How to design a music installation – an interview with Tim Murray-Browne (part 2)

Dom Aversano

How to design a music installation - an interview with Tim Murray-Browne (part 2)

In the first part of this interview, artist Tim Murray-Browne discussed his approach to creating interactive installations, and the importance of allowing space for the agency of the audience with a philosophy that blurs the traditional artist/audience dichotomy in favour of a larger-scale collaboration.

In the second part of this interview, we discuss how artificial intelligence and generative processes could influence music in the near future and the potential social and political implications of this, before returning to the practical matters of advice on how to build an interactive music installation and get it seen and heard.

I recently interviewed the composer and programmer Robert Thomas who envisions a future in which music behaves in a more responsive and indeterminate manner, more resemblant to software than the wax cylinder recording that helped define 20th-century music. In this scenario, fixed recording could become obsolete. Is this how you see the future?

I think the concept of the recorded song is here to stay. In the same way, I think the idea of the gig and concert is here to stay. There are other things being added on top and it may become less and less relevant as time goes on. Just in the way that buying singles has become less relevant even though we still listen to songs. 

I think the most important thing is having a sense of personal connection and ownership. This comes back to agency, where I feel I’m expressing myself through the relationship with this music or belonging to a particular group or community. What I think a lot of musicians and people who make interactive music can get wrong is since they take such joy and pleasure in being creatively expressive, they think they can somehow give that joy to someone else without figuring out how to give them some kind of personal ownership of what they’re doing.

As musicians it’s tempting to think we can make a track and then create an interactive version, and that someone’s going to listen to that interactive version of my track and remix it live or change aspects of it, and have this personalised experience that it is going to be even better because they had creative agency over it. 

I think there’s a problem with that because you’re asking people to do some of the creative work but without the sense of authorship or ownership. I may be wrong about this because in video games you definitely come as an audience and explore the game and develop skill and a personal style that gives you a really personal connection to it. But games and music are very different things. Games have measurable goals to progress through, and often with metrics. Music isn’t like that. Music is like an expanse of openness. There isn’t an aim to make the perfect music. You can’t say this music is 85% good.

How do you see the future?

I agree with Robert in some sense, but where I think we’re going to see the song decline in relevance has less to do with artists creating interactive versions of their work and more to do with people using AI to completely appropriate and remix existing musical works. When those tools become very quick and easy to use I think we will see the song transform into a meme space instead. I don’t see any way to avoid that. I think there will be resistance, but it is inevitable.

In the AI space, there are some artists who are seeing this coming and trying to make the most of it. So instead of trying to stop people from using AI to rip off their work, they’re trying to get a cut of it. Like say, okay you can use my voice but you’ll give me royalties. I’ve done all of this work to make this voice, it’s become like a kind of recognizable cultural asset and I know I’m going to lose control of it, but I want some royalties and to own the quality of this vocal timbre

Is there a risk in deskilling, or even populism, in a future where anyone can make profound changes to another person’s creative work? The original intention of copyright law was to protect artists’ work from falling out of their hands financially and aesthetically. The supposed democratisation of journalism has largely defunded and deskilled an important profession and created an economy for much less skilled influencers and provocateurs. Might not the same happen to music?

The question of democratisation is problematic. For instance, democracy is good, but there are consequences when you democratise the means of production, particularly in the arts where a big part of what we’re doing is essentially showing off. Once the means of production are democratised, then those who have invested in the skills previously needed lose that capacity to define themselves through them. Instead, everyone can do everything and for this short while, because we’re used to these things being scarce, it suddenly seems like we’ve all become richer. Then pretty soon, we find we’re all in a very crowded room trying to shout louder and louder. It’s like we were in a gig and we took away the stage and now we’re all expecting to have the same status that the musician on the stage had.

I can see your concerns with that, but when it comes to music transforming from being a produced thing to being very quickly made with AI tools by people who aren’t professional. If you’re a professional musician there will still be winners and losers, and those winners and losers will in part be those who are good at using the tools. There will be those with some kind of artistic vision. And there’ll be those who are good at social media and networking, and good at understanding how to make things go viral. 

It’s not that different from how music is now. It takes more than musical talent to become a successful artist as a musician, you’ve got to build relationships with your fans, you have to do all of these other things which maybe you could get away with not doing so much in the past.

Let’s return to the original theme of what makes for a good installation. What advice would you give to someone in the same position now that you were in just over a decade ago when starting Cave of Sounds?

In 2012 when we started building Cave of Sounds Music Hackspace was a place for people to build things. This was fundamental for me. People there were making software and hardware and there was this sort of default attitude of ‘we built it, now we’re going to show somebody’. We’re going to get up in the front of the room and I’m going to talk to you about this thing, and maybe I’ll play some music on it.

I find the term installation problematic because it comes from this world of the art gallery and of having a space and doing something inside the space where it can’t necessarily just be reduced to a sculpture or something. Whereas, for me, it was just a useful word to describe a musical device where the audience is going to be actively interacting with it, rather than sitting down and watching a professional interact with it. So that shift from a musician on a stage to an audience participating in the work.

I don’t think it necessarily has to begin with a space. It needs a curiosity of interaction. Maybe I’m just projecting what I feel, but what I observed at Music Hackspace is people taking so much enjoyment in building things, and less time spent performing them. Some people really want to get up and perform as musicians. Some people really want to build stuff for the pleasure of building. 

How do you get an installation out into the world?

How to get exhibited is still an ongoing mystery to me, but I will say that having past work that has succeeded means people are more likely to accept new work based on a diagram and description. Generally, having a video of a piece makes it much more likely for people to want to show it. The main place things are shown is in festivals, more than galleries or museums. Getting work into a festival is a question of practical logistics: How many people are going to experience it and how much space and resources does it demand? And then festivals tend to conform to bigger trends – sometimes a bit too much I think as then they end up all showing quite similar works. When we made Cave of Sounds, DIY hacker culture and its connection to grassroots activism was in the air. Today, the focus is the environment, decolonisation, and social justice. Tomorrow there will be other things.

Then, there’s a lot of graft, and a lot of that graft is much easier when you’re younger than when you’re older. I don’t think I could go through the Cave of Sounds process today like I did back then. I’m very happy I did it back then.

What specifically about the Cave of Sounds do you think made it work?

The first shocking success of Cave of Sounds is that when we built it we had like a team of eight, and I had a very small fee because I was doing this artist residency, but everyone else was a volunteer on that project or collaborating artists, but unpaid. And we worked together for eight months to bring it together.

A lot of people came to the first meeting but from the second meeting, the people who turned up from that point forward were the eight people making the work who stuck through to the end. I think there’s something remarkable about that. Something about the core idea of the work really resonated with those people, and I think we got really lucky with them. And there was a community that they were embedded in as well. But the fact that everyone might made it to the end, just like shows that there was something kind of magical in the nature of the work and the context of that combination of people.

So a work like Cave Sounds was possible because we had a lot of people who were very passionate, and we had a diversity of skills, but we also had like a bit of an institutional name behind us. We had a small budget as well, but the budget was very small, and most of the budget did not pay for the work. The budget covered some of the materials, really, but a significant amount of labour went into that piece, and it came from people working for passion.

Do you have a dream project or a desire for something you would like to do in the future?

For the past few years I’ve been exploring how to use AI to interpret the moving body so that I can create physical interaction without introducing any assumptions about what kind of movement the body can make. So if I’m making an instrument by mapping movement sensors to sound, I’m not thinking ‘OK this kind of hand movement should make that kind of sound’ but instead training an AI on many hours of sensor data where I’m just moving in my own natural way and asking it ‘What are the most significant movements here?’

I’m slightly obsessed with this process. It’s giving me a completely different feeling when I interact with the machine, like my actions are no longer mediated by the hand of an interaction designer. Of course, I’m still there as a designer, but it’s like I’m designing an open space for someone rather than boxes of tools. I think there’s something profoundly political about this shift, and I’m drawn to that because it reveals a way of applying AI to liberate people to be individually themselves, rather than using it to make existing systems even more efficient at being controlling and manipulative which seems to be the main AI risk I think we’re facing right now. I could go on more as well – moving from the symbolic to the embodied, from the rational to the intuitive. Computers before AI were like humans with only the left side of the brain. I think they make humans lose touch with their embodied nature. AI adds in the right side, and some of the most exciting shifts I think will be in how we interact with computers as much as what those computers can do autonomously.

So far, I’ve been exploring this with dancers, having them control sounds in real-time but still being able to dance as they dance rather than dancing like they’re trapped inside a land of invisible switches and trigger zones. And in my latest interactive installation Self Absorbed I’ve been using it to explore the latent space of other AI models, so people can morph through different images by moving their bodies. But the dream project is to expand this into a larger multi-person space, a combined virtual and physical realm that lets people influence their surroundings in all kinds of inexplicable ways by using the body. I want to make this and see how far people can feel a sense of connection with each other through full-body interfaces that are too complicated to understand rationally but are so rich and sensitive to the body that you can still find ways to express yourself.

Cave of Sounds was created by Tim Murray-Browne, Dom Aversano, Sus Garcia, Wallace Hobbes, Daniel Lopez, Tadeo Sendon, Panagiotis Tigas, and Kacper Ziemianin with support from Music Hackspace, Sound and Music, Esmée Fairbairne Foundation, Arts Council England and British Council.

To find out more about Tim Murray-Browne you can visit his website or follow him on Substack, Instagram, Mastodon, or X.

How to design a music installation – an interview with Tim Murray-Browne (part 1)

Dom Aversano

How to design a music installation - an interview with Tim Murray-Browne (part 1)

I met artist and coder Tim Murray-Browne just over a decade ago, briefly after he was made artist in residence for Music Hackspace. Tall, thin, with a deep yet softly-spoken voice, he stood up and gave a presentation to an audience of programmers, academics, musicians, and builders, in a room buzzing with anticipation. The setting was a dingy studio in Hoxton, East London, prior to the full-on gentrification of the artistic neighbourhood.

Tim’s idea for a project was bold: He had no idea. Or to be more precise, his idea was to have no idea. Instead, the idea would emerge from a group. There were quizzical looks in the audience and questions to confirm indeed the idea was to have no idea. For an artistically audacious idea, this was a good audience, comprised as it was of open-minded, radical, and burningly curious people. By the meeting’s end an unspoken consensus of ‘let’s give this a go’ seemed to have quietly been reached.

Tim’s faith in his concept was ultimately vindicated since the installation that emerged from this process, Cave of Sounds, still tours to this day. Created by a core group of eight people — myself one of them — it has managed to stay relevant amid a slew of socio-political and technological changes. As an artist, Tim has continued to make installations, many focusing on dance, movement, and the human body, as well as more recently, AI.

I wanted to reflect back on this last decade, to see what had been learned, what had changed, what the future might hold, and above all else, how one goes about creating an installation.

What do you think are the most important things to consider when building an interactive installation?

First, you need some kind of development over time. I used to say narrative though I’m not sure if that is the right word anymore, but something needs to emerge within that musical experience. A pattern or structure that grows. Let’s say someone arrives by themselves, maybe alone in a room, and is confronted with something physical, material, or technological, and the journey to discover what patterns emerge has begun. Even though an installation is not considered a narrative form, any interaction is always temporal.

Second, has to do with agency. It’s very tempting as an artist to create a work and have figured out exactly what experience you want your audience to have and to think that that’s going to be an interactive experience even though you’ve already decided it. Then you spend all your time locking down everything that could happen in the space to make sure the experience you envisaged happens. I think if you do this you may as well have made a non-interactive artwork, as I believe the power of interactivity in art lies in the receiver having agency over what unfolds.

Therefore, I think the question of agency in music is fundamental. When we are in the audience watching music a lot of what we get out of it is witnessing someone express themselves skillfully. Take virtuosity, that comes down to witnessing someone have agency in a space and really do something with it.

How exactly do you think about agency in relation to installations?

In an interactive installation, it’s important to consider the agency of the person coming in. You want to ask, how much freedom are we going to give this person? How broad is the span of possible outcomes? If we’re doing something with rhythm and step sequencing are we going to quantise those rhythms so everything sounds like a techno track? Or are we going to rely on the person’s own sense of rhythm and allow them to decide whether to make it sound like a techno track or not?

It all comes down to the question of what is the point of it being interactive. While it is important to have some things be controllable, a lot of the pleasure and fun of interactive stuff is allowing for the unexpected, and therefore I find the best approach when building an installation is to get it in front of unknown people as soon as possible. Being open to the unexpected does not mean you cannot fail. An important reason for getting a work in front of fresh people is to understand how far they are getting into the work. If they don’t understand how to affect and influence the work then they don’t have any agency, and there won’t be any sense of emergence.

Can you describe music in your childhood? You say you sang in choirs from the age of six to twelve. What was your experience of that?

At the time it burnt me out a little but I’m very thankful for it today. It was very much tied to an institution. It was very institutional music and it was obligatory. I was singing in two to three masses a week and learning piano and percussion. I stopped when I was about 13. I had a few changes in life, we moved country for a little bit and I went to a totally different kind of school and environment. It wasn’t until a few years later that I picked up the piano again, and only really in the last couple of years have I reconnected with my voice.

Your PhD seemed to be a turning point for you and a point of re-entry into music. Can you describe your PhD, and how that influenced your life?

I began doing a PhD looking at generative music, and as I was trying to figure out what the PhD would be I had an opportunity to do a sound installation in these underground vaults in London Bridge Station with a random bunch of people in my research group. They were doing an installation there and someone had some proximity sensors I could use. There was an artist who had some projections which were going up and I made a generative soundscape for it. Being in the space and seeing the impact of that work in a spatial context really shifted my focus. I felt quite strongly that I wanted to make installations rather than just music, and I reoriented my PhD to figure out how to make it about that. I was also confronted with the gulf of expectation and reality in interactive art. I thought the interactivity was too obvious if anything, but then as I sat and watched people enter the space, most did not even realise the piece was interactive.

How do these questions sit with you today?

From an academic perspective, it was a really terrible idea because a PhD is supposed to be quite focused, and I was questioning how can you make interactive music more captivating. I had this sense in my head of what an interactive music experience could be, and it was as immersive, durational and gripping as a musical experience. Nearly every interactive sound work I was finding ended up being quite a brief experience – you kind of just work out all the things you can do and then you’re done.

I saw this pattern in my own work too. My experience in making interactive sound works was much more limited back then, but I saw a common pattern of taking processes from recorded music and making it interactive. My approach was to ask ‘Well what is music really? why do we like it?’ and all kinds of answers come up about emerging structures, belonging, and self-expression, so then the question was how can we create interactive works that embody those qualities within the interactivity itself.

What it left me with was not such a clear pathway into academia, because I hadn’t arrived at some clear and completed research finding, but what I had done was immersed myself so fundamentally in trying to answer this question, how can I make captivating interactive music experiences?f

What did you find?

On the question of interaction with technology, I think the most fundamental quality of technology is interaction, human-computer interaction. How is it affecting us? How are we affecting it? How does that ongoing relationship develop?

There is so much within those questions, and yet interactivity is often just tacked on to an existing artwork or introduced in a conventional way because that is how things are done. In fact, the way you do interactivity says a lot about who you are and how you see the world. How you design interaction is similar to how you make music, there are many ways, and each has a political interpretation that can be valuable in different contexts.

Who has influenced you in this respect?

The biggest influence on me at the point where I’d finished my PhD and commenced Cave of Sounds was the book Musicking by Christopher Small.

The shift in mindset goes from thinking that music is something being done by musicians on a stage and being received by everyone else around them, to being a collective act that everybody’s participating in together, and that if there weren’t an audience there to receive it the musician couldn’t be participating in the same music.

What I found informative is to take a relativist view on different musical cultures. Whether it is a rock concert, classical concert, folk session, or jazz jam, you can think of them as being different forms of this same thing, just with different parameters of where the agency is.

For instance, if you’re jamming with friends in a circle around a table there is space for improvisation and for everybody to create sound. This has an egalitarian nature to it. Whereas with an orchestra there is little scope for the musicians to choose what notes they play, but a huge scope for them to demonstrate technical virtuosity and skill, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I love orchestral music. I think there is beauty to the coordination and power. I can see how it could be abused politically, but it’s still a thing that I feel in my body when I experience it, and I want to be able to access that feeling.

What I’m most suspicious about are stadium-level concerts. The idolisation of one individual on a stage with everyone in the crowd going emotionally out of control. It is kind of this demagogue/mob relationship. People talk about these Trump rallies as if they’re like rock concerts, and it’s that kind of relationship that is abused politically.

Cave of Sounds was created by Tim Murray-Browne, Dom Aversano, Sus Garcia, Wallace Hobbes, Daniel Lopez, Tadeo Sendon, Panagiotis Tigas, and Kacper Ziemianin with support from Music Hackspace, Sound and Music, Esmée Fairbairne Foundation, Arts Council England and British Council.

You can read more of this interview in Part 2 which will follow shortly, where we discuss the future of music as well as practical advice for building installations. To find out more about Tim Murray-Browne you can visit his website or follow him on SubstackInstagramMastodon, or X.

Introduction to beat detection and audio-reactive visuals in TouchDesigner – On demand

Level: Beginner

TouchDesigner is a powerful tool for creating live performances, installations, real time visuals and complex digital systems. In this workshop you’ll learn the basic functioning of three node-types and how to use them to analyse audio, use the data to manipulate graphics and how to organize and navigate your TouchDesigner network.

Session Learning Outcomes

By the end of this session a successful student will be able to:

  • Input audio into TouchDesigner

  • Extract relevant data from input sources

  • Use data to manipulate graphics

  • Create simple generative visuals

  • Navigate the TouchDesigner network

Session Study Topics

  • Audio input sources

  • Beat detection (frequency analysis, timesclicing etc.)

  • Creation and manipulation of generative visuals

  • Network organisation

Requirements

  • A computer with internet connection

  • A web cam and mic

  • A three button mouse or to configure Apple Track Pad appropriately

  • TouchDesigner (free version suffices https://derivative.ca/download)

  • If your on Mac please check TouchDesigner can run on your system (i.e. has basic GPU requirements such as Intel HD4000 or better)

About the workshop leader 

Bileam Tschepe aka elekktronaut is a Berlin based artist and educator who creates audio-reactive, interactive and organic digital artworks, systems and installations in TouchDesigner, collaborating with and teaching people worldwide.