Soundclusters is ‘an ensemble of four robots (violin, viola, cello and percussion) created by the multidisciplinary artist Roland Olbeter, that you ‘play’ through a midi controller. Through a commission by the festival Faster than Sound (UK) and Sonar (ES), the two ‘sonic adventurers’ Tim Exile (Warp) and Jon Hopkins (Domino) have collaborated with Olbeter (already active in the past as a set designer for some works of interactive theater for an important performance by Marcel Antúnez Roca, including aphasia from which the instrumentation of Soundclaster was created). Together the group have made a new work for this mechanical band, creating the conditions for a unique experience of co-operation between live music, man and machine, and for an exciting spectacle.

This is certainly not the first experiment in this sense. From orchestras to futuristic mechanical music, the latest generation of robotic goes hand in hand with the most recent discoveries in artificial intelligence and generative controls. Using through the resources of the centre Ircam in Paris, over the past few decades there has been an increasing exchange between robotic and mechanical elements, and live or recorded compositional structures made by people.

Certainly, this type of experiment is taking place within the world of electronic music. Some typical qualities of a concert of electronic music, or a DJ set, include live composition, the ability to control
presets, the ability to use software tools and different tools, artistic and musical coherence to achieve a set of solid range and consistency, preferably not boring, academic or, worse yet, at the end the same as all the others.

It is not easy for those who assist live performance, or for those seeking to record it, to
completely understand the technical operation and the compositional complexity of these two performers, as they interact with each other and with the robotic instruments at their disposal. After the performance on 18 June at Sonar in Barcelona, we met the two artists and try to understand more by putting a few questions to them…

Img: courtesy by Sonar


Giulia Baldi: What is the background to this story?

Tim Exile e Jon Hopkins:The initiative to bring new compositions to the public originates in a collaboration between Faster than Sound and Sonar, two of the best avant garde festivals inEurope. We have been invited to collaborate by the artistic directors.

Giulia Baldi: You have backgrounds in classical studies (Hopkins in piano, Exile in violin) and experience with electronic and digital instruments. But this must have been a new experience. When did you begin composing for robotics and mechanics?

Jon Hopkins: I had an entire weekend to discover these incredible tools and a few days to settle. Personally I did not know really what to expect, I just started playing and listening to the sounds, operated by a midi controller.

Giulia Baldi: John, your set was an ambient set for robot, created with electronic machines … What is
special about composing for these instruments?

Jon Hopkins: I would say the visual impact, the opportunity to create sounds, to see which movements produce different mechanical nuances of sound, and to create according to this kind of stimulation

Giulia Baldi: And for you Tim, your set was hyper- experimental, punk and groovy at the same time. How have you reinvented the composer?

Tim Exile: I started to plan Olbeter’s instruments in advance. I wantedto create an interactive set, and I did. During the set, the computer sent instructions to the robots, and continued rearranging the tools through the computer. You’ll notice that on stage I had a stand with the faders, and I used these faders to change the live composition.

Img: courtesy by Giulia Baldi


Giulia Baldi: So your composition is idealised in the studio before it is modified live on stage?

Tim Exile: Actually I have not prepared a composition that I’ve generated in real time. It’s almost as if the computer was the composer, and I’m just a prompter. And my suggestions are also rather vague: could be a note, a key … but the results are pretty wild! Before working on the real instruments, though, I had created a digital model
in collaboration with the team Olbeter.

Giulia Baldi: Do you need skills, knowledge or special skills to play this kind of instruments?

Jon Hopkins:I wouldn’t know. In my case, in terms of composition, I thought only about how to play, without asking other questions. Perhaps due to laziness. I have only experienced what happened when I let the sounds guide me in writing. Laziness can be seen as lack of skill?

Giulia Baldi: I would say yes…if it is useful to find the shortest way to reach the goal, why not? Anyway, think that it is not a coincidence that the collaboration has been designed for two musicians who have a classial training. Even if in your case its probablya long time since you played an instrument in this academic tradition, this wealth of knowledge probably influences you.

Jon Hopkins:Yes, it is likely on a subconscious level. I often think that I do not now make use of what I learned, but when you have the exposre to the academic music, classical or contemporary, (like Stockhausen, one of the composers that really interested me), then it reminds me of what I have studied.

Giulia Baldi: What are your artistic and personal motivations? What is pushing you to make music
and, for example, to work with this or that art?

Tim Exile e Jon Hopkins: Well, the answer depends on how deeply you want to go…

Giulia Baldi: On the contrary…it depends on how deeply you want to go!

Tim Exile: Well, personally, I am really interested in the search for possible connections through technology. For what can seem obvious is always more interesting for me. In particular, I am stimulated by the possibilities for responses in real time. Even if what I created with the robot does not make this connection clear because it is rather technical and difficult for the public to understand immediately what I am doing on stage, I like the idea that any person with my 8 faders could try to create a composition

Img: courtesy by Roland Olbeter


Giulia Baldi: Però il fatto che chiunque può suonare uno strumento non diminuisce l’importanza dell’ispirazione e delle idee…

Tim Exile: Si, ma direi che siamo in un epoca in cui il processo musicale è stato completamente separato dalla conoscenza della musica. Come l’idea del musicista non è più quella di una sola persona che crea dal nulla, così qualcuno che sa solo programmare può progettare uno strumento e qualcuno che non è detto debba essere necessariamente un musicista può suonarlo e mettere in scena uno show, e così creare una esperienza musicale condivisa con il pubblico.

Giulia Baldi:Tu stai dividendo le funzioni e i momenti mentre, al contrario, a me fai venire in mente l’idea di ‘uomo rinascimentale’, cioe’ di artista che è anche scienziato, tecnico, filosofo e comunicatore. Mi sembra ci sia una reale volontà di comunicare con il pubblico nelle tue performances, e una incredibile capacità di intrattenere, basata su conoscenze tecniche e sensiblità artistica… Ma passiamo al futuro: quali direzioni creative e professionali pensate di prendere nel prossimo futuro?

Jon Hopkins: Credo di voler proseguire, e approfondire, la direzione che ho preso nel mio ultimo album, armonizzando alcuni elementi classici come cori o quartetti d’archi con bassi molto pesanti e percussioni, mischiandoli insieme, forzandoli quando è necessario… Questo c’è gia in parte nel mio lavoro, ma voglio andare oltre, voglio fondere elementi che normalmente sono separati, trovando un modo per farlo dal vivo… E mi piacerebbe passare un paio di mesi all’estero per concentrarmi e sperimentare.

Tim Exile: Al momento sono sempre più entusiasta all’idea di lavorare dal vivo, ma vorrei rendere la tecnologia più potente e meno visibile. Voglio veramente essere in grado di esprimere sempre più con il mio corpo, ed essere sempre meno bloccato dietro una macchina. L’interazione con il pubblico è la cosa più esaltante, e mi sembra ancora una frontiera inesplorata. Ci sono alcuni che hanno sperimentato, ma non è ancora stato fatto niente in realtà…

Jon Hopkins: Un giorno magari ci sarà una tuta che permetterà di comporre con i movimenti del corpo…

Giulia Baldi: Esperimenti in questa direzione se ne vedono già da anni, soprattutto in Giappone, ma i risultati, dal punto di vista  creativo ed espressivo non sono ancora memorabili…

Tim Exile: Si, è così, l’idea c’è e anche alcune capacità tecniche sono state sviluppate, ma per ora si creano solo rumori o dissonanze. Per la produzione di qualcosa che suoni davvero bene, e che sia davvero esteticamente interessante, le integrazioni da fare sono ancora numerose.

Img: courtesy by Roland Olbeter


Giulia Baldi: It would be interested to one day also provide simular tools to the public?

Tim Exile: Definitely…it would be wonderful, and it is in the list! There are artists who are already doing this, like Matmos and their performance with Wii controllers. Is already happening all over, you just continue and continue
to experiment!

Giulia Baldi: Well, you could make a question to each other…

Tim Exile e Jon Hopkins: Do you want to jam?

Giulia Baldi: Totally!

Jon Hopkins: Actually we have already done, we tried, with me on piano and tim on the machine

Giulia Baldi: In front of an audience?

Jon Hopkins: No, and unfortunately we have also tried to record but because of (my) technical error we have not succeeded. We have nothing, it was a disaster.

Tim Exile: Now I have a question for you: would you like to return and record jam?

Giulia Baldi: Mmmh, where can I sign?!.