Electronic music, even at its most adventurous, has a bit of a chicken and egg problem at the moment.

Festivals feed off of other festivals. Projects are made to be as portable as possible, touring from one place to another. Venues, crowds, and even the festival programs themselves are made to be as interchangeable as possible.

None of these things on its own is a bad thing; music touring as an institution has likely been around as long as musicians have owned shoes. But at some point, you need something new to happen. You need someone to do something specific – something that has to happen at a particular moment, and a particular place. Without that, there’s no spark to keep the engine of sonic exploration going.

We already have overwhelmingly broad access to sounds and shows online. And while “portable festivals” have some place in places like the Americas and Australia, where distances are forgiving, in Europe almost everything is a short bus or cheap plane ticket away. Even on a student budget, it isn’t hard to hop from festival to festival. That means those festivals had better be genuinely different.

What would a festival look like if missing the festival really meant missing the festival?

Barabara Morgenstern, who will transform a power plant into a spatial sound experiment using unamplified voices.

Barabara Morgenstern, who will transform a power plant into a spatial sound experiment using unamplified voices.

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From frets to keys to finger holes, musical instruments in every culture have provided ways to easily access musical ideas quickly. But these are physical, acoustic instruments, so any solution they find is more or less restricted to a single set of choices.

Digital hardware can do what digital software can: it can be a blank slate for new ideas.

The monome and Tenori-On grid instruments, each in their own way, demonstrated that a radically simple grid can generate a surprising range of possibilities. The monome’s claim to fame, above its other applications, was the way a companion Max patch treated sliced samples (the mlr app). Tenori-on, drawing on earlier work by Toshio Iwai, excelled at playful, game-like mechanics.

If the piano had centuries of development, the digital grid is still pretty new. And now it’s adding color and velocity/pressure sensitivity. So now may be the best time to revisit its possibilities.

I’m now in London, about to take part in discussions tomorrow to work on the Novation Launchpad Pro’s open source API. I think this could be not only a font for some neat Launchpad ideas, but perhaps a template for how such a hardware API could be developed and supported, and some new thoughts on how to make a grid instrument work.

As I do that, by happy coincidence, developer Fabrizio Poce is back with his J74 ISO Controllers. Continue reading »

Long before trippy visualizers and computer animation, before liquid light shows or laser parties, Thomas Wilfred was building organs for visuals. He called the
art they produced Lumia, and the instrument Clavilux – a keyboard for light.

That first instrument was built all the way back in 1919. But unlike a lot of the spectacles of the era, this one is still hypnotic today, even after all the advances of cinema and computing.

Drawing on a tradition that included displays of fire and fireworks, and the ability to place sound “at the command of a skilled player at a piano,” Wilfred found a way to produce a visual instrument, apparently after first toying as a child with prisms.

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Light organs have been in use for generations. But this is the first generation that has grown up in a world of image and sound in which expression across electronic media might seem simply second nature.

And oddly, as screens have become more ubiquitous, so, too, has thinking beyond them.

What we see here, then, isn’t a projection. It isn’t a display. It’s a big bundle of lightbulbs, making rhythmic poetry in off and on once connected to a jumble of wires. Play the Moog app Animoog on an iPad, and that mountain of electronic junk winks back at you like lightning bugs.

Going from screen (iPad) to pre-digital expression (lightbulbs) seems to make perfect sense. Continue reading »


It’s French composer Pierre Schaeffer’s birthday, and if you’re using any form of sampling, it’s worth pausing to remember him.

At 105 years of age, he’s more relevant than ever.

Listen, to his Cinq études de bruits : Étude aux chemins de fer. Amazingly, this 1948 piece (made when my Mom was born) sounds like it’d still be a good listen on SoundCloud today (thanks, Yuri Spitsyn):

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This is a compilation of female artists, but that’s not – at first – why it’s worth mentioning. I would write about this particular compilation anyway. It’s dark; it’s heavy. It’s full of names you probably don’t know but should.

The compilation is out now on Bandcamp from Barcelona’s inventive and adventurous label Different is Different Records.

If techno isn’t your thing, skip straight to Electric Indigo’s crackling granular universe, “109.47 b.” Susanne Kirchmyer is a master of turning granular instruments into rich ambient landscapes of sonic color and shape, and this is eight and a half minutes of that. (More experimental sounds on their way to CDM, too, soon, so don’t think this is Create Techno Music – it’s not.)

if techno is your thing, this is a map to artists who are worthy of more attention. They’re each of them veteran DJs in different ways, from different corners of the world. This is a testament to the surprising diversity of the female:pressure network: just by hanging a welcome sign on the door for women artists of the world, extraordinary stuff rolls in. (It doesn’t hurt that people like Electric Indigo serve as nodes, attractors to a web of artists with some experience and skill – and their friends of friends, and so on.)

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It’s easy to look at music’s superstars, the people on pedestals – regardless of genre – and see them as something beyond human. Yet the reality for most musicians, the lifeblood of what making music is, is people who are vulnerable. It’s wrapped up in the human experience.

The thing is, we don’t always get to see famous artists go off-script, especially when getting personal. But that’s what happens in a moving interview with Robert Hood at RBMA Tokyo last year, posted yesterday to their Twitter feed.

Robert Hood has been a seminal figure in techno across several decades, still carving out a vital place in today’s landscape, a founder of Underground Resistance and inseparable from the genetic code of all modern techno today. But when he sees footage from those early UR days, it gets to him.

Skip to 15:21 as that edit from 1992 appears. He comments after:

“This music saved my life …

And looking back at this young man, this young Robert Hood, I was just unprepared for it. This music to me represents the struggle of black artists from Detroit who came from nothing. To be blessed to be able to share this music with the world, and to create and be everything that God intended me to be creatively is humbling. I see this young, 22-, 23-year-old kid who’s trying to find his way, and trying to say something that means something to the world.”

I think it’s actually vital to know even a little bit of that early person, both as a music maker and as someone listening to his music. And this ability to save lives is something that ought to remind us why we’re in music.

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