Swarm Intelligence in Music in The Signal Culture Cookbook

The Signal Culture Group just published The Signal Culture Cookbook. I contributed a chapter titled “The Mapping Problem”, which deals with issues surrounding swarm intelligence in music and the arts. Swarm intelligence is a naturally non-human mode of intelligent behavior, so it presents some unique problems when being applied to the uniquely human behavior of creating art.

The cover of The Signal Culture Cookbook

The Signal Culture Cookbook is a collection of techniques and creative practices employed by artists working in the field of media arts. Articles include real-time glitch video processing, direct laser animation on film, transforming your drawing into a fake computer, wi-fi mapping, alternative uses for piezo mics, visualizing earthquakes in real time and using swarm algorithms to compose new musical structures. There’s even a great, humorous article on how to use offline technology for enhancing your online sentience – and more!

And here’s a quote from the introduction to my chapter.

Some composers have explored the music that arises from mathematical functions, such as fractals. Composers such as myself have tried to use computers not just to imitate the human creative process, but also to simulate the possibility of inhuman creativity. This has involved employing models of intelligence and computation that aren’t based on cognition, such as cellular automata, genetic algorithms and the topic of this article, swarm intelligence. The most difficult problem with using any of these systems in music is that they aren’t inherently musical. In general, they are inherently unrelated to music. To write music using data from an arbitrary process, the composer must find a way of translating the non-musical data into musical data. The problem of mapping a process from one domain to work in an entirely unrelated domain is called the mapping problem. In this article, the problem is mapping from a virtual swarm to music, however, the problem applies in similar ways to algorithmic art in general. Some algorithms may be easily translated into one type of art or music, while other algorithms may require complex math for even basic art to emerge.

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The Mapping Problem: Swarm Intelligence in Music

This fall Signal Culture will publish the Signal Culture Cookbook containing a chapter called The Mapping Problem: Swarm Intelligence in Music that I wrote earlier this year. The chapter deals with all the potential problems that artists must deal with when using swarm intelligence in music, and shares shource code for several interesting mappings that I’ve used in the past.

Black Allegheny

Becoming Live – A Swarm-Controlled Sampler

Becoming is an algorithmic composition program written in java, that builds upon some of John Cage’s frequently employed compositional processes. Cage often used the idea of a “gamut” in his compositions. A gamut could be a collection of musical fragments, or a collection of sounds, or a collection of instruments. Often, he would arrange the gamut visually on a graph, then use that graph to piece together the final output of a piece. Early in his career, he often used a set of rules or equations to determine how the output would relate to the graph. Around 1949, during the composition of the piano concerto, he began using chance to decide how music would be assembled from the graph and gamut.

In Becoming, I directly borrow Cage’s gamut and graph concepts; however, the software assembles music using concepts from the AI subfield of swarm intelligence. I place a number of agents on the graph and, rather than dictating their motions from a top-down rule-based approach, the music grows in a bottom-up fashion based on local decisions made by each agent. Each agent has preferences that determine their movement around the graph. These values dictate how likely the agent is to move toward food, how likely the agent is to move toward the swarm, and how likely the performer is to avoid the predator.