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.
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.
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.