Snowden

Mixed media and performance project

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Snowden is a conceptual framework, the germ of an idea that can help to shape new works and projects. An idea that is at once a response to the monitoring of our online activities and an attempt to create something new and creative from the frameworks of these mechanisms of surveillance.

Like many people I struggled to understand the real-world implications of the revelations made by Edward Snowden during his initial leaks of the metadata collecting activities of the NSA. After all, surveillance of this kind has probably been happening for a while and, if so, my life has been no worse off than before such suspicions were confirmed. I could satisfy myself that I wasn’t giving anyone anything that I considered to be particularly valuable. It wasn’t until several months later, following a change of government and the continued recurrence of media news stories that continued to hark back to the original leaks made by Snowden, that it started to dawn on me the truly awesome significance of the data mining activities of the NSA in 2014.

Monitoring the surrounding metadata of our online activities – the data about data – raises countless questions, and ultimately effect such activities could have on the individual are difficult to ascertain. The temptation is to fall into conspiracy theory, but at the very least we can assume that such data is of some value to someone, somewhere, and we have no say or knowledge as to who that person is. Perhaps we are all too used to, and preoccupied with, uncertainty in our immediate lives following the GFC that we can happily ignore the more vague, poorly defined uncertainty that surrounds the harvesting of metadata by security organisations.

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Iterations:

  • Snowden, for electric guitar and electronics (2014)
  • Snowden (Eyes in the Sky), for bass clarinet and electronics (2014), and for bass clarinet, electric guitar, double bass and electronics (2015)
  • Snowden (Social Network), for 32-channel speaker array (2014)
  • Snowden (Dissent Prevention), for any four acoustic instruments (2015)

 

Snowden, for electric guitar and electronics (2014)

Snowden is a piece for electric guitar, however the guitar is never audible in an unprocessed form. The guitarist plugs the guitar directly into the computer and performs a musical dialogue - scored with conventional notation - which is captured by a microphone, sampling the thin timbres of an unamplifyed electric guitar. The computer monitors his behaviour and extracts information about the component parts of his performance. This metadata – pitch, volume, noise, and brightness - then drives changes in the computers output, creating music built from the relationships of these changes in musical phrasing and content, reprocessing the guitar into a whirring, textural activity, a manifestation of these processes of surveillance.

Ultimately, Snowden uses these systems of surveillance in an affirming way – instead of being used to predict behaviour they are used to create music, simultaneously exposing metadata control systems and harnessing them for the good of creating something new and abstract. The performer is encouraged to perform without any kind of foldback, performing only the notation without concern with what the audience is hearing or how their performance is shaping the music.

Snowden is available in two versions, one lasting 10 minutes and another lasting 20 minutes. Snowden was commissioned by TURA New Music and premiered by Chris Kotchie at Club Zho #110, Perth, Australia, on 19 August 2014.

 

Snowden (Eyes in the Sky), for bass clarinet and electronics (2014) and for bass clarinet, electric guitar, double bass and electronics (2015)

The generation of audio by opening raw data files as sound is a technique I've used in many works, most notably in the Music For Computers (2012) EP. More recently I’ve been using these raw data files to derive pitch and gestural material for acoustic instruments. In Snowden (Eyes In The Sky), web browser data and cache files were opened as audio and then analysed with a spectrogram, resulting in structural and gestural ideas that could be manipulated and notated graphically across the range of the bass clarinet.

What results is music given shape and form by the recorded data of online behaviour. The performer is instructed to shift between different intensities of texture and articulated pitches, as well as to interpret graphical approximations of multiphonic relationships. Throughout the performers mediation of the graphical score, the computer monitors the performer and extracts information about the component parts of their performance. This metadata – pitch, volume, noise, and brightness - governs the electronic output, creating music built from the relationships of these changes in musical phrasing and timbre, creating an electronic manifestation of surveillance to accompany the acoustic performer.

 

The score was created to be read with the use of the Decibel ScorePlayer. 

Snowden (Eyes in the Sky) was commissioned by Dr Lindsay Vickery.  

Snowden (Eyes in the Sky) for bass clarinet and electronics was premiered at ‘Improvising Across Borders’, Mzog, Bydgoszcz, Poland on 20 July, 2014.

Snowden (Eyes in the Sky) for bass clarinet, electric guitar, double bass and electronics was premiered by Lindsay Vickery, Páll Ivan frá Eiðum, and Þorkell Atlason, at Dark Music Days Festival, Reykjavik, 31 January, 2015.

 

Snowden (Social Network), for 32-channel speaker array (2014)

In 2014, I put a call out to a wide variety of friends and colleagues on Facebook with the following instructions: 

Read from your social network profile. Use a clear, steady voice but be as natural with your tone as you like. State your name and the text on your information page. Include work, education, where you live, where you’ve lived, birth date, relationship status, about you, religious and political views, and favourite quotes. Include the title of the section. If no information is provided state ‘not provided’.

Snowden (Social Network) takes these recordings as the basis for much of the musical content in the work. Individual recordings are torn apart in a number of different ways across the work, shifting between obsuring the content to offering a clear-spoken broadcast of their profiles. Fundamentally, Snowden (Social Network) is an experiment in recontextualisation of social media information - what is the effect of taking personal information, willingly provided in one context and repurposing it in the medium of performance.

Snowden (Social Network) also marks my first adventure into the world of wave terrain synthesis, constituting the predominant, non-vocal sound material in the work. Wave terrain synthesis is the translation of a multidimentional surface into sound waves, "analogous to the rolling of a ball over a hilly landscape". The idea of traversing and deriving sound from three dimensional data planes is a good auditory reflection of a social network and the non-linear, hypertext-infused environment of the internet.

Snowden (Social Network) was commissioned by Steve Paraskos and premiered at the Pakenham Street Arts Space on the 31st October, 2014.

 

Snowden (Dissent Prevention), for any four acoustic instruments (2015)

London has one of the highest rates of video surveillance in the world, with some surveys claiming that there may be as many as one CCTV camera for every 11 people in Britain. I’ve always found these kinds of statistics to be commanding yet somewhat unfathomable; how does this statistic relate to the real world?

For a long time there was no publicly accessible database of both public and private surveillance cameras until recently when a post-graduate arts student going by the pseudonym Zabou started documenting the whereabouts of each and every security camera in the different boroughs of London (The CCTV Map - https://thecctvmap.wordpress.com/). The resulting maps paint a far clearer image as to what one CCTV camera for every 11 people really means. Perhaps more concerning is the inability to determine which cameras are government operated and which are operated by private individuals and corporations.

Snowden (Dissent Prevention) takes the first three completed maps by Zabou - Thames (South), Shoreditch and Camberwell Green) and uses the locations of security cameras to derive musical material. Clusters of security cameras are used to derive graphic shapes that define unique musical gestures, creating a real-time sonification of extent of CCTV surveillance in London.