Transcription: Podcast 0001 - Sam Tarakajian

Released October 25, 2013

Hi, all this is Darwin Grosse with the inaugural episode of the Art Music Tech podcast. In this one we talked to Sam Tarakajian, who is a developer for Cycling  74. And his particular baby is the Mira iPad app, which is a pretty awesome way to interface with your Max patch. But we talk about a lot more than just that. We talk about his background, some of his work with different devices and in kind of a shot off the bow. We also talk about his predilection to travel all over the world and live in various places as a way of personal interaction with the world. So it's my first podcast. I sound like I'm on drugs, but I was in fact just not sure of how to speak into a microphone - so give me a break on that one. But I hope you enjoy this interview and the many more to come.

Darwin: Sam, it's great to have you come visit our little podcast here. Right now you are kind of in the spotlight because of the recent release of Mira, the iPad app that interfaces with your Max UI. Clearly this is a big sea change for people that are used to working with Max. Could you tell me a little bit of how you view what you view as the most important aspect of the availability of Mira?

Sam: Wow. There's so much in that question. I don't know quite how to react - least of which is this  in the spotlight business. But that's neither here nor there.

Way back in the day Mira grew out of this thing that I was interested in. I was really super interested in gesture and in using accelerometer data and this kind of stuff to make music in an intuitive way, I actually did a thesis project actually. And there's a video of me demonstrating it by flailing pretty adorably on the Internet; if you if you want a chuckle, you should go check out. But the point is that what you would do is define the kind of modalities and gesture by dragging together little objects on your phone in the same way that you would use a ReacTable.

And for me that was always where I conceived of Mira, which was going to be this thing that would bring the kind of affordances of gesture and real world modal stuff into Max in a really easy and intuitive way; it ends up that what Mira is more useful for is defining these interfaces and it empowers you to make interfaces that you wouldn't have made otherwise - and to control things that you wouldn't have thought to control otherwise. And Max, I think, has always been about that in terms of what you get to play with. You don't get to play with clips and timelines and tempi and key signatures. You know, you get to play with patch cords and objects and samples and clips. And so the sound you get in Max has always been very distinctive. And I'm hoping that Mira brings that same thing to the domain of interactivity.

Darwin: Yeah, that's actually pretty interesting that that's approach that you take on it. Where on the Internet can we see you like flinging an iPhone or iPad around?

Sam: It's on my YouTube channel, which is dude837, which is my internet handle from way back in the day when AOL chat rooms were a thing. And the project is called Gelie, spelled G-E-L-I-E. Yeah, that's where all the stuff is.

Darwin: One of the things that I found when I used when I use Mira is that I initially start off doing a user interface that feels very much like what I would have on screen with my Max thing. But I end up making adjustments to it to match the size of my fingers or where I like my fingers to lie on the face of the iPad. And I start becoming a lot more aware of the physical layout of things. Was that something that you experienced as well? Or, or did you find yourself moving or wanting to more use things like the accelerometer data and stuff like that? What did you personally find most compelling?

Sam: In my gut of guts the accelerometer is always going to be the most interesting because when it comes time to perform, the most fun sensors to play around with are touch screens sensors that are kind of loose and the multitouch object and the accelerometers stuff. These are the most fun things to play around with. But when I'm using Mira I find myself in a very similar position to the one you're describing. And it's really interesting how different the experience of building an interface is when everything is immediately synchronized and immediately reactive. There are other apps that let you build interfaces, but I think because the process of building the interface and listening to how it makes sound are so decoupled, what ends up happening is that you build interfaces that look like ones you've seen before. And then later in an offline process, you connect those up to the sounds that you want to control.

I think in Mira something different happens because it's right there, and because the choices that you make are reflected immediately. There's kind of this convergent evolution between the sounds that you're making and the interface you design that might be better.

It might just be different. It is, at least, different.

Darwin: One of the things that's interesting as you describe it is that that there actually is almost two paradigms at work here. There's one that's playful, and one that's productive. By laying out a user interface that is immediately assessable and an efficient way to touch the patch, you're being very productive. But at the same time, the things like the multitouch and in particular the accelerometer data opens up doors for a little more playful performance environment.

Sam: Yeah. And I think it's interesting that this distinction between being productive and being playful - it's a really tricky distinction to make, isn't it? Because especially I feel like composition today has a very different feel from composition a hundred years ago. In large part because of this offline versus immediate feedback; you know, at one point in time you had to memorize the sounds of a lot of different instruments in different combinations from many different historical examples. Composition was about recalling all those memories and all those illusions and arranging them, and then months later hoping that the sound was what you'd kind of imagined.

Now I feel like composition almost is play. It seems like composition, for me anyway, is often about putting a bunch of sounds in a player and listening to them and then refining through this productive play towards something that ends up being a final composition. It definitely does mark a division between interfaces that you'd have to build and then connect versus the kind that you can actually build in that playful, productive way that (I think) more closely mirrors the style of composition that is invoked with the way music is produced today.

Darwin: Right. Especially if you extend the paradigm what we're really talking about is people making a personal protocol to interface with their personal instrument. I mean, it's also idiosyncratic - but that's what people seem to really be embracing about it. What's happening right now is the ability to make a very peculiar and personal thing.

And I think that that's one thing that, at least in my work with Mira, I've been really excited about, is the ability to make something that really feels like an extension of me. And as you suggest, because I'm developing this on the fly, it ends up not disconnected from the play of this new instrument that I've made for myself.

Sam: Yeah. I only wish somehow that& I don't know that it's necessary, but I would love to figure out a way to bring the person personal connection that you're talking about into a performance. Because you know, you can see the screen when you're interfacing with this device and it is the interface that you built and it does lend a personal touch to the soundscape that you're controlling. But there must be some way to take that and extend it out into the domain of performance where you can also make a performance that's unique and personal based around the thing itself.

Darwin: Yeah, that's a cool idea. The, the only thing I wonder sometimes  and maybe you have some ideas about this - is to what extent the thing that's fascinating for the creator is not necessarily interesting to the viewer. I mean, there's nothing worse than watching somebody actually use (Apple) Logic to create a great song. And you know, I wonder if there would be any kind of an enjoyable activity in the viewing of interface creation if you were intimately involved in making it somehow.

Sam: Yeah - I don't know. It's funny, in college I roomed with this kid who was really into Starcraft. We've watched these Korean Starcraft videos and apparently there's a large following.

In case not everyone in the world is familiar with Starcraft, it's this computer game that's reasonably popular in the world, but I guess massively popular in Korea.

And they had these tournaments where people actually show up and watch these guys play this computer game and & what's impressive is that it's this whole stadium full of people watching these two guys play and they look exactly like people checking their email. You know what I mean? You're in the stadium watching these two guys just kind of check their email.

Darwin: But are you talking about like 20,000-person stadium?

Sam: Oh yeah. I mean, I don't know if it's 20,000, but easily two or 3000 people & maybe stadium is an exaggeration. It's pretty crazy. And they're a lot of fun to watch. Even if you don't speak Korean, don't care about Starcraft, they're still really entertaining. But yeah, it's like you watch these guys playing and they themselves are not that compelling. But then you look at their hands and you look at what they're doing and it is kind of overwhelming. Like they move really quick.

I think the same is probably true of someone making music. to watch them play with Logic on stage is not that exciting. But if you've ever watched a tutorial or watched over someone's shoulder while they work with Logic - especially if you yourself have worked with Logic - it can be really impressive.

But the thing is that it is impressive, not performative. Right? I guess that's sort of what you're getting at.

Darwin: That makes sense. One of my, like, eight crazy passions is doing the modular synth synthesizer thing. And I actually do that in performance. Now I start with like a blank synth and I just start patching. So people are engaged in the idea of everything they're hearing, I'm having to make on the spot. Of course they see the big sweat rings around my arms and pretty quickly get a sense that it s not easy, I guess, but they're actually seeing me have to work.

Sam: Right. Do you do anything & I mean obviously you're working very hard to patch this thing together and to have it make a cool sound, and that s part of the performance. Is there any opportunity to be to be performative in that context?

Darwin: Oh, absolutely. But a big part is that it's very clear that it's risky. And I always feel like that that's one of the things that actually separates what I consider a performance from a presentation. I feel like a lot of times when I go see people do music or do a live show, what I'm actually seeing as a presentation of their work. It reminds me like of the old days where a guy would stand up at the front of stage and turn on a tape recorder where this thing he labored over for nine months would play. And that that was never anything that resonated with anyone, you know.

But by seeing and sensing the risk, and hearing me lay some clams out there occasionally, it actually provides people with the sense that they're really involved in the performance and they're seeing something that's unique. It's never going to be the same. And in fact, I'm putting it out there - there's a certain amount of performance that just comes from doing the tight rope walk.

Well, we just talked about what I do for a performance. What kind of performance work do you do?

Sam: I haven't been doing so much performance work lately, which is frustrating because it is something that I really enjoy. But it's interesting we're talking about performance because it is kind of crazy how much... In spite of the fact that so much technology has come into existence around making music and to the point where it becomes... you know, you give this example of a guy going from pushing  play and having a performance happen - it's that easy to make a huge amount of music happen. But at the same time, for whatever reason, it means that there is all this hardware associated with making music. And when you go to perform, you're behind this enormous rig and you, the performer, can be like really reduced to this guy with a head and one arm that once in a while becomes a fist in the air.

That's the entirety of what you have to present. And that's a little bit frustrating and something I'm really interested in with Mira is getting to move out from behind that rig and actually engage.

Like my dream is to have a wearable iPad thing. You could walk through a performance and have this very body-oriented experience. Like going back to the original gesture based music controller that I was building as a doe-eyed college junior. The idea was always to bring me into performance - embodied again - and to bring it out into what, let's call, participants rather than audience members.

Darwin: Well that'd be pretty awesome. But you know, it's funny you say you don't do performance, because I think one of the ways that you engage in a performance is through the work that you do on YouTube under your dude 837 moniker. I mean, it's really interesting to me the way that you treat the development of a patch, not like training material but more as a performance that people would be able to engage with in a different ways. How did you decide to do things that way?

Sam: It's incredibly amusing to me that you call that work - for two reasons. One because it attaches an air of gravitas that& given the fraction of those tutorials that are made that are not made sober, that level of gravitas probably should not be attached to it. The other is that they are zero work. I mean, how I got started making those was being a little bit bored and having just found this Karplus-Strong algorithm - and how to do it in Max - and just being excited to talk about it. The thing is that's nice about YouTube is that sometimes I feel more excited about teaching or explaining or talking about something than the person I'm talking to is interested in listening.

But the cool thing about YouTube is you can just assume the other person is listening and just not shut up. And for me not having to shut up actually was a very enjoyable experience. That made it very, very easy to make a whole bunch of these really fast.

Darwin: So this is like one form of teaching. What other kind of teaching stuff do you do? Do you ever do one-on-ones? Or do you ever do workshop-type teaching?

Sam: I do workshop-type things as often as I can. Last summer I was traveling a bit. So I tried to do as many workshops as I could in different schools, in different countries, and in different contexts. And that's a ton of fun. I love to do Max workshops, and some of the reason that that the workshop are better than the tutorials is that it's super challenging. You learn a lot really fast.

You've got a whole bunch of preconceived notions going in: things like, Oh, it's really important for me to nail these concepts. And what I've realized is that A) it's not that important to actually be technically correct ever. (Don't tell anyone that is planning on coming to a workshop& ) and B) that there is a temptation in the context of a workshop to demonstrate one's own knowledge instead of really focusing on [the subject]. It's there and you don't even realize it's there at first - but a couple of bad workshops can teach you really quick that it's important to be mindful of that and to not fall into that trap.

What I find in workshops is that the big difference is that, when you're teaching in a tutorial (for example)& because people can go back and view the information, and because they are shorter, you can be more technically precise and what you're really trying to teach is something technical. But I think in the context of a workshop the technical details don't really matter at all. I feel like a tutorial might teach the nuts and bolts of how to use Max, while in a workshop you teach how to have fun with it, how to view the world in a way that will allow you to use Max to have fun.

I think that's the most important thing you can teach in the actual workshop setting. I have tried doing some one-on-one private lessons with Max and that's something that I definitely have not figured out. And it's very strange. I don't know. Have you ever tried doing that?

Darwin: I've tried a couple of times, but what always ends up happening is it either ends up that they want to do something that they saw me do, or they expect me to reveal a trick that isn't provided anywhere. You know, they expect me to like reveal the super-secret Max trick - the contents of the secret ring, which makes everything work cool, right? And then when I say,  Well, yeah, you know, the frame rate's going to be kind of crappy if you do this, or if you do too much of that, you're going to just overload the signal channel , they kind of blink and look at me disappointingly as if,  Oh, no, this is where I thought the good stuff was going to come.

Sam: Right. It's weird because it is musical - and this is what made me think  Oh, sure. Music. It'll be just like a piano lesson. But it just did not work that way. There was not that vibe at all.

Darwin: Interesting. One of the things you said is that as part of traveling, you did a bunch of teaching. Practically any time I find out about what you're doing, you're actually physically in a different place. Right now you're in Germany, right?

Sam: That's right.

Darwin: Just not that long ago. You were in New York for a while, and then you were on the West Coast for a while. You kind of bop around a lot. What do you find difficult about that? I mean, one of the things that I like about being in one place is that I develop a rapport with the whole local community. How is moving a lot a challenging to your identity as an artist. And conversely, how does that open up interesting doors for you?

Sam: That's a good question. I was hoping that you were going to ask whether it was difficult to move around a lot. And the answer to that question is gonna be easy no. I was hoping you were going to ask why I was choosing to move around so much, and the answer to that is easy. It's because I'm from New Jersey and the focus has always been about going to other places besides New Jersey! That's been like the tradition, you know.

And the hardest thing is like you said that when you are in one place for a long time, you know, your roots can sink really deep into the people around you and into the community around you.

But the thing that is really interesting for me is, I don't know how to describe it. I'm really just addicted. I'm just addicted to this thing that happens when you travel and you go someplace else and you see something new. It violates assumptions that you kind of have about life and it should be.

I mean, I remember once at this summer camp - I was a camp counselor at a summer camp - and we were taking a bunch of kids out into the woods to get some firewood. There's a tree and I broke a branch off this tree to collect it to make firewood. And this kid looks up at me and he's like, he's slack-jawed. And I'm like,  What is it?

What's wrong? And he looks at me having just broken this branch off the tree. And he goes,  You can do that? I guess all his life, his parents had been  Don't fuck with the trees in the park! or  Don't walk into the woods or whatever. And you are just seeing for the first time that you could go into the forest and just break branches off trees. You could just do that. You know, man, the world is crazy.

And it was just funny to me because it was this very innocent experience; I was just seeing this kid learn that what he thought was kind of this rule that you take for granted was not actually true. And that for me, over and over again, has been the experience of going to different parts of the world, seeing how people live. In Berlin for example, it turns out that sleep is not something that's necessary, and you don't actually have to charge money for beer!

These are kind of the things that I'm learning. The rules that I thought you should take for granted - it turns out they are not actually that important to have a stable society. But the other part, which is forming connections with people. I had a really uncomfortable realization the other day when I was thinking about where home is: where it feels a lot like home. And what I've started to realize is that it's not Jersey, it's not the West Coast. It's not anywhere else that I've been. It's actually any place that I can open up and start charging my laptop  that is actually the place that is home. I think home is this big piece of aluminum that I carry around in my backpack. As strange as that is and what exactly that means and whether or not that's something that I should be comfortable with  that is very much a subject for debate. And I don't have a good answer to that question.

Darwin: So where are you going to go next after Berlin?

Sam: Usually the way that I decide to go: I'll get in touch with someone. I just got in touch with someone who's in Barcelona and thinks they might know of someone who's willing to host a Max workshop. So I may, I may go there. And I also learned just recently that there was a hackerspace that's just opened up in Yerevan. Yerevan is the capital of Armenia and based on when I was there - based on the number of power outages per day that we're in effect the last time I was there - and the fact that I think (I don't know this is true) I think I've been allowed to drive only as recently as like 10 or 15 years ago. These two things taken together make it very hard for me to believe that there's a hackerspace there. So, I guess I'm very interested in going and seeing what exactly  hackerspace means in the Armenian capital.

These are the two places I guess I have in mind for the near future.

Darwin: Yeah, that sounds interesting. I guess when you imagine a hackerspace, you imagine somewhere in San Francisco where there are 10 zillion people and circuitry falling from the sky. It's hard to imagine what it could be like. I make assumptions about place, but when I get there I realize that people are just incredibly charged everywhere and they find a way - everyone finds a way.

So you kind of keep track of certain kinds of trends. What are some trends that you think are going to be happening in the media, art, music, visual arts kind of world, in the web-connected art world. What are things that you see that you think are really important?

Sam: I haven't arranged everything into a big schema yet, so that I just have noted a couple of little things. The biggest thing that I think is interesting and a little troubling is the degree to which it's possible now. For a long time it was very easy to... the things that you would sell, the things that people would buy, were artifacts that were functional or pretty; you know, you'd sell a piece of artwork or you would sell a dishwasher that would wash your dishes and whether or not you buy it was kind of dependent on how well they functioned. But now with software and hardware, you can sell things that actually will respond to you and you can sell things that will create experiences for you. And where this pops up, it's interesting in the context of media art is you can sell things like - I don't want to name names - but Native Instruments for example, sells a lot of software based on the idea that once you buy this thing, it's going to enable you to sound a certain way.

Um, and it's kind of aspirational, right? It's like you'll buy this new sound - and be able to make music that reminds you of the music that you like. Music that, you know, people around you will like. I guess that's always been around. But I do worry a little bit that software makes it very easy to sell and buy that. It s a culture that's moving towards needing to feel very quick gratification with the things that you get, that makes it all the more risky. At the same time, I really like the work of artists like Daito Manabe; he's this Japanese artist that I think is big in the Japanese Max users community, who has this really cool approach to working with the digital and software artifacts of the world.

There is one video that's really cool that you should definitely go check out. He's got a bunch of his friends faces with electrodes wired up to them. And he s playing a song and I'm assuming the MIDI is driving some kind of protocol, some kind of a microprocessor that sending electric shocks to his friends' faces. So his friend's faces are all twitching in time to the music.

I love it for two reasons. One, because he retains this playfulness with all of the imposing technological tools that surround us, like something that jolts your skin that then forces your muscles to contract has a certain amount of intensity or danger associated with it. But he makes it into this kind of cute (if a little bit uncomfortable) toy. And the other thing that's really cool is that with everything that he does, the wires are just visible enough that it all looks appropriable at every stage.

And what he does, it feels like to me, is that you could step in and with some elbow grease kind of figure out what's going on. And it's inspirational in the context of being able to make stuff on your own. So I don't know, I guess on the one hand you have the kind of economics combined with software that's leading to aping things that are already established, musical trends for profit, which is not so great. But on the other hand we have mass availability of open source stuff, mass availability of cheap hardware and software and the presence of charismatic figures like Daito to show us how to do really fun stuff with it.

Darwin: Talking about buying a piece of software that allows you to be become a certain thing - you're right in that this has always been the case. But, for example, when I was young you'd see Led Zeppelin play and the dude is playing a Les Paul guitar. I could go out and get a Les Paul, but that didn't mean that I was that guy. It was disappointing for a lot of people because they weren't able to get into it. There seems to be a line of that should be held - that somehow we can't identify yet - because it is actually really nice to be able to get the Berlin House Construction Kit and have some success 20 minutes after you bought it. But there seems to also be something missing in that process.

Sam: DJs were the first people I feel like to really get upset about this. I feel like the first instance of this tension was when you had software that could beat match for you, do you know what I mean? I feel like that was the first time that somebody said,  Hey, wait a second. That's cheating! or  It's not the same. Anybody can do that.

What I do is actually technical and difficult and I didn't just break out the Berlin house software kit and instantly sound acceptable.

Darwin: To what extent do you think it is important to see the wires hanging out of the backside of the process?

Sam: It depends on the art. It depends the art and depends on what you're trying to say. If what you want to do is the things that Daito does, the finished projects can actually be very, very produced. One thing that he does that I both really relate to and really like is his a very active YouTube channel. He posts a lot of content as he's making it. So when you actually do finally see the finished result, you can go back. Maybe you re like me: I've been watching every week, and he'll post a new video or he's built a different laser that, you know, works or doesn't work to varying degrees. And what's cool about that is when you do see that final work, the robot is not breaking a sweat (like you are when you're patching) but you know that it could break literally because you'd seen it break in videos for weeks now.

So I hadn't thought about that until just this moment, but maybe that does make the final work more compelling because you can see the robot sweat. Maybe you know what robot sweat looks like, I guess.

I'm reminded of the fact that I have a lot of friends who are dancers and wanting to take me to see new dance shows - and I have a very hard time getting into dance. I think it's because, in spite of the fact that I have a tremendous enthusiasm for dancing, I am (as the historical record will show) very, very bad at it. But what I'm getting at is that, when you go to see dance, I think it's not-for-nothing that my friends who enjoy watching it are also doers of it. I think that the kind of mirror neurons and that kind of stuff that must fire, and must participate when you watch something that you yourself can do, can be a big part of actually enjoying that performance. I have no doubt that seeing the wires speaks much more strongly to a community who also has worked with wires, if that makes sense.

Darwin: Right, absolutely.

Sam: For the exact same reasons that I can't really watch dance.

Darwin: Right.

Well, Sam, thank you so much for spending the time talking with me.

Sam: Hey man, it's been a delight. Thank you so much.

Darwin: Yeah. And we'll see where this takes us, but I appreciate you taking the time and you being willing to spill your guts a little bit. It was, it was great fun.

Bye!