A great deal of my work recently has been in the area of music hacks, playful research and creative innovation. It’s a fascinating space to work in, and it’s forming the basis of a book I’m just starting to work on.
Right now, I’m in Brussels at the closing meeting of a European consortium that has fostered a series of collaborations that that bring together people from the worlds of Art and ICT – and the projects that have come out of it are pretty incredible.
There are dancers working with data and projections; musicians creating apps that allow audiences to democratically control looping effects en masse; augmented reality games that use real world road signs as portals from which space invaders emerge; 3d printed visualisations of topographical data… but my favourite had to be the Toy Hack Workshop – a bit like in this video.
It’s a simple idea – there’s a pile of toys. You’re encouraged to grab a few that you’re drawn to. Then you’re given tools: hacksaw, glue gun, needle and thread – and encouraged to take the toys to bits and recombine them into new ones. A bit like the mutant toys in Toy Story. You can even do a little bit of simple electronics and make the eyes light up or have your hybrid monstrosity vibrate maniacally across the table.
It’s a lot of fun – but the best thing is that it reminds kids that they can MAKE stuff. Rather than simply consume, they can remix, rework, remake and create. They become hackers.
In the world of music, the hackathon and the hacker methodology have become central to a global creative community of artists and technologists whose skills and ideas combine to create new, surprising and inventive musical instruments, applications and concepts.
From the development of Music Hack Days by Dave Haynes and James Darling in 2009 and the establishment of the hack camp as central to Music Tech Fest events around the world – to the cutting edge research of the Institut de Récherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris – a sense of play and the willingness to take things apart to build them anew has led to innovation and ideas that have started entirely new businesses, created new kinds of musical performances and established entirely new areas of academic enquiry.
One of the things that the Toy Hack workshop demonstrates is that hacking doesn’t have to be complicated – though it certainly can be. You don’t have to be handy with a soldering iron, and nor do you have to know how to write computer software. You simply need to have some ideas and imagination, be prepared to take the world as we know it apart, and recombine it in interesting new ways.
I can’t write code or and I’m no DIY electronics hobbyist – but I’ve won a hack challenge and enjoy getting involved in hack events. Maybe it’s the overnight sleepover occasion of it all, maybe it’s the collaborative, collegial experience, perhaps it’s the fun of taking things to bits and making a puzzle out of putting them back together in new ways. But it’s certainly enjoyable.
Hacks can also be used to provide an important industry tool for understanding consumer behaviour, fan cultures and potential business opportunities. The Echo Nest‘s Director of Development Platform Paul Lamere uses the company’s API to create new music visualisers, games, editing tools, ways of experiencing music (The Infinite Jukebox) and insights into popular music cultures (Anti-preferences in Regional Consumption).
I’m interested in the surprising results – as well as the culture and the processes from which they emerge – of the collaborative experimentation with music ideas that connects art with science, and which takes place at music hack events, hackspaces, research labs and some progressive music startups.
By fostering a creative environment, encouraging unlikely partnerships, seeding ideas with thematic challenges and providing a sense of occasion (as well as pizza and caffeinated beverages), the overnight hackathon is proving to be an important ground for disruptive innovation in both the industry and the music of the Music Industry.
And, aside from anything else, there’s nothing more fun than making your own toys and then playing with them. That, to me, is what music hacking is really all about.