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Bjoern Erlach

Re-abstracted Realizations

Exploring abstractions and models that generate the virtual, through the hybrid paradigm of sound installation, instrument design, and composition.

The project ‘Re-abstracted Realizations’ is looking at what happens if one immediately and in detail transforms these abstractions into physical reality again. It happens every time a piece of music is performed and every time data is rendered into sound by a playback mechanism. A possible playback mechanism is a room with a set of speakers, amplifiers, digital-to-analog converters, a computer, and a good amount of software, plus probably some hardware to hold the speakers in place and seats for the audience to be seated in while listening. A person scraping strings attached to a wooden resonator with horsehair is another one. Electroacoustic sound production (the former case) can be used to reproduce previously recorded events.
For that reason there is the “back” in playback and the “re” in reproduction, even though the machines can as well generate synthetic sounds that do not relate to any pre-existing events. At least not in such a straight forward manner. Synthetic sounds can still evoke the imagination to hear an instrument like a violin, a motor, a human voice, or anything else known to emit sound in the world. Beyond the perception of features which can be associated with physical events, formal relations between synthesized sounds and all kinds of vibrations in the “real world” can be established by equations that describe the trajectories and interactions of physical quantities like force, mass, or pressure.

Computers can be seen as some kind of cognition or thinking aid, much like an advanced version of pen and paper. One thing that one can do with them is that if we have the equations that describe a simplified version of a phenomenon observed in the real world, we can calculate simulations. I think it is fair to say that the simulation of real world phenomena is one of the most prominent aspects (in addition to code breaking) that drove the development of computers forward (think ballistic trajectories, weather prediction, stellar motion). By adding D/A converters and speakers it becomes not only possible to compute a real-world phenomenon – a sound in this case – but also to realize it. Though it was possible to synthesize sounds by electronic means before, the generality computer based sound synthesis provides was new. Apart from computing waveforms with the aim to simulate something, one could now simply make up some set of rules to calculate waveforms. Whether sound is recorded or computed by some algorithm, in both cases data is generated.

Devices to graphically transcribe sound (e.g. the phonautograph in 1857) and shortly after the ability to record and playback sound were stepping stones for sound to become data. In the digital age, data is no longer only a means to study and gain insights, but something that generates virtual entities to be manipulated, generated, archived, owned, and sold. All of this depends on the assumption that the playback system is transparent or rather negligible. This is the idea that there is a reality to a sound existing in the abstract space inside of the computer system and itself can be mediated through the playback system, which is designed to be as “truthful” to the sound as possible. This stands in contrast to a view- point in which some process leads to the motion of the speaker membranes. If the speakers are replaced with a strange transducer on a metal plate, a magnetically excited string, or any other device that would react to an input voltage the assumed relation between data and sound no longer holds.