I’ve just kicked off production on my new radio series, my first documentary. It’s a 6 * 30 minute show about experimental music in Ireland, entitled ‘Mad Scientists of Music’. Experimental music is a pretty big topic, covering everything from bedroom tinkering with Fruity Loops to technically and aesthetically sophisticated electronic ‘noise’ to Harry Partch style microtonal music. Clearly, I can’t cover everything, and this won’t be an effort to comprehensively catalogue the field. Instead I’ll be focusing primarily on participatory music – chiptune, circuit bending, music apps and other techniques and technologies which allow untrained musicians to take part in creating music.
For a number of years I was involved in the day to day activities of Exchange Dublin. Exchange was at that point a consensus based arts institution in Temple Bar Dublin; more recently the centre has moved away from total democracy, for better and worse, and apparently plans are afoot to leave its Temple Bar HQ for less contentious surroundings. When Exchange kicked off, the initial idea was to let open groups co-ordinate creative projects in different mediums. Exchange Focus (founded by Dr. Jason McCandless) let enthusiast photographers and complete novices alike learn the intricacies of DSLR photography. My pet project, Exchange Words, ran workshops, lectures, and collaboratively organised spoken word performances. No Signal, a group organised by Dublin based artists like Jonah King, Daniel O’Donovan, Patrick Hough, Aine Belton, and Sebastian Dooris, fooled around with experimental audio video production and performance. No Signal was great fun, I used to head along as an interested if utterly unqualified observer. This was 2009, and demonstrations of 3D digital projection, live coding, and circuit bending seemed to come from a different world, a sizzling technoutopia where devices could be opened up, rejigged and tickled to reveal their secrets. This open access mixture of mad scientists laboratory, artists workshop and technofetishists basement encouraged a playful attitude to technology, a million miles away from the intimidating math heavy culture of academic engineering and computer science. It was the purest expression of the hacker-artist culture I used to read about in Bruce Sterling think pieces for Wired Magazine or hear breathlessly described in The Net in the early 90’s. Talented amateurs using prosumer technology in interesting and innovative ways to make art, just for the love of it. Around the same time I took part in one of Ben Gaulon‘s ‘Sound Dig’ workshops, learning the very basics of circuit bending and hacking my first kiddie keyboard.
Later I got to know the guys behind Gamepak, a loose knit Dublin chiptune / circuit bending collective. Gampaq run chiptune gigs at festivals like KnockanStockan, and circuit bending workshops in association with Harold’s Cross based A4 Sounds. Taking part in these unstructured peer learning workshops helped inform the ideas behind Open Learning Ireland. Most recently, MarQu and Andrew Edgar of Gamepak helped organise the Open Learning hacklab at our week long festival of learning.
Bitwise Operator, one of the acts interviewed for the series.
I’m no musician. I took piano lessons as a kid, and wrote some awful singer songwriter music after leaving school, but I can’t play any instrument with any degree of competence. What I like about these technologies, and the folks who play with them in an inclusive way, is that my lack of ability doesn’t matter as much as my desire to participate. This isn’t just fiddling about with a ‘my first musak’ toy either. Participative electronic music, like gamelan and other traditional forms of non-expert collaborative music making, let non-musicians take part in producing real music: Improvising with ambient noise duo Deathness Injection, fiddling with Andrew Edgar’s homemade keyboards, or jamming on Bitwise Operator‘s upcoming iPad app. That’s the feeling I’m trying to convey with this series. The experience of playing with things beautiful, unsettling and deliriously novel. In my next post I’ll talk about some of the folks I’ve interviewed so far, and the techniques and radio series that have influenced the approach I’m taking with ‘Mad Scientists of Music’. For now check out this collaborative performance curated by Na Hailtiri in association with Deathness Injection. 1000 members of the public converged on Exchange Dublin, to join in in the spontaneous performance – noodling on theremins, effects pedals and chaos pads.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pLJ5nCwrts]