An interview with Interaction Designer Arthur Carabott Part I

Dom Aversano

If ever evidence was needed of the power of DNA it was demonstrated to me just over a decade ago, when I walked into a room in a dingy industrial estate in Hoxton, East London, to attend one of the early Music Hackspace meet-ups, and much to my surprise saw my cousin, Arthur Carabott, twirling on an office chair, listening to a presentation on ultrasonic sound.

The population in London at that point was roughly 8 million, and there were fewer than 20 people in that room — the odds of us both being there were minuscule. Although we both grew up in an extended family that was very musical, we came to the Music Hackspace by entirely distinct routes, at a time when it was little more than a charming and eccentric fringe group.

Having known Arthur since childhood, it’s not surprising to me that he ended up working in a field that combines artistic and technical skills. He always approached technical problems with a rare tenacity and single-mindedness. Several times I saw Arthur receive a Mechano toy for a birthday or Christmas, only to sit quietly for hours on end working on it until it was finally built.

The Music Hackspace played a significant part in both our formations, so I was curious to know about his experience of this. What surprised me was how much I did not know about Arthur’s journey through music.

What follows is a transcript of that conversation — Part II will follow shortly.

What drew you to music?

There was always music playing in the house. In my family, there was the expectation that you’d play an instrument. I did violin lessons at 7, which I didn’t enjoy and then piano aged 10. I remember being 10 or 11 and there was a group, there were a bunch of us that liked Queen. They are an interesting band because they appeal to kids. They’re theatrical, and some of it is quite clown-like. Then I remember songs like Cotton Eye Joe and singers like Natalie Imbruglia, you know, quite corny music — I’ve definitely got a corny streak. But there was this significant moment one summer when I was probably 11 or so, and I discovered this CD with a symbol on it that was all reflective. It was OK Computer, by Radiohead. That summer made a big musical impact. It’s an album I still listen to.

How does music affect you?

I think music, food, and comedy are quite similar in that when it’s good, there’s no denying it. Of course, with all three, you can probably be a bit pretentious and be like, ‘Oh no, I am enjoying this’ when you’re not. But those are three of my favourite things in the world.

I heard a comedian talking about bombing recently. They said if a musician has an off night, and they get on stage, they don’t play well it’s still music. Whereas if a comedian goes up and they bomb, and no one laughs, it’s not comedy.

You became a very accomplished guitarist. Why did you not choose that as a career?

I went to guitar school and there was a point in my teens when my goal was to become the best guitarist in the world. I remember something Squarepusher had on his website once, where he wrote about being a teenager and giving up on the idea of trying to be like his classmate Guthrie Govan, who is now one of the world’s best guitarists. I resonated with that as there’s a point where you’re like, okay, I’m never gonna do that.

Part of my problem was being hypermobile and therefore prone to injuries, which stopped me from practising as much as I wanted to. Yet, there was still this idea that when I went to Sussex University and studied music informatics with Nick Collins I was going to go there, learn Supercollider, and discover the secrets that Squarepusher and Aphex Twin used. Someone told me they don’t even cut up their drum loops, they’ve got algorithms to do it!

I was actually signed up to do the standard music degree but my friend Alex Churchill said to change it to music informatics as it will change your life. That was a real turning point.

In what way?

What clicked was knowing I enjoyed programming and I wasn’t just going to use music software — I was going to make it.

The course was rooted in academia and experimental art practice rather than commercial things like building plugins. We were looking at interactive music systems and generative music from 2006 – 2009, way before this wave of hype had blown up. We doing some straight-up computer science stuff, and early bits of neural networks and genetic algorithms. Back then we were told, that no one’s really found practical uses for this yet.

We studied people like David Cope, who was an early pioneer who spent decades working on AI music. All these things helped me think outside conventional ways when it came to traditional music tech stuff, and the paradigms of plug-ins, DAWs, and so on.

Today at Apple event where over 100 iPhones and iPads were synchronised for a live performance with singer and producer Chagall

What did you do with this training and how did it help you?

I had no idea what I was going to do afterwards. I was offered a position in the first year of the Queen Mary M.A .T. Media, Art and Technology PhD, but I was a bit burnt out on academia and wanted to do the straight music thing.

I volunteered at The Vortex in London as a sound engineer. I had done paid work at university in Brighton but mostly for teenage punk bands. The Vortex being unpaid worked better because it meant that I only did it for gigs I wanted to see. I was already into Acoustic Ladyland, but there I discovered bands like Polar Bear and got to know people like Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner. I admired their music and also got to interact with and get to know them.

How did you come across Music Hackspace and how did it influence you?

I’d heard there was this thing on Hackney Road. I remember going on a bit of a tour because they would do open evenings and I went with a group of people. It felt like the underground. The best music tech minds in London. A bit of a fringe thing, slightly anarchist and non-mainstream. Music Hackspace was for me mostly about connecting to other people and a community.

What led you to more technical, installation-type work?

I remember seeing Thor Magnussen who had been doing his PhD at Sussex while I was in my undergrad and he taught one of our classes. He was talking about doing an installation and I remember thinking, I don’t really know what an installation is. How do I get one?

Then came the opportunity to work on the 2012 Olympics which came through my sister Juno, and her boyfriend at the time Tim Chave who introduced me to the architects Asif Khan and Pernilla Ohrstedt. I met them and showed them a bunch of like fun things that I’d made, like an app which took Lana Del Rey’s single Video Game and let you remix it in real time. You could type in every word contained in the song, hit enter, and she would sing it, remixed, in time with the beat.

They asked me various technical questions but after the meeting, I didn’t hear anything for a while. Then got a call in December 2011 from Asif. He asked, ‘Can you go to Switzerland next week?’ And I’m like, ‘Wait, am I doing this project? Have I got the job?’ He responded, ‘Look, can you go to Switzerland next week?’ So I said ‘Okay, yeah’.

So then it became official. It was six days a week for six months to get it done in time for the Olympics.

 

The Coca-Cola Beatbox Pavilion from the 2012 London Olympic Games

Part II of this interview will follow shortly. 

You can find out more about Arthur Carabott on his website, Instagram, and X

Dom Aversano is a British-American composer, percussionist, and writer. You can discover more of his work at Liner Notes.

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