Aims and Questions

The central question of the project is

How do algorithmic processes in experimental computer music structure artistic praxis and the understanding of composition and performance?

In other words, the hypothesis is that these processes can unfold a specific agency that retroacts and changes the compositional praxis. This agency in fact is so strong that it becomes an organising principle under which other boundaries such as distinct formats or genres—sound installation, live electronics, improvisation, electroacoustic music—lose relevance.

We have chosen the term experimental computer music to delineate the context of our project, while still permitting all of these formats to participate. While no attempt is made to condense the richness of such experimentation into one definition, Bob Gilmore, for example, provides a useful coordinate system,1 highlighting that experimental music, more than being merely a historical period or an ideological distinction (Nyman), focuses on asking new questions about methods, materials, and working practices, and even producing the possibility for composers to iterate and continue the experiments of others (Tenney). This is complemented by a more direct translation of scientific research culture as described by Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s experimental systems.2 With respect to computer music, we mean the intersection and contact of formats where computational processes play an intrinsic role.

This central question, the organising principle then governs the following overarching aims:

(1) To extend the praxis of sound art and electronic music using algorithmic processes.

  • What are contemporary concepts of algorithm? New theories3 suggest that classical concepts such as algorithms as top-down formalisation of thought are not sufficient any longer to account for their real-time adaption through feedback and interaction.
  • What is the specific material quality of algorithmic works? If we reject a naïve “new materialism” as a reduction of information to physical matter, what are the exchange processes between abstraction, repetition and sensual trace?
  • What are the temporal, spatial and performative properties afforded by algorithms? In other words, what is the relationship between a general structure and the emergence of singularity, site- and performance-specificity?
  • How can algorithms become malleable? How do we deconstruct them to be artistically reappropriated?
  • If the codes with which algorithms are implemented do not function primarily as denotata of a preconceived plan, how can we make new use of their repertoire of representations, of the fact that each representation is a translation that introduces new aesthetical consequences?
  • How do algorithms afford connectivity? How do they interact with the other writing processes of composition, how do they connect different composers, different compositions, composition and performance, performance and notation? For example, can we discover certain motions in the search space addressed by an algorithm?

The idea of mattering, as elaborated for example by Karen Barad,4 precisely denotes that meaning is only made possible through material practices. No matter what object we take, the recording of a concrete sound or an algorithm that generates or transforms sound, an apparatus is formed through our engagement with these objects, and it is this dynamic and materially informed apparatus that can be said to produce any “concept”.

(2) To extend the scope and methodology of artistic research.

  • How can the notion of experimental systems be operationalised and bridge the gap between material practices and verbal or written accounts thereof?
  • What are the strategical overlaps between an algorithmically informed, a reflective and process-oriented sound art praxis, and an artistic research that tries to elucidate the process of composition? How can we use this synergy?
  • How can we ensure that the findings of this research both generate generalisations that become applicable in future artistic praxis and still retain accounts of the irreducible and non-abstractable nature of each individual process?
  • Can we resolve these tensions through a combination of synchronous and diachronous multi-perspective, i.e. the concurrent and successive generation of complementary traces, accounts and representations?
  • Can we develop a specific approach to notation or ‘blueprint’ to prevent algorithmic processes from obsolescence and permit their future reactualisation by artists and researchers? Can we define a glossary that allows us to talk about these processes?
  • How can we leverage and extend two open source software platforms that we have developed, to aid with these blueprints and facilitate, trace and analyse the artistic research process?
  1. Bob Gilmore. ‘Five Maps of the Experimental World’. In: Artistic Experimentation in Music: An Anthology. Ed. by Darla Crispin and Bob Gilmore. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2014, pp. 23–30.
  2. Michael Schwab. ‘The Exposition of Practice as Research as Experimental Systems’. In: Artistic Experimentation in Music: An Anthology. Ed. by Darla Crispin and Bob Gilmore. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2014, pp. 31–40.
  3. See especially: Luciana Parisi. Contagious architecture: computation, aesthetics, and space. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.
  4. Karen Barad. Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2007.


The ensemble of methods by which the research questions are addressed is organised around principles of iterative experimentation, multi-perspective and complementarity in dissemination. The project’s total running time is divided into subsequent “configurations”. Inspired by Karen Barad’s concept of ‘diffractive reading’, through a series of connected re-configurations, we wish to obtain the boundaries drawn by the agency of algorithms which may lie transversal to presumed boundaries such as a specific piece, performance, composer, format etc. The method of reconfiguration has been introduced.1

Each configuration brings together a group of artists and researchers who, over a defined period of time, develop a series of algorithmically related sound pieces. The process is observed and transcribed into multiple forms of presentation and discourse. A continuous online exposition is complemented by distinct gatherings and symposia.

This is illustrated in the following figure:

Elements of a Configuration

The team always consists of the two principal investigators and the external invited artist. Hanns Holger Rutz and David Pirrò take complementary roles. One of them joins the invited artist, and together they carry out development, implementation and artistic investigation within a selected algorithmic context. The other becomes facilitator and supervisor of this process, supporting the team in focusing on their agreed upon procedure and protecting them from counter-productive distractions.

The algorithmic context provides a frame of reference, pre-chosen by each team. Instead of a canonical algorithm, such as a cellular automaton or a generative grammar, a context precisely questions these boundaries and instead opens a search space for the experimentation. For example, if one takes a well-known algorithm in signal processing, a Feedback Delay Network (FDN), and decomposes it to its constituents, a context could be ‘feedback’ (recursion), ‘delay’ (diachronicity) or ‘network’ (connectionism). We want to understand how these constituents act when they are treated as compositional material. We look at their specific temporal, spatial, and performative affordances.

The investigation utilises a host environment in which algorithms are implemented and run and that forms part of the laboratory apparatus. We have built two software systems, Sound Processes2 and rattle,3 which are part of the permutation matrix such that Rutz and Pirrò in one configuration would each work with their own system, in another configuration with the partner’s system. In the first case, we would establish a state of ‘extimacy’, while the second case would foreground the idiosyncrasies through the adaptation process of a foreign composer. Likewise, the invited artists would either utilise their own software—in this case, the differential reproduction of the stable algorithmic context is ignited by the change in processor—or they choose to use Sound Processes or rattle—in this case, differences are produced by the change in human agent.

In the project's implementation, it became clear that the personal investment in each of these systems was too strong to force them onto the other researchers, so eventually each artist-researcher during the project worked independently with the system they developed.

Finally, we include a rhythmical element across the entire project, applying alternating strategies of ‘dilatation’ and ‘condensation’. This is on the one hand to create an additional support structure for the artists, something to help when the search space becomes too large, and on the other hand, more importantly, to counteract the strong bias of algorithms to produce growth (“generative”). By requiring the artists to contemplate the idea of an algorithm that “diminishes” material, we also want to encourage a subtractive way of working.

Dissemination and Assessment

We provide a variety of platforms, time scales and representations in which the results of this experimentation will be communicated, in order to work around the “blind spots” of each partial perspective and to assess the quality of the project.

In-between the configurations which last in their intensive phase around two months, there are events, occasions to present the findings and process for the general public and expert audiences, using mixed forms from concerts and exhibitions to symposia and workshops. These are conducted in collaboration with our international partners. Parallel to this, a continuous exposition is the ongoing transcription of each group’s work into the online Research Catalogue, a platform that allows the interleaving of text, sonic and visual objects, and also their discussion with the artistic research community. Furthermore, all experiments were to be observed and analysed by a scientific researcher who is not actively involved themselves in the artistic production process.

In the project's implementation, we abandoned the idea of a “neutral” third observer outside the artistic domain. Instead, the team was complemented by Daniele Pozzi as artist-researcher in an assistant role.

  1. Hanns Holger Rutz. ‘Marking a Space of Algorithmicity’. In: Proceedings of 4th Conference on Computation, Communication, Aesthetics & X (xCoAx). Bergamo, 2016.
  2. Hanns Holger Rutz. ‘Sound Processes: A New Computer Music Framework’. In: Proceedings of the Joint 11th Sound and Music Computing Conference and the 40th International Computer Music Conference. Athens, 2014, pp. 1618–1626.
  3. Georgios Marentakis, David Pirrò and Raphael Kapeller. ‘Zwischenräume – A Case Study in the Evaluation of Interactive Sound Installations’. In: Proceedings of the Joint 11th Sound and Music Computing Conference and the 40th International Computer Music Conference. Athens, 2014, pp. 277–284.