‘Why I started Music Hackspace’: Jean-Baptiste Thiebaut

Dom Aversano

How I stumbled across Music Hackspace is a hazy memory. I remember turning up in a nondescript industrial estate in the hip part of East London, Hoxton. When I finally found the right door I walked into a room mid-presentation, temporarily averting the gaze of a dozen or so people who were casually sitting around listening in a state of deep concentration. They had the appearance of engineers, artists, academics, eccentrics, and hobbyists.

Afterwards, there was socialising, with beer and an English idea of what constitutes pizza. The studio had various bits of hardware scattered around and posters on the wall for the Anarchist Bookfair. I spotted one person who had set up a turntable that spun colourful bespoke mats whose patterns fed into a camera which turned it into sound. Its maker was a softly spoken, eloquent man with a French accent, dressed a bit more smartly than everyone else. It turned out, Jean-Baptiste Thiebaut, or JB, had started the group, and was knowledgeable about both music and technology. 

Jump forward a little more than a decade and the Music Hackspace has grown and gone through many changes. During that period I remember one meeting in the basement of Troyganic Cafe where about 3 people turned up, and I thought to myself ‘This is finished’. JB, maintained a more philosophical approach shrugging it off as a down phase, which was vindicated a couple of years later when the Music Hackspace found a home for itself in the prestigious Somerset House Gallery in central London – a short walk from Big Ben. 

It’s been more than a decade now that I have known JB, but in this time I realise I never knew what motivated him to start Music Hackspace, or the details of his background. So I thought an interview would be a good opportunity to delve into this.

Can you describe your background and what drew you to London?

I was born in Normandy, France, the son of a farmer. My father farmed cereals. He had fields of wheat, peas, and barley, and later started his own brewery. I got into tech, engineering, and music, and became passionate about research. I went to French conferences on the topic but I felt that the world was bigger and started following international conferences. 

I needed to speak English and be within an Anglo-Saxon community. London was close, and I had funding for research. I started in 2005 at the Center for Digital Music at Queen Mary, and I stayed in London after that, working as a software developer at Focusrite. I never returned to France, I love London! In my research centre, my colleagues were from all over the world and I loved that diversity. 

There were a lot of people who also came from small villages in their countries and wanted to see the world, and wanted to be where it’s at. The thought of returning to a society more centred around its own culture and less towards a global culture did not appeal. I wanted diversity. 

What inspired you to create Music Hackspace? 

It was 2011 and I was fresh off my PhD at Queen Mary, but I didn’t really know what to do. I was full of ideas, and I had recently become the innovation manager for Focusrite. A lot of new things were happening at that time in the music manufacturing industry: Ableton had released Push, Native Instrument Maschine, synthesizers didn’t cost the price of a house like they did 30 years before, and music software was booming. It was an interesting time to think about new products. 

I ventured into the basement of Focusrite one day, and noticed that a lot of prototyping equipment was going to scrap: PCBs of synthesisers or prototypes of Launchpad that would never be used. So I went to my manager and asked permission to repurpose it.

I was a member of the London Hackspace at the time, and I sent a message asking if someone would be interested in tinkering with those bits of equipment going to scrap. Two people responded, Martin Klang and Philip Klevberger. They came, we filled up the trunk and we said: “OK, let’s meet next Tuesday in Hoxton at the London Hackspace and invite anyone who wants to have a go, and we will just hack for fun that evening”. So we did. And the music Hackspace was born there and then!

How was the evening? 

Twenty people showed up from all walks of life: musicians wanting to create things to support their career and their artistic vision, engineers working in finance or legal firms – but musicians as well – who wanted their skills as engineers to be used for the arts. So you had these two groups that wanted something and they could achieve their goals by collaborating. 

So I had this eureka moment thinking ‘this is great, I’m also myself on both sides because I’m trained as a composer and trained as an engineer’. You can work on your art or you can work on building tools for artists and bringing the two together was my goal. I felt I found a kind of home. So I decided to honour the fact that we came from the London Hackspace and called it Music Hackspace. 

How did things progress from there?

Focusrite liked what I was doing and was very supportive, giving me the afternoon off to travel to London and a small budget to buy pizzas for everybody. Our meetings grew in popularity and eventually, we had to stop meeting at the London Hackspace because we were making too much noise. Once a week we would take over the Hackspace with a presentation and Q&A with researchers, artists and engineers. When we had to move, Martin Klang – who was doing all kinds of interesting things like building open-source effect pedals – invited us to his studio which was next door, and was big enough to host about 60 people, and that lasted until he moved out.

The Music Hackspace was initially motivated by my curiosity about innovation in music, which I think stemmed from my education and the work I was doing at Focusrite. It was not meant as a company or anything. It was a chance encounter between passionate people, on the lookout for new ways of being expressive; new ways of merging tech and art. 

I’m curious that you were a member of the London Hackspace, what drew you to that? Did hacking culture appeal to you? 

Yes, the hacking and DIY culture was very appealing to me. I finished my PhD with a lot of theoretical knowledge but not much practical knowledge. I wanted to tinker, and the London Hackspace was a very welcoming place with a lot of equipment and all sorts of fascinating, exuberant folks with wacky ideas and tremendous knowledge of electronics. I had at this point no experience whatsoever in DIY electronics, but I got into it. Arduino was just starting, and had a lot of hype. I found it fascinating that you could build your own embedded computer and augment instruments with a portable microchip that could analyse signals and embed intelligence into instruments. 

I found the values appealing too, and it was important to keep them as the community developed. The Music Hackspace was this free space that Martin and I hosted every Thursday night,  to exchange ideas, get inspired and collaborate very freely.  We had Max meetups where people would come and help each other. Someone would show a project on their screen and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m working on’. This is my problem’. Other people would say, ‘Oh, here’s an idea that might help’.. 

Members were naturally collaborating over the years, with a few Kickstarter projects coming from the members. The Hoxton Owl guitar pedal, Touch Keys and then Bela all involved members of the Music Hackspace. Their Kickstarter videos were all filmed by Susanna Garcia, who was a director of Music Hackspace from 2014 to 2019, and runs her own film company, Mind The Film. Slowly our network grew so that when artists were visiting London from abroad, we would ask them to come and talk about their work. Over the years, we ran over 800 events, and many of our members and speakers went on to build great careers in the music industry, as researchers, entrepreneurs, artists or developers. Tadeo Sendon was also a co-director and played a major role during this time, leading the curation of sound art events at Somerset House, securing our first grants, and building connections in London’s artistic community. 

In 2020, Music Hackspace started to teach online courses, how did that happen?

In 2019, I decided to commit to the Music Hackspace full-time, and turn what was a hobby into a business. I had 10 years of experience working for various music companies then, and I wanted to channel all that experience into developing the community. I had a business plan ready for us to have our own space and run events, but as COVID happened, those plans went out the window! The only way we could run any event was to host them online, and we started doing that. 

I had just finished working at Cycling ’74 then, and Darwin Grosse agreed to sponsor Max meetups and free sessions to teach Max to beginners. That was a huge boost for our online courses because we didn’t have much of an audience outside of London, let alone the UK. Later that year, TouchDesigner also offered to sponsor meetups and courses, and more partners followed during COVID. 

I interviewed the composer and programmer Robert Thomas here recently who sees music as moving away from traditional fixed recording, and towards what he describes as a more liquid existence facilitated by software, where music can do all the things software can do. I’m curious to what degree you share that vision. 

The history of the evolution of music was part of my research thesis, in particular retracing the convergence of technology with the complexity of music. There is a direct correlation between the complexity of the tools we use and the complexity of music. Notation was designed in the 9th century to record a single melody so that it could be fixed, transmitted and archived. It was simple, just one melody line with a rudimentary notion of rhythm. And then in the 12th century, it started to become more complex, with polyphony. Then the printing press arrives, and that changes everything. Suddenly scores are everywhere, and people sell the scores, and their ubiquity allows more people to play music, and for music to be shared across countries. The printing press was a massive boost for the dissemination of music. 

Fast forward to the 21st Century and computers are now part of every aspect of the music creation process, for art gallery installations, live concerts and most music experiences. As to whether generative music, experientially, is changing music is the future? Yes, but I think it’s one of its many futures. Music that evolves based on your breathing, your surroundings, the time of the day, and other factors has definitely a place in this world!