London Fix: making sound out of gold

About the piece

London Fix, Music Changing With the Price of Gold, An Environment of Continuous Electronic Music (2003), by the American composer Tom Hamilton, is a series of six sonifications of the gold price evolution at the London Stock Exchange. It was one of the first pieces that drew me to research sonification and hence I wanted to include this on my blog. I have asked Tom Hamilton a few question on how he got to create this work which he was very kind to answer.

He took his inspiration from a visit to his neighbour who repaired an old violin of his wife. The neighbour showed him his online stock trading business. The visual and dynamic representation of the market was strange yet addictive, Hamilton says: “A primary tool for the stock trader looked like a musical score to me”. For the next three years, Hamilton would study market analysis, and without money to trade, but a lot of music to write, he decided to create music out of the markets.

Mapping

London Fix follows the contours of the spot gold market in 2002 as defined by the twice-daily London Fix. The price charts control pitch possibilities, range, and even portamento (“perhaps a slight nod to the violin”). The historical chart data are used both “in a linear and recursive fashion, resulting in sonic fluctuations that compress and superimpose time in a way that discourages any literal interpretation.” The main goal was to create an interesting musical result, so a simple representation was less important than the counterpoint he created through the superimposition of different timescales. This polyphony sounds quite interesting and it definitely can relate to the dynamics of the financial markets.

Hamilton did not want to go into too much detail in explaining the whole thought process between his work as his practice has evolved in a career spanning more than 4 decades in such a way that the composition processes are very close to him. In this work (and the works around the period London Fix was written), he has used the Nord Modular keyboard, with Digital Performer and ProTools to capture and coordinate the work. Max/MSP was used for a segmentation and diffusion system in the original production and the CD recording that resulted from it. Hamilton, in an interview with Gustavo Matamoros of the Listening Gallery in Miami Beach (see also the video above), suggests that the listener listens to what happens in the moment itself, and does not try to think of the past or future but merely of the sound at that particular moment. He furthermore suggests listening at a low volume, to enhance the present-time listening.

London Fix was premiered at CCNOA (center for contemporary non-objective art) in Brussels in November 2003 and received an honorary mention in the 2004 Prix Ars Electronica and has been released on Muse-Eek. The recording is available here.

About Tom Hamilton

Tom Hamilton is a composer with a career spanning over 4 decades. He started using analogue synthesis in the 1960s and he improvises extensively, mixing electronic sounds with acoustic instruments. He channels the idea of present-time listening”, layering several lines simultaneously. He collaborates frequently with other musicians and visual artists. Since 1990, Hamilton has been a member of the late composer Robert Ashley’s opera ensemble, performing as the company sound designer and mixer. He is a Fellow of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation.  His latest work is City of Vorticity, available on the POGUS label. Below is an interview where he talks about this work and his musical vision.

You can also read an interview with Fifteen Questions, an online music magazine, here. Hamilton’s work is fascinating and definitely is worth exploring.

Related work by other artists.

Another work that uses the gold price is Stock Exchange Piece by the French artist and philosopher Matthieu Saladin.

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