Media @ McGill

Victoria Simon | Anybody can be a Musician: Transparency and the Discursive Construction of Touch in Interfaces for Music Composition

Submitted by Media@McGill on


The article I will write with the help of the Media@McGill Research Fellowship, will shed light on the historical routes of contemporary ideas about the connection between tactility and musical creativity that circulate around touch screen interfaces for music composition.  In particular, I will examine the underlying assumptions of the marketing of a touch screen music software app, Figure, to Iannis Xenakis’s UPIC, a musical interface created in 1977 where the user draws sound waves and volume envelopes directly onto a digital tablet. By tracing the discursive lineage of the role of touch screen interfaces in forging the connection between conceptions about immediacy, touch, and musical creativity, my project will juxtapose how the Figure app is marketed, with the idealistic discourse on the capacity of interfaces to foster unmediated contact between the user and sound that surrounded it in the UPIC.

            This article will contribute to the scholarship that examines how graphical user interfaces (GUI) and platforms shape cultural practices and the user’s sense of creative possibilities. It will build on the literature that addresses how interfaces, while maintaining an ideology of transparency and immediacy, hide their technological infrastructure, and the work that this does in shaping cultural production (Bolter, 1999; Chun, 2006; Cox & McLean, 2013; Harwood, 2011). As touch screens have been marketed as offering a more user-friendly ergonomic and embodied form of interaction than the conventional computer screen and keyboard interface, my research will show how this discourse is tied to ideas about tactility as the ideal condition for musical expression. 

            My project will analyze interviews with Iannis Xenakis about the UPIC along with the promotional videos that accompanied the instrument, and show how the interface and the perceived need for a more tactile creative experience, was produced as a response to the salient software interfaces for music production at institutions such as IRCAM (Born, 1995). By comparing the discourse that surrounded the UPIC to the marketing of apps such as Figure, as well as how the app has been described in popular magazines such as Wired, I will show how the particular ways in which touch is framed in relation to creative musical music production resonates with Xenakis’s early music technology that was an attempt to create an interface that facilitated a less conceptual and more embodied unmediated form of musical practice.

            This article will also form the basis for a chapter of my dissertation on the political dimensions of music software interfaces, which examines the role of these interfaces both in their particular ways of representing information, as well as how they are described in their paratextual dimensions of marketing and popular journalism, in shaping technological innovation and circulating ideas about creativity. As the Figure app and the UPIC both presuppose a notion of creativity that assumes tactility as the ideal condition for a more democratic form of musical expression, this research will advance an understanding of how these beliefs are translated into contemporary media forms.


Works Cited


Bolter, J. G., R. (1999). Remediation : understanding new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Born, G. (1995). Rationalizing culture : IRCAM, Boulez, and the institutionalization of the musical avant-garde. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chun, W. H. K. (2006). Control and freedom : power and paranoia in the age of fiber optics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Cox, G., & McLean, A. (2013). Speaking code : coding as aesthetic and political expression. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Harwood, J. (2011). The interface : IBM and the transformation of corporate design, 1945-1976. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Varga, A. (1996). Conversations with Iannis Xenakis. London: Faber and Faber.