Ollie Bown and Sam Britton have been embracing technology as a means for experimenting with the forms and formats of electronic music ever since their early works as Icarus in the late Ninties. But with their latest album Fake Fish Distribution, which was released earlier this week, the British artists and producers push the envelope even further than before. Fake Fish Distribution is only available as a limited download in 1000 unique variations. Each of these versions differs from the others and has been created with the help of a special software developed by Bown and Britton. As the producers explain on their website, “each of the 1000 versions [will] only [be] sold once and in sequential order. Upon purchase, you become the owner of that unique version”. We’ve had the chance to talk to Sam Britton about the writing of Fake Fish Distribution and asked him if he thinks that MP3 albums could become collector’s items in the future.
Sam, how did the idea for Fake Fish Distribution come about?
There were many ‘flash points’ that led us to consider doing a record like Fake Fish Distribution. Since 2005 we had been working a lot in the context of performance, not only as Icarus, but with improvising musicians through our label / collective Not Applicable and through the Live Algorithms for Music research group at Goldsmiths College in London. This is reflected in the records we put out as Icarus during that time which increasingly used generative and algorithmic compositional techniques as structural catalysts for live improvisations (Carnivalesque, Sylt and All Is For The Best In The Best Of All Possible Worlds). All Is For The Best In The Best Of All Possible Worlds was in fact the documentation of completely new material we worked up during live performances over the course of a tour in 2009 and whose structure and form is to a far greater extent derived from the idiosyncrasies of the performance software we developed.
In 2011 we decided that it would be great to take some of these ideas and techniques back into the studio and to work on a dedicated studio album. However a lot had changed since our last full blown studio release (I Tweet The Birdy Electric in 2004) and we didn’t feel comfortable not taking these factors into account, most notably the paradigm shift from physical sales to digital distribution. From our point of view, we really wanted to explore the possibilities of not having to produce a physical object and also to try to expand our smaller scale experiments with generative software in a live context to control the larger form of an entire record. Putting together All Is For The Best In The Best Of All Possible Worlds on tour in 2009 had given us some ideas about how we might start to structure larger scale form and compose pieces that were both detailed enough and robust enough to inform such a process. Given this, composing a record in many variations that reflected the type of improvised structures we were familiar with through our performances seemed like a logical next step.
There are 1000 unique versions of the album. How much do the individual versions differ from each other?
The easiest way to get a feeling for how the versions differ is by explaining how the software works: When working on electronic music in a timeline, you have the ability to control certain features of the audio using breakpoint functions. These features might include parameters such as volume or pan, which you can vary during the course of the track by drawing a path in the breakpoint editor. It is possible to extend your control of the audio by adding plugins such as filters, delays or reverbs, nevertheless, your control over the musical content of the audio remains limited. For Fake Fish Distribution, we crafted extensions to the timeline paradigm that would allow us to control the musical content using these breakpoint functions. This allowed us to program structural changes such as triggering sounds and sequences into the music by varying parameters in breakpoints. In addition to this, we made it possible to interpolate from one breakpoint to another, allowing us to compose two (or more) different keyframes (or archetypes) for the control parameters and then generate any number of hybrid versions that lay somewhere in between the two. This simple device is repeated on numerous different levels across all of the compositional structures present in the album, from audio effects, to the triggering of samples and sequences, to entire structural changes in the tracks. Lastly, the highest control element is the version number, which specifies a point in the interpolation process between the keyframes for every parameter in each track. The design of the variation for each track is unique and carefully reflects the compositional structure and musical elements at play. In some tracks, the variation is more subliminal (“Dumptruck Cannibals”, “Shallow Tree”) and it others there are almost no fixed points (“Spineez of Breakout”, “Old D”). Elsewhere there are fixed elements in the form of combinations of sequences that always appear together, but not necessarily in the same order (“Colour Field”, “Two Mbiras”) or guiding instrumentation on which all of the other variation is orchestrated (“MD Skillz”, “Three Stupidities”). Despite our knowledge of all of the processes and elements at play, Fake Fish Distribution remains an enigma even to us (we have not listened to every variation), we nevertheless consider it a ‘known unknown’, in that we can be confident that the variation exhibited in each track, while perhaps unexpected, is compositionally rigorous and that the overall work remains musically coherent.
Stream: Icarus – Fake Fish Distribution (Version 500 Sampler)
How did you actually work on the album in the studio? Did you write one original version and had this one altered by the software afterwards?
Above all, we set out to make something strictly finite and complete. Firstly, we made compositions that we could parameterize in various ways. With those parameters you could arguably make a vast variety of random variations by choosing random parameter settings. But we wanted to compose a suite of 1000 variations, not an endless set of possibilities, and have control over the subset of possible parameters that get used. So the album software works by allowing us to compose each parameter along a timeline, but also to map two or more of these timelines to the spectrum of possible versions, a bit like you create key frames in an animation. For any version, the software works out the version parameters by interpolating between timelines. In this sense, once the ‘performance’ is encoded in a breakpoint function, it is no longer generative and this is extremely useful, if not essential in order for us to be able to understand how each version differs from another. However, the ‘performances’ that are encoded in the breakpoint functions were often created using generative techniques. One of our aims was to set up all of this support software in advance, and do it in such a way that we could get down to composition in a nice, fluid creative flow. Plenty of experience of creative code and patch hacking has taught us that making software can be quite a hindrance and distraction from creating music. For this Max for Live (Ableton Live with MaxMSP embedded in it) was unsurpassable in terms of the freeform integration of a virtual studio with a powerful algorithmic environment. It was cumbersome at times but quite astonishing once we had the basic rig up and running.
You mentioned that Fake Fish Distribution wasn’t just intended as a technical and musical experiment but also as a foray into new ways of distributing music digitally. Do you really think that MP3s could become valuable collector’s items in the future?
Maybe projects like Fake Fish Distribution are more concerned with appealing to or influencing an anthropology of music making rather than producing a finished product. That’s not to say that it is opposed to the notion of an encapsulated piece of work that can be collected (Fake Fish Distribution is exactly that), but that it also seeks to reflect in electronic music something that has always been present in acoustic music and performance: the phenomenon of social interaction and contextual difference. There are plenty of artists out there who are considering these ideas as electronic and computer music becomes increasingly wrapped up in the larger assemblage of information communications technology (Brian Eno‘s generative works, Tim Exiles software for Native Instruments or the software Bronze Format). Furthermore, most musicians are convinced of the benefits of developing work that reflects their musical ideas in ways that actively explore the possibilities of new technology (for example Arcade Fire or Björk). As the Italian philosopher Luciano Floridi points out: “To be is to be interactable, even if the interaction is only indirect”.
How has the response been so far? How many units have you sold on the first day?
We got to version 110 by the end of the first day. The response has been really great, but it’s fascinating watching the jerky ebbs and flows of Twitter virality. Quite a few people are interested in joining the Fake Fish Distribution owners list where they can share versions. We’ll be activating that soon.