An interview with Interaction Designer Arthur Carabott Part II

Dom Aversano

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

This is Part II of an interview with interaction designer Arthur Carabott. In Part I Arthur discussed how after studying music technology at Sussex University he found a job working on the Coca-Cola Beatbox Pavilion in the 2012 Olympic Games. What follows is his description of how the work evolved. 

Did you conceive that project in isolation or collaboration?

The idea had already been sold and the architects had won the competition. What was known was there would be something musical because Mark Ronson was going to be making a song. So the idea was to build a giant instrument from a building, which everyone could play by waving their hands over giant pads. They wanted to use sports sounds and turn them into music while having a heartbeat play throughout the building, tying everything together.

Then it came down to me playing with ideas, trying things out, and them liking things or not liking things. We knew that we had five or six athletes and a certain number of interactive points on the building.

So it was like, okay, let’s break it down into sections. We can start with running or with archery or table tennis. That was the broad structure, which helped a lot because we could say we have 40 interactive points, and therefore roughly eight interactions per sport.

Did you feel you were capable of doing this? How would you advise someone in a similar position?

Yeah, I was 25 when this started. While it’s difficult to give career advice, one thing I hold onto is saying yes to things that you’ve never done before but you kind of feel that you could probably do. If someone said we want you to work on a spaceship I’d say that’s probably a bad idea, but this felt like a much bigger version of things that I’d already done.

There were new things I had to learn, especially working at that scale. For instance, making the system run fast enough and building a backup system. I’d never done a backup system. I had just used my laptop in front of my class or for an installation. So I definitely learning things.

If I have any natural talent it’s for being pretty stubborn about solving problems and sticking at it like a dog with a bone. Knowing that I can, if I work hard at this thing, pull it off. That was the feeling.

 

Arthur Carabott rehearing at the Apple shop with Chagall van den Berg

How did you get in contact with Apple?

I was a resident in the Music Hackspace then and rented a desk in Somerset House. Apple approached Music Hackspace about doing a talk for their Today at Apple series.

I already had a concept for a guerrilla art piece, where the idea was to make a piece of software where I could play music in sync across lots of physical devices. The idea was to go around the Apple store and get a bunch of people to load up this page on as many devices as we could, and then play a big choir piece by treating each device as a voice.

Kind of like a flash mob?

Yeah, sort of. It was inspired by an artist who used to be based in New York called Kyle McDonald, who made a piece called People Staring at Computers. His program would detect faces and then take a photo of them and email it to him. He installed this in the New York Apple stores and got them to send him photos. He ended up being investigated by the Secret Service, who came to his house and took away his computers.

However, for my thing, I wanted to bring a musician into it. Chagall was a very natural choice for the Hackspace. For the music I made an app where people could play with the timbre parameters of a synth, but with a quite playful interface which had faces on it.

How did you end up working with the composer Anna Meredith? You built an app with her, right?

Yes, an augmented reality app. It came about through a conversation with my friend, Marek Bereza, who founded Elf Audio and makes the Koala sampler app. We met up for a coffee and talked about the new AR stuff for iPhones. The SDK had just come to the iPhones and it had this spatial audio component. We were just knocking around ideas of what could be done with it.

I got excited about the fact that it could give people a cheap surround sound system by placing virtual objects in their space. Then you have — for free, or for the cost of an app — a surround sound system.

There was this weekly tea and biscuits event at Somerset House where I saw Anna Meredith and said, ‘Hey, you know, I like your music and I’ve got this idea. Could I show it to you and see what you think?’ So I came to her studio and showed her the prototype and we talked it through. It was good timing because she had her album FIBS in the works. She sent me a few songs and we talked back and forth about what might work for this medium. We settled on the piece Moon Moons, which was going to be one of the singles.

It all came together quite quickly. The objects in it are actual ceramic sculptures that her sister Eleanor made for the album. So I had to teach myself how to do photogrammetry and 3D scan them, before that technology was good on phones.

Augmented reality app build for Anna Merediths album FIBS

You moved to LA. What has that been like?

It was the first time I moved to another country without a leaving date. London’s a great city. I could have stayed, and that would have been the default setting, but I felt like I took myself off the default setting.

So, I took a trip to LA to find work and I was trying to pull every connection I could. Finding people I could present work to, knocking on doors, trying to find people to meet. Then I found this company Output and I was like, ‘Oh, they seem like a really good match’. They’re in LA and they have two job openings. They had one software developer job and one product designer job.

I wrote an email and an application to both of these and a cover letter which said: Look, I’m not this job and I’m not that job. I’m somewhere in the middle. Do you want me to be doing your pixel-perfect UI? That’s not me. Do you want me to be writing optimized audio code? That’s not me either. However, here’s a bunch of my work and you can hear all these things that I can do.

I got nothing. Then I asked Jean Baptise from Music Hackspace if he knew any companies. He wrote an email to Output introducing me and I got a meeting.

I showed my work. The interviewer wrote my name on a notebook and underlined it. When I finished the presentation I looked at his notebook and he hadn’t written anything else. I was like, ‘Okay, that’s a very good sign or very bad sign’. But I got the job.

How do you define what you do?

One of the themes of my career is that has been a double-edged sword is it not being specifically one thing. In the recruitment process what they do is say we have a hole in our ship, and we need someone who can plug it. And very rarely are companies in a place where they think, we could take someone on who’s interesting, but we don’t have an explicit problem for them to solve right now, but we think they could benefit what we’re doing.

The good thing is I find myself doing interesting work without fitting neatly into a box that people can understand. My parents have no idea what I do really.

However, I do have a term I like, but it’s very out of fashion, which is interaction designer. What that means is to play around with interaction, almost like behaviour design.

You can’t do it well without having something to play with and test behaviours with. You can try and simulate it in your head, but generally, you’re limited to what you already know. For instance, you can imagine how a button works in your head, but if you imagine what would happen if I were to control this MIDI parameter using magnets, you can’t know what that’s like until you do it.

What are your thoughts on machine learning and AI? How that will affect music technology?

It’s getting good at doing things. I feel like people will still do music and will keep doing music. I go to a chess club and chess had a boom in popularity, especially during the pandemic. In terms of beating the best human player that has been solved for decades now, but people still play because people want to play chess, and they still play professionally. So it hasn’t killed humans wanting to play chess, but it’s definitely changed the game.

There is now a generation who have grown up playing against AIs and it’s changed how they play, and that’s an interesting dynamic. The interesting thing with music is, it has already been devalued. People barely pay anything for recorded music, but people still go to concerts though concert tickets are more expensive than ever people are willing to pay.

I think the thing that people are mostly interested in with music is the connection, the people, the personal aspect of it. Seeing someone play music, seeing someone very good at an instrument or singing is just amazing. It boosts your spirits. You see this in the world of guitar. A new guitarist comes along and does something and everyone goes, ‘Holy shit, why has no one done that before’?

Then you have artists like Squarepusher and Apex Twin who their own patches to cut up their drum breaks. But they’re still using their own aesthetic choice of what they use. I’m not in the camp that if it’s not 100% played by a human on an instrument, then it’s not real music.

The problem with the word creativity is it has the word create in it. So I think a lot of the focus goes on the creation of materials, whereas a lot of creativity is about listening and the framing of what’s good. It’s not just about creating artefacts. The editorial part is an important part of creativity. Part of what someone like Miles Davis did is to hear the future.

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

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

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Roseanna
Roseanna
13 days ago

Good comment about creativity

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