For a few glorious years, Legowelt had a radio show, Thursday evenings on Intergalactic FM internet radio. But while the show is gone, the sounds live on.
Why am I bringing this up now? Well … I owe that notion to Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing, back in the heyday of the blog from whence this site came. Any extended period of, say, reading legal filings surely deserves a unicorn chaser.
And Legowelt comes to our rescue.
The show ran from 2007-2011, and was as eclectic and glorious as you’d expect from Legowelt. Brazilian Moog Cruisin’? Nigerian boogie disco? Check. Or, for instance:
Another radio reportage, this time from the cold snowy Rotterdam were we investigate Mono-Poly’s & Dr.Albert Putnam’s research in Biorhythms using modular synthesizers such as the Fenix and Buchla.
It’s a perfect template of what nerdy music things should be.
There’s a full archive of the tail end of the show in MP3 form, which you can grab as long as it lasts.
Got some festival envy? Relax, sit back – one of the best stages from SONAR Festival in Barcelona last week is now online.
Of course, there’s no substitute for checking out live music. On the other hand, there’s also no substitute for partying at home, with no queues when you get thirsty and no one around but you. It’s all balance.
CDM will be bringing you a bit of SONAR Festival, but having scoped out the place myself, the Resident Advisor-sponsored night stage – and specifically this particular night of programming from said state – was one of the best programmed. And it seems that’s what our friends at RA chose to put online. So whether you know these artists or not or are getting a first introduction, full endorsement.
Octo Octa’s hair swinging back and forth while she killed that set is actually one of my enduring visual memories of this festival. I think things are currently truncated from the live stream but I’ll ask. Certainly this Saturday night on the RA stage was ideal – like a dream lineup.
The artists – DJ sets from Octo Octa on, but the rest live – with more links to more music and resources:
Errorsmith (interview with him coming soon to CDM, finally!)
Far from the liberated playground the Internet once promised, online connectivity now threatens to give us mainly pre-programmed culture. As we continue reflections on AI from CTM Festival in Berlin, here’s an essay from this year’s program.
If you attended Berlin’s festival this year, you got this essay I wrote – along with a lot of compelling writing from other thinkers – in a printed book in the catalog. I asked for permission from CTM Festival to reprint it here for those who didn’t get to join us earlier this year. I’m going to actually resist the temptation to edit it (apart from bringing it back to CDM-style American English spellings), even though a lot has happened in this field even since I wrote it at the end of December. But I’m curious to get your thoughts.
The complete set of talks from CTM 2018 are now available on SoundCloud. It’s a pleasure to get to work with a festival that not only has a rich and challenging program of music and art, but serves as a platform for ideas, debate, and discourse, too. (Speaking of which, greetings from another European festival that commits to that – SONAR, in Barcelona.)
The image used for this article is an artwork by Memo Akten, used with permission, as suggested by curator and CTM 2018 guest speaker Estela Oliva. It’s called “Inception,” and I think is a perfect example of how artists can make these technologies expressive and transcendent, amplifying their flaws into something uniquely human.
Minds, Machines, and Centralisation: Why Musicians Need to Hack AI Now
IN THIS ARTICLE, CTM HACKLAB DIRECTOR PETER KIRN PROVIDES A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CO-OPTING OF MUSIC AND LISTENING BY CENTRALIZED INDUSTRY AND CORPORATIONS, IDENTIFYING MUZAK AS A PRECURSOR TO THE USE OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE FOR “PRE-PROGRAMMED CULTURE.” HE GOES ON TO DISCUSS PRODUCTIVE WAYS FOR THOSE WHO VALUE “CHOICE AND SURPRISE” TO REACT TO AND INTERACT WITH TECHNOLOGIES LIKE THESE THAT GROW MORE INESCAPABLE BY THE DAY.
It’s now a defunct entity, but “Muzak,” the company that provided background music, was once everywhere. Its management saw to it that their sonic product was ubiquitous, intrusive, and even engineered to impact behavior — and so the word Muzak became synonymous with all that was hated and insipid in manufactured culture.
Anachronistic as it may seem now, Muzak was a sign of how tele-communications technology would shape cultural consumption. Muzak may be known for its sound, but its delivery method is telling. Nearly a hundred years before Spotify, founder Major General George Owen Squier originated the idea of sending music over wires — phone wires, to be fair, but still not far off from where we’re at today. The patent he got for electrical signalling doesn’t mention music, or indeed even sound content. But the Major General was the first successful business founder to prove in practice that electronic distribution of music was the future, one that would take power out of the hands of radio broadcasters and give the delivery company additional power over content. (He also came up with the now-loathed Muzak brand name.)
What we now know as the conventional music industry has its roots in pianola rolls, then in jukeboxes, and finally in radio stations and physical media. Muzak was something different, as it sidestepped the whole structure: playlists were selected by an unseen, centralized corporation, then piped everywhere. You’d hear Muzak in your elevator ride in a department store (hence the phrase, elevator music). There were speakers tucked into potted plants. The White House and NASA at some points subscribed. Anywhere there was silence, it might be replaced with pre-programmed music.
Muzak added to its notoriety by marketing the notion of using its product to boost worker productivity, through a pseudo-scientific regimen it called the “stimulus progression.” And in that, we see a notion that presages today’s app behavior loops and motivators, meant to drive consumption and engagement, ad clicks and app swipes.
Muzak for its part didn’t last forever, with stimulus progression long since debunked, customers preferring licensed music to this mix of original sounds, and newer competitors getting further ahead in the marketplace.
But what about the idea of homogenized, pre-programmed culture delivered by wire, designed for behavior modification? That basic concept seems to be making a comeback.
Automation and Power
“AI” or machine intelligence has been tilted in the present moment to focus on one specific area: the use of self-training algorithms to process large amounts of data. This is a necessity of our times, and it has special value to some of the big technical players who just happen to have competencies in the areas machine learning prefers — lots of servers, top mathematical analysts, and big data sets.
That shift in scale is more or less inescapable, though, in its impact. Radio implies limited channels; limited channels implies human selectors — meet the DJ. The nature of the internet as wide-open for any kind of culture means wide open scale. And it will necessarily involve machines doing some of the sifting, because it’s simply too large to operate otherwise.
There’s danger inherent in this shift. One, users may be lazy, willing to let their preferences be tipped for them rather than face the tyranny of choice alone. Two, the entities that select for them may have agendas of their own. Taken as an aggregate, the upshot could be greater normalization and homogenization, plus the marginalization of anyone whose expression is different, unviable commercially, or out of sync with the classes of people with money and influence. If the dream of the internet as global music community seems in practice to lack real diversity, here’s a clue as to why.
At the same time, this should all sound familiar — the advent of recording and broadcast media brought with it some of the same forces, and that led to the worst bubblegum pop and the most egregious cultural appropriation. Now, we have algorithms and corporate channel editors instead of charts and label execs — and the worries about payola and the eradication of anything radical or different are just as well-placed.
What’s new is that there’s now also a real-time feedback loop between user actions and automated cultural selection (or perhaps even soon, production). Squier’s stimulus progression couldn’t monitor metrics representing the listener. Today’s online tools can. That could blow apart past biases, or it could reinforce them — or it could do a combination of the two.
In any case, it definitely has power. At last year’s CTM hacklab, Cambridge University’s Jason Rentfrow looked at how music tastes could be predictive of personality and even political thought. The connection was timely, as the talk came the same week as Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, his campaign having employed social media analytics to determine how to target and influence voters.
We can no longer separate musical consumption — or other consumption of information and culture — from the data it generates, or from the way that data can be used. We need to be wary of centralized monopolies on that data and its application, and we need to be aware of how these sorts of algorithms reshape choice and remake media. And we might well look for chances to regain our own personal control.
Even if passive consumption may seem to be valuable to corporate players, those players may discover that passivity suffers diminishing returns. Activities like shopping on Amazon, finding dates on Tinder, watching television on Netflix, and, increasingly, music listening, are all experiences that push algorithmic recommendations. But if users begin to follow only those automated recommendations, the suggestions fold back in on themselves, and those tools lose their value. We’re left with a colorless growing detritus of our own histories and the larger world’s. (Just ask someone who gave up on those Tinder dates or went to friends because they couldn’t work out the next TV show to binge-watch.)
There’s also clearly a social value to human recommendations — expert and friend alike. But there’s a third way: use machines to augment humans, rather than diminish them, and open the tools to creative use, not only automation.
Music is already reaping benefits of data training’s power in new contexts. By applying machine learning to identifying human gestures, Rebecca Fiebrink has found a new way to make gestural interfaces for music smarter and more accessible. Audio software companies are now using machine learning as a new approach to manipulating sound material in cases where traditional DSP tools are limited. What’s significant about this work is that it makes these tools meaningful in active creation rather than passive consumption.
AI, back in user hands
Machine learning techniques will continue to expand as tools by which the companies mining big data make sense of their resources — from ore into product. It’s in turn how they’ll see us, and how we’ll see ourselves.
We can’t simply opt out, because those tools will shape the world around us with or without our personal participation, and because the breadth of available data demands their use. What we can do is to better understand how they work and reassert our own agency.
When people are literate in what these technologies are and how they work, they can make more informed decisions in their own lives and in the larger society. They can also use and abuse these tools themselves, without relying on magical corporate products to do it for them.
Abuse itself has special value. Music and art are fields in which these machine techniques can and do bring new discoveries. There’s a reason Google has invested in these areas — because artists very often can speculate on possibilities and find creative potential. Artists lead.
The public seems to respond to rough edges and flaws, too. In the 60s, when researcher Joseph Weizenbaum attempted to parody a psychotherapist with crude language pattern matching in his program, ELIZA, he was surprised when users started to tell the program their darkest secrets and imagine understanding that wasn’t there. The crudeness of Markov chains as predictive text tool — they were developed for analyzing Pushkin statistics and not generating language, after all — has given rise to breeds of poetry based on their very weirdness. When Google’s style transfer technique was applied using a database of dog images, the bizarre, unnatural images that warped photos into dogs went viral online. Since then, Google has made vastly more sophisticated techniques that apply realistic painterly effects and… well, it seems that’s attracted only a fraction of the interest that the dog images did.
Maybe there’s something even more fundamental at work. Corporate culture dictates predictability and centralized value. The artist does just the opposite, capitalizing on surprise. It’s in the interest of artists if these technologies can be broken. Muzak represents what happens to aesthetics when centralized control and corporate values win out — but it’s as much the widespread public hatred that’s the major cautionary tale. The values of surprise and choice win out, not just as abstract concepts but also as real personal preferences.
We once feared that robotics would eliminate jobs; the very word is derived (by Czech writer Karel Čapek’s brother Joseph) from the word for slave. Yet in the end, robotic technology has extended human capability. It has brought us as far as space and taken us through Logo and its Turtle, even taught generations of kids math, geometry, logic, and creative thinking through code.
We seem to be at a similar fork in the road with machine learning. These tools can serve the interests of corporate control and passive consumption, optimised only for lazy consumption that extracts value from its human users. Or, we can abuse and misuse the tools, take them apart and put them back together again, apply them not in the sense that “everything looks like a nail” when all you have is a hammer, but as a precise set of techniques to solve specific problems. Muzak, in its final days, was nothing more than a pipe dream. What people wanted was music — and choice. Those choices won’t come automatically. We may well have to hack them.
PETER KIRN is an audiovisual artist, composer/musician, technologist, and journalist. He is the editor of CDM and co-creator of the open source MeeBlip hardware synthesizer (meeblip.com). For six consecutive years, he has directed the MusicMaker’s Hacklab at CTM Festival, most recently together with new media artist Ioann Maria.
Machine learning and new technologies could unlock new frontiers of human creativity – or they could take humans out of the loop, ushering in a new nightmare of corporate control. Or both.
Machine learning, the field of applying neural networks to data analysis, unites a range of issues from technological to societal. And audio and music are very much at the center of the transformative effects of these technologies. Commonly dubbed (partly inaccurately) “artificial intelligence,” they suggest a relationship between humans and machines, individuals and larger state and corporate structures, far beyond what has existed traditionally. And that change has gone from far-off science fiction to a reality that’s very present in our homes, our lives, and of course the smartphones in our pockets.
I had the chance to co-curate with CTM Festival a day of inputs from a range of thinkers and artist/curators earlier this year. Working with my co-host, artist and researcher Ioann Maria, we packed a day full of ideas and futures both enticing and terrifying. We’ve got that full afternoon, even including audience discussion, online for you to soak in.
Me, with Moritz, pondering the future. Photo: CTM Festival / Isla Kriss.
And there are tons of surprises. There are various terrifying dystopias, with some well-reasoned arguments for why they might actually come to fruition (or evidence demonstrating these scenarios are already in progress). There are more hopeful visions of how to get ethics, and humans, back in the loop. There are surveys of artistic responses.
All of this kicked off our MusicMakers Hacklab at CTM Festival, which set a group of invited artists on collaborative, improvisatory explorations of these same technologies as applied to performance.
These imaginative and speculative possibilities become not just idle thoughts, but entertaining and necessary explorations of what might be soon. This is the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, if a whole lot more fun to watch, here not just to scare us, but to spur us into action and invention.
Let’s have a look at our four speakers.
Machine learning and neural networks
Moritz Simon Geist: speculative futures
Who he is: Moritz is an artist and researcher; he joined us for my first-ever event for CTM Festival with a giant robotic 808, but he’s just at adept in researching history and future.
Topics: Futurism, speculation, machine learning and its impact on music, body enhancement and drugs
Takeaways: Moritz gives a strong introduction to style transfer and other machine learning techniques, then jumps into speculating on where these could go in the future.
In this future, remixes and styles and timbres might all become separate from a more fluid creativity – but that might, in turn, dissolve artistic value.
“In the future … music will not be conceived as an art form any more. – Moritz Simon Geist”
Then, Moritz goes somewhere else entirely – dreaming up speculative drugs that could transform humans, rather than only machines. (The historical basis for this line of thought: Alexander Shulgin and his drug notebooks, which might even propose a drug that transforms perception of pitch.)
Moritz imagines an “UNSTYLE” plug-in that can extract vocals – then change genre.
What if self-transformation – or even fame – were in a pill?
Gene Cogan: future dystopias
Who he is: An artist/technologist who works with generative systems and its overlap with creativity and expression. Don’t miss Gene’s expansive open source resource for code and learning, machine learning for artists.
Topics: Instrument creation, machine learning – and eventually AI’s ability to generate its own music
Takeaways: Gene’s talk begin with “automation of songwriting, production, and curation” as a topic – but tilted enough toward dystopia that he changed the title.
“This is probably going to be the most depressing talk.”
In a more hopeful vision, he presented the latest work of Snyderphonics – instruments that train themselves as musicians play, rather than only the other way around.
He turned to his own work in generative models and artistic works like his Donald Trump “meat puppet,” but presented a scary image of what would happen if eventually analytic and generative machine learning models combined, producing music without human involvement:
“We’re nowhere near anything like this happening. But it’s worth asking now, if this technology comes to fruition, what does that mean about musicians? What is the future of musicians if algorithms can generate all the music we need?”
References: GRUV, a generative model for producing music
WaveNet, the DeepMind tech being used by Google for audio
Who he is:A sound artist and researcher in “critical data aesthetics,” plumbing the meaning of data from London in his own work and as a media theorist
Topics: Capitalism, machines, aesthetics, Amazon Echo … and what they may all be doing to our own agency and freedom
Takeaways: Wesley began with “capitalism at machine-to-machine speeds,” then led to ways this informed systems that, hidden away from criticism, can enforce bias and power. In particular, he pitted claims like “it’s not minority report – it’s science; it’s math!” against the realities of how these systems were built – by whom, for whom, and with what reason.
“You are not working them; they are working you.”
As companies like Amazon and Google extend control, under the banner of words like “smart” and “ecosystem,” Wesley argues, what they’re really building is “dark systems”:
“We can’t get access or critique; they’re made in places that resemble prisons.”
The issue then becomes signal-to-noise. Data isn’t really ever neutral, so the position of power lets a small group of people set an agenda:
“[It] isn’t a constant; it’s really about power and space.”
Wesley on dark connectionism, from economics to design. Photo: CTM Festival / Isla Kriss.
Deconstructing an Amazon Echo – and data and AI as echo chamber. Photo: CTM Festival / Isla Kriss.
What John Cage can teach us: silence is never neutral, and neither is data.
Estela also found dystopian possibilities – as bias, racism, and sexism are echoed in the automated machines. (Contrast, indeed, the machine-to-machine amplification of those worst characteristics with the more hopeful human-machine artistic collaborations here, perhaps contrasting algorithmic capitalism with individual humanism.)
But she also contrasted that with more emotionally intelligent futures, especially with the richness and dimensions of data sets:
“We need to build algorithms that represent our values better – but I’m just worried that unless we really talk about it more seriously, it’s not going to happen.”
Estela Oliva, framed by Memo Akten’s work. Photo: CTM Festival / Isla Kriss.
It was really a pleasure to put this together. There’s obviously a deep set of topics here, and ones I know we need to continue to cover. Let us know your thoughts – and we’re always glad to share in your research, artwork, and ideas.
Virtual reality and augmented reality promise new horizons for music. But one studio is delivering apps you’ll actually want to use – including collaborations with artists like Matmos, Safety Scissors, Robert Lippok, Patrick Russell, Ami Yamasaki, and Patrick Higgins (of Zs).
Consumer-accessible graphics hardware and computation – particularly on mobile – is finally keeping up with the demands of immersive 3D visuals and sound. That includes virtual reality (when you completely block out the outside world, most often using goggles), and mixed reality or augmented reality, which blends views of the world around you with 3D imagery. (Microsoft seems to prefer “mixed reality,” and still has you wearing some googles; Apple likes “augmented reality,” even if that harkens back to some old apps that did weird things with markers and tags. I think I’ve got that right.)
And indeed, we’ve seen this stuff highlighted a lot recently, from game and PC companies talking VR (including via Steam), Facebook showing off Oculus (the Kickstarter-funded project it acquired), and this week Apple making augmented reality a major selling point of its coming iOS releases and developer tools.
But what is this stuff actually for?
That question is still open to creative interpretation. What New York City-based studio Planeta is doing is showing off something artful, not just a tech demo.
They’ve got two apps now, one for VR, and one for AR.
Fields is intended both for listening and creation. Sounds form spatial “sculptures,” which you can build up on your own by assembling loops or recording sounds, then mix with the environment around you – as viewed through the display of your iOS device. There’s a lovely, poetic trailer:
Unlike the sound toys we saw just after the release of the original iPhone App Store, though, they’re partnering with composers and musicians to make sure Fields gets used creatively. It’s a bit like turning it into a (mobile) venue. So in addition to Matmos, you get creations by the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto collaborator, or Robert Lippok (of Raster Media, née Raster-Noton).
But if you think you have something to say, too, and you aren’t one of those artists, you can also share your own creations as videos, constructed from original sounds and motion captured with your device’s camera and mic.
The developers are Field are also partnering with the Guggenheim to showcase the app. And they’re also helping Berlin’s Monom space, which is powered by the 4DSOUND spatial audio system, to deliver sounds that otherwise would have to get squashed into a bland stereo mix. The ability to appreciate spatial works outside of limited installation venues may help listeners get deeper with the music, and take the experience home.
The results can be totally crazy. Here’s one example:
Pitchfork go into some detail as to how this app came about:
We’ve seen some clumsy attempts at VR for music before. Generally, they involve rethinking an interface that already works perfectly well in hardware controllers or onscreen with a mouse, and “reimagining” them in a way that … makes them slightly stupid to use.
It seems this is far better. I’ve yet to give this a try myself – you need Oculus Rift or HTC Vive hardware – but at the very least, the concept is right. The instrument begins as a kind of 3D physics game involving percussion, with elaborate floating clockwork worlds, and builds a kind of surreal ambient music around those Escher-Magritte fantasies. So the music emerges from the interface, instead of bending an existing musical paradigm to awkward VR gimmicks.
And it’s just five bucks, meaning if you’ve bought the hardware, I guess you’ll just go get it!
And it’s really, as it should be, about composition and architecture. Designer Dan Brewster tells the Oculus Blog about inspiration found in Japan:
One space in particular, created by Tadao Ando for Benesse House and consisting of an enclosed circle of water beneath a circle of open sky, felt perfectly suited to VR and inspired the environment of Drops.
Brewster and team paired with experimental composers – Patrick Russell and Patrick Higgins – to construct a world that is musically composed. I always recoil a bit when people separate technology from music, or engineering from other dimensions of tech projects. But here, we get at what it is they’re really missing – form and composition. You wouldn’t take the engineering out of a building – that’d hurt your head a lot when it collapses on you – but at the same time, you wouldn’t judge a building based on engineering alone. And maybe that’s what’s needed in the VR/AR field.
Clot magazine goes into some more detail about where Drops and this studio fit into the bigger picture, including talking to composer Robert Lippok. (Robert also, unprompted by me, name drops our own collaboration on 4DSOUND.)
Robert based this piece, he says, on an experiment he did with students. (He’s done a series of workshops and the like looking about music as an isolated element, and connecting it to architecture and memory.)
We were talking about imagining sound. Sounds from memories, sound from every day live and unheard sounds. Later than we started to create sonic events just with words, which we translated into some tracks. “Drawing from Memory” is a sonic interpretations of one of those sound / word pieces. FIELDS makes is now possible to unfold the individual parts of this composition and frees it in the same time from its one-directional existence as track on a CD. I should do this with all of my pieces. I see a snowstorm of possibilities.”
Check out that whole article, as it’s also a great read:
From Venezuela to Europe, DJ/producer Hyperaktivist’s passion for music has been about connecting people as it has about connecting music. She talks to us about that process of community building, even in the face of resistance – and shares hours of music mixed with Mohajer at her side.
MESS is “Mindful Electronic Sonic Selections.” It’s advertised as techno, as house, as “adventurous sounds.” The party itself is once every third month at Ohm, the intimate club built in the former battery room of the power plant that now houses Tresor and Atonal Festival. But follow the connections of this party, and you get a decent map to a range of inspiring DIY, collective efforts of artists around Europe and Latin America. For any of us struggling to put together our own musical lives, our own parties, our own collectives and communities, it’s a terrific instructive effort – not least because of the personality and will of Hyperaktivist, aka Maracaibo, Venezuela-born, Berlin-based Ana Laura Rincon.
I’m personally indebted to Ana Laura in the time I’ve known her, in that in a sometimes mercurial, transient Berlin scene, she has consistently been someone whose vision and friendship I’ve known I could always trust. Of course, maybe it’s better though to first listen to how she communicates musically. She shares with us a mix she made B2B with Mohajer (aka Melinda Mohajer), her Iranian-born partner.
The magical thing about music and perhaps specifically techno is, when someone makes a confident sonic statement, it makes that feeling of strength infectious:
Hyperaktivist went B2B with Mohajer for MESS in February – a perfect Valentine’s Day pairing. Listen to their full mix. Photo courtesy Ana Laura Rincon.
The Hyperaktivist B2B Mohajer set comes to us from the last edition, in February. MESS is never advertised as female-only lineups; it’s a completely mixed crowd, and it never uses artists’ gender as a selling point. For her part, Ana Laura just refers to “chemistry and style.” But the fact remains: some of the most significant forces on the musical scene are female, transgender, and non-binary. And a lot of those figures are still often very underground. So let’s let Ana Laura guide us.
For the edition coming up on Berlin Saturday May 26, we get to meet two special artists:
Nastya Muravyova (Celestial, Kyiv)
“She’s a rising, yet brightly shining star of Kyiv’s underground scene,” Ana Laura says. “She’s balancing on the edge of pumpy 4×4 techno and sharp breakbeat, slightly aggressive — and all the way sexy.”
Ana Laura: “She’s a product of the vibrant underground-scene that’s currently growing rapidly in Stockholm. With roots grounded in illegal raves and open airs, she has gained notoriety for her style of dark and meditative sounds merged together into a very danceable mix. With both technicality and an eclectic selection of records, she has the talent to truly build and build a long lasting vibe on every floor that she appears on.”
PK: I find it interesting that you’re pulling people connected to collectives, parties, scenes in other cities. What’s important to you about doing that?
Hyperaktivist: For me, at the moment, I’m really not finding my inspiration so much from the scene in Berlin. So I always try to invite and collaborate with people from other places – so we can experience something fresh and different for us here in Berlin. With bookings, I take my time to know that everyone is going to have a chemistry that will work through the night and that it will add something new.
I mean, it seems like that’s been a big part of what defined the scene in Berlin – bringing in influence from elsewhere, whether it’s Detroit or Latin America or another part of Germany. So that’s a problem if it becomes just an export culture, if it’s all the same, right?
Hype has taken over Berlin; that’s a fact. People come here to live that “Berlin experience.” What scares me is the effect this might have on some of the artists that reside in Berlin. I worry some DJs feel pressured to play what’s expected from them more than what they feel at the time. And I worry about the consequences of that for the people who actually live in Berlin – whether they’re feeling that they’re going to the same party over and over, or that there are actually new things happening.
At this point I’m trying to go back to the roots a bit, thinking about why I started DJing and organizing parties in the first place. For me it all started in Venezuela, a country with few electronic music affiliations.
I discovered the electronic music scene when I was about 16 or 17. That happened to be around the first time I saw a DJ playing – there were maybe three or four people in my whole city who owned turntables.
It might sound funny, but for me it was a revelation. I knew right there, this is something I wanted to do. I was collecting music already; my mom had a great music collection and she was among other things a radio host. I was already completely fascinated about music and how we needed it to express ourselves and how we naturally feel like sharing it with others. So for me, seeing a DJ – “the master of ceremony” – was a turning point.
I started to get into it, but the scene was small and many people wouldn’t really have access to it. I first started organizing parties and eventually I even opened the first club in my city dedicated to electronic music only. I did it with my three best friends; we ran it for four years. During this time, we would also throw free parties in the streets. We had the intention of making electronic music more accessible to anyone and somehow contributing to the development of this scene that had already become a very important, determinant part of my life
That’s why I try to work with collectives that I feel are working to develop the scene in their own countries. When you start to do this in a place that’s not like Berlin, that’s not well developed, where the industry is not like here, you know that people are doing this because they love it. And they love it so much that they need it and if it doesn’t exist, then they do it. They need it to be part of their lives, so they make it happen.
So I like to work with people I feel are involved in music for these reasons, and doing something with heart and that is honest. Not only because of hype or because they want to be famous. It’s more because we fucking love it.
How do you describe what MESS is about? I know you aren’t explicitly talking about this being female + non-binary only, as far as lineups – so how would you express that dimension?
First of all, I feel the concept of MESS is ever-evolving. We need to pay attention to the necessities of the electronic music scene, what needs work and what’s overlooked.
Berlin is such a masculine city in many ways, music scene included. I’ve met some of the most amazing women and the most strong personalities in Berlin. So I have a hard time accepting why women still need to fight very hard and prove themselves over and over in order to be accepted and sometimes even welcomed.
I think about MESS as a space where I don’t want to make a political statement. I have come to understand the best points are made when you don’t have to explain too much but instead you let things speak by themselves. Actions speak louder than words, right?
So I put together bookings based on chemistry and style. I invite super talented artists and I let them do their thing. And slowly but surely, people are realizing that there’s something different. And I get feedback on it – sometimes at the party, people come to me and say, like, ‘this is really cool, what you’re doing, there’s something different about the party.’ So it’s great to let people see by themselves.
I also always try to put together bookings where people are from diverse cultural backgrounds, so you see different approaches.
In my utopian world, we shouldn’t even be having these discussions between each other. At the end of the day, more than anything else, it should be about the music, about friendship, acceptance, respect — about the feeling you are part of something special.
And this is what MESS is at the moment.
Ana Laura aka Hyperaktivist. Photo by Melinda Mohajer.
So when you go to find these artists, these collectives and other scenes – how are you connecting with them?
Research. [laughs] I spend time – a lot of time, listening to the music. Not only once. You know how it is with music – this day you hear this and you think, oh wow, I love this … next day you hear the same and it’s like, this is actually fatal. I give myself time to hear it, in different moods, see how I feel about it. I hear it with friends. There are different things that catch me. Usually, the things that catch me are related to attitude — when I see that this person wants to say something, there’s something there.
It takes time. That’s why I do MESS every three months, because I need time to prepare and I also want to have a good reason to make the party. For example, the last edition happened on February 17th, the weekend after Valentine’s Day. We decided to make a “Club Affair” and have only couples playing, as in back to back. So we invited Isabella from Colombia B2B Bella Sarris from Australia, Johanna Schneider with Philippa Pacho from Sweden with their B2B project Sthlm Murder Girls, and I played with Melinda Mohajer from Iran. I saved our recording specially for you at CDM.
How does that experience compare to when you were running a club in Venezuela?
It was the same – collaborating with the development of the scene and the culture of electronic music. It’s what I’ve been working for, always.
I had this friend, and he had this house downtown in my city Maracaibo, the second largest city in Venezuela. And he was like, ”I want to do something here, what should I do?” I didn’t even think for one second — I turned around and told him, we’re gonna do a club.
And then we started the club, and it was amazing. It became a meeting point for all the scene in the city and across the country. So we started to do the same – invited collectives from Caracas and all the other cities from Venezuela to come to play, and then we would go to play their parties in their cities. And then it grew, and it started to happen between Colombia, Brazil, Argentina. Then we started to bring artists from Europe, but at this point the political situation of the country started to critically worsen. We had an exchange control that started to happen and wouldn’t allow us to access any foreign currency anymore, so buying records, equipment, or making international bookings became impossible. The whole country started to go down down and boom – it was gone. And that’s when we stopped.
But now one of the best clubs in Bogota, Video Club, is run by a good friend of mine Enrique Leon with I used to have the club with in Venezuela. And he’s putting together great bookings, making showcases with everyone. Dekmental Sound System, Aurora Halal, etc….
If you’re in Berlin, don’t miss MESS tomorrow at Ohm, Saturday 26 May. Or see you in the scene in your neck of the woods.
To master sound design, no technology can top your own hearing. That’s the message from Francis Preve, who gave a gripping talk at Ableton Loop. Now we’ve got video – and more discussion. Nothing is sacred – not even the vaunted TB-303 filter.
It’s really easy to fall into the trap of trying to define specialization in the narrowest terms possible, chasing worth in whatever trend is generating it at the moment. But part of why I’ve been glad to know Fran over the years is, he has knowledge and experience that is deep and far-reaching, and that he adapts that ability to a range work. That is, if ever you worry about how to live off your love of music and machines, Fran is a great model: he’s built a skill set that can shift to new opportunities when times change.
So, essentially what he can do is understand sound, technology, and music, put them together, and apply that to diverse results. He’s quietly been a big part of sound design for clients from Dave Smith to KORG to Ableton. He teaches, and keeps up a huge workload of writing and editing. He’s run a label, been a producer, and made hit remixes. And now he has his own unique sound design products, Symplesound and his Scapes series, which act as a calling card for his ability to produce sounds and articulate their significance.
Francis isn’t shy about sharing his thought process. But as with his presets, that means you can learn that thinking method and then apply it to your own work. And that’s how we started at Ableton Loop, beginning with some listening.
Maybe most poetic: finding the same joy in teaching as you do in gardening.
About the 303…
There are a bunch of mini TED talk-style inspirational moments in there, but maybe the most quotable came in Francis’ take on resonance – and the TB-303.
But wait a minute – even if you love the 303, it’s worth listening to Francis’ analysis of why it sits at the edge between success and failure. (And actually, part of why I like the TB-303 personally is because I don’t feel obligated by anyone else that I have to like it.) Fran re-watched our talk and chose to elaborate for CDM:
To further explain my point, Nate Harrison’s Bassline Baseline is a wonderful historical analysis the whole 303 phenomena and why it was initially unsuccessful.
That said, I feel quite differently about the TB-03 and expressed this in my 2016 review for Electronic Musician. For starters, it expands greatly on the original’s synthesis parameters—adding distortion, delay, and reverb—which vastly broadens its tonal palette. These effects were also essential components of the “acid house” sound, as most 303 owners relied on them to beef up its thin, resonant flavor. The TB-03 also addressed the original 303’s absolutely opaque approach to sequencing, which resolves my other issue with the first unit (and the music it produced).
So, while I generally dislike the sound of envelope modulated resonant lowpass filters, I wanted to clarify my statements on the 303 and specifically the TB-03. It’s common knowledge that I’m a diehard Roland user and frankly, the TR-8S and System-8 are cornerstones of my current rig (as well as an original SH-101), but after 35 years, I still can’t find a way to enjoy the original 303.
Here’s actually where Francis and I agree – and I’ve taken some flak for saying I thought the TB-03 improves on the original. But that little Boutique often finds its way into my luggage when I’m playing live for this very reason, and I know I’m not alone. (And I do like the original 303 and acid house and acid techno – and I love cilantro, too, as it happens!)
Get more of Fran’s brain (and sounds)
Francis has a regular masterclass series for Electronic Musician. Of particular interest: delve deep into Ableton’s new Wavetable in Live 10 and the latest Propellerhead Reason instruments, the phenomenal Europa and Grain.
Since 2016, Francis has added sounds to:
– Ableton Live 10
– Korg Prologue
– Dave Smith REV2
– Korg Gadget
– Korg iMonoPoly
– Propellerhead Reason
– Xfer preset packs
– Various Symplesound products
New physical modeling sounds for AAS’ unique Chromaphone.
Serum is a heavyweight among producers; Fran’s got your tools for Xfer.
(Other clients over the years: Propellerhead, Roland, iZotope)
And this year, so far:
DSI Prophet X
AAS Solids Chromaphone 2 Pack (arriving next week – rather keen for this one; physical modeling in Chromaphone is great!)
System-8 and Roland Cloud Synthwave pack (with Carma Studios)
Xfer Serum Toolkit Vol 3 (summer release)
Major multi-platform Symplesound release
More Scapes based on field recordings (Fran is roaming with a camper van now) – he says he’s “cracked the code for recreating fire in Ableton”
Live 10 (literally hundreds of presets, mostly Operator and quite a few wavetables)
Korg Prologue, Gadget, and iMonoPoly
Dave Smith REV2
Xfer Serum Toolkit Vol 2 expansion pack -https://www.xferrecords.com/preset_packs/serum_toolkit_2
Scapes – https://www.francispreve.com/scapes/ (or your piece)
But the big hit is perhaps the one we debuted here on CDM:
Performing voltages. The notion is now familiar in synthesis – improvising with signals – but what about the dance between noise and image? Artist Oliver Dodd has been exploring the audiovisual modular.
Integrated sound-image systems have been a fascination of the avant-garde through the history of electronic art. But if there’s a return to the raw signal, maybe that’s born of a desire to regain a sense of fusion of media that can be lost in overcomplicated newer work.
Underground label Detroit Underground has had one foot in technology, one in audiovisual output. DU have their own line of Eurorack modules and a deep interest in electronics and invention, matching a line of audiovisual works. And the label is even putting out AV releases on VHS tape. (Well, visuals need some answer to the vinyl phonograph. You were expecting maybe laserdiscs?)
And SIGINT, Oliver Dodd’s project, is one of the more compelling releases in that series. It debuted over the winter, but now feels a perfect time to delve into what it’s about – and some of Oliver’s other, evocative work.
First, the full description, which draws on images of scanning transmissions from space, but takes place in a very localized, Earthbound rig:
The concept of SIGINT is based on the idea of scanning, searching, and recording satellite transmissions in the pursuit of capturing what appear to be anomalies as intelligent signals hidden within the transmission spectrum.
SIGINT represents these raw recordings, captured in their live, original form. These audio-video recordings were performed and rendered to VHS in real-time in an attempt to experience, explore, decipher, study, and decode this deeply evocative, secret, and embedded form of communication whose origins appear both alien and unknown, like paranormal imprints or reflections of inter-dimensional beings reflected within the transmission stream.
The amazing thing about this project are the synchronicities formed between the audio and the video in real time. By connecting with the aural and the visual in this way, one generates and discovers strange, new, and interesting communications and compositions between these two spaces. The Modular Audio/Video system allows a direct connection between the video and the audio, and vice versa. A single patch cable can span between the two worlds and create new possibilities for each. The modular system used for SIGINT was one 6U case of only Industrial Music Electronics (Harvestman) modules for audio and one 3U case of LZX Industries modules for video.
CDM: I’m going through all these lovely experiments on your YouTube channel. How do these experiments come about?
Oliver: My Instagram and YouTube content is mostly just a snapshot of a larger picture of what I am currently working on, either that day, or of a larger project or work generally, which could be either a live performance, for example, or a release, or a video project.
That’s one hell of an AV modular system. Can you walk us through the modules in there? What’s your workflow like working in an audiovisual system like this, as opposed to systems (software or hardware) that tend to focus on one medium or another?
It’s a two-part system. There is one part that is audio (Industrial Music Electronics, or “Harvestman”), and there is one part that is video (LZX Industries). They communicate with each other via control voltages and audio rate signals, and they can independently influence each other in both ways or directions. For example, the audio can control the video, and the control voltages generated in the video system can also control sources in the audio system.
Many of the triggers and control voltages are shared between the two systems, which creates a cohesive audio/video experience. However, not every audio signal that sounds good — or produces a nice sound — looks good visually, and therefore, further tweaking and conditioning of the voltages are required to develop a more cohesive and harmonious relationship between them.
The two systems: a 3U (smaller) audio system on the left handles the Harvestman audio modules, and 6U (taller) on the right includes video processing modules from LZX Industries. Cases designed by Elite Modular.
I’m curious about your notion of finding patterns or paranormal in the content. Why is that significant to you? Carl Sagan gets at this idea of listening to noise in his original novel Contact (using the main character listening to a washing machine at one point, if I recall). What drew you to this sort of idea – and does it only say something about the listener, or the data, too?
Data transmission surrounds us at all times. There are always invisible frequencies that are outside our ability to perceive them, flowing through the air and which are as unobstructed as the air itself. We can only perceive a small fraction of these phenomena. There are limitations placed on our ability to perceive as humans, and there are more frequencies than we can experience. There are some frequencies we can experience, and there are some that we cannot. Perhaps the latter can move or pass throughout the range of perception, leaving a trail or trace or impressions on the frequencies that we can perceive as it passes through, and which we can then decode.
What about the fact that this is an audiovisual creation? What does it mean to fuse those media for a project?
The amazing thing about this project are the synchronicities formed between the audio and the video in real time. By connecting with the aural and the visual in this way, one generates and discovers strange, new, and interesting communications and compositions between these two spaces. The modular audio/video system allows direct connection between the video and the audio, and vice versa. A single patch cable can span between the two worlds and create new possibilities for each.
And now, some loops…
Oliver’s “experiments” series is transcendent and mesmerizing:
If this were a less cruel world, the YouTube algorithm would only feed you this. But in the meantime, you can subscribe to his channel. And ignore the view counts, actually. One person watching this one video is already sublime.
Plus, from Oliver’s gorgeous Instagram account, some ambient AV sketches to round things out.
It’s time for another trip into the strange and wonderful world of artist-created Reaktor ensembles. This time, our guide is dub techno maestro Deadbeat.
The Canadian-born, Berlin-based Scott Monteith is an artist whose chops are at peak maturity, from timbre to rhythm, recording to mix. And Scott’s latest, Wax Poetic For This Our Great Resolve, is both more personal — pulling from inspirational texts from friends — and more sonically intimate. The entire album sounds open and airy and organic, thanks to using acoustic re-recording of electronic elements. Every percussion hit, every synth line was either recorded in real space in the studio or recorded out of the box and into that open space and then miked.
With all this focus on acoustic recoridng and re-recording, you’d think there wouldn’t be much to say about software – but you’d be wrong. There’s yet more shade and color around these sounds that’s produced by synthetic processing, a whole lot of it in Reaktor.
“There’s tons and tons of extra stuff that you would normally delete in vocal takes or guitar takes or whatever that ended up as sauce for feeding vocoders or feeding [Reaktor ensemble] grainstates,” says Scott, “or even some of the real classic [ensembles].” You’re hearing some of that in the hyperreal, clear color of the arrangements and mix.
“I think it’s nice to treat that stuff completely independently,” Scott says, “and then you end up with this bank of stuff that you know is going to be in key. And it’s somehow relatable, whether it be melodically or aesthetically – because you’ve fed it this stuff from a particular track. And then you go back to arrangement mode, because then I can take off my sound designer’s hat and put on my arrangers’ hat.”
Scott is confident enough in his skills to give that secret sauce away, so here’s a tour. Some of these are some long-lost gems of the library, too, so don’t expect to find them just by sorting for the latest or most popular ensembles. Some of these were used on this particular record, others represent a related techniques but have been used on other productions.
“I’m using that just to add color to things. I love vocoders, period.
It’s like taking the vocals of Gudrun talking or Fatima talking, and using that as the modulator and the carrier signal being the chords in the track. Or it could also be the extra recording of the high hats in the room, and vocoding the vocals with that. So, then you have something rhythmic that’s the same, and in the same air, but then can be free as its own track. Or taking the guitar or the bass…”
“There’s this preset – ‘Coming Up From Hell.’ I use that a lot – I’ve been using that for years. If you’re rolling along, and you want to create density, it’s like, okay, flip this into the Ultimate Reverb, and all of a sudden you’ve got this underlying loud of ffffoooooosssssh. You’ve made things thick without adding another element.
And that with some sort of distortion, and some sort of sidechain compression to make sure that it doesn’t get in the way of anything — all of a sudden, you’ve created raging hell.”
Don’t forget the granular Reaktor ensemble that started the craze. Martin’s landmark granular processor has had an influence even outside the Reaktor community on imagining how grain processing effects can be used as instruments.
Hacking together custom ensembles
The biggest advantage of using Reaktor as a modular environment is, you can hack together what you need if a particular tool doesn’t do exactly what you want. Scott long ago made his name as a Reaktor patcher, but don’t feel obligated to achieve mastery — even he doesn’t necessarily go that route now. “The last one that I did … this thing [Deadbeats] 13 years ago.”
The aforementioned Grain Cloud synth, for instance, he used to substitute oscillators inside a drum machine. Or with granular processors, he’s swapped a sample player with a live input, as on The Swarm. These aren’t complicated hacks – you barely need to know how to operate Reaktor to pull them off. But they then open worlds of new performance and sound design possibilities.
In another instance, Scott had a happy accident hacking mmmd1, the “morphing minimal drum machine” by grainstates creator Martin Brinkmann. That ensemble includes a series of assignable X/Y controllers which can modulate the filter, bitcrush, and so on, with step-based sequencing.
Scott tried applying a child ensemble with a crossfader for interpolating between presets – and that’s when he was surprised. “Because this is step-based, morphing between presets on this thing, as you would go across, it would go thththththththththt …. and you would get these totally twisted, glitchy crossfade things.”
Thanks, Scott! Got more favorite Reaktor ensembles, other granular tools, or the like? Let us know in comments.
The death of 28-year-old star producer/DJ Avicii comes as a shock to many. It’s also easy to reduce to another example of party world excess, or to say it’s just about big-money EDM and pop. But it should be a bigger wake up call than that.
To me, the most alarming reaction I’ve heard from the electronic music world is, “oh, who’s that?” – not from people who genuinely don’t know, but from those who are making a show of pretending not to know. And the reason that should be unsettling is, it allows people in the larger industry of electronic music to try to separate themselves from their own connections to this story.
Some of the warning signs that we got from Avicii are relevant to all dance music – including the bits that like to style themselves as underground. Some relate to the dangers of the industry around music, and its priorities. Some are personal ones, for anyone working in music and creative arts. And some of those speak on a pretty basic human level to asking ourselves what we’re doing with our lives. These are not questions any of us should be somehow “above.”
They’re also relevant to music technology, because our business is fueled by the music industry, because we’re personally often involved in this other world, and because we have self-care challenges of our own.
But, okay, let’s back up. If you genuinely don’t know who Avicii is – which in today’s heavily fragmented musical world is very possible – here’s a quick review. (Yeah, Wikipedia is your friend, too.) His real name was Tim Bergling, hailing from Stockholm. While he wound up with a long string of blockbuster hit singles, he started out making music with more of the profile of a lot of typical readers of, like, this site. He was posting remixes in forums at age 16.
You either know his music, or you’ve heard his music without knowing it – even the most disconnected from popular culture can do a quick YouTube search now and go, “oh, that song” with a few of them. He’s one of a handful of people who made dance music as big as it is at the moment, especially in the US market. And he had that sort of magical talent with both sound and hooks that I personally think is tough to argue with (even if people do out of some reflexive snobbishness). It’s immediate; it reaches people.
But whether this is your music or not, watching this kid play around with a Game Boy and smiling in front of a DAW arrangement – of course, this is us. You might not be a guy or white or Swedish or Grammy-nominated or played in front of huge crowds in Vegas or even know how to operate a CDJ. But I know if you read this site, you know that feeling of being excited about some new music well enough to start to tear up even for the passing of a perfect stranger.
You can bet that a lot of discussion this week will center on Bergling’s health.
Mental and physical health are about more than just party culture. One of my personal heroes growing up was Jim Henson of The Muppets fame, who’s about as far from Ibiza as you can imagine. I even met him as a kid in Indianapolis and took a photo with him. And part of what I loved about Henson was his endless devotion to his work. And as a kid as well as in adulthood, I’ve always been able relate to this desire to be consumed by creating things.
I was just twelve when Jim Henson died, but part of what I understood at the time was that this drive also took his life. (He was in production at the time, and even delaying seeking treatment seems likely to have advanced the course of the bacteria that killed him.)
So, when processing the news about Avicii, the first question we ask I think shouldn’t be “is this the sort of music I like?” or “is party culture too much about excess?”
I think we should ask, “are we taking care of ourselves and other people, in terms of their health and their happiness? Who and what are we working for, first?”
As I write this, there hasn’t yet been a discussion of an immediate cause of death, but Avicii’s health problems have been public for several years now. Billboard has an overview:
Heavy drinking at least appears to have been a factor early on. That is itself significant, because both in his native Sweden and in my native United States where his career took off, prohibitions in the music scene have focused on the drug MDMA (or even, perversely, marijuana) but largely ignored alcohol. That’s something that has been criticized by many health advocates. (Without stepping into the ecstasy debate, it’s worth checking out the cannabis debate – as its history in the USA is beyond bizarre.)
But that’s just one factor, if an important one. Touring itself seems to have been a culprit. And there are many more signs something was wrong with Avicii and deeply troubling about the world around him that advanced his decline.
If you want to get fairly depressed, you can watch the documentary True Stories that came out last year for a vivid picture:
This was a message that Avicii the artist wanted to get out. He was even brave enough to actively promote segments from the film that put him and his promotional team in a pretty bad light. From DJ Mag in November, you can watch some utterly chilling moments with his doctors and with his publicist:
This isn’t just about whether someone was drinking too much at one point. In this segment, it’s clear that Avicii and his team sometimes chose keeping up appearances and continuing work at the expense of getting complete medical treatment or recovery.
That is an important, important point. Lots of people can abuse alcohol or drugs or engage in self-destructive or suicidal behaviors. But – coming back to my Jim Henson example – it’s also possible for any of us to get sick and then fail to get treatment. Sometimes a few hours’ delay getting to a doctor can be fatal, even for a health adult with no history of substance abuse.
So, what does it mean if we’re part of an industry, or talking to professionals, who actively encourage us to do something that harms us? What does that mean about musicians – or fans? That motivation can be as much about money as it is about something like substances. It’s not to ignore the substance question (someone’s making money on that, too, ahem), but to try to understand a deeper sense of what this is about.
As I write this, Avicii’s site hauntingly still shows the text posted as he announced his retirement from live shows and touring:
WE ALL REACH A POINT IN OUR LIVES AND CAREERS WHERE WE UNDERSTAND WHAT MATTERS THE MOST TO US.
For me it’s creating music. That is what I live for, what I feel I was born to do.
Last year I quit performing live, and many of you thought that was it. But the end of live never meant the end of Avicii or my music. Instead, I went back to the place where it all made sense – the studio.
The next stage will be all about my love of making music to you guys. It is the beginning of something new.
Hope you´ll enjoy it as much as I do.
But it’s what he said in an interview in the Rolling Stone that I find most telling. And it’s actually not so much about his physical health per se as you might expect.
First, about partying, what he describes is more about personal relationships than about substances (even though the magazine’s question related to ecstasy, the pill):
“Parties can be amazing, but it’s very easy to become too attached to partying in places like Ibiza. You become lonely and get anxieties. It becomes toxic.”
Reading through this, it’s clear how traumatized he was by the experience. He also talks in the interview about not standing up to the people who told him to keep going, as seen in the documentary clip above in DJ Mag. But the part that really gets to the point in my mind is this one:
“I needed to figure out my life. The whole thing was about success for the sake of success. I wasn’t getting any happiness anymore.”
Bob Dylan has the song Gotta Serve Somebody. This whole story can speak to that: we all have some questions about who and what we serve. That’s relevant to who we serve in our music, and for those of us making part or all of our living in music (including music technology), who and what we serve in those jobs.
The press and social media present an image of touring that is, oddly, devoid of both its real pleasures and perils. (And there are pleasures, too. I know people who really do love touring, and people who can be miserable stuck in their studio.)
Just don’t think for an instant that this doesn’t have anything to do with your corner of music.
In supposedly “underground” techno (check William Morris), in experimental electronic music and art-y festivals, there are now plenty of big agencies. Five figure fees are standard stuff on even that “adventurous” or “experimental” side of things. Do the math, and you have enough of an industry around touring artists – at the same time that recorded music is collapsing – that a lot of people serve that financial stream more than they do any particular feelings about music or the humans making it. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing; it only becomes one if you aren’t aware of the potential conflict of priorities. What makes money in a tour is not always what takes care of the artist – as Avicii says, “success for the sake of success.”
It’s also easy for those of us in music technology and musical instruments to pass the buck over to the music industry at large. But we feed off those same economics and desires; we sell a lot of our tech to the people who dream of being Avicii. And we have our own demons and burnout to consider, too – obviously.
I also find myself constantly in conversations about making ends meet, about staying happy and motivated, and indeed about this question of touring and keeping up with it – or just keeping up physically with demands in general. There’s a natural human tendency to ignore our own limits and mortality and even our own moods and emotional needs. Now we have social media presenting a continuous image that’s always young, always happy – a world without sadness or death. The bizarre thing is, attempting to live in that world will actually make you utterly miserable.
It’s so easy to turn this into prohibitions instead of self-reflection. And America is great at prohibition. So it’s great at cracking down on the “rave” scene or whatever it may be. It’s even just as easy to ignore what Avicii loved about his music career, while focusing on its tragic end. He did say that touring had ups as well as downs.
I think it’s better to ask some questions.
What does it mean for those of us who encourage music making that we make stardom its ultimate goal?
What does this stardom do to how we value music? To what extent are we weighing that music’s financial possibility rather than how it makes us feel?
Do we insist on presenting artists only in the positive sense, without talking about their struggles?
Are we purposely leaving out real discussions of health? Of mental well being? Of aging, even?
Are we placing all our emphasis on touring and not on other activities that can support artists?
Are we taking health and happiness as part of the goal of tours, of music careers?
Do we actively promote ideas that discourage mental health?
Are we stigmatizing mental health issues in music, even when music is often initially an outlet for people to find healing?
Can we reflect on the role of alcohol as the main revenue stream in so much of live music? What about other substances (including the impact of policies around both legal and illegal substances)?
Do we have accurate information for music-goers and event organizers of what health impacts of consuming substances or other behaviors actually are? (In the age of fake news and fake science spread via online communication and hearsay, accurate risk assessment seems essential, from infectious disease to alcohol to drugs.)
I’m certainly not claiming any kind of innocence either in behavior or intention, but – this is about asking questions, not just having answers.
Are we caring for ourselves and the people around us?
And how do we make music and musical instruments something that add to that care and that don’t just take it away?
Struggling with those questions need not be burdensome. I think it can be rewarding.
Remembering Avicii should be something all of us do. He’s been one of the biggest artists in 21st century electronic music, and what he chose to do was to make his personal struggles public. That isn’t easy, and we should be grateful he’s done that. And we should make sure that the questions he asked remain part of our conversation. Because just like last year’s chart-topping pop hit, the natural tendency of the music industry will be to simply move on – and we shouldn’t let them.
My deep condolences to Tim Bergling’s family, friends, and everyone who worked with him. I hope we can elevate the cause of health, happiness, and care that he worked to raise in the midst of his struggles.
I welcome any and all comments on those topics for music, creativity, and tech – this can absolutely be an ongoing conversation.