Peter Gregson: The Listening Machine

Offbeat(*) speaker Peter Gregson came to talk about his project ‘The Listening Machine‘, a sonification of the continuous stream of tweets by 500 selected UK twitter users. Composer Gregson created the piece together with collaborator Daniel Jones and Britten Sinfonia. It’s an unexpected talk at a design conference, but it did tie in nicely to the social theme of the conference.

Photo © Jason Wen
And in a way it is similar to a data visualization. Only where a data visualization creates a direct overview of all the data, this piece is more fluid and linear. It evolves over time as the data changes.

The idea came about after the realization that real-time data evolves in a similar way to music. It has crescendo’s and diminuendo’s. It seemed like an easy thing to turn into music. Which of course it wasn’t.

Gregson wanted to make sure the to be created music would reflect the humanity and phrasing of the tweets. Not for instance just a system where each letter in a tweet would be different note. For that they created a system that analyzed the language of the tweets. After that they would know about the sentiment of the tweet: positive, negative or neutral. Which would make the key of the music major, minor, or a-tonal. They’d look for the subject of the tweet and put it in one of their eight categories. And finally they’d look for the rhythm in the speech of the tweet. Which would be translated the music. All these variables would change the to be composed music.

For the larger composition Gregson has composed a lot of different little bits of potential music, which could all be combined with each other. All the recorded performances could then be combined to about 43000 different combinations.

Peter Gregson © Atherton Chiellino 2011

Peter Gregson

Peter Gregson is a cellist and composer. He recently developed and was commissioned to compose ‘The Listening Machine‘ in collaboration with Daniel Jones and Britten Sinfonia for the BBC/Arts Council’s “The Space”. Based on the activity of 500 Twitter users around the United Kingdom the Listening Machine is an automated system that generates a continuous piece of music. Their conversations, thoughts and feelings are translated into musical patterns in real time, which you can tune in to at any point through any web-connected device. It runs continuously till November 2012 and it will continue to develop and grow over time, adjusting its responses to social patterns and generating subtly new musical output. Peter is known for his passion for contemporary music. He premiered works by composers including Tod Machover, Daníel Bjarnason, Joby Talbot, Gabriel Prokofiev, Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Steve Reich, Martin Suckling, Milton Mermikides, Howard Goodall, John Metcalfe, Scott Walker, and Sally Beamish and he collaborates with many of the world’s leading technologists, including Microsoft Labs, UnitedVisualArtists, Reactify and the MIT Media Lab. Peter‘s Performance highlights for 2012/13 include The Royal Festival Hall, La Gaite Lyrique, SXSW, Aldeburgh and tours of the United States, as well as conference appearances including ‘Thinking Digital’, ‘Shift Happens’ and ‘FutureEverything’. Throughout 2012, Peter is the Artistic Advisor to the Innovation Forum at the New England Conservatory, Boston. At TYPO London he leads “Social” beyond the barrier of visibility.

The result is a continuous musical stream, that’s constantly changing. Moody in the morning, busy at lunch, chilled out in the evening and ambient during the night. Music that actually sounds human, just like the tweets it was based upon. A beautiful example of giving meaning to data, trying to capture the soul of it’s source. (available until half November)

(*) ouch, pun intended

By Jerry den Ambtman