Sonomorph. The word sounds like a creature in a science fiction film, but in reality it is a term coined by composer Gary Lee Nelson, professor of electronic and computer music in the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.
Nelson, one of the pioneers in electronic music, says he became intrigued by the work of Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, who journeyed through a genetic cyberspace to model the evolution of organisms he calls "biomorphs." Nelson decided to apply Dawkin's research to the domain of sound.
"I used a variety of strategies for constitution of the genetic code and selection criteria," Nelson says, "and created ‘sonomorphs,' i.e., elements of musical compositions whose sizes range from a motive to a phrase. The result is a body of pieces where musical phenotypes, a group having one or more characteristics in common, evolve through a combination of reproduction and genetic mutation.”
Anyone visiting the permanent exhibit Fish, Fads, and Fireflies: Playing by the Rules at the Boston Museum of Science can see Nelson's newest brainchild in action.
For his Sonomorphs installation, Nelson linked a custom keyboard and monitor with a program that enables users during the course of a museum day to become composers by mutating the sonomorphs into sequences of sound and image.
Visitors listen to brief samples of computer-generated music and select two of nine musical "animals”— represented on the screen by icons—as "mother" and "father," and then "breed" a new generation of sonomorphs.
"Each subsequent user can start where the previous user has left off or start over with a population of ‘wild' musical animals," says Nelson. "The sonomorphs evolve over the course of a day, so that at the end we have a piece of music that may have been collaboratively created by many visitors.”
"The exhibit is designed to introduce museum patrons to one of the newest fields in science: the study of complex systems, or how simple choices made for one individual may affect the behavior of an entire group through successive generations," says museum Exhibit Developer Susan Timberlake.
Timberlake wanted Nelson in the show because in developing exhibits, the museum tries to provide experiences appealing to visitors with a wide range of abilities/disabilities and learning styles.
Although most of the activities planned for Playing by the Rules: Fish, Fads, and Fireflies rely very heavily (in some cases entirely) on vision, Nelson's software can be operated from eye, ear, or both.
"Gary's cutting-edge work in sound," she says, "will enable us to illustrate some of the concepts using audio as well as visuals and expand the parameters of this fascinating field into a wholly different realm."