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sonification of Turing’s work

Computer codeAlan Turing is among the handful of thinkers who formulated the concept of algorithmic computation. Every task that we perform with a computer begins with an algorithm, and yet this concept, which we now take for granted, was not yet formalized in the 1930s. This simple, yet immensely impactful, contribution is why I’ve chosen to create an algorithmic soundscape as the backdrop for our upcoming installation/performance. I like to think of Turing, along with Alonzo Church, as the modern muses who inspire all algorithmic arts and sciences. In honor of the centenary of Turing’s birth, I am creating an elegy for him.

There are several parts to this Turing elegy: a physical installation (which also functions as the setting for performances), a continuous ambient soundscape which surrounds the visitor upon entering the room, and finally, a brief ritualized performance in which Turing-inspired works will be presented using sound, spoken word, and movement. I’ve been working on both the physical set and the sonic ambience lately, and thought that I’d post a little bit about the methods that I’m using to create the soundscape.

There are three basic layers to this soundscape: live sounds produced by human performers, synthesized electronic sounds, and the sounds of machines (both live and via field recordings). All of the sounds relate to Turing’s life and his work, and many of them are based on either pure mathematics or realized Turing machines. All are created and/or performed using algorithms. In order to preserve the freshness of the live experience, I am not going to go into too much blog detail before the actual performance, but I will say that the live sounds will include humans operating simple machines, thinking, engaging in academic dialog, and chanting introspectively. Field recordings include turing machines, looms, and machines of Turing’s own creation.

The electronic portion of the soundscape is composed of algorithmically produced sonifications of Turing’s scientific output. Turing’s work included not only his very significant work on computability, but also forays into disparate subjects including group theory, logic, number theory, and mathematical modeling. I am currently in the process of transforming several specific results — his work on the Riemann hypothesis, his biological model for morphogenesis, and some of the examples from the Entscheidungsproblem paper — into electronic sounds using the Supercollider programming language for digital synthesis.

Here are several brief snapshots into the sonification process: Turing was responsible for feretting out specific zeros along Riemann’s critical line using the Riemann-Siegel function, which is an act akin to an explorer charting out undiscovered lands. (Note to the non-mathematicians: don’t glaze over if you don’t understand or don’t care a whit about the maths – just enjoy the sounds!) I have taken the two specific ranges of zeros attributable to Turing and transformed one into a slowly evolving drone and the other into a rhythmic pattern that produces gong-like sounds at the zeros. (Think of the zeros as points along a timeline where events occur.) Likewise, I have coded the differential equations created by Turing for his paper on biological morphogenesis and used them to create patterns in sound that slowly morph from gaussian noise into organized rhythmic pulsings.

Beyond the physical artifacts and the soundscape, the final element of the elegy will be a ritualized performance that will include spoken word, singing and chanting, field recordings, movement, synthesized electronic music, and live percussion. The performance reflects upon Turing’s fascination with boundaries between mind and machine. I will blog more about this aspect in days to come on my turing page, but all of the pieces will be either short reflections on Turing’s life and death written by Turing and others, or else ritualized mechanical embodiments of his ideas. Note that this performance will be a meditative, highly personal, and abstract homage to Alan Turing; I don’t intend it to be a lecture or a historically coherent biography. There are already a formidable number of excellent books, operas, and plays that examine Turing’s fascinating and tragic life in narrative form. (A very good short online biography by Andrew Hodges, the man who wrote the definitive Turing biography, is here, for starters!)