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.