Becoming-life – on generative music and site-specific art

Sound, space and environment: my interest in them goes all the way back to my childhood. I grew up in a village permeated and surrounded by forests and meadows, rivers and lakes, hills and flatlands. The forest was our playground where we would embark on adventures, discover worlds, construct possible realities, create spaces, and exercise our imagination as well as our physical skills. My father, now retired, worked in the forestry for all his life, and as a child I would often accompany him to work, immersed in and perplexed by the sound of harvester machines operating in the woods, and by the stillness that followed when we stopped for lunch outdoors. When we got our first electric organ in the house, I proceeded to recreate the sound of the forest harvester by adjusting the organ’s settings in a wrong way. I was five at the time.

Another sound that was part of the soundscape of our village and which I often listened to in fascination, was that of the trucks travelling on a distant highway. Especially in limpid spring and summer evenings the sound would acquire a kind of sensuous, atmospheric quality that was at the same time musical and environmental, evoking a sense of a greater landscape and a possible world. And it was these early experiences, between sound, space and environment, that led to my career in sound and music later (music, after all, is all about creating spaces and environments through sound).

Years later, however, as a composer, music producer and recording artist I have come to feel disillusioned with the music industry as it is. Releasing music as physical records and digital streams no longer feels special or meaningful since the music publishing landscape has become flooded with seemingly endless new releases every week, owing to the advances in music production software (everyone with a laptop carries a professional recording studio with them). One’s longly crafted labour of love tends to disappear into an “ocean of indifference” the moment it is released, together with millions of other albums; it has no similar cultural importance and resonance as it might have had, say, in the 1960s and 70s when popular music was still young, novel and often charged with ideological undertones, helped by breakthroughs in the recording and sound production technology. The music publishing nowadays has become oversaturated (a counter-argument could also be made for why this could be a good thing, but this is not the subject of this essay), and the music no longer occupies a central or cohesive narrative in our culture, in my opinion.

It is against this scenario that I have come to find site-specific artworks, like music created for a specific space and duration, very appealing, exciting and meaningful. It is the nature of their exclusivity (inclusive to all who come to visit them), uniqueness and temporality, combined with architecture, environment and social function, that makes them feel special and useful – compared with the “ocean of indifference” of all those records stacked in record stores or the endless streaming of digital files. In site-specific pieces, it is not about one’s artistic work existing and drifting in isolation in an obscure world of internet clouds and distant servers (as one might describe online publishing), but the work is rooted in the actual reality and life through the physical space it is exhibited in: the architecture, the environment and the social function of the space all become extension of the work, and the work is woven into the fabric of everyday life; it acquires a practical function. It becomes locally meaningful, instead of globally meaningless. And since I always thought I would become an architect or geologist instead of a sound artist – had sound and music not held such captivating fascination later on – it feels artistically and intellectually rewarding to be able to address the notions of space and the built and natural environment in a piece of music. One feels as if designing a new kind of space and its functionality, as well as learning about the surrounding environment, when making a site-specific composition.

Along with this shift from recorded music toward site-specific compositions, a different kind of compositional process and representation from that of the recorded music has begun to interest me and become part of my work over the years: generative music. I have described the concept of generative music in this essay, but in short, it is music that, once set in motion, will go on to create itself over time, evolving from the rules and parameters defined by the composer and/or a system (usually a set of computer algorithms). It is in this sense closer to the idea of life and complex systems such as cities and ecosystems than fixed pieces of art like paintings or packaged products like musical records. And it is this very idea of lifelikeness that fascinates me most: complexity emerging from simpler elements interacting, structures changing and evolving in self-organizing (often random or probabilistic) fashion, and each occasion unfolding in unique and ephemeral manner. Whereas recorded music aims to reproduce itself uniformly on each play, generative music produces a variation or a completely new version of itself throughout each playback, making it resemble live music where each performance is often more or less unique, varying from one to another. And like with the site-specific art, this uniqueness and temporality[1] is what makes generative music acquire a more meaningful and interesting quality to me, in contrast with the traditional music publishing; like a river, it exhibits a consistent character yet it is always changing – it is in a constant process of renewal, of becoming.

[1] A generative composition can in theory continue infinitely, depending on the set parameters, but since each playback is always different and the elements in the composition keep reconfiguring in a random or semi-random manner throughout the playback, it makes each passage in the composition attain a temporal, unrepeatable quality.


Future Forest Space (2017). Site-specific generative sound installation, Klankenbos, Neerpelt BE. Photo: Gerard Coenen

Electropia I (2015). Site-specific generative sound and light installation, Aalto University, Espoo FI. Photo: Heta Kaisto

Cover image: Rachel Mrosek

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s