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SXSW 2016

A New Way Of Experiencing Music, Straight Out Of Tron

Now at SXSW, Deloitte Digital's ARC attempts to redefine what a music instrument is in the digital age.

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A band used to be four guys on instruments; a song used to be written, note after note. But that's just not true anymore: Music isn't just increasingly performed on computers, it's algorithmically written in code. So what does making music mean in the 21st century?

To give one possible answer to that question, Deloitte Digital teamed up with Dave and Gabe, an interactive installation studio, to create the ARC. Debuting today at SXSW, the ARC consists of five newly invented musical instruments, each of which controls a different dimension of a totally generative musical soundscape.

In appearance, the ARC looks like the mixing deck Daft Punk played in Tron Legacy. There are five different "instruments," but these aren't conventional instruments: They don't actually produce any sounds. Rather, they interface with different qualities of the music being played by the ARC. Although all the music is digital, one big goal in the creation of the ARC was to make the instruments feel physical and analog. "We just feel like touch screens are kind of played out," says Deloitte Digital's Alan Schulman.

So instead of using a tablet or smartphone, users of the ARC explore physical affordances. An eight-inch crystal ball can be rolled to change the harmonic texture of the piece; a set of glowing glass rods can be slid up and down to fade tracks in and out; another interface allows users to control rhythm by rotating and orbiting hands, and so on. The idea is to restore some tactile sense to music.

The musical composition all these instruments control is totally generative. In other words, it's more code than recording. "It doesn't have a fixed length at all, it just happens," says Gabe Liberti of Dave and Gabe. "It's not really a song; more a living ecosystem, or an environment. It's like a forest. It's alive, and it interacts with itself." But that's not to say that the composition doesn't have discrete parts.

Although the performance itself is algorithmically generated, it is still based on melodies and rhythms composed by André Anjos of RAC. Which is another aspect of this: not only is the ARC in some aspects like playing producer to RAC, Anjos himself will actually be at SXSW, dropping by occasionally to help attendees spin the ARC.

The ARC will be open for attendees to experiment with as part of Deloitte Digital's SXSW Interplay Lab, which also contains two other interactive installations: sonic swings and glowing celestial orbs. The ARC, however, is the main attraction. If you're at SXSW, you can see it today from noon to 6 p.m., and on Saturday from noon until 5:30 p.m.

Photos: Marcus De Paula, Deloitte Digital. Video: Jeff Osborne

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