Soundlab – Play Space is an innovative digital technology project created and delivered by creative arts charity Heart N Soul in conjunction with Goldsmiths University of London and the Public Domain Corporation. It took place in London on 25 November and Robin Surgeoner aka Angryfish, was amongst the crowd.
As we approached the signing in area, attendees were greeted by an increasingly audible sound canvas. With those formalities completed, I was given a colourful, easy-access agenda and map for the event, which once I had got my head around the legend was actually easy to follow. I think it was more my left headedness getting in the way than any issues with the lovely A3-sized handout.
The first area you came across was the research and development section where there were interactive demonstrations of some really intriguing prototype sound generation and music devices going way beyond adaptive instrumentation, rather creating brand new instruments or methods of creating and triggering sounds and music.
The utilisation of standard games controllers and remote control vehicle controllers seems to be a great way of devising easy-to-use interactive music instruments. Particularly interesting is the way that the amount of movement needed to create or trigger sounds can be adjusted to meet the dexterity of any given individuals. This is fantastic for creating easy-access instruments, however, being able to re-create this outside of the ‘laboratory’ environment may prove much more difficult.
From here I listened to the Heart N Soul DJ Performances mashing up some sounds, creating a great musical atmosphere using digital mixing equipment. This was followed by the Heart n soul digital band Electric Fire, who played a number of tracks, demonstrating both the innovation in digital interfaces to make music, and further illustrating the capacity of those labelled as cognitively challenged, or learning disabled to create and deliver original music.
Their music was created with a mix of live vocals, mixed backing tracks and a series of innovative instruments working as triggers to create sounds within software on various laptops. Two particular instruments stood out as very easy to use creatively: The Seaboard Keyboard by Roli and the Alphasphere Nexus. Both products allow music creators to make sounds using easy-access and tactile interfaces or instruments, with the Seaboard offering five-way dimensional sound shaping.
The main drawback with both of these instruments is that you have to have a powerful computer – usually a Mac – to host and play the sounds, as the instruments only act as triggers. On top of this, you also have to be relatively music software literate to really take advantage of them. I guess like all new technology, the current price point for these instruments may also make them unavailable to all but the best-funded community groups. That said, I don’t want to detract from how fantastic they are, but the idea that these instruments can be used by individuals as plug-and-play devices is someway off in the future.
There were a number of iPad and/or notebook applications being demonstrated which did offer immediate access to creating and moulding sounds, allowing your personal device to act as a stand-alone instrument which could be listened to via internal speakers, headphones, or plugged into a larger sound system. What was fantastic was that a number of these programs were available as free downloads for those attending the event.
Another piece of equipment I particularly liked was the Sub-Pac. This is effectively a wearable bass speaker or sub-woofer which, whilst enhancing an immersive sound experience, offers the capacity for people with sensory losses to experience the movement of sound through a vibrating back-pack, or seat back option. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece of kit as, whilst listening to Rage Against The Machine, I also felt the power of the track and got a back massage to boot.
The final element of the day was a series of short discussion sessions focused around the importance of ensuring access to making music is made as easy and effective for as broad a cross-section of our communities as possible.
These conversations were really engaging and although each forum had a panel of speakers they were pretty much open floor, which allowed free contributions from anyone present. A number of really good points were raised in the two discussions I was able to attend, in the earlier of the two performance sessions being run, and I am sure those there from Heart N Soul, Goldsmiths and the equipment manufacturers will have plenty of ideas to assist them in moving forward with what Tim Plyming from NESTA describes as ‘the beginning of a Digital Industrial Revolution’.
In conclusion, I would suggest that the event was very exciting in terms of both how interactive the equipment and sessions were, and also for the future and continued evolution in music making for all.
I am however left with a number of questions:
How do we start to de-centralize some of this work in order that access to music making is available throughout the UK?
How do we spread the word that all people can and should have the right and opportunity to make music?
To read more articles about music, check out Dao’s ‘Sounds of Disability’ series.