One of the more interesting developments in the combination of music and technology is “data bending”: the process of creating something new from an existing set of data. In musical terms this involves creating sounds from the digital data of an original image or text work that has been transformed via computer. This area of sonic discovery has been growing as the cost of technology has decreased and the barrier to entry, i.e. the skills needed to transform the data, albeit crudely, has become much easier. An article from Wired, almost two years ago, illustrated a particularly crude way exploring this process by just opening an image file in Wordpad and viewing the resultant mess – this is “data bending” at its most basic, transforming an image into a nonsensical mess of characters.
In the case of John Newman, aka English Bore, on his latest release Dataphile, he’s taken a series of images (in BMP or PSD format) and reinterpreted them as audio data. Newman has gone beyond merely creating a noisy mess though – the resultant music has been crafted and filtered to bring out certain characteristics and intricacies. These have been layered and moulded into tracks that are deemed by their creator to still retain a true reflection of the source material. So whilst initially this might have sounded like a random act of sonic creation, the skill of the artist still takes a leading role. Additionally, in some cases, the image files or the final audio files have been deliberately glitched by randomly editing the raw hexadecimal data to disrupt it. These have then been added to the tracks. In the notes that come with the album, John has also noted that post-processing of the tracks has been “limited to the use of reverbs to create additional depth and spatialisation”. This sounds like a time consuming project and one that suggests that my original and crude definition of data bending doesn’t do it justice. However, the interesting discussion that comes from this kind of manipulation is ths: does the resultant piece contain a fingerprint, an identifiable component and style, that you can recognise? In this case, does the sound reflect anything from the original images?
In the case of Dataphile, the audio created is a strangely recognisable yet almost alien representation of those original source images. These images, or details from them, have been included in the booklet that comes with the audio. As you listen to the slow, revolving, boat-motor like ramble of drone that is ‘Whitstable Harbour’, its ebbs and flows sounding like the waves caressing the seaweed encrusted pillars of a pontoon, you turn to the image which resembles this very audio-descriptive scene. The odd thing is that whilst the detail might have been taken out of the image – there’s no room for the cars, warehouses, people etc – its lowest common denominator is still the basic and underlying canvas on which the image was created. Viewed from the other way, looking at the image that resulted in the track ‘Mindcontrol’, one huge radio-telescope in the background and just a quarter of one in the foreground, the music reflects the, perhaps unsurprisingly, digital nature of this form of communication. The background static curls and folds in on itself, never stationary, but flooding your ears with an undulating bleed of noise. There’s a gentle breeze of sound just hidden underneath all of this, representing the act of finding something of interest within the massive background of celestial space itself – the audio equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. From a purely audio point, if you’re not tuned into it, you’ll miss it.
Perhaps the most alienating piece here is ‘Red Sky At Night’. It comes with a warning as it “explores the infrasound and ultrasound frequencies produced by data… it has been known to create feelings of unease and nausea in the listener”. This is not one for listening on your headphones. The pitches ran straight through me, and I could only listen to 30 second snatches at a time. Which makes listening to a 10 minute piece quite an ordeal. Oddly, this didn’t feel like it reflected the source material as accurately as others – the image was a cloudy and shadowy grey collage of undefined structure that, to my ears, would conjure up a low rumbling drone. But then this is the curious case of data bending. It’s hard to see what the actual digital information of an image (or a piece of text) will be until it’s actually been transformed. Who knows what kind of hidden information could be unearthed by going beneath the surface? And, ultimately, I guess that’s the point of the process.
Regardless of this uncomfortable conclusion, Dataphile is a brilliant experiment in creating art from art, and data bending is an area that will continue this slow gathering of momentum. The idea of exploring the encoding of art and its manipulation into something else but still containing a trace of its origin, is fascinating. Of more interest is uncovering subtle meanings that may have actually been lost in the original piece. The fact that the technology available to help explore this is, pretty much, available to anyone with the aptitude, makes it all the more interesting: flicking through the family photo-album on Flickr or Picasa, could you create a soundtrack from your own memories? Given time this will surely be an added extra of such services. However, until then, artists like John Newman continue to make music, art and their juxtaposition, an incredible experience.