We Are Robots, the first edition of a festival dedicated to music and its future innovations, was held on November 2-5 in London, where we met up with the cream of maker musicians.
London, from our correspondent (words and photos)
Good news for fans of DIY musical instruments: music festivals and other industry gatherings are looking more and more like a makers’ meetup. This was also the case of We Are Robots, the first edition of a festival dedicated to music and its future innovations, held in London on November 2-5.
Before entering the main festival venue, visitors were initiated to its pervading (noise and experimental) atmosphere through a dark room on the first floor of East London’s Old Truman Brewery, where the installation Post-Truth and Beauty by Tim Murray-Browne and Aphra Shemza stood in a corner. Here, visitors were invited to enter the circle of speakers and change positions in order to influence the sound and lighting. “As the visitors change their perspective, different parts of the world are revealed to them,” Murray-Browne explains. The piece is a sonic and artistic response to the political context of our time.
Next up, a giant playground created by Japanese sound artist Yuri Suzuki, where moving inflatable objects (giant cubes and punching balls) triggered musical loops.
Then it was time to get serious. Talks about the future of the music industry staged interesting exchanges between artists and creators of artificial intelligences capable of composing music. “AI is doing our work” confronted The Flight, a group specialized in video game music, with a representative of Jukedeck, whose programs generate illustrative music based on ambient keywords.
The rest of the festival was immersed in the world of new electronic instrument makers, from amateur DIY to polished professional. Hackoustic Village, the festival within the festival, presented the largest gathering of maker musicians ever organized by the collective that we first met last November. For the past four years, Hackoustic has been promoting the work of DIY artists through evenings and curations for outside events. For We Are Robots, they brought together some 30 artists inside this dark exhibition room.
It was an alumni reunion with Stewart Easton and his elegant sound embroideries seen at the Tate, Curio by Tim Yates, musician and founder of Hackoustic, and Life Support by Luis Zayas, a musical installation whose crystalline sound is created by drops of saline solution falling on brass strips connected to Bela, an open source real-time system for processing audio data specifically designed for makers of DIY instruments (and whose founder was also present in the Hackoustic Village).
We caught up with Sam Battle, aka Look Mum No Computer, whose third iteration of the infamous synth bike is more polished than ever. “The joys of art commissions,” he beams. This time he presented his 100 Oscillators Synth, which attempts to answer the question: “How many oscillators is too many oscillators?” Verdict: If a normal synth contains one or two, then one hundred is none too many for London’s most punk maker (see demo below). “I may try to put in a thousand,” he adds.
“Hundred oscillator mega drone synth”, Look Mum No Computer, November 2017:
We also met newcomers. Brendan O’Connor presented his interactive program Igniting the Universe, a sort of soundtrack to the birth of the universe. By turning the hands of a clock, the viewer can slow it down to explore the second of music that corresponds to the first second of the Big Bang, whose evolution, described in thousanths of a second, corresponds to the different epochs of the universe (quark epoch, hadron epoch, lepton epoch or the electromagnetic radiation of the cosmic microwave background, which we wrote about here).
More down to Earth are the DIY experiments of Diego Baresch and Axel Huerre, two French PhD students at Imperial College London, with their simple, playful installations. Specialized in sound modulation and ultrasounds, the researchers presented an acoustic levitator that uses high-frequency soundwaves (unheard by the human ear) to fly a tiny piece of paper. This relatively cheap installation (less than 100£, or 113€) is targeted at the general public, but according to Axel Huerre, a more high-tech version would have more useful applications, such as in biomedicine, where it could be used to move objects without touching them. Another one of their very accessible DIY installations is a resonator to visualize sound—an open bottle, a film featuring soap, a speaker and a song all work together to make soundwaves dance.
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Finally, we checked out the cavern of Charles Matthews, an electronic musician at Drake Music, an association for technology and making instruments for disabled people. For “the most honest possible” experience, Matthews brought along all his wires, tools and other maker materials to offer a multisensory exploration using an electronic paper-mâché flashlight that interacts with light and sound waves emitting from the objects around it.
From Moog to open source synth
The DIY creations showcased by Hackoustic are certainly experimental, but mainstream electronic instrument-making has a bright future ahead. The proof is Music Hackspace’s highly successful workshop dedicated to DIY synths, or the presence of London-based manufacturer of open source synthesizers Rebel Technology, exhibiting right alongside historical players Moog and Serato.
Software maker Ableton also called upon its own maker, Mark Towers, who, especially for We Are Robots, created an entire panoply of DIY musical instruments, based on old arcade video games, antique Nintendo controllers (learn how to make your own Nintendo sampler here) or Lego Mindstorms. Electronic music is coming out of the computer—and it’s about time!