Pippin Barr made a sound system that’s only as pretty as you let it be

I am a sucker for some generative art, or, at the very least, something that makes me feel like a better musician than I am. Gimme some Bloom and some headphones and I’m good.

Pippin Barr’s Sound System I at once appeals to and refutes these impulses. Inspired by the work of Marcel Duchamp—you know, the dude who wrote a name on a urinal and sold it as art, thus infuriating “art” debaters everywhere—the work consists of four paintings by the British pastoral artist William Turner placed in a grid. Duchamp was all about such repurposing: way before the urinal, he dribbled a couple drops of paint onto a shitty landscape reproduction and renamed it Pharmacy. Not coincidentally, Barr cites this work as one of his influences here. 

On top of each grid are between one and four dots in the time-honored CMYK hues. Click and drag each dot to alter its sound, so that the pleasing four-note harmony the game starts with loses its rhythm. Nudge the circles in square three and—holy shit, drums! If you’re like me, your first impulse when given basic physics is to throw everything around, and Sound System I both complies by allowing you to do this but punishes you by making it sound like an absolute mess. John Cage, another artist Barr drew far from here, knew the value of blank space, and so the more interesting challenge is to nudge gently, creating cohesion and space, then watch as the physics slowly make your little beat fall apart. 

In a way, Barr might be making a sort of defense of Duchamp’s work, which still pisses people off to this day. If the CMYK dots represent the readymade paint Duchamp employed, then the sounds they make here function as the harmony of the visual image. It’s easy to spatter colors about, but beauty is an elusive beast. As is the case so often in videogames, a touch of interactivity can completely refigure the way we think about art, authorship, and creation.

You can play Sound System I here