Can the Reactable be artistically meaningful, as well as technologically impressive? New performances, and new releases – interactive “label” releases for your iPad/iPhone and updated hardware for those of you wanting to try the whole experience yourself – might just answer that question.
Listen to designers of futuristic musical devices talk about what they hope to create, and a common theme recurs again and again. They want to make musical instruments – something you’d practice, something for which there would be virtuosos and performances that would knock your socks off.
It’s tough to make a direct comparison. Many electronic performances are part instrumental, part compositional – that is, some gestures occur directly on the level of a sound, whereas others “conduct” larger-scale musical transformations. But perhaps the most important ingredient is time.
The Reactable, a tangible interface first developed by Sergi Jordà, Martin Kaltenbrunner, Günter Geiger, and Marcos Alonso, has now had the benefit of time. And as a result, we’re seeing an evolution of music, not just technology. That is, I’ve watched the performance by Carles López above more than once because I like his musical ideas. I could watch it with my eyes closed, and, oddly, see some of the gestures he’s making – there’s some idea connected to the gestures. “Carles” (in Catalan) López is a kind of “resident Reactable savant,” as described to me by Reactable’s other Carlos, Carlos Morales. You can see him in action at bove courtesy Milivingroom.com. You lose something not being live in the room with him – I greatly enjoyed that chance in London recently – but it’s still fun to watch, even behind your computer.
The experience of using the Reactable is largely defined by content. So, on the “conducting”/compositional side of the coin, Reactable is doing their first artist release, with Oliver Huntemann. See the video below – we head into techno territory, in contrast to the López video at top.
Here, the work is within reach of anyone with an iPad, in the form of an “artist edition” release. It’s a bit like having an interactive album release. You can approach it from several angles. You can simply listen to his music – the lean-back (or dance) traditional listening experience. You can also watch it as it’s being played. Or, you can take the helm yourself, remixing the content.
It’s all a bit like the 21st-century equivalent of a piano roll for a player piano — only, in this century, made more interactive.
The artist release is 1,79 € for iOS only; the full app costs 8,99 € and runs on both Android and iOS. Reactable tells us more apps are coming. (The fact that they opted not to support Android here to me is yet more bad news for that suffering ecosystem. But having tested – and even played live with – Reactable on Android, I can say it runs nicely enough on my Galaxy Tab as well as my iPad. So don’t be afraid to try it if you do have a newish Android device.)
Mobile is much cheaper, but there’s nothing like using the actual, physical hardware. Moving those blocks around can make you feel like rockstar DJ and kid all at the same time. Of course, it doesn’t come cheap – this is an integrated digital and physical system with projection and camera sensing, not something that lends itself to easy mass production. But the Reactable creators have done some impressive iteration, making each new version a little better and a little cheaper. That brings the price down to 6.100 € in the latest version – just under US$8000 at the current exchange rate. You can find the tangible interface hardware from Reactable – or just awe at those photos. (Seriously, while I can’t argue it’ll be the most practical few thousand dollars/Euros you ever spend, I can say it’s a lot of fun. I can appreciate it from afar. iOS and Android are the way to get it for us mere mortals.)