Dérive (2017) for string quartet and live-electronics. The Sonification of a Walk in Berlin.

Dérive (2017) for string quartet and live-electronics explores the aesthetic consequences of different ideas of the role of subjectivity in sonification processes, the concept of dérive (drift) and the notion of musical structure as a translation of a real physical space.

Dérive is commissioned by the Sonifikationsfestival der bgnm 2017. It will be premiere by Kairos Quartett, in the Villa Elisabeth, Berlin, November 2017.


In sonification processes there is always and element of subjectivity in the interpretation of the data into musical parameters or musical transformations. However, as the molecular biologist and philosopher Hans-Jörg Rheinberger points out, the data collected in scientific experiments are not strictly objective, they are rather representations of phenomena. Data, therefore, do not present the phenomena in itself; rather they represent it, hence, they include an element of interpretation and thus subjectivity. Following this idea the piece dérive explores the repercussions of this element of subjectivity, not only in the translation of the data into music, but also in the collection and creation of the data themselves. Hence, the project has two parts: the collection and creation of data and their sonification in a work for string quartet and live-electronics.


Collection of data:

The data to be sonified in the piece are the data collected by a walker (myself) in a Wanderung, a dérive with the duration of an hour in the city of Berlin. I installed a tracking application in my smart phone that has recorded my path. The application also provided different tools for recording and attaching data and media files (text, video and audio recordings) that were used to record particular observed details, impressions, thoughts and decisions. In addition, I created field recordings during the walk. Like in Guy Debord’s concept of the dérive, the walk was dictated by subjective decisions in a specific environment. The method proposed by Debord “entails playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects;”1 In a dérive “one or more persons during a certain period drop their motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”2. Therefore every change of direction in the walk and the changing velocities of walking were motivated by the urban architecture, environment and people, also by taste, curiosity or aversion, but there were also motivated by discomfort or fear. These decisions are reported in a walk diary. The set of data from a walk in the area of Kreuzberg were used as data to be sonified in the piece. There are two kinds of collected data


  • Quantitative data: 
  • Movements, trajectories and walked area collected by the tracking application. (Trajectories and movements, red line in the map. Beginning of the walk signified by a red triangle, the end by a red square. Walked area is marked as red area in the map) 
  • Duration and velocities of the trajectories. (Data collected by the application) and pauses (marked in the map by orange dots)
  • Qualitative data “Walk diary”:
  • Events and motivations for each change of direction (marked in the map by green dots.)
  • Subjective impressions recorded in photos, texts, sound recordings, videos.
  • Field recording.


Aesthetical implications:

The use of a concrete physical space, in this case an urban space, as data source for the creation of a musical piece has aesthetical consequences. The data of the trajectories and velocities of the walk are used both for the structure of the piece and for its spatialization. A fluid and open space gives a fluid, continuously changing form and space different from the compartmentalized structure of musical pieces; a form in continuous development and developed by its own material, its own physical space; a form, therefore, that is constructed by movement and in relation with time more than with architectonic forms. A form that also discovers the scars of the city, its  failures of planing, its “missuses”, negating any pretension of harmonic form.     

Still the urbanism of Berlin, like of most of the European cities whose current configuration is the product of its developments in the 18th-19th centuries under the ideas of the Enlightenment and Idealism, constrains the movement of the walker to the orthogonal trace of the city. In the case of Berlin this geometric structure is perforated and complicated by the traces of the Second World War and the division of the city. It would be interesting for future pieces to explore in that manner cities such as Venice or Seville whose configurations still remain the traces of more chaotic and rhizomatic urbanism of the middle ages.  


Political/social implications. Nomadic movements:

Through the decisions and itinerary of the walker, in what can be seen as an auto-ethnographic research, different political and social aspects of the city could be made explicit: How the public spaces and the urban architecture are managed and traced, how hetero-patriarchic and capitalist ideologies are reflected in the urban architecture and in its uses. It can also show for which uses and for whom the city is created: for pedestrians or traffic use, for shopping, for resting or contemplation, for meeting, for which gender, age or socioeconomic group, as well as the new subversive uses of the spaces that people create by themselves. Kreuzberg is a heterogeneous, poor and international place with frictions in the social coexistence. The descendants of Turkish migration, new migrants of the global south, migrants from other places in Germany, “sans papier”, artists and party tourists coexist in a demographically diverse and dense place dealing with problems of poverty, gentrification and capitalism. Hence the intention of this piece is neither to create a cheerful collage of this part of Berlin nor is it to demonize it. It is rather a way to make visible the collective and this reality, to present or “re-present” something that is rendered invisible, ignored or disregarded. Although this presentation does not aim to be a definition of the problem but rather, in the sense of Rosi Braidotti, a “nomadic figuration”3; an explanation of an ever-changing situation in continuous flux that materialized itself in a fluid musical piece. 


Interpretation of the data:

The collected data provide the basis for the development of the macro and meso-structure of the piece and a model for the spatialization of the sound.

The temporal range of 60 minutes and the different speeds and rhythms created in the walk are reduced by dividing them by four (total duration 15 minutes) and they are used for the structure of the piece and for speeds, velocities and rhythms. 

The total area covered by the walk is reduced to the dimensions of the performance space (the hall of Villa Elisabeth) in which the sound sources (four instruments of the quartet and four speakers) are placed in such a way that they trace the contour of the walked area. The audience are inside this area. The trajectories of the sound material created between the instruments and speakers will emulate the dérive of the walker.

The “walk diary” provides the events translated as musical events that trigger not only the changes of trajectory of the sound between the sound sources, but also changes in registers (dérive in the “vertical space” of the sound), densities of materials, amplitude, textures and quality of the spectrum. Elements of the field recordings are transformed and transcribed and thus used as material for the string quartet and for the electronics. This translation or mapping can only be understood as a very subjective interpretation. That, however, does not mean, that the music will recreate, in a simplistic translation, the “feelings” of the walker, rather the events of the diary will provide the graduation of the changes and determine the categories of the above mentioned changes.