music?

The research around the photoacoustic effect has multiple facets. And at that stage of writing I was primarily interested in presenting a work about a transformation process. Making a composition would ruin the perception of that installation. But just recently I had to make acoustic measurements on Photophon in an anechoic chamber. It would be very interesting to develop a composition in these conditions, then I would definitely treat it as an instrument. Sonically I was very much triggered by the digital sound that Photophon produces.

Making installation work or making a compositions are very different things. A composition is final once it has been published. It has a definite time factor. An installation is not. It is more flexible and it can evolve according to a different factors (space, situation, time, perceptive scope of the visitor, process of development). An installation will never be presented the same way twice. 



Do you think it is best to understand the techy/scientific background of some of your pieces to appreciate them? Or can they be enjoyed purely for their sound and the experience they transmit?

The sound and the research of perception in my installations are certainly more important than the technology they use. That said the installations are part of a long process, I'm not interested in hiding completely the technology either. Technology and knowledge is a medium, it is a tool for research.

It also depends on what or how I want to present something. It is more a matter of focus.

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Induction #4, 2014. Photo Kristof Vrancken


Induction series #4, at the exhibition Sense of Sound, Z33, Hasselt


Could you tell us about Overtoon which you co-direct with Christoph De Boeck? The objective of this platform and production facility is to 'support artists and give new impulses to the field of sound and media art.' How do you do that? I thought it was already difficult for young artists to support themselves so how do you manage to help other artists as well? And which kind of support do you provide them with?

Overtoon operates since 2013 as a platform for sound art and media art with a strong connection to sound. The platform has major a focus on production, research, residencies, distribution, sharing. Overtoon gives the possibility to develop further our own works, and it also offers yearly long-term residencies to artists with the aim to produce their works; they can also participate in our structure and benefit fully from our facilities. We are currently situated in a high-rise in the centre of Brussels.

They get a studio for one year and can work at their own pace on a specific production that we agreed on. During that year we follow-up the process, we hold regular meetings and we look out for possible partners or presentations. On a parallel level, Overtoon is also supporting the ongoing experiments of other artists; this is more short-time (weeks to couple of months) and depends mostly on request we get and the spaces we have available.
We are actively distributing the works that we produce too, we are organising exhibitions, or we are in contact with venues to discuss the distributions of these works, we facilitate between the artists and the organiser, we develop exhibition contexts. For example we are presenting productions during 4 periods in France in 2015 and 2016. It is a form of two double presentations in Rennes at Le Bon Acceuil (and festival Maintenant) and festival Interstices in Caen. Four different productions are being presented during the interval of 2 years. Last year we also organised a bigger exhibition Sense of Sound with eight works in Z33.

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Christoph De Boeck, Black Box, part of the Sense of Sound exhibition at Z33 in Hasselt. Photo (c) Kristof Vrancken

Besides this we organise lectures or presentation relating to the works we produce but it can also be anything touching the field of sound art (producing, presenting, curating, research, science, networks, history, expertise, future developments,  ...) In the frame of the exhibition at Z33 we organised a symposium.

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Aernoudt Jacobs, Sikuvalliajuq

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Aernoudt Jacobs, Sikuvalliajuq


I also had a look at the list of artists who undertook a residency with Overtoon and their work is pretty impressive. Each of them has a really strong portfolio. How do you come upon and select the artists to support?

Indeed we are very glad with the responses and productions we have so far. Past yearly residents artists were Jeroen Uyttendaele, Jeroen Vandesande, Gert Aertsen and Stijn Demeulenaere. And this year we have Erik Nerinckx and Katerina Undo.

We don't write out calls. But we organise regular meetings with artist whose works we follow-up. We are open to propositions, and we are also in contact with curators. Sometimes these meetings evolve in time into specific projects, production or residencies.

Now i have a bit of a tricky question (and you can ignore it if you like). In general, our society is very 'visual'. I sometimes feel that it is not so simple to write about sound art. It's quite easy to just fall back onto a technical description of the piece, for example. If i look at the art section of mainstream newspapers, they are full of 'visual art' and 'music'. And sound art falls back somewhere in the middle. Do you feel that sound artists have a disadvantage compare to visual artists?

Not really, sound art has been evolving nicely past decades. I just find it a bit sad that the term sound art exists as a category, it is easy for theoreticians but it is not that interesting for the arts to have categories

On the other hand, as I see it, it is a great way to say that anything can be done with sound.
You are right to say that our society is visually driven, furthermore I would say that sound has no image, does not need it. Sound can trigger the visual cortex, the visual imagination and give you information about a space..

But I want quote Max Neuhaus (who coined the term sound installation in the sixties):
"Our perception of space depends as much
 on what we hear as on what we see."



Any other upcoming exhibition, research or project you could share with us? I'm particularly curious about the work that appears on your homepage:

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Color of Noise

That work has been featured in Science magazine. While still in a research phase, the prototype has been presented during the exhibition KONTINUUM in Vienna which was organised by Roman Kirschner's Liquid Things. The development was in collaboration with EMPA, Angewandte and Liquid Things. I don't have any specific dates yet for final presentations.

There is a solo exhibition in Kristiansand Kunsthall, Norway that I'm preparing for early September. It is a big exhibition with one in situ work and different other works. It has already a nice title 'Once also this was a mutation' and many of the works deal with the idea of transformation. The exhibition is also part of the PUNKT festival and will feature live performances in the installations by Nils Christian Moe-Repstad, Espen Reinertsen and Marcus Schmickler. The exhibition is curated by Kjell Bjorgeengen.

Heliophone, based on the photoacoustic effect, will be presented in STUK, Leuven at the end of September. This will be accompanied with a small exhibition that lays out the complete photoacoustic research. 



Thanks Aernoudt!

Image on the homepage by Kristof Vrancken.

A quick post to let you know about the really REALLY nice book i received the other day. I can't stop playing with it. The publication celebrates Staalplaat Soundsystem's brilliant work.

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Yokomono. Photo Staalplaat

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Sale Away, Nantes, 2014. Photo Staalplaat

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Yokomono White at _V2. Photo Staalplaat

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Composed Nature, Neerpelt. Photo Staalplaat

You probably know them already. Geert-Jan Hobijn started Staalplaat as a record label in the 1980s. He then expanded his label with a radio programme, a record shop, a magazine and, around the year 2000, he founded Staalplaat Soundsystem, the artistic branch of Staalplaat. I've always been a big fan of their noise-making machines and performances that use all kinds of toys, tools, natural or urban settings and electronic junk. Think car horn concert, compositions for vacuum cleaners or washing machines, machines for the 'spirit of dead computers', toy cars driving over vinyl grooves, etc.

The book/turntable/music gadget was published after Hobijn won the Witteveen+Bos Art+Technology Award which goes every year to a visual artist whose work unites the disciplines of art and technology in an exceptional manner and for whom engineering is far more than a means to an end.

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Photo Staalplaat

In typical Staalplaat fashion, the publication only serves as a pretext for letting people have fun with sound. It comes with a nifty paper turntable, a music instrument you activate by plugging in a small battery and i even got a pencil to play with the turntable. There's also a book, by the way.

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Staalplaat Soundsytem, Om, 2014. Photo Staalplaat Soundsystem

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Staalplaat Soundsytem, Om, 2014. Photo Staalplaat Soundsystem

Geert-Jan Hobijn, Composed Nature, part of the exhibition Om, 2014. Video Witteveen+Bos


Zephyrus Composed Nature, part of the exhibition Om, Deventer, 2014

The publication and the Art+Technology Award were accompanied by an exhibition featuring an indoor version of Staalplaat's Composed Nature inside the Bergkerk Church as part of the exhibition 'Om'.

Seventy trees were placed in the centre of the church. Visitors of the show could dial a phone number and select one of three compositions. Vintage kitchen mixers attached to the tree trunks were then activated and made the tree rustle according to the chosen composition.

You can order a copy either at Staalplaat or at Metamkine.

Photo on the homepage: AV festival.

Adam Basanta, The sound of empty space

If you happen to be in Montreal this week, drop by the Galerie B-312 where composer and sound artist Adam Basanta has installed a series of works that play with self-generating microphone feedback. Each of the 3 works in the gallery examines, in its own witty and transparent way, the idea of sound as a mutable product of interdependent networks of physical, cultural and economic relations.

Amplifying and aestheticizing the acoustic inactivity between technological "inputs" and "outputs" - stand-ins for their corporeal correlates, the ear and mouth - the notion of a causal sound producing object is challenged, and questions are posed as to the status of the ʻamplifiedʼ. By building flawed technological systems and nullifying their intended potential for communication, the ear is turned towards the empty space between components; to the unique configurations of each amplifying assemblage.

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Adam Basanta, The loudest sound in the room experienced very quietly

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Adam Basanta, The loudest sound in the room experienced very quietly

In The loudest sound in the room experienced very quietly, a feedback loop between microphone, PA system amplifier, and speaker cone is enclosed within a soundproof aquarium. The sound level within the enclosure reaches an ear-damaging 120dB, approximately the loudness of a car horn at close distance.

Pirouette further explores the notion of amplification systems as self-generating sound producers. A microphone rotates slowly and triggers a tuned feedback melody as it comes nearer to one of the seven speaker cones. It takes nine full rotations of the microphone to reveal a skeletal version of the main theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet.

In the third work in the series, Vessel, the naturally resonant acoustic properties of a large glass jar are amplified, creating a feedback monody by varying the distance between speaker and microphone.

How could i resist the temptation to interview an artist who can not only turn the usually unpleasant microphone feedback into beautiful artifacts but whose past projects also include a performance in which he played Music for Lamps.

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Adam Basanta, Pirouette

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Adam Basanta, Pirouette

Hi Adam! Could you give more details about Pirouette? How does it work exactly?

In Pirouette, a microphone standing on a raised platform spins slowly, hovering over 7 suspended speaker cones. As the microphone hovers over each speaker, it enables a feedback loop: the microphone "hears" the speaker amplifying the microphone, and on and on until we hear microphone feedback or Larsen tones.

Usually, this type of feedback would be very loud. But in Pirouette, the feedback is tuned and controlled by computer algorithms to create a slowly evolving feedback melody. A custom made software is inserted between the microphone and speakers, filtering out all but a very narrow range of audible frequencies. The frequencies which are allowed to "pass through" the filter are the ones that end up feeding back. In this way, I was able to create a very precise sequence of tonal pitches - the main theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet - using feedback.

As well, the computer algorithms control the overall volume and amplitude envelope of each feedback note. As the microphone hovers over a particular speaker, the gain of the channel is adjusted based on how loud the particular feedback note is: if it gets too loud, the computer brings down the gain while if it is too quiet, the computer will compensate the gain and make it a little louder.

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Adam Basanta, The loudest sound in the room experienced very quietly

The description of The Sound of Empty Space talks about 'building flawed technological systems'. Can you talk about these flaws? What makes them interesting and how did you exploit their potential?

Well, the flaws are found in the ways I use or rearrange elements of commercial sound technologies. Pointing a microphone directly at a speaker is a basic error, the first thing you learn to avoid if you are working with amplified sound in whatever context. It is a flawed use of the equipment, in the sense that normally you would want the system to amplify something "worthwhile" (a musician, a speech etc). When feedback occurs, it makes the entire sound reinforecement system useless, because it is at its very basis a method to communicate information, and feedback nullifies this potential; it 'jams' the system, it is noise, it doesn't allow "sanctioned" sounds to be amplified.

So why do this in the first place? Well, I've been involved in making music in different contexts since I was about 12. As much as this is a fun thing to be involved in, I've come to realize that it is a huge industry - I like to call it the industry of 'self expression' - complete with industry magazines, blogs, and allegiances to this company or the other and whichever 'lifestyle' they are selling. I really dislike "gear-culture", but at the same time these are still very much my artistic tools, both personally and culturally: just like a folk singer has a guitar, I have microphones and amplifiers and speakers.

So in a way, arranging these elements in a flawed way - in a way that goes against the original commercial intent of the object - is my way of remaining creative with tools that are in many ways designed in a way which often limits creativity. I try to do this in a very non-antagonistic way: I'm not really interested in a grand rebellious gesture, but more in a gentler form of perversion. I am trying to make something beautiful, something that people can get lost listening to, out of this flaw or error.

At the same time, the more I think about feedback and the more I work with it as sonic material, the more I find it fascinating conceptually. It is an emergent phenomena, in that it relies on the configuration of microphone, speaker and acoustic environment. It reveals aural dimensions of architecture to which we don't have easy (visual) access to. There is no real "causal" element in the feedback chain - all the components are "passive" sort to speak - you can't really say that the speaker is producing the sound more than the microphone is. And in a sense, this is a really beautiful and powerful metaphor for listening in general: perceiving the sound of a guitar or a bird or your lover's voice has as much to do with one's own physiological or psychophysical attributes (for instance, the length of the auditory canal), one's intention (am I hearing or listening?), and the general context in which the sound is produced.

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Adam Basanta, Vessel

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Adam Basanta, Vessel

You are a composer and sound artist. Yet, your installation have obvious aesthetically qualities. Could you talk to us about the visual aspect of your work? Is it important to you? Does it complement the sound work?

Although my training is in sound and music, and I was never really involved in visual art, the visual aspect of these works is critical for me. As opposed to sound, which evolves in time, visual impressions are immediate, so it is really the way to get people curious about the work. With that in mind, I try to use a visual vocabulary that creates a mix of transparency and mystery. Transparency in the sense that I present my materials - microphones, speakers, amplifiers, cables - in a very matter of fact way: here they are, here is how they are connected together. At the same time, some elements are hidden - often, this involves the computer - and so even though we see these recognizable materials there is a sense of mystery or surprise with regard to the qualities of the sounds, or exactly how they are being produced.

With this exhibition in particular, I've been very interested in combining visual and sonic materials in a way that creates an intertwined web of references, and in this way create richer listening situation. The use of microphones, speakers and public address amplifiers - objects that embody communication and sound reproduction technologies - are obvious examples of this. Subtler references include Vessel's resemblance to an "impossible bottle / ship in a bottle", as well as Pirouette's visual reference to a rotating music-box ballerina coupled with the aural reference to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Even small details, such as the use of 7 speakers in Pirouette, reference the 7 tone scale in Western harmony.

Of course, not all of these will be picked up by visitors, and the works can be enjoyed on a "purely aural" level (if that even exists). But to me this is the biggest impetus to create sound art (as a separate practice from concert music): the potential to combine visual references, conceptual ideas, and sonic material (in all its richness and wordless intoxication) in order to create some sort of hybrid listening experience.


Adam Basanta, Julian Stein, Invisible Lines

We live in a very visual society. And sound art is often reduced to just music. I also often find that art journalists, bloggers and critics (apart from those who specialize in sound art of course) are a bit at loss when it comes to writing about sound art.

Do you feel that sound artists have a disadvantage compared to visual artists?

I suppose so. It certainly is a more marginal practice in terms of number of practitioners and institutions, and general 'visibility'. Of course, it also has less commercial potential because it tends to subvert the idea of an art object in favour of an in-situ experience. At the same time, I feel people respond strongly to sound art for precisely these reasons, so I suppose there are two sides to the coin.

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Adam Basanta, Julian Stein, Max Stein, Music for Lamps


Adam Basanta, Julian Stein, Max Stein, Music for Lamps

Any other upcoming exhibition, research or project you could share with us?

At the moment, I am hard at work writing some new chamber music pieces for instruments and live electronics, to be performed by Montreal-based ensembles Magnitude6 and Architek Percussion. In terms of sound art installations, I'm continuing to develop some of the threads evident in The sound of empty space, although with some subtle variations. In June, I will create a site-specific feedback installation for the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, NM, which will explore ideas of feedback as indicator of physical acoustic space in a very large spatial setting. This fall I will be in residency at Titanik Gallery in Turku, Finland, where I will work towards a new exhibition at the Gallery in the end of October 2015, which will examine relationships between instruments of mass communication, the materiality of communication signals, and subjectivities of listening.

Thanks Adam!

The sound of empty space is at the Galerie B-312 in Montreal until 21 March 2015.
Music for Lamps will be playing at MATA Festival at The Kitchen in New York on 15th April.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

For most people, EDL is the acronym of the English Defense League, a far-right group that regularly and vehemently protests in the street against what it considers to be a spread of Islamism and Sharia in the United Kingdom. Over the past two years however, a number of UK residents have started to associate EDL with another movement: the English Disco Lovers. The story started as a joke when art student Chris Alton decided to reclaim the acronym and google bomb EDL so that English Disco Lovers would appear on top of the results for the search 'EDL' and the three letters would, over time, be associated with tolerance, multiculturalism and equality. Another key strategy of English Disco Lovers consists in participating to counter-English Defence League demonstrations across the UK, wearing garish shirts, dancing to disco music and singing "Go! Walk out the door! Turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore!" to the members of the islamophobic group.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

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The English Disco Lovers manifesto

As the popularity of its online and offline presence demonstrates, English Disco Lovers has grown into a socially-engaged project that is far more powerful than what its initiators had initially envisioned. I talked online with Chris Alton about the EDL adventures, the wrath of the original EDL, the positive changes a humorous campaign can yield and how English Disco Lovers fits into the history of disco music.

Hi Chris! Who's Alex Jones? i keep finding his name rather than yours in all EDL interviews. he seems to have had a Quaker upbringing as well.

Alex Jones is my pseudonym. At first it was a safety precaution, as the English Disco Lovers email account had been receiving death threats from EDLers who were none to pleased about my cheeky acronym-pinching antics. I didn't fancy a bunch of heavies turning up on my doorstep, so I did the sensible thing and used a fake name. If you look at my TEDxYouth@Hackney talk I'm even wearing a mirrorball mask. The name and mask ultimately became a license to 'perform' Alex Jones. I see him as an idealised aspect of myself, given form and amplification.


A new meaning for disco beats: Alex Jones at TEDxYouth@Hackney

When i first read about your EDL project, i assumed it was just great fun and pleasant anti-racism but then i read in an interview that some of you actually attempt to discuss with members of the English Defense League? Do you manage to achieve something by engaging in conversations with them? Because they look pretty scary and some might be very annoyed by your own take on the acronym...

Yeah, through running the project that dialogue opened up. I'd get the odd message from an English Defence League member, one said, "hate the idea, but love the badge". He was referring to our logo, so I offered to send him a badge with it on. Those messages would become inroads, which allowed me to speak to them on a one-to-one basis about why I was doing what I was doing and why they were doing what they were doing. On mass they're a pretty scary bunch, but over social media there's (unsurprisingly) less to fear. In some cases the discussions led nowhere, but in others I found that the English Defence League members opened up to the possibility that their EDL could be causing an increase in the radicalisation of young Muslims, a few even left the organisation (or so they told me).

You wrote me that one of your sources of inspiration was your Quaker upbringing. What has the Quaker education taught you that helped you set up and run the EDL?

Since a young age I've been around people who are more actively engaged in changing the world than most. Quakerism exposed me to countless individuals and groups campaigning in various ways for numerous causes. At the age of 14 I met a woman who'd canoed out to the Trident Submarines in Faslane, planted potatoes onboard, then tried to make her getaway before being surrounded by vessels far superior to her tiny canoe. She was in her 60s at the time and at 17, I was present at the British Yearly Meeting where Quakers made the decision to allow same sex marriages and to lobby the government to legalise them.

Those are two examples among many, both of which exemplify the commitment of Quakers to peace, equality, simplicity and truth (the Quaker testimonies), despite the approaches being so different.

I think it's clear that some of the testimonies mentioned above manifest themselves in English Disco Lovers. It's a peaceful alternative to the English Defence League, which supports equality and togetherness over the divisions the other EDL capitalise upon and exacerbate.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

You've been working on EDL for two years now. What have been the most surprising moments in the life of EDL?

As you can imagine there have been many! Getting it off the ground was certainly a surprise. When I made the Facebook page I never imagined the idea would move beyond my friendship group. However, after less than 6 months of using social media to generate interest in the idea, I got an email from Dorian Lynskey, a writer at The Guardian. He asked me a few questions via email and wrote a piece on English Disco Lovers, which was featured in The Guardian's G2 in February 2013.

Then in April 2013 I went down to Brighton for a counter-English Defence League demo. I was surprised to find a mass English Disco Lovers presence opposing the EDL march, bedecked in disco gear (I'm talking wigs, sequinned shirts, flares, the lot) and singing along to disco classics like Chic's "I Want Your Love". When they launched into Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and told the English Defence League to, "Go! Walk out the door! Turn around now 'cause you're not welcome anymore!" the surrounding protesters joined in and danced along. I surprised that people felt so strongly about an idea that I'd brought into the world, and that they were willing to spend their afternoons embodying it!


Clips of the English Disco Lovers (EDL) at the counter-MfE demonstration on 21/04/2013


Chic, I Want Your Love

Why did you chose disco rather than any other type of music?

The choice of disco is fundamental to the ideology of English Disco Lovers, not only because of the genre's positive sound, but due to the history of disco. In the 1970s discotheques were havens for minorities, they brought together people of every colour and sexuality to listen to music that celebrated unity and self-expression. In 1979 there was an anti-disco rally called Disco Demolition Night, which involved the destruction of disco records. It has been said that the event had racist and homophobic undertones and that it played a significant role in the decline of disco's popularity.

It's also significant that, the word discotheque comes from Nazi occupied France, where jazz music was banned, as it was seen as a potential music of revolution. As live performances were deemed to be too obvious, citizens began to opt for underground bars where they could listen to recordings. These places became known as record libraries, which translates into French as 'discotheque'.

I wanted to redeploy this history in opposition to contemporary intolerance and the recent rise of right-wing extremism in the UK. The English Disco Lovers' motto is "Unus Mundas, Una Gens, Unus Disco", so it's also worth mentioning that, in Latin, disco could be understood to mean 'I learn', 'I learn to know', 'I become acquainted with'.

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Photo: English Disco Lovers

Apart from google bombing the far-right group, what do you hope to achieve with EDL?

Well, English Disco Lovers has already achieved many things beyond google bombing the English Defence League. For example we've been holding disco nights for about a year and a half, where the profits are donated to charities that tackle issues such as racism, HIV and hate-crime. We've held nights in London, Brighton, Bristol and Manchester, so I hope that these nights continue to grow in popularity and that we can continue spreading the "Don't Hate! Gyrate!" message.

What is next for EDL? any upcoming performance or meeting?

Well I'm heading down to Brighton in early January to meet with two stalwart English Disco Lovers about this very question, what next? I intend to step away from the project for a while and focus on new work, so the future of English Disco Lovers is a little uncertain at the moment. We have a few DJ sets booked in the coming months, which will be posted up on our website and social media, but in terms of big plans and aims, we'll all have to wait and see.

Thanks Chris!

English Disco Lovers is part of an exhibition at the Collyer Bristow Gallery in London. The show remains open until Jan 28th, 2014.

Lacplesis Technology is a group of three projects that explore the balance between two paragraphs of the article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

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Lacplesis Technology was created by Andris Vetra and Artis Kupriss (in collaboration with programmer Viesturs Kavacs) with the aim of looking for evil in copyright issues.

The project bears the name of Lāčplēsis, a hero in Latvian mythology. A very interesting hero! Of course he did the usual: fighting against a giant and then against monsters with various numbers of heads, rising a castle into the air, but i liked the fact that the Latvians are celebrating him because he battled anyone plotting to replace Latvian old gods with Christianity.

The Lacplesis Technology project comprises 3 prototypes. The first one is LT-ML002, a pirated music legislation software that detects all the .mp3 files stored in your portable USB media device, cuts the songs into tiny pieces and rearranges them randomly into a new unique composition.

LT-GR002 is an alternative media player which can be used in public spaces for both noncommercial and commercial purpose without any fee. A mechanical clapper regulates the tempo and volume and creates different soundscapes. The device can be used with headphones or speakers.

Finally, E1-FLAX investigates how pirated music affects living organisms. Scientists from University of California even succeeded to affect work of plants stomata (which are responsible for evaporation of water from plants) with help of high frequency sounds.

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LT-GR002

I discovered Lacplesis Technology during the final day of the Renewable Futures Conference organised at Liepaja University's Art Research Lab. Young graduates were presenting their work and i thought that this one really stood out. Andris talked to me about the project:

Hi Andris! How small do the snippets of files made by LT-ML002 have to be for the work to be 'legal'?

To find that out we called Latvian authors' society AKKA / LAA. Technically it is illegal to take and/or make changes with anything at all without the authors' permission. If something is recorded and put under copyright no one can use it without permission. So our legalization software does that illegally and the actual result is not really legal but the idea is to make the result hard to recognize for responsible institutions. But snippets taken by LT-ML002 are approximately 10 to 100 milliseconds long. After the legalization process, most of them are changed in time scale as well (made faster or slower) so the length of the new composition is different.

Have you ever received any feedback from musicians whose work had been rearranged by your software?

Unfortunately, we have not received any feedback from musicians. But reasons for that are quite clear. This work has been exhibited only once for wider public and not too many people carry flash drives with music in them so those new compositions have not spread widely yet. But fortunately we are working on online version which will be available in beginning of this autumn hopefully.

Is there any way we can get the software?

We are not sure about download version but as I said there will be online version available for all who can access internet connection.

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LT-GR002

Could you explain was LT-GR002 is made of? Is it just an Mp3 player dismantled and put inside a transparent box?

LT-GR002 is completely analog media player. It produces sound out of mechanical mechanism. Spring rotates and hits metal bars, contact microphone attached to mechanism receives the sound and sends it to mini jack output through amplifier. See picture 1 attached.


LT-GR002 can be used in public space even for commercial purpose. What is the content it plays then? Where does it come from?

LT-GR002 plays analog dance music.

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LT E1-FLAX

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LT E1-FLAX

I am also very curious about LT E1-FLAX. Could you explain the experiment, the conditions and process, the observations and results?

There are quite a lot of research that proves that music can affect growth of plants and other organisms. In the experiment LT E1-FLAX, we researched how pirated music affects plant growth compared to non pirated/legal music. In this experiment we made two identical containers with the same soil, the same seeds of flax (10 in each container), identical speakers and provided them with the same amount of water and light. The only difference was the content played through the speakers. For the experiment we used old song of composer Raimonds Pauls called "Zilie lini (Blue Flax)" in one container we played the legal version bought in an online store but in the second one, we played a copy of it that technically is pirated file. Results were quite similar though in the container with pirated music the plants grew little bit taller.


Lacplesis Technology is exploring balance between section 1 and section 2 of article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Do you know of successful music models that achieve this sort of balance?

Yes, there are positive examples around the world. A good example is Pay What You Want pricing strategy. The loudest example of this was Radio Head's album In Rainbows released under this pricing strategy. Also I liked this Techno Brega music industry in Brazil where music releases are used more as advertisement for live performances. The last one is documented in a good documentary related to those questions called "Good Copy Bad Copy".


Good Copy Bad Copy, 2007

I was wondering how you (as someone who grew up among debates about copyrights in music) saw where the discussions are leading to. Do you have much hope that things will change? have you, for example, observed that younger musicians are more likely to fight for a debate around copyrights than older generations for example?

We would not say that we have grown up among debates about this. This is more recent topic of our interest as young artists. This project of course is based on idealistic hope that some day it will be possible to deal with those problems. And that is the reason we chose this mythological hero Lacplesis to represent our project as he embody this romantic hope of victory of good over bad forces and golden age coming afterwards.

Thanks Andris!

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