Vispo and Visual Poetry (New) by Jim Andrews
Interactive Audio for the Web

by Jim Andrews, 20/07/06

nteractive audio works for the Web are for the world. This is how most people will experience interactive audio works. Not in museums or galleries, but at home on their computer screen surfing the Web, possibly with their speakers hooked up to their stereo or with headphones or with small speakers as monitor 'ears'. In the same space they do their work on the computer, play computer games, listen to audio of many types, watch videos, and so forth.

Interactive audio works combine many of these activities. They tend to be like computer games in that you play using the mouse and/or keyboard. And sometimes they invite compositional activity, invite the player to produce something. Sort of like work. Usually more fun than work but no pay cheque. And of course interactive audio involves listening to audio and, usually, watching accompanying visuals. And possibly communication with others.

It's a different way to experience audio than we normally do. And, also, it can produce different types of audio than we normally hear because of the interactive/generative and networked dimensions. What you hear generally depends, to some extent, on what you do with the mouse and/or keyboard. And the programs have access to a lot of sound on the Internet.

It tends to be a personal experience. Someone looking over your shoulder doesn't get the same rush you do because it's dancing with you, not them. You are playing it. Perhaps a bit like an instrument is played or perhaps like a computer game is played, or possibly as a game of Scrabble is played (compositionally), but also as a video or an mp3 is played, or possibly as some combination of several of these.

Almost always, the compositional dimension is unlike composing on a piano or normal instrument. It's more like joining into a duet where the other person is already playing a particular piece and you riff on it. You explore the combinatorium of (usually) phrases that are already present rather than compose a piece from scratch. So a different notion of a piece of music is presented. A piece of music not as something that plays from beginning to end, but as a combinatorium of parts that you sequence and possibly layer according to your actions and the way the program's compositional logic responds to your actions.

It probably won't replace the music video or the mp3. It will develop in parallel with other types of music—but, importantly, it will also itself be a source of new types of music and will have its own followings. I enjoy playing this sort of music more than I like to listen to mp3's or watch music videos or attend performances. Not surprising, of course, since I make this type of work. After 47 years of listening to songs, I still like songs but I would prefer to mess with the music, approach it interactively, see it in some sort of relation to generative visuals, hear something different. You've probably had the feeling of listening to an album and finding that the songs are too similar to one another. For the last few years I've had that feeling about the contemporary song. I know, I probably need a doctor.

Or perhaps I need more interactive audio for the Web. But it does take some doing to make this sort of work. The programming. The conception of the musical space. The nature of the interactivity. The nature of the visuals. The significance of the network in the piece. The creation of the music. The design of the interface. Not a casual undertaking. Consequently, it has not proliferated in the way that new forms of music do that are more easily done. The serious practitioners will probably continue to also be programmers or be able to work with an artist-programmer without relegating her or him to a technician's role. The programming in the more successful works is not simply an interface into operating on the audio but often has an idiosyncratic personality all its own; in this work, the art of programming is not only the craft of engineering but a kind of architectural or sculptural art where the machine enjoys the life of art aurally, visually, and in its feel and function.

Though interactive audio isn't likely to replace the non-interactive song or the music video anytime soon as the dominant sonic and visual forms of music, the future looks pretty good for it artistically. If you sample the links to works on the Web deeply, you may come away with the feeling that what you have experienced is a genuinely exciting beginning—even though it has been nine years, basically (1997-2006)—and that you yourself can imagine interactive audio works for the Web that go well beyond what you have experienced into new types of music suggested by the linked works, and different types of experiences of that music.

Nine years (from the time Shockwave came out to the 2006 present) is a long time in Internet years, which are sort of like dog or cat years. But nine years is not long in the development of an art that needs artists who both burn to explore the musical possibilities of the situation and are capable of the sort of non-casual creative programming involved in that proposition.

Also, nine years is not terribly long in a situation where it is easier to get arts funding for offline interactive audio work than for projects situated within the public Internet. A solution to the funding issue may come more quickly by being able to work within the music industry than it will seeking arts funding.

The deeper challenges involve not reworking other peoples' music into a pleasant showcase, however novel, but really allowing new types of music and audio experience to emerge from the possibilities at hand. The energies of Internet art do not find their apogee in recapitulating old media but in finding ways for the unique properties and energies of the new media to fire the art not simply with novelty but profound resonance in the life of art. As when a person 'finds his or her own voice'.

Links to Works on the Web

An extensive list.


Graphics by
Regina Célia Pinto