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Experimental iPhone App Lets You Paint Light With Noise

Still from video by Dylan Römer made with the Sonograph app (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Still from video by Dylan Römer made with the Sonograph app (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

It’s no secret New York City is noisy, from subway platforms where readings have been recorded over 100 decibels to the construction zones constantly tearing down and redeveloping all over the five boroughs. Yet when I was walking around and experimenting with artist Dylan Römer’s new iOS app Sonograph, the abundance of noise became even more apparent. The app uses the iPhone or iPad to record video, or just a photograph, that is then distorted based on the sound coming into the microphone, letting you “paint light with noise.”

Römer discussed this “illumination” of noise over email:

I would have moments when I was confused as to what was making the app go off, and then I would realize it was the air conditioning, or the fan on my computer. All these little noises your mind just tunes out, but the app would bring my attention back to it. And then going for a walk outside expecting to have to look for source of sound, instead I could see the obscene amount of noise that is constantly flooding our senses when we step onto the street. Sound is energy being carried through the air, and one of the things I hope people can get from [Sonograph] is to focus people’s perception on this energy that is vibrating all around us.

The results do look surprisingly like paintings, or maybe more like the hallucination of paintings, with the psychotropic blur of colors falling over the outline of buildings and people like activated brushes of texture. (Sample review from the Apple store: “This app is taking me to other dimensions!!!”) There are different effects that can make it even more trippy with noises pulsing out in neon,  but I found that the standard view was the most interesting, keeping enough of the real into the manipulation to really accent the sounds. (It also made it less likely I’d get a migraine, you don’t really want to watch Sonograph for too long if you’re sensitive to perception changes.) The Miami-based artist got some attention last year for his Time Piles app, which artist Rafaël Rozendaal called “another psychedelic gem” in his plug of Sonograph, where he turned some of the programming ideas he’d experimented with in gallery screenings into an accessible video tool where time and audio pile up and repeat over each other on the screen. Sonograph, likewise, is all about the manipulation of reality.

As Römer explained:

The interest in manipulating video comes from wanting to reshape my reality as I experience it. Improvising with whatever or whoever is around you, and then using the manipulation to give a truer sense of a moment, than what you might get with a straight picture or video.

When I made Time Piles I felt like it had a sort of musical quality to it, like visual music, you have the looping which focuses you on time and collaging which becomes like harmonies you build. So for me using sound to drive the manipulation of video became a logical next step.

Turning them into apps for the phone untethered the experience from the computer, and lets me put it in people’s hands so they can experience it anywhere.

Check out an example of the “visual music” effect of Sonograph with Dylan Römer’s trippy video of a woman singing “O Divine Redeemer”:

Dylan Römer’s “Sonograph” for iPhone and iPad is available for $0.99 from the Apple Store

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