Sometimes I reach for electronic-based music to lose sense of time and space. Craving escape, I want to be pulled in on a journey. Icarus’ Fake Fish Distribution, “album in 1000 variations,” generates a one-of-a-kind variation for each download, providing the listener with a truly unique experience. I love the idea and after listening to multiple downloads, the synergy of the deviations does indeed deliver!

While this may not be an entirely new concept, with cutting edge tools, Icarus has provided a seamless creation and delivery engine; a notion that I hope others will explore. I spoke to cousins Sam Britton and Ollie Bown about their process and tools including Ableton Live and Max for Live.

Could you first describe Icarus and what you’re doing with that project.

Icarus started out in 1997, 1998. It’s a collaboration between Ollie Bown and myself. He’s in fact my cousin, so we kind of grew up together, and started making electronic music ages and ages ago. He was the first one to have a computer, and we started mucking around with MIDI. Then I bought a sampler, and things kind just developed out of a desire to make music together. From school bands all the way up.

I think what really cemented our interest in doing that professionally was Drum and Bass in the mid-90s. We were in our late teens, and it was just a really inspirational time. Not only for us, but for music culture in general at the time.


Photo: Steve McInerny

It’s interesting; I was chatting to Keith Fullerton Whitman the other day. He does a lot of work with modular synths. He used go by a D&B moniker called Hrvastski. And we were just chatting about how dance music in the ‘90s was just such a predominant force in music culture.

And I think we really got a vibe off that, started producing Drum and Bass tracks in the late ‘90s and basically got signed very quickly, and then just started writing albums.

We got initially quite frustrated, I think, by what we saw as dance-music purism. But actually what has turned out to be, I guess, the phenomenon of the music industry pigeonholing certain styles, certain genres and ways of making music. And selling them as a kind of done deal.

That’s kind of classic music-industry paradigm: define a style, define a way of doing it and stick to that. That way people know what they’re getting.
And I think we initially kind of got frustrated with the fact that most dance music was produced as 12”, and much of the earlier music that had inspired us was all much longer than that. We were kind of more interested in albums, and the variation between different tracks, and how you create a bigger work.

So, beyond the composition of a track, to the composition of a body of work…

Right. So it wasn’t just about having a hit and making great dance-music tracks. It was also about articulating the form of drum and bass, just making stuff and saying, we made this, so therefore it must be drum and bass!

And I think that’s kind of defined the way that Icarus has evolved over the years. With each album, with each record, we’ve accumulated different interests, and the sound has developed in a different way.

So whereas in the late ‘90s it was kind of drum and bass inspired, and in the noughties [‘00s] it becomes more, I think, organic. There’s a lot of inspiration from jazz and improvised music. And we’re exploring more ideas of process and how you program a computer in order to perform, and not only for us to perform but for it to start to generate its own patterns and its own sequences.

I’m curious as to how you apply this album concept to a collection of ‘generative’ music? Is it more of a composition of process?

What we’ve been doing in Icarus and further afield, through our work with improvising musicians and soloists, perhaps amounts to our own skewed take on a musical ‘Turing Test’, in that if, what we are designing our computers to produce, can be deemed sufficiently musical—not only to us, but the other musicians involved as well—then it must have some merit.

That’s not to say that the work necessarily has any allusion to a musical ‘humanism’, but that it exhibits traits that humans nonetheless find interesting in a musical context. I guess, in this sense, it’s perhaps perversely comparable to the fact that chat-bots on Twitter have human followers. Given a sufficiently well-defined contextual framework it’s totally plausible that programmed behavior can be interesting and even captivating.

That’s so true! I never thought about chat-bots in that context.

In this respect, one of the most interesting things about using generative and algorithmic processes in musical composition is how you end up contextualizing them. What’s curious is that quite often in our musical contexts, the idea that the more rigorously researched and well-implemented processes yield more musical results, is often a fallacy.

We’ve often found that ‘cruder’ processes; those that play on context, forcing musical situations and allusions, that you could never have conceived of when programming them at the outset, are incredibly valuable. In fact, the album title Fake Fish Distribution alludes precisely to this conundrum.

During the development of one of the patches used to generate some of the rhythmic templates for the parameter variation, we decided to start using a Poisson distribution instead of our own hacked together algorithm. But we ended up ditching it in favor of the latter, our own, which just seemed to do a better job given the context.

Ollie might not agree with me entirely, but I tend to find that this type of thing is born out all over the place in the music we’re involved in, not only in the album, but in our live performances and the work we do with autonomous software and improvising musicians.

An Interview with Icarus

May 21, 2012 at 2:56am

Can’t believe I haven’t heard about Icarus before – Thanks for a great feature and interview and lovely screen shots!

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