Sound, affect and digital performance

The relation between sound and technology has always been one of closeness, interdependence and mutual influence. Music instrument design and musical performance are perhaps two of the fields where such relationship is more evident and complex. With the advent of digital media, both fields have been rapidly ramifying into multiple, specialised area of studies1 where digital technologies often become means of fragmentation, amplification, collectivization or networked distribution of sound experiences. Technological development does not influence only how musical instrument are created, but also how they are performed; and, by extension, how the resulting music is experienced by audiences. Looking through the lens of embodiment, it is safe to say that the development of new musical technologies influences how sound and music, in the form of acoustic vibrations, affect human bodies.

One particular discipline within new music performance may be of particular interest when analysing novel types of relations between body and sound, and how they are enabled by digital technologies. This is called biophysical music and it refers to live music based on a combination of physiological technology - biosensors, computer and the related software - and markedly physical, gestural performance. In these works, the physical and physiological properties of the performers' bodies are interlaced with the material and computational qualities of a particular electronic musical instrument, with varying degrees of mutual influence. Musical expression thus arises from an intimate and, often, not fully predictable negotiation of human bodies, instruments and programmatic musical ideas.

In a piece of biophysical music, specific properties of the performer's body and those of the instrument are interlaced, reciprocally affecting one another. The particular gesture vocabulary, sound processing, time structure and composition of a musical piece can be progressively shaped, live, through the performer's effort in mediating physiological processes and the instrument's reactions to, and influence on, that mediation. While the music being played may or may not be digitally generated by the instrument, the musical parameters cannot be fully controlled by the performer. Through the articulation of sound and digital technology, biophysical music blurs the notion of control by the player over the instrument, establishing a different relationship among them, one in which performer and instrument form a single, sounding body.

 

1Such as sound and music computing, new interfaces for musical expression, movement and sound, to cite only a few.