r _Web.log

The Weather Cafe

I have recently been working with the brilliant Leeds-based artist and director David Shearing on The Weather Café, an immersive café-based installation whose interior shifts gradually to reflect the real-time weather conditions outside. As the wind, rain, light and humidity fluctuate over the day, so too do the conditions indoors. The overhead lights brighten and dim, mirroring the brightness of the sky; an array of fans blow gusts of wind across the space in response to the wind picking up outside. On hazy days, mist billows beneath the tables.

This strangely permeable building is the backdrop for a rich and diverse set of oral stories that David has recorded with Leeds locals, which themselves shift in response to the weather conditions, grouped by atmospherics: still, light, fragile, unsettled. Backed by a generative score by my long-time friend and collaborator James Bulley, the different strands drift amongst one another in unexpected ways, coalescing in moments of real beauty.

Photo: Leanne Buchan

I realised the software infrastructure that tied together the different elements of the piece, sensing data from an Ultimeter weather station installed outside via a Python-based serial interface. This is aggregated in real-time with further readings from the fantastic Met Office API, and relayed to a bank of DMX controls - for lighting and internal effects - and to Ableton Live via pylive to interface with the responsive score.

The Weather Café can be found opposite Leeds Art Gallery, closing on 20th March.

More info: The Weather Café

Windows Startup Sounds (slowed 4000%)

It is twenty years since the birth of Windows 95, released to the world on August 24, 1995. With the widening availability of SoundBlaster sound cards in the mid-90s, the sonic experience of the operating system became a key issue for the first time. Microsoft acknowledged this fact by commissioning Brian Eno to compose a short signature sound for Windows 95. Latterly known as "The Microsoft Sound", the brief was to evoke a utopian sense of optimism and futurism, chiming with Microsoft's vision of Windows 95 as the OS of the future. Eno describes the experience as "like making a tiny little jewel".

In homage, I've made a series of extended edits that hold a microscope up to these jewel-like sounds. Six Windows startup tones, from 95 to Vista, are slowed to 4000% of their original speed, transforming each into an ambient piece of several minutes' duration, and amplifying the internal structures of these iconic, dream-like sounds.

Read more about the sound designers responsible for creating these startup sounds courtesy of Create Digital Music.


A strange truism of television and cinema is that the most realistic of scenes are often deceptively elaborate fictions, constructed from countless layers of careful staging, props, computer graphics and post-production effects (see the insights into visual artifice of Framestore’s “Gravity" installation at Digital Revolution).

The same equally applies to sound. The crunching steps of an actor’s coastal walk are most likely not recorded on set, but the work of a foley artist, pacing on the spot through a tray of gravel, underlaid with pre-recorded environmental atmos. An auditory scene may be made up of dozens of interwoven elements, often drawn from sound libraries designed to evoke a particular setting.

Having long been interested by the narrative power of non-spoken sound, it made a natural focal point for a couple of days that I recently spent working at the BBC R&D labs on behalf of the New Radiophonic Workshop, thinking about new ways in which the BBC’s vast media archives could be reimagined and repurposed. Housing several petabytes of media in racks of dedicated servers, it’s a virtually unrivalled archive of broadcast history, and has an increasingly sophisticated range of APIs to query and access it.

One of the strengths of this archive is that it is highly multifaceted, cross-linking the various elements of a programme, making subtitle transcripts available alongside audio and video recordings transcoded to different formats. This means that it is possible to search the archives for a given word or sentence, and watch every instance of that sentence being spoken over the past years of BBC broadcasts. A corollary of this is that we can do the same for sound effects: sound effects are subtitled just as speech utterances, meaning that searching the archive for every instance of [PHONE RINGS] lets us go back and listen to every instance of a telephone ringing heard on the BBC.

Some rapid prototyping later, alongside the expert developers from the R&D team, I had arrived at the below: an autonomous system capable of delving into the BBC’s media archive in search of certain foley effects, deconstructing the artifice of television back into its constituent parts. Pre-loaded with a particular search term, it spiders the archive, iterating backwards through time for instances of a particular kind of sound effect, downloading the relevant media, and extracting the specific timestamp referenced by the subtitle. It then re-composites them to create a generative collage, structured by chance based on when a particular kind of sound has appeared on-screen.


The impact of this process is that it amplifies the connotations of a particular kind of sound effect. Footsteps are used as a byword for suspense, movement, tension, fear, following or being followed. This footsteps auto-montage is thus a sort of distillation of how this trope is deployed as signifiers within TV, joining together suspenseful moments from disparate broadcasts to create an endless stream of anticipation.

Many thanks to Andrew Nicolaou, Dan Nuttall, Pete Warren and BBC R&D for their generous support in the development of this work.

Global Breakfast Radio

I've long had a fascination with the power of radio as a medium of transportation to another place or time, a passion I discovered I share with Seb Emina, author (of The Breakfast Bible) and digital dilettante. About a year and a half ago, Seb and I started discussing the idea of a radio station that spans continents and timezones, linking disparate places together by one simple common thread: breakfasttime.

The notion was to produce a radio station that always broadcasts live radio from wherever people were eating breakfast right now: following timezones westwards, moving across oceans and continents on the crest of a wave of sunrise.

The idea grew into an experiment and, after twelve months of research, listening, cataloguing and development, has finally seen the light of day as a fully-formed work:

Global Breakfast Radio

As the sunrise line slowly tracks west across the globe, the radio stream shifts from broadcast to broadcast, always selecting stations within what we call the "global breakfast window": a period of a couple of hours after sunrise in which people are waking up, stretching blearily, and making a bowl of cereal, changua or shakshuka.

Global Breakfast Radio draws from a pool of over 250 stations in more than 120 countries, from Radio Wassoulou Internationale in the Wassoulou region of Mali to KUAM Isla 63 AM, the oldest existing radio station on the western Pacific Island of Guam, broadcasting since 1954. It, and the listener, leaps in an instant from Sarajevo to Prague to Reykjavik, where you'll be briefly humming the same tune as the butcher, taxi driver and lawyer waking up in these far-flung places.

The site is backgrounded by a continuous stream of photographs portraying sunrise from the current broadcast location, selected from a pool of 10,000+ Flickr Creative Common images tagged with "sunrise". Sunrise and sunset images are a ubiquitous trope across the Instagrams of the world, one that we have repurposed to give the site a real sense of place, underscoring the way in which Global Breakfast Radio puts you in the eyes and ears of thousands of unknown people around the globe.

As we've discovered since launching the station, streaming URLs change and disappear at an incredible rate, making maintenance of Global Breakfast Radio a Sisyphean battle against internet bit-rot.

Unusually for a project of this kind, the public and press response to Global Breakfast Radio has been uncommonly deep and engaged. The Guardian report back on a 24-hour period of listening, The Onion AV Club describe it as "basically morning methadone", and BBC Radio 4 talked to us about Global Breakfast Radio on — appropriately enough — their Sunday morning breakfast show. More lovely coverage has come from the likes of It's Nice That, New Statesman, Smithsonian and Monocle. We also did a launch interview with Wired covering some of the more esoteric elements of the work.

Many thanks to all of the listeners and broadcasters who have made the first months of Global Breakfast Radio such a rich and rewarding endeavour.

More: Global Breakfast Radio

Variable 4 Portland Bill

The fourth edition of Variable 4 will be appearing this autumn, taking meteorology and generative music to the Jurassic coast of the South-West: Variable 4 Portland Bill.

We have also finished a comprehensive overhaul of the overall Variable 4 site, including documentation archives of previous locations and an improved news archive featuring extended miscellanea on weather, art and sound.

Berlin sound art gallery Singuhr ceases regular operations

Sad to belatedly discover that Singuhr, the venerable sound art gallery sited in an underground former reservoir in Prenzlauer Berg, has wound up its operations due to a shortage of funding. The internal architecture of the Wasserturm -- a network of concrete alcoves, with a large circular tunnel around the perimeter -- made for a unique and powerful acoustic environment, exploited by many of the artists who exhibited there.

Hearing Gordon Monahan's Resonant Platinum Records there was one of the most singular listening experiences I can remember, lightly resonating through the vaults. Its quietness in the cavernous space gave a unique and unexpected kind of intimacy.

Gordon Monahan, Resonant Platinum Records (photo: Gordon Monahan)

It sounds like Singuhr intend to continue programming events elsewhere on a project-by-project basis. Let's hope that upping sticks will give rise to new locations and new sonic possibilities.

Living Symphonies

A new year always seems like an appropriate time to push new projects out into the bright lights of the world. So, after almost a year of R&D, I'm very happy to be able to announce a major new work that will be occupying much of my 2014.

Living Symphonies is the latest collaborative work by Jones/Bulley. It is a sound installation based on the dynamics of a forest ecosystem, growing, adapting and flourishing in the same way as a real forest's flora and fauna. Modelling the real-world behaviours of over 50 different species, it will be installed in a series of English forests over the course of summer 2014, adapting to the inhabitants and live atmospheric conditions of each site.

In the heritage of Variable 4, it will be heard as a multi-channel musical composition of indefinite duration, with precomposed and generative elements intertwined through a web of algorithmic processes. Here, however, the dynamic model underlying the composition is quite beyond anything we've done before. It is based upon a simulation developed in conjunction with Forestry Commission ecologists, extending models produced as part of my evolutionary dynamics PhD work. And because each forest has a drastically different ecological makeup, the resultant composition will sound completely unique at each location — site-specific by its very nature.

We are in the process of mapping out the precise ecological makeup of a bounded (30x20m) area of each forest, charting its wildlife inhabitants with a 1m² resolution. This map is then used to seed an agent-based simulation, which links each species to behavioural and musical properties, spatialised across a network of weatherproof speakers embedded throughout the canopy and forest floor.

We'll next be dedicating a great deal of studio time to recording thousands of musical fragments, with orchestral musicians playing short motifs corresponding to particular kinds of ecological processes. These will then be processed by the compositional system and linked to the ecological model's current state, supported by further generative processes to create live interactions between each musical element.

Thetford Forest

In September, we carried out a successful outdoor prototype of the project in East Anglia's Thetford Forest. Though still in its embryonic stages, it was pretty enthralling to hear these sonic organisms roving amongst the undergrowth.

Supported by Sound And Music and Forestry Commission England, and with the support of an Arts Council Strategic Touring grant, Living Symphonies will be touring four different forests between May and September 2014:

Thetford Forest (Norfolk/Suffolk), 24 — 30 May 2014
Fineshade Wood (Northamptonshire), 20 — 26 June 2014
Cannock Chase (Staffordshire), 26 July — 1 August 2014
Bedgebury Pinetum (Kent/Sussex), 25 — 31 August 2014

Much more news will be available on the forthcoming Living Symphonies website, launching imminently.

Archived Sounds

I have been digging through my sound archives and posting a few old works to my SoundCloud profile, some dating back to 2009.

Here is a new piece: an edit of Jürgen Müller's Sauerstoff Blasen (Oxygen Bubbles) with vocals from Miley Cyrus' Wrecking Ball.

The Markup Melodium

I was recently invited by Mozilla to be a fellow on their Webmaker program, an excellent initiative to foster web literacy. As part of the fellowship, I was asked to create something which exploited the affordances of their maker tools.

I was drawn to the immediacy of Thimble, a browser-based interface to write web code and immediately see the results. I began pondering the potential for using Thimble as a kind of live coding environment: could an HTML document be translated into a piece of music which could be edited on-the-fly, hearing an immediate reflection of its structure and contents?

The outcome is this: The Markup Melodium. Using jQuery and Web Audio, it traverses the DOM tree of an HTML page and renders each type of element in sound. In parallel, it does likewise for the text content of the page, developing the phoneme-to-tone technique we used in The Listening Machine.

In way of example, hear Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky as rendered by the Melodium. To explore the basic elements, here is a short composition for the Melodium. And the really exciting part: using Thimble's Remix feature, you can clone this basic composition and immediately begin developing your own remix of it in the browser, before publishing it to the world.

As the Markup Melodium is implemented through pure JavaScript, it's also available as a bookmarklet so that you can sonify arbitrary web pages.

Drag the following link to your browser's bookmark toolbar: Markup Melodium.

And, of course, all of the code is available on github.

The name is in tribute to The Melodium, a 1938 musical instrument created by German physicist Harald Bode, whose pioneering modular designs anticipated today's synthesizers by many decades

Jones/Bulley portfolio

James and I have just finished a radical overhaul of the portfolio for our collaborative practice.


It now features full documentation of our existing works, plus some previews of our schedule heading into 2014.