Gabey Tjon a Tham – The Monads, Artist in Residency

4-31 January 2016



In January 2016 I was invited to do a one month residency at Steim where I have been working on a new composition for my kinetic/sound installation the Monads (2015). A work that incorporates custom-leslie speakers where sound is swayed by a rotating motor. I created the first prototype at DordtYart in Dordrecht during the summer in 2015 where three speaker units create a mix of direct and reflective sounds whose source appears to be simultaneously nearby and distant.

Each dc motor is connected to a circuit that regulates the speed with an arduino and is controlled from Max, where the composition is made using one single type of sound. The piece was a continuation on my research in generative processes that integrates complex behavior – a process in which interactions with simple units create complex behavior, patterns and intelligence. It occurs both in our digital systems such as our economy and the internet – as well in nature – migration patterns, earthquakes, the formation of patterns in snowflakes and a flock of birds.

Since 2014 I have been working with complex systems to explore the boundaries between control and coincidence. Within my work it was a transition from a linear composition with a beginning and an end to a composition that keeps evolving in time.

What interests me about this behaviour is the constant search for balance within the system between being dynamic and stable. The system can decay into chaos, when for example an enemy flies into a group of birds and causes disruption in the structure. Also, perfect order wouldn’t be ideal, since it would make the system static and wouldn’t be able to do anything. Therefore it needs to be flexible; It must have the ability to adjust and renew itself, but at the same time stable enough to not fall apart.

The parameters of one Monad unit were the volume of the sound file, speed of motor and the start time of the playback loop.

The sound file comes from a recording that I made of the wind going through the leaves of the trees in the yard of DordtYart. What I find interesting about this type of sound is that it doesn’t necessary refers to rustling leaves, but creates associations that embody entities that could be human, machine and animal like. I noticed that a sound source within the mid-high frequency range of a swaying speaker worked best for the reflection in the space.

I spent my residency in Studio 1, which was a familiar space to me since I presented a preliminary version of my kinetic/light/sound installation ))))) repetition at my distance in 2013 during the Steim Winter party. Back then, I was happy that this studio was already a black box that could be made pitch dark in an instant. Now I was looking forward to play with the panels on the wall that could change the acoustics of the space ranging from wet to dry – in other words reflective to non reflective.

I mainly focused on the composition with the same sound source, for which I developed more behaviours, expand the installation to six units and explore different spatial setups. I was working towards the TONE presentation on 23 January alongside performances by Pierre Bastien and Tom Verbruggen (Toktek). During my stay there were also some open studio days where my work in progress was open for the audience. The last 1.5 week I spent on documenting the work and doing tests with light.

Residency 4-10 January
I started my first week finishing some soldering connections of the three extra units that I built before the residency. Instead of beginning with programming I first wanted to know how the behaviours that I wanted to make could possibly sound or look like. I created a schematic where I took the basic rules of flocking behaviour as titles for my pieces: separation, cohesion and alignment.



1. Separation 2. Separation 3. Alignment 4. Cohesion

The schematic could function as a cause and effect chain that formed the framework for emergence of the whole group. It was not my aim to simulate this behaviour, but to create a system that takes these rules as a starting point to create an ecology with its own logic that is closer to natural processes and human experiences of time. I added a few more rules that I made up myself, such as ’sleep’ and ‘murmur’. I accompanied the titles with drawings that served as speculative graphic scores and questioned what atmosphere I would have liked to express.
Regarding the spatial setup I chose to hang the units in two rows of three so the audience could walk in between and around them.


The Monads
My idea to make this installation, which integrates complex interactions between entities, was mainly inspired on the essay the Monadology by philosopher of mathematician Leibniz (1646-1716).

He devised the modern binary number system, which is the foundation of virtually all digital computers. According to Norbert Wiener, Leibniz was considered as the precursor of Cybernetics – a transdisciplinary science from the 40s exploring the control of biological and mechanical systems. Leibniz’ ideas were of great influence on the origins of our digital universe and therefore the beginning of the development of our information society.

Rather than Leibniz’ application of his ideas in our modern digital technologies today, I am more interested in his motivation to construct a universal language through scientific and metaphysical concepts that comprise life and consciousness.

The Monadology could be seen as a philosophical system to describe the nature of reality. It presents the universe as an infinite number of substances called monads. He believed that everything, including plants and inanimate objects, has a mind or something analogous to a mind. More specifically, he holds that inside all things there are simple, immaterial, mind-like substances that perceive the world around them: monads. Also, there is a hierarchy in types of monads where only some of them are aware of what they perceive and can possess consciousness. This universe is unchangeable and comprises a perfect world with a pre-established harmony that is determined by the creator, in Leibniz’ words: ‘God’.

I interpret Leibniz’ universe as a metaphor for a world of ecologies that can exist on many different levels exposing underlying structures of complex behavior between entities on a fundamental level. This universe could manifest itself in any life form such as human, biological processes, but also in society or an algorithm.

11-23 January 2017
Besides using one single type of sound, the mechanical design of a Monad had to look elementary like as well, where only the necessary parts for it to function are visible.

I implemented Leibniz’ idea of the Monads having a pre-established harmony in the programming of the composition where each unit is in a sense pre-programmed, even when coincidence is involved: as a whole they seem to interact with each other, but actually they contain each their own behaviour that doesn’t have anything to do with the interaction between them.

I noticed that an object oriented approach was needed for the development of this piece in order to control each unit more from a meta level in which the entities could move freely in a system of conditions. A way of working I was not yet familiar with before, but a logical step, since most of my previous installations consisted of multiple entities. Therefore I invited software artist Marcus Graf to work with me on creating a logical structure, a valuable partner with whom I already have been collaborating on several projects since our Master studies at the Artscience Interfaculty in the Hague.

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 22.32.14
Main Patch

Starting from the first behavior that I already had and named as Flight, I created 4 more behaviours: murmur, sleep, separation and cohesion. The structure was created as a hierarchy of objects that control one or more objects within each behavior. Each behavior contains a clock that determines how long it will play. When it ends it sends a message to a patch that could be seen as the central conductor that commands to switch to another behavior at a given moment. This patch derived from the drawn diagram that I made in the first week of the residency.

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 23.53.27

Some subpatches function as objects with the possibility to be duplicated, for example the audio player in audio players and the murmurboids in the murmur behaviour.

The Main patch looks as following from top to down:

1. Central conductor who chooses one of the 5 behaviours, its choice depends on the current behaviour and the possibilities it has to switch to the next one.

2. Five behaviours where the composition is written in. Each behavior has its own patch with subpatches.

Murmur, one of the behaviours explained:

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 23.07.31

When Murmur is triggered
– a clock sends every 20 seconds a new value: the behavior within Murmur will change and you will notice variations in how many ‘tick’ sounds you hear from which speaker, the length of ‘tick’ sounds combined with noise, how loud and if the movement of the speaker will react to it. It repeats this procedure 3 times for the following objects per unit:

– trigger density of the ‘tick’ sound: how fast trigger the beginning of the sound file. The tick was coincidently recorded at the beginning of the soundfile, which was me pressing the record button. It ended up becoming a prominent element for the composition.
– play duration of the sound file: how long will the sound file be played when it is triggered to do so?
– average volume of the sound file
– volume variation: how much can the volume fluctuate?
– motor synchronicity : how often will the motors synchronise with the tick?

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 23.08.09

These values are sent to another subpatch called ‘murmurboid’ where the value that is received is put again in a random generator that outputs a number within a certain range of the input value. Therefore what you hear and see is never the same, but also not totally random, because of the conditions that have been made. You can still experience changes in time within this particular behavior of the whole group.

3. Finally, each behaviour sends their messages to one of the:
– 6 Motor faders that regulate speed (PWM)
– 6 Audio players > play the sound file: when and where start, stop and through which filter
– 6 Audio gains: volume of the sound file

How was it to be at Steim?
I had a great time at Steim and felt very much at home. It was nice that I had my own studio where I could concentrate well on developing the work, but I was also happy to share the building with a dynamic and inspiring community where there was always someone working on their projects, whether in the late evening or weekend. It was inspiring to hear sounds in every corner of the house.
I enjoyed the conversations with the staff, the Instruments&Interfaces students and fellow resident Mark Ijzerman, but also the dinners and late night drinks together.
I found it sad to realize that this was probably the last time that I would be working in this building – a place that carries such a long and rich history in Electro Instrumental Music – since Steim had to move out by the end of the year. I also won’t forget the Mafalda cartoon hanging on the wall of the Electronic workshop, which I understand as an inside joke on what is music and what not.


The staff was very sweet and helpful, from the equipment that I needed to setting up an improvised kitchen in the attic of Steim. I was staying in a room at Mediamatic besides the Central Station, which felt like sleeping in a greenhouse! The Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ was on a walking distance where I went to see one of the Oorsprong Curators Series at the Bimhuis.
Initially being born and raised in Amsterdam, the residency made me experience my hometown differently in a good way.

During my last week, Kees assisted me with the audio recording of The Monads and gave me some tips on how to record the installation well.

Thank you so much Steim for everything! Hopefully until next time in your new building!

After the residency


After the residency I could present The Monads in a variety of interesting places for which I adjusted the spatial setup according to the architectural space, such as an old windmill in Zeeland at the Kunstschouw, a warehouse in a former WWII fort at the Fort Process Sound Art festival in Newhaven, the Veemgebouw at the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven, the Kruithuis at November Music in Den Bosch and the Keilepand at Tec Art during Art Rotterdam.

Some mechanical parts were also re-designed at a later stage, so each unit was even more reduced in its parts, became more stable and easier to build up and down.



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