Xth Sense – An Interactive Biophysical Instrument Based on Free, Open-Source Tools.

Last year, Italian native and Edinburgh-based sound artist, performer and researcher Marco Donnaruma launched the Xth Sense, an instrument composed of an “original, biophysical interactive system based on free, open source tools.” The public launch generated considerable hype within the DIY/Noise scene, having won first prize in the prestigious Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition as the “world’s most innovative new musical instrument”. Donnarumma subsequently performed, workshopped and showcased his instrument in Edinburgh and also notably at LEAP (Lab for Electronic Arts and Performance) in Berlin.

It was in Berlin that I had an opportunity to have a first-hand experience of the device and its use in performance. Initially I was not blown away, partly due to my overexposure at the time to so many of these quirky biologically-based noise performances, all of which began after a while to produce repetitive and indistinguishable sounds to my tired ears. However the Xth Sense has since set itself apart from all the other instruments I was hearing, and it has steadily crept up again and again in my own reflections on music and sound. I believe that once one takes into full consideration what it is this instrument does and how it manages to do it, it reveals itself as an innovation that is not merely a gimmick. It has such boundless potential, relevant to so many different fields of practice, that I am surprised that the hype around it seems to have subsided. It strikes me as wasteful that I have yet to see it being extensively written about or utilised in performance.

But what exactly is the Xth Sense? Describing the Xth Sense is quite difficult, in particular for someone with as limited a technological know-how as myself. In an interview with Peter Kirn for createdigitalmusic.com, (which I thoroughly suggest reading) Donnarumma describes it as “a biophysical framework for musical performance and responsive milieux.” Peter Kirn adds, “In other words, it is a technology that extends some intrinsic sonic capabilities of the human body through a computer system that senses the physical energy released by muscle tissues.”

The Xth Sense is comprised of small, wearable biosensors (which sounds expensive but surprisingly is not so in the slightest) and a free and open Pure Data based application that captures, analyses, processes and plays back, all in real-time, the actual sound that human muscles make. The sounds that our vibrating muscle tissues make, called MMG (Mechanomyographic signal), are normally not audible to the human ear, yet the Xth Sense picks up these sound waves and amplify them. “By differently contracting muscles one can create and sculpt musical material in real-time. One can design a specific gesture that produces a specific sonic result, what I call a sound-gesture. These can be composed in a score, or improvised, or also improvised on a more or less fixed score.”

The Xth Sense in action.
The Xth Sense in action.

If you have grasped the basic process, and if you have watched the video of Donnarumma performing with the Xth Sense (see above) you will probably, like myself, already have the distinct impression of something intrinsically incredible, almost unbelievable occurring. Part of my initial underwhelmed response when I first heard about it and saw it performed during my time at LEAP had to with my silent assumption that I had misunderstood the process. What I thought I was seeing and what seemed to be creating the sound experience seemed too implausible. This almost sci-fi effect was heightened by how controlled Donnarumma’s execution of the piece was, how little sloppiness and pure chance was involved, and how un-invasive the physical aspects of the instrument were on the performer and the spectators. This allowed Donnarumma to contort and control his muscles like an elegant, futuristic sorcerer.

What has sparked my profound fascination with this instrument is not so much what it does on a technical level, but rather how it contributes to the more conceptual queries of electronic music making. The major importance of the Xth sense is its involvement with the ongoing question of making performable and expressive music with computers. At the heart of endeavours such as the Xth Sense is the drive to retain the expressiveness of physical performance and the tangible presence of the human body during the processes of recoding, in order to produce an amplified, processed sound that is similarly engaging to live performance where the sound and action that produces it are more directly correlated.The problem facing these processes is primarily the way in which the conversion acts like a filtering process through which the unique, material attributes of the bodily functions are caught within the symbolic grid of code. As Donnarumma puts it, “the recoding of the complex patterns and unpredictable textures of human experience into a bundle of organized algorithms, is a rather difficult task, for it puts at stake the true meaning of human expressivity.” The Xth Sense system avoids this pitfall to a great extent by virtue of the provenance of the musical material of this instrument created from organic sound waves within the “fibres of the body”, moulded and structured primarily through the “energy released by the performer”.

It is this last point that personally excites me most of all. Here, expression and the subsequent affects created in the performers and spectators are determined almost entirely by the process of exertion. One can of course argue that this is always the case, that the creation of sound and music always entails a physical application of energy. True, yet by using the Xth Sense, this exertion of expression is literalised, placed as both the source and the outcome of the sound-experience. For this reason in particular I imagine the Xth Sense as a highly potent tool of experimentation, in particular within certain contemporary techno and noise hybrids. Seeing the Xth Sense employed in such a setting would appear to me as the next logical step in a musical field such as techno. The ever-increasing popularity of techno, in its grounding in and celebration of our own physical presence and experience, can be partially attributed to its cathartic relief from our everyday position of alienation from our own bodies. Through techno music, and also through such instruments as the Xth Sense, the body is no longer just an image, a representation, but rather becomes foregrounded as a bundle of fragmentary experiences, and revels in this. In the way we tend to dance to techno and in the way Donnarumma performs with the Xth Sense we can already note this.

I recently came across something that German sociologist and performance theorist Gabriele Klein wrote about dancing to techno music, that I feel can also reveal the latent but crucial potential of such instruments like the XS; “this music [techno] forces the audience to live out its own emotions and affects, its aggressions and fears in the act of dancing collectively. The endless tracks offer not a processing or reprocessing of these anxieties, but an eradication primarily through physical exertion.” Of course, the Xth Sense alone does not allow the performer to make music to dance to, in particular not to such an ecstatic extent as techno music does. Yet as an added component to such productions it seems to make perfect sense to me through its raw immediacy, by placing the primacy of the music on the human body. Already techno-producers such as Regis can be seen employing live-feedback from his own skin within his sets, and surely it must only be a matter of time before these artists delve deeper into using real-time biological sound sources as material to engage viscerally with their audience.

However, this is just my interpretation and how I would like to see the Xth Sense employed. It is the avowed subjection to interpretation and manipulation that is the final fundamental intrigue of the Xth Sense. Unlike other producers of such Hi-Tech devices, the Xth Sense does not force its functionality onto the user. The source code, schematics and tutorials are all online for free, with DIY Kits available, and it is this which allows the user not just to use, but also to familiarise oneself with it so much that one can learn to abuseit, to hack and develop it as much as one feels the need to.

So I hope that this article has whetted your appetite for this astounding system, and if my wishes come true I’ll be seeing it performed in Dublin sometime soon; maybe in a club, by a band, in a theatre-production, by a street performer, or anywhere the new generation of DIY musicians wants to take it. 

More on the Xth Sense can be found at Marco Donnaruma’s site: http://res.marcodonnarumma.com/projects/xth-sense/

– Aran Kleebaur