The Sounds of Networks and VRMLs

by AKAMATSU Masayuki (assistant professor at IAMAS)

It is no longer necessary for musicians to have a physical space such as a concert hall or street, or solid objects such as CDs or sheet music to ply their trade. With technology developing at such a rapid pace, computers have made it possible to construct virtual spaces on networks that transcend time and physical space. The four works that I would like to introduce are fascinating examples that anyone can visit to discover new areas of expression.

MurMur World

MurMur World is a musical work that was created using VRML (virtual reality modeling language), a computer language that was designed to be used in virtual spaces.

The original idea was to try and capture the smallest unit that makes up music, a molecule-like object, and by using its movement in an interactive manner, create an entire piece of music or sound, which would then become visual and audible in real time. Unfortunately, due to technical limitations, this proved to be impossible, but in the process, MurMur World and A-X-E-S, which I will talk about more later, were created.

MurMur World is a three-dimensional world that is filled with sound-emitting objects, the overall sound of which is altered according to the movements and actions of the user. Some of the objects move according to a set of rules, while others respond according to the clicks of the user.

Specifically, MurMur World is made up of two worlds: an island and a club. On the island, there is a murmuring river, the tide at the beach, the sound of wind blowing across the mountains and the prairie, and the voices of small living creatures such as birds, insects, and frogs. In short, the island is equipped with slightly stereotypical natural sounds. The idea is that by walking around the island, a user can enjoy a variety of sounds.

In sharp contrast, the club is a dome-shaped space with colorful objects strewn around inside of it. Here, a distinct beat reverberates throughout, and a variety of musical phrases and refrains float through the air. With a device that launches the user into the air and a gate device that pounds out breakbeats, the space is designed to be something like a spectacle.
Basically, one can think of the island as a virtual soundscape, and the club as an audio amusement park. But in making this work, we were trying to do more than simply create a sound space. Rather, by placing the principle elements needed to make music in a three-dimensional space, and allowing the space to be reconstructed, we hoped to demonstrate that virtual spaces can lead to new methods of producing and listening to music as well as distributing it. Incidentally, MurMur World received the DEP Award in the VRML division at DEP '97, which was sponsored by Sony Music Entertainment.


Following the success of MurMur World, I organized an exhibition, "infodepot," at Softopia Japan in Gifu Prefecture in March 1998. In contrast to the realistic spaces of MurMur World, the VRML work we showed at the exhibition, "A-X-E-S," was designed to have a geometrical, abstract appearance. In A-X-E-S, a number of cubes revolve slowly as they float through space. As the user approaches, a smaller cube comes out of the cubes and a group of axes appear. The smaller cube is the sound source, and the user's distance from it determines the volume of sound. Naturally, no sound is audible at the greatest distance. The axis of the sound source also moves independently.

Although I must admit that the grain is quite large in comparison, the sound production method in A-X-E-S was inspired by Granular Synthesis; in the sense that the sound grains are positioned in space, and the overall sound is determined by the individual movements performed by all of the grains. Each of the grains have short, abstract sounds, but by assembling these like a puzzle and moving them, a faint melody, rhythm, or sound texture is created.

Another special feature of A-X-E-S is that it was designed as a multi-user space. In other words, a number of users can occupy the same virtual space at the same time. Each user's actions are visible to the others, and can affect the other users. In addition, at the exhibition A-X-E-S was set up with four machines in a circle, creating an odd situation in which a number of virtual spaces overlap in a physical space. Although the users exist in the same real physical space, each of them are able to occupy individual spaces and execute movements freely in the virtual space. For example, if to one user a sound is heard from the front, the same sound may emanate from the back for another user. The sounds in a virtual space are woven together from a variety of positions, but the fact that they are all mingling together in the same physical space is what makes A-X-E-S so interesting in an exhibition setting.


In addition to A-X-E-S, SoundExplorer and WorldRemix, two works that are in sharp contrast to each other,were shown at the "infodepot" exhibition.

SoundExplorer is a work that relies greatly on KAWASAKI Yoshihiro, a familiar participant in various Xebec events, for its sound, and is an introduction to the artist's attitudes toward sound and environments.

The mains for this work are mics that are positioned at five sites around the world, where they pick up environmental sounds and transmit them in real time over the Internet. In other words, a user can choose a street in Paris, a train station in Tokyo, a dense forest on Yakushima, a farm in Hokkaido, or a resort area in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and hear exactly what sounds are going on at any time in a distant place. By using a number of machines, it is also possible to hear the sounds of these various areas simultaneously. Attempts have been made in the past to transmit the sounds of remote places live, but SoundExplorer is different in the sense that this is not a special event. As long as you have access to an Internet environment, you can listen to these sounds whenever and wherever you like. SoundExplorer exists to make audio telepresence a given.

In addition, SoundExplorer also contains a quiz-style program with sounds recorded at various sites around the world, and one composed of travel sounds recorded throughout Japan from Osaka to Hakodate. Besides the sounds and environments, what sets SoundExplorer apart is that these essential elements are expressed in the clearest and simplest form over the Internet.

World Remix

While SoundExplorer is a work that encompasses the definitive perceptions of a sound artist, WorldRemix emits the sounds of the world without concern for fidelity or order. The first version of WorldRemix was first shown at Xebec in 1997. For the current version, I developed a new apparatus and added more powerful features.

In this revised WorldRemix, a search robot rifles through the sound files of servers throughout the world. The locations of the sounds that it finds are stored in a database. When a user accesses WorldRemix, a sound is chosen randomly from the database, and in time is replaced by other sounds. In this way, WorldRemix is like a radio broadcast that randomly selects and roughly mixes the world's sounds--unfamiliar sounds arrive, and unconnected sounds are continually dispersed and collected.

WorldRemix makes it clear that there are an infinite number of sounds all over the world that can be accessed, but which we've never heard of. Despite the fact that these are accessible, even if we know what the sound is, it is not always possible to hear it. And even with the robot search, there is no guarantee that it will be impartial. It becomes evident that the information on the Internet, which at first glance appears to global, is in fact very unevenly distributed.

In this article, I have introduced four of my works that use virtual spaces and computers networks to formulate sound or music. To get a better idea of them, I suggest you try and experience them for yourself by accessing the URLs listed below. There are also many other ambitious projects in a variety of fields outside of music that are constantly being introduced on computer networks. I hope you will undertake some explorations of your own.

Links: MurMur World by Masayuki Akamatsu & Atsushi Shinjoh

A-X-E-S by Masayuki Akamatsu & Atsushi Shinjoh

WorldRemix by Masayuki Akamatsu with IAMAS Sound and Network Seminar

infodepot by Global Media Forum

AKAMATSU Masayuki Profile:
Akamatsu creates music- and computer-based software and media works with a special emphasis on the creation of autonomous environments in which the work itself is functional as well as interactive. He is also active in a variety of solo and group performance projects, and as a technical writer. Among his works are the sound installations "soundtronics field" and "WorldRemix," the live performance series "ManMade," and the books, Multimedia Programming, and Magical MAX Tour. At present, he is an assistant professor at the International Academy of Media Arts and Sciences (IAMAS).

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