• Marco Donnarumma - Ominous 2012
  • Marco Donnarumma - Ominous 2012
  • Marco Donnarumma - Ominous 2012

“In his hands, it seems the air can be molded into sound – as though the ether itself is made of dense clay.”
Create Digital Music

Ominous (2012-2013) is a sculpture of incarnated sound. The performance embodies, before the audience, the metaphor of an invisible and unknown object enclosed in my hands. This is made of malleable sonic matter. Similarly to a mime, I model the object in the empty space by means of whole-body gestures. By using my visceral, new musical instrument “Xth Sense”, the bioacoustic sound produced by the contractions of my muscle tissues is amplified, digitally processed, and played back through eight subwoofers and loudspeakers.

The natural sound of my muscles and its virtual counterpart blend together into an unstable sonic object. This oscillates between a state of high density and one of violent release. As the listeners imagine the object’s shape by following my gesture, the sonic stimuli induce a perceptual coupling. The listeners see through sound the sculpture which their sight cannot perceive.

The piece was commissioned on occasion of the finals of the 5th Live Electronic Music Project Competition, organized by the European Conference of Promoters of New Music (ECPNM). It was then premiered on 3rd November 2012, during the World’s New Music Days, at The Singel concert hall, Antwerp, Belgium. Below a video of a live performance at ICT & Art Connect at the Watermans Arts Centre in January 2014.

Ominous is a hommage to artist Alberto Giacometti. The piece is an interpretation of a recurrent topic in his work, that of “a constant irrational search and movement towards an unknown object” (Saint Louis Art Museum, 1967). This theme is embodied in the threatening, bronze-casted sculpture Hands Holding the Void, which is the inspiration for this performance.

Also known as The Invisible Object (1934-1935), the sculpture consists of a human-like figure combining natural and abstract traits, which seems to hold an invisible object. Its body rests in an unstable position and its suffering gaze seems about to explode in a loud cry. This quote is taken from a bulletin of the St. Louis Art Museum (US) in which the author (apparently unknown) rephrases a description allegedly attributed to André Breton. See: Saint Louis Art Museum, 1967. Recent acquisitions. Available at: p.~2.

Playfulness and new musical instruments

When playing a traditional instrument, limb coordination is critical to both the quality of the music and the pleasure of performing. In the case of a chord instrument, for instance, synced gestures cause complex timbre variances. The initial plucking defines the amplitude and rate of the chord’s oscillation: a gentle gesture provokes a basic vibration, while a conceited one introduces distortion and harmonics. The movement of the fingers, in turn, determines pitch changes, modulates the sound dynamic, and causes resonances.

For a player, being able to create a specific sonority by skilfully articulating such gestures can be gratifying. With a traditional instrument in mind, the Xth Sense configuration was refined so that a limb contraction would produce a sound, and a synchronous flexion of another limb would modulate that same sound. The model is described next. The muscle sound (mechanomyogram or MMG) of the left bicep (i.e. the plucked chord) flows through a four-stages digital signal processing (DSP) system, whose parameters are driven by synced contractions of the right flexor muscle (i.e. the finger contractions).

In addition, scientific studies on the spectral variances of the MMG found that, as muscular force increases, the MMG frequency spectrum becomes broader (Orizio, 1990). This implies that the muscle sound spectrum can be actually modulated by varying the intensity of a contraction. By improving whole-body coordination, a player can weigh her muscular force so as to produce specific spectral results. Instead of using a DSP system with one global output, each DSP stage sends its resulting signal to the loudspeakers.

This strategy, coupled with muscular tissue spectral modulation, enables the playful creation of a multi-layered sound flow. The enjoyment lies in that disparate sonic forms can be precisely shaped by coordinating and fine-tuning whole-body gestures that address one or multiple DSP stages at once.

- Orizio, C., Perini, R., Diemont, B., Maranzana Figini, M., & Veicsteinas, A. (1990). Spectral analysis of muscular sound during isometric contraction of biceps brachii. Journal of applied physiology.

Technical information

No commercial devices nor software were deployed in this work. The piece is based on the Xth Sense (XS) wearable technology. It consists of portable biosensors and a digital framework for real-time processing of acoustic biosignals, both developed by the author. Muscle fibres and blood vessels produce subcutaneous mechanical oscillations (i.e. acoustic sounds).

These are captured by the XS sensors and fed to a computer in real time. The machine deploys mathematical and learning models so to become aware and interact with the muscular sound of the performer’s body. During this two-way interaction the performer produces the sound material by contracting his limbs and the computer diffuses the processed sounds of the performer’s body through an octophonic audio system. All sound manipulations, spatialisation, rhythm and structure of the piece are defined in real time only through the physical behaviour of the artist on stage. See the calendar for the next scheduled performances.


Picture courtesy of FILE festival, and Vipul Sangoi.

Project Keywords

bio, biosensing technologies, body, MMG; sound sculpture, augmented body, gesture, gestural control of music, kinetic energy, theatrical performance; sonic matter, sonic vocabulary; real time, audio processing, multidimensional gesture, machine learning, pure data.

Selected performances

  • Maintenant Festival, Hotel Project Pasteur, Rennes, October 2015
  • Embodied Sounds, University of East London, London, May 2015
  • Apiary Session<>Sonica Festival, Apiary Studio, London, March 2015
  • MusicMakers Hacklab, Laboratorio Arte Alameda, Mexico City, February 2015
  • CTM Festival, Opening Performance, Berlin, January 2015
  • Hyphen Hub Salon, Red Door Space, New York City, October 2014
  • Spectrum NYC, Dark Circuits Festival, New York City, October 2014
  • Beyond Biennale meets Discovery Festival, Amsterdam, September 2014
  • Olematute kylade projekt / Project for Non-existent Villages, Tartu, Estonia, July 2014
  • Digithon Access Space Fund Raising, World Wide Web, July 2014
  • FACT: Syndrome 1.3 Control, FACT Liverpool, June 2014
  • Sónar+D / Opening Music Hack Day, Universidad Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, June 2014
  • Arte Performatica y Tecnologia, ZonAutonoma, Puebla, Mexico, April 2014
  • 2° Encuentro Internacional de Arte Sonoro, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico City, April 2014
  • STEIM Concert of Bodies, Studio for Electro Instrumental Music, Amsterdam, Netherlands, March 2014
  • Experimental Intermedia, hosted by Phil Niblock, New York City, NY, US, March 2014
  • ICT & Art Connect, Watermans Art Centre, London, UK, January 2014
  • What is Sound Design?, Symposium University of Edinburgh, Scotland, November 2013
  • RPM Sound Art China, West Bund Biennial, Shanghai, China, October 2013
  • TransitioMX Biomediaciones, CENART, Foro de las Artes, Mexico City, Mexico, September 2013
  • DA Fest, National Academy of Arts, Sofia, Bulgaria, September 2013
  • Kontejner, Sound Art Incubator, Mocvara Gallery, Zagreb, Croatia, September 2013
  • River 2 River / New York Electronic Arts Festival, New York City, NY, US, June 2013
  • STEIM Summer Party, Studio for Electro Instrumental Music, Amsterdam, Netherlands, June 2013
  • NIME, International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression, KAIST, Dejeon, Korea, May 2013
  • LAC, International Linux Audio Conference, Mumuth Concert Hall, Graz, AU, May 2013
  • POLAND Tour: Falanster, Wroclaw, PL, March 2013
  • POLAND Tour: Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, PL, March 2013
  • POLAND Tour: Art&Science Meeting, Łaźnia Center for Contemporary Art, Gdansk, PL, March 2013
  • 5th Live Electronic Music Project Competition, World New Music Days, Antwerp, BE, November 2012