Composing music on the fly (Collaborative Bibliography II)

27 Oct

This week’s topic for me to contribute to the collective bibliography that we are creating for us Social Media fellows is about how we can compose music in a collaborative, easy and non-musical-knowledgeable way. I think this post is interesting for us because it links perfectly with what we are learning on the Sound Synthesis module with Paul Sayer about the synthesized sound process.

Sometimes, when I get the necessary courage, I read papers like this one by Niklas Klügel, Marc René Frieß, Georg Groh and Florian Echtler at the University of Munich. It centers on the way that tabletop devices have been crucial for a way of creating music that is not centered only on oneself, but in the face-to-face interaction of individuals between them AND with a tactile electronic device.

This can only be possible with a device like the ReacTable, which has been almost 8 years in the making. The reactable is a tactile electronic synthesizer, with all the capabilities found in an analog or digital one and that we’ve been taught about in Sound Synthesis. Its use can be either very simple and intuitive or very complicated if the user already knows the basics of synthesized sound production.

The Reactable

The ReacTable in action (CC Image by Ars Electronica)

As they explain in their paper, the ReacTable is

“a multi-user instrument portraying a modular synthesizer where the signal processing can be altered by gestural and physical interaction using tangibles. The signal flow is represented by the topological relationship between artifacts.”

Basically, it works with four object types with cube forms: Generators, Effects and Filters, Controllers and Global Controllers. Each one of them can take different roles. Moreover, these objects that can be placed and moved in the tactile table can be connected via audio connection or control connections. It’s pretty straightforward after browsing a bit the tutorials that show its use, very well explained and simple.

Instead of explaining with words how it works, I prefer to offer a link to a Youtube video where you can see it in action and how it can produce real music:

This great invention started as an Electronic Music research project for the Music Technology Group in Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona (Spain) in 2003, one of the leading research laboratories in music technologies. It was presented publicly in 2005 and in 2006, Björk (always with an eye on new technologies) decided to train artist Damien Taylor to use it and take it on a big tour around the world. Since then, it has received some awards on its originality and well researched, robust performance… but overall, it has jumped to the public with thousands of demonstrations since 2006 in every single music fair around the world.

What the paper stresses about the ReacTable is that now the user does not interact alone with a computer or a machine in a non-natural way, having to learn a common language. Instead, it uses gestures and tactile control which is way more intuitive and natural for us human beings that typing on a keyboard or using the mouse.

This invention also overcomes the need for a common notational system to express the notes we are playing or how much do they last. As Klügel, Frieß,  Groh and  Echtler express in their paper,

“the control over the perceptual dimensions such as timbre is part of the notation and thereby the composition”.

This allows users to improvise and compose together in a multi-user interface which is easy to use as they can sketch their musical ideas in real-time with a multi-touch sequencer.

It would be great to have one of those at MediaCity, wouldn’t it?


Klügel,N.,  Frieß,M.R.,  Groh,G.,  and Echtler,F., 2011. An Approach to Collaborative Music Composition. Germany.


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