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sound toys : Fusion Flows
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Fusion Flows: Sound Toy Gallery
Sound and image merge in two interactive experiences that turn you into the composer
by Angus Leech

Editor's note: To visit the interactive Sound Toys Gallery to which this editorial refers, check out the flash version of Issue 15: FLOW.

Toying with Interactive Sound
What's the definition of a "sound toy"? In search of a precise meaning, HorizonZero turned to the highly popular and critically acclaimed Soundtoys.net [http://www.soundtoys.net], an online project gallery and text journal created in 1998 by the UK's Steve Tanza [www.turbulence.org/curators/media2/stanza.htm] for the purpose of exploring interactive sound play and audio/visual recombination on the Web. As Tanza explains on the site:

Sound toys may take the form of art, games, generative music, interactive environments, shockwave movies, etc. They could be described as "new audio visual experiences", or multimedia experiments which explore the parameters of our new media world. They might be described as the fusion of audio and visual output through new technologies made available for the Internet...The synthesis of the visual to the audio is increasingly becoming a central issue in the development of interactive media on the Web.

Given this admittedly rather broad definition, it seems apropos to suggest that the best way to understand sound toys, and the range of audiovisual experience they can represent, is to play with them (preferably as often as possible). Soundtoys.net provides the opportunity to engage with many user friendly audio art experiences, while a quick survey of Database Audio [http://www.databaseaudio.co.uk] (an essential resource page aimed at electronic musicians and sound artists as a sort of clearing house for open source music tools, toys, and instruments) sees this synthesis of the audio and the visual branching out into a much more complex array of sonic interfaces, composition toys and software, organic sound environments, drum machines, sequencers and mixers, virtual instruments, MIDI controllers, synthesizers, ambient music generators, song structure visualization tools, sound and image warpers, cut-up machines, audiovisual sculptures - the list of permutations seems virtually endless.

For those who like to read as well as play, Vancouver-based writer and media artist Jim Andrews has published several comprehensive essays on the topic of sound toys, including 2001's NIO and the Art of Interactive Audio for the Web [www.soundtoys.net/a/indexa.html] and a more recent article for the Trace Online Writing Centre entitled Interactive Audio for the Web. [http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/Review/index.cfm?article=80] Andrews coins the term "Vismu" (visual music) to describe the kind of recombinatory fusion of visual, sonic, musical, textual, and interactive elements that he and other artists have been exploring in recent years. See his Web site [http://www.vispo.com] for some poetic examples.

In the sense that they seem to follow Andrews' stated intention to "synthesize and transform image, sound, and text, not simply juxtapose them", the two original interactive audio toys featured here in HorizonZero easily fit his definition of "vismu". They also correspond with Andrews' idea that the most interesting sound toys generally represent "unfinished" sound works that invite the user to complete them. Rather than simply trying to replicate "real world" instruments, virtual instruments and audio toys tend to work best when they offer the user a collection of highly evolved audio materials (loops, phrases, layers of sound) as well as visual elements (light paintings, transformable images, rhythmic objects) that can all be "played" together as a joint audio/visual improvisation. "One needs to discover the 'phenomenology' (or unique characteristics and possibilities) of the media/um/tools," he explains, "rather than turn it into some other previously existing media/um/tool."

The Business Contact
Paul Ortchanian is a Montreal-based artist whose creations have appeared on www.reflektions.com and the award-winning, first-of-a-kind interactive music album Invivo [http://www.freeset.ca/loco] by Quebec hip hop group Loco Locass. Ortchanian's work typically explores the narrative possibilities of merging visual metaphor, text, responsive sound, and interactivity on the Web, and his piece for HorizonZero entitled The Business Contact follows this lead in an audio-centric vein. Also featuring artistic contributions from musician Kirk Starkey [www.kirkstarkey.com] and graphic artist Tavish [www.acidtwist.com], the work is loosely inspired by Chapter XIII of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's famous book The Little Prince, in which the Prince discovers a planet inhabited by a busy Businessman. They have a conversation that illuminates the difference between owning and being useful or serviceable to the things we own. The Businessman thinks that he is rich because he owns all the stars, yet he exhausts his time counting his wealth, and has no time left to enjoy it. In contrast, the Little Prince must take care of his possessions. Yet his attempts to convince the businessman to mend his ways fall on deaf ears. The Business Contact pays homage to the tone of the original dialogue by inventing an interactive musical arrangement of electronic and cello-based sound loops that emotionally interpret the conversation. By interacting with the piece, helping a very serious man at a desk collect passing stars, the user creates a sound composition while also invoking a sympathetic symphony of moral/aural criticism. The experience both subtly mimics and de-linearizes the narrative arc of the original story.

Par Avion
The other brand new sound toy experience featured in this space is Par Avion, a collaborative work created by Jenny San Martin and Leonard Paul. Jenny San Martin is HorizonZero's resident Interactive Designer, and her artwork can also be seen at www.jennysanmartin.com. Leonard Paul has a ten year history in video game audio coding and composing, and as a professional musician and composer has worked in theatre, dance, video games, interactive media, and film (see http://lotusaudio.com). Par Avion sees these artists exploring the theme of musical and cultural flows intermixing in an ambient world music ballet that invokes the poetics of flight and international travel, and the sounds of our national cultural mosaic remixed in electronic form.

Canadian Shout Outs
If sound toys have become a popular trend internationally, appearing on Web sites devoted to everything from avant garde composers to MTV, then it ought to be noted that, in addition to the artists mentioned above, Canada has produced some notable contributors in the field. Montreal's James Patterson [www.presstube.com] and New York's Amit Pitaru [www.pitaru.com] have joined forces as Insert_Silence [www.insertsilence.com] to create amazing artworks convolving audio and visuals - their pieces Scrubber [www.insertsilence.com/scrubber] and 222 [www.insertsilence.com/222] are two shining examples. Brad Todd [www.mobilegaze.com/zero] is a Montrealer who hails originally from Alberta, and whose audiovisual work hearing loss can be found on Soundtoys.net. The wonderful remix machines of Clock Din (aka Gord High from St. Catherines Ontario) can be found at www.clockdin.com and on CBC's Zed TV. [http://zed.cbc.ca/go.ZeD?CONTENT_ID=1009&FILTER_KEY=515289&page=content] These are just a few of the worthy Canadian artists working in this field today.

Additional International Links

Bong + Dern


Carbonated Jazz


http://electrica.leonid.de/cgi-bin/index.cgi (link no longer active)

The IBM Glass Engine


LFO (Warp Records)

NIO (Jim Andrews)


Amit Pitaru


Hans Reichel

Repeat to Fade





Stanza (Steve Tanza, UK)

Virtual Theremin

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