A Three-Dimensional Spider Web Soundscape Comes to Life

Posted on February 15, 2019 by Connie Blaszczyk

Spider’s Canvas will be performed February 16-18, 2019 at the MIT Building W97 Main Theater. Visit sounding.mit.edu for more information.

Following the live performances, the piece will be displayed in the MIT.nano Building 12 in spring 2019.


Spider’s Canvas / Arachnodrone sonifies the arachnid’s strands.

Silently nestled into corners, artfully draped between objects—the ubiquitous spider web is an ethereal wonder.

These highly adaptive, sophisticated structures are given voice and center stage in Spider’s Canvas / Arachnodrone, a multisensory performance piece commissioned by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) inaugural Visiting Artist Tomás Saraceno.

The arachno-inspired work received its premiere this fall as part of ON AIR, a 2018 exhibition by Saraceno at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and receives its US premiere on February 16-18, 2019 in the MIT Theater Building W97 with a live concert as part of CAST’s MIT Sounding series; the piece will also be displayed in the MIT.nano building in spring 2019.

A Sonification of the Web’s Geometry

The piece utilizes a spider web scanning technique originally developed by Saraceno in 2010 in collaboration with the Technische Universität Darmstadt, and later refined in collaboration with MIT Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) department head and McAfee Professor Markus Buehler. Buehler and his collaborators then developed a mathematical model of the web that they used to create a sonification approach to translate the web geometry into audible sound, which forms the basis of the web instrument that will be interactively played at the concert.

In its premiere at MIT, the work will be performed by the ensemble that designed and performed the piece in Paris, including CAST Faculty Director and Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor Evan Ziporyn, composer and video artist Christine Southworth ‘02, MIT Music and Theater Arts lecturer Ian Hattwick, and MIT CEE PhD student Isabelle Su. Originating from the sonification method developed by Professor Buehler and Su, the piece features an interactive spider web instrument that Su plays, joined by Southworth, Hattwick, and Ziporyn inside the installation, showcasing the interplay of the spider web sound and human improvisation.

“Isabelle moves us through the virtual web, and our proximity to particular strings sends Ian sonic information which he sculpts in real-time, and which Christine and I play to,” says Ziporyn. “This interaction between humans and the spider offers a path to communicate through vibrations, which is the signal the spider uses to communicate.”

I control what part of the web the viewer sees while Ian plays with the hearing distance. All the fibers within this hearing distance (in blue/white) are sonified while the fibers outside of this range (in green/brown) do not produce sound. Evan and Christine improvise with the web instrument, building on Ian’s sound, with Evan on EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) and Christine on electric guitar with EBow.
– Isabelle Su


“This piece is another example of how the Spider Web Scan allows us to be immersed into the spider’s unique vibratory sensory
Umwelt—offering never-before seen insights into invertebrate architectures,” says Saraceno. “It also links with my own experiments in the musicality of the spider/web, and in creating the possibilities for interspecies attunement—whether through the spider/web instruments I developed for the Arachnid Orchestra Jam Sessions presented at CCA Singapore in 2015, or through my Studio’s ongoing Spider Salons and Interspecies Jam Sessions that Evan was also a part of when he visited the Studio that same year in Berlin.”

“By creating an environment in which the spider’s web, through its sonified expression, can interact directly with humans through playing instruments by Southworth, Hattwick and Ziporyn, we can enter the nexus of materialized sound and sonified material,” says Markus Buehler.

In addition to his engineering work, Buehler has long been fascinated with working on musical compositions. He remains passionate about finding new ways to transcend across domains and is excited about the opportunity to build new types of musical instruments that can be played by performers. His earlier scientific work focused on the intersection of sound and material and on mathematical models that enable the understanding of how hierarchical structures work in different manifestations and how they intersect with the human experience.

A Fuller View into the Spider’s Web

Spider’s Canvas / Arachnodrone is an outgrowth of Saraceno’s ongoing fascination with the intricate geometry and three-dimensional nature of spider webs, including their capacity for vibrational communication. As the MIT CAST inaugural visiting artist, Saraceno first came to campus in 2012 and continues to work with Buehler. The two worked together in refining Saraceno’s Spider Web Scan technique that generates accurate three-dimensional data of a spider web, and applying this technique to functional analyses and novel representations of the web.

“I recall when Tomás first brought a few Cyrtophora spiders to our lab, it was truly exciting. We created a computer model of the data based on Tomás’ tomographic method that used a laser to scan a three-dimensional web,” explains Buehler. “We then developed an analytical model that enabled us to do further analysis, including developing a tool to transform the structure of the web into audible sound, and for a player to interact with the web to “play” it like an instrument.”  

Buehler calls the collaboration with Tomás, Evan, the team at CAST, and the broader community of artists and engineers at MIT breathtaking and amazing.

“This is easily one of the most exciting projects I have been involved in during my academic career. Tomás and I share an ongoing interest in researching the capacity of the spider web to create new materials from abundant building blocks, like in this case simple proteins,” says Buehler. “Our collaborations have enabled us to advance our understanding of its sequences and structure, and how complex functions are achieved in different spaces—material and sound, and all in between.”   

An Ongoing Exploration into the Spider’s World

In Spider’s Canvas / Arachnodrone, Su employed the Spider Web Scan technology to create a virtual model of the spider web. Within this digital recreation, the musicians are able to navigate through and explore the intricacies of the web.

 

Tomás Saraceno’s spider web sculptures are made by multiple spiders of different species, some of which are found on site. We decided to honor that cross-species collaboration by overlaying the virtual web (which continues to move) with photographs of local spider webs from around MIT and from around our house in Lexington, MA.
Christine Southworth


For the audience, Spider’s Canvas / Arachnodrone offers a uniquely rich exploration into the spider’s web. For its collaborators, says Ziporyn, the piece represents an ongoing dialogue between artists and engineers.  
  

“It was Tomás’ energy and vision that originally got me interested in this,” says Ziporyn. “His deep desire not just to understand but to learn from other species. But that would have remained a dream if Professor Buehler and his team hadn’t been equally inspired and able to take it in different directions.”

The project will continue to evolve, says Ziporyn. “Once we figure out how to make a spider-sensitive trackpad, we’ll have a fifth player in the band.”

 

The multiple images are projected onto 3 sides of the cube, which is made of sharkstooth scrim. The four of us are inside the cube (you can vaguely make us out inside the images) generating sound in a variety of different ways: Isabelle is sending sonification data to Ian, who is sculpting the sounds in Max/MSP.
Evan Ziporyn