Murmurate, the concert with smartphones as speakers

Murmurate, the brainwave of Tim Shaw and Sébastien Piquemal, is a new way of getting the public involved. At venues like Stereolux/Trempolino in Nantes and FACT in Liverpool, the pair proposes a live concert broadcast through the audiences smartphone speakers. Could concerts, as we know them, be revolutionised by this innovation? Lets take a closer look


A group of spectators, ready to attend or rather participate in Murmurate, is cosily sitting around Tim Shaw and Sébastien Piquemal. The final instructions are given; the audiovisual experience is about to begin…The concept is ambitious and innovative: each terminal, telephone or tablet at the concert venue transforms into an individual speaker, thus providing its owner with an unprecedented listening experience. The aim is not to broadcast the entire bandwidth but to control certain sounds through a filter system, resulting in an omnidirectional sonic experience. “Tim and I are navigating within a framework in which each telephone is autonomous. We charge up instruments, then we control them by changing the filters and the sound density, explained Sébastien Piquemal.

The result is a highly spatialised sound piece, about 20 minutes long, with each member of the audience holding their own distinctive part of the composition. The ultimate effect in the concert venue is startling. A connection is established between people and their mobile phones. People lend each other their telephones very naturally, put them into a glass or into their mouths to amplify the sound. Others walk around the venue. Murmurate is a wonderful achievement in the field of interaction and compared with existing innovation in this area. 

Murmurate - Performance Compilation from Sébastien Piquemal

Participative concerts became the trend in the 2000s. Audiences are now seeking that extra spark beyond the usual audio or visual offering. A wide range of scenarios integrating interactive devices has therefore emerged. Of note there are artists like Dan Deacon who, in 2012, proposed a smartphone application enabling stroboscopic light to be emitted and sound to be produced during his live performances. Smartphone use is perhaps the only possible analogy with Murmurate

left © Ben Jeans Houghton /  right :© Chris Scott   

Audio performance is establishing itself as an interactive experience of a new kind because it endeavours to end a unilateral relationship between the musician (playing) and the spectator (listening). Eventually it would be great to develop the system in other artistic fields. “We are contemplating different proposals: films with live music; performances exclusively outside; instrumental accompaniment by a musician” And you soon find yourself dreaming of the potential artistic and commercial development for this type of device.

Fields - a year of performances (2014) from Sébastien Piquemal 

In more detail, the system, called Fields (Murmurate is the name given to one of the performances using Fields), must overcome several constraints before envisaging potential broader development. The main hurdle is the technical limitations of telephones. As the frequency of smartphone speakers is limited, only the mids and highs can be played. It is difficult in these conditions to envisage an audio broadcast of pieces at sustained low frequencies. Sébastien Piquemal clarified that, “To begin with we were working with Fields Recording but the low frequencies were not working. For Murmurate we have to work with synthetic sound where there is a lot of texture”. Network latency is also another technical limit. On some telephones messages arrive fairly quickly. Just a few milliseconds delay prevents perfect synchronisation of the rhythm and therefore justifies the use of random soundtracks. For the time being then, kiss goodbye to nearly all the music produced and marketed.

The two artists have developed this device in open source via Pure Data (programming language for making music in real time) during a workshop in 2014. Certain fragments that enable commands to be sent to telephones, have since been reused by other international artists assisting in the development of the project and its (future) applications. “Ben Taylor from Louisiana State University has produced webpunk style performances. And several others too…” In any case Tim Shaw and Sébastien Piquemal’s initiative has at least one thing to be said about it: its gives us a truly unique experience. 

Adrien Cornelissen

Murmurate - Connect The Dots, Sheffield 10/10/2015 from Sébastien Piquemal 



20 April / Stereolux-Trempolino, Nantes

13 May / FACT, Liverpool

14 May / Cumberland Arms

Open Source links

Fields: sound broadcasting system on smartphones (uses rhizome and WebPd)

Rhizome: server for interactive performances

WebPd: Javascript Pure Data