The blue waters of the Mediterranean have become a bloodbath for desperate immigrants seeking refuge in the European Union.
— The Migrants' Files

In the period between June 2014 and June 2015, at least 5,500 immigrants died trying to reach Europe from Africa while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

5500 is both a musical performance and a data visualization performance. It consists of a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, commonly known as Sonata Pathétique, where the pianist’s execution is disrupted using computer–controlled electrodes which stimulate the nerves in their arms causing involuntary contractions of his or her muscles, and affecting the final musical result.

In this work, the calendar dates on which these deaths occurred are mapped onto the time sequence of the performance, in such a manner that the calendar year is spread over the course of the sonata. This means that, for the average performance length of Sonata Patéthique being around eighteen minutes, the nine-minute mark represents six months into the year.

The data of the immigration incidents was obtained from The Migrants’ Files, a project launched in 2013 by a group of European journalists and researchers.

5500’s representation of the deaths of the migrants unfolds in two orthogonal axes: a digital muscle memory implant that transforms the body itself into an apparatus for representing and remembering socio-political processes; and the resulting music, a classical piece of European Culture directly affected by its own representation.

The performance was premièred on the 1st of July, at the School of Arts of the University of the Republic, in Montevideo, Uruguay, with pianist Bruno Benedetto. 

Technical details

The performance involves a standard piano, a computer, a projector, and the EMS device.

The EMS device consists of a laser–cut black acrylic box, from which the electrodes are connected. Inside the box, there is a medically compliant signal generator. We use an Arduino UNO and four relays to control whether the signal from the pulse generator reaches the electrodes. The communication between the box and the controlling computer is via Bluetooth.

The electrodes are situated on top of the ulnar nerve in both arms of the performer. This way, when electricity is conveyed, the hands of the performer twitch, preventing the normal execution of the piece. We use a frequency of approximately 25Hz and a pulse width of approximately 290 μs; however, these values are calibrated before the performance as they depend on the exact location of the electrodes and on the performer’s sensibility.

The system is programmed in Java/Processing.

The paper 5500: performance, control, and politics, presented at NIME 2016, offers a more in-depth discussion of this work.