[May 12-13] CTW Exhibition: Oyster by Joe Diebes

oyster is an encompassing audiovisual installation by Joe Diebes that unravels a peculiar moment in the history of music and computers.  In the 1960’s, renowned American folklorist Alan Lomax developed a wildly ambitious system called cantometrics for coding and analyzing folk songs from every corner of the world.  Working with the BOTCH vocal ensemble, Diebes has reconstructed the folksong styles from regions as disparate as Bali, West Africa, and Central America using only the data from Lomax’s study.  In rendering this early effort to identify cultural patterns and profiles, oyster asks contemporary questions about what happens when machine learning meets ethnography. A Harvestworks 40th Anniversary Event.

The Knockdown Center 52-19 Flushing Ave, Maspeth, NY 11378

Friday May 12 2017 Opening reception Friday 6-8pm   (ticketed with access to performance)

Saturday May 13 2017 from noon – 7 pm  (ticketed with access to performance)


Christina Campanella as the voice of IBM 360. Photo by Joe Diebes

oyster is an encompassing audiovisual installation by Joe Diebes that unravels a peculiar moment in the history of music and computers.  On entering a large room, the audience encounters a circle of screens, each featuring a group of singers vocalizing in a distinctly non-Western style, each brightly color coded.  It eventually becomes clear, from subtitles and voice-over, that the audience is seeing and hearing a computer’s reconstruction of singing styles from around the world.

Saori Tsukada and Michael Chinworth as the voice of IBM 360. Photo by Joe Diebes

The installation is based on the research of renowned American folklorist, Alan Lomax, who in the 1960’s, developed a wildly ambitious system called cantometrics for coding and profiling folk songs from every corner of the world using an early IBM 360 mainframe computer.  Diebes has taken these profiles and codes, and used them as a musical score for his vocal ensemble, essentially creating a human synthesizer of world musics.  The 37 parameters of Lomax’s system (things like melodic complexity, vocal blend, how nasal the voice is) are adjusted by the singers as they circumnavigate the globe from Arctic Asia to Australia. The inevitable and often absurd gap between the sound of this American experimental vocal ensemble and the actual folk song recordings made in the field is meant to be a productive space within which to consider issues of globalization and a Western, technologically mediated, understanding of other world cultures.

Central to the work is its recombinant aspect. Diebes has created a state-­of-the-­art software engine that makes a continually changing montage in real­time. This ‘brain’ pulls from a carefully tagged database of video footage, still images, text, and sound, juxtaposing them according to algorithms developed by Diebes for their musical and aesthetic potential. By making a narrator out of the computer the work emphasizes a digital perspective which profiles, analyzes, and compartmentalizes its subject.


Joe Diebes creates audiovisual installations and live operas that combine sound, visual media, and the human voice in multifarious ways.  Recent projects include MY TROCADERO (Watermill Center), his broken-word opera BOTCH (HERE Arts Center) and the opera WOW (with Christian Hawkey and David Levine, BRIC Arts | Media).  He has exhibited his sound installations, video, and works on paper in galleries, museums, and public spaces including Paul Rodgers/9W (New York), the Torino Winter Olympics, The Noguchi Museum, The Hammer Museum, Yuanfen Gallery (Beijing), Prix Ars Electronica and the Liverpool Biennial.


New York State Council on the Arts Individual Artist Grant for Film, Media, and New Technology Production. A Harvestworks Sponsored Project.

This project is also made possible with funds from the New York State Council on the Arts in Partnership with Wave Farm: Media Arts Assistance Fund, a regrant program of the New York State Council on the Arts, Electronic Media and Film Program, with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.



BOTCH Newscast:




The installation features Christina Campanella, Michael Chinworth, John Rose, and Saori Tsukada.  Cinematographer: Damian Calvo.



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