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New Cinema: Creating A Sound Environment From The Cosmic Soup

New Cinema: Creating A Sound Environment From The Cosmic Soup

Alan Watts, one of my favorite philosophers, has a great quote about nothingness and sound that goes:

“Most of us assume as a matter of common sense that space is nothing, that it’s not important and has no energy. But as a matter of fact, space is the basis of existence. How could you have stars without space? Stars shine out of space and something comes out of nothing, just in the same way as when you listen, in an unprejudiced way, you hear all sounds coming out of silence."

It’s from the internet so maybe he never said it, though that would hardly matter since it’s just a story, something to get you thinking. You might be thinking about how our own planet came out of space, out of nothing, out of the Big Bang. And none of it matters, really, if we’re not here to experience it, to make it our own, to enjoy it. Without us there to feel it, this whole earth business—is it even here? Some would posit that this is exactly why we can do whatever we like with this planet, there is pie in the sky when you die and all that, but… we make the weather.

In an effort to embody the dynamic between humans and our environment, for the New Cinema hackathon, my team came up with the idea of a virtual environment that is generated by the participant. As my teammate Karolina Sobecka said in her post, breathing worked well for us since its on the threshold of voluntary and involuntary action, a mix of nature and free will. If your breath is intense; thunder claps roll out, if it is long; wind starts to pick up, and everything in between.

I turned to Andy Farnell’s (aka Obiwannabe) excellent tutorials in creating sounds for games. Obiwannabe explains how to make sounds for everything from fire to tea kettles to a rainy day.

Obiwannabe suggests we ask ourselves what the nature of rain is—“According to the lyrics of certain shoegazing philosophies it’s ‘Always falling on me’, but that is quite unhelpful. Instead, consider that it is nearly spherical particles of water of approximately 1-3mm in diameter moving at constant velocity, impacting with materials unknown at a typical flux of 200 per second per meter squared.”

Right. Now how do you portray that with sound? Well, you start with white noise and a low pass filter. After further manipulations, you will need a listener. If rain falls in a simulation and there is no one listening, does it make a sound?

Obiwannabe outlines how to filter noise to make it into a whole variety of sounds from pings to crackles. After three days at the hackathon, I began seeing the entire world around me as a collection of noise generators with varying frequencies chipped away. The difference between a tea kettle and the resonating dome of the sky is a series of band pass filters. I waxed poetic at the thought that the multitude of creation can be simulated out of a single, undifferentiated mass, like the cosmic soup in the wake of the big bang.

Incidentally, the “bang” is the most basic element (or atom) of Pure Data (Pd), the open source and pleasantly anarchic programming environment in which the piece was made. Pd’s language structure is based on the experience of making physical synthesizers with oscillators and patch chords, hence its appearance and the reason something made in it is called a “patch.” While Pd is a multi-purpose programming environment, it was originally developed to program sound.


Yuditskaya at the New Cinema hackathon, testing out the sound environment she developed for We Make The Weather.

“Generative music” was supposedly a term coined by Brian Eno as music that is generated by a system that is ever different and changing. We Make the Weather is a reactive generative system, as it depends on the participant to determine its composition. When the participant breathes into the microphone, We Make the Weather uses an object from the RjDj library called “a_breath” to analyze the breath. It puts an envelope on the incoming waveform and does some smoothing algorithms to infer the length and intensity of a breath.

If you are interested in reactive music, check out the RjDj library, it has many great objects that take user input and allow you to make your own reactive sonic experiences.

I found it unexpected but not surprising that Tarot and media art share the idea that the interpretation of randomness by a human medium will reveal some inherent truth about existence. Here the medium is the participant, modulating a field of white noise that is randomness to create a weather system and ambient sound that is the cinematic soundtrack and, the world.

Take further action with the code itself here.