Darwin: Okay, today we have Nick Rothwell. As you can tell, I'm kind of plumbing my list of friends and Nick is one of those. I've had a chance to work with him on a couple of music projects, but he's another one of these guys that I seem to have known forever. So for example, the first time I lit up the early internet and was looking at news groups about electronic music, there was Nick. When I was working with people like Mike Metlay, there was Nick - he was around for a long, long time before I was. So, I may make him sound like an old gray beard, but actually he's not, he's one of the most hyper-literate, but also massively active people that I've interacted with. He's also one of these polymath guys where he knows a lot about all kinds of stuff. And so that makes him kind of interesting to have an interview with. Nick - hi, how are you?
Nick Rothwell: Hi there. Good evening or good morning. It's morning for you, isn't it? Cause your way West of me, seven hours time zone wise.
Darwin: Indeed. Yeah. I'm still in my bathroom doing, doing the hard work.
Nick: Oh, that's interesting. I'm going to have to fight to get it out of my mind.
Darwin: Sure. What I'd like to do is have you just kind of start off, for those listeners who might not be familiar with your work, if you could just kind of give us an overview of your background and some of the work that you consider your most prominent.
Nick: Oh, let's see. Well, it goes back many years. In fact, quite a few decades. I started off as a mathematician actually back in university and I kind of flunked out of that because, well, I enjoyed all the pure math stuff, which meant lots of interesting diagrams and, you know, working with really bizarre, purely mathematical concepts. The applied math let me down. By that time, I'd started using computers, playing with them. So the math kind of went by the wayside and I eventually came out the other end with a PhD in computer science. I didn't really do that for the rest of my life, I guess. And I started taking piano lessons whilst writing the PhD, which was not the wisest of pieces of time management got as far as doing a Electronica gigs because I'm kind of a Berlin School/Electronica head at heart, I guess, got a bit fed up with doing that because it was all about sound and it's very hard to do shows that were kind of visually engaging as well.
This is what we've been hearing for the last 20 years, but, you know, it was true when I started out as well. And then kind of got sidetracked into stuff that's going on in small theaters. From there sidetracked into working with dance companies and at the moment, well, let's say at the moment, being a freelancer, it's hard to say what's coming up next, but certainly for the last year I've been working with some of the major companies and choreographers in the UK. So I've just finished a big project with Wayne McGregor - he's based on South Wales. And he choreographs the Royal Ballet. You're working with a coworker named [inaudible], who works at the Southbank Centre kind of started out doing a kind of mathematic-based dance work with a kind of Indian choreographic content to it. And, yeah, I'm just kind of floating around in that world of somebody who is literate in software, doing collaborative projects based on digital video and digital sounds with dance makers, and it's a great place to be.
Darwin: Right now. You said that you're a freelancer. I don't ever actually recall you working for a company you've always been kind of a freelance programmer/artists. I mean, you've been doing that for a long, long time. Right?
Nick: Right. I actually started out with a day job, I guess that was what I finished the research fellowship. The computer science fellowship at Edinburgh and moved into a day job, just doing software for a small company. And because I'm not a natural risk taker, I had to wait for them to kind of go bust and to be, to be laid off before I could actually do anything interesting. And I kind of moved into another day job when I moved down to London to kind of follow the art scene. And again, I stuck with that until they went busted. I got laid off and I've been kind of just about surviving freelancing of thing ever since. So I seem to have a knack of maneuvering myself into a position where I've got to make a jump into doing something without an element of mystery. And so far it's kind of worked off. It's kind of worked out.
Darwin: I see. Well, clearly, you never talked about your day jobs because you are hard at work, making the companies go bust. Awesome. Note to future potential employers: No, don't do it! As I mentioned in my introduction, when I first got onto the internet and was like interested in diving into some of my interests you were there - how was it that you were connected to the network that early?
Nick: Well, part of it was like I said, having a research fellowship Edinburgh and you know, the academic scene, certainly UK, well, it's very well connected online. We had this thing called Super Gen, which has a really high speed network kind of really alongside what was still then I guess the tendons of the ARPANET before the internet came along properly. And yeah, we got newsfeeds coming in through one piece of wire, came in from Amsterdam I think, and then answer University of Kent and then to the rest of the UK. And yeah, I mean, we were kind of connected. We had to write our emails with the, the, the, the main part of the beginning rather than the end. And he got kind of reversed when it went across the Atlantic. So yeah. Yeah. I was email@example.com it went across to the US and then got reversed back again by some poorly written bits of software.
Darwin: That's unreal. Well, it's funny because you say that. And I remember, when I first kind of lit up the net and got involved in newsgroups, when you interacted with people, you were basically routing your stuff directly to their machine. You would look atat their "send to" address. And about half of them actually had machine identifiers built right into the routing list. It was crazy.
Nick: Oh yeah. The path. So, you know, you'd go NCSC plink ... the name of my sort of workstation plink... UK. [It was] like skipping a stone across the water: you could see it bouncing and skipping as it went along.
Darwin: Right. So, in those early days you were interacting with a lot of people. I ran into you in the Music-L list as well as some others. And, you seem to already know a lot of the people on the list. How many of the people did you actually know before you met them on the internet?
Nick: Probably none. I think being an academic, we have those, you know, those long lunch times, and that was all spent, you know, with a sandwich in hand, sitting at a desk, just trolling newsgroups. And I kind of gravitated to the electronic music mail lists because in these days before the web, it's kind of hard to find out about what was going on, both in terms of the genre and in terms of the equipment that was available. And being in the UK, apart from some magazines, it was kind of very hard to get a sense of what the scene was. So I guess I gravitated towards something that was a more global and we had stuff coming in from the States. You know, the likes of yourself, Mike Metlay, Joe McMahon, these people, we have some stuff coming in from Europe. We had a bunch of people in Holland, I think at the time, cause it was a kind of a Berlin schoolish music scene there.
And I think the reason I stuck around there, it was partly because of the great company. And partly because I was sick of being ripped off by UK music distributors who are charging twice as much money for selling things in the UK, then you could buy them for the States. So if you look back through the late eighties, you'll find most of my messages were why the hell does such and such cost so much money to UK when they can't repair them here and they've got no idea how it works when I go to the States and buy one more cheaply. And eventually Mike Metlay said "Well, you might as well fly to the US, come across here, buy some stuff and that's hanging out and the rest is
Darwin: Yeah, truly. That is in fact, one of the things that I remember is, when I would, when I would hang with you at, at Mike's place, one of the big deals was kind of the shopping trip when we would go and, give you the opportunity to buy stuff at a price that was like pennies on the dollar, apparently, to what you were able to get them in the UK,
Nick: Because these are the days when there was such big impedance mismatch between prices. Whereas now, you know, if you want to find out what they cost, you just Google it and straight away you get a the prices. You know, the dealers can't play those games anymore, that kind of mismatch disparity is all going away, which is good.
Darwin: Right. Well, it's, it's funny because to me, you know, my recollection of the old days of music stores was that the guy running it looked like he could be a mobster, right? He was generally the short, angry, fat guy with a cigar, you'll have *that* guitar kid, you know, and it necessarily - there wasn't much openness. And you could just tell that if you didn't watch your wallet, you were going to get ripped off. And the transparency of the internet certainly did break that down.
Nick: It took a while. Yes. But eventually I think the companies realized - no, we can't put this price online because, you know, in the next window, along in the browser that somebody was looking at Amazon or Sam Ash or whatever, they're seeing the same number with a dollar sign instead of the pound sign. And, you know, we can't keep this off.
Darwin: Right. So now, you said that, w these different people that you met in the early days of the net, people were in the electronic music dance were actually coming from all over the place. You had a number of people that were Berlin school oriented, which is, I guess, most easily identified to people as kind of a Tangerine Dream, thing. You have the Dusseldorf people who were really influenced by Kraftwerk. You have, I guess, I dunno, what would you call the American people? The thing like Larry Fast and those people, what would that even be called? I don't know.
Nick: I'm not sure because I've not listened to much of that stuff. It was hard to get back in the day and, you know, and I listened to this. I'm not gonna go up and make disparaging remarks about the American electrnic music scene; I love the avant garde, I love the experimental performance art side of things, some of the forum Electronica, not so much because I think, okay, opinionated klaxon goes off here. I think something sound art-based or tamboral-based instrumental music with that kind of creative side. So that reflects a lot on the culture around you and the kind of place you grew up, the nationality, the culture of the country. And making electronic music is something that I found very hard to read, say hard to kind of gain traction with the kind of emotional content delivered, but that just might be me. There's something about it that I find hard to kind of get a grasp of.
Darwin: I think that, I mean, I do too, and I've never really understood it. And the closest I've ever come to try to grasp onto something is that I always felt like, like as experimental as things were, when they were coming out of that group of American artists, it still sounded to me like some form of movie soundtrack, there was the kind of the form it took was just something that didn't resonate. Because I came from a background of song form. And so, you know, it was weird to me that this very soundtrack thing and like anthemic thing was happening, but it didn't in any way speak to me. And when I listened, particularly to early German electronic music of a various types, despite the fact that they were using very high tech equipment. It still sounded like folk music in some way to me.
Nick: Yeah. So I think you used the word anthemic when you're talking about American music and I think there's a kind of a, you know, a negative they can pop out a lot of it. It's all, you know, that's half really raspy, let's have some big horn sounds and play with that. And you know, that vision in the minds eye I have of three big semi-trucks kind of driving along with all the gear - that's kind of the, the archetype off of that big technology-led American music scene. If I think of the German scene, I think of the likes of - on the electronica side - I think of the Tangerine Dream and so on. And so on the Prog Rock side, the likes of Johannes Schmoelling who did this really delicate, melancholy, you know, Mellotron and guitar stuff. And there's something about, maybe you hear that and you can kind of get the sense that, you know, this is a country that has one of its major cities has a big wall down in the middle, so people can't get out. There's something about some kind of resonance there, right? That caused me to get into the music.
Darwin: Right. So now in, in addition to your engagement with electronic music, one of the other things that I know of from your work is your work with, with dance companies or dancers and choreographers, and that's something that obviously still continues in your work. But you were one of the first people I knew of that was doing interactive performative systems using computers, using generative concepts. You were one of the first people I knew that was doing that - or I'll say it this way, you were one of the first people that I knew that was doing that who I knew personally. And it was really intriguing to me because let's face it: Dancers tend to be very beautiful people and tend to move beautifully, and it's a really engaging thing. And so there's some interests there. But, what I'm wondering is how did you first get into it and what is, what is your take, how do you approach working with the answers that is different from say, working with musicians or doing your own thing in the back bedroom?
Nick: Oh, let's say it was about six questions that I'll have to answer there.
Okay. Let's see. First off, I guess, going back to the comment about how I make generative music systems... I'm a computer scientists, you know? I got my PhD before I really started making music. So that's completely natural. The way I think about building music systems is purely in terms of building systems or engines or alternative thingsthat make the sound cause that much easier than trying to write notes on a page. Maybe we'll come back to that. Let's get to the dancers thing. I guess now I've done a couple of gigs way back when, it just seemed clear to me now, as it's painfully clear these days, that when you haven't got bansk and banks of flashy lights behind you, they'll now be interested in you. When I was going on stage with, you know, the early Mac, the early Powerbooks, as well as then.
It's not that interesting to look at for an audience. So I was trying to think, how do we actually make this into a into a full experience for people who are coming to see the music live, rather than just listen, you know, at home, with a pair of headphones. At about the same time I got hooked or stuff that was happening in small Edinburgh and in Glasgow, Glasgow just had its "City of Culture", with lots of really interesting, kind of left wing-leaning physical theater performance going on there. And then I saw some dance work by a British choreographers named Rosemary Butcher. And I was absolutely immediately hooked on it because their stuff is very minimal, very architectural.
She's kind of seen it seen as kind of one of the leading lights of what's now called the postmodern dance movement, whatever that means, because postmodern means whatever everybody wants it to be. And where it was just beautifully clean, simple, heavy, architectural, it was often site-specific. It would be in old warehouses or galleries. And yes, I was just hooked on that as an artform, because it just both has an aesthetic purity to it. And it appeals in terms of systems because choreographers work in terms of systems and making there work generatively and algorithmically, which is I was doing. And it was something that's extremely physical, you know, when you see people on the stage and they're sweating and they're putting effort into it to actually create a system which you can then empathize with emotionally then yeah. That was a win.
And I just found that when I was watching this stuff, I could hear the kind of sound of it in my head. So I thought, "Yeah, we've got to get that try." And it just kind of went on from there. And of course what happened since the last few years is that now there's this whole dance technology movement, which has come to be a massive thing because technology is now so cheap that anybody can buy it. And when I was working with dancers, there was no real dance technology. There was dances choreography, and there was the kind of technology music side. And I kind of hung on there, by the skin of my teeth, and by my fingernails until the whole different scenes kind of a merged.
Darwin: I've kind of gotten swept into that too. Now I'm working with the dance company and it's really fantastic, but yeah, it's like viable because, whether you're talking about sensors or cameras or whatever, it's sort of affordable, but I got swept in because someone saw that I was doing visual work and audio work and said, "Hey kid, come over here, kid. Listen to me. Hey, guy, come over here and work with us." Right. And, because I didn't say "no", good enough. But how, how did you get the first gig? I mean, did you just call up a dancer and say, "Hey, you know, let's go." I mean, how did you get that first gig? Because back then, it's not like people had it in their vision that this was going to be a common thing.
Nick: Oh, I think it's all about kind of trading karma. I got my first gig, cause I asked a lot of the choreographers up in Scotland. Hey, do you want to go because there's a piece of putting on for this small festival and not get paid for it? And that's the kind of question you can ask once, you know, I did that because I didn't know any better. It was my first time. And you know, I kind of pulled it off. I was cutting my teeth, got some good reviews in there and the national press and Scotland. And by that time I was hooked on it, but they all kind of went a bit fallow, and I finally decided "Nope, time to move to London." Cause that's where all the big institutions are. And, you know, in the UK London where, where the stuff happens. And once I moved down here within a year or two, I was doing work out at Ballet Frankfurt, which was William Forsythe's company at the time, the big German ballet company and things kind of slowly started building from there because I guess what I was doing was sufficiently unusual that needed to be in a big city where there's enough of a kind of a critical mass of people work at a level where they could kind of make these connections and make things happen.
Nick: And experiment to that degree. Do think though, that you would
Darwin: Have had that kind of, you would have had the first shot success if you had started in London. I mean, it sounds to me like there's value in saying, "Well, I was, I was working in Scotland and I did a little thing and I got national press." That's kind of, isn't that harder to do in, if you're in a bigger environment like London?
Nick: I, I don't know, it's sort of essential to go somewhere smaller, make your mistakes first and then kind of moving to a second place and saying, Okay, now I know what mistakes not to make. On the other hand, London has lots of scenes here. There's lots of small sub-genres and you have lots of little communities going on. And London is sufficiently big that you can have like five communities, all doing experimental, Hackspace-based electronic music and never talk to one another! It really is quite astonishing that kind of stuff happens.
Darwin: Well, those people tend to not want to speak to each other anyway, so there you go.
Nick: I do my best to try to bash some heads together. So I don't know. I guess I would probably hopefully finally got to the stage no matter where I was, but certainly you've got to, should be going to make some mistakes along the way and kind of choose the best place to make those mistakes such that it doesn't kind of track you back once you get your head sorted out.
Darwin: Right. So when you talk about building systems for, dancers or choreographers, what do the systems look like? Are you primarily doing, systems music and feedback systems? Are you doing visual systems? Are you doing something else?
Nick: Well, I guess that's the best thing about this job. If I call it a job is that every exhibit, every collaboration, is different. So even the use of tools varies wildly. So for example, the piece I did with Ewen McGregor, which went to the Welcome Trust, and which he used in the studio making his last piece as well. So that was all based around open source software, something called Fueled by the Open Ended Group where there's some work with them on that. And that was all visuals based in 3D. And I did a whole bunch of web content for that. The most recent sound work I did for the did for [inaudible] was all Ableton Live and Max for Live, because it was fairly clear that was kind of slightly linear or had a linear kind of overall structure, but it was also very algorithmic. I'm not trying to dodge your question here, but kind of heading off on a tangent, but stay with me on this one for five minutes.
I think what I tend not to do actually, despite saying I'm a technologist who does these kind of collaborations, is I tend not to do a lot of work with sensing systems and less like a lot of control over how they're going to work and how precise they're going to be. In the same manner as I kind of gave up on applied math because it's too kind of messy compared to the lovely, pristine pure stuff. I tend not to work with things like video processing systems or sound processing systems that use sound in the space, if what comes out is really kind of messy and needs to be cleaned up, partly because you kind of lose sight of the process, you lose sight of the mathematics. And I like working with choreographers who think mathematically in the first instance, so we can talk about generative systems and processing systems at the same concept level. And secondary, I tend not to do lots of work in video because then there's always a risk the medium becomes the process or the medium becomes a piece. I really have little patience for getting into that kind of world where you're judged on what equipment you're using and what you'll do with it, rather than on what process you've got behind trying to construct a piece and how you're using that process to elicit an emotional response. So I've completely not answered your question.
Darwin: It's actually a really good point because, especially since you say that you're taking this mathematical approach. My question when working with dancers or other performers is how do you do the work in a way that doesn't make it so that your mathematics are the piece and the dancers are just the corollary moving part behind it? I always struggle and I work really hard to make sure that whatever I do is augmenting dancers rather than dancers augmenting my great ideas.
Nick: Yeah. The important part of that equation is - it's finding choreographers who are strong and highly skilled and can work really good craft. So example, when I worked with [inaudible], she was an extremely experienced professional choreographer. She makes really, really beautiful, highly crafted work. And she works with systems. She works with language. She goes words, she knows how to take piece of choreographic material and then transform it in various ways, which are magical - she builds these systems in her head. She puts her systems into the dancers, then has them essentially work to manifest the material. And that's exactly the way I think about making sounds and visuals from a computer science background. So the collaboration is at that level, we are both thinking in terms of systems and algorithms and shapes and architectures, and that's what really gels and that's where the creativity comes from because we're both kind of climbing up, as it were.
Darwin: Right. That makes, that makes a lot of sense. One of the most interesting experiences that I had with the dance company was doing some work... I went to a rehearsal, saw some of the early work they were doing. I came up with some material that I thought would work very well for them in the direction they were going. I brought it in and like before my eyes, I saw them - again, working with a strong choreographer. I saw them transformed their work to, first of all, integrate with it and then, co-opt it so that they were, you know, they were in control. It was amazing, I assume that it was great work on the choreographers part and maybe it was something else, but I'm pretty sure it was the choreographer. I mean, do you have that experience often where you come in with some portion of a system and they look at it, they know the system that they're working with and the next thing you know, the whole thing has been transformed. And then how much do you end up having to manipulate your work once you initially show it off?
Nick: Well, I guess I got that kind of experience often enough to keep doing it. It certainly happens. It's absolutely wonderful, when they can take something you built and really kind of take it to the next level and really kind of manifest in a way that you hadn't expected. What happens more often is that, you know, I'll come up with some really great ideas for something and maybe 25% of it will work. And the rest, even though it's something that I'm essentially proud of or quite attached to, is just kind of not doing the job. And you just get used to the fact that you have to throw stuff away or shelve it for a bit and be able to turn on a dime. You have to work really quickly. So the two [inaudible] I come in with ideas that I've liked, and immediately just realized that, okay - this one, this one, this one, this one, this one - are just not going to work.
It's just nothing to do with the piece. Now the dancers cannot work with it because the [inaudible] is wrong. And the process I've used to build it is such that it's not flexible in the right sort of way. And I guess it's similar to kind a software project, you know, you build code trying to solve a problem. Then realize that, "Oh, actually the problem is more complicated than that. Or actually it's not really. Yeah. I don't really need these kind of structures. I'm trying to solve a different kind of problem here and I can do better this way. So let's just follow this code away and actually do it again." And that works, these kind of collaborations as well. So you have to stay agile, be able to fix things quickly, come up with lots of ideas and be prepared to throw most of it away, and then have enough intuition that you can just say: "This is the one that's working. Trust me, I know this is going to work because it just feels like it's going in the right direction..." - and then be able to kind of mutation-expand it from there.
Darwin: So you just kind of throw out the number of 25%, but do you, do you feel like it's literally that kind of percentage - and how do you deal with the emotional drain of saying, especially if it's something that you really liked when you were putting it together and then you see it in place or you talk to the choreographer and you realize that it's just not going to happen and it needs to get tossed in the bucket. Have you been doing this long enough that you just don't get emotionally attached to those things? Or do you still find yourself kind of regretting having to put something away?
Nick: I think to an extent those are, those are the kinds of issues that you're facing. If you're working solo, you know, if you just kept trying to put together the next album, then you get to a situation where there are things that you're fond of or things you've invested in, but don't work in the context of what you're trying to produce and you have to throw it away. So nothing really about collaborating with choreographers that makes any different.
Darwin: Except that it's somebody else helping to make that determination too. I mean,
Nick: You have to get over that. Yes, you have to get over the fact that people can say "That's not working, can I hear do you something else?" On the other hand, they have the same situation. They're trying to build materials as well. And, you know, if you just feel like you've run out of ideas, you just watch what they are doing for five minutes and there you go - you've got an idea. "I just thought of something just based on what you just did there." So whilst this is, it's kind of a cruel crucible of ideas. Things get killed off pretty quickly, but on the other hand, there's lots of new things all being generated at the same time. So you've just got to provide them and use intuition to pick the ones that you think are going to work.
Darwin: Right. Now. I can imagine that kind of collaborative action happening with small companies, or smaller groups, but how do you deal with that kind of collaborative stuff when you're working with something as huge as Ballet Frankfurt or some of these other larger companies?
Nick: They tend to work in the same kind of way, because even a large company - certainly in the contemporary dance world where we know there will be a dozen dancers and there'll be a choreographer and maybe a dramaturge helping out with the overall shape of the piece. So it's the same kind of hierarchy, the same kind of creative process going on, you know, there's somebody who's kind of directing and causing material to made and kind of shaping and working that. So, yeah, it's the same kind of level of collaboration - you've got somebody in charge of, you know, what's being seen and somebody in charge of what's being heard and the two creative processes are kind of pushing on in parallel.
Darwin: Sure. Have you ever worked with the opposite, like extremely small things, like maybe even a single person who is a combination choreographer/dancer, have you worked at that level?
Nick: I've done quite a few of those over the years. What I find this is this: there are some pitfalls to this. One pitfall is when you work with a person who's both the choreographer and the dancer, then they tend to be making pieces that are extremely personal and it was hard to distance from the emotional content. So you have to know somebody really well to be able to pull that off, otherwise you're spending all your time trying to learn what it is it makes them tick. When you're working with choreographers and dancers, then you're not tied into that vein kind of emotional, personal connection. You're working with material that's kind of outside all the people involved - if that makes sense.
Darwin: It does. I, I've never worked with a single person, and I could imagine the difficulties in going through a critique process with her, because like you say, it's such a personal process.
Nick: Well, it's like an instrumentalist working with a vocalist for the first time. I'm sure it's similar because, you know, vocal work is very personal in the same kind of way.
Darwin: Yeah. Especially like songwriting vocalists. Right now, when you're doing these, systems based collaborations, whether it's with dancers or in other performance context, what kind of environment do you set up for yourself for performing? I mean, do you just use the mouse pad and a custom UI? Do you use a lot of controllers? I mean, I know from talking with you and from reading your work in Sound Or Sound, you have your arms around a lot of controllers, but for your own personal use, do you use controller systems?
Nick: I will tend to kind of pick something more or less at random, a project just based on some kind of intuition about what I'll need, so it'll be anything from an eight fader box to maybe, you know, one of the monome arcs or one of the monome grids. Because it's very hard to tell when you're starting out, how much of the making process is about making the material and how much it's about making the way you control it. I guess you must find the same when you work at the modular synth, because you're constantly working both in terms of making a material, and also in terms of freeing up the things you can control about it.
And that doesn't become care really until you're kind of partway into the process when you realize: "Oh, actually this bit we're going to set because that's be the right length. And it has to kind of have this shape, but this bit here, we've got to keep open and flexible because we're not quite sure how that fits in. So therefore I will use, you know, this fader box here to control that because it's the right kind of thing." And that process is ongoing. So I'll start with one controller that I will set the material then pick the controllers completely different because I suddenly want to work with something kind of gestural to shape some other parts of the material.
Darwin: Right. But it's interesting that you bring up the modular synth thing because in fact whether you're working with a modular or whether you're working with controllers, there's always this other thing, which is you can get so wrapped up in the development of the controller gesture that you forget that there's actual material that you're creating.
Nick: Yeah. That's, that's always the risk. And, you know, I solve that one by having a stopwatch that goes for an hour then goes "Ding!" and says, "Nick, stop it. You're just messing about again - stop making material!"
Darwin: I mean, it takes a certain discipline not to do that. It takes discipline to even set an alarm clock. And I'm not sure that I have even that level of discipline. So, talking about controllers and let's talk in specific, you mentioned the Monome, both the grid and the arc. Let's talk about grid controllers right now, because it seems like grid controllers are sort of raining from the sky at this point. There are a lot of different people doing them. They're doing them in a variety of different ways and, a lot of are interesting and some of them are curious or even have questionable value - I hate to say it that way. But because maybe I look at something and I don't particularly grok how it would work. I mean, first of all, do you have a, have like a personal favorite or would you rather not say,
Nick: Let's see, I guess my personal favorite right to this moment, for instance, the ones I've got sitting here that I haven't reviewed yet. From the monome side I like the gray scale because it's just black on the sides. It's silver on top and it kights up white, but something about that monochromatic-ness that I find really appealing.
Darwin: Right. We're talking about the Monome gray scale.
Nick: Yeah. The 64 - eight by eight box. There's something about that visual simplicity which I think elicits a kind of creative way of thinking about what you're making, because as we know, if you're trying to be creative, then complexity distraction is the actual enemy of that. So you want something that's simple, right. I think that's why this one has done so well when all these kind of RGB controllers have done less well, because they're just, you know, doing too much and they haven't got that kind of focus and that craft. So yeah, I guess my first go to grid controller would be the, the grayscale eight by eight. Second one, possibly Novation. The new Launchpad Mini is really, really neat. You know, it's like the Launchpad, but they made it the right size. You can hold it in your hands. You can get all the keys for two thumbs. And that's a really, useful thing.
Darwin: I haven't seen one of those in person yet. I'm anxious to try it out.
Nick: Yeah. They've kind of got it right. The original Launchpad was too big and too slow, the S performed well, looked good, but it was still a bit too big. That's also my problem with the Ableton push. It's like, there's a bit of a monster. It's great. If you're happy to carry it around with you and have your entire desk space taken up with it, but you're kind of committing a lot of your creative headspace to it because it's, you know, filling up your field of vision. So I tend to go for kind of lots of smaller controllers. I've got a MIDI Fighter sitting here as well, kind of play with it for the next week or two as well, because that's, again, it's that kind of small crafted, a very specialized pro interface. It does have a few things and it does hopefully quite well.
Darwin: Right. Now, do you find that the grid orientation of grid shape actually modifies the way that you develop things? Or do you think it in any way limits your development because of having to fit everything into a grid style interface?
Nick: I think one of the dangers of the grid is that, yep, the reason there's so many around is because the Live session view is a grid, right. And you know, everybody and their DJ younger brother wants to trigger clips. So I think it's kind of hard to pull away from that and say, right, I don't use it for clip triggering, so how do I make this into some sort of musical system, and I guess I fall back to my comfort zone, which is I start coding, I start writing little sequencing things that I can kind of map onto a grid such that they will do stuff that's interesting, slightly unpredictable and will hopefully be surprising in interesting creative ways. Which sounds like something, a partial answer to your question!
Darwin: Well, to a certain extent, it was kind of a dorky question because, you know, nobody wants to say, "Yeah, I'm limited by the shape of a grid..." and conversely, nobody even knows if they are until they're actually talking about a specific project. I don't think that maybe it was a very good question because I don't think that there's a general case answer for that. So sorry about that.
Nick: But we can generalize about whether being limited is a good thing or a bad thing; having no limits at all I think is bad because without a frame on your canvas, where do you start painting?
Darwin: I agree with that. Now one of the things, since we've talked about the monome, it actually makes me want to ask another question because it seems on the surface to be related - Although my suspicion is that it is not. You're involved in something called Monomatic. And, I looked at, your website, cassiel.com. And one of the first images that comes up is the thing that really have that kind of minimalist look and interface to them, but are clearly not monome devices. So my first indication would be on it's building off the work, but then when I went and looked at what Monomatic is actually doing, you guys are flying all over the map. Can you tell us a little bit about my Monomatic and what, what the goals are there?
Nick: Oh, well, Monomatic is a kind of a case study in how not to set goals because we ended up doing something completely different. I started out that was myself and Lewis Sykes, my colleague who was based in Manchester, and our platform Monomatic was you wanted to do things like, you know, Georgio Moroder disco hits, but to use monomes to control it, gigging and doing some AV gigs. And that never happened. What happened after that was a few months later, we landed a big commission to build an audio/visual installation piece for Sound and Music Expo, which is a big sound art festival. And we built this laser-controlled, Arduino-powered, church bell tower that was essentially real size, so it was about two meters across. These laser triggered bell [inaudible], and the thing had RGB LEDs behind it.
So it would actually show the bells being struck. We went up church towers, and we actually did a recording session with BBC engineers. We called them "The Bells". We had down projection built by a colleague of ours called Dan Jones. He'd held his big Processing-based animation that showed the repeating patterns the way he actually rang out bell peals. It's a massive project that pretty much killed the two of us just in terms of the sheer effort and the stress. And then from that, we went on decided we should do something that doesn't require transit and to move around. So we had this idea for this tiny musical box, which I think is the thing that's how you described it. I was like, you know, the one you're talking about, which is a thing built out of what looked like monome-sized boxes, and it's kind of a combination between a Victorian musical box - they're the ones that little ballerina spins round on top - and a vinyl record player.
So you put these acrylic sheets onto the thing you have - your acrylic is a disc about 12 inches across - and that has little magnets inside this and the box has trigger sensors that actually trigger the notes. So it's like a player piano with the score arranged in a circle, set into a 12 inch disc, and you can get different streams coming out of it.
Darwin: So you've made the modern octagon.
Nick: Yes, pretty much. Yes.
Darwin: Well, it's crazy for me to hear that that actually started up as the potential for a performing group and you've become a technology group.
Nick: What I'm finding, now, is that there's much more work out there doing installation work and making pieces and doing visuals than there is playing music. That just seems to be a kind of the way that the way that the wind is blowing at the moment,
Darwin: It does seem that way. There are very few times if you're doing technology, there are very few times that people say that you have to pay in order to show your work. So yeah, where for music, that's getting to be more and more common. So this idea of a music box is actually, it resonates with me. I think it resonates with a lot of people because I've, I've actually, I've been working on a project with somebody to do sort of a music box-like thing. And in doing that, that's put me in contact with other people. What do you think is the resonance behind music boxes and, why it is that there's sort of a gravitational pull towards that?
Nick: Well, I'll tell you if that's the case. This is the first I've heard that there's actually multiple person wants to actually build something like this, I guess.
Darwin: I don't think anybody's doing records for it, but the idea of having a box that creates music rather than a person is something that I've been hearing a lot about lately.
Nick: Right. I guess there's also some times with the whole kind of 3D printing world as well for people printing new disks for existing machines and so on. I guess it's a mix of things it's, it's appeared off of, you know, physical devices making sound, and there's a big push, not at the moment, people setting up this electronic boxes and things, partly exploring step-sequencing, because that seems to be a big thing now again, for the nth time. I guess if you can combine things, I could do step sequencing with things of a physical nature and, you know, that makes me excited as well. You got some music box and it's kind of, you know, the, the thing that comes out of the event.
Darwin: Right. I had never really thought that a music box was doing was idiosyncratic step sequencing. But that of course is exactly what it is. The other thing I wonder is if there isn't something, you know - I'm not sure if it's like harkening back to mothers and you know, their little special place for stuff. Or if it's just kind of looking back to old school technology with a warm place in our hearts, some weirdness nostalgia, but it does seem to be a thing. And, maybe I'm just, maybe I've just talked to the right three people you don't know...
Nick: Maybe it's a hipster thing. You know, we're all kind of growing beards and smoking pipes and wearing tweeds. And, you know, go back a few more decades and it's music boxes and, yeah, well, Victoriana - steampunk comes around again!
Darwin: Exactly. I don't even want to talk about smoking a pipe and wearing a ponytail and tweed - that scares me. Well, Nick, thank you so much. I can't believe I've got this list of stuff I was going to talk to you about. We didn't even talk about Closure at all, which is pretty sad, but the fact of the matter is, I have always been curious about some of your background and some of the way that you approach your work. And this was a great opportunity to kind of learn about more about that. I really appreciate your time. We look forward to, to seeing more of your work, whether it's your own work with different dance companies, with the Monomatic thing, whatever - do whatever you can to keep us informed, because I think you're doing some fascinating work,
Nick: Kind of thanks for having me. I've really enjoyed it.
Darwin: Alright. Thanks a lot, Nick. Have a great day. Bye.
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