Deep Field: an actual piece of music

One and a half year ago the Minnesota Orchestra and Chorale premiered ‘Deep Field’, a piece by Eric Whitacre. Whitacre is well-known for his more or less ‘traditional’ choir music writing, but for this piece he wanted to include the digitalAs a lover of technology and technological innovation, he is fascinated by the Hubble Space Telescope and the impressive photos it has taken. Besides that, Whitacre is intrigued by a material experience of life, of almost animistic proportions:

I remember very distinctly I had no separation at all […] between an inanimate object and a living thing, they all just seemed to live for me. […] I was at breakfast and there was a whole bunch of bananas, […] and I took a banana, and as I took it I realized it was squishy, and I wanted to put it back, and I realized: ‘Oh, but I’m gonna hurt the banana’s feelings, because it wasn’t chosen…’ And I smiled and thought: ‘You’re insane.’ But I have this sense that everything is alive. ¹

In ‘Deep Field’ Whitacre merges his fascination for technology, the material world and interactivity in one piece by assembling an orchestra with a choir and by using the telephone speakers of the audience as part of the music. The orchestra is, as always, seated on a stage, but the choir stands is spread over the hall. All the smartphone users in the audience have downloaded the ‘Deep Field’ application (designed for the occasion), which can produce seven samples of ambient sound. Around 18 minutes after the piece’s beginning, the conductor turns towards the audience and indicates the listeners can start the app. The orchestra then plays softer and softer, so the ethereal ambient sound of the application can be heard through all of the concert hall. After a while the choir starts to sing.

I think the concept of this piece of music demonstrates that

art provides the best forum in which to pose and re-pose the question concerning the digital. […] Where art meets the digital, there will be a most revealing test of the digital’s limits.²

‘Deep Field’ gives a nice example of blending the analog – the ‘actual’, material experience – with the digital. It gives a certain performativity to the digital, it becomes productive. Whitacre tries to indicate that ‘agency, intentionality, rationality, feeling, pain, empathy, language, consciousness, imagination’ are not specific human features.

The apps on the telephones are still, however, rather static and ‘pseudo-creative’. The telephones’ speakers are indeed instruments in the performance, but no more than that. The application is digital, but not in itself virtual – virtuality in this case is still established ‘through the analog.’5  This contributes to the asymmetry between the human as agent, and the digital as object.

I wonder if the digital could ever become equivalent to the analog, or the human. If that would be possible, there are still many steps to take. Let us use ‘Deep Field’ as a small example of that process:

The digital should be as complex as the material world, with all its quirks. The application ‘Deep Field’ should not just produce some ambient noise, but should interact with the orchestra, the choir, the audience, other cell phones, human members of the audience and the room of the concert hall (and beyond..?). To do that in a clever way it should recognize and distinguish the subtlety of the music. Just as human ears are able to recognize the sound of one oboe in a large orchestral passage, the digital should do the same and react to that. For example, one clarinet plays a short motive and one telephone starts echoing it, while other phones modify that sound and the clarinet players reacts to those echoes and variations. In other words, the digital does not have to give a perfect representation of the analog, but it should be imaginative and creative:

[…] it represents its own completeness, its absoluteness or baldness, its total lack of concealment. 6

For now the application is too static, too hermetic. It is not virtual yet, and it is still driven by analog forces: the ambient music is made by human beings, just as the design of the app and even the fundamental digital form is product of human invention. Just as the hypertext of Wikipedia seems to be a self-referential world on its own, even that massive digital world is of human creation. To reach a fully autonomous, conscious and virtual state, the digital should be able to produce and evolve its own structures. In the example of ‘Deep Field’: this application should not only interact, it should also create new applications, that for example connect to other places (concert halls with different music, space telescopes with new photos – and not only show existing photos as we can see in the title image above the article, etc.). Even the binary structure underneath should be object (subject..?) of modification.

As long as the digital is less creative than we are, ‘Deep Field’ really is an actual piece of music. Beautiful and intriguing music (it gives me a Disney-feeling sometimes), however:

Henk Vogel, 5960495

¹ Quote taken from a video (around 53″00) of a public interview with Eric Whitacre: ‘Eric Whitacre’s “Deep Field”: Creative Connections in Science and Music’. Available on YouTube.

² Evens, 81.

³ Evens, 80.

4 Barad, 27.

Massumi, 138.

Evens, 68.

Barad, Karen. ‘Nature’s Queer Performativity.’ Kvindedr, Køn og forskning/Women, Gender and Research 1-2 (2012): 25-53.

Evens, Aden. ‘The Question Concerning the Digital.’ Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience. Minneapolis (MN): University of Minnesota Press, 2005: 62-81.

Massumi, Brian. ‘On the Superiority of the Analog.’ Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham (NC): Duke University Press, 2002: 133-143.

The Choral Stream. ‘Eric Whitacre’s “Deep Field”: Creative Connections in Science and Music’. YouTube. (2015): , accessed October, 23rd, 2016. Available via

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