iPhone and the art of the Bacterial Orchestra

For a few weeks now I’ve been experimenting with Bacterial Orchestra, one of the most intriguing, albeit completely misunderstood Apps I’ve found for the iPhone yet.  The dismal customer rating in iTunes App Store, despite being free, is testament to that.  But there’s much, much more going on here than the casual iPhone user is aware.

Described by its creators Olle Cornéer, Martin Lübcke, Christian Hörgren and software programmers Jens Berlips, Fredrik Andersson and Arne Wallander as “a self-organizing evolutionary musical organism” the Bacterial Orchestra in it’s full sized performance art instillation, and iPhone version is an array of autonomous “cells”, pairings of microprocessor, microphone, and speaker.  Each of these cells listens and responds to sounds in the environment with self-generated random parameters, referred to by the creators as its DNA.  The cells work by listening for peaks in the audio in the cells environment, on the “first peak it starts recording, at the second it stops. Then the cell plays the sound - using the time between the two peaks to calculate the rhythm. Then it starts listening again.”

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Where things get really interesting, from my perspective, is as each cells remembers the “melodic phrases” it hears it will play them back according to it’s unique interpretation.  As different cells listen and respond to their environment, including the sound produced by other cells, they begin to influence each other, sometimes creating very surreal melodies, at times reminiscent of a human touch, at other times something much more mechanical and abrasive – though none the less fascinating to hear and contemplate.  For example the randomness of each parameter a cell has in it’s DNA, can “die” if it does not receive enough or too much audio stimulation (peaks too close or too far apart), as multiple iPhones running the Bacterial Orchestra app begin to listen and interact with each other can, begin to evolve into something with a discernable structure, though I find frustratingly hard to describe, since it’s not clear to me whether that structure is indeed created by the Bacterial Orchestra, an unintended non-randomness in the parameters built into the listening software, the human mind, or a combination of these.

These questions of course, are part of the intense allure of Bacterial Orchestra, and offers many questions in thinking about music: how is non-human music similar or dissimilar from human created music?  Can we understand non-human music in the same way as music created by humans?  I find this question particularly exciting and almost disturbing since it has implications towards, music created in this case by machines, for whom?  Humans? Possibly other machines?  This wonderful App also forces one to consider the implications of cross species music produced by other animals such as birds or whales, which also produce music for enjoyment as well as communication, and how they differ and/or relate to human music.  

Many, if not most casual iPhone users will not have the temperament to experiment with this truly unique App. but that shouldn’t stop them.  For those who are interested in performance art, or philosophy and aesthetics, and for certain the digital humanities, this may be the best App out there.  Please do yourself a favor and experiment with this App, you might just find yourself sucked into the art of the Bacterial Orchestra!

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I'm a behavioral health professional living and working in Maine specializing in psychiatric rehabilitation. For years I've utilized mobile technology to improve the delivery of community based mental health services, and embraced the iPhone when it came out in 2007.

I am also a doctoral candidate at Franklin Pierce University where I have been researching the role of the Liberal Arts in American higher education.

I write as a guest for iPhone Life periodically with a special interest in helping other professionals (healthcare, education and government in particular) incorporate iOS devices into their work, and several years ago introduced the first iPhone and eventually iPad classes at Lewiston Adult Education in Lewiston Maine http://laeipad.blogspot.com/ concentrating on helping other professionals interested in using and incorporating iPads into their work.