Before he found a way to merge them, programmer and artist Tarik Barri considered music and visual art to be dueling disciplines. But when he learned how to use Max/MSP, a programing language often used for multimedia purposes, to create visual compositions, the marriage between sight and sound became a blank canvas for new creative endeavors.
Barri started out by making a 2D visual sequencer, experimenting with visuals to accompany his music. But the desire to dismantle barriers between the digital composer and the audience, to literally show people what his compositions looked like, led to the creation of Versum, a realtime virtual 3D world that invites both an audience and a composer to look at music and listen to visuals.
“I was a big fan and user of FruityLoops [now called FL Studio] back when I was still studying psychology—I did a lot of studies half way—and I had a dream that a new version of FruityLoops had come out and that it was a 3D version,” Barri told The Creators Project during an interview in Berlin at Ableton’s Loop Summit. “All of a sudden, I could see all of these notes flashing past me in 3D, and it was awesome. It wasn’t, of course, fully fleshed out in my dream, but it was super exciting. I woke up and was very disappointed that it didn’t exist.”
As the adage goes: sometimes if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Barri embarked on Versum’s initial programming, building its visual element in Max/MSP and introducing bits of Java coding. Now, the software mainly runs in small programs directly on Barri’s graphics cards, which allows generated images to maintain their integrity without a significant frame-per-second lag. Audio components are manipulated through Max for Live and Ableton Live. Barri has completed Versum collaborations with artists like Thom Yorke, Monolake, and Nicolas Jaar, and partnerships with other artists are in the works.
In practice, Versum feels far from watching a preconceived visual piece and more like a live exploration within a fantastic, conceptual space. Barri uses fixed grid points to ensure he doesn’t get completely lost while navigating through the virtual program, but for the most part, constant discovery is an integral part of Versum’s design.
“I have presets where all kinds of visual effects and parameters are set. I can smoothly interpolate one preset or another, but that preset may or may not involve the exact location where the virtual camera is floating. Very often, I just choose to have all the stuff around me revolving and changing, while still having full control over the camera using my joystick. Sometimes it happens that I do literally get lost or it just becomes blackness, and then I can click on presets to smoothly have my camera float back into a known territory,” Barri explains.
Materializing dreams is not without its technicalities, and Barri has encountered plenty of glitches along the way. But the satisfaction of giving life to your most intimate imaginings is unparalleled and precious—part of the reason why Barri has no intention of commercializing Versum anytime soon.
“I don’t want to be cheap or whatever. I’m very happy to share many of these things, but the software is so specific and weirdly constructed. It’s also buggy in some ways, but I know my way around my own bugs. People have suggested that I don’t have to fix it myself—that I should just open source it—but I also really like having control of where this thing is going. It’s very tightly connected to my soul, in a sense, and I would really hate to see it go in another direction,” he explains.
While this particular program will remain a personal project, Barri is working on feeding elements of Versum into his other collaborations. Barri previously created visuals for Thom Yorke and Nicolas Jaar, including a Versum collaboration with Monolake. Partnerships with other artists are also in the works. In partnership with Dutch programmers, he’s working on software called Videosync, which creates visual plugins, enabling less-proficient coders to build their own 2D and 3D realities in Ableton Live.
It opens the door for those familiar with the software to create compositions in concert with Barri during rehearsals and performances. In doing so, the world which came to him in a dream remains Barri’s domain, albeit one that comes with a welcome mat and unlocked entrance, ripe for exploration.