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“Ominous” is an audio-visual performance by Marco Donnarumma in which the artist uses his body to compose sound pieces using a device that records his movements. The piece was commissioned by the European Conference of Promoters of New Music (ECPNM) for the occasion of the 5th Live Electronic Music Project Competition. It premiered on 3rd November 2012 at the World’s New Music Days, and since then has been performed at various other venues  such as National Academy of Arts in Bulgaria, New York Electronic Arts Festival, etc [1].

(Performance of “Ominous” at Bios@Techne@Art, 2013)

In “Ominous”, Donnarumma uses a suit of wearable biosensors, called “Xth Sense”, that transforms the acoustic signals from the wearer’s muscle contractions into an audio stream. Each movement that he effects results in a different pattern of sound being played on nine loudspeakers. The artist stated that the performance is an homage to the works of Alberto Giacometti, especially the sculpture called “Hands Holding the Void”, whose “body rests in an unstable position and its suffering gaze seems about to explode in a loud cry”. He quotes that one common topic in Giocometti’s work is “a constant irrational search and movement towards an unknown object”. And thus “Ominous”, his movements comprise of the manipulation of an “unstable sonic object”, which is not visible to the audience except through a blend of the artist’s gesture and the sound that “Xth Sense” produces[1].

(Source: Marco Donnarumma | Ominous)


(Hands Holding the Void by Alberto Giacometti)

Marco Donnarumma is currently a PhD student at University of London under Prof. Atau Tanaka and Dr. Matthew Fuller. He is also supported by the Rockefeller Foundation as a Harvestworks Creativity + Technology = Enterprise Fellow. His work explores “the dimensions of the body in relation to real, virtual and cultural space…disrupt the flesh to uncover unknown traits of human nature” [3]. Both the Xth Sense and its signal processing system was created by Donnarumma in order to explore a type of music that he terms “biophysical music…that is a joint result of bioacoustic and physical body mechanisms” [4]. The system is released under an open source license, and can be downloaded (or referenced) at Res. A Matter.


(Xth Sense [2])

Regarding his theory about using the body as an instrument, Donnarumma stated that “the whole body system is a technology; namely, a relentless sound technology”, and advanced that “by injecting an understanding of the sonic expressivity of the physio-somatic body system into the computer…instrumentalization of the body can be extended, so to unveil an authentic paradigm of interactive performance; one that places emphasis on the body as a musical and dynamic technology in itself” [2]. In this vein, the Xth Sense system functions not to “‘interface’ the human body with an interactive system, but rather to computationally extend the body inherent capabilities, so to shape an actual and complete musical instrument”, thus providing a continuous association of the sonic experience with the movement of the body, all the while removing clunky limitations that the system would otherwise impose upon the artist’s movement [2].

The range of sound produced in “Omnimous” is at once dynamic, tense, and violent. Its conception as an extension of the body of the artist frees it of the constraints of the classical instruments, but which also subjects it to other instruments regarding the flexibility of the human body. Nevertheless, this work is an interesting addition to Francis Bacon’s “sound-houses”, as quoted in Andrew Hughill’s “The origins of electronic music”: “We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmony which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have…”[5]. One could also say that the body, as extended by Xth Sense, is one of the instruments that fulfill Varese’s contention to the fullest, namely that “composers are now able…to satisfy the dictates of that inner ear of the imagination” [5].

A comparison can be made between this work, as a performance with Xth Sense, and the interactive music installation “Very Nervous System” of David Rokeby. In the latter work, users are able to create music by moving around in an open space monitored by a system of cameras. The actions of the users are transformed into synthetic sound in such a manner that the machines are required “to conform to more intuitive and physical ways of knowing and interacting with the world, rather than demanding that the user conform to a machine-like logic” [6].

Aside from the technological gap between the pieces, there is a sense that the two works are similar in the way they asks the machine to conform to the human body’s intuitive movement and eccentricities. However, Donnarumma’s work makes the distinction that he is using his body as an instrument in the performances, and not as some inputs to an interactive environment. In a way, the human body is all there is, the electronic system is only used to extend the action of the body to the sonic realm. On the other hand, Rokeby’s installation functions as an interface between the body and the machine, which remain separate entities belonging to different worlds. The abstract object in “Ominous” would not have been as sympathetic if it was not illustrated as an extension of the human body. By associating the abstract with his movement, in the spatial and sonic dimensions, Donnarumma has injected a very physical presence to this “void”.


(Source: Marco Donnarumma | Ominous)


[1] Marco Donnarumma | Omnimous

[2] Marco Donnarumma. Xth Sense: recoding visceral embodiment. CHI 2012. May 5-10, 2012. Austin, Texas, USA.

[3] Marco Donnarumma | Bio

[4] Xth sense | Res, a matter

[5] Andrew Hughill. “The Origins of Electronic Music”. 2007

[6] Edward Shaken. Art and Electronic Media. Pg 147