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The Art of Bots, the art of ukes, and the art of play

March 3, 2016    News Blog Practice

First, the impetus for writing this post is an exciting one. I’m beyond delighted to announce that I will be premiereing my Graphic Score Bot as the musical director for my own live, electronic free-improvised performance at Abandon Normal Devices Festival’s ‘The Art Of Bots’ showcase on the 15th and 16th of April.

I am still in the preparatory stages, but will be reworking Graphic Score Bot as a temporally-based tool for live use and interpreting the scores it generates on the fly. I’m absolutely thrilled to be involved and would strongly recommend checking out Abandon Normal Devices, who do fascinating work.

Working more closely on this project has got me thinking about the nature of my practice in relation to my funded research, and the following is a collection of thoughts about the surprising convergence between the two.

I thought, for a while, that my artistic practice, which is increasingly fixated on using automation and limitation as a creative tool, and which focuses around electronics and synthetics as its building blocks, was a world away from my funded research, in the subculture surrounding a single small acoustic instrument. I couldn’t understand why I was so interested in doing both, why my ultimate, long-term dream is to lecture both in sociomusicology and creative practice. I thought the two were entirely separate.

I’ve changed my mind.

The ukulele is all about limitation, at least in the way it’s often used and appropriated in Western group contexts. You can be a virtuoso ukulele player (Jake Shimabukuro might be the best-known example, currently), but even if you’re in the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, nobody expects you to be. You can be good at the ukulele without being skilled at the ukulele; the barrier to entry is low, lower than the guitar, and you can express yourself on it within only a few minutes of picking it up. It’s small, and it has a unique and difficult-to-disguise sound, and it looks a bit silly, so you needn’t be a ‘serious’ musician to pick it up (or so the participants in my preliminary study back in 2012 told me).

Something that my work with School of Noise has taught me is that, while experimental and atonal music can seem desperately elitist and difficult, it’s possible to approach it in a way that values expression over technical skill. Many, even most, of the children we’ve run workshops with don’t read music and don’t have a conventional musical background, and it doesn’t matter, because they can find another way in; they might not understand the building blocks of harmony and counterpoint but they rapidly grow to understand timbre and tone and emotion and expression. The parameters set by experimentalism, at least if you’re a child without the cultural baggage that you pick up within the academy, are more fluid and movable, in a very, very different way from the parameters you encounter in a ukulele group, but fluid and movable nonetheless. I still possess that baggage, but after what feels like a lifetime spent studying almost exclusively tonal Western art music up until the early twentieth century, experimentalism and atonality still feels like a novel way of approaching sound to me. Perhaps, to a failed opera singer and bad Schenkerian analyst, the laptop is what the ukulele is to an adult who’s always thought of themselves as unmusical.

What I’m trying to get at is this: in my research of the practice of ukulele groups, perhaps what I’m really seeing is adults learning how to be playful in their approach to musical creativity; and in my own electronic work, particularly the bot-directed approach I’m exploring at the moment, perhaps what I’m really doing is research into my own rediscovery of musical play.

The elephant in the room here is community. The ukulele seems to be build on a solid foundation of in-person, and sometimes online (did you know there’s a 24/7 ukulele-only folk club out there?), group work and social community. Surely a world away from my own practice, which largely involves sitting in front of my computer or at a keyboard and tapping away. Certainly I look a lot more cerebral and probably less cool doing this, but a huge part of what has sucked me into the practice of artistic automation and botmaking is the community surrounding it, which I rather unceremoniously fell into after making a series of little emoji bots while at my mother’s house over Christmas and picking up a small following on Twitter. The online botmaking community is awesome and seemingly made up of equal parts tech nerds and art nerds, who openly teach and learn from each other, collaborate, and welcome newcomers of any and all backgrounds and skill levels.

Which sounds extremely familiar, to say the least.

I’m starting to suspect that what my research is actually about is community and creative practice, and that my thesis is actually using ukulele groups as a case study for this. The Art Of Bots, and my related creative projects, might not, after all, be a distraction from my research, but an elemental part of my understanding of what it is to be a creative person or an artist. Whether these areas of my life will converge further or diverge remains to be seen, but I am equally and fiercely passionate about both, and can’t wait to see what the next period of my research and practice holds.