An Interview with Mattijs Kneppers
These days it seems that everyone wants to be an artist so I found it refreshing to meet someone who see himself as an engineer that wanted to create tools for artists. Mattijs Kneppers spoke to me by phone from his home in Holland.
I wanted to start by talking about your childhood. I assume you grew up in Holland.
Not entirely. I grew up in Africa, until I was 10 years old, in Nigeria. It was pretty cool, I liked it, and I still like it, actually. Then I moved back.
Did you go to a European school there?
No, actually, I went to a real African school. So it was like the white kid among the black guys.
Do you think that had a big impact on who you are?
I’m quite sure it has. Especially the fact that I had to adapt. I went there when I was four, so I had to adapt from a Dutch culture to the African culture, and then when I went back, there was the same process. So I learned to adapt. I think that’s something I have learned from that period.
Were you interested in technology or art when you were a kid?
It started when I got back to Holland, actually. Because there were no computers, we didn’t even have a TV, in Nigeria. So yeah, I was interested. I started making electronic music when I was about fourteen years old.
What were your first experiences doing electronic music like?
I’d been working with Fast Tracker a lot. That’s a program, like an electronic music program, actually more like a sampler. I really loved working with Fast Tracker, although there were no synthesizers in there, which was the major limitation. Then I moved on to Buzz Tracker. Same principle, but with synthesizers, and also a modular studio concept. I really loved that piece of gear, and I have been using it for a long time to make electronic music. I got pretty involved in that scene, it was a real community. I managed the manual for the program and I set up some stuff there… until the creator of that program had a hard disk crash, and lost all his source code. Everyone in the scene was completely stunned, from that moment, it just stopped. People stopped using the program because there were still quite some bugs, it was still not finished. -I still used it for quite some time after that, but then there was no progress, so I stopped using it. That’s pretty much when I stopped making music, actually.
Opera singer Daniela Bernoulli in a trio with two sonsor-controlled morphing 3D shapes in the theatre play ‘Verknipt’. Technology by Mattijs, using Jitter (2005).
Why did you stop making music?
Well, after using this program, Buzz Tracker, I was looking for other programs to make electronic music in but I was so disappointed with all the tools that were out there… I tried everything.
What year was this?
I think that was around, 2001, something like that.
So you were really disappointed with what was out there?
Definitely, Absolutely. Cubase, Logic, and everything else. There were so many bugs, there were unintuitive interfaces. When I have an idea for music, I already hear it in my head, and then I need a tool that I can use to make that exact sound, to have this exact emotion, to translate it. That’s contrary to a lot of people; they just start jamming, and create something on the fly. That’s the difference, which makes it hard for me to comply with a tool that is not doing exactly what I want it to do. So that’s why I pretty much stopped making music. Then, I had a dream to make my own software. [Laughs.] Although I was aware that programs like Cubase or Logic–well, there are a lot of people working on that stuff, so to do that alone is quite a challenge. But I’m still working on that. I’ve been working on some ideas for a couple of years now, in my free time. One day it will be finished, and I will start making music again. [Laughs.]
Did you go to university?
Yes, but I stopped, I quit my college after three years, because it was much too boring.
What did you study? Computers, engineering…?
I did study electrical engineering, a lot of differential equations about magnetic fields. Also programming, pretty general technical stuff, actually. Then I quit that. In Holland they have two different kinds of college. There’s the university, and there’s like one level easier, and more practical. I don’t know if there’s a distinction in the U.S. but that’s a Bachelor’s degree. So I was first going for a Master’s degree, and then I stopped doing that, went to a different school, and started a Bachelor’s degree–which I did get–It was pretty smooth, I didn’t spend much time on it. So I had a lot of time to do my own stuff in that period.
When did you start working with Max/MSP, and Jitter?
I started working on it, I think about three years ago.
You’ve done a lot in a short period of time.
I must say, I have been working with Max more than full time for three years.
The Dutch Metropole Orchestra with real-time 3D graphics, Mattijs (left) supervises technology, right: VJ Carlo Zoratti (2006)
How did you find out about Max?
First I tried to use Reaktor, the Native Instruments modular program that looks a bit like Max. At the time it was pretty much a dream for me, that came true. I thought, well, I don’t want to program all this core stuff that’s trivial in a way, I just want to make music tools, and well, if they program all the basics for me, well cool. But I was using Reaktor 4 by that time, and it was so buggy, and I spent a lot of the time with bug reports. They really didn’t fix anything, nothing really evolved. So that’s when I got stuck, and I just stopped using it. So I started looking for alternatives, and heard about Max/MSP…
Did you just jump in? Did you take to Max right away?
I caught up with a few people that were already using Max, so they showed me some stuff, the first things you need. Then I did the tutorials, of course, most of them. The advantage was that I was used to being auto-didactical, when you learn yourself. I was used to learning on my own, without books and without much help from others. That’s the way I learn stuff in general.. So yes, it went pretty fast, though. I had a software engineering background, so it was easier for me to understand the threading background, and the way the event processing works. When you know what happens inside the externals, then you have a nice jump-start.
You’ve made a number of your own Max objects that you give away to people.
That’s correct. There are two or three things, I think that are online on my user page right now. One is a collection of externals that I made together with John Pitcairn, a guy from New Zealand. I really enjoy working together.
A screen shot of the help file of the oo objects v0.40, made by John Pitcairn and Mattijs Kneppers.
Why are you sharing these objects, as opposed to keeping them exclusive to yourself? What’s your philosophy behind that?
I believe that Max is a programming language, not just a tool to make smaller installations, or single performances, but really a full-blown programming language. I think there’s a lot of future in that. I really hope that one day it will be a full equivalent of a common programming language. I was missing the concept of scope in Max, as far as wireless connections were concerned. I really ran into that, and it really limited me. Besides I think this is a way of giving back something to the community, because there’s been so many people that have been helping me throughout these years, and I really would like to give something back. That’s a big thing, and that’s a big thing for John, too. That’s where we found each other.
But then there is this thing that I really would like to show people, that Max can be an actual program language. I actually believe this can be a next-generation programming language, like the visual equivalent of text-based languages. I’m already using it that way… although there are still some limitations.
Do you write your objects in C or Java?
These ones we wrote in C, we used the SDK that Cycling provides. I do a lot of Java programming as well, but not on Max. I’m working on my own sequencer actually, but it’s not available to the public yet, so it’s not that much of an issue.
I noticed you were really involved in the MAX forum, asking questions, exchanging information. Has that been useful to you?
Oh yes, definitely. I mean, without the forum…
Are you learning more from other Max users? Are you learning a lot from programmers at Cycling ’74?
Both, definitely. I really like when I have questions that I know are pretty deep, are not common, that I can be sure that developers from Cycling ’74 will read the forum and will answer my questions. That’s the most assuring thing about the community, which is one of the big reasons why I use Max, actually.
I want to ask you about your statement that you’re ‘not an artist, you’re a technician’. Isn’t what you’re doing art? Wasn’t Stradivarius an artist, even though he was making instruments?
Well, I think someone who makes tools–and that’s a nice way of putting it by the way–is proud mostly of their skills in making a good piece of equipment. Apart from that, I think it’s definitely an art form as well. I really take pride in making good tools, and understanding people that have a concept and translating that concept into a real, working scenario. That’s what I really like.
Are you ever working with an artist, and feel like you want to be more involved on the artist level?
Well, it definitely inspires me. My main form of ‘real’ art is electronic music though, the stuff I had been doing when I was kid. But I really enjoy other people who can have such amazing ideas. I like that as much as, or more than, being an artist myself at this point.
That’s the important thing.
I think that’s a big difference.
That’s an important statement, really…. what you’re ‘enjoying’.
Yeah, I think so. Apart from that, there’s the electronic music part as well. I really like to make electronic music myself, but as I said, at the moment I don’t have the right tools, so I’ll keep programming those, and when I finish my tools, then I’ll start making music again. But for now, I do the technological part. I really enjoy the way other people come up with concepts and ideas. I really like hanging out with artists, talking with artists is always so much more inspiring than with people who are in business, or technology. [Laughs.]
You’ve had a long collaboration with Eboman?
Yes, that’s correct. I’m a freelancer, I just do jobs for any artist that has a project, but Eboman is my biggest customer, by far, at this point. We’re also starting up this company, SmadSteck.
Eboman using SenS IV to create a real-time video sampling track on the Dutch Lowlands festival, exclusively with samples of the audience.
SmadSteck, that’s your visual sampler. You’re doing that with Eboman?
Video sampling track ‘Copy n toothpaSte’, made in one day with SenS IV, performed at the Milano film festival 2007.
Do you have any favorite objects, or favorite things you like to do with Jitter?
Jitter, well, I really love the potential of shaders. So right now I’m totally into shaders.
(left) An impression of compositions made with SenS III (2006)
Why is that?
Because it’s so powerful. You can do so much with it, and there are so much unexplored possibilities there. And I really enjoy working together with another Maxer, a pretty experienced Maxer named Nesa. Nesa is on the forum a lot, as well. I work together with other Maxers, apart from Nesa as well, but he’s also very much into shaders, and we’re exploring a lot of interesting possibilities. Although the thing with Jitter is, it’s less like an object-oriented system. For example, a shader, if you apply a shader to a jit.gl.gridshape, what it actually does is that whenever it starts drawing the shape, it first sends the command about the shader to the jit.gl.render object before it starts rendering the object. So it’s a little bit more interconnected than the other Max and MSP parts. The idea, the language of different, separate objects that have an input and output and don’t influence each other apart from that, I like that. But I think it’s very hard for people–well, for developers to make that happen that way because graphics just works a bit different.
I feel like Jitter is this untapped resource that people are just starting discover, and that it has a huge potential awaiting it.
I think shaders, especially shaders, definitely, more than the matrix operations. I think the matrix operations are pretty well understood at this moment–not as hard to understand. It’s just a grid of numbers, a matrix, that you can process in any way, and I think people are using it in very interesting ways already. But if you’re talking about untapped potential, then it’s definitely the shader part, the OpenGL and shaders.
What are your goals for the future? You are starting this company; you want to write your music program…
I hope that I will be able to make this audio-visual sampler, this thing I’m doing together with Eboman, under the name of SmadSteck, to make it available for others, that’s one thing. Apart from that, I’m also working on a modular studio at the moment–there is already a little preview under my name in the Share section. It’s now called MPC Studio. It’s really just a very basic concept, or basic realization of the concept, because the concept is much broader… the Buzz Tracker way of working, that’s what I was inspired by. That program has a way of working with synthesizers and effects that’s really inspiring, it really works very nicely. I want to build that kind of stuff in Max, and then I think I will never have to do any programming any more. [Laughs.] If I manage to do that, yeah, that would be so cool…
Interview by Marsha Vdovin for Cycling ’74.