Why play a keyboard when you could tap a tune out on your own arm or remix a track by playing chess?
This weekend, musicians combined forces with coders at a London hackathon designed to create one-off musical instruments. The resulting prototypes pushed synths and samplers into unusual territory, thanks to a lot of creative ideas and an equally large amount of gaffer tape.
Participants in Buzz Jam, which was presented by Young Guns Network in partnership with Sony Music, had three days to complete their projects before debuting them in a performance at Red Bull Studios. First to the stage were Sarah Nimmo and Reva Gauntlett of electro group Nimmo, who performed their track "Dancing Makes Us Brave" with the aid of some DIY electronic tattoos.
"Me and Sarah are both into tattoos and so was the coder that we worked with," Gauntlett told me after the performance. She said the hack was inspired by their usually dynamic onstage presence. "We thought, wouldn't it be cool if you were the instrument controlling the music, rather than the music controlling your body movement?"
Working with coder Adam John Williams, they created a temporary tattoo of the group's name and covered it in conductive paint. Each letter was connected with a line of the paint to a Bare Conductive touch board that was superglued to Gauntlett's arm (the best they could manage in the time-pressure of the hackathon) and connected to a laptop running music software Ableton. When Gauntlett touched one of the letters, it would trigger a new part of the track.
Nimmo also had a tattoo; hers controlled effects on her voice when she flexed muscles on her arm.
Wearables were a popular idea among the ad hoc instrument-builders. Artist Tom Walker created a "sample shirt" with coder Brandon Hawkes. As with the tattoo, it allowed him to trigger samples by tapping on his own body, but in this case the sensors weren't on his skin but in stripes of conductive paint on his shirt, connected to the board via conductive thread.
Rapper and producer Tiggs Da Author also opted for clothing over body modification with a leather arm cuff concealing a small computer and buttons that allowed him to control samples while performing his new track "Swear Down".
Perhaps the wackiest piece of gadgetry to come out of the event, however, was a connected chessboard: a game of chess that makes music as you play. Paul King of We Make Awesome Shit, also a partner in the event, explained that each square had a magnetic chip while each chess piece had a magnet attached. When a piece was placed on a square, it closed a switch so the board could be used like a keyboard.
The board was played by unsigned artist Solaris, who summed up his experience of trialling it live, "Stuff did happen that was not meant to happen, but it was fine."
Meanwhile, the most professional-looking hackathon creation was Lake Komo's "Stardis," a wooden-housed contraption that offered an array of buttons, dials and sliders to alter singer Jay Nudd's vocals and also put on a bit of a light show.
"We're really interested in vocal processing effects units," said band member Jess Gould. "You see loads of stuff for guitars and synths and stuff and not that many vocals, so we wanted to try to do something different."
Ultimately, the hacker inventions, though clearly slapdash prototypes, were all playable instruments, and pretty interesting glimpses of what a live show could look like, especially as tech such as sensors, circuit boards, and basic computers get smaller.
"Everyone tonight made mistakes, including us," admitted Nudd. "It's not about it being perfect; it's about trying to do something interesting and something new."
"It's definitely opened up the horizons of tech for us," said Nimmo.