Listen to the Tools
Adrian Ward and Alex McLean
Interviewed by Alexei Shulgin
A.S. You both have computer science backgrounds. Programming is a field of human activity which is a world un-to-itself, and can therefore to a large extent be compared to the art world. It provides a lot of creative possibilities; there are cult figures, trends, discussions, competitions, achievements, opportunists and rebels, etc. in the kingdom of programming. This world is so rich, developed and exciting that once in it most people get entirely absorbed by it. You seem to have branched out to making art and music. What were your motivations for such a move? Was “just programming” not enough anymore?
A.W. Well, firstly, my background is actually in drifting - somewhere between media technology and art theory, but never really specialising in either. I wouldn't call myself a computer scientist (never have been) and I reckon Alex might say the same.
A. ML. I would. Perhaps we're very old-fashioned in not wanting to place ourselves in either science or art, but in both.
A.W. Our backgrounds were as kids who grew up with computers. We were the ones who stay indoors and learnt BASIC instead of playing footie with the other kids in the park.
A. ML. It's true, there's no time for football when there are the endless applications of ANSI terminal control codes to explore!
A. W. All the programming I do has been self-learnt.
A. ML. Same here.
A. W. When you talk about "stepping out" it makes it sound like we've made a conscious effort to escape something that was limiting or debilitating. I'd rather think it's kind of the other way around - the things I do now have always interested me or been useful to me, and I've never seen a good reason to keep them separate. So when you're saying that certain fields (be it programming or the art world) can be very absorbing, it's entirely possible that individuals can be absorbed in many different fields, and that these fields are anything but mutually exclusive.
So if you've got programming skills and enjoy making music, it makes sense to combine them - just like combining pottery and integral mathematics can be stimulating.
A. ML. Too right.
A. S. You use self-made software sound tools with a command-line interface. This looks pretty radical in view of the current trends of "photorealistic" or MSP-like interfaces. How did you come up with this interface? What is more important here: aesthetics, concept, functionality...?
A. W. Well, Slub started off as a collaboration between a Linux console and a Macintosh desktop. Alex was doing Perl scripts, and I was writing desktop utilities in RealBasic. With time, both of us have moved in new directions exploring different techniques and results. Our performance software is a big mixed bag of Perl scripts, shell scripts, audio renderers written in C and Cocoa, a self-made network protocol, RealBasic utilities and our own development environments and languages.
The only reason we filled this bag with this stuff is because those were the functions we needed. When we decide we need a new function, we make something new. Who knows what language it'll be written in, and what it'll look like when it's done.
So Slub looks very command-line at the moment - that's just the state we're currently in. But we've been using patch-like software in the past that parodies Max/MSP, partly because it can be useful to mess with different interfaces, partly because we're sending out a message about 'conventional' software usage. I think we both enjoy it when people look at our software and wonder what the hell it is: "That's not Max!" etc...
A. S. Aha, but it's something else than just enjoying making music then. In this sense Slub is not just a band or a sound-manufacturing duo, but also a conceptual project.
A. ML. I think any kind of musical collaboration needs some kind of understanding to base the music around. You could call it a conceptual understanding. But what it all boils down to is music. We've realized that calling what we do 'conceptual music' or 'generative music' is adding a redundant word. We just make music.
A. S. …The tool itself becomes as important as the music it produces - ?
A. ML. I don't think there's separation between slub tools and the slub music. "The tool has become the message,” says Kim Cascone, and it's true. You can 'hear' the tools that people are using, whether it's rebirth, cubase, pro-tools, ixi software or slub software. In the case of slub (and indeed ixi), that isn't because the tools are restricting the music negatively, but because the tools *are* the music.
This might lead to talk of 'death of the musician.' I think that's too great a leap. The musician isn't dead, the musician is programming.
A. S. …At your performances I am surprised to see (and hear) that it works both conceptually and musically. But don't you see there is a contradiction here as your music targets non-rational perception and your concepts target rational one?
A. ML. No, people are free to enjoy our music however they like. We're not prescribing a method of listening.
It's also worth nothing that we don't think in detail about the visual aspect of our performance. We usually (but not always) project our screens, but the audience just sees what we see - our interfaces. It's an opportunity for people to get a feel for the movement and complexity of what is happening inside our laptops at that moment. It's nice watching a guitarist play for the same reason.
Also, slub is not about one idea or concept, but an ever-shifting combination of them, working together to make music. For example at one moment we might be sequencing polyrhythms, sonifying quicksort routines, exploiting bugs in our dsp code, or triggering sounds onto a model of a dancing human body. Our individual programs might be rigorously conceptualised, but the interactions between them are musical; nothing more, nothing less.
A. S. …In other words, one should switch one’s brains off and relax in order to enjoy the music, but remain sober and sharp in order to get the concept.
A. ML. I see no problem here - surely when listening to music, relaxation aids sharp-mindedness. I've found many elegant solutions and ideas while dancing to techno. But music is intoxicating, so sobriety doesn't come in to it!
A. W. Making something that is enjoyable does not prevent you from making something that is conceptually stimulating. In my own work in particular, I feel that's an important part of a good piece of work - I think you believe the same too, Alexei. So it's not a contradiction at all. It's accessible at lots of different levels, and there are no prerequisites for how you listen to or think about our music. You just come to it, and make of it what you want. Some people endlessly deconstruct the meaning of our sample filenames, others move their bodies in strange ways.
When we started Slub it was important that we didn't labour on the conceptual aspects too much, however. Alex should probably say something about this - it was about letting the music play (not speak) for itself. I'll just leave this answer with the observation that if we didn't deal with our work on lots of different levels, we'd be failing not only our audience, but also ourselves.