Sound play

In summary: 
  • Diffuse Season 2 is a sound and music design concert series run by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
  • The performance, Computer Improvisation, on Thursday 21 June will combine software and instruments to create unique sounds

Will computers be able to compose the next Mozart symphony? Perhaps not, “but the notion of computers participating in spontaneous music making with some degree of autonomy is certainly worth exploring,” says classically trained saxophonist turned computer/music improvisation artist, Benjamin Carey.

Photo of Peter Hollo in performancePeter Hollo in performance

The composer and self-proclaimed “technologist” is in the second year of his PhD into developing interactive performance systems for instrumentalists and computers. On Thursday 21 June, Carey, together with fellow enthusiasts Oliver Bown, Aengus Martin and Peter Hollo, will perform some of their oblique compositions as part of Diffuse Season 2.

The second season of the sound and music design concert series has been run by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences since 3 May. It focuses on bringing physical manifestations of often abstract notions of sound and musicality to the wider public.

Curated by the Acting Course Convenor of Sound and Music Design Jon Drummond, the Bon Marche Studio concerts have incorporated and showcased the talents of faculty staff, guest lecturers, collaborators and students in the degree. Carey, who debuted his computer improvisation work in last year’s inaugural season of Diffuse says, “In it’s short life, the Diffuse series has already showcased some really innovative and exciting musical performances, and this year it’s pretty exciting that there’s a entire concert devoted to computer improvisation.”

A specific focus has been placed on his and his fellow musicians' efforts with 'autonomous' musical software agents. So, do the computers have a life of their own? Not quite, says Carey.

“Pieces of software are programed to listen to and analyse an instrumental signal coming into the computer through a microphone input, using these analyses to affect some kind of generative processes running on the machine.

“Some systems aim to model instrumental performance, aiming to faithfully capture the style of the human player in order to collaborate with them in live performance. Other systems use incoming audio as inputs to artificial neural networks, genetic algorithms and various mathematical models used to create surprising and novel musical patterns influenced by the instrumentalist.”

Carey has himself designed a software program, _derivations, which aims to achieve this collaboration. The full results of his work, along with his recent involvement in the Sydney Algorithmic Improviser Hack-Together with his colleagues, will be at the centre of this month’s concert. The 'hack-together' in April brought together programers, composers, scientists and musicians for a three-day collaborative forum surrounding ideas and techniques related to the programing of these concepts into musical computer programs.

“Whatever the method or technique, all of these approaches are driven by the desire to investigate new ways of creating music with computers. In some systems, including my _derivations project, the machine samples the musicians playing live, and recombines and re-contextualises it on-the-fly in performance using audio analysis to relate its performance output to how the instrumentalist is playing at any given moment.”

In other words, it's a giant leap beyond playing against the computer in a game of chess, and more about constructing the entire gameplay, every single move, in an organic collaboration between man and machine.

“Improvisation still poses specific challenges to computer music because of its ability to navigate through uncharted and unexpected musical territories. Programing a computer to be spontaneous yet responsive and musically interesting is a challenge that those involved in interactive music have taken on in earnest.”

One thing is certain for enthusiasts who see Carey perform – you’ll hear the saxophone as you've never heard it before.

Computer Improvisation will be held on Thursday 21 June at 6.30pm in the Bon Marche Studio, building 3, level 1, room 5. For more information, visit


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