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Artist in Residence Spotlight: Transforming Music Notation

simon alexander-adams

This post is a part of a series of posts from UMS Artists in Residence.

Simon Alexander-Adams is a Detroit-based multimedia artist, musician, and designer working within the intersection of art and technology. He has directed multimedia performances that enable connections between sonic, visual, and kinetic forms; designed new interfaces for musical expression; and produced interactive installation art. Simon’s compositions have been performed at international festivals, including the Ann Arbor Film Festival and Cinetopia.

Renegades in art are incredibly important.  They remind us that our carefully constructed systems and rule books for life are just that – constructed. They can give us the jolt necessary to become aware of the patterns that enclose our perception, and if we let it, provide the space for transformative experiences.

I believe we all start life with intense curiosity, open minds, and a strong sense of exploration. In a way, it is requisite to organize the mass of sensory information that bombards us as we come into existence. Language develops and solidifies, be it spoken or sung, sonic or visual, coded, logical, emotional, or physical. We learn the rules, syntax, and conventions associated with language – and if we don’t we fail to communicate with one another. In essence, we love rules, systems and predictability.


When I was in middle school, I started taking cello lessons. My teacher taught using the ubiquitous “Suzuki method” that so many early string players remember (fondly or not). Yet, this was not the only method she used. She supplemented this method with fiddle tunes transposed for cello, composition assignments, and improvisational exercises, encouraging exploration simultaneously with traditional mastery of the instrument.

I remember one assignment was to create my own musical instrument, along with a corresponding notation system. I explored my house looking for objects that might be utilized to make interesting sounds. Eventually, I settled on a broken piece of a toy walkie-talkie headset, scraping it along a metal grate by our fireplace in various gestures. I then created a set of glyph’s to represent each gesture, and composed a short piece using my notation system. At the time, this seemed completely normal. Music was already notated using graphic notation (albeit a standardized one); however, there was certainly no notation I knew of to write for walkie-talkie and metal grating. It seemed paramount that one should exist.

Excerpt from Seven Systems by Simon Alexander-Adams

Excerpt from Seven Systems by Simon Alexander-Adams

Fast forward 15 years or so and I find that I’m still making graphic scores .The difference is that I am more aware of the history of graphic notation – from Earle Brown, to Cornelius Cardew and Iannis Xenakis – and I let what I know of the practice inform my own. While graphic notation was definitely a renegade act in the 1950’s, I don’t see it as one at present since it has been in practice for over 60 years with countless composers making use of non-traditional notation systems. Yet, to some, graphic notation is still very much a renegade act. For those who have a rigid conception of the “rules” of musical notation and believe in a strict adherence to them, it certainly is renegade. Like many things in life, a renegade act is ascribed meaning through social and historical context – both of which differ per individual experience. In a similar way, we might unwittingly perform renegade acts as a child (disobeying authority figures, making graphic scores for household items). It isn’t until we have a concept of the rules that we can intentionally break them, and embody the spirit of a renegade. Ultimately, it becomes a question of intention and perspective.

So, why is it important that we encourage renegade musical and artistic work? I believe it is to question many of the social norms that are ingrained to the point that they have become the background of our existence. In the same way we tune out the noise of an airplane or lawnmower in the distance once it remains long enough, we are great at tuning out any pattern in life that remains constant for too long. Renegade art has the power to expose these patterns to us, allowing us to question our values, actions and way of being. Art can transform us if we let it.

Follow this blog for more from our artists in residence as they attend Renegade performances this season

Interviews with Uncommon Virtuosos: Robert Alexander

Photo: Robert Alexander. Photo by Kärt Tomberg.

Robert Alexander is a sonification specialist working with the Solar and Heliospheric Research Group at the University of Michigan, where he is pursuing a PhD in Design Science. He is also collaborating with scientists at NASA Goddard, and using sonification to investigate the sun and the solar winds.

We met Robert this fall and got to talking about “uncommon virtuosos” – those who master an instrument or genre in unexpected ways, whether Colin Stetson on the baritone saxophone this January or Chris Thile on the mandolin last October.

We sat down with Robert to talk to him about the nuts and bolts of sonification, his new work in sonifying solar wind and DNA, and whether he’d consider the sounds of the sun improvisation.

Nisreen Salka: How did you get into sonification?

Robert Alexander: My background is in music composition and interface design as the focus of my undergraduate and master’s studies, and I transitioned more into using those disciplines towards scientific investigations more recently. I came to work with sonification specifically when I was approached by Thomas Zurbuchen, who is the leader of Solar Heliospheric Research Group (SHRG), and they had this crazy idea of hey, let’s take our data, turn it into sound, and see if we can learn anything new.

NS: Could you describe sonification for the laymen among us? How does that relate to your previous experience in music composition?

RA: Sonification is the use of non-speech audio to convey information. And the idea is that rather than visualizing data and creating a graph or something of that nature, we can instead create an auditory graph. So if we have something like a data value that’s constantly rising, rather than displaying that as a line that constantly goes up, we can have a sound that constantly goes up in pitch.

NS: In your mini documentary about the project with Solar and Heliospheric Research Group (SHRG), you talk about including  a drum beat and an alto voice to better personify the satellite data.  How did you figure out which musical elements would work?

RA: Well, it’s a process where I first begin by getting as close to the data and the underlying science as possible because I want to let the data to speak for itself, and try to find the natural voice of the data. Once I get a sense for what the data are actually saying and what the data parameters are actually telling me, then I can start to think a little bit about, okay, how could this unfold musically?

And that’s largely a process of trying to work with informed intuition. I’m trying to think about what sort of knowledge the listener is going to bring to the listening process, and I try to work with sounds that might be intuitive.

NS: Sonification seems like a medium for improvisation, but there’s a lot of structural overlay. Do you, as a composer, consider your work improvisational?

RA: I think there’s very much an improvisational element, and you’re going to find that in scientific research even though you may expect it less. We’re talking about an interaction in which we feel so connected with our instruments that we are able to go from an idea to an expression of that idea in a very short amount of time. And one of my goals has been to take this kind of immediacy and try to infuse the sciences with that immediate feedback.

NS: It sounds like sonification really a combination of two disciplines. How did this fusion happen for you? What about this process attracts you both as a scientist and an artist?

RA: As a composer, I’ve always used music to explore my own psyche and the human condition as a form of self-expression.  I think the largest shift that took place in my thinking as a composer was this kind of shift from thinking about music and asking, “What do I want to express?” to instead thinking, “How could I use these compositional tools to allow something like the sun to express itself?” I saw this as an opportunity to take something I really love and channel that through a rich learning process.

When science or music happen at a very high level, they are both infused with creativity. And I think the idea of that separation between art and science is more of a modern invention. When I think about these two disciplines, I tend to think about the things that bring them together. A lot of science has sprung forward through different types of intuitive leaps, and I think that it’s this place of intuition that plays into the process of being a creative professional or of being a scientific researcher. That’s the core of a lot of the work that I do.

NS: How do you think people receive what you do? What is their perception when they see the final result?

RA: I think many people initially think, well that is “cool.” But for me, the question isn’t, “How do we make something cool?” The question is “How do we learn something new?”  In the moment when we are able to uncover something in a data set with our ears, it’s still cool. But to actually learn something, then it also becomes powerful.

In all of my work, I try to pair the music and the data such that I’m providing knowledge as to how the musical form is drawn directly from the underlying data set. I like to encourage the listener then to simultaneously absorb the music and to investigate the underlying science because that’s when sonification really becomes powerful, when it can fuel the learning process. It takes the abstract and the esoteric and makes it more approachable.

NS: We know that one of your newer projects is the sonification of DNA.  How does that relate to your previous work? What about it is new and what about it is similar to what you have done in the past?

RA: This project was an opportunity to take everything I have learned in the space sciences and to apply that to a new discipline in which I had limited prior knowledge. Just like working with solar wind data, we were working with incredibly large amounts of information. Millions of data points could potentially be passing by the ear over the course of a minute.

We were successful in creating an auditory translation, where you can hear where the transcription process starts and ends, and you can hear the structure of the gene. It was really fascinating to have a sense for how this would unfold temporally rather than just seeing it as a sequence of numbers or letters.

A lot of genetic research has also utilized spectral analysis to analyze repeated elements in DNA. And turns out if we take that raw data and turn it into sound, we can hear those repeated elements. Sonification could potentially allow us to hear some of the subtle details in these structures.

NS: Is there anything else we haven’t covered that you want to add about your projects?

RA: There are still a lot of mysteries when it comes to solar science. And we are looking at sonification as a way to gain new insights. Working at NASA Goddard alongside several research scientists there, we actually uncovered quite a variety of new features with our ears that we’re now investigating through traditional research methods.

And so for me, it’s a really exciting time. We came into the project wondering if we’d find something new, and now we’re at the point where I can say that we have been successful in uncovering new science through the process of data sonification, and we’re continuing to discover new things.

Learn more about Robert’s work here. Questions or thoughts? Leave them in the comments below.