The Desktop as Therapy

Earlier this year, I went through a break up and found myself trying to cope in a variety of ways, which often entailed the use of technology. I journaled both physically and digitally, which helped me organized my thoughts. I also spend a lot of my time perusing the internet for psychology articles and videos, which I often try to relate to my personal life. Most importantly, I used video chat frequently to reach out to a number of friends, helping me establish a supportive network when I am away from home.
My interior landscape video consists of all of these elements: digital journaling, video calling, youtube psychology videos, and online psychology articles. The audio is taken from my part of a conversation that I was having with a dear friend of mine. The audio from my voice primarily drives the narrative of the video, which is about what I’ve learned from my past relationship and unpacking my more toxic behaviors from my childhood and my relationship to my parents. The narrative is not too abstracted but it doesn’t the traditional format of exposition, conflict and resolution; rather, it provides glimpses into my emotional state in regards to how I work through an emotional issue.
 My piece was influenced by Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg’s short film Noah in that it explores the digital space as a medium for romance and heartbreak. The audio looping and effects were used minimally to enhance certain phrases for thematic purposes, which was partly influenced by Pamela Z’s Geekspeak. The desktop is a deeply personal space in the sense that I use it to journal in private and to scavenger for pieces of self help, but it is also an intimate space in which I deeply connect with those I care about.

Dialtones, an unpredictable symphony

Golan Levin’s Dialtones: A Symphony, a concert performance that utilizes mobile phone ringtones from the audience members, explores the various aspects of unpredictability in music composition. In the performance, up to 60 telephones are called upon by the performers, generating an orchestra of ringtones. Dialtones balances control and chance; while Levin and fellow performers are able to target which cell phones will be dialed, only two-thirds of the phones are able to play back specific ringtones as decided by the performers. Levin did not have control over the ringtones of the other third of phones; this unpredictability was accounted for in the composition.

In an interview with Peter Traub, Levin acknowledges the similarities between his work and John Cage’s approach to chance, but he is clear in how the two approaches differ:

I think the main difference in our attitude was that Cage was responding to overdetermined 20th-century compositional forms by trying to inject some vital unpredictability and variability, while the Dialtones project was trying to wrangle an extremely complex and inherently unpredictable communications system into some semblance of order

By anticipating different complexities of cell phone technologies, Levin was conscious of what he could and couldn’t control in the composition. These complexities included the delay between the dialing and receiving of phone calls, network failures, audience interference, and variability in control of ringtones (as mentioned earlier).


Although Dialtones was performed nearly two decades ago now, it still seems like a highly relevant performance in the context of today’s technological world. It’s a performance that tries to make sense of our complex and interconnected technologies and systems without trying to completely control every element of the system. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the work that we are doing in class in which we are trying to make sense of our digital spaces by exploring various aspects beyond its intended use. Both are a creative explorations of complex and interconnected technological systems.

Geekspeak with Pamela Z

Pamela Z, a composer and media artist, is known for her experimental approach to sound and music composition that entails sampling, looping, and signal processing. She often combines this in real time performance with her own live vocal processing, creating hauntingly complex and mesmerizing works of music and sound art.

Her piece Geekspeak contains audio interviews about the meaning of being a geek. These interviews are strategically composed through loops, layers, and fragments in a way that embodies the idea of geekiness. She begins with a series of repeated phrases, looped and overlaid in a dense fashion; the phrases “bit bot byte”, “operating system,” and “originally written as 32-bit able” are played over and over in a dizzying cascade.

It’s then suddenly interrupted with another phrase: “—the basic simple definition of a geek—“ and then the piece is interrupted again before sentence is finished. Another phrase follows “I don’t know how to articulate it really but” and then is interrupted again, this time with a very repetitious fragment of the word “I.” Her sampling of the word “I” is clever, as it captures the nuances of language patterns found in geek speak.

Throughout the piece, Z also captures different aspects of geek speak. There are snippets of more colloquial terms that are less technical, but are nonetheless still used by geeks.  ““You’re gonna be toast”, “I’d be pretty much be toast”, and “when you get the math wrong, you’d be toast” are played back to back, slightly overlapping each other.

More technical phrases are used, but with less fragmentation:

“Didn’t have the ability handle 32-bit data pass in the rom—sorry the machine’s had the ability to handle it before the operating system did and then eventually had to go back and write and operating system to see X where you have to be buy a little enabler patch 32-bit mode…”

Geekspeak captures the essence of geekiness with its compositional methods. Z splices colloquial speech into overlapping bits, we understand here that geekiness is more than just being technical, it’s a habit of speech. Smaller fragments capture the nuanced patterns of speech, and technically phrases are either looped in a dense dizzying fashion or given more time to breathe within the piece. It’s compositionally reminiscent of Edgard Varese’s Poeme Electronique in that it uses pauses and buildups in an compositionally evocative way; the compositional methods enhance the content and meaning found in the audio interview samples used in Geekspeek.

Fragments, errors, and overlaps: glitch art with jonCate

jonCate’s BOLD3RRR begins with a starkly contrasted screen recording and a voice over monologue performed lived:

“I want to reflect on real time. I want to reflect on real time renderings. I want to reflect on real time renderings across international time zones in fragments, errors, and overlaps. I want to play with recursivities. These feedback loops merge personal data and swim in associative forms from Chicago to Taipei to Boulder and back again”

As he speaks, the screen switches from various computer applications, to a live webcam recording of his face, to different social media feeds. It’s an interesting choice of images that accompany his voice over. Perhaps this is what Cate’s is referring to when he mentions personal data in his voice over. Periodically, throughout BOLD3RRR, Cate’s will commentate on the actions that are occurring within the computer.

“Skype call begins. Skype switch to share screen, applause.”

After six minutes, previously recorded phrases of jonCate’s voice over begin to loop and overlap on top of one another, the resulting recording becomes increasingly obfuscated. A lot is happening simultaneously here. While jonCate’s narrates some of the computer actions, some of the occurrences in the recorded video are explicitly what jonCate’s wants to reflect on: fragments, errors and overlaps.  All of this is, as Cate’s had said, in real time. It’s a blend of computer interactions (driven by jonCate), voice over, and live video processing–all of which are interacting with each other in tandem.

3:00 from jonCate’s BOLD3RRR

In his interview with Randall Packer, Cate’s describes the purpose behind his aesthetic:

“they are part of our lives, + that embeddedness has the word bed in there, we are in bed w/ them also, so they’re embedded in ways that are complex. they are not sterile, they’re imperfect, they are not clean, b/c they exist in the world, which is also imperfect. + so, i do believe that d1Ɍ+y̶ ̶N̶3WWW_M3DI as a way of lyfe + as an approach to artmaking is a way of foregrounding these faxxx, these realities, of our lived exxxperiences, + acknowledging how situated we all are w/ all of these systems, + artifacts that we have made, unmade && remade together.”

The glitchiness and the haphazardness of BOLD3RRR is, in a sense, a reflection of our real world, which has become entangled and inseparable from our digital world. jonCate’s pushes the imperfections of his digital work, which he describes as dirty new media, to embody his belief that our lived experiences are situated within a technological realm. jonCate’s subverts technology to capture the inseparable link between our digital and lived experiences.

Why study the history of experimental music?

Composer and sound artist John Cage once wrote in History of Experimental Music in the United States:

“Why, if everything is possible, do we concern ourselves with history (in other words with a sense of what is necessary to be done at a particular time?” And I would answer, “In order to thicken the plot.”

Cage’s engagement with the history of music enabled him to think critically and intellectually about how to push the boundaries of music. For example, he pioneered a compositional approach called indeterminacy, in which the musician “reading” the music can interpret and perform the original written piece in an infinite number of ways. Cage’s approach is built upon a prior knowledge of other avant-garde artists, such as Edgard Varese.

It was Varese, who in 1936, imagined sound and new music beyond the boundaries of music as it was understood. He wrote in The Liberation of Sound:

“From Perspectives on New Music New Instruments and New Music When new instruments will allow me to write music as I conceive it, taking the place of the linear counterpoint, the movement of sound-masses, of shifting planes, will be clearly perceived… There will no longer be the old conception of melody or interplay of melodies. The entire work will be a melodic totality. The entire work will flow as a river flows.”

Varese was describing a type of music that was not defined by notes or traditional rhythms.

As a student who has not had any exposure to the history of experimental music, I find Cage’s reasoning for studying the history of music to be continually relevant in my approach to experimental music. In today’s age where nearly any form of digital art is accessible within a click, context is often lost. I have heard experimental music before, but I didn’t have a particular appreciation for it. But understanding why and how Cage and Varese were trying to break away from the traditions of sound and composition has given me a greater appreciation and sense of intent, especially with using programs such as Max, where I have yet to use a conventional piano keyboard, a sheet of music, or even a grid that would be commonly found in many digital application. Sound has indeed been liberated according to the vision of Varese.

Prior to concerning myself with the history of experimental music, sound was simply just noise without a context. But even sound itself, does not need to be defined as something inherently musical. Learning about sound artists such as Bill Fontana and Janet Cardiff has expanded my understanding of how sound can and could be used.

In an interview with Peter Traub from Networked Music Review Fontana described:

Besides the physical differences between sound in the air and vibrations in solids and underwater, most people find their everyday acoustic worlds hidden by lack of attention, and iTunes. I wish to bring these hidden aspects to the foreground.

Fontana wants people to appreciate sounds as they are found in the natural environments. He believes that sound has taken a secondary role to music. Understanding Fontana’s work has evoked me to take the time to simply listen to the sounds in my surroundings and to think about them or think about how they could be employed.

Bill Fontana recording sound from a large hadron collider. Credit: Ars Electronica

Cardiff’s use of sound in her audio walks has challenged me to think about how sounds could be employed. She describes her work:

…the sound of my footsteps, traffic, birds, and miscellaneous sound effects that have been pre-recorded on the same site as they are being heard. This is the important part of the recording. The virtual recorded soundscape has to mimic the real physical one in order to create a new world as a seamless combination of the two.

Learning from Cardiff’s work has taught me to think about sound as a virtual experience. As something that can transport a listener to a different place or time.

While I’m still an early student of experimental music, concerning myself with the history experimental music, past and present, has certainly “thickened the plot.” Whether it’s exploring music beyond the conventional notion of music or employing sound to impact the listener in a particular manner, sounds and the creation of sounds are not just arbitrary, but are done with intent.