Alvarez-Fernandez: Sound Amateur


Silvia Scaravaggi


Miguel Álvarez-Fernández, young sound artist and sound designer (Madrid, 1979), defines his background as a conventional one. Composition studies at the San Lorenzo de El Escorial's Conservatory, composer in residence at the Madrid "Residencia de Estudiantes" from 2002 to 2005, improvement courses in Germany at the Internationale Ferienkurse fur Neue Musik of Darmstadt, at the Stockhausen Stiftung of Kürten, and at the Elektronische Studio of the Technische Universität of Berlin.

Apart from some activities related only with electronic music – the score for "A Via Láctea" by the Brazilian director Lina Chamie, presented during the 2007 Cannes Festival, and the music for the electroacoustic concert/performance live at the Neues Kunstforum in Köln, his current work mixes and hybridizes electronic and artistic media in a research devoted to the connections between sound, art and physiology.

Works born from Álvarez-Fernández's research use electronic media united with traditional instruments and voice. He is writing a Ph.D. thesis in Musicology at the University of Oviedo that studies the connections between voice and electro-acoustic media. These theories are also the object of the DissoNoiSex project (the trio Álvarez-Fernández, Kersten, Piascik), where Álvarez-Fernández has developed interactive installations such as Soundanism and Repressound.



Soundanism (or Sonanismo , the Spanish title), is an interactive sound installation created in 2006 along with the German programmer and sound artist Stefan Kersten and the Polish designer Asia Piascik . The work explores possible interactions between music, breathing, masturbation and sexuality. The visitor is part of a closed circuit, wearing a helmet and a mask with a little microphone inside. He provokes the sounds he perceives. The microphone captures the noises generated by the breathing, which are then analysed, digitally transformed in real time and transmitted through 14 micro-speakers placed inside the helmet.

At the same time, the collected information about the respiration is compared with the characteristics of thousands of possible sonorities, stored in a database and connected in different ways with the idea of sexuality (extracts from porn movies' soundtracks, rock guitar solos, screams of different animals, repetitive industrial machineries…). The sounds that most resemble the soundanist's respiration are then triggered and transformed (in a voluntary or involuntary way) through his breathing.

The work explores the idea of control in an interactive system and lies on the border between public and intimate event, between consciousness and dream. The work evades the categorization as a single installation, as a performance piece or as a musical instrument, but invites for interaction, either by trying to control and dominate the system, or simply by relaxing and just breathing.



This example of creative work by Miguel Álvarez-Fernández clarifies some of the themes questioned in his works. We talked about them while chatting about the next Festival PING! 04 in Mallorca , trying to reveal some of the mechanisms at the basis of this research. We also talked about the connections between sound and sexuality, the themes at the origin of this research.

<Starting from my education in composition > underlines Álvarez-Fernández <I consider music and sound in their cultural dimensions, keeping in mind that the ability they have to generate emotion appears to us as evident, as a matter-of-fact truth. To get to how I arrived to link the idea of sound to sexuality, it is necessary to understand these two aspects as part of the binomial that opposes body and mind. Both music and sex are two cultural categories that can strongly affect our bodies, so they have substantial resemblance>.

Miguel wrote an illuminating text on this argument, "Del diálogo a la ilusión de control: Procesos interactivos en la instalación sonora Sonanismo", that starts examining Sonanismo and then investigates those aspects through the notion of interactivity. The work is analyzed in all its conceptual and material elements, describing in detail its lay-out, and voluntarily omitting the particulars related to software and technology, to emphasize the conceptual meaning of the installation.

Key themes at the base of the work and of the artist's thoughts emerge with the evidence of a perfectly written theory: the work poses some aesthetical problems related to interactive processes. Sonanismo proposes a critical reading of some typical hypothesis of the creative environment that surrounds digital, electronic and media art. Interactivity itself has now gained a stratification of meanings, often connected with positive and creative connotations, but it still should be the object of numerous questions, sometimes ironical, that the work wants to arouse. <What does interactive work mean?> says the artist. <[…] Is there a sort of direct relation between this term and the contemporaneousness or modernity of the work? […] Can interactivity be considered as an aesthetic value? […]. Inside the work, the function of the subject, the soundanist, cannot be separated from the object itself, the installation, in a way that joins them together continuously, in a constant feedback process>.



In this sense, the idea of interactivity as a dialogue is investigated through a process that shows all its limits and sometimes its impossibilities. It is the breathing of the subject itself that generates an answer from the object, which is in this case another subject, or, better said, "the other" that lies inside the uncontrollable respiration and the unconscious of the person who is breathing and listening


In this dialogical situation, the soundanist accomplishes his involvement in the process of activation of this mechanism becoming both producer and consumer of the work. The consciousness of this duality appears during the time-lag after which the sounds arrive to the visitor, following a delay the authors used to make less direct and immediate the impression of an answer and therefore the control of the work.

The dialogical component is thus performed through a constant wait, a curiosity, a communicative tension and through the attempts to dominate the mechanism of the installation itself. This dichotomy is also present in our relations with music and sex, as sharply points out again Álvarez-Fernández : <At this point, it is difficult to make a distinction between the anxiety to know and the anxiety to dominate. Soundanism does not want to answer if the two verbs, to know and to dominate, have the same meaning. Rather it wants to displace this question to a creative area, and make it resound together with other questions concerning our relationship with sex and with music. And obviously this takes place in the more suitable location for all these problems, the visitor's head>.

The constant contraposition inside the installation between image/sound, public/private, outside/inside, body/mind, material/immaterial, subject/object, conscious/unconscious, human/animal, technology/biology, is itself part of an attempt to refer to the other , both in terms of sexuality and music, two areas where there is a possibility or a need to get access to the other or to the alter ego which is inside everyone.


Interactivity is also, for Miguel, a way to underline the political dimension of art, in a cultural and social sense. He affirms that it is necessary to be conscious of the fact that we decide to play the game and that this is something we like. Interactivity is a way to experience and share even the less evident aspects of our society and culture and all our doubts about them.

The crucial point that Álvarez-Fernández wants to enlighten is that sound and music, like sex, often seem to be the result of spontaneous attitudes, but they are actually products of different forms of education and cultural practices. Every work proposes a platform that allows for the implication of the visitor, so he can enjoy experiences that try to represent the processes also found at the core of different cultural, social and political practices.


This project tries to outline a parallel cartography of the histories of music, sound and sexuality. <The categories through which we think about music change through time – says Álvarez Fernández –, and because of this fact the very concept of music is -must be- equally malleable, flexible, open […]>. He points out: <Our sensorial apparatus is the result of a historical process that goes on until the present and, in a broader sense, our notion of human being is an idea oriented through historical and social processes […]>.

Another important and interesting aspect of Álvarez-Fernández's research is related to the idea of voice as a primary interface – in its different modulations, sounds, breaths, sighs, words, accents, pronunciations… –, as the first medium through which we express ourselves and represent the world. Voice (along with language, a cultural system full of significations) is an emerging element of the installation Repressound, which DissoNoiSex is now developing. Reality and its representation compete with each other inside the installation through sound and images. Fragments of black-and-white films are projected on an extended screen on the surface of a room. The furniture and the walls are painted in black and white, similarly to those recorded in the movie, so the world in the screen is amplified and enlarged in the real one.

The public, surrounded by those fictitious elements, can navigate through the micro-stories presented by the projections, short scenes of old movies that at the beginning are stopped, darkened, or blurred. Only the sounds produced by the visitors of the installation with their voices or bodies can activate the cinematographic fragments. The pitch, the intensity and the timbre of the sounds produced control the sequences, moving them forwards or backwards, modifying their temporal structure, rendering them visible, or altering their visual aspect.

Once again we find those contrapositions that stimulate a dialogical relation between work and audience: reality/fiction, time/space, image/sound, art/game…, reinforcing and fading at the same time the distance between what we actually live and what we could live.

Miguel Álvarez-Fernández understands the research with new media as a way to explore realities through collaborative projects, as open and shared as possible. He is a professional amateur himself, with a taste for impure forms of art and media while remaining committed to the most substantial aspects of the piece, and thus reaching the nucleus of each idea by preserving the conceptuality of the work from the risk of a technical and technological redundancy.



This article was earlier published in Digimag (Issue 27, September 2007).


Silvia Scaravaggi is a freelance editor and curator. She was born in 1979 and currently lives in Italy. Her research focuses on new media art, interaction design, art-science-technology. She got a master degree on theory and technique of audiovisual media from University of Pisa, and studied cinema and new media art at University of Amsterdam. She is news editor of digicult project and contributor for digimag. She has recently co-curated "objects-rooms" exhibition in Parma and "on the web", web conferences series on art, science and technology, during other borders. festival in Padua. She has been organizing staff member of "techne05 - between art and technology" and "invideo - international exhibition of video and cinema beyond", in Milan. From 2005 she is organizing staff member at Cultural Department of the Province of Cremona.











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