How an algorithm created music out of people’s unrehearsed interactions

The music coming out of Parallel sounds familiar even though it was made up on the spot. The collection of synth buzzes and crystalline hums result in the kind of playful ambient soundtrack you might expect to find in a sci-fi movie or mobile puzzle game, but in reality they’re part of an organic experience between pedestrians and algorithms. An installation created by K. Michael Fox and Raven Kwok, Parallel took a dark, solitary space and turned it into a playground for people and sounds.

music that meanders and equivocates 

It accomplished this by using an app to integrate audience members with a generative music program that can react to them. As Fox explains on his site, “The app’s interface is presented to the user as a biologically inspired digital creature.” By manipulating different nodes on the organism, plucking and dragging them around the screen on their smartphone, users are able to affect the sounds emitted by their devices.

A series of floor projections depict the network connections between participants and six different channels of “spatialized audio.” According to a short video of the event, “The fixed spatialized audio system provides a sonic substrate which is then augmented by each users’ mobile device.” The resulting patterns shift from the serene and meditative to the estranged and alien; music that meanders and equivocates, just like the bodies in the room.

The same kind of generative music Fox and Kwok’s installation made physically present and socially is something many videogames have recently started to explore as well. In Ed Key and David Kanaga’s AR audio simulator, Proteus, the very act of exploring a low-res 3D island produced its own music. As Kanaga explained to Kill Screen, “Every object is singing. And you can interact with it. You can feel the presence of the objects.”

Though not centrally focused around creating it through player interaction, No Man’s Sky uses generative music as well. The studio behind the game, Hello Games, tapped math-rock band 65daysofstatic to help produce its soundtrack. While set music will play during the game’s scripted moments, audio director Paul Weir is in charge of building procedurally generated music out of what the group gives him.

unexpected musicscapes 

As Weir told Vice, “Whenever you’re in space, or on a planet, or underwater, or in a cave, that physical state will be attached to its own audio state.” In a game where players explore disparate, randomly generated planets, Weir said he wanted to bring the music in-line with that by using the same “seed values that create the planets to seed the music.” 

The added beauty of Fox and Kwok’s work, however, is its social component. Proteus is an intimate, individual experience, while in No Man’s Sky, though players will inhabit the same universe, the focus will be on interacting with unique worlds and environments rather than one another. Parallel, on the other hand, gives an idea of how networking and algorithms can be used to create unexpected musicscapes that can be explored in real time and together.

Find out more about Parallel on its website.