Generic Additive Synthesis. Hints from the Early Foundational Crisis in Mathematics for Experiments in Sound Ontology

  • Julian RohrhuberEmail author
  • Juan Sebastián Lach Lau
Part of the Computational Music Science book series (CMS)


Motivated by an investigation of the historical roots of set theory in analysis, this paper proposes a generalisation of existing spectral synthesis methods, complemented by the idea of an experimental algorithmic composition. The background is the following argument: already since 19th century sound research, the idea of a frequency spectrum has been constitutive for the ontology of sound. Despite many alternatives, the cosine function thus still serves as a preferred basis of analysis and synthesis. This possibility has shaped what is taken as the most immediate and self-evident attributes of sound, be it in the form of sense-data and their temporal synthesis or the aesthetic compositional possibilities of algorithmic sound synthesis. Against this background, our article considers the early phase of the foundational crisis in mathematics (Krise der Anschauung), where the concept of continuity began to lose its self-evidence. This permits us to reread the historical link between the Fourier decomposition of an arbitrary function and Cantor’s early work on set theory as a possibility to open up the limiting dichotomy between time and frequency attributes. With reference to Alain Badiou’s ontological understanding of the praxis of axiomatics and genericity, we propose to take the search for a specific sonic situation as an experimental search for its conditions or inner logic, here in the form of a decompositional basis function without postulated properties. In particular, this search cannot be reduced to the task of finding the right parameters of a given formal frame. Instead, the formalisation process itself becomes a necessary part of its dialectics that unfolds at the interstices between conceptual and perceptual, synthetic and analytic moments, a praxis that we call musique axiomatique. Generalising the simple schema of additive synthesis, we contribute an algorithmic method for experimentally opening up the question of what an attribute of sound might be, in a way that hopefully is inspiring to mathematicians, composers, and philosophers alike.



In the process of experimenting with generic additive synthesis in a multichannel laboratory environment, the inspiring contributions by Hans W. Koch and Florian Zeeh were essential. We would also like to thank Guerino Mazzola for his ideas on frequency modulation in the present context. This paper would have lacked much of what we like about it without the continuing exchanges with Gabriel Catren, Maarten Bullynck, Renate Wieser, Tzuchien Tho and Alberto de Campo. The clarity of James McCartney’s programming language design choices made it easy to develop these ideas. Last but not least, Frank Pasemann and Till Bovermann have given extremely valuable comments on the terminology and formalisation used – it goes without saying that we take full responsibility for remaining errors.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Music and MediaRobert Schumann HochschuleDuesseldorfGermany
  2. 2.Conservatorio de Las RosasMoreliaMexico

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