The urban soundscape has been a renewed topic of inquiry within media art over the last several years. This is not entirely surprising, as, given the propagation of cheap sensors, there is the possibility for much more granular analysis and engagement than was available to the recorder-toting acoustic ecologists of the late 20th century. Marc De Pape’s recent project, The Chime, is an elaborate environmental ‘meter’ that translates local acoustic and kinetic data into lush musical compositions.
The Chime is essentially a sensor-jukebox with a set of baseline playback modes that are driven by environmental fluctuations. Authentically ambient, the instrument embodies Brian Eno’s blueprint for generative compositions that evolve organically over time. Approaching the device sets off flutter of xylophone tones, back away and the mix foregrounds moody strings. The geomagnetic orientation of device inflects piano note selection, and, if the temperature changes, so does the key – it responds to myriad local variables. However, it would be a mistake to distill this project down to a well-crafted ambient music machine, as the device was designed with a polemic in mind; The Chime was designed to interpret urban environments. To this end, De Pape has carted his plexiglass apparatus all over Toronto and produced an albums worth of in situ ‘performances’, each speaking to and of the site of the recording. The Chime is a MA thesis hatched at OCAD University and was amongst the first wave of graduate projects to emerge from the school’s new Digital Futures Initiative.
Materially and otherwise, De Pape has gone to great lengths to be transparent in his design process. Drilling down into the assembly of The Chime, reveals a fairly sophisticated sensor array. An excerpt from his documentation outlines the inner machinations of the device:
The Chime, is composed of 4 luminosity sensors, 4 IR motion detectors, 4 ultrasonic proximity sensors, 4 microphones (used as meters, not recorders) distributed across eight panels forming the octagonal enclosure that houses a data logging microcontroller. Embedded in the lid is a digital thermometer, and hanging by thread below the main box, the brain if you will, is a 9 degree inertial measurement unit, or IMU, with X, Y, and Z for each of the embedded accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer. This component is designed to catch the more physical gusts of the environment, winds and other such forceful currents (a fast passing car for example). These 27 data points are then fed into a Processing sketch (either live through wireless serial communication or via comma separated TXT file playback) that relays the processed data via Max For Live to a quadraphonic Ableton Live session, triggering music according to the programmed, or composed rules.
This elaborate workflow emerged from a fascination with a simple precedent. Over email, De Pape cites a past desire to create a rudimentary electronic instrument as the inspiration for his thesis work: “I wanted to make an ambient light chime, one that consisted of a simple light sensor that could be put in a room with a decent amount of natural light and, just like a wind chime, would generate musical tones as levels changed due to a cloud passing or the sun setting.” This device was never constructed but the idea stuck. While the musicality of The Chime has been scaled up considerably from this simple inspiration, the central focus of ‘performing the environment’ remains. De Pape describes the musical character of The Chime as emerging from a host of influences. “When I was researching the project, I read while listening to instrumental music”, he recalls. “During that time I listened to a lot of Stars Of The Lid, romantic era solo piano, and most of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s collaborations, particularly the albums he did with Christian Fennesz. Of course, Brian Eno was in the mix too.”
Beyond sensor data and musical influences, this project also draws on a number of theoretical traditions. De Pape references the rhythmic quality of cities, ‘everyday’ practice, and, particularly, German sociologist Georg Simmel’s identification of the blasé as a central characteristic of urban life as influencing how he positions the device. The Chime is more than a generative composition tool, it is intended as a means to foreground the ebb and flow of our environment. Proximity, motion, noise, orientation, temperature – these variables significantly colour our experience and we tend to forget about them when immersed in the hustle of the city. One of the terms that figures quite prominently into De Pape’s documentation is ‘agnostic sensors’, and, read in this light, his apparatus scans the city with what can only be described as an attentive indifference. De Pape is ardent that “recorded data is in actuality devoid of meaning without human intervention” – his job here has been to make a vast jumble of stimulus both legible and listenable. “The sensors are biased towards a phenomena, in the sense that they are tuned, yet it is human code, or digital doctrine if I were to continue the religious metaphor, which makes sense of the readings”, he opines. “There’s no reason sensors must be used exclusively for direct linear causality, poetic translation is just as valid an interpretation.”