Should fair use allow AI to be trained on copyrighted music?

Dom Aversano

This week the composer Ed Newton-Rex brought the ethics of AI into focus when he resigned from his role in the Audio team at Stability AI, citing a disagreement with the fair use argument used by his ex-employer to justify training its generative AI models on copyrighted works.

In a statement posted on Twitter/X he explained the reasons for his resignation.

For those unfamiliar with ‘fair use’, this claims that training an AI model on copyrighted works doesn’t infringe the copyright in those works, so it can be done without permission, and without payment. This is a position that is fairly standard across many of the large generative AI companies, and other big tech companies building these models — it’s far from a view that is unique to Stability. But it’s a position I disagree with.
I disagree because one of the factors affecting whether the act of copying is fair use, according to Congress, is “the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work”. Today’s generative AI models can clearly be used to create works that compete with the copyrighted works they are trained on. So I don’t see how using copyrighted works to train generative AI models of this nature can be considered fair use.

As Newton-Rex states, this is quite a standard argument made by companies using copyright material to train their AI. In fact, Stability AI recently submitted a 23-page document to the US Copyright Office arguing their case. Within it, they state they have trained their Stable Audio model on ‘800,000 recordings and corresponding songs’ going on to state.

These models analyze vast datasets to understand the relationships between words, concepts, and visual, textual or musical features ~ much like a student visiting a library or an art gallery. Models can then apply this knowledge to help a user produce new content, This learning process is known as training.

This highly anthropomorphised argument is at least very questionable. AI models are not like students for obvious reasons: they do not have a body, do not have emotions, and have no life experience. Furthermore, as Stability AI’s own document testifies, they do not learn in the same way that humans learn; if a student were to study 800,000 pieces of music over a ten-year period that would require analysing 219 different songs a day.

The contrast in how humans learn and think was highlighted by the American linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky in his critique of Large Language Models (LLMs).

The human mind is not, like ChatGPT and its ilk, a lumbering statistical engine for pattern matching, gorging on hundreds of terabytes of data and extrapolating the most likely conversational response or most probable answer to a scientific question. On the contrary, the human mind is a surprisingly efficient and even elegant system that operates with small amounts of information; it seeks not to infer brute correlations among data points but to create explanations.

A lot of this issue is further complicated by the language emerging from the AI community, which varies from anthropomorphic (‘co-pilot’) to deistic (‘godlike’) to apocalyptic (‘breakout scenarios’). Specifically with Stability AI, the company awkwardly evokes Abraham Lincon’s Gettysburg Address when writing on their website that they are creating ‘AI by the people for the people’ with the ambition of ‘building the foundation to activate humanity’s potential’.

While of course, they are materially different circumstances there is nevertheless a certain echo here of the civilising mission used to morally rationalise the economic rapaciousness of empire. To justify the permissionless use of copyrighted artwork on the basis of a mission to ‘activate humanity’s potential’ in a project ‘for the people’ is excessively moralistic and unconvincing. If Stability AI wants their project to be ‘by the people’ they should have artists explicitly opt-in before using their work, but the problem with this is that many will not, rendering the models perhaps not useless, but greatly less effective.

This point was underscored by venture capital fund Andreessen Horowitz who recently released a rather candid statement to this effect.

The bottom line is this: imposing the cost of actual or potential copyright liability on the creators of AI models will either kill or significantly hamper their development.

Although in principle supportive of generative AI Newton-Rex does not ignore the economic realities behind the development of AI. In a statement that I will finish with, he succinctly and eloquently brings into focus the power imbalance at play and its potential destructiveness

Companies worth billions of dollars are, without permission, training generative AI models on creators’ works, which are then being used to create new content that in many cases can compete with the original works. I don’t see how this can be acceptable in a society that has set up the economics of the creative arts such that creators rely on copyright.

If you have an opinion you would like to share on this topic please feel free to comment below.

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

Live coding – an interview with Lizzie Wilson (Digital Selves)

Dom Aversano

Photo by Antonio Roberts / @hellocatfood

The live coding scene has been growing over the years. Despite this, for many the idea of watching someone create music in code might not have an immediate appeal, though live coders are now playing at top night clubs, experimental music venues, and festivals. As the world becomes more code literate it is likely to become more popular. 

Curious to know more about these digital improvisers I sat down for a chat with Lizzie Wilson (Digital Selves) who is a leading musician in the field who learned the art of music coding in the lively scene in Leeds, but now lives in London. 

Did you have a background in either music or programming before you got into live coding?

I grew up with traditional instruments playing piano and guitar, though I always found I had a bit of trouble with coordination. I also found it limiting to be tied down to expressing ideas musically through physicality. I always did that on the side and really enjoyed it. Then I studied mathematics at university. So not really coding, but obviously it underpins a lot of the ideas in coding.

I didn’t start coding until I found out about Algorave and live coding. It was through one of my good friends, Joanne Armitage. My friends would run little house parties and she would rock up with a laptop and start doing live coding, and I remember seeing it and thinking, Oh, that’s really cool, I’d love to do a bit of this.

Which city was this?

At the time I was based in Leeds, Yorkshire, because that’s where many people were based, and there was a lot happening in the city. This was around 2015/2016.

I didn’t know much about coding or how to code. So I started to learn a bit and pick stuff up, and it felt really intuitive and fast to learn. So it was a really exciting experience for me.

It’s quite rare to find coding intuitive or easy to learn.

Yeah, I had tried a few more traditional ways. I bought a MIDI keyboard and Ableton. While I really enjoyed that, there was something about live coding that made me spend a whole weekend not talking to anyone and just getting really into it. I think that’s, as you say, quite rare, but it’s exciting when it happens.

That’s great. Were you using Tidal Cycles?

Yeah, it was Tidal Cycles. So Joanne was using Supercollider, which is, you know, a really big program. When I first started I wanted to use Supercollider because that was all I knew about. So I tried to learn Supercollider, but there were a lot of audio concepts that I didn’t know about at that time and it was very coding intensive. It was quite a lot for someone who didn’t know much about either at the time, so I never really got into Supercollider.

Then I went to an algorave in Leeds and I saw Alex McLean performing using Tidal Cycles. I remember that performance really well. The weekend after I thought, you know, I’m going to download this and try it out. At that time Alex — who wrote the software — was running a lot of workshops and informal meetups in the area. So there was a chance to meet up with other people who were interested in it as well.

Tidal Cycles Code / by Lizzie Wilson

Was this a big thing in Leeds at that time?

Yes, definitely around Yorkshire. I’m sure there were people in London in the late 2000s that were starting off. In the early 2010s, there were a lot of people working, because people were employed by universities in Yorkshire, and it’s got this kind of academic adjacent vibe, with people organising conferences around live coding.

There was a lot happening in Yorkshire around that time, and there still is. Sheffield now tends to be the big place where things are based, but we’re starting to create communities down in London as well and across the UK. So yes, I think Yorkshire is definitely the informal home of it.

I’m curious about what you said earlier about the limitations of physicality. To invert that — what do you consider the liberating ideas that drew you to code and made it feel natural for you?

I think it being so tightly expressed in language. I like to write a lot anyway, so that makes it very intuitive for someone like me. I like to think through words. So I can type out exactly what I want a kick drum sample to do: play two times as fast, or four times as fast. Using words to make connections between what you want the sounds to do is what drew me to it, and I think working this way allows you to achieve a level of complexity quite quickly.

With a traditional digital audio workstation, you have to copy and paste a lot and decide, for instance, on the fourth time round I want to change this bar, and then you have to zoom into where the fourth set of notes is. There’s a lot of copy and pasting and manual editing. I found being able to express an idea in a really conjunct and satisfying way in code exciting. It allows you to achieve a level of complexity quite quickly that produces interesting music.

The live aspect of performance places you within a deeper tradition of improvisation, however, code is more frequently associated with meticulous engineering and planning. How does improvisation work with code?

I think that’s something really interesting. If you think about coding in general, it tends to be, say, you want to make a product, so you go away and you write some code and it does something. This way of coding is very different because you do something, you try it out, and then you ask, does this work? Yes or no. That’s kind of cool, and you see the process happening in real-time, rather than it just being a piece of code that is run and then produces a thing.

Photo by Jonathan Reus

Part of the thrill of improvisation comes from the risk of making mistakes publicly, which makes it exciting for the audience and for the artists. How do you feel about improvising?

At first, I always found it quite scary, whereas now I find it enjoyable. That is not to say I am completely fine now, but you get through this process of learning to accept the error or learning to go where it takes you. So yeah, I find the level of unpredictability and never knowing what’s going to happen a really interesting part of it.

How much of an idea do you have of what you’re going to do before performing?

There are people who are a bit more purist and start completely from scratch. They do this thing called blank slate coding, where they have a completely blank screen and then over the performance they build it up. The more time you spend learning the language, the more you feel confident at accessing different ideas or concepts quicker, but I like to have a few ideas and then improvise around them. When I start performing I have some things written on the screen and then I can work with them.

It’s not like one way is more righteous than the other, and people are quite accepting of that. You don’t have to start completely from scratch to be considered coding, but there are different levels of blindness and improvisation that people focus on.

It seems like there are more women involved in live coding than in traditional electronic scenes. Is that your experience?

Yes, and there has been a conscious effort to do that. It’s been the work of a lot of other women before me who’ve tried hard to make sure that if we’re putting on a gig there are women involved in the lineup. This also raises questions like, how do we educate other women? How do we get them to feel comfortable? With women specifically, the idea of failure and of making mistakes can be difficult. There is some documentation on this, for instance, a paper by Dr Joanna Armitage, Spaces to Fail In, that I think is really interesting and can help with how to explore this domain.

It’s not just women though. I think there are other areas that we could improve on. Live coding is not a utopia, but I think people are trying to make it as open a space as possible. I think this reflects some of the other ideas of open-source software, like freedom and sharing.

Introversion of Sacrifice EP by Digital Selves (Lizzie Wilson)

What other live coders inspire you?

I would say, if I’m playing around the UK, I would always watch out for sets from +777000 (with Nunez on visuals), Michael-Jon Mizra, yaxu, heavy lifting, dundas, Alo Alik, eye measure, tyger blue plus visualists hellocatfood, Joana Chicau and Ulysses Popple, mahalia h-r

More internationally, I really like the work of Renick Bell, spednar, {arsonist}, lil data, nesso, hogobogobogo & gibby-dj 

If someone goes to an algorave what can they expect? Is the audience mostly participants, or is there an audience for people who don’t code?

I think you always get a mixture of both. There are some people who are more interested in reading and understanding the code. Often they forget to dance because they’re just standing there and thinking, but there is dancing. There should be dancing! I feel like, if you’re making dance music, it’s nice when people actually dance to it!

It depends on the person as well. There are people who are a lot more experimental and make harsh noise that pushes the limits of what is danceable. Then there are people who like to make music that is very danceable, beat-driven, and arranged. If you go to an Algorave you wouldn’t expect to have one end of the spectrum or other, you will probably get a bit of both.

Over the past few years, we’ve done quite a few shows in London at Corsica Studios, which is a very traditional nightclub space, with a large dark room and a big sound system, as well as more experimental art venues like Iklectik, which is also in London. Then there’s the other end of the spectrum where people do things in a more academic setting. So it’s spread out through quite a lot of places.

My personal favourite is playing in clubs where people actually dance, because I think that’s more fun and exciting than say art galleries, where it’s always a bit sterile. It’s not as fun as being in a place where the space really invites you to let go a little bit and dance. That’s the nice thing about playing in clubs.

Bandcamp recently got bought by Songtradr who then proceeded to lay off 50% of the staff. Traditionally Bandcamp has been seen as an Oasis for independent recording musicians, amid what otherwise are generally considered a series of bad options. Do you have any thoughts on this, especially given that you have released music on Bandcamp?

When I’ve done releases before we haven’t released with Spotify. I’ve only done releases through Bandcamp because as you say, it felt like this safe space for artists, or an Oasis. It was the one platform where artists weren’t held to ransom for releasing their own music. It’s been a slow decline, having been acquired by Epic Games last year. When that happened I winced a little bit, because it was like, well, what’s going to happen now? It felt quite hard to trust that they were going to do anything good with it.

Obviously, it’s hard. I think the solution is for more people to run independent projects, co-ops, and small ventures. Then to find new niches and new ways for musicians to exist and coexist in music, get their releases out, and think of new solutions to support artists and labels. At times like this, it’s always a bit, you know, dampened by this constant flow of like, oh, we’ve got this platform that’s made for artists and now it’s gone, but people always find ways. Bandcamp came out of a need for a new kind of platform. So without it, maybe there’ll be something else that will come out of the new need.

I’m hopeful. I like to be hopeful.

To discover more about Lizzie Wilson (Digital Selves) you can follow the links to her website, Bandcamp, Twitter, and Instagram

Can AI help us make humane and imaginative music?

Dom Aversano

There is a spectrum upon which AI music software exists. On one end are programs which create entire compositions, and on the other are programs that help people create music. In this post I will focus on the latter part of the spectrum, and ask the question, can AI help us compose and produce music in humane and imaginative ways? I will explore this question through a few different AI music tools.

Tone Transfer / Google

For decades the dominance of keyboard interaction has constrained computer music. Keyboards elegantly arrange a large number of notes but limit the control of musical parameters beyond volume and duration. Furthermore, with the idiosyncratic arrangement of a keyboard’s notes, it is hard to work — or even think — outside of the 12-note chromatic scale. Even with the welcome addition of pitch modulation wheels and microtonal pressure-sensitive keyboards such as Roli’s fascinating Seaboard, keyboards still struggle to express the nuanced pitch and amplitude modulations quintessential to many musical cultures.

For this reason, Magenta’s Tone Transfer may represent a potentially revolutionary change in computer music interaction. It allows you to take a sound or melody from one instrument and transform it into a completely different-sounding instrument while preserving the subtleties and nuances of the original performance. A cello melody can be transformed into a trumpet melody, the sound of birdsong into fluttering flute sounds, or a sung melody converted into a number of traditional concert instruments. It feels like the antidote to autotune, a tool that captures the nuance, subtly, and humanity of the voice, while offering the potential to transform it into something quite different.

In practice, the technology falls short of its ambitions. I sang in a melody and transformed it into a flute sound, and while my singing ability is unlikely to threaten the reputation of Ella FitzGerald, the flute melody that emerged sounded like the flautist was drunk. However, given the pace at which machine learning is progressing, one can expect it to be much more sophisticated in the coming years, and I essentially regard this technology as an early prototype.

Google has admirably made the code open source and the musicians who helped train the machine learning algorithms are prominently credited for their work. You can listen to audio snippets of the machine learning process, and hear the instrument evolve in complexity after 1 hour, 3 hours, and 10 hours of learning.

It is not just Google developing this type of technology — groups like Harmonai and Neutone doing similar things and any one of them stands to transform computer music interaction, by anchoring us back into the most universal instrument, the human voice.

Mastering / LANDR

Although understanding how mastering works is relatively straightforward, understanding how a mastering engineer perceives music and uses their technology is far from simple since there is as much art as there is science to their craft. Therefore, is this a process that can be devolved to AI?

That is the assumption behind LANDR’s online mastering service which allows you to upload a finished track for mastering. Once it is processed, you are given the option to choose from three style settings (Warm, Balanced, Open) and three levels of loudness (Low, Medium, High), with a master/original toggle to compare the changes made.

I uploaded a recent composition to test it. The result was an improvement on the unmastered track, but the limited options to modify it gave the feeling of a one-size-fits-all approach, inadequate for those who intend to carefully shape their musical creations at every stage of production. However, this might not be an issue for people on lower-budget projects, or those who intend to simply and quickly improve their tracks for quick release.

In a desire to understand the AI technology I searched for more precise details, and while the company says that ‘AI isn’t just a buzzword for us’ I could only find a quote that does little to describe how the technology actually works.

Our legendary, patented mastering algorithm thoroughly analyzes tracks and customizes the processing to create results that sound incredible on any speaker.

While LANDR’s tool is useful for quick and cheap mastering, it feels constrained and artistically unrewarding if you want something more specific. The interface also feels like it limits the potential of the technology. Why not allow text prompts such as: “cut the low-end rumble, brighten the high end, and apply some subtle vintage reverb and limiting”.

Fastverb / Focusrite

Unlike mastering, reverb is an effect rather than a general skill or profession, making it potentially simpler to devolve aspects of it to AI. Focusrite’s Fastverb reverb effect uses AI to analyse your audio before prescribing certain settings for you based on this, which you can then go on to tweak. The company is vague about how their AI technology works, simply stating.

FAST Verb’s AI is trained on over half a million real samples, so you’ll never need to use presets again.

I use the plugin on a recent composition. The results were subtle but an improvement. I adjusted some of the settings and it sounded better. Overall, I had the impression of a tasteful reverb that would work with many styles of music.

Did the AI help significantly in arriving at the desired effect? It is hard to say. I would assume for someone with very limited experience using such tools, yes, but without someone confident with an effect, I doubt it saves much time at all.

I am aware however there is the potential for snobbery here. After all, if a podcaster can add a decent reverb to their show or a guitarist can add some presence to their recording easily, that’s no bad thing. They can if they want go on to learn more about these effects and fine-tune them themselves. For this reason purpose, it represents a useful tool.


LANDR’s Mastering service and Focusrite’s Fastverb are professional tools that I hope readers of this article will be tempted to try. However, while there is clearly automation at work, how the AI technology works is unclear. If the term AI is used to market tools, there should be clarification of what exactly it is — otherwise one might as well just write ‘digital magic’. By contrast, Google’s Tone Transfer have made their code open source, as well as describing in detail how they use machine learning, and the people involved in training the models.

I expect that the tools that attempt to speed up or improve existing processes, such as mastering and applying reverb, will have the effect of lowering the barrier to entry into audio engineering, but I have yet to see evidence it will improve it. In fact, it could degrade and homogenise audio engineering by encouraging people to work faster but with less skill and care.

By contrast, the machine learning algorithms that Googe, Harmonai, Neutone, and others are working on, could create meaningful change. They are not mature technologies, but there is the seed of something profound in them. The ability to completely transform the sounds of music while preserving the performance and the potential to bring the voice to the forefront of computer music could prove to be genuinely revolutionary.

What follows from the collapse of NFTs?

Dom Aversano

Almost a quarter of a century after Napster fired a torpedo into the record industry one might have expected stability to have returned, but the turmoil continues well into the new century without any signs of resolution.

The story is familiar. MP3 collections never felt like record collections, making them ripe to be superseded by full-catalogue music streaming. Streaming is unprofitable for the companies selling it and unsustainable for the musicians on it, so in a bid to save themselves, not music, the platforms are now transforming into rivers of algorithmically recommended muzak. Ironically, the oldest medium is in the healthiest state, vinyl, and while it is inspiring to know people still go out and buy records, it does not help solve the problem of digital music.

Given this context, it was always tempting to see NFTs — or non-fungible tokens — as the saviour of digital music. But with Sam Bankman-Fried now standing on trial and 95% of NFTs estimated to be worthless we should be asking, what went wrong?

It is beyond the scope of this article to explain what NFTs are — which has been done well elsewhere — but what can be said is the heavy nomenclature they carry can make it feel impenetrable and confusing: you have blockchain, minting, wallets, cryptocurrency, drops, Bitcoin, Metaverse, Web 3, smart contracts etc. The time required to make sense of this — much like an NFT — is a luxury few can afford, providing a wall of obscurantism that imbues the culture with an aura of mystique and intellectualism.

My experience took me down a winding path. Initially, I found NFTs interesting, as they seemed like an innovative method for digital ownership that could help fund the creation of new music and provide fans with a strong connection to their favourite artists, but as my research accumulated their appeal steadily diminished. A combination of too-good-to-be-true promises and scammy behaviour made it seem murky, if not at times actively sinister.

While I am not closed off to the possibility of something valuable emerging from this world (for instance, smart contracts seem genuinely interesting) based on the evidence, NFTs were always doomed to fail.

Here is why.

  1. The torrent of terminology in this culture makes it easy to be blinded by the science and lose sight of the obvious — for instance, cryptocurrencies, despite the name, are not currencies. There is barely a thing on Earth you can buy with crypto. It is actually an asset untethered to economic activity, or simpler yet, an elaborate gambling token. Just as nobody wants to appear a philistine for not appreciating a certain art form, nobody wants to feel like a Luddite for not understanding a particular technology, but spend your evenings and weekends dispassionately breaking down the terminology and you’ll find little of substance remains.

  2. Most people try to understand cryptocurrency in a purely technical sense and ignore the sociological of its emergence. Bitcoin arose shortly after the 2008 financial crisis when mistrust of banking was at an all-time high. At this time having a so-called currency circumventing banks was music to people’s ears, and the Hollywood superhero manner in which Bitcoin entered the world through a mysterious unknown figure called Satoshi Nakamoto only added to its anarcho-utopian appeal.

  3. Blockchain sounds cooler than it is. Some blockchains create huge environmental damage, have very long transaction times, and are vulnerable to privacy breaches and theft. If you lose your password to your digital wallet or if it falls into someone else’s hands you may lose everything, without any recourse to institutional support or insurance. Most concerning of all, far from being a tool for honesty and transparency, cryptocurrency is regularly used by organised criminals as a tool for money laundering. For these reasons, blockchain has been referred to at various points as ‘a solution in search of a problem’.

  4. Experts have much less faith in cryptocurrency than the public. An economist who famously predicted the 2007–08 subprime mortgage crisis, Nouriel Roubini, called crypto ‘a scam’ and a ‘Ponzi scheme’ that preys on young people, people on lower income, and minorities, and advises people to ‘stay away’, referring to those who run the industry as ‘crooks’ that ‘literally belong in jail’.

Even if none of the above really dents your belief in the validity of cryptocurrencies/NFTs/blockchains, there is a gaping flaw that is impossible to ignore.

NFTs have no intrinsic value.

I can put a photo of the Taj Mahal on a blockchain and link it to you, but that doesn’t mean you own a brick of it.

Writer and programmer Stephen Dhiel, who is a vociferous critic of cryptocurrencies, offered the following analogy about NFTs in a Twitter/X thread.

There is one comparable market to NFTs: The Star Naming Market (…) Back in the 90s some entrepreneurs found you could convince the public to buy “rights” to name yet-unnamed stars after their loved ones by selling entries in an unofficial register (…) You’d buy the “rights” to a name [sic] the star and they’d send you a piece of paper claiming that you were now the owner of said star. Nothing was actually done in this transaction, you simply paid someone to update a register about a ball of plasma millions of light years away. (…) NFTs are the evolution of this grift in a more convoluted form. Instead of allegedly buying a star, you’re allegedly buying a JPEG from an artist. Except you’re not buying the image, you’re buying a digitally signed URL to the image. 

With NFTs now largely worthless, it’s hard to argue with Dhiel’s analysis. So where does this leave us?

Few genuinely innovative ideas remain, but a company called JKBX has proposed that people can buy royalty shares of their favourite musicians’ songs. The problem is, even if it worked, would it be healthy to have fans treating their favourite artists’ songs as investments? Would listening to All You Need is Love feel the same if you were waiting for your share of a royalty payment to come through? Is turning music into a weird stock market for royalties really the best thing we can dream up?

After nearly a quarter of a century of unsuccessfully trying to resurrect the 20th-century music recording industry for the 21st-century, perhaps it is time to ask, was this ever the right goal? MP3s, streaming, and NFTs, did not balance the boat, which still rocks about aimlessly on stormy seas.

Perhaps the original goal was never ambitious or imaginative enough, after all, why resurrect an old method of distributing music when you could create a new one? NFTs were attractive to people for many reasons, but a major one was they promised a new internet culture — Web 3, metaverse etc. — that could offer ordinary people economic dignity. That people found this appealing is grounds for hope, as it demonstrates there is an appetite for a radical departure from the stagnant and centralised world of the social media empires.

The question that remains is: can we imagine it and build it? And if not now, when? If music wishes to remain a relevant art form, it can’t afford another quarter-century of floundering.

Do you have thoughts on what you have read? If so, please leave your comments below.

Further information on cryptocurrency/NFTs/blockchain

The Missing Crypto Queen — Podcast by investigative journalist Jamie Bartlett

The Case Against Crypto — Essay by programmer Stephen Diehl

Crypto is dead — Debate between Yanis Varoufakis & Viktor Tábori

What do recent trends in generative art mean for music?

Dom Aversano

Manu #34 by artist Rich Poole

In his provocative and fascinating book, Noise, the French musicologist and economist Jacques Attali wrote the following about the prophetic power of music.

Music is prophecy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code.

For a long time I considered this flattering statement about music to be true, but the more I learned about visual arts the more I saw that at various points in history it seemed to push ahead of music. Decades before Brian Eno used the term Generative Music the term Generative Art was being used, which does not mean there were no generative processes in music before then — there certainly were — but the terminology helped articulate a theoretical framework through which the art could be understood and developed.

In the last few years a big shift occurred in visual generative arts, somewhat obscured by the huge attention given to advances in machine learning and large language models, but worthy of examination for anyone interested in digital arts.

This innovation was fuelled by NFTs or non-fungible tokens (you can read more about them here). Putting aside the controversial ethical and technological aspects of cryptocurrency and NFTs — which I hope to cover in a future post — the economy it produced provided many generative artists with a living, during which the technical aspects of the art grew more sophisticated and publications like Right Click Save emerged to document the movement. This year the NFT economy fundamentally collapsed, making for an opportune moment to review what happened during its boom, and its relevance to musicians and composers.

In 2021 the generative artist and writer Tyler Hobbs wrote an important essay called The Rise of Long-Form Generative Art, which helps make sense of the recent changes to generative art. Within it, he describes two broad categories of generative art: short-form and long-form.

Generative art has traditionally favoured short-form, which he describes as follows.

First, there was almost always a “curation” step. The artist could generate as many outputs as they pleased and then filter those down to a small set of favorites. Only this curated set of output would be presented to the public.

The result of this is often small collections ranging from a single image to about a dozen. The artist is still largely in control, creating art in a manner that does not radically deviate from tradition.

In a jargon-dense paragraph Hobbs describes long-form art, with the last sentence being especially significant.

The artist creates a generative script (e.g. Fidenza) that is written to the Ethereum blockchain, making it permanent, immutable, and verifiable. Next, the artist specifies how many iterations will be available to be minted by the script. A typical choice is in the 500 to 1000 range. When a collector mints an iteration (i.e. they make a purchase), the script is run to generate a new output, and that output is wrapped in an NFT and transferred directly to the collector. Nobody, including the collector, the platform, or the artist, knows precisely what will be generated when the script is run, so the full range of outputs is a surprise to everyone.

This constitutes a fundamental change. The artist no longer directly creates the art but an algorithm to create art, renouncing control over what the algorithm produces from the moment it is published. It is a significant shift in the relationship between the artist, the artwork, and the audience, that calls into question the definition of art.

Manu #216 by artist Rich Poole

Within the same essay, Hobbs describes a concept for analysing long-form art that he calls “output space”.

Fundamentally, with long-form, collectors and viewers become much more familiar with the “output space” of the program. In other words, they have a clear idea of exactly what the program is capable of generating, and how likely it is to generate one output versus another. This was not the case with short-form works, where the output space was either very narrow (sometimes singular) or cherry-picked for the best highlights.

This concept of an algorithm’s spectrum of variation is valuable. After all, scale without meaningful variation is decorated repetition. Paradoxically — in a superficial sense at least — algorithms can simultaneously have infinite permutations and a great sense of predictability and monotony. The notion of output space is perhaps a more accurate way to evaluate generative works than their literal number of iterations or other quantifiable measures.

In reflecting on how the concept of long-form might exist in music, two works sprung to mind.

The first is Jem Finer’s Longplayer. The composition was created with the intention of being played for a millennium and is currently installed at Trinity Buoy Wharf in East London. For almost a year I worked part-time at the Longplayer and had the opportunity to listen to the installation for hours on end. It struck me as a novel and ambitious idea with an attractive sound, but I was not able to detect any noticeable variation or development from one hour, week, or month to the next. To use the language of generative art, its output space felt narrow — at least over a duration that is short in comparison to its intended length.

I should point out this might well miss the point of the composition, designed as it is to make one reflect on vast time scales and to invite intergenerational collaboration.

The second example is Brian Eno’s composition Reflections, released both as an app and a series of musical excerpts. Eno describes it using the metaphor of a river.

It’s always the same river, but it’s always changing.

Having discovered this piece relatively recently I have not listened sufficiently to have an opinion, although there are many glowing online reviews about its ability to transform and change mood, and people listening to it extensively.

The requirement of extensive listening highlights an important difference between music and visual art. It is much quicker to scan over a collection of 1,000 images than to spend, hours, weeks, or even months attentively listening to an algorithm unfold, which helps explain why long-form generative art is currently more popular than long-form generative music, though there may be another reason too.

You might ask why has long-form generative art become so popular recently as it is by no means a new concept. In 1949 the abstract artist Joseph Albers began a 25-year project working on an iconic and influential series called A Homage to Squares, comprising over 100 paintings that combine squares of different sizes and colours in a variety of ways. By contrast, you now have artists developing algorithms in a couple of months to create ten times more images than Albers’s series. Is this meaningful art, or a hi-tech example of the philosophical more is more?

While it might be cynical to reduce an art movement to a single economic factor, it would also be naive, to ignore it. A significant number of people were made wealthy in a very short time by the boom of NFTs, and the supply and demand relationship was transformed as digital art can be produced with dramatically less time and cost than traditional art. Huge demand could be met with huge supply with little more effort than adding a couple of zeros to the number of iterations.

The rates that certain pieces sold for at the height of the hype are astonishing. A single image in a collection of Cellular Automaton sold for 1,000,000 Tezos (£537,000). I do not know whether this was motivated by some murky financial practice or credulity on the part of the collector, but to have a single work in a collection of 1,000 — composed from an 80-year-old mathematical concept — selling for such a huge price indicates that money significantly shapes the culture. Despite the rot, some art that emerged from this movement is genuinely inspiring and thought-provoking.

Take Dreaming of Le Corbusier, by the Norwegian artist Andreas Rau. It is an impressive algorithm that generates a new ‘architectural’ abstract artwork each time you click on it. Some works have the appearance of having been designed deliberately, with the consistent quality of the compositions being remarkable.

There is also the work of Rich Poole which is featured in this piece. The series feels musical in its composition — reminiscent of a beautiful music sequencer, where colour, height, and length correspond to some musical parameters. The owners of the NFTs choose from iterations of an algorithm what work they would like, meaning the series is ‘collector-curated’.

What happens to generative art now that NFTs have collapsed? That is anyone’s guess. It is hard to envision the sudden emergence of an economy remotely comparable to the over-hyped NFT market. Yet there has been a shift and a new potential glanced at, not just by the artists involved, but by all of us.

The artworks featured in this article are shared with kind permission by the artist Rich Poole. You can view his entire series for Manu here

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.

Creating soundtracks to transform the taste of wine

Dom Aversano

When I was asked to interview Soundpear I questioned if I was the right person for the job. The company specialises in composing music to enhance the flavour of wine at their tasting events in Greece, stating that they ‘meticulously design bespoke music to match the sensory profile of a paired product.’ I on the other hand am almost proudly philistine about wine, only drinking it at events and parties when it is put into my hand. I find the rituals and mystification of this ancient grape juice generally more off-putting than alluring, especially given how studies show doing as little as changing a cheap-looking label on a bottle for an expensive one or putting red dye into white wine is sufficient to change the opinions of even seasoned wine drinkers and sommeliers.

Yet, perhaps who better to do the interview than someone whose preferred notes are not the subtle hints of caramel, oak, or cherry, but the opening riff of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.

Despite my scepticism, I was interested in talking to the company as the connection between music and taste is one that is rarely explored.

The three of us met on Zoom, each calling from a different European country. Asteris Zacharakis lives in Greece and is a researcher at the School of Music Studies at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, as well as an amateur winemaker, whereas Vasilis Paras is a music producer and multi-instrumentalist living outside of London. While the pair originally met playing in a band twenty years ago, their collaboration now involves Asteris hosting wine-tasting events in Greece, while Vasilis composes bespoke music for each variety of wine sampled.

Our conversation turns quickly to the science supporting the idea that the taste of wine can be enhanced by sound. Asteris has a passion for multimodal perception — a science that studies how our senses process in combination rather than in isolation. A famous example is the McGurk Effect, which shows that when a person sees a video of someone uttering a syllable (e.g., ga ga) but hears an overdub of a different-sounding syllable (e.g., ba ba) this sensory incongruence results in the perception of a third non-existing syllable (da da).

‘There is evidence that if you sit around a round table with no corners, it’s easier to come into agreement with your colleagues than if there are angles.’

Regarding how this could allow us to experience things differently, Asteris describes: ‘It’s been shown through research that by manipulating inputs from various senses we can obtain more complex and interesting experiences. This does not just work in the laboratory, it’s how our brains work.’

Soundpear treats the drinking of wine and listening to music as a unified experience, similar to how films unify moving images and music. I am curious how the science translates directly into Soundpear’s work since musicians and winemakers must have worked in this way for centuries — if only guided by intuition. Surely a person drinking wine on a beautiful hilltop village in the South of France while listening to a musician playing the violin is having a multimodal experience? Asteris is quick to clarify that far from being exclusive, multimodal perception occurs all the time, and is not dependent on some specialist scientific understanding.

‘Musicians become famous because they do something cognitively meaningful and potentially novel, but I doubt that in all but a few cases they’re informed by the science, and they don’t need to be. Take a painter and their art. If a neuroscientist goes and analyses what the painter is doing, they could come up with some rules of visual perception they believe the artist is taking advantage of. However, successful artists have an inherent understanding of the rules without having the scientific insight of a neuroscientist.’

Multimodal perception offers insights into how sound affects taste. For example, high notes can enhance the taste of sourness, while low notes enhance our sense of bitterness. Vasilis recounts how initially the duo had experimented with more complex recorded music but decided to strip things down and use simple electronic sounds.

‘We thought, why don’t we take this to the absolute basic level, like subtractive synthesis?”

“Let’s start with sine waves, and tweak them to see how people respond. What do they associate with sweetness? What do they associate with sourness, and how do these translate in the raw tone? Then people can generally agree certain sounds are sour. From that, we try to combine these techniques to create more complicated timbres that represent more complicated aromas, until we work our way up to a bottle of wine.’

Asteris joins in on this theme ‘For example, the literature suggests that we tend to associate a sweet taste or aroma with consonant timbres, whereas saltiness corresponds to more staccato music, and bitterness is associated with lower frequencies and rough textures. Based on this, we knew if we wanted to make the sonic representation of a cherry aroma it needed to be both sweet and sour. So we decided we should combine a dissonant component to add some sourness and at the same time a concordant component to account for the sweetness’.

They tested these sounds on each other but also experimented with participants. Asteris describes their process ‘From our library of sounds we pick some and perform experiments in an academic lab environment, to either confirm or disprove our hypotheses. Our sound-aroma correspondence assumptions are proven right in some cases, but in other cases where participants don’t agree with our assumed association, we discard it and say

“Okay, we thought that sound would be a good representative for this scent but apparently it’s not.”’

I ask if anyone can try out pairing their music with wine. Vasilis is hesitant about this, pointing out that while they have a publicly available playlist on YouTube, using it as intended would require listeners to seek out specific bottles of wine. When I ask if these could be interchangeable with other bottles he draws a comparison with film music, stating that while you could theoretically change one film score for another, it likely would clash.

At this point, I feel my initial resistance giving way. Suddenly the thought of basking in the Greek sun listening to music and drinking wine feels much more appealing — maybe being a wine philistine is overrated. What I find refreshing about the duo is they are not overplaying the science, but appear to actually be having fun combining their talents to explore a new field between taste and music. It is not the cynical banalisation of music that Spotify often promotes, using playlists with names like ‘Music for your morning coffee’. Rather than treating the experience as an afterthought Soundpear is designing its music specifically for it.

However, one question still lingers — I ask how much they believe their work can carry across cultures. Asteris accepts that neither the effect of the music nor the taste of the wine can be considered universal experiences and their appeal is largely an audience drawn from cultures considered Western. It is an honest answer, and not surprising given that rarely does either music or drink genuinely appeal to global audiences anyway, especially given that alcohol is illegal or taboo throughout much of the world.

So, what of the music?

Vasilis composes with a certain mellifluous euphoria reminiscent at times of Boards of Canada and the film composer Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack for Inside Out, though with a more minimalist timbral palette than either. The tone and mood seem appropriate for accompanying a feeling of tipsiness and disinhibition. I even detect a subtle narrative structure that I assume accompanies the opening of the bottle, the initial taste, and the aftertaste. It is not hard to imagine the music working in the context of a tasting session, and people enjoying themselves.

Soundpear appears to be attempting to broaden how we combine our senses with the goal of opening people up to new experiences, which regardless of whether you are interested in wine or not is undoubtedly interesting. It is an invitation to multidisciplinary collaboration since the principles applied to wine could just as easily be applied to coffee, architecture, or natural landscapes. The attention they bring to multimodal perception makes one question whether music could be used in new ways, and that can only be a good thing.

Music Hackspace will host a workshop with Soundpear on Friday 22nd September 6pm UK

The sound of wine: transform your wine-tasting experiences through music-wine pairing

Soundpear are planning a music-wine pairing event at the Winemakers of Northern Greece Association headquarters in Thessaloniki this October – so stay tuned for more details!

A guide to seven powerful programs for music and visuals

Dom Aversano

What should I learn? A guide to seven powerful programs for music and visuals.

The British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings described an approach to learning music that reduces it down to two tasks: the first is to know what to practise, and the second is to practise it. The same approach works for coding, and though it is a simple philosophy that does not necessarily make it easy. Knowing what to practise can feel daunting amid such a huge array of tools and approaches, making it all the more important to be clear about what you wish to learn so you can then devote yourself without doubt or distraction to the task of studying.

As ever the most important thing is not the tool but the skills, knowledge, and imagination of the person using it. However, nobody wants to attempt to hammer a nail into the wall with a screwdriver. Some programs are more suited to certain tasks than others, so it is important to have a sense of their strengths and weaknesses before taking serious steps into learning them.

What follows is a summary and description of some popular programs to help you navigate your way to what inspires you most, so you can learn with passion and energy.

Pure Data

Pure Data is an open-source programming language for audio and visual (GEM) coding that was developed by Miller Puckette in the mid-1990s. It is a dataflow language where objects are patched together using cords, in a manner appealing to those who like to conceptualise programs as a network of physical objects. 

Getting started in Pure Data is not especially difficult even without any programming experience, since it has good documentation and plenty of tutorials. You can build interesting and simple programs within days or weeks, and with experience, it is possible to build complex and professional programs.

The tactile and playful process of patching things together also represents a weakness of Pure Data, since once your programs become more advanced you need increasing numbers of patch cables, and dragging hundreds – or even thousands – of them from one place to another becomes monotonous work.

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial 

Official Website

Max/MSP/Jitter and Max for Live

Max/MSP is Pure Data’s sibling, which makes it quite easy to migrate from one program to the other, but there are significant and important differences too. The graphical user interface (GUI) for Max is more refined and allows for organising patching chords in elegant ways that help mental clarity. With Max for Live you have Max built into Ableton – bringing together two powerful programs.

Max has a big community surrounding it in which you can find plenty of tutorials, Discord channels, and a vast library of instruments to pull apart. Just as Pure Data has GEM for visualisation Max has Jitter, in which you can create highly sophisticated visuals. All in all, this represents an incredibly powerful setup for music and visuals.

The potential downsides are that Max is paid, so if you’re on a small budget Pure Data might be better suited. It also suffers from the same patch cord fatigue as Pure Data, where you can end up attaching cords from one place to another in a repetitive manner.

Cost: $9.99 per month / $399 permanent licence or $250 for students and teachers

Introductory Tutorial

Official Website


SuperCollider is an open-source language developed by James McCartney that was released in 1996, and a more traditional programming language than either Pure Data or Max. If you enjoy coding it is an immensely powerful tool where your imagination is the limit when it comes to sound design, since with as little as a single line of code you are capable of creating stunning musical outputs. 

However, SuperCollider is difficult, so if you have no programming experience expect to put in many hours before you feel comfortable. Its documentation is inconsistent and written in a way that sometimes assumes a high level of technical understanding. Thankfully, there is a generous and helpful online forum that is very welcoming to newcomers, so if you are determined to learn, do not be put off by the challenge.

An area that SuperCollider is lacking in comparison to Max and Pure Data is a sophisticated built-in environment for visuals, and although you can use it to create GUIs, they do not have the same elegance as in Max.

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial 

Official website


Though built from SuperCollider, TidalCycles is nevertheless much easier to learn. Designed for the creation of algorithmic music, it is popular in live coding or algorave music. The language is intuitive and uses music terminology in its syntax, giving people with an existing understanding of music an easy way into coding. There is a community built around it complete with Discord channels and an active community blog.

The downsides to TidalCycles are the installation is difficult, and it is a somewhat specialist tool that does not have as broad capabilities as the aforementioned programs.

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial 

Official Websit


P5JS is an open-source Javascript library that is a tool of choice for generative visual artists. The combination of a gentle learning curve and the ease of being able to run it straight from your browser makes it something easy to incorporate into one’s life, either as a simple tool for sketching out visual ideas or as something much more powerful that is capable of generating world-class works of art.

It is hard to mention P5JS without also mentioning Daniel Shiffmen, one of the most charismatic, humorous, and engaging programming teachers, who has rightly earned himself a reputation as such. He is the authour of a fascinating book called The Nature of Code which takes inspiration from natural systems, and like P5JS is open-source and freely available. 

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial

Official Website


Like P5JS, Tone.js is also a Javascript library, and one that opens the door to a whole world of musical possibilities in the web browser. In the words of its creators it ‘offers common DAW (digital audio workstation) features like a global transport for synchronizing and scheduling events as well as prebuilt synths and effects’ while allowing for ‘high-performance building blocks to create your own synthesizers, effects, and complex control signals.’

Since it is web based one can get a feel for it by delving into some of the examples on offer

Cost: free

Introductory Tutorial

Official website


In TouchDesigner you can create magnificent live 3D visuals without the need for coding. Its visual modular environment allows you to patch together modules in intuitive and creative ways, and it is easy to input midi or OSC if you want to incorporate a new visual dimension to your music. To help learn there is an active forum, live meetups, and many tutorial videos on this site. While the initial stages of using TouchDesigner are not difficult, one can become virtuosic with the option of even writing your own code in the programming language Python. 

There is a showcase of work made using TouchDesigner on their website which gives you a sense of what it is capable of.

Cost: All features $2200 / pro version $600 / free for personal and non-commercial use. 

Introductory Tutorial

Official Website