In Arc 1.3: Sumit Paul-Choudhury says thanks for all the music

6 Oct

Time to break up the band – music doesn’t need us any more. In Arc 1.3, editor-in-chief Sumit Paul-Choudhury explains how, in less than a human lifetime, music learned how to outperform its listener. Here’s an extract:

Sound is just data, after all – and any data can be turned into sound. The laser whine of the big bang. The subterranean klaxon of a Japanese megaquake. The skittering of Twitter. The rolling melodies of the Higgs boson. If it comes as data, you can listen to it. Maybe even dance to it.

And then sound turns into objects.

Half a century after Nancarrow began punching his piano rolls, the Realitat studio in Mexico City turns classic albums into sculpted tubes: a reconfiguration of Edison’s wax cylinders, an extrusion of the vinyl record. Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina becomes a polyhedrally-faceted mountain range; Portishead’s Third a digitised sea urchin; Einstürzende Neubaten’s Jewels a contour-mapped spire.

In London, Animal Systems unveils Chirp, a system designed to help electronic devices share information over short distances through short snatches of melody that resemble cyborg birdsong. Sound is data, but music is instructions. (That’s why MIDI has so comprehensively outstayed its welcome.) If your phone can hear my phone, it can tell it to show you a picture, a web page, a document. Perhaps even to play another tune.

Let’s riff on that. My phone sings to your 3D printer; out comes a plastic toy. A wooden spatula. A working kidney. It sounds like conjuration: magicking something out of nothing but some enchanted melody.

A song is a blueprint is an object, all in one. The internet of things sings, and the songs are recordable, replayable and remixable. Music concrète indeed.

Read the rest of this article in Arc 1.3, a digital quarterly about the future, made for e-readers, tablets, phones and computer screens; also available in a collectible print edition. Visit for details.

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