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  • The Singing Shamail:A Computer Sound Installation
  • Bulat M. Galeyev

One of the interesting opportunities given to music in the 20th century by electronics, and later computer technologies, is the method of "making" and performing music using graphic drawings that are transformed into sound-pitch structures. Some audiovisual devices, with the aid of graphic images, can synthesize timbres as well.

This new method of making music originated in the 1930s in the experiments of drawing optical phonograms directly onto the tape (as in the work of A. Avraamov, E. Sholpo, N. Voinov, N. McLaren and others). Among specially designed music synthesizers with graphic input, the following three instruments should be mentioned: the ANS photoelectronic synthesizer (ANS is an abbreviation of "A.N. Scriabin") made by Moscow engineer E. Murzin in the 1950s [1]; the computer synthesizer UPIC, made in the 1970s by French composer I. Xenakis [2]; and lastly, the computer program Making Music by M. Subotnick of the U.S.A. [3], which is similar to the previous two. All three projects are alike in both their algorithms and graphic "scores." The sound pitch values are plotted along the vertical axis, making a virtual keyboard with discrete pitch change. The pitch intervals make a tempered scale by default.

The horizontal line is the "time" axis. A computer-aided device enables users to select the structure of the "sound field," that is, the desired scale of any tonalities or modes. When the vertical line (cursor) scans the image lines from left to right, the points of intersection are projected onto the vertical axis (virtual keyboard), and Sound Blaster generates the selected pitches. This process is similar to the standard performing practice, in which the pianist plays musical notes from left to right as they follow one another along the time axis. The only difference is that a normal score is of a conditional character (regarding signs of duration, for instance) while in all the above-mentioned visual scores the graphic line is a physical plot of pitch and sometimes overtones, depending on time. The computer program can also respond to the line width by changing the sound volume.

I once put forward another method of "drawing" music [4]. In it, the graphic lines are not merely plots showing dependence of physical sound parameters on time. They may take on any appearance, such as of objects found in nature and art. The lines no longer run in one direction, from left to right. They may turn back, forming various curves—-circles, spirals and so on. The scanning point (or cursor) moves along the curve at a uniform velocity. It can be said that the time axis is directed tangentially to the curve at each point of it. The dynamics of the sound image development is determined by the character of the line, especially by its curvature and steepness.

This method enables one not only to make music by drawing but also to study synesthetic analogies of the "melody-drawing" type. We think it may be useful for researching common laws of beauty in both visual and sound arts and for drawing eventual parallels between national melos and ornament.

Furthermore, a computer installation of this kind can be an art object in itself. Thus, in summer 2005, when our city, Kazan, celebrated its millennium, among other events, the Kul Sharif mosque, one of the biggest in Europe, was opened; for these celebrations, our group Prometheus made the computer installation The Singing Shamail [5]. Shamails, in Muslim culture, are Arabic calligraphic compositions based on famous Koranic passages. Such shamails hang on the walls of many Muslim homes. They have a sacred meaning, although secular artists sometimes create shamails as well. The most famous shamails in Kazan were made by Tatar painter Baki Urmanche. The one we used in our installation reads, in translation, "Allah is admirable and He is fond of beauty." This installation is now exhibited in the Museum of Islam on the first floor of the Kul Sharif mosque (Fig. 1). The show starts with the appearance of the white shamail image on the black screen. The image is then gradually repainted into green by the green cursor scanning along the...


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