Score Study II Is A Generative Braille-Notated Sound Artwork [Artist Q&A]

James Bulley is an artist who works primarily with sound and we’ve featured some of his sonic experimentations previously. Not shy of using unusual sound sources, he’s made music by harvesting the weather and internet activity, and his latest project is equally unconventional.

Called Tactus, it’s a series of artworks for the blind and visually impaired. The second piece in the series is called Score Study II, which generates music in real-time from tactile braille-notated surfaces. As the user runs their fingers over the tactile score, a composition is generated using 16 separate areas of braille, which can each be combined and recombined to create a different composition for every user. The piece explores the idea of haptic, sound-creating surfaces and shows how this medium could be used not just for art, but also as a communicative tool for the blind and visually impaired.

We fired off a few questions to James to find out a bit more about the piece and the ideas behind it.

The Creators Project: How did you come to create this series of artworks?
James Bulley
: The concept for working with tactile, sound generating scores came out of a series of conversations with a friend of mine, Ian, who is a blind musician working with sound. I realised the scarcity of artworks that communicate directly with blind or visually impaired audiences and how vital it is to explore this largely ignored area. The conversations led to a series of experiments combining the haptic and the audible (both based on vibrations, fundamentally), questioning why the sense of touch is almost completely excluded from the conventional experience of artwork. I find it incredible how braille systems have developed globally, through the work of Louis Braille and others, providing thousands of blind and visually impaired with the ability to read and write, and I hope to pay some small tribute to that through these works. The studying of braille systems for music, mathematics and chess, amongst others, was a particular revelation for me!

What were some of the obstacles you faced when creating Tactus?
Numerous. First of all, beginning to learn and understand braille music notation (although I am still certainly a novice). A further challenge was to compose a piece of music which is relatively indeterminate—the user can take any pathway they choose through the score, at any pace they like, meaning that every element of the score must work together (in the case of Score Study II both rhythmically and tonally). This allows each user to create their own version of the composition. On a more technical level, the calibration of the touch sensors, the printing of the score in a durable and legible way, and the physical presentation of the piece were challenges in themselves.

Film by Nick Street

How is the music generated from the braille?
Each braille fragment has a piezo sensor embedded underneath, which triggers a related sound fragment. Around the outside of the score are eight braille notated piano motifs, touch one of these and the exact piano sound of this fragment will play back. Around the inside are eight abstract braille areas (pattern-based and formed from the structure of the score) which trigger abstracted versions of the outer eight braille notated piano motifs (through rhythmical volume enveloping). All of these fragments are linked together by pathways of braille dots that allow the user to navigate from area to area purely by touch.

You’ve said the idea is to create a direct language for the blind and visually impaired—in what ways does the installation do that?
Tactus as a whole is developing all the time, but I have been surprised at how effective Score Study II was at achieving most of the aims that I set out to achieve with Tactus. By removing as many visual aspects to the piece as possible (white print on white canvas), printing on tactile mediums (canvas/puff print) and through the instantaneous and meaningful touch/sound relationship, the piece feels like a step towards the aim of a direct language. Although I feel there is much to be improved upon to create something truly direct. A vital point to note is just how few readers of braille read braille music notation, creating a limitation on who the piece can directly communicate with.

What have the reactions to the piece been like?
The reaction to Score Study II has been great, particularly the feedback from the blind and visually impaired users who experienced the piece at the exhibition [at the London Printworks Trust]. I’m just getting to the end of a series of talks about the work, and in combination with the feedback from the exhibition, they have proven hugely enlightening in the ways that I’m thinking about developing the studies. I’m planning to spend the next few months working towards the next iteration, incorporating different tactile surfaces for different score areas, a much larger score (which actually turned out to be a big limitation in Score Study II), different instruments, and physically different ways of installing the piece (e.g large, landscape, wall-mounted scores).

Image: Nick Street