Musical Creatures (2000-3)

The Musical Creatures series was created by Marc Downie when he was at the MIT Media Lab.

Musical creatures are virtually alive in eccentric abstract bodies. They each have two capabilities: to listen to the outside world, and to make sounds of their own by moving their bodies. Installed in the same gallery space, they interact sonically with each other and the world, evolving a kind of primitive and precarious music. And they learn as they listen and perform, their bodies growing into the shape of their understanding.

Each creature gets a screen, a speaker and a microphone — they communicate with each other solely through the air. Played out in a spatial representation, fragments of sound heard by the creatures are exchanged and distorted; retrograde variations and repeated sub-segments are swapped back and forth in a recombinant evolution, with sounds from the environment also drawn into creatures’ knowledge of the world and their bodies.

Music creatures live for short durations (around seven minutes), their life-cycles (and in particular their learning-cycles) patterned on those of birds and other animals that can learn acoustically. Each has a specialized ability in a field that broadly underpins music itself: rhythm, timbre, melody. But no creature ever masters even its own sound domain completely: instead, they are kept, deliberately, in a state of interactive disequilibrium that has them continuously striving rather than succeeding.

Visually, the music creatures are rendered as abstract hand-drawn lines and shapes. They move across a gray ground, so that both light and dark color values are equally perceptible.


exchange moves between trying to make notes as similar as possible to those it hears in the world and as different. Its body is a simple parametric planar surface that “lives” in a physics simulation where linear and angular momentum apply. By changing its planar parameters, the creature propels itself around its small world.

Eventually it learns to map its physical changes to the resulting movements, a simplified form of motor learning. exchange’s learning isn’t quite strong enough to offer it a stable model of the results of executing a pose; it fails to account for the higher-order physical effects like momentum on the body, and the creature thus over- and under-shoots its target.


clock tries to track and play back the rhythms it hears in the world. Its task is a near-impossible one, for it tries to embody the rhythm of sounds passed from other creatures that have little regard for rhythm.

Its body is made up of a variable number of flat tiles, each tile tracking a single pattern of sounds that it perceives. Initially the tiles are connected in simple hierarchical body that grows on a relatively flat surface, with its tiles oscillating slightly to the rhythms they perceive. Eventually, however, these oscillations become full rotations. Newly perceived sounds are matched to the most appropriate tile, and are struck in subsequent rotations, producing strongly polyrhythmic patterns.

Towards the end of the creature’s life-cycle, tiles modeling lower frequency patterns migrate to the root of the body structure. This reorganization moves from a complex, randomly branching structure to a single two-dimensional curve made out of squares. After this structure is achieved, subsequent reorganizations drop rather than transfer tiles — and the body evaporates.


network attempts first to identify and then to accompany the recurring musical phrases it hears.

Its body is a point-line graph that it grows by adding a vertex for each new sound event it perceives. It also places an edge between subsequent sound events to indicate sequence, with duplicate edges removed as it evolves further. Eventually the creature can “pluck” a node to join in with a particular musical fragment that it has predicted. It cannot always do so, however, since a particular node must have a bound lattice before it can be plucked.

Unheard nodes are eventually forgotten, culled, and replaced by new material. Eventually the culling continues, but this sense of “newness” is not refreshed and the network disintegrates.


line is a kind of valiant but fallible taperecorder. It tries to associate the sounds it hears with the three states of its peculiar body, which cycles through three hand-drawn shapes: triangle, square, and spiral. It records sounds heard during each state, and eventually acquires enough musical material to sing the contents of a pose as it moves through it.

However, line’s cycle is far from stable. For one thing, as it moves from one pose to the next, it cannot rely on a fixed memory of that shape, but must search for it anew, propelled by the force of sonic events in the room, which often are so strong as to force the search to overshoot.In addition, line must keep collecting what it hears in a given pose, and if a given sound is “unexpected” it injects a new node into line’s body.


Ars Electronica Festival (2003); SIGGRAPPI Film Festival Brazil (awarded best film) (2002); SIGGRAPH 2002; Media Lab Europe, Dublin (2000).