• Matt-brown-hero
Graphic Design

Prizes for eyes, ears and grey matter courtesy of Matthew Irvine Brown and his Music for Shuffle

Posted by Bryony Quinn,

Working up to his current spot as designer/prototyper in the Human Interface Device Prototyping group at Apple, multi-hyphenate creative Matthew Irvine Brown has left his mark in the design departments of Nokia, Last.fm and BERG. His personal projects site that runs parallel (and then cheerfully off in remarkably creative tangents) is full of interactive, experimental and quite brilliant projects (singing sock puppets anybody?): a three-fold theme pretty well exemplified in an ongoing demo-based initiative called Music for Shuffle.

Entirely composed using the “shuffle mode”, Matt creates engaging and random compositional experiments that play mutually with sound and visuals and tech-know-how. He makes “sketches” of tracks that will play in continuous and harmonious sequence – audibly and visually – the gif-like graphics, which are delightfully simple, fitting effortlessly with the digital aspect of the sound.

Though immediately engaging, it wasn’t something we could quite bend our brains about so we thought it best to speak to the man himself…

Hi Matt, could you firstly give us a layman’s explanation of what Music for Shuffle is…

Normally, shuffle mode is a way of playing songs in a random order but here, I’m trying to use it to make one piece of music. Instead of recording a whole tune that lasts three to four minutes, and saving it as an MP3, I record individual phrases– each only a few seconds long – and save those as individual MP3s. Then, when I play them one after the other (on shuffle, of course), I get a complete piece of music that sounds different every time I play it. And making one song out of several little MP3s means that the ‘sleeve art’ essentially becomes a (very slow) random stop-frame animation.

  • Mfs01

    Matthew Irvine Brown, Sketch #01

And how did it start?

Mainly via a very smart friend by the name of Russell Davies, who wrote this blog post last year. He pretty much sowed the seed of the idea in my head and I responded with the first sketch a week or two later. It all went from there, really.

You mention that you compose a lot on the bus – how exactly do you go about creating a sketch (and can you tell us what a sketch actually is)?

I just mess around on the laptop, really. I’ll start by making little fragments of visuals, colours, shapes, harmonies, textures, beats and so on, pushing things around in a collage-type way. When I’ve made a number of them, I need to make sure they can all fit together in any order – kind of like musical Lego – so I’ll spend a bit of time tweaking the start and end of each phrase. Then, I’ll overlay everything on to one common element that never changes (a drone, or a static colour or something), which acts as a kind of scaffolding to hang all the fragments from.

After that, I save everything out to individual MP3s, chuck them in a playlist, turn on shuffle mode, press play, and see what happens. It’s very quick and messy, to be honest. Making things on the bus is a helpful creative restriction – I usually try and force myself to declare something finished at the end of a journey.

I’d say they’re just little sketches right now as I’d like to go back and work into them in more detail for a longer period of time. I’d also love to work with people who know a lot more about the craft of music and visual art than I do – illustrators, typographers, musicians, producers, engineers, software developers and so on. Right now, for example, I’m looking at how to do this stuff in a live gig setup, so I’m tinkering around with software that will generate a live score, and spit it out onto screen-based music stands.

With the artwork, were you using a visual code for certain types of phrases that might dictate the overall look or are they random?

I try to make the music and artwork simultaneously, so that they feed off one another. I might record a little phrase, leave it on loop, then go and play with some colour proportions or whatever. There’s no direct link between the sound and the visuals, really. I just draw whatever comes to mind. Again, being on the bus forces me to work quickly – I’m not particularly skilled at any one technique in graphics or music production, so there isn’t much time to get too complex.

The most exciting developments over the last fifteen years have mostly centred around breaking the machinery of the 20th-century music industry – maybe it’s time to get on with inventing truly new, 21st-century music.

Matthew Irvine Brown

Was it always your intention to create an aesthetic experience both audible and visual?

I don’t think so, no. I didn’t really set out with a particular vision, and I’ve no real desire to create an experience or anything like that. I just started making things as a way of thinking about them. Many of the most creative people I know would say that a process can often be far more interesting than the outcome itself, and that rings lots of little bells in my head.

I guess shuffle mode itself is the material I’m exploring here – the resulting music, visuals and writing are the current outputs of the project, but I’d like to be free to steer things toward whatever I find interesting, like film, or software, or whatever. I’m just following my nose, really.

  • Mfs03

    Matthew Irvine Brown, Sketch #03

  • Mfs04

    Matthew Irvine Brown, Sketch #04

  • Mfs06

    Matthew Irvine Brown, Sketch #06

  • Mfs07

    Matthew Irvine Brown, Sketch #07

  • Mfs08

    Matthew Irvine Brown, Sketch #08

What’s nice about the Music for Shuffle site is the references you use; they contextualise the idea of experimenting as a mode for thought as well as making. Can you describe briefly a historical example you’ve used (you refer to Mozart’s musical dice at one point)?

There’s a lovely quote in John Cage’s autobiographical statement where he says: “I don’t hear the music I write. I write in order to hear the music I haven’t yet heard.” I think that’s a fantastically liberating idea, and it always sticks in my head when I’m making these sketches. Though, to be honest, I haven’t really needed to pilfer any techniques directly from Cage, because a lot of his ideas are already built into the stuff we now use to make and listen to music. Pretty much every media player has had shuffle mode for ages, and production software like Ableton Live makes it very simple to write in non-linear ways.

I think that points at a wider issue, though. I can’t really think of a good reason why any new music nowadays has to be in the form of a three-minute radio edit, or album, or promo video, or pressed as vinyl, or whatever. The most exciting developments over the last 15 years have mostly centred around breaking the machinery of the 20th-century music industry – maybe it’s time to get on with inventing truly new, 21st-century music.

  • Mfs02

    Matthew Irvine Brown, Sketch #02

Portrait9

Posted by Bryony Quinn

Bryony was It’s Nice That’s first ever intern and worked her way up to assistant online editor before moving on to pursue other interests in the summer of 2012.

Most Recent: Graphic Design View Archive

  1. List-motherdesign_sundancefilmfestival_2

    “It’s been funny seeing ‘Robert Redford to sign off’ on our work plans in recent months," Mark Aver, Mother Design New York design director tells us, revealing the new identity for the 2015 edition of the Sundance Film Festival. The independent film festival, which started in 1978 in Utah, is chaired by Redford, who from the sounds of it, takes quite a hands-on approach.

  2. _llisr-meteor

    French design duo My Name is Wendy caught our eye earlier this year with the innovative D/I/M/E/N/S/I/O/N typographic poster series. The studio recently launched a new site showcasing some great new projects that suggest the pair’s Bauhaus-esque graphic approach is going from strength to strength. Two projects particularly intrigued us – the first being a poster series which acts as a part of a wider project in which the studio creates the fictional land of Meteor.

  3. List-tumblr_ncojdd7pid1tap5jeo1_1280

    Taiwan-born graphic designer Wang Zhi-Hong claims the place that most stimulates his imagination most is one with “no one but me”. In a somewhat reluctant-sounding chat with French magazine Post IM, he paints a careful picture of himself as a man of solitude and precision. Whether or not this makes for a happy life, it certainly makes for some superb graphic design work. From his impressive portfolio we were most drawn to his book design, which takes this idea of a simple, uncluttered existence and turns it into beautiful pared back, precise creations. We were particularly seduced by the monochrome Yohji Yamamoto book designs, with the glorious curved forms of Japanese kanji characters given space to breathe against this restrained aesthetic.

  4. List-dhub_brochures_inside

    Pitching for a design museum identity that will act as the platform for some of the most celebrated designers the world over can’t be an easy task. How to merge tradition and modernity? To create something beautiful, that doesn’t detract from the work itself? So when Mallorcan agency Atlas put forward their proposals for the new Barcelona Design Museum’s identity, it’s perhaps little surprise they worried their ideas were “too modern and risky.”

  5. List00_mitml_posters

    Pentagram partner Michael Bierut and designer Aron Fay have designed a new identity for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, creating this striking, labyrinth-like look that brilliantly communicates the faculty’s “anti-disciplinary” approach.

  6. List-2

    When it comes to psychedelic album artwork, it sometimes feels like the very best might already be behind us – Wes Wilson, Mouse & Kelly and Rick Griffin already having worked through the golden era. There’s something reassuring about the knowledge that graphic designers are still looking for ways to incorporate psychedelic elements into their designs though, and French graphic artist Lucas Donaud is foremost amongst them.

  7. Stationary

    Hotel branding can so often be a dowdy affair, as if the design nods to the temporary nature of the building’s inhabitants – something to move on from, rather than to dwell on. So it’s wonderful to see a brave, opulent new identity for the Connaught in London’s Mayfair, designed by The Partners around a stunning new artwork by Kristjana S Williams which now hangs in the hotel.

  8. List

    I was surprised to learn that Amsterdam’s HOAX studio don’t seem to have been on the site before, and faced with their wide-ranging portfolio it was a challenge to focus in on a narrative that made sense. Founders Bram Buijs, Sven Gerhardt and Steven van der Kaaij joined forces based on their “shared love for typography, material and experimentation” and this passion for fresh creative thinking runs throughout their work.

  9. List

    Creating a cohesive identity for a design conference might not seem like such a tall order, but the reality of producing flyers, bags, programmes and that all-important logo mark for an international event isn’t as simple as you might think. For starters there’s an abundance of conferences out there, each with it’s own unique look and feel, so creating visuals that present a point of difference will always pose a challenge; secondly how on earth do you make a talks timetable look exciting?

  10. List

    Boasting PVC-clad bottoms, surreal jazz photography and beautifully-rendered risograph prints of basketball hoops, Shabazz Projects’ homepage certainly offers a well-curated and striking experience. The LA-based publishing platform was founded by Hassan Rahim and Brian Okarski, releasing art, photography and design-focused books and objects, all with a run of 200 or fewer editions. Stand-out pieces include the Various Basketball Hoops risographs, which put a whimsical spin on these often weary-looking monoliths; and Eric Wrenn and Antje Peters’ Jazz photographs, which place instruments against a dramatic plume of smoke. Hassan and Brian say their aim is to “provoke and surprise,” and from the images on their site alone, they’re certainly not letting themselves down.

  11. Hellotalja_kit-list-image

    Many a blue-sky-thinker and envelope-pusher has been extolling the virtues of meditation and mindfulness to pseudo-spiritually swell their business jargon lately. So it’s refreshing when a beautifully branded, creatively-minded product emerges that promises to offer that lucrative “pause from modern life.”

  12. List

    If all the magazines and small publications that used the internet as their subject matter were dumped on your head it’d be curtains for you – there’s bloody loads of them. Some, like Offscreen, deal with the people that make digital culture happen and try to bring these unsung heroes out from behind their screens into the RGB limelight, others, like French publication Nichons – Nous Dans l’Internet (Tits – We In The Internet) are more conceptually-minded, analysing and assessing the social and cultural phenomena brought about by the ubiquity of technology.

  13. Main

    Setting up a design studio and changing your name to a cool pseudonym is a good two-fingers-up to life on the quiet side. Parisian designer Julien Ducourthial decided to make this leap, and now overseas The Jazzist, offering bold, fluoro design work “serving in fields of graphic design, illustration and art direction in digital & printed media.” When Julien emailed us he told us he was inspired by 8-bit imagery and cartoons, which gave us an immediate inkling that we were going to like his work. Anyone looking to commission a great French designer any time soon? Julien is your man.