Having remixed the likes of Four Tet, Caribou and Eclectic Method featuring Chuck D, not to mention released several of their own electronica-meets-jazz albums, London band Icarus applied their hacking skills to cutting-edge music technology for new album Fake Fish Distribution (FFD). The result is an album, which thanks to the software manipulation is available in 1000 different variations. In a guest column for Q, the band's Ollie Bown explains why they undertook the project and what it's like to manipulate your work as you're creating it.
Fake Fish Distribution (FFD) is an album that has been composed in 1000 variations, it is an album you can download as mp3s and listen to on your favourite device - just like any other digitally distributed record - except that the version you buy is unique to you; there are 999 other versions out there, being listened to by other people.
Why make 1000 different versions of an album? Our initial motivation was to engage with our understanding of what it means to sell music in our new digital environment: when you buy a download, there is no physical object, just the exact same bits of information that everyone else has elsewhere. You don't own that sequence of bits, instead you have purchased the right to personally experience them.
A curious thing is that this is just as true for the music on a CD, except CDs also involve a physical mass of plastic and paper, which might give you the impression that in some way you own the music. We wanted to use new technology to find ways to explore the experience of digital music as a collectable form. In this project we set out to embrace the possibilities of digital distribution and what it might mean for the way music is made. Our attitude all along has been to play with the idea in a thought-provoking way given the tools that now make this kind of experimentation feasible.
Once the seed of composing 1000 variants of an album had been sown we found that it connected to lots of other ideas we were interested in. On the way we thought about the fact that, by its very nature, pieces of music are not fixed entities, there's no one definitive realisation of a Mahler symphony or a jazz standard. Music seems to cluster around a few fixed points but with many dimensions of flexibility.
One example would be how a soloist is free to interpret a score, another would be the stylistic traits that we use to classify genres. In fact, the process of making records and in turn electronic music (where the composition and the sound recording are typically one and the same) has perhaps introduced the conviction in an archetype of sorts.
Our other motivation was the challenge this kind of project offers, not just technically but as a way of helping ourselves to think outside of the box about how and why we make music and what makes it valuable to us. Electronic musicians are presented with a vast array of tools that they can harness to produce music, and these tools have changed music production beyond recognition. We were part of the bedroom producers generation that turned to the technology of MIDI and samplers in the 1990s, fuelled by a heavy dose of euphoria and idealism; as the technology has evolved so have our musical ambitions and questions. For a long while now programming and algorithms have been as much part of our creative palette as microphones, synths, VST plugins and acoustic instruments.
The software used to make the record was written as a set of extensions to our favourite classic studio tools. We used one program called MaxMSP, which is a sort of musician's software programming tool kit, and another program called Ableton Live, which is a modern composition workstation. The makers of MaxMSP and Ableton Live have joined forces so that now these programs can be used together, which suited our mission perfectly. We set about making tools that would let us parameterise our compositions, basically meaning that a set of sliders could be made to control anything from the rhythmic structure of a kick drum pattern to the order in which a series of progressions happens, as well as the kinds of normal things that sliders control in a studio, like the noisiness of a synthesiser tone. The parameters were then formed into several different alternative arrangements.
Finally, we added a "version dial" to Ableton Live, a kind of master parameter controlling all of the other parameters. By turning the version dial we could move smoothly between our different parameter arrangements. Putting all of this inside a normal composition workstation like Ableton Live gave us that instantaneous creative feedback that you need to make music. This is something that is admittedly too tricky when trying to be creative with a jumble of code. All the same, making the record involved a lot of guess work and to-ing and fro-ing between different activities: creating musical parts, mapping them to parameters, arranging parameters, and auditioning snippets of different versions.
The elements we chose to vary were different from track to track. In one track the beginning varies between different opening structures, but ends up in the same place. In another, the variation is in how quickly various parts progress through their preset arrangements. In another track the variation is used to explore different routes through a predefined set of musical stages. Many other finer details were varied, such as parameters controlling the sounds of instruments and effects.
Of course we haven't actually heard all 1000 variations (that would take a month), but because the variation is structured in this way we have a reasonable idea of what they all sound like. We also obviously didn't have 100 percent control of what happens in each track, but that doesn't mean that it is not rigorous. It might seem like a lacklustre and submissive handing over of control to the machines, but many musicians we know from free improvisers to contemporary classical composers are interested in the accidents and surprises that come out of an exploratory creative process.
The results of FFD are idiosyncratic. The idea may be cast by some as a gimmick, but a gimmick is something that is done only for the sake of attracting attention. It would have been a tedious job to have made FFD if we hadn't been sincerely interested in these ideas, the process and the music that came about.
Ollie Bown @birdy_electric
Get your unique copy of Icarus - Fake Fish Distribution at Icarus.nu/FFD.
11:11 AM | 10/02/2012
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