An interview with Blockhead creator Chris Penrose

Dom Aversano

A screenshot from Blockhead

Blockhead is an unusual sequencer with an unlikely beginning. In early 2020, as the pandemic struck, Chris Penrose was let go from his job in the graphics industry. After receiving a small settlement package, he combined this with his life savings and used it to develop a music sequencer that operated in a distinctively different manner from anything else available. In October 2023, three years after starting the project, he was working full-time on Blockhead, supporting the project through a Patreon page even though the software was still in alpha mode.

The sequencer has gained a cult following made up of fans as much as users, enthusiastic to approach music-making from a different angle. It is not hard to see why, as in Blockhead everything is easily malleable, interactive, and modulatable. The software works in a cascade-like manner, with automation, instruments, and effects at the top of the sequencer affecting those beneath them. These can be shifted, expanded, and contracted easily.

When I speak to Chris, I encounter someone honest and self-deprecating, all of which I imagine contributes to people’s trust in the project. After all, you don’t find many promotional videos that contain the line ‘Obviously, this is all bullshit’. There is something refreshingly DIY and brave about what he is doing, and I am curious to know more about what motivated him, so arranged to talk with Chris via Zoom to discuss what set him off on this path.

What led you to approach music sequencing from this angle? There must be some quite specific thinking behind it.

I always had this feeling that if you have a canvas and you’re painting, there’s an almost direct cognitive connection between whatever you intend in your mind for this piece of art and the actual actions that you’re performing. You can imagine a line going from the top right to the bottom left of the canvas and there is a connection between this action that you’re taking with a paintbrush pressing against the canvas, moving from top right down to left.

Do you think that your time in the graphics industry helped shape your thinking on music?

When it comes to taking the idea of painting on a canvas and bringing it into the digital world, I think programs like Photoshop have fared very well in maintaining that cognitive mapping between what’s going on in your mind and what’s happening in front of you in the user interface. It’s a pretty close mapping between what’s going on physically with painting on a canvas and what’s going on with the computer screen, keyboard and mouse.

How do you see this compared to audio software?

It doesn’t feel like anything similar is possible in the world of audio. With painting, you can represent the canvas with this two-dimensional grid of pixels that you’re manipulating. With audio, it’s more abstract, as it’s essentially a timeline from one point to another, and how that is represented on the screen never really maps with the mind. Blockhead is an attempt to get a little closer to the kind of cognitive mapping between computer and mind, which I don’t think has ever really existed in audio programs.

Do you think other people feel similarly to you? There’s a lot of enthusiasm for what you doing, which suggests you tapped into something that might have been felt by others.

I have a suspicion that people think about audio and sound in quite different ways. For many the way that digital audio software currently works is very close to the way that they think about sound, and that’s why it works so well for them. They would look at Blockhead and think, well, what’s the point? But I have a suspicion that there’s a whole other group of people who think about audio in a slightly different way and maybe don’t even realise as there has never been a piece of software that represents things this way.

What would you like to achieve with Blockhead? When would you consider it complete?

Part of the reason for Blockhead is completely selfish. I want to make music again but I don’t want to make electronic music because it pains me to use the existing software as I’ve lost patience with it. So I decided to make a piece of audio software that worked the way I wanted it. I don’t want to use Blockhead to make music right now because it’s not done and whenever I try to make music with Blockhead, I’m just like, no, this is not done. My brain fills with reasons why I need to be working on Blockhead rather than working with Blockhead. So the point of Blockhead is just for me to make music again.

Can you describe your approach to music?

The kind of music that I make tends to vary from the start. I rarely make music that is just layers of things. I like adding little moments in the middle of these pieces that are one-off moments. For instance, a half-second filter sweep in one part of the track. To do that in a traditional DAW, you need to add a filter plugin to the track. Then that filter plugin exists for the entire duration of the track, even if you’re just using it for one moment. It’s silly that it has to exist in bypass mode or 0% wet for the entire track, except in this little part where I want it. The same is true of synthesizers. Sometimes I want to write just one note from a synthesizer at one point in time in the track.

Is it possible for you to complete the software yourself?

At the current rate, it’s literally never going to be finished. The original goal with Patreon was to make enough money to pay rent and food. Now I’m in an awkward position where I’m no longer worrying about paying rent, but it’s nowhere near the point of hiring a second developer. So I guess my second goal with funding would be to make enough money to hire a second person. I think one extra developer on the project would make a huge difference.

It is hard not to admire what Chris is doing. It is a giant project, and to have reached the stage that it has with only one person working on it is impressive. Whether the project continues to grow, and whether he can hire other people remains to be seen, but it is a testament to the importance of imagination in software design. What is perhaps most attractive of all, is how it is one person’s clear and undiluted vision of what this software should be, which has resonated with so many people across the world.

If you would like to find out more about the Blockhead or support the project you can visit its Patreon Page.

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

In defence of the Iklectik Art Lab

Dom Aversano

There are moments when you know you’ve really travelled down an avant-garde rabbit hole. I experienced this when watching the essay documentary on Soviet Era synthesisers Elektro Moskva, at the Iklectik Art Lab in Lambeth South London. At one point in the film, a synth is played that divides the octave into something like 70 tones. By most definitions, it was not a pleasant sound, and it wasn’t just me who thought so. Tony, the resident cat, had enough, and let out a prolonged howl that drowned out the sound of the synth and turned everyone in the audience’s heads around to focus their attention on this alpha feline, in what felt like a clear admonishment from the animal kingdom; having conquered the world, did we not have something better to do than listen to the sound of a (frankly crap) synth droning away in the crumbling remains of a communist dystopia?

Well, Tony, sorry to disappoint you, but no.

The value of Iklectik to London’s music scene is hard to quantify, as it has made space for many artistic activities that might otherwise be filtered out, and not least of all, the music hacking scene. The acoustic music hacking group Hackoustic has put on regular events in the appropriately named Old Paradise Yard for about 8 years. In no small part, this is because Eduard Solaz and Isa Barzizza have always been gracious hosts, willing to sit down with artists and treat them with respect and fairness. Unfortunately, it appears that this has not been reciprocated by the owners of the land, who are now warning of imminent eviction and wish to transform the land into the kind of homogenous office space that turns metropolises into overpriced, hollowed-out, dull places.

I spoke to the founder of Iklectik, Eduard Solaz, who had the following to say.

Why are you being evicted from Old Paradise Yard and when are you expected to leave?

This decision came quickly after the Save Waterloo Paradise campaign mobilised nearly 50,000 supporters and persuaded Michael Gove to halt the development project, something we have been campaigning for over this last year. Our public stance against the controversial plans has resulted in this punitive action against IKLECTIK and the other 20 small businesses here at Old Paradise Yard. Currently, despite not yet having permission for the full redevelopment, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation are refusing to extend Eat Work Art’s (the site leaseholder) lease.

What impact will this development have on the arts and the environment?

For more than nine years, we, along with musicians, artists, and audiences, have collaboratively cultivated a unique space where individuals can freely explore and showcase groundbreaking music and art while experiencing the forefront of experimental creativity. London needs, now more than ever, to safeguard grassroots culture.

From an environmental perspective, this development is substantial and is expected to lead to a significant CO2 emissions footprint. Consequently, it poses a potential threat to Archbishop’s Park, a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation that serves as a vital green space for Lambeth residents and is home to a diverse range of wildlife. It also puts Westminster’s status as a Unesco World Heritage sight at risk.

Do you see hope in avoiding the eviction, and if so, what can people do to prevent it?

There is hope. In my opinion, the GSTT Foundation, operating as a charitable organisation, should reconsider its decision and put an end to this unjust and distressing situation. We encourage all of our supporters to reach out to the foundation and advocate for an end to this unfair eviction.

Here you can find more information to help us:

To get a sense of what this means for London’s music hacking community I also spoke to Tom Fox, a lead organiser for Hackoustic, who put on regular nights at Iklectik.

Can you describe why Iklectik is significant to you and the London arts scene? 

Iklectik is one of London’s hidden gems, and as arts venues all over the UK are dying out, it has been a really important space for people like us to be able to showcase our work. We’ve had the privilege of hosting well over 100 artists in this space through the Hackoustic Presents nights and it helped us, and others, find their tribe. We’ve made so many friends, met their families, met their kids, found like-minded people and collaborated on projects together. We’ve had people sit in the audience, and get inspired by artists who then went on to make their own projects and then present with us. Some of our artists have met their life partners at our events! The venue isn’t just a place to watch things and go home, they’re meeting places, networking places, social gatherings and a place to get inspired. I doubt all of these things would have happened if Iklectik weren’t such a special place, run by such special people. 

Do you think there is a possibility that Michael Gove might listen?

It’s the hope that gets you! I’m a big believer in hope. It’s a very powerful thing. I don’t have much hope in Michael Gove, however. Or the current government in general. But, you know, there’s always hope. 

To take action.

Undoubtedly, Iklectik is up against a bigger opponent, but it is not a foregone conclusion, especially since Michael Gove has halted the development. There is a genuine opportunity for Old Paradise Yard to stay put.

Here is what you can do to help…

On Iklectik’s website, there are four actions that can be taken to help try to prevent the eviction. In particular write to Michael Gove and write to the GSTT Foundation.

For those in the UK, you can attend Hackoustic’s event this Saturday 11th November.

Having collaborated with the Iklectik Art Lab, we at Music Hackspace would like to wish Eduard Solaz, Isa Barzizza, and all the other artists and people who work at Old Paradise Yard the best in their struggle to remain situated there.

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