In Eric Sheffield and Michael Gurevich’s paper “Distributed Mechanical Actuation of Percussion Instruments” [3] the writers comment on their approach to “seams” in an electroacoustic performance: moments in which the performer is required to switch on or off or otherwise modify the electroacoustic actuation of their instrument. In the Sheffield and Gurevich case study, acoustic actuation of a block of aluminum and a ceramic tile is achieved through Arduino-controlled motors that drive wire brushes or solenoids. The author’s approach to these “seams” is to incorporate the actuation switch into the instrument in a way that is reminiscent of familiar gestures of percussion performance.

A capacitive touch-sensing strip was adhered to the edge of the ceramic tile […] to control opening and closing of the gate. […] Although this method deviates from the way the performer would otherwise play the unmodified acoustic instrument, similar gestures are within the realm of standard percussion techniques for muting, tuning and other modifications. [3]

Although this is certainly a reasonable, and in a sense elegant, way to deal with seams, the concept of hiding these moments of transition should give musicians pause. Seams are an artifact of the circumstances and requirements of electro-acoustically assisted performance. They are often assumed to have no communicative meaning. A performance is therefor split between the experiences that are “art” and the activities that are a means to that artistic end. This dichotomy is reminiscent of the signal-noise dichotomy, which has been a widely studied and critiqued element of 20th and 21st century thinking on aesthetic.

In “Sound Art and the Sonic Unconscious” [1], Christopher Cox points to the use of “room tone” in a number of recent works that, as he says “disclose the immemorial background noise out of which human sounds emerge and into which they recede.” These works explicitly rely on disclosing meaning (or at least form) in the seaming silence (or perhaps noise) of an empty room (depending on whether we wish to categorize micro sounds as noise or silence). While Cox is largely attempting to carve out a space for “sound art,” as apposed to music, this attempt has the benefit of throwing light on the aesthetic context of music as well. Cox points to John Cage’s equating “silence” with background noise, a Janus-like confusion of the vernacular. Even more central to Cox’s view is the theory of “minute perceptions” put forward by Wilhelm Leibniz [2]. In this theory, Cox finds hints at an ontology of sound whereby noise forms a vast ocean to human experience in which individual eddies or ripples rarely rise to the level of conscious perception. Cox’s own view seems to be that “signal” arises when some perceptual threshold is reached within the field of noise:

[…] noise is the set of sonic forces that are capable of entering into differential relations with one another in such a way that they surpass the threshold of audibility and become signal. Noise and signal, then, are not differences in degree or number but differences in kind, distinct domains. [1]

This view on the relationship between a posited, unconscious reservoir of sonic “noise” and events that rise to conscious awareness is strikingly similar to the way we perceive performance practice. Performance practice in many music traditions seems intended to obfuscate the physical movements and actions that initiate, modulate, and terminate the performance. Certainly some performance actions are so skillful that they are perceived under the descriptor “virtuosity,” while others are considered so clumsy that they detract from the performance. However, the vast majority of performance activities are too fast, complex, and incidental to make much impression on the audience. Indeed, it is common for a listener to close their eyes in order to better “tune out” this visual “background noise” in live performance.

For performance practice, perhaps the best analogy to the kind of “signal” arising out of “noise,” which Cox seems to envision [3], would be a ritualistic performance where the actions of the performer are so circumscribed that they become “signal” and are consciously perceivable by the audience. This is relevant to the placement of control devices for electroacoustic actuators. One possible approach to the use and placement of these controls would be to ritualize their use in performance, thereby making these “seams” parts of the “signal” in a performance. This is certainly not a new idea. In fact, Eric Sheffield and Michael Gurevich point to Benford et al. [4] who discuss various approaches to necessary interruptions of a performance environment. However, I think these issues are reflected in an interesting light by Christopher Cox view of sound art.

[1] Cox, C. (2009). Sound art and the sonic unconscious. Organised Sound, 14(1), 19-26.

[2] Leibniz, G.W. (1989) Philosophical Essays. Ed. and trans. Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber. Indianapolis, IN. Hackett.

[3] S. Benford, G. Giannachi, B. Koleva, and T. Rodden. (2009) From interaction to trajectories: designing coherent journeys through user experiences. In Proceedings of CHI, 709-718.

[4] Sheffield, E., & Gurevich, M. (2015). Distributed Mechanical Actuation of Percussion Instruments. Proceedings of the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression, 11-15.

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