Kabbalistic Synthesizer, a ‘sonification’ of live macrocosmic phenomena

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Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer, 2015. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Science fiction films (with a few notable exceptions such as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey) often show rockets and spaceships exploding loudly in outer space. Yet, there's no noise in empty space. What we call "sound" is actually vibrations in the air.

In a similar way but with more scientific backing, Sam Conran, a recent graduate from the Design Interactions course at the RCA, has been looking at the 'sonification' of live macrocosmic phenomena that are actually not producing any sound. The result of his research is the Kabbalistic Synthesizer, a fully functioning prototype that uses the combination of electric signals in order to simultaneously synthesises variations in the Earth's magnetic field with cosmic rays and Jupiter's magnetic storms.

The device is comprised of a Helmholtz Coil and Magnetometer to create a uniform magnetic field and read local variations in the Earth's magnetic field; an 18 tube drift hodoscope to detect cosmic rays and their trajectory from other galaxies; a fractal reflector and loop antennae mounted on a robotic base that tracks Jupiter or the Sun and picks up magnetic storms coming from these celestial bodies. These instruments can be modulated from a control panel.

The project has ultimately been a quest to understand sound design as a gnostic utility and fundamental precedent to the way we might interact and value our environments..


Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer

Hi Sam! Why do you think it was important to speculate on sounds that don't exist? What guided your design of these sounds?

I guess being what, I am I have a relationship with sounds that don't exist - that's maybe why it's important for me, I'm passionate about exploring sound design that changes perceptions in real life as opposed to just on screen. My project was guided by this and an example called 'the Singing Comet' is useful. This was a sound that went viral and was the main talking point of the ESA Philae mission in the media.

What's interesting is the way the sound was portrayed in relation to the science and the aesthetic relationship the designer made to film sound. We all have this collective idea of what space sounds like which is guided by the big sound designers and the first filmic experiences of space - I think what the singing comet demonstrates through its success is the desire we have for space to be animistic as opposed to a vacuous dead zone. What guided my design approach was the way this sound had been pushed into the world as being real. The sound of the singing comet was designed and made by compressing data from days into seconds and mapping this to parameters of effects within some sound software.

I personally thought it would be nice to focus on the idea of creating real sounds and real time relations that we can perceive in relation to our own perception of time - not compressed and not stretched. As a result, the only parts of which I can say I have designed are the ways in which the user of the synthesizer can play and manipulate the raw inputs - the rest is process. It has been more about the pulling together of already present techniques for monitoring these phenomena than designing sounds to fit them. The sounds are not being determined by me but the ways in which they are listened to, which is guided by these processes.

The radio telescope is a noise input receiving raw noise coming from the cosmos and Jupiter/Sun noise emissions at 21mhz. The Magnetometer is translating real-time 'micro Tesla' fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field to a process called FM Synthesis, an already existing theory of natural sound synthesis invented by John Chowning in 1973 (Stanford department of AI). The Cosmic Ray detector doesn't make sound at all but is acting as a random event generator - as the arrival of cosmic rays are truly random I liked the idea of using them to trigger processes on the other sounds, like a keyboard on a traditional synth. 

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Helmholtz Coil and Magnetometer. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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18 tube drift Hodoscope. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Jovian Receiver 21.1mhz and Fractal Loop Antennae. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

How much of the technology already existed and how much have you had to develop yourself to create these 3 instruments?

The technology for all the devices was already invented but it's not off the shelf. Each device was designed and hand built, needing a lot of help in the end to produce. I have not read physics so the process has relied on many generous people at Imperial Blackett Lab and online. There was a lot of googling. 

I was also curious about the reasons behind your choice of phenomena to explore: why magnetic storms, cosmic ray, the Earth's magnetic field? What did you find particularly interesting?

I ended up replacing the usual functions of a synthesizer; noise - signal and operator/keyboard with object-based experiments that could replace these. In the Synth the noise is coming from the radio telescope the signal is coming from the Helmholtz Coil/fluxgate and the Keyboard is operated by the Cosmic Ray detector. There is no real reason beyond that - they are all fascinating phenomena and I became aware of some strange theories about the Earth's magnetic field along the way but it wasn't my intention to sign post anything like that. During the show that's something I had to be clear about - this is a synth that takes raw inputs and allows you to adjust, play and filter the outputs, in the end its all about the theatricality of the sound and its source and how that changes our perception.

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Calibrating the magnetometer. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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View of the installation at the work in progress show, Royal College of Art. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Are you planning to expand the project and work on other macrocosmic phenomena?

I am looking into ways in which I can streamline it, make it more portable. I would like to get it to a stage where I can start to collaborate with it, the synth outputs a standard control voltage so the cosmic rays could be used with other modular systems. I think next steps is to have all the software self contained in the synth. I'm trying to figure out the best way to do this at the moment.

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Research phase at Imperial College. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

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Development of the project. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Your work is called Kabbalistic Synthesizer. I get the Synthesizer part but why Kabbalistic? Why introduce this element of esoterism in the work?

Kabbalistic is a very loaded word, but I feel it could not be anything else. The name was the starting point, it came before the project had begun to develop and has stuck all the way. It fits the process which definitely on the technical side of things has pushed me into a new world - It's inherently esoteric if you're not a proper physicist I think. It's how I've felt all this year. The name also fulfills a role as a brand name for the device, everyone can relate to that I think - it frames the synth as a product. Hooking into the macrocosmic through sound is quite desirable I discovered. A lot of people during the RCA show approached it as a genuine attempt at innovation. 

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Cosmic noise. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

One of the final paragraphs in the Creative Applications article about your project says: 'The Kabalistic Synthesizer is an alchemists approach to sound making and ultimately a project that seeks to understand and debate the psycho-social implications that could occur when science is experienced/accessed through a commercial medium and how 'sonification' can be combined with the synthesizer to access and objectify the unknown.' Could you explain with more details the bit about "the psycho-social implications that could occur when science is experienced/accessed through a commercial medium"? What did you mean by that?

What i'm trying to get across is really summed up in the comments section of the singing comet recording. I intended the project and its sounds to provide a kind of critical ambience to think about design strategies that might incorperate mindfulness through immersive/hedonistic tech. I'M A BIG FAN OF THIS BTW.

Do the instruments function in any type of place, environment and condition? What are the best conditions for the instruments?

The best time and place would be up a mountain during a solar storm. 

At the show, you mentioned that you were going to do some performances with the instruments? Where will this happen? And what is a performance like? Do you just let the instruments pick up and create the sound or do you actually intervene and modulate them for example?

I'm doing a performance on the 8th August at Wilderness Festival; it's a show and tell as a backdrop to a talk by John Thackara about "ways of knowing and monitoring the environment in real-time as the starting point for a new economy". I'm hoping to get good signals as its in a forest outside of London - I will play with what's there, have a listen. It's all dependent on what's picked up and then there are the controls that make it more of a performance, its a lot like tuning a radio, you can dial in.

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Sam Conran, Kabbalistic Synthesizer, 2015. Image courtesy of Sam Conran

Thanks Sam!

You can listen to some of the sounds produced by the synthesizer on soundcloud.

Question about EEG (Mindflex) and the HC06 bluetooth adapter

Hello!

I followed this inscrutable: http://www.instructables.com/id/Mindflex-EEG-with-raw-data-over-Bluetooth/

It is an awesome way to see some raw EEG data for only about $20-$25!!

The only problem I'm having is getting the same serial data over to processing in order to do my own data manipulation. Im pretty familiar with both processing and arduino, so It was pretty easy to set up the serial connection and set the baud rate to 57600 which is what the HC06 module outputs. I've searched up and down everywhere and I can't find any projects that connect the mindflex directly to processing via the HC06 bluetooth serial adapter. It is always done through the arduino.

So in my sketch I very simply set the serial baud rate to 57600, and tried println'ing the data to the console, but it always comes out as gibberish. I've tried everything I can think of from changing the baud rate, to trying to see the data via arduino serial monitor (also comes out as the same gibberish), to outputting it as a string (myport.readString), but also as a char, int and byte. It always comes out as gibberish. Does anybody possibly know how I can get the serial data to come out as serial data instead of gibberish?

Thanks for any help or pointers!

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Data Ontology: James Bridle on secrecy, surveillance, and the limits of knowledge

A new exhibition by writer/artist/publisher/technologist James Bridle, "The Glomar Response," is on view through September 5, 2015 at NOME, Berlin. Here, Bridle discusses the exhibition with Fiona Shipwright.

James Bridle, Fraunhofer Lines 001 (Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program) (2015). Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

The title of the show is "The Glomar Response"—the official term for the response that one can "neither confirm nor deny" a particular fact. What do you find compelling about this term?

What I find so extraordinary about the Glomar Response is its spread. The fact that this thing—which was developed by the CIA at the height of the Cold War to disguise a top-secret operation to retrieve nuclear misses from the bottom of the ocean—is now a standard part of the vernacular of your local council. But it's also interesting because within that response is this kind of deep ambiguity of these knowledge forms; there's the danger of overloading the visible/invisible idea, the notion that "I've made this all transparent and possible for you to understand," because that assumes that it is even possible to do.

That is the underlying basis for these kind of technological forms of knowledge, this kind of data ontology. It's the same principle that surveillance relies on, the idea that "we'll just keep on gathering information, then we'll know for sure," that some absurd level of truth can be reached. At that point the Glomar Response actually almost feels like a kind of honest response to the genuine complexity of the world, that's now undeniable. Or rather it should be undeniable but we keep trying to generate these simplistic stories out of it.

This exhibition is structured around technological investigation, specifically this weird knife-edge between how technology obscures but also reveals—once you have literacy to read it. That balance is something I am constantly fascinated by. The work in in the show is also about limits; whether it's the limits of transparency, the limits of investigation through technological methods, the limits of visualization as means of representing data in a useful way, or the limit of what you can know from data alone, which is kind of the thing that I really want to get into understanding and critiquing.

"Unseen" can just be another word for "overly complex." There's also the question of what form of "unseen" is it? Is it unseen because it's quite literally invisible or is it because it's something that takes on the texture of the rest of the world? Or is it because it's just so deeply embedded into these technologies? Whilst I like the very literal "artness" of throwing paint over the invisible man, making something visible is also just bringing criticality to bear on these things, isolating them and discussing in such a way that means we can actually have a conversation about them.

 

James Bridle, Seamless Transitions (2015). Animation by Picture Plane. Commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery, London.

For Seamless Transitions you used freely available archival material to create architectural visualisations of the "unphotographable" spaces of the UK's immigration detention and deportation apparatus, but they arguably tell far more than any static photographs could. Are we past the point where a "no photos" rule is enough to keep something out of sight?

The subject matter of the Seamless Transitions piece is not even at the highest level of concealment. If I wanted to do the same thing and create visualizations for installations on Diego Garcia [a US military base and one of the geographical subjects of the Waterboarded Documents series, which features water-damaged evidence relating to a CIA black site that may have been used for waterboarding], whilst it would certainly not be impossible because there are satellite images, there wouldn't necessarily be things like the actual architectural floor plans available.

James Bridle, Diego Garcia (Waterboarded Documents 001) (2015). Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de.

But what that makes clear is that the limits to what we can see now are not determined where you can physically get to yourself: it's largely determined by what you're interested in. The thing that's stopping us seeing this stuff is a lack of interest. You can see every point on the earth's surface in Google maps but it still requires someone—either by chance or with a particular interest—to come along and say, "I need this bit" and to make sense of it.

Now you can see everything, what do you want to see? Or conversely, if it's all there, then why haven't we seen this? A lot of my projects are about filling in an image gap where one exists because that usually points to some kind of process of occlusion.

There's one work associated with the show which we don't see displayed: Citizen Ex, a browser extension that maps one's "Algorithmic Citizenship"—how you appear to the internet as a collection of data and the "real" consequences of that. The word "citizenship" often has connotations of democracy and participation, but in your project it has a more ambivalent status. Can you talk more about this?

I am uncomfortable with that aspect of Citizen Ex, for many reasons. I don't want to enact citizenship online. I don't think we should base new forms of identity on the nation state—the project is an articulation of one idea, and whilst it's not the one I necessarily want to see in the world it is a reflection of the way things are being constructed today.

When the question is asked, "why is surveillance is bad?" one of the reasons is because of the limitations it puts on individual expression—and there's no more obvious example of that than how the early net functioned. It allowed one to experiment with one's presentation of self, and that's just being stamped out on the larger platforms where people now operate. Preventing surveillance in the corporate context prevents advertising, targeting and money; that which is necessary for capitalism to function online. And that's the image that we've increasingly built the web in.

Berlin-based writer Fiona Shipwright is an editor of uncube magazine. She can be found on Twitter @edwardiansnow

Data Ontology: James Bridle on secrecy, surveillance, and the limits of knowledge

A new exhibition by writer/artist/publisher/technologist James Bridle, "The Glomar Response," is on view through September 5, 2015 at NOME, Berlin. Here, Bridle discusses the exhibition with Fiona Shipwright.

James Bridle, Fraunhofer Lines 001 (Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program) (2015). Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

The title of the show is "The Glomar Response"—the official term for the response that one can "neither confirm nor deny" a particular fact. What do you find compelling about this term?

What I find so extraordinary about the Glomar Response is its spread. The fact that this thing—which was developed by the CIA at the height of the Cold War to disguise a top-secret operation to retrieve nuclear misses from the bottom of the ocean—is now a standard part of the vernacular of your local council. But it's also interesting because within that response is this kind of deep ambiguity of these knowledge forms; there's the danger of overloading the visible/invisible idea, the notion that "I've made this all transparent and possible for you to understand," because that assumes that it is even possible to do.

That is the underlying basis for these kind of technological forms of knowledge, this kind of data ontology. It's the same principle that surveillance relies on, the idea that "we'll just keep on gathering information, then we'll know for sure," that some absurd level of truth can be reached. At that point the Glomar Response actually almost feels like a kind of honest response to the genuine complexity of the world, that's now undeniable. Or rather it should be undeniable but we keep trying to generate these simplistic stories out of it.

This exhibition is structured around technological investigation, specifically this weird knife-edge between how technology obscures but also reveals—once you have literacy to read it. That balance is something I am constantly fascinated by. The work in in the show is also about limits; whether it's the limits of transparency, the limits of investigation through technological methods, the limits of visualization as means of representing data in a useful way, or the limit of what you can know from data alone, which is kind of the thing that I really want to get into understanding and critiquing.

"Unseen" can just be another word for "overly complex." There's also the question of what form of "unseen" is it? Is it unseen because it's quite literally invisible or is it because it's something that takes on the texture of the rest of the world? Or is it because it's just so deeply embedded into these technologies? Whilst I like the very literal "artness" of throwing paint over the invisible man, making something visible is also just bringing criticality to bear on these things, isolating them and discussing in such a way that means we can actually have a conversation about them.

 

James Bridle, Seamless Transitions (2015). Animation by Picture Plane. Commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery, London.

For Seamless Transitions you used freely available archival material to create architectural visualisations of the "unphotographable" spaces of the UK's immigration detention and deportation apparatus, but they arguably tell far more than any static photographs could. Are we past the point where a "no photos" rule is enough to keep something out of sight?

The subject matter of the Seamless Transitions piece is not even at the highest level of concealment. If I wanted to do the same thing and create visualizations for installations on Diego Garcia [a US military base and one of the geographical subjects of the Waterboarded Documents series, which features water-damaged evidence relating to a CIA black site that may have been used for waterboarding], whilst it would certainly not be impossible because there are satellite images, there wouldn't necessarily be things like the actual architectural floor plans available.

James Bridle, Diego Garcia (Waterboarded Documents 001) (2015). Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de.

But what that makes clear is that the limits to what we can see now are not determined where you can physically get to yourself: it's largely determined by what you're interested in. The thing that's stopping us seeing this stuff is a lack of interest. You can see every point on the earth's surface in Google maps but it still requires someone—either by chance or with a particular interest—to come along and say, "I need this bit" and to make sense of it.

Now you can see everything, what do you want to see? Or conversely, if it's all there, then why haven't we seen this? A lot of my projects are about filling in an image gap where one exists because that usually points to some kind of process of occlusion.

There's one work associated with the show which we don't see displayed: Citizen Ex, a browser extension that maps one's "Algorithmic Citizenship"—how you appear to the internet as a collection of data and the "real" consequences of that. The word "citizenship" often has connotations of democracy and participation, but in your project it has a more ambivalent status. Can you talk more about this?

I am uncomfortable with that aspect of Citizen Ex, for many reasons. I don't want to enact citizenship online. I don't think we should base new forms of identity on the nation state—the project is an articulation of one idea, and whilst it's not the one I necessarily want to see in the world it is a reflection of the way things are being constructed today.

When the question is asked, "why is surveillance is bad?" one of the reasons is because of the limitations it puts on individual expression—and there's no more obvious example of that than how the early net functioned. It allowed one to experiment with one's presentation of self, and that's just being stamped out on the larger platforms where people now operate. Preventing surveillance in the corporate context prevents advertising, targeting and money; that which is necessary for capitalism to function online. And that's the image that we've increasingly built the web in.

Berlin-based writer Fiona Shipwright is an editor of uncube magazine. She can be found on Twitter @edwardiansnow

Data Ontology: James Bridle on secrecy, surveillance, and the limits of knowledge

A new exhibition by writer/artist/publisher/technologist James Bridle, "The Glomar Response," is on view through September 5, 2015 at NOME, Berlin. Here, Bridle discusses the exhibition with Fiona Shipwright.

James Bridle, Fraunhofer Lines 001 (Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program) (2015). Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de

The title of the show is "The Glomar Response"—the official term for the response that one can "neither confirm nor deny" a particular fact. What do you find compelling about this term?

What I find so extraordinary about the Glomar Response is its spread. The fact that this thing—which was developed by the CIA at the height of the Cold War to disguise a top-secret operation to retrieve nuclear misses from the bottom of the ocean—is now a standard part of the vernacular of your local council. But it's also interesting because within that response is this kind of deep ambiguity of these knowledge forms; there's the danger of overloading the visible/invisible idea, the notion that "I've made this all transparent and possible for you to understand," because that assumes that it is even possible to do.

That is the underlying basis for these kind of technological forms of knowledge, this kind of data ontology. It's the same principle that surveillance relies on, the idea that "we'll just keep on gathering information, then we'll know for sure," that some absurd level of truth can be reached. At that point the Glomar Response actually almost feels like a kind of honest response to the genuine complexity of the world, that's now undeniable. Or rather it should be undeniable but we keep trying to generate these simplistic stories out of it.

This exhibition is structured around technological investigation, specifically this weird knife-edge between how technology obscures but also reveals—once you have literacy to read it. That balance is something I am constantly fascinated by. The work in in the show is also about limits; whether it's the limits of transparency, the limits of investigation through technological methods, the limits of visualization as means of representing data in a useful way, or the limit of what you can know from data alone, which is kind of the thing that I really want to get into understanding and critiquing.

"Unseen" can just be another word for "overly complex." There's also the question of what form of "unseen" is it? Is it unseen because it's quite literally invisible or is it because it's something that takes on the texture of the rest of the world? Or is it because it's just so deeply embedded into these technologies? Whilst I like the very literal "artness" of throwing paint over the invisible man, making something visible is also just bringing criticality to bear on these things, isolating them and discussing in such a way that means we can actually have a conversation about them.

 

James Bridle, Seamless Transitions (2015). Animation by Picture Plane. Commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery, London.

For Seamless Transitions you used freely available archival material to create architectural visualisations of the "unphotographable" spaces of the UK's immigration detention and deportation apparatus, but they arguably tell far more than any static photographs could. Are we past the point where a "no photos" rule is enough to keep something out of sight?

The subject matter of the Seamless Transitions piece is not even at the highest level of concealment. If I wanted to do the same thing and create visualizations for installations on Diego Garcia [a US military base and one of the geographical subjects of the Waterboarded Documents series, which features water-damaged evidence relating to a CIA black site that may have been used for waterboarding], whilst it would certainly not be impossible because there are satellite images, there wouldn't necessarily be things like the actual architectural floor plans available.

James Bridle, Diego Garcia (Waterboarded Documents 001) (2015). Photo by Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de.

But what that makes clear is that the limits to what we can see now are not determined where you can physically get to yourself: it's largely determined by what you're interested in. The thing that's stopping us seeing this stuff is a lack of interest. You can see every point on the earth's surface in Google maps but it still requires someone—either by chance or with a particular interest—to come along and say, "I need this bit" and to make sense of it.

Now you can see everything, what do you want to see? Or conversely, if it's all there, then why haven't we seen this? A lot of my projects are about filling in an image gap where one exists because that usually points to some kind of process of occlusion.

There's one work associated with the show which we don't see displayed: Citizen Ex, a browser extension that maps one's "Algorithmic Citizenship"—how you appear to the internet as a collection of data and the "real" consequences of that. The word "citizenship" often has connotations of democracy and participation, but in your project it has a more ambivalent status. Can you talk more about this?

I am uncomfortable with that aspect of Citizen Ex, for many reasons. I don't want to enact citizenship online. I don't think we should base new forms of identity on the nation state—the project is an articulation of one idea, and whilst it's not the one I necessarily want to see in the world it is a reflection of the way things are being constructed today.

When the question is asked, "why is surveillance is bad?" one of the reasons is because of the limitations it puts on individual expression—and there's no more obvious example of that than how the early net functioned. It allowed one to experiment with one's presentation of self, and that's just being stamped out on the larger platforms where people now operate. Preventing surveillance in the corporate context prevents advertising, targeting and money; that which is necessary for capitalism to function online. And that's the image that we've increasingly built the web in.

Berlin-based writer Fiona Shipwright is an editor of uncube magazine. She can be found on Twitter @edwardiansnow