Iain Emsley

Distant Sonification: Creating and Transforming Practice and Meaning through Algorithmic Processes

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This paper presents a method called distant sonification as a way of analysing complex cultural forms. Situated within computational practices, such as distant reading or listening, it aims to support and critique the exploration of data. My aims in this paper are to think about the practice as a reflexive analytical technique and to raise questions about how the digital medium affects the epistemological process to understand cultural data. Firstly, I present simulations and algorithms as using models of the world and thought within them and raise questions about how this affects critical practice. Secondly, I develop the argument that meaning is added to these through the structure imposed by both computational and human processes, placing them in the materiality of the medium.

I introduce distant sonification within the context of computational approaches to culture that focus on abstractions and patterns rather than close analysis methods. Worldviews are embedded into the computation through data and the design processes, creating the constraints and languages that imagine a potential set of abstract models. As external processes act on the data, social and political contexts are encoded into its structure and the concepts that underpin them are re-presented in the sonification to create a machine interpretation of meaning.

Interaction allows human agency into the algorithmic loop to alter the processes and reveal and mix human and machine discourses. By using filters, creating virtual instruments, or editing code, human models are translated into the algorithm through the computation. This experimental interaction encourages a reconfiguration of critical forms and logics to create an interpretative gap within the model. Open to technical and nontechnical readings, the model’s meaning is decentred and made playful. The act of grammatology reveals the digital as a metamedium, simultaneously representing and creating new data and tools, raises questions about hermeneutics and critical practice required to understand the sound.

The medium becomes the site of cognitive practice where both technical and non-technical sides interact through practice and meaning. Discourse and theory are created and altered through play and grammatology. As a ‘co-generative’ process, I suggest that distant sonification affords the potential to prepare a model that can be imposed onto the data to support the creation of new forms. Through experimentation, it is possible to explore this model and sonification’s logics to provoke questions about audiation and epistemology and rethink practice and meaning as created by machine and the human.


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author: Iain Emsley