Karlheinz Essl

Composing in Cyberspace

Lecture given at the international congress Music in the Global Village (Budapest 2007)


The artist's field of work at all times reflects the prevailing social and technological circumstances. Due to the explosive development and availability of new technologies and information structures the creative field of the composer is also changing: A time of great upheaval is emerging. This change will be demonstrated through some specific samples based on my own compositional work. They illuminate examples of an extended field of work, which seeks to distance itself from the much invoked "ivory tower".

Documentation / Communication

The documentation of the current state of the artistic work and the analysis of it on a Website mutates the hermetic process of composition "in splendid isolation" into a transparent process visible to all.

The page design language HTML, the basis of the World-Wide Web, makes it possible to link documents to one another through references, so-called links. This enables a multi-dimensional form of information networking, which can be changed and extended at any time. The rigid corpus of the text, once codified in print and afterwards no longer changeable, thereby becomes fluid. Thanks to hyperlinks, it may reach out beyond its own limitations, not just to other texts (such as commentaries, supplements, critiques, analyses, thesauri etc.) but also to images, sounds, and other media. This makes it possible to use multimedia to document complex projects from their starting point, such as the work-in-progress fLOW (1998/99):

This is a performance project based on a real-time sound installation. It had numerous performances between 1998 and 1999, in the most diverse locations (museum, gallery, concert hall, bar, radio station, swimming pool, church) with various musicians from the areas of new music, free improvisation, jazz, rock, and electronic music. All performances were specially conceived for the respective location with its inherent socio-cultural contexts, and often arose out of an Internet discussion with the participating musicians. The respective stage of the project can be read in the WWW and serves as a presentation of the status quo not only for the artists who are working on it together, but also for interested members of the public.

Integrated sound samples and photos of interiors or of previous performances fulfil, on the one hand, the aim of post festumdocumentation. They also serve as information for artists living abroad, for whom this is the only way to get a first impression of the work.

A web-based random text generator called Playing Strategies (1998) was developed in the course of this project and implemented in JavaScript, accessible through the Internet. Each time the page is called up it produces a randomly generated three-liner.

These often cryptic allusions are intended to provoke creative interpretation and serve as mental preparation for the co-authoring musicians to question (and where possible overcome) internalised playing behaviour and acquired improvisation clichés.

Composition through collaboration

Instead of finished works (which exist as scores), open processes and experiment-formations are introduced into which other musicians and composers are integrated interactively. Thus, for example, Amazing Maze (1996 ff.) - a work-in-progress for computer and live musicians - would be unthinkable without the Internet:

Originally this piece was conceived as a sound installation generated in real time, and was submitted in this form to the NEMO 96 festival in Chicago. Without any influence from me, the further development took an unexpected turn. The festival curator, the composer R. Albert Falesch, reacted movingly in suggesting that he should give the first performance himself. He perceived this piece not merely as a sound installation but rather an instrument with which - together with live instrumentalists - exquisite music could be made. This offered the incentive for a chain of exciting metamorphoses: In an intensive E-mail based discussion we developed together a strategy for the performance, which finally culminated in the verbal description of a dramaturgical process. In this version Amazing Maze was premiered in the Chicago public library on 6 May 1996 together with the bass clarinettist Gene Coleman.

Consequently, I published the piece in the Internet - as a computer program and an own web page - and through this came into contact with the American cellist Jeffrey Krieger. In his solo performances he uses a custom-built MIDI-fied electric cello, with the aid of which he wanted to open a dialogue with the computer program. Along with a radical structural change, this also led to an extension of the sound material: Following my specifications, Krieger recorded a whole catalogue of cello sounds, which were integrated into the program.

Finally the original concept mutated from an auto-poetical composing machine to a computer-based electronic musical instrument called m@ze°2, which I play myself in solo performances and improvisations.


Cyberspace itself has become the terrain of a newly emerging form of art (WebArt), which fills the technological, formal and content possibilities (though also limitations) of the Web with content in a completely new way, without engaging in the simple transfer of an old medium to a new one. In this area, the boundaries between the individual art forms are also becoming blurred. Above and beyond this, cooperation with artists from other branches suggests itself here, such as for example in the multimedia web installation MindShipMind (1996-98), which was created in collaboration with the Californian video artist Vibeke Sørensen:.

The first preparatory work for this started in 1996 in Copenhagen during a three-week interdisciplinary symposium on "Order, Beauty and Complexity" (called "MindShip") to which 35 scientists and artists from all over the world were invited. We collected the varying individual approaches in their diverging verbal formulations, mixed them up by means of a random operation (based on the transformation of multi-dimensional Markov chains) and re-assembled them. In this way we were able to dissolve the purely factual in favour of new, unintended textual conglomerates. The results looked grammatically correct, but in content they were often abstruse and nebulous. Hence, the observer is confronted with this and challenged, quite in the sense of Radical Constructivism, to find an individual "meaning" in it.

Within two years, via E-mail and the World-Wide Web, we developed a multimedia web installation implemented in Perl, the structural content of which (text, layout, graphics, music, computer voice) is assembled differently by means of a random operation every time the page is called up: an unending "book" whose development was also contributed to by the Berlin-based comparative philologist Florian Cramer (Perl programming) and the Quebec-based writer and graphic designer Joseph Jean Rolland Dubé (pictograms). The communication between Vienna, San Diego, Berlin and Quebec naturally took place over the Net; the common point of reference was just a web page which constantly changed over the course of time and was finally presented at the ISEA '97 in Chicago.

Web-based music notation

Alongside scores, which are traditionally distributed through publishers, in Champ d'Action (1998), for computer-controlled ensemble, I have developed a new form of fluid and interactive musical notation.

Champ d'Action (field of action) is based on eight characteristic compositional structure types, which are defined as models. By changing the model parameters - through a conductor controlling a computer during the performance - the most diverse variants can be produced, which are turned into sound by the musicians improvisando.

This notation principle is incompatible with the traditional concept of music production and marketing, and thus exists uniquely and alone in the Internet: The piece can be downloaded from there as software. Furthermore, there exists also a version implemented in JavaScript, which runs with any web browser independent of computer platforms.

Real-time generated music on the Web

My general intention of opposing finalised works with open processes finds its effective realisation in a radical method: The musical work no longer exists as an interpretable and reproducible code (be it as printed score or recorded sound), but uniquely and alone as software. In the moment of performance, this generates a respectively new variant of the "meta model" in real time. The generation process can either run automatically and autonomously, or be steered by changing the system parameters. By using suitable control devices (interfaces), the computer program finally becomes an instrument. This process can also be transferred to the Internet, where instead of the simple replaying of conserved sound files, real-time generated forms of music appear.

A excellent example of this is the never-ending Lexikon-Sonate (1992 ff.) for computer-controlled piano: A work-in-progress which had its origin as a musical commentary on Andreas Okopenko's Lexikon-Roman (1970) - one of the first literary hypertexts. It exists only as a computer program, which composes piano music in real time and plays it without technical playing limitations on an acoustic piano or a MIDI synthesizer. Each performance of the piece is unique and cannot be repeated.

The program is available on the Internet as freeware for Apple computers. It lives an autonomous existence on innumerable hard disks and ftp servers fully withdrawn from the control of its author and is also used by other composers as a generator for musical structures. Alongside this there are also special web versions which have been optimised for HTML browsers and make it possible to intervene interactively in the music generation process.

Finally, I would like to mention two very committed projects. The Algorithmic Music Stream run by Maurice Methot and Hector LaPlante. Starting in 1997 as one of the earliest streaming audio systems on the Internet, this platform broadcasts non-repeating computer-generated sound and music live and in realtime as it is produced. One successor of this project is rand()%, an automated Internet radio station streaming real-time generative music. It serves as an independent platform for artists who can submit their own computer programs that create algorithmic music on-the-fly.

Second, Austrian radio's ORF Kunstradio by Heidi Grundmann has taken on an international pioneering role in its artistic engagement with the new media. This weekly radio program with its own impressive web site links new information technologies with ambitious artistic projects and has made a name for itself above all with interactive and inter-media projects. Each programme is broadcast on air on FM and in the Internet (as a so-called WebCast) and does not limit itself to the playing of pre-produced programmes alone: Some of the projects described in this article have been performed as live events on Kunstradio, where listeners are given the opportunity to influence events on the stage over the phone or through the Internet, such as a special realisations of Lexikon-Sonate and Amazing Maze.

Web 2.0

What I have discussed so far was already written nearly ten years ago and presented at the EU-conference Cultural Competence. New Technologies, Culture & Employment during the Ars Electronica in Linz in 1998. In the meantime, things have changed due to the technological development and the fact that the Web has become a common tool in our daily life. Thanks to its easy accessibility, its broad diffusion and the ever increasing speed it has become *the* mass media of our times.

This was not always the case. In its beginnings, the Internet was only populated by a small elite of academics or networkers. At those "heroic" times, there was no clear distinction between users and content providers, and there existed a spirit of mutual giving and taking. As the Internet became popular at the turn of the millennium, this has drastically changed: a superior number of passive users exceeds those people who are still developing and sharing content.

Nowadays, another step has been reached where the "users" themselves have become the content providers: as Bloggers, Flickrs, YouTubists and volontary authors of the online lexicon Wikipedia. Those new techniques which have been labeled as Web 2.0 provide a fertile soil for social and artistic networking that exceeds everything that ever existed before. One method called Folksonomy (a combination of the words folks and taxonomy) has become the powerful motor of the Internet music platform last.fm. Here the users can evaluate the music content of this site by classifying it with so-called "tags" - keywords that describe the style or type of music. This in turn allows for the creation of fully automated personalized internet radio stations which broadcast music that share the same keywords. By this, one can listen to music that is related to - say - Stockhausen, without actually hearing only his music, but also pieces that share certain similarities with his compositions.

This platform, however, can also be used for musicians who supply their work to this site. My last album SNDT®X was released there, given away for free, without engaging labels, promotors, and marketing managers: Like planting a seed where you can watch how it sprouts and flowers.

First published in the proceedings of the EU-conference Cultural Competence. New Technologies, Culture & Employment (Linz, Oct 1-3 1998). - Reprint of a modified version in: Global Village - Global Brain - Global Music. KlangArt-Kongreß 1999, ed. by Bernd Enders & Joachim Stange-Elbe (= Osnabrücker Beiträge zur systematischen Musikwissenschaft, Bd. 2), p. 304-308. ISBN 3-923486-41-3. - Extended version published in the proceedings of the international conference Music in the Global Village (Budapest 2007)


Already musicians such as Karlheinz Essl (Austria), Steve Gibson (Canada) and Todd Machover (USA) are 'composing in cyberspace' in which they use digital technology and the Internet as a new production tool. This can in effect take the form of interactive real-time compositions. Several good examples exit of how new digital computer technology changes the field of composition for the composer who is willing to embrace the opportunity. This will surely be an important field of growth. Technology has throughout history changed the relationship between creator, producer, distributor, retailer and consumer.

in: Robert Burnett and P. David Marshall, Web Theory: An Introduction, Routledge: Oxford 2002, p. 178


Kurt Danner, Komponieren im Cybersp@ce
Analytische Aspekte zur Musik im Internet anhand Karlheinz Essls "Lexikon-Sonate" und Eberhard Schöners "Virtopera"
Diplomarbeit am Institut für Musikanalytik an der Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Wien (Wien 2002)

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Updated: 25 Oct 2007