Johnny James at AlgoMech Festival

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Johnny James, one of our young composers, blogs about his experience at AlgoMech Festival…

Johnny James at AlgoMech Festival
7th December 2017

Johnny James, one of our young composers, blogs about his experience at AlgoMech Festival…

Our two young composers recently took a trip to AlgoMech Festival as research for the new music they will be making as part of the commission. Here Johnny James blogs about his experience at the festival.

What better way to kick-start this commission than by heading to the hotbed of creativity that is AlgoMech. Taking place in Sheffield each year, AlgoMech is a festival of algorithmic and mechanical movement. On the day that I attended, the main event was a symposium, whose theme was ‘Unmaking’. This beautifully overlapped with the theme for this commission: ‘Disruption’. In addition to the symposium, I had the opportunity to experience an amazing performance/installation piece, as well as attend my first algorave! In this post I’ll share the parts of the day that I found particularly inspiring. I’ll also relay the ideas that AlgoMech has sparked with regards to this commission.

Symposium on Unmaking

The symposium was convened by the PENELOPE project, where the mythological figure of Penelope from Ancient Greece provides a universal paradigm of unmaking. In Homer’s Odyssy, as part of a wily plan, Penelope weaves, unpicks, and re-weaves her work. Utilising Penelope’s story as a framework, the symposium posited ‘unmaking’ as an inherently disruptive and radical act. Whilst all of this might sound heavy, many of the speakers put forward some brilliantly simple ideas, some of which had some real relevance to this commission. I’ll now cherry pick my favourite talks and summarise them. After each summary, I’ll explain how the talk inspired further thought with regards to my composition.

Amy Twigger HoLroyd: Re-knitter

A good place to start is Amy Twigger Holroyd’s talk. Amy is basically a modern-day Penelope. She is the creator of the Re-knit revolution, a project that encourages people to re-work existing knitted items. The idea is to address problems such as holes, stains and issues of fit, as well as to restyle tired designs. Historically speaking, we have engaged in this practice for a considerable time. In light of modern consumerism and its mantra of ‘Buy New Stuff’, however, this knowledge is being forgotten. Amy’s work aims to counteract this.

Amy talked about the process of ‘stitch-hacking’. She explained how knitted structures are inherently re-workable, and that with relative ease, they can be opened up and reconfigured. She showed us before and after shots of garments that she had ‘hacked’. Without adding any other materials she’d opened up and reconfigured the stitch design of these lifeless garments and in doing so transformed them into pieces with individual identities. I thought that this was pretty amazing, and it got me thinking about how I could explore this idea musically.

How could I re-work an instrument or a piece of musical material in the same way that Amy re-works knitted garments? How could I open up the ‘stitches’ of the piano, so to speak, and reconfigure them? Possibly, I could think of individual partials or harmonics in a single pitch in the same way as Amy thinks about individual stitches in a garment. I could ‘open up’ piano notes using software and reconfigure the partials in the same way as Amy reconfigures stitches. By mapping these ‘hacked’ notes back onto the piano, I could create an instrument whose timbre is entirely its own.

Emma Cocker: Writer/Artist

What is the real gain of this ‘undoing’ though? Since we no longer need to, why should we want to engage in these kinds of practices? Well, in her beautifully-crafted talk, writer and artist Emma Cocker gave us some great reasons. Approaching the discussion from a philosophical angle, Emma held out to us different ways that we could think about ‘Undoing’. Each shone a light on a different intrinsic merit of the act.

Emma sees value in incompletion. She posited that ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ need not be reserved for the ‘successful completion’ of an endeavour. In other words, she likes practices that embrace the journey rather than the end goal – practices that resist the pressure of a single, stable position by remaining wilfully unresolved. I liked this idea – that opening something up and exploring it is much more exciting than drawing a conclusion. After all, isn’t a question more interesting than an answer?

For me, this draws on a child-like excitement of possibility. Thinking back to my idea of reconfiguring piano partials, there are endless combinations of partials, and endless resulting timbres to explore. I could think of each one not as a ‘finished’ thing, but as momentarily existing in one state of being, ripe at any point to be configured into another.

Sarah Kenchington: Mechanical Orchestrator

The final speaker of the day, Sarah Kenchington, was really entertaining. I don’t think Sarah would mind me saying that she’s an eccentric character, and talked with real passion about her outlandish home-made mechanical instruments. These instruments incorporate standard instruments such as the trumpet, and seek to push the limits of those instruments. Her idea is to shift focus away from the human performer, and move it to the instrument itself. For example, she spoke about her recent invention that utilises balloons in order to get sounds out of the trumpet that Miles Davis could only dream of!

I found this idea of removing the human ego from performance fascinating. It got me thinking about the possibility of making my piece instrument-focussed rather than human-focussed. It would interesting, I think, to have the piano in a way come alive and resist the performer’s command over it. I love the idea of an unruly piano rebelling against the performer/performance. Perhaps some of the time it would respond reliably to the performer’s gestures, but then at other times, entirely ignore them and go off on its own tangent.

Installation piece: Failed Experiments

After the symposium I headed down to Access Space, where there was a beautiful installation/performance piece by Ryoko Akama  and Anne-F Jacues. The installation was made up of a multitude of precarious contraptions, each built out of mundane objects and small motors. These motorised contraptions appeared autonomous – lighting up, revolving and making sound according to their own mechanical heartbeat. Artists Akama and Jacques were also present in the space, re-arranging, disturbing and interacting with the population of animated objects.

For me, it was a striking example of how things that we take for granted in the day-to-day can be imaginatively reworked, and through this reworking we are able to truly see them. By re-contextualising and animating these often-ignored objects, Akama and Jacques gave each of them a new and special – if fleeting – life. Again this brought me back to the piano. How could I re-work the instrument, and also give it this kind of perceived autonomy? Could running its audio signal through a chain of randomised modulations and effects be a possibility?

The Algorave

After this meditative installation piece, I headed to the next event: an algorave. For the uninitiated, algoraves centre around live coding. With a spirit of improvisation, the musicians at an algorave create live techno music and visuals by writing on-the-spot code. As the code is written, it is projected onto the walls for the audience to see.

This wasn’t just my first experience of an aglorave, but my first experience of coding in general. I didn’t know what to expect. Arriving back at the Millenium Gallery, I heard the thudding of an 808 kick drum as I rode the escalator up to the top floor. For the next two hours I watched as a whole wave of future-leaning artists folded code over itself in order to create danceable techno.

It was great to see code – something that I’d previously thought of as sterile and… dare I say it… boring – used in such a creative way. A lot of the time I found my eyes tracing each new line of code as it appeared on the screen, attempting to figure out what the various commands denoted. Other times I was drawn in by the complex visuals that were being woven together in that moment. What I found particularly interesting was that all of this was being generated in a way that interacted with the audience. Our response to the music and to the visuals dictated, at least to some extent, the path that the music and visuals then took. It felt really organic, and this wasn’t something that I expected.

There Ends AlgoMech

I found the whole day at AlgoMech really inspiring. The festival was brimming with creativity, and a special kind of creativity: one that seeks out the new. I’ve discovered musical communities that I didn’t know existed and I’ve walked away with ideas that I am really excited about. In the coming weeks, I’ll let you know how these develop!