Xena is an open source project built on top of the prior work of Iannis Xenakis’ UPIC from 1977.

The project allows you to freely draw, and your drawing is converted into sound via waveform analysis. It currently lives at xena.spolialab.com.

The Research: Xenakis & UPIC

Architect, engineer, and composer, Iannis Xenakis was a pioneer in bringing mathematical models and computer processing to the field of music.

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Works such as his famous Metasis are composed via graphical notation. Notes and drafts from his archive end up feeling more similar to data visualization than music, with a variety of colors, shapes, and arrows indicating different sounds and instruments.

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In the 1970s Xenakis at CCMIX began experimenting with creating a computerized tool for drawing graphical notation that could have realtime playback. Completed in 1977, his project UPIC allowed a user to draw waveforms on a graphic tablet that was linked to a computer for acoustic playback. Used for a few of Xenakis’ compositions such as Mycènes Alpha (1978), the X axis indicates time and the Y axis pitch.

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This at the time was revolutionary, and we still argue it is today too. While many new forms of musical tools have become quite mature in the 21st century, there’s an inherent simplicity that makes the UPIC so alluring.

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Coming into 2023 we couldn’t find a well-supported open-source recreation of the UPIC machine, so we built one. There’s no time needed to "learn" how to use the tool. It allows you to simply play through drawing, and experiment in any web browser. When testing it with our friends, beyond actually trying to compose music it invites people to want to hear what their drawings look like, even if it’s a flower or person’s name.

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Of course a more regimented approach is possible too through iterative playback, so you can edit and improve your work over time.

This work is still in its infancy and we hope to support more editing features in the future with more variety of sound option playback.