Fathom: Self-Assembling Music


Fathom is an interactive and immersive sonic world created for the Kanbar Forum at the Exploratorium in San Francisco by Emily and me. It is an unending, rarely repeating piece of music that is driven by its audience. The piece was developed specifically for the Forum as part of the museum’s artist-in-residence program.  Fathom is a work for 64-channel loudspeaker system, 3D-printed motion sensing spheres, wireless transmitters and LEDs.  This is a piece that visitors can explore with both their ears and hands.

Fathom is made up of six distinct sounds that are always present in the room. Four of the sounds are associated with one of four interfaces placed near the Forum’s stage apron. Visitors can determine the state of the piece by approaching one of the interfaces and moving the associated sound around and above them via the glowing hemisphere on the interface. The other two sounds will be moving around the room on their own trajectory.

The form of the piece is based on the concept of self-assembly. This concept describes a process in which certain naturally-occurring structures are formed through local interactions of otherwise disordered components. The components of the structure must have a) something about their geometry or makeup that causes them to bond with the other components and b) an external force acting upon them to enable the bonds.

The six sounds are the components of our structures. We’ve composed the potential attraction of each of the sounds based on their inherent properties (rhythm, pitch, timbre, dynamic range). By moving the sounds around in space, the audience members are the external forces acting on the components, enabling the assembly of sonic structures. The piece can exist in many states of assembled structures or discrete components. When audience members move two or more sounds to the same position in the room, they will fuse into composed structures of varying length. Not all sounds interact — we have composed the avenues for self assembly within this environment. Sounds can interact in increasing order: first two, then three, four, five and finally all six sounds can form together into a structure. We have composed three distinct avenues by which the sounds can assemble into a structure of all six sounds.

This is a new musical form. It is both a self-directed system (it has a set of rules and tendencies that have been built into it) and also defined by the audience members steering each sound. Their decisions are what decide the form of the piece. The piece is intended to be equally compelling whether one interacts with or simply listens to it. It is also highly variable — one can visit the Kanbar five times and hear five different aspects of the piece, while also becoming familiar with its textures.