Norges musikkhøgskole Norwegian Academy of Music
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The Semiotics of Virtuality

In his artistic PhD project composer Robert Seaback seeks to explore the semiotics of virtuality.

Compose a body of work, including multichannel acousmatic music, mixed work for ensemble, and sound installation, that explores the hyperreal potential of sound field simulation and the effect of interventions via experimental recording and synthesis techniques. In parallel, explore anacoustic modes of composition - which functions as a dualistic foil to the acoustic—following the concept as it is defined in my article, "Anacoustic Modes of Sound Construction and the Semiotics of Virtuality".

(Robert Seaback, 2020)

Semiotics of virtuality

N. Katherine Hayles’s semiotics of virtuality is a heuristic device she uses to map her posthuman concept as a literary phenomenon. Seaback adopts this framework to map posthumanism within different dimensions of electroacoustic composition, illuminating relationships between embodied complexities, representational absence, informational patterns, and noise. The framework also functions as a creative springboard toward musical expression that considers the computer for both its productive and reproductive capacity, with an ear toward the extrinsic significance of materials as related to their modes of production and the metaphoric networks to which they give rise.

Fundamentally, the semiotics of virtuality explicate the dual potential of digital sound to function as an idiomatic voice (exploiting the foundational aspects of digital encoding), and as a hyperreal window into the physical, acoustic world. From a technical standpoint, there are approaches to digital sound design predicated on abstract, informational processes uniquely suited to the computer. Conversely, and more commonly, there are approaches predicated on representation of the acoustic world.

An appealing notion to Seaback as a composer is that creative or destructive interventions at different levels of the digital audio encoding hierarchy affect the degree of success or failure for the medium to carry & transmit messages. Furthermore, an informational ontology can be extrapolated to musical forms and sonic metaphor—opening possibilities to dramaturgies oscillating between ‘sound as acoustic phenomenon’ and ‘sound as informational entity’. It is this dynamic interplay between the posthuman polarities of presence/absence (materiality) and pattern/noise (information) that Seaback wishes to explore via the medium of electroacoustic composition.

Research questions

Some of my guiding research questions are:

  • To what degree do informational renderings, re-mappings, or manipulations preserve or corrupt the ‘implicit substance’ of acoustic presence (to which concepts of gesture and embodiment are closely tied)?
  • What continuums exist in performance, time, timbre, and spatiality that articulate certain positions within the semiotics of virtuality?
  • How are orientations toward embodiment & materiality (presence/absence), and informational abstraction (pattern/noise) expressed technically and metaphorically?

Seaback considers this research an addition to the growing body of contemporary art and literature that examines particular issues in informatics—“the technologies of information as well as the biological, social, linguistic, and cultural changes that initiate, accompany, and complicate their development.” (Hayles 1999: 29)

Seaback's research will culminate in a body of work consisting of electroacoustic compositions for different media to also be disseminated in album format, and documentation suitable for journal publication.

Hayles, N.K. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Published: Nov 16, 2020 — Last updated: Sep 21, 2022