Etiquette interactive table

Kids get hands-on with the music, touching materials found on-location at the installation site.

Eat your heart out, Microsoft Surface! Musicians are taking up interactive tables as new ways of making their creations physically accessible, so listeners can reach out and touch the work.

Etiquette is a new interactive installation at the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, featuring a light box on which musical elements can be manipulated by moving around blocks. It uses the same underlying library that was developed for the ReacTable synth, currently made famous by its use on Bjork’s tour.

But what’s nice about the Etiquette is — surprise — the music. Rather than predictable electronic sounds, Etiquette echoes and vibrates with laptop-sampled acoustic timbres, such as stand-up bass, banjo, brass, flute, and even glockenspiel. It’s still digital music: fragments of music are reconceived in the digital world, overlapping into an ambient landscape. But the common criticism of installation art — that you wouldn’t want to sit and listen to the music produced — is answered here. Etiquette is available as a downloadable Creative Commons-licensed four-track album. I just sat and listened to it, and was quite happy! It’s real music played by real musicians that seems perfectly suited to its interactive counterpart; the free-flowing form of the music is ideal for rearranging in an installation. (In somewhat less interactive form, I expect I may have it on repeat here in my studio on and off for the next few days!)

Etiquette recording session

A marriage of acoustic sound and digital technology: everything was recorded on-site.

Everything was produced on-location: many of the materials themselves were found on site, and recordings were made around the workshop.

The project is a collaboration between musicians and technologists: the band FOUND worked with computer scientist (and CDM reader) Simon Kirby.

Simon writes in with additional details of the setup, which features Ableton Live, Max/MSP, and the ReacTIVision library:

I’m a big fan of Create Digital Music, and in fact it was through reading your blog that I came across the Reactivision project which has lead directly to the commission and event I’m writing to you about. So, firstly, thank you!

I am involved with a music/art collective based in Edinburgh called Found, and we have been commission by the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop to produce ETIQUETTE: an ambitious, interactive sound installation to commemorate their 20th anniversary. It will be unveiled on 4 August in their gallery space / workshop and will feature a special performance from Found at the opening event. The installation will take the form of a light box table – visitors to the gallery over the next month will be able to compose their own variations of our specially commissioned music by moving objects around the table.

The project brings together a lot of the previous strands of our work including: pop music, visual art and an innovative use of technology.

The table itself uses a combination of the reactivision software, MAX/ MSP and Ableton Live to deliver the sound over a quadraphonic audio set up. We’re trying to steer clear of some of the cliches of this kind of music technology by using found sounds and building materials from the workshop and by recording only acoustic musical instruments on location at the workshop and its grounds.

It’s funny; I’m sympathetic to their approach not only literally, but philosophically, as well. I think when technology is working, the process feels more like discovery.

Thanks, Simon! If anyone visits, let us know how it goes!

Etiquette: Photos, videos, downloadable album, and project details

Since Simon got these resources from CDM, here they are, again:

Max/MSP on CDM; official site
Ableton Live on CDM; official site
Reactable on CDM
Free ReacTIVision library (with examples for Flash, Java, C++, Max, Processing, Pure Data, C#, SuperCollider, Quartz Composer, GEM, and vvvv!)

Etiquette software

The software under the hood: Max, Live, and ReacTIVision.
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  • Luke

    Wondering if someone can explain how this works in a little more detail. From the video it appears the musician is simply turning tracks on and off, or up and down? The 'song' keeps playing continuously, (silently with no blocks on table) and the user only has control over volume? Can the user adjust the panning, as it's a quadraphonic setup?

  • Hi Luke – I'll try and summarise briefly here… the sound the table makes is the result of a combination of factors. Firstly, the presence or absence of a block on the table, secondly the block's rotation, thirdly the position of the block on the table, and finally, the "mood" of the table, which gradually changes over time.

    Each block is associated with several different but related clips for each mood and rotating the block will select which of those clips is playing. When the table is in a particular mood, the sounds of the blocks work together (ie. they are in time/key etc.). When the table's mood changes, the sounds of the blocks change gradually (as does the tempo of the piece). Eventually, all the blocks settle into a new mood where everything works together again, but in the changeover things can be quite chaotic and interesting hybrids are created which are different every time.

    The actual clips are very varied in type and length and there are about 200 in all, but they are all united by having been recorded by a handheld microphone in the workshop itself (and its grounds) with deliberate disregard to any extraneous noise created by people working. Some of the blocks are locked to tempo, so placing a block down or rotating may not have an effect instantly. Others are free running so there is an instant response. (There is no muting/unmuting of already playing tracks going on here.) If a block isn't touched for a while, it goes to sleep and fades out, so the table gradually becomes quiet when no-one is playing with it. When the blocks are moved again they wake up.

    Finally, the position of the block on the table controls the apparent location of the sound through quadraphonic panning, which seems to strongly enhance the physical sensation of controlling the music.

    The blocks themselves have labels printed on them to make them appear like packaging for mundane things you might find at a workshop at first glance. At second glance, some appear to contain impossible or incongruous objects. The sounds a box makes relates to the packaging in more or less obscure ways…

    In the gallery, we give no explanations or introductions, so the real fun of this project has been to see how people interact with it!

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