Curious Sounds in Curious Spaces

In my efforts to engage and align more minds on my mission, converting others to ‘teach computing’, my antennae are extremely sensitive to anything that offers potential to help me in reaching my goal. So, it would be through no accident of good fortune then, that I often find myself discovering scenarios, events and locations that offer rich opportunities to demonstrate just how empowering computing is in captivating the imagination.

Last week, a well-meaning supporter, referred to my serendipitous discoveries as though I was “living in a real Truman show existence”. This weekend, in Birmingham, those words struck a particular chord for me.

My primary purpose for being in Birmingham was as a delegate for the NASUWT conference at the ICC, Birmingham. During a break from the conference on the Saturday afternoon, my attentions were diverted somewhat to the cacophony around Birmingham Symphony Hall. Here I chanced upon an amazing computing and music event, unrelated to the NASUWT conference. Switching into my citizen journalist mode – I relay back to you some words, interviews and videos that I hope help capture some of the essence of the event.

This “Curious Sounds in Curious Spaces” event was in honour of the 21st anniversary of Symphony Hall and was organised in collaboration with The Fierce Festival. The event organisers had successfully managed to pull together a menagerie of performers from around the UK that featured computing technology as a central part of their musical expression and creativity.

Three acts in particular that aroused my ‘teach computing’ interest were 8-Bit Lounge, Mobile Sinfonia and Texas Phase Poem.

8-Bit Lounge

A bunch of local enthusiasts calling themelves ‘8-bit Lounge‘ had transported their cornucopia of computers and consoles from their monthly club meeting to Symphony Hall for the afternoon. While families entertained themselves with an array of retro arcade games, to complement the whole 8-bit experience, there were also ‘chip core’ DJs performing live sets of Gameboy music and chip-core tunes.

This YouTube video I recorded here, features 16 year old chip core DJ Tom Lowe performing Skrillex – ‘Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites’.

Many of these computing music enthusiasts freely share recordings of their chip-core tunes using their Soundcloud accounts, and Tom’s music is available for your listening pleasure on his Soundcloud account.

I decided to take full advantage of the opportunity to share this interest in the 8-bit revival scene and interviewed some of the key people involved. My first interview was with Seb Lenton, who was just as startled as me that we bumped into each other so far from my home town of Preston. Seb and his brother Joe have created a fantastic online games creation tool called ‘Play My Code‘ which I have previously praised in a piece I wrote for The Guardian. Both Lenton brothers led a games programming workshop at our Hack To The Future event in Preston on 11.02.2012. In this Audioboo interview, Seb explains what is happening at Symphony Hall.

Straight after performing his set, I asked Tom Lowe about the technology he used to perform these chip-core tunes. Tom explained that he was using an ordinary Nintendo Gameboy from 1989, that made use of a customised ROM cartridge program called LSDJ, developed by Johan Kotlinski. This has spurned a craze in playing Game Boy music referred to as chip-core.

My final 8-bit Lounge interview was with Sam Wray who also shares his music on Soundcloud as ‘2xAA’. Sam explained how his fascination in this particular music craze first started, when as a young child he loved listening to the ‘bing-boing’ sounds the dial-up modem on his family computer made as it connected to the internet. He also makes creative use of the the LSDJ software, available to download for just $2.00. Such was Sam’s enthusiasm that he had travelled up from Plymouth to Birmingham for an opportunity to perform for the first time and meet up with fellow chip-core artists. As an aside, Sam has been learning PHP and just created an online community called uCollective in the spirit of Soundcloud but purely for chiptune enthusiasts to share their creations. This interest in chip-core has inspired in Sam an interest in programming, he has chosen to study a foundation degree in computing science. I strongly recommend you listen to Sam’s recording of “Chipstep-esque” on Soundcloud which took him about 5 months to write on and off!

The 8-Bit Lounge event with chip-core performances have given me some inspiration for some Scratch programming, watch this space.

This video gives a short tour of the 8-Bit Lounge to give a further flavour of this aspect of the event.

Mobile Sinfonia

In a totally different way of creating music electronically with more emphasis on sound art and encouraging global audience participation, Michael Bassett creative producer for music and sound art from ICIA, University of Bath brought with him to Symphony Hall a performance of Jem Finer’s (The Pogues) new work, Mobile Sinfonia. This new piece, developed in collaboration with a team of computer scientists at the University in Bath, consists of a series of mobile phone ringtones downloaded from the Mobile Sinfonia website and ‘performed’ by the general public in a space where usually the use of mobile phones is frowned upon. However, these sounds are not the conventional ringtones that phones usually make use of.

I was lucky to be able to grab an interview with Michael before the public performance on stage at Symphony Hall. During our interview Michael explained how the ringtones are more natural sounding sounds that vary from the song of a blackbird, and bouncing ping pong balls to the sound of rain on a window. The project website describes the work as “an indeterminate musical composition scored for mobile phones…propagated through the free distribution of specially composed ringtones…making a global orchestra of electronic instruments. The piece emerges through the occurrences and coincidental interactions of these sounds. The more people join in, the richer and more wide-spread the composition becomes.”

This video below shows the performance on stage of the Mobile Sinfonia

In a further stroke of luck, taking part in the performance meant taking place on the stage at Symphony Hall.  This piece is in ‘Beta’ at the moment, so it will be interesting to see how this develops and just how widespread the piece will be performed. If you would like to hear some more of the sinfonia you can listen to my live boo here.

Texas Phase Poem

In a totally different performance style, Brain Duffy of Modified Toy Orchestra performed the Texas Phase Poem which makes use of 5 Speak and Spell machines (of Texas Instruments). Recordings of Modified Toy Orchestra are available to listen on Myspace.com. Those unfamiliar with the works of Brian, might seek to draw comparisons to the early musical influences of OMD and Kraftwerk.

In my short time out of the conference, I was unable to interview Brian – but I was able to record part of the performance.

I suppose what I am seeking to show here is that there are a myriad of ways that computing and music can thrive together. Thanks to the efforts of all concerned that made this event such a success – many will have been inspired and to imagine the possibilities of the power of computing and programming.

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