Hugo Boothby: Music for Universities

Welcome to a K3 seminar with Hugo Boothby, Lecturer in Communication for Development. The title of the seminar is:

Music for Universities

The seminar will be held on May 16 at 10.15-12.00 in the K3 Open Studio, fifth floor of Niagara.

Here is an abstract for the talk:

In this K3 seminar I present the first prototype and initial findings from the artistic research project “Music for Universities”. This is a practice-based intervention that employs transversal media tools to interrogate the affordances and materialities of the MP3 audio format and the iPod digital media player. In this work the MP3 and iPod are used as the principle tools in a generative music composition.

Generative music is produced using a machine or system in which degrees of randomisation are defined by the composer, this partial removal of authorial control allows the system to play the composition indefinitely (Eno, 1996, p. 330). The composition that I present during this seminar, titled “Music for Universities pt1: Haunted Format”, is written for 12 iPods, sampled voice and the MP3. For this generative composition the randomisation engine is the shuffle algorithm of the iPod. Timbral variation in the composition is achieved by encoding the voice sample multiple times as an MP3. The MP3 is an audio compression format engineered to reduce the data needed to encode a piece of audio, facilitating transfer and storage within digital systems. Every time a piece of audio is encoded as an MP3 more data is removed producing loss at certain frequencies, and noticeable digital artifacts and aliasing.

Within the conventional aesthetics of sound recording or broadcasting the sounds of the MP3’s processing would be considered undesirable. However, for this composition these imperfections become part of its aesthetic, an important sonic texture. Combining together 12 iPods to create a musical instrument also emphasises the compositional potential of the iPod’s shuffle mode, working to reveal how shuffle’s reordering of our music collections, the seemingly random juxtapositions and repetitions that occur, can be understood as a significant process of musical composition, one that has become a routine and mundane part of many people’s lives.

This generative music composition using iPod and MP3 seeks to operationalise a transversal media practice employing the transversal media tools, “residual media”[i] and “eventualisation”[ii] (Gansing 2013). Hauntology (Derrida 1994; Reyonlds 2006 and 2011; Harper 2011 and Fisher 2014), is used to compliment these transversal media tools. These concepts are used because they all work to disrupt established narratives of technological development within audio media. Specifically, the powerful linear narrative of progress towards increased verisimilitude. What Jonathan Sterne defines as “the idea that a new medium is closer to reality and more immersive and interactive than its predecessor” (2012, p. 4). This composition also works to disrupt audio media’s equally significant linear narrative of compression. The narrative of compression is understood here as the drive to build “additional efficiencies into channels and to economize communication in the service of facilitating greater mobility” (Sterne, 2012, p. 5).

This generative music composition is an “eventualisation” that manifests both the narratives of verisimilitude and compression, revealing how as “residual media” the MP3 and iPod can embody both stories and hold them in tension. Hauntology draws attention to processes whereby music production and composition in itself can be used as a tool for music criticism and analysis. I propose specifically this methodology as an exercise in combining theory and practice in media and communication studies research.


Derrida, Jacques (1994) Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. London: Routledge

Eno, Brian (1996) A Year with Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary. London: Faber and Faber.

Harper, Adam (2011) Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making. Winchester: Zero Books

Fisher, Mark (2014) Ghost of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Winchester: Zero Books.

Gansing, Kristoffer (2013) Transversal Media Practices: Media Archaeology, Art and Technological Development. Malmö: Malmö University. Doctoral dissertation

Reynolds, Simon (2011) Retromania: Pop Cultures Addiction to Its Own Past. London: Faber and Faber

Reynolds, Simon (2006, November) Haunted Audio. The Wire Magazine pp. 26-33

Sterne, Jonathan (2012) MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Duke University Press.

Further listening:

Basinski, William (2002) The Disintegration Loops. Track nr1 “dlp 1.1”

Eno, Brian (1978) Music for Airports. Track nr2 “Music for Airports: 1/2”

[i] Residual media is “near-obsolete or naturalised media devices and practices that increasingly inhabit and enact a powerful influence on everyday life” (Gansing, 2013, p. 301).

[ii] An eventualisation is “a specific form of intervention which exploits the performative rationale behind any technological development and in this sense it is intervention as a process of invention, adapting existing developments to tell new stories or instigate new events” (Gansing, 2013, p. 301)


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