Hard Work At Play: An Analysis Of The Success Of Interactive Music For The Home Computer
This thesis analyses the development of home computer based interactive music technologies (predominantly soundtoys) against existing forms of music use.
It spans the technological development of the home computer and its software interface exploring its implications in cultural practice. Through a discussion of artistic convergence in the digital media it analyses the changing role of the listener/consumer with reference to the cultural turn.
Using specific examples it seeks to establish the musical and technological influences which have shaped its design and concludes by assessing whether the form is successful, with a place in Attali's proposed cultural shift in music consumption, as defined in "Noise: A Political Economy of Music".
Interactivity in Computer Systems: History, Cultural Practice and the User
Computers and the Cultural Turn
Hardware, Software and Everywhere
Machine Limitations: Quality Control
The Medium And The Message
Digital Convergence: Multimedia and Postmodernity
Music as Play
The Musical Interface
Child's Play and Toyism
Music as Task
The Instrumental Computer
In Noise: A Political Economy of Music Attali predicted a break in the cultural consumption of music away from the stockpiling of the recorded item (termed 'repetition'), to a situation where consumption is creation (termed 'composition'). For Attali this would be a return to the pre-commodity existence of music where it would no longer be bought and sold but participated in. This study aims to explore the significance of entertainment centred interactive music for the home computer within this predicted shift. These Interactive music applications shall be analysed in terms of: the notion of interactivity on which they are based; the artistic, commercial and practical factors at work in their development; and their existence as a means of consuming music beyond that of novelty.
Interactivity is a word which varies in definition. In the late 1980's "people saw interactivity as the unique cultural discovery of the electronic age"1. It is possible to sympathise with such a claim to an extent. Interactivity in human terms is about a relationship, one person's potentially illogical choices "influencing or having an effect on"2 the potentially illogical response and choice of the other. Where before music was centred around a shared experience and a live performance instance, it could now be an isolated and introspective experience, enabled by smaller and more portable playback devices for the individual.3 Only since the development of 'new' technologies4 which remove interactivity from the cultural equation have people been faced with these musical (and cultural) situations which are not by nature interactive. Stored, repeated choices made by the artist lose their imperfection, they become predictable, finished.
In the current media climate cultural artefacts (music, visual arts, and writing) are stored, reproduced and commodified, each unit sold as cultural artefacts themselves. This process of recording, storage and distribution dominates the global entertainment industry to such an extent that the notion of music being interactive is fresh.5 It is not that interactivity in music is a new concept but that it has become "as much a technically conceived and managed task as it is a social relationship"6. Prior to recording, music was offered "for doing"7. It was something you performed, something you created and participated in: musica practica8. With the dominance of the recorded work, music is something you own, collect and replay.
Attali saw the movement away from musica practica beginning with the concert hall and the birth of the star performer: "music is no longer a relationship it is now a monologue"9. The concert hall performance divorced music from its initial social place and planted it within an alien context. Where before music was a potent force in sacred and secular ritual it became staged, presented to the bourgeois masses as a spectacle for the spectator. Walter Benjamin also saw that the value of a work of art was highly dependent on its use value, its place within ritual, and more so as a result of the unique place in space and time that it occupied. This constituted its "aura".10 However, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction faces a dislocation of this aura.
"The technique of reproduction ? mechanical, electrical or electronic ? creates a distance, both physical and psychic between the performer and audience that simply never existed before ... the integrity of the musical work, its intimate unity with the time and place of its performance ... has been destroyed. Music has become literally disembodied, and the whole of musical experience has been thrown into a chronic state of flux."11
Out of this 'flux' we see new media emerging to exploit the interplay between established media such as film, music and photography. The home computer, as the predominant consumption device for these new media brings to them the capability to control elements of playback and creation. It is this control that is interpreted as interactivity: giving the user a choice of some kind about what they wish to behold and how they choose to witness it.
By giving the listener a choice concerning the creative output, the established role of the creator and performer is questioned. Will home computer based interactive music technologies facilitate this return to a pre-commodity, more authentic experience of music as proposed by Attali? The combination of art, commerce and technology producing authenticity despite its place within a commodity driven industry. Or is home computer interactive music merely "giving the right to speak back to people who do not want to have it"12 creating an unwilling creative consumer?
Interactivity in Computer Systems: History, Cultural Practice and the User
"Early success in programming digital computers to exhibit simple forms of intelligent behaviour, coupled with the belief that intelligent activities differ only in their degree of complexity, have led to the conviction that the processing underlying any cognitive performance can be formulated in a program and thus simulated on a digital computer."13
Interactivity in computer systems is fundamentally about choice and response, the choice of the user and the response of the machine. The computer systems that we utilise today can be based around a vast range of choices and any number of given responses, but they are all centred around logical systems. The importance of choice in interactive computer systems is shown in Laurel's three criteria for determining the level of interactivity: Frequency of choice (how often the user can articulate a decision); range of choice (the number of options available) and significance of choice (how much the choice is affects the outcome)14. In dealing with sound in interactive media this can be anything from basic feedback sounds (i.e. click here and hear a beep) to complex changes in the structure, pitch and timbre of the music in response to an input.
Today's home computers possess potentially huge levels of computational power and for many developers the key to a successful program has been the ability to harness that power and present it to the user in a coherent form. The majority of research to date has analysed the appropriation of technology for this task based or 'tool' aspect15. Predictable response is desired in labour saving programs such as word processors and spreadsheets. Interactivity in creative systems is concerned with adapting this approach with the creation of 'individualised' objects. These objects are imbued with 'behaviour': a way of responding to both the user's input and to other similar objects. Approaches like this can result in exciting and unpredictable systems with uncertain outcomes.
"Human computer interaction deals with accessing and creating information."16 For this to occur there must be a means of inputting data and a means of receiving it: an interface. The first commercial PC, the ALTAIR 8800 kit (1975) used a series of switches as its input stage and a row of lights as its output stage. Programming required skill and patience as each byte (a single string of binary numbers) had to be entered manually. According to members of the Homebrew Computer Club the first practical application of the ALTAIR was a musical one. Enthusiast Steve Dompier was reported to have programmed the machine to go through a cycle of calculations, the physical motions of which, when picked up by a transistor radio played the Beatles' song The Fool on the Hill.17
Until the launch of the Apple Lisa and Macintosh in 1984 commercial PCs had only advanced as far as utilising text based operating systems and applications. The languages used a set of adapted English words to manipulate the binary machine code. A QWERTY keyboard was used as the input device and a cathode ray tube monitor was added as the display unit. In 1979 Steve Jobs of Apple visited Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre where he saw an interface they had been developing since the early 1970's: the graphic user interface (GUI). The GUI works on an image based representation of machine code rather than a text based system. It utilised the metaphor of the desktop with stackable 'windows' for the display and navigation of data. In addition to the QWERTY keyboard GUI based systems used another Xerox innovation for monitoring user input, the mouse. Movement of the mouse was mirrored by the movement of a cursor on screen enabling the user to switch between windows by clicking the buttons on the device. The GUI literally changed the face of computing as well as altering the way in which people perceived the use of the machines. Computer operators no longer needed to learn vast numbers of text commands but were able to explore the information presented as images that had the appearance of paper documents and photographs. The GUI lent itself to a new way of working, with onscreen information accurately reflecting that of the printed output: what you see is what you get.18 Due to the interdependence of graphic and audio elements in home computer interactive music, it is necessary to look further into the implications of the GUI before approaching the form sonically.
Computers and the Cultural Turn
In "A Tale of Two Aesthetics" Sherry Turkle suggests that the GUI of the Apple Macintosh embodies a postmodern aesthetic over the modernist text based interface of the earlier DOS systems.19 The icons and windows of the GUI acting as simulations of the processes at work in the machine code. It enabled a new breed of non-programmers to use computers without having to concern themselves with the minute processes at work: the "user".20 Users are perceived as a rather lacklustre group seduced by what the computer could do rather than its workings. She contrasts this group with two others: the highly technical hackers and the Homebrew hobbyists with their reductionist desires to get into the guts of the machine, groups which parallel those in music. The user is neither the amateur hobbyist at their piano or a virtuoso hacker but rather one who seeks to 'use' music rather than seek to understand its fundamental qualities and construction whether at home or in the concert hall.21
The GUI enabled users to engage with the surface of the machine only, treating icons as actual entities rather than what they actually are: representations, simulations of the machine's activity. Although text based systems were also representational (verbal commands representing binary) this movement towards dominance of the image is part of a wider cultural transformation. Harvey's exploration of postmodernity outlines how this shift manifests itself in cultural production.22 Saussure's theory of signifier and signified described how language exists as a system of text based signs which represent (however abstractly) physical or mental images and feelings. Over the last 50 years communication in the media has emphasised the use of the signified over the signifier.23 To communicate the presence of, for example a peach, why bother using a collection of arbitrary letters? It is simpler to show a picture, and more immediate. Again the power of the image in cognition is not a new notion, only its prevalence. With the GUI, learning how to use computers was no longer about studying manuals and learning commands, it became comprehension through experimentation and exploration: through play, a concept delineated in chapter 2.
Hardware, Software and Everywhere
Moore's law24 denotes the principal that every eighteen months the memory and processing power of computers doubles while the price halves. Greater processing power meant that more complex programs could be developed, incorporating the relatively large calculations required for viewing and manipulating graphically displayed information. With this increase came the ability to process higher quality images, motion video and recorded sound. Up until this point very basic sound had been used in interface design as a means of providing feedback: acknowledging inputs; identify errors and completed tasks. In 1991 in a climate of new terminology and technology, market leader Microsoft sponsored the Multimedia Personal Computer Marketing Council comprised of major computer developers and retailers. The outcome of the council was a broad definition of what constituted a Multimedia PC. They were expected to contain: A mid-range processor; several megabytes of ram; a large hard disk; CD-ROM drive; audio input and output facilities; a high-resolution colour display and the Microsoft Windows operating system.25 The general standardisation of hardware created a viable home context for sound and image to be combined in a richer context: interactive digital multimedia.
By 1996 the PC industry had become a major political economy, the third largest earning industry in the world. Many businesses had PC's on their desks and there were an increasing number in the home, used as workstations and playstations. It is this latter application which makes many of the demands for increased power and memory in home PCs. "Until recently, it was computer-aided manufacturing and design that were leading advances in graphical interfaces; now it is games".26 It is games that have explored approaches to interaction, creative hardware, detailed graphical representation and extensive use of sound within the context of the home. In the light of increasing profitability, game specific units emerged exhibiting a blend of advanced computing and leisure based marketing. Consoles like Sony's Playstation and Nintendo's N64 are capable of generating extremely complicated three dimensional environments and life-like characters with which the user can interact.27 The consoles themselves run extremely minimal operating systems where the user only has to insert a CD-ROM or cartridge and switch the machine on in order to play the game. Such minimalism allows programmers and game creators to build complex audio-visual programs to meet their exact requirements. Although manufacturers have attempted to create a multi-use machine which can facilitate both high level leisure and business use, there is still presently a clear divide between these play centred devices and the business oriented machines.
Sony's Playstation is of particular interest in terms of interactive music as it uses CD-ROM as its format. This has allowed some developers to create programs which base the users experience on that of a standard audio CD. Vib Ribbon is one such music centred game where the user can use their own choice of music for a new purpose. The player is a rabbit who walks along a line (a vibrating ribbon) avoiding objects determined by the sonic qualities of the audio. Success in the game is dependent on pressing the correct buttons at the correct time and therefore in the correct rhythm. There are other Playstation games which utilise the same principal Parappa the Rappa and Um Jammer Lammy. These games allow the selection of rap phrases and guitar licks respectively using the same method as Vib Ribbon whilst the responses contribute more to the musical output. Games in the 'music' genre are a minority at the moment when compared to more established types. Their use is still perceived as playing a game rather than consuming music as they contain a narrative, a central character and to an extent a purpose beyond that of purely making music.
The consoles not only rival PCs technologically, but also commercially. In the UK and the USA PC and console home penetration levels are equal, but in Japan almost half own a console yet only one fifth a PC.28 In the USA the increase in video game revenues has overtaken both the increase in music revenues and cinema box office takings over the last five years at almost $20 billion a year.29 Attali is indeed right in stating that "commodity production now shifts to the production of tools allowing people to create the conditions for taking pleasure."30 In terms of musical pleasure, why should the tools of new media be chosen over the hi-fi.
Machine Limitations: Quality Control
"Music is a temporal art, and any computer program dealing with music must have sophisticated facilities for representing time and for scheduling processes to occur at particular points in time."31 In order to achieve this, applications need to be able to dedicate sufficient hardware resources to the processing of audio and sequencing information. To facilitate this either large amounts of memory are required or the amount of information must be reduced. Audio compression is often used, resulting a loss in audio quality. However, timing problems in music are harder to disguise than poor audio quality. If the user's attention can be diverted from the quality of the audio signal through interesting music and an engaging interface, then the experience can still be enjoyed. If the music is heard on the small, limited frequency speakers distributed with most home computers then sound may not be heard in such a way that enables the identification of a high or low quality signal. With old gramophone records it is not the crackles but the jumps which break up the music.
Commercial sequencing packages demonstrate that computers are capable of playing audio seamlessly, but when the music system is super imposed on an operating system and an authoring software package the processing power and memory available for audio playback is reduced. Macromedia's Director is the standard authoring package used in interactive music and media. Whilst it limits the activity to that which the program can handle, rather than what the machine is capable of, it allows the easy creation of standalone applications for CD-ROM and the Internet. Director is a high level authoring environment which benefits in programming terms from a simplified language but suffers at the same time as it is not as timing accurate as lower level languages. As the consoles represent a more standardised hardware the PCs are still considerably varied in terms of power and capability. Developers of interactive music are faced with the choice between creating high sonic quality pieces for only the top end users or making applications which will run on older machines. This can result in a lowest common denominator approach, sometimes to the detriment of the musical experience.32 The medium is limited yet still provides artistic opportunities which, if they are to be explored, must be assessed realistically: that which is possible against that which is desired. Technology versus ambition and user expectation.
Where computer based interactive music is clearly dependent on the associated technology, the desire to create and experiment with music is not technological. The history of the development of music technology has always oscillated between experimentation and facilitation. Instruments like the organ grew out of the desire to expand the control of the performer33 whereas the saxophone resulted from experimentation with the clarinet and now obsolete ophicleide. Technology enables the creation and distribution of interactive music, but their use in turn precedes further development. The relationship between technology and society is not mono-causal34 as determinists such as McLuhan would propose, rather "technology is both an agent and a symptom of change".35 Such a dynamic relationship can be seen in the development of the CD-ROM.
The Medium And The Message
"Everyone and his Auntie wants to make a CD-ROM - not necessarily because they have some compelling artistic reason, but because they think everyone else is making one."36
As a symptom of change the CD-ROM represented what the new media industries required: a cost effective, distributable medium. As an agent it provided for the established music industry a new medium to exploit, a new commodity. A "non-game entertainment"37 format emerged exploiting collections of images, text, video clips and music to create a navigable, star based environment. Some developers, such as ION, responsible for David Bowie's Interactive CD-ROM JUMP, greeted the opportunities the new medium afforded somewhat romantically:
"We stand at the cusp of a historical moment in which all these arts [previously stated as TV, rock and roll and computer technology] coalesce in the interactive medium, and for the first time ever the awesome power of the imagination is finally met by technology able to translate its infinite expression."38
A grandiose claim which is unjustifiable, suggesting that computers have reached a state in creative terms devoid of limitations. This is not at all the case when home computers are limited to at most, a keyboard, mouse, joystick, 2D display and stereo sound. They have no means of utilising the sense of smell or taste, and severely limited ways of triggering the sense of touch.39 Computers are also devoid of consciousness, incapable of human-like thought, limiting their interactive participation to logical, linguistic, and ultimately numeric algorithms. To allow the user to "interact with a music legend",40 as the CD-ROM claimed, the whole of David Bowie's human experience would have to be linguistically definable before the computer's physical limitations are encountered. In addition to this Eno stated that "the biggest limitation of Roms [are] that quite soon you've been through the archive and seen everything you are ever going to see, and your only choice is to see it in another order".41 This is particularly true of JUMP, Peter Gabriel's Eve and Prince's Interactive. The anticipated revolutionary user experiences were not fulfilled and scepticism grew amongst commentators.
"CD-ROMs have felt compelled to announce themselves as the coming of a new paradigm; a medium that will destroy centuries of music making as we know it, pronouncing limitless capabilities for remodelling sound. But anyone who has spent even 5 minutes using one knows that the limits kick in almost as soon as the basic cognition skills warm up."42
CD-ROMs have struggled to establish a place within the existing music market. CD-ROM's like Peter Gabriel's Xplora and Prince's Interactive cost around four times the amount of standard audio CDs, and required a high level of devotion to the star rather than their music. Interactive music experiences were packaged as part of these non-game applications and have continued to be sold on the back of established formats. They provide useful content for enhanced CDs and websites but are rarely distributed in their own right. The internet is an increasingly common location for interactive music. It is not limited by physical distribution and allows the presentation of single applications without the need for an artistic context.
Since its beginnings in 1990 with Tim Berners-Lee's Hypertext Transfer Protocol (http) and Hypertext Mark-up Language (html) the World Wide Web has expanded to incorporate entertainment, business, education and communication in its 21.1 million web sites.43 Utilising hardware networks the web is a virtual space built on a "principal of universality [where] the power of a hypertext link is that it can point to anything"44 whether text, image, video or sound, all exist in a digital form. In its present manifestation it suffers some severe limitations, the foremost of which in terms of music use online is bandwidth: the number of bytes able to be sent through the network at one time.
Due to the greater number of bytes needed for the storage of audio, transferring sound files can be a lengthy process. To remedy this either the user needs a faster connection (allowing more bytes to pass through within a period of time) or the amount of audio information must be reduced. Having said this, the internet has presented a greater change in music consumption than the CD-ROM ever has. Audio compression algorithms such as MP3 have made music the base for one of the largest 'communities' on the web. The Napster software allows millions of users to share music files across the net within gift economy. It is not the music that has changed, only the technology.
The internet is designed to ensure that a complete file is received by the user. They are broken into data 'packets' which are transferred and may arrive in any order. If any information is missing at its destination then it is re-sent via an available route. This system was designed for text based media which is not, on the whole, time dependent. However, the late arrival of a bar of music within the context of a longer work can seriously affect the experience. If the user is to experience even the same tenet of interaction possible with offline media this problem must be overcome, usually by means of pre-loading all time dependent data prior to execution.
Digital Convergence: Multimedia and Postmodernity
The web is currently the clearest manifestation of what Negroponte predicted in the digital revolution: convergence. "Since bits are bits, it makes no difference if they represent video, sound or text, they are all the same".45 It is ironic that in a media culture emphasising the signified, everything is reduced to the most basic of signifiers: zeroes and ones. It is not only the convergence of communications and entertainment industries but also the convergence of audio-visual media, blurring the distinction between music and photography, movie and text. Where these media are received through the same hardware at the same time their impact is co-dependent. A film would cease to be the same film if the soundtrack or the image was removed. This convergence of media has not been a smooth development technologically or aesthetically. In the early stages of development digital pieces were often crude and of low resolution, in addition to this the medium was often subject to the expertise of graphic designers and programmers whilst suffering from their amateur approach to sound and music. As the technology has enabled higher resolution works and as artists have collaborated each with their own expertise, the "civil war"46 among media has been calmed.
"The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born ... the moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release."47 This moment of freedom and the birth of new media is often at the expense of other previously established cultural codes. With mass production came the dislocation of the aura but also the birth of many subcultures, each with their own notions of authenticity. In club culture (a subculture dependent on the use of vinyl records) it is seen that the records are themselves a symbol of authenticity and that the aura is relocated in the DJ's performance.48 Clubs are an intense, ritualised social context. Home computer interactive music does not benefit from such a context, but when compared with the current stockpiling of music the human factor in the experience gives it the authenticity of performance.
As with interactivity and the influence of the image, conceptually this combination of media is not unique to the so called 'new' media. It has already existed within the arts and wider culture before the invention of recording or computer technology. It was found in opera and in the church with its combination of visual, aural and sometimes nasal stimuli (a feature which home computers have yet to achieve practically). These experiences are equally multimedia (combining multiple media) but it is the reduction to one common, digital base that sets it apart technologically. Where before musicians used one set of machines for their task and painters using another, in the new media industry all use the same tool, the computer.49 Despite the increased number of authors involved in the creative process, interactive media encourages the control of the user. The developers create (as in computer games) a context, the tools, an unfinished work which is given to the user to be applied and adapted as they choose. The focus becomes the experience, the creation of texts between the authored "nodes"50 within the work. We have seen how computers have the potential to alter considerably the patterns of consumption. Now, with the listener becoming creator, music is no longer a finished objectifiable form. This is a concept alien to the established music industry.
Harvey recalls Barthes' term "jouissance" to describe a "bliss"51 found in the "identification of writing (creation) rather than reading (reception)"52. This can be used to describe the aim of these play centred interactive music pieces. This is a factor which Hassan also identifies as a trait in the shift towards postmodernism. In table 1. it is evident that there are other traits of the cultural turn which are manifest in interactive music and shall be referred to during the course of this study.
form (conjunctive, closed)
antiform (disjunctive, open)
art object/finished work
table 1. Schematic Differences Between Modernism And Postmodernism (abridged)
Source: Hassan (1985 reprinted in Harvey, 1989, p43)
Thus far we have seen how technology has developed, facilitating the use of computers for interactive music and media alongside the social and artistic implications of a newly interactive medium. This chapter shall examine the form with regard to user experiences and goals, establishing an interactive aesthetic both musically and visually.
Music as Play
"And what is the purpose of playing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play.
This play, however, is an affirmation of life - not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord."53
Cage, a key exponent of 20th century avant-garde music, articulates acutely this shift from purpose to play. He points to a new way of approaching music, separate from commodification and considerably detached from what many would consider musical. "It's interesting that ... some languages have a different word for playing a musical instrument and playing a game"54. This highlights further the potential dichotomy between what is playful and what is musical. Adorno erred on the side of purpose over play in cultural consumption: "Making music, listening to music, reading with concentration constitute an integral element of my existence; the word hobby would be a mockery of them".55 If a hobby would be a mockery, then to play would be detestable.
Roger Caillois defines play according to six criteria: it is a free activity, measured only in respect to how much pleasure it affords not its usefulness; it is separate from daily life both temporally and spatially; it is economically unproductive; it is subject to rules and criteria of operation; it is fictional and holds an uncertain outcome.56 Music as a game is in stark contrast to the current commodified form, but it is sympathetic with many interactive music applications where the output is secondary to the experience. In the 20th century Pierre Schaeffer and the Music Concr?te movement and Luigi Russolo's The Art of Noises brought everyday, and 'non-musical' sounds into the art music repertoire. The whole notion of what constituted music was challenged. It "didn't have to have rhythms, melodies, harmonies, structures, even notes ... [it became] written for non-musicians.57 As a result interactive music experiences are able to take a huge number of forms as long as they contain a sonic element.
Different users have different expectations of games just as different listeners use music in different ways. Computer based musical experiences represent another use of, and way into music. Since the dilution of music as a socio-religious art form it has predominantly become entertainment. Where interactive music can often fail as a concept is in its attempt to take the place of existing musical forms. Pleasure in these experiences (as with listening) is influenced by the context, the nature of the experience and the user. With the home computer as the centre of the experience an interactive aesthetic has developed, based around its physical and stylistic abilities and limitations. The musical output tends to exist between two poles: from ambient and anti-form58 to rhythmic and formulaic59. These forms are particularly suited as the computer "doesn't really have a sense of feel"63 and so cannot produce non-machine based styles so convincingly. While the music is of importance it is how it is represented and affected by the interface which holds the experience together.
The Musical Interface61
For inspiration in creative interface design, developers have looked to existing multi-sensory interactions. One such reference point (albeit variable) is that of Synaesthesia, a condition in which a stimulus received in one sensory modality gives rise to an experience in another. Thus it can be the case that people 'see' colours when they hear certain tones, instruments or voices.62 The condition is rarely consistent between synaesthetes and so complicated to map. The digital media are an important arena for further exploration of this condition both scientifically and artistically. Just as composers (notably Scriabin) experimented with music and colour, interactive music developers are able to create systems of association between the two senses. The representation of sound is challenging, particularly a musical and often acousmatic63 sound. This has resulted in the adaptation of existing interfaces and accepted systems of representation as "the recapitulation of forms and activities is an entirely natural process in the evolution of all media".64
Interface concepts have grown out of both musical and computer based contexts as well as the creation of new designs. It is often the interfaces with which the user has some degree of familiarity which are most successful. Soundbox contains many new and complex interfaces, as a result they appear cluttered and are confusing. "Space Time Continuum" allows the user to mix audio files by rotating two cubes (fig. 1.2). The user also has the ability to replace the built in sounds with their own. Without careful choice (and sound editing software) the results can be, at best, incoherent. The issue here is not only what the music sounds like, but how it relates to the interface. If it is unclear then the application causes confusion. The same depth of activity is evident in "Hex" (fig. 1.3). The user is not able to establish the method of play quickly enough and the toy becomes a task. The lack of sonic clarity and loose arrangement fail to yield a reward proportional to the amount of effort required to perform.
The Small Fish interactive CD-ROM contains many creative interfaces of incredible simplicity. The interface is like that of a graphic score (fig. 2.1) using a combination of established symbols, colour and movement to create meaning. The musical output is usually fairly abstract and minimalist, high 'art' music, not regarded for its aesthetic accessibility. However, the rapid feedback given both sonically and visually makes the experience very playful. The only input device is that of the mouse but in interfaces such as Parrot (fig. 2.2) it is used intuitively, its location corresponding to pitch and stereo placement. Small Fish uses general midi orchestral sounds65 which relieve the program of the need to manipulate any audio whilst cementing it firmly within its musical context.
An on screen track mixer was used in David Bowie's 1993 Jump CD-ROM (fig. 3.1) and also in Coldcut's 1997 Playtime (fig. 3.2). These allow the user to fade looped component tracks up and down in volume creating their own remix of the track. In Playtime the user can choose from a number of different loops to use. The mixers include a pitch controller so the user can alter the speed of the track. Although the frequency of choice in mixer applications is almost constant, where there are only a few faders (as with Bowie) the range of choice can be limited and with many faders (as with Playtime) the result can be confusing, especially when matched with poor sound choice. The use of a mixer interface, due to its existence in the computer studio context, can highlight the limitations of the software compared to commercial software mixer applications which allow pan controls and eq.
Another interface metaphor employed by developers has been that of the AKAI MPC sampling drum machine which allows the triggering of samples by means of 16 rubber pads on its control surface. Coldcut's My Little Funkit (fig. 4.1), AudioRom's Keys (fig. 4.2) and Romandson's Wildlife interfaces utilise this principal. The user is able to trigger melodic, rhythmic and sound effect samples over a pre-rendered backing track using the mouse to click on icons in My Little Funkit and by using the computer's keyboard in Keys. In this case the interface is not directly related to that of the hardware sampler and so is not subject to the same problems as the mixer applications.
The timeline interface established through computer sequencing packages has also been applied in home computer based interactive music. AudioRom's South, South East (fig. 5.1) is one such application. The user is able to create their own arrangement from selected component parts. With South, South East the user creates a mix and then sets it to play with no further alterations allowed. The result is a piece which could be considered task oriented: the aim to reassemble to music. AudioRom declared that the Shift Control CD-ROM was produced as a means of "pre-authoring and profiling our music [allowing the user] to access the music via a different door from usual"66. The CD contains an audio partition, the music of which forms the basis of the soundtoys. Unlike Soundbox it is not possible to import additional sounds. Not only does this allow for the retention of authorship it also makes it difficult to create music which sounds 'incorrect' as all the parts were chosen for their consonance. Some of the soundtoys are quantised67 making it impossible to play out of time. Such features make musical assembly easy but limit interactivity due to the reduced experimental possibilities. In Peter Gabriel's Eve the user has a similar opportunity, to play with the music using component parts. The Eve IMX (Interactive Music eXperience) is based around a landscape with different trigger objects around the screen. The time of day and location of people are an indication of the music playing (figs. 5.2 and 5.3). Despite this re-creative position, the audio quality does not give a commercial quality output therefore the experience (the play) can be the only outcome.
Child's Play and Toyism
The link between computer games and soundtoys has led to some scepticism towards their validity as a form beyond that of just a novelty item or toy. A fun and easy approach to musical creation however crude, is often welcomed by those who have had little previous musical training. Soundtoys are not finished works or even the means for creating one. Julian Baker described his CD-ROM of "new desktop instruments" as the "digital equivalent to the building block and modelling clay of our early childhood. When the toy box is first opened only the possibility of the many wondrous things one can make is present. The more you play with each one, the more aware you become of its systems, forces and subtle properties."68
With toys, when the user (child or otherwise) has finished playing they are returned to a dormant state in the toy box, anything that was constructed is dismantled. There is no 'tangible' end product, no goal except entertainment within the process of creation and an enhanced knowledge of the experience for a future playtime. Each toy exists on its own terms with its own rules and conditions. Nevertheless they are perceived as potentially useful tools for learning musical creativity in a culture where less music is composed on traditional instruments.
Throughout his discussion of music in "Being Digital" Negroponte refers to their uses from the perspective of a child's education, stating that: "the computer does not limit musical access to the musical child".69 Despite his limited view of the potential applications of interactive computer music he shares, with many developers, the notion that it opens avenues of creativity previously closed to those without the relevant understanding and skill.
Sim Tunes by Toshio Iwai is aimed at children ages eight and above. It grew out of a 1992 interactive audio visual exhibit "Music Insects" and was adapted by Maxis and distributed as one of their Sim range70. It allows the user to create 'musical pictures': creating music without the need to learn an instrument. Notes and loops are triggered when coloured blocks are intersected by a quartet of animated 'bugz', each with their own instrument or sound effect (fig. 6) This allows pictures to be painted which are then 'translated' into music. The user is able to create specific tunes through careful design, but this requires a knowledge of how the program functions at a more complex level. In Sim Tunes the results can range from simple, ordered melodies to highly complex chordal pieces. The scales used by the piece can be predefined to create consonance (the use of major pentatonics) or dissonance (the use of a standard 13 note scale). It is process led creation: the mechanical concept dictates the music.
As with most soundtoys, composition is no longer a process associated with a composer who "conceives a coherent and meaningful pattern of tones and rhythms ... translates the music he has thus conceived into symbols which enable the performer to bring it into actual i.e. physical being"71 but rather with the specification of criteria by which the music is generated and/or arranged. The computer acts as both transmitter and medium, affecting the form of the music profoundly. Music from process has been a trait of 20th century experimental composition through composers such as Steve Reich. Reich took simple, repetitive phrases and allowed a musical texture to develop as a result of their movement in and out of phase72. The pieces are cyclic in formation and so do not end rather, "they just stop"73. Sim Tunes produces music in a similar way and its sonic output, taken from its context, can be as aesthetically distancing as much of the 20th century repertoire. However, the user's clear participation in the creative process provides a basis for a musical understanding within the application's own terms.
Music as Task
Alongside the development of play centred applications are those which are concerned with the creation of a tool application which allows the user to sequence and manipulate sound. The most versatile expressions of these are Emagic's Logic, Steinberg's Cubase and Digidesign's Pro Tools. Home computers are now capable of running such applications but they are extremely complex, expensive and require considerable effort in order to benefit from their extended capabilities. Such programs allow the user to organise sounds of their choice, creating a complete piece of music. In addition to these programs the ejay "consumer music software"74 has emerged bringing the sample CD philosophy into the home for the uninitiated.
"The million-selling eJay music software has already proved itself a winning formula for music producers in over 50 countries. It is wonderfully easy to use and transforms your computer into the ultimate desktop studio. With eJay software, you've no need of previous musical experience to be able to compose your own hits, it's that simple. It includes numerous integrated samples and sounds, familiar beat patterns, as well as influential drum loops catering for every requirement."75
The samples, grouped by tempo, pitch and genre can be combined allowing the user to create their own music. Such a task based approach is seen as undesirable by Eno, a record producer: "It can't be very long before we are routinely faced with the awesomely tedious prospect of having to mix everything ourselves at home, the artists just selling a CD-ROM 'kit of parts' which you then assemble".76 The task element has clouded the entertainment, the enforcement of the right to speak, to create. It is not that people do not want this right, rather that they do not want it thrust upon them in a market which only consists of enhanced formats which arrive raw and require re-heating77. In the light of recording there will never be a complete return to musica practica, there will always be a place in our homes for the repeatable, whatever its creation method.
The Instrumental Computer
In a post-recording sense of the word, musical instruments are highly developed interactive music technologies. They "are not 'completed' at the stage of design and manufacture, but rather, they are 'made-over' by musicians in the process of making music"78. There is never a finished product, a definitive application of a particular instrument. Traditional instruments can be approached as both tools and as toys, facilitating a simple playful experience as well as the capability to develop a technique allowing greater scope for personal expression, a goal oriented use. The strong tradition of musical tuition and examination in our culture shows that the development of 'technique' is seen as a primary goal: to play means to play well.
Whilst traditional instruments are often restricted in tonality and their shape and size they still offer a level of intuition not yet afforded by home computer technology. Keyboard instruments for instance, engage the user with direct and appropriate feedback. Over time, as with all technologies they are developed, in this case from the early mono-timbre/dynamic clavichord to the complex pianoforte. The vast array of traditional instruments (each with their own application) is contrasted at present with the digital philosophy of a single base for all. In the future more advanced and intuitive technologies will be developed, but with current technology, interaction is limited. Designers continue to overlook such facts: "with a touch screen it should be possible to offer appropriate feedback to give musicians an experience similar to a piano keyboard, a drum, a woodwind or stringed instrument"79. The notion that a back-lit plastic screen capable of sensing touch information could facilitate the same activity as, for example, a violin is ridiculous, the physical feedback mechanism is in no way comparable. Other developers have embraced the limitations of the technology acknowledging that: "attempting to mimic the transparency of operation which is found in traditional acoustic instruments during composition and performance with music software is pointless because its makes music in such a very different way"80. It is not only the technological dissimilarities which set computers apart but also their social context.
In their present state most home computer interactive music experiences are a solitary undertaking, designed for the entertainment of the user. This is a far cry from the pre-commodity social context of music where enjoyment for the many came from the participation of the many. With the emphasis not on the construction of finished works but the process of creation, the non-creating listener is left with little to appreciate from an interactive experience in which they are not themselves interacting. Visually oriented video games already carry an established a place for the spectator. Modern sports and action games can be watched as if they were their respective TV subject areas. However, for the listener, musical games in the home do not share such established roles for those not directly involved. This leads to dissatisfaction as "devisors of new musical games forget that games which are amusing for players are often very boring for the spectators"81. These games serve a very different purpose from that of completed music. With present computer technology, musical multi-user experiences are extremely complicated to produce. They require the ability to identify and process multiple inputs as well as provide suitable musical feedback.82 Where traditional musical instruments, such as the Southern African mbira83, are extremely limited by today's standards of sonic output they can be played in ensemble, as part of a greater, shared experience with few technical difficulties and perhaps only minor cultural compatibility problems.
Home computer interactive music experiences have grown out of the increased popularity of home computers as entertainment machines on which to play games, surf the net, watch DVDs, listen to, and share music. The platform exists as both a commercial and artistic opportunity. While it is exploited by some as a novelty it is explored by others as a new medium. As a form, home computer interactive music has developed a number of facets, its success determined largely by the claims of the producer and the expectations of the user being met. Engaging experiences are those which combine music, appropriate graphics and, to borrow a term from video games, good gameplay. Gameplay is dependent on concept and its manifestation rather than advanced visual representation or complex musical activity. It is embodied in the experience rather than the output. For this reason often the most simple experiences are the most successful, despite their obvious limitations. Growing out of a computing culture centred around rapid download, intuition and response time and a media culture that supports the three minute pop song, developers are forced to face the reality of the present market where "if you can get someone interested for a few minutes then you have succeeded"84. This is not to say that the market will not change, it most likely shall but it will be a slow transformation. The dissatisfaction with repetition giving rise to composition and play, returning music to Attali's "immaterial pleasure".85
However, it is as na?ve to suggest that interactive music technologies (of whatever form) will return us to musica practica, eradicating recorded music, as it is to say that the current media will remain unaffected by the form. New forms grow out of the old and may dominate but rarely eliminate them. What remains to be seen is the change in the role of the output and experience of creation which interactive music could bring. With the financial value of recorded music being called into question in the light of Napster it is clear that changes will occur.
Attali proposed that the artistic relinquishment in the silence of Cage's 4'33" was giving the audience the right to speak, to create the music. In the established commodity driven industry this was a right they did not want. Interactive music will not meet this right to create with an exposed silence in the concert hall, in our culture there will always be an alternative. There will be other ways in which to use, consume and listen to music, live or recorded. Interactive music is not, at present, a potent enough form to seriously affect our established uses of music. It presents a new manifestation of the right to create, but not one which supersedes any that have come before. As standardised technology advances, interactive music will undoubtedly develop beyond what has been explored here, into new forms, aesthetics and multi-user experiences. It will be in the acceptance of these new aesthetics, perhaps with the rise of a new generation, that the form will find success edging towards a re-established musica practica.
1: Laurel, B, Computers As Theatre 1991 p19
2: The New Oxford Dictionary
3: Sony's Memory Stick Digital Walkman weighs only 2.3 oz
4: Durant, quoted in Gilbert, J, and Pearson, E, Discographies: Dance Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound 1999 p111 highlights the fact that technology describes any "deliberately designed and specialised equipment". From such a definition musical instruments are technology as much technology as computers and recording devices. They do not, however, result in a break in the inherent interactivity and participation in music to the extent of these 'new' technologies.
5: See Eno, B, A Year With Swollen Appendices 1996 p 401
6: Th?berge, P, Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology 1997 p255
7: Barthes, R, "Musica Practica" in The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation1985 p265
8: ibid. p265
9: Attali, J, Noise: The Political Economy of Music 1985 p47
10: Benjamin, W, "The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction" in Illuminations 1955
11: Chanan, M, Musica Practica: The Social Practice of Western Music from Gregorian Chant to Postmodernism 1994 p14-15
12: op cit. Attali, J, 1985 p136. Here Attali mentions the performance of John Cage's 4'33" in which, as Attali suggests, the audience were made the creative force in the musical work.
13: Dreyfus, H, Alchemy and Artificial Intelligence, in "The RAND Corporation Paper" December 1965 p3244 quoted in Dreyfus H, Mind Over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer 1988 p8
14: op cit. Laurel, B, 1991 p20
15: See Schneiderman, B, Designing The User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human Computer Interaction 1993 for more information on task based approaches to human user interface design and analysis.
16: Rada, R, Interactive Media 1995 p12
17: Cringley, R, The Triumph of The Nerds 1996
18: Commonly abbreviated to WYSIWYG (pronounced Wiz-ee-wig)
19: Turkle, S, Life on the Screen 1995 p36
20: ibid. p32
21: For such disparaging views of this 'user' group see Adorno,T, "On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening" in The Culture Industry 1991 and Hanslick, E, On the Musically Beautiful 1986
22: Harvey, D, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, 3rd Edition 1989 p58
23: For more information on the cultural turn see Hall, S, ed. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices 1997
24: After Gordon Moore - Intel 1964
25: For more information about the specifications and developments of this definition see Hansen, B, The Dictionary of Multimedia: Terms and Acronyms 1999 p206. It should be noted that this last requirement was the outcome of the sponsor and does not exclude other machines such as the Apple Macintosh from being classed as a multimedia personal computer.
26: Duncan, E, 'E-Entertainment', The Economist, 7 October 2000 p4
27: Goldeneye for the N64 uses computer controlled characters which are able to adapt to the users actions and tactics.
28: Source: The Economist and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.
29: Source: The Economist
30: op cit. Attali, J, 1985 p145
31: Rowe, R, Interactive Music Systems 1993 p9
32: AudioRom's Shift Control CD-ROM is built around audibly lower resolution audio in order to achieve a uniformity of experience on a wide range of machines.
33: "The history of the organ is nothing more than a narrative of the efforts made by men to bring under the control of one performer a large number of instruments called flutes." Stainer, J, The Organ 1926 p9
34: Chandler, D Technological or Media Determinism (www.aber.ac.uk/media/documents/tecdet/tecdet.html)
35: op cit. Chanan, M, 1994 p166
36: op cit. Eno, B, 1996 p308
37: ibid. p308
38: Bowie, D Jump CD-ROM 1994
39: Presently the most advanced commercially available means of producing physically 'feel-able' information are the vibrating controllers of the Sony Playstation, Nintendo N64 and Sega Dreamcast.
40: op cit. Bowie, D 1994
41: op cit. Eno, B, 1996 p309
42: Young, R, 'Multimedia: Header and Audiorom', The Wire, May 1998, p68
43: Source: BUSINESS 2.0 Christmas, 2000, p22
44: Wright, J, 'The Quiet Revolutionary' Interview with Tim Berners-Lee in BUSINESS 2.0 Christmas 2000 issue13 p18
45: Negroponte, N, in forward to Emmot, S, Information Super Highways, 1995
46: McLuhan, M, Understanding Media: Extensions Of Man 1964 p48
47: ibid. p55
48: Thornton, S, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital 1995 p27
49: Andy Cameron of Romandson in an interview conducted 31st Oct 2000
50: McPhee, S, 'Poetics In Interactive Multimedia', Convergence, v3, #4, (1997) pp74-91
51: 'Jouissance' is rendered as 'bliss' in Barthes, R, The Pleasure of the Text 1975 pp16-17
52: op cit. Harvey, D, 1989, p57
53: Cage, J, 1958 from the sleeve notes of "A 25 Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage" (Wergo, 1994)
54: Andy Cameron of Romandson in an interview conducted 31st Oct 2000
55: Adorno,T, "On Free Time" in Critical Models - Interventions and Catchwords 1998 p168
56: Caillois, R, Man, Play, and Games 1961 p14
57: Eno, B, forward to Nyman, M, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 1999, p xii
58: This category includes the output of pieces like Wibbles from Soundbox (appendix fig. 1.1)
59: This category includes dance based music such as drum and bass of AudioRom's Shift Control as well as the gamelan of Romandson's Phase Toy www.romandson.com/play/htm/phase.htm
60: Interview with Andre Ktori of AudioRom in unpublished undergraduate thesis Segal, E, Symphony in a Soundbite, 1999, p53
61: For pictures and a brief description of the interfaces discussed here see www.extraversion.co.uk/appendix/
62: For more information see the International Synaesthesia Association web site: www.psychiatry.cam.ac.uk/isa/arts.html
63: A term coined in music concr?te for a sound which one hears without seeing its physical source. With sound synthesis this type of sound is common place.
64: op cit. Laurel, B, 1991 p182
65: A standard set of 128 sounds common to most home computer systems with multimedia capabilities.
66: Andre Ktori quoted in Young, R, 'Multimedia: Header and AudioRom', The Wire, May 1998, p68
67: Restricting the times of input to regular points in a bar.
68: From the CD-ROM packaging on Soundbox.
69: Negroponte, N, Being Digital,1995, p221
70: Sim games involve the user/player managing a set of tasks within a computer simulated environment.
71: Sessions, R, The Musical Experience Of Composer, Performer And Listener, 1971, p68
72: For and example of this form hear Reich, S, "Music for 18 Musicians" (Nonesuch 1998)
73: op cit. Chanan, M, 1994 p281
76: op cit. Eno, B, 1996 p402
77: Gilbert, J, and Pearson, E, Discographies: Dance Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound 1999 p132
78: op cit. Th?berge, P, 1997, p160
79: op cit. Schneiderman, B, 1993 p262
80: Allenson, A, Adaptaptive, Generative and Interactive Process in Music Systems 2000
81: Cole, H, The Changing Face of Music 1978 p108
82: Developers such as Audiorom and Romandson have created online multi-user soundtoys allowing more than one person to contribute to the same piece of music. These are extremely temperamental as a result of the multiplication of the problems outlined in chapter 1.
83: A handheld instrument made from a gourd with metal strips attached. The player strikes the metal strips with their thumbs and a note is produced as it vibrates.
84: Andy Cameron of Romandson in an interview conducted 31st Oct 2000
85: Op cit. Attali 1985 p4
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