REBUS RESIDENCY DIARY
London, Hackney 22 June 2020
What does it mean to be an artist in residence at home during a lockdown?
First of all, it is an attempt to break the isolation and find references and other people to talk to, all those living in the world outside one’s own living room. On the other hand, it involves a lonely process revolving around a very different pace than that you would normally work at. Be adaptable, comprehensive, always wise. Mixing the anxiety of the world halting like a broken clock with the joy of working on something you really love and for which you have received funding and support.
Preserving this positive feeling among the general decay, the wide horizon of the physical world hits over a few small objects populating my desk: cables, electronic components, a zoom recorder, a soldering iron, a multimeter and an analogue oscilloscope. A spare Bela (http://bela.io), the realtime computer on module that is at the core of REBUS, is floating around the table. A second desk with mixer, speakers, effects and other synths balances the working area, not so far from where we eat, watch films, practice yoga and violin, or sit on the couch by the balcony staring at the neighbour’s window, where the kids are staring at you staring at them – attempting to grasp information around each other’s cell, who’s getting a better ride?
Having submitted the PhD thesis just a few weeks before the lockdown, I feel the state of detachment and isolation has become the norm for too long. Is this ever going to change?
Working on REBUS takes the clouds away, after seven years researching and reflecting on it, on this idea of an electromagnetic instrument, literally following a vivid dream at the end of 2012 where the subterranean Antennas Laboratory at Queen Mary University of London had become my art studio, I have been browsing through this intuition like an hero in their epic quest, undergoing any sorts of challenges and losing the way a few times: I had a baby, my mother died, the UK left the European Union… Nonetheless, I kept typing, thinking about waves, electromagnetic waves, sound waves, and surface waves and the waves of the ocean, and all those people oscillating between escape and damnation, attempting to reach for a future that isn’t there, phagocyted in the Med while some fat politician blatantly shouts nonsense from their laptop’s mic. Waves.
But these are old news.
Every time I touch REBUS I almost have a heart attack: is it still working? Is it as cool as I remember it? Am I really able to play it? Can I write software for it? Is it really a musical instrument?
Affirming that you have invented a MUSICAL INSTRUMENT is in fact as arrogant as reductive, and this is an interesting oxymoron.
Before designing a musical instrument, there is always a question or a condition that has to be answered or fulfilled, as for a tool to be a musical instrument a musician willing to play it must exist. This is what I have learned at STEIM, the renown Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music in Amsterdam. So, the fact I have desired for the past twenty years an instrument that could allow me to play all things digital and weird and audiovisual just by moving my hands, and the fact I enjoy playing it, and making music with it, is enough to consider it a (proto) musical instrument.
Yet, REBUS is less and more at the same time. More because its potential as an interactive system goes beyond the musical scope, less because, compared to a traditional instrument such as the violin, or a keyboard synthesiser, its affordances and actuators still need to be solidified, leaving it open enough to be a bespoke and programmable instrument, and defined enough to have its own identity.
Every time I start programming in C++, I have an impostor syndrome that drives me close to a panic attack, generally rescued by the fast pace development of the Bela IDE that in the past five years has made gigantic steps, and programming sounds has become easier. If I could do it then, I must be able to do it now. And despite fearing that the “execute” button may trigger the atomic bomb, I press it once again and start having fun.
Without the pressure of the thesis the work has become more enjoyable, but the physical distance from the Bela team crowd populating our old office makes me feel a bit lonely and melancholic. For this residency, which focusses on Impact and Public Engagement, the idea is to bring the research closer to people who are not necessary experts in the field, and to make REBUS accessible so that others can say: “Hey that’s great I want one too!”.
The residency includes the development of a video demo preceded by a couple of weeks of development, the design of a survey and the first ever live performance based on REBUS. For the demo I wanted to start from something really simple, banal, a few lines of code which wouldn’t require great explanation: if I start from something very simple and minimalistic, the interactive potential and granularity of the system will emerge more clearly. So I divided the work in two: for the demo, simplicity, for the performance, poetic illusion. On the day I had scheduled the demo I set up a stage in my studio in Hackney Wick in order to project the Bela oscilloscope on my face. The virtual oscilloscope displays the electromagnetic and sound signals in realtime, which is a reference I use as a feedback system to learn to play the instrument. What I wanted to show is just a beginning, another simple proof of concept. The very first demo from April 2019 went a bit viral. In that video I am simply moving my hands between the antennas: the gain of the electromagnetic signal controls the volume and the phase controls the frequency of a sinusoid generated in realtime. I have then worked on producing really low frequencies that vibrate objects, and eventually make them move. The idea behind this was that of achieving the XIX century classic dream of “action at a distance”. It also transformed REBUS in an acoustic instrument as I could play with the sound of the vibration of a glass wall placed at the side of two good speakers in my family home in Milan (perfect place to play with ghosts and the invisible indeed).
For this demo I followed Andrew McPherson’s new online youtube Bela teachings for the masses, creating for me a comforting shared space where my brain could linger on the position of athletic variables running around after one another in cycle. A buffer… That’s what the world needs, why didn’t we think of being ready for the future to come with some extra work in advance: the present is never the present, to be in realtime you always need to be a few steps ahead.
In the end, I hacked a sample player and a step sequencer, the first responding to the idea of scratching, having a hand on the pitch and the volume, the second responding to the idea of progression. Changing vest in this work is important: from testing and passing your hands around the antennas to check your code works and the instrument is alive, to rehearsing in the studio, REBUS allowed me to discover different aspects and possibilities. Even before implementing a control for the velocity, playing around with a loop track has been illuminating. The demo has been recorded in one uninterrupted day, which started at 9am and continued until 5am of the following day of the gregorian calendar. What emerged is that programming this instrument is almost like developing an abstract language of expression, and my methodologies progress in small and consecutive steps. The instrument is psychedelic and what happens trying to edit the video is that I end up being amazed and hypnotised by the repetition and the synaesthesia – ultimately staring at the screen with a lost gaze. The step sequencer was also quite simple: I created an invisible button I could press to advance the sequencer. The room for improvement is wide, and this is just the beginning of the story, but one thing is certain: there is definitely someone willing to play this instrument, and that’s me!
The residency started on May 1st with the production phase: design of identity, update of the online presence, identify partners, market segments and media. Two weeks of software programming followed. The new sound design informed a filmed demo recorded in a professional music studio I used to share with a bunch of likeminded amazing music producers in Hackney Wick. The footage recorded overnight was edited in the week starting 25 May 2020. Rebus was then selected to participate at NIME, the New Interfaces for Musical Expression conference, with an interactive online demo. The conference requested also a filmed video demo as a fall back plan, therefore the video already planned was presented at NIME as a premiere.