This post wraps up my overview of my time at Ableton’s 2015 Loop Conference. The first two days were filled with great talks, inspiring workshops, and genre bending music. The last day promised much of the same, but with a bit more focus on Cycling 74’s multimedia programming environment Max 7 (and Max for Live of course). They took over a boat and hosted workshops and discussions all day. When was the last time you were crammed on a boat with 30 other people watching a virtuosic performance with flashlights? Along with all of the excitement during the day we also got to look forward to being the first people to see Ableton officially announce Push 2, Live 9.5 and Link.
Arriving early on Sunday for my first scheduled event of the day, you could see a few people who were still feeling the effects of the Club Night that Ableton hosted. I didn’t make it out to the club on Saturday, instead I wandered around Berlin with my field recorder grabbing some source material for future compositions. I was fresh, chipper, and really excited to hear what Cycling 74 employee Tom Hall thought were Essential Tools for M4L.
Most of the devices I had used before, some more than others. But what I ended up walking away was a newfound appreciation for a philosophy about music making that I always come back to:
“It’s not the tools you have, but how well you use them.”
I have always been a big proponent of less is more when putting together a musical toolbox. Robert Henke touched on this in the keynote address, and the importance can’t be overstated. Like any craft, spending time learning the instrument at your disposal is paramount. Traditional musicians spend hundreds if not thousands of hours practicing and playing just one instrument. As electronic musicians we have an abundance of riches when it comes to choosing what we will create our music with. It can sometimes be overwhelming, to be presented with so many options that can make amazing sounds almost instantly. But being truly expressive in a medium is all about being familiar with your tools.
After a refresher on some classic M4L tools, I wandered into the main hall to see a bit of Holly Herndon‘s talk on her creative process. I didn’t stay for the entire talk, but I did get to see her discuss a few of her projects. A lot of her music could be considered conceptual art. Most of the pieces on her new album Platform touch on the topic of surveillance (government and otherwise). As intertwined as our lives are with technology, this topic can be slightly unsettling- but we need to be mindful of it. This brought back a quote form Matthew Herbert that I heard on Saturday…
“The world is a complicated place and music isn’t making it much better at the moment.”
I left Holly’s talk to attend something a bit more technical, a talk on visualizing music in software instruments. I wasn’t entirely sure what this would be about before walking in, but I had heard Thor Magnussen‘s name mentioned in a talk on Saturday, and was not disappointed. He demoed the ixi lang live coding environment, and was able to make some very interesting musical ideas very quickly. ixilang is an environment that allows for easy, high level control over Supercollider; another example of code being truly creative, improvisatory and instantly rewarding.
After leaving Thor’s talk, I wandered down into the main hall to the electronic improvisatory duo of Henrik Schwarz and Bugge Wesseltoft. Henrik was manning a table with a Laptop running Live and a bunch of controllers, while Bugge was playing an Electric piano and some synthesizers. I was immediately struck by how much this electronic music sound like jazz. Running the gamut from smooth and lounge-y to abstract and free. I would encourage you to watch/listen to one of their performances if you have the time. After the music stopped there was time for some audience questions, most of which fell into the technical category. Henrik and Bugge seemed much more interested in discussing their thoughts on how they approach performing music than discussing how they approach setting up to perform music. Their answers could easily be applied to any musician that participates in an improvisatory setting. Careful listening and fluid interaction between performers must be present in order for this type of music to be successful. An innate knowledge of your instrument(s) doesn’t hurt either.
After grabbing a quick bite to eat I headed back down to the Boat for one more session with Cycling 74. This was a showcase for how different artists are using Max in their practice. AGF showed off some of her Max patches that she uses for performance and sound design, as well as an ancient sequencer from Cycling 74 (which still sounds awesome today.) Christian Kleine (of Max for Cats fame) showed off his massive set of clips and explained he still uses a track pad to perform. DJ / Rupture (Jace Clayton) spoke about some of his projects that used Max and how it helped him (and others) explore non-western musical traditions. And Leafcutter John showed off his instrument made of 16 light sensors, an Arduino and 2 flashlights (and Max of course). A common thread among all of these artists was the creation of their own tools.
Coding is a way to solve musical problems.
Whether it’s Jace Clayton’s wish to jam in other musical traditions, or Leafcutter John’s desire for an electronic instrument that would sound like what he looked like, modern musicians will be presented with unique musical problems that have no pre cooked solution. Developing and designing your own tools is a way to solve these problems. The ease of use and integration of environments like Max and Max 4 Live enable modern computer musicians to become tool makers, as well as tool users.
The end of the conference brought a a few very big reveals to Live users, but one particular development has wider implications in modern music. The Link technology that Ableton developed to allow Live users to seamlessly synchronize will be freely available to iOS music developers. This will facilitate new, improvisatory ways to use mobile and desktop music software. One of the biggest struggles for me with computer music has been how to play with other people. I think Link is a huge step in the right direction and I can’t wait to deploy it the next time I am in the room with another Live user.
After the excitement of the closing address everyone hurried over to HKW for the final concert of the event. It was opened by Lorenzo Senni, an artist who I was not familiar with. His music was some of the most powerful and physically affective music I had heard in a long time. Extremely aggressive, with no sense of direction other than suspense. Holly Herndon was next, presenting an audio/visual performance that was a tasteful blend of dance floor beats and impressive sound design. Tim Hecker closed the night, with an impressive ambient piece accompanied by numerous LED strips, and a generous helping of fog. The piece unravelled slowly and washed the auditorium in an ever evolving mix of colors, both visually and sonically.
The conference was some of the most inspiring 3 days I’ve ever been a part of. So much great perspective on what it means to be an electronic musician, and what we all need to do to continue moving forward as artists.
Creativity <-> Constraints.
Creating problems for yourself can force you to be more creative.
Learn to not Fear Failure
As Robert Henke said, failure points to the future. Creating truly unique music experiences is hard, perhaps impossible. We will fail multiple times while trying to achieve that, and it will be hard. But progress rarely comes when taking the easiest path.
It’s rewarding because it’s hard.