Captain Credible and his sentient music

In the days following a Captain Credible appearance in Jæger’s basement for Notam, a little piece of the Norwegian producer’s next EP remained behind. Fantasy Mansion is part EP, part sound installation, part instrument, part sentient being, and for the last week it’s been living on the landing of our staircase, quietly lying dormant until you plug your headphones and it springs to life with series of random beeps and noise.

It’s a simple exposed chip, featuring a little more than a blinking red LED, a headphone jack, a light sensor  and a couple of small buttons and is an extension of the EP rather than a preview. Containing none of the original material from the EP, it’s an instrument producing random sounds with a the kind of liberty only an artificial intelligence could. I recognise some of the sounds and patterns it generates as random realisations of what follows on the composed version Fantasy Mansion.

Fantasy Mansion is Captain Credible’s second release in a chip form, and follows on from Dead Cats in 2015. Part chiptune, part IDM and part concept, these two releases follow a specific conceptual strain from the artist Daniel Lacey-McDermott in which a complex array of concepts inform his methods that result in these uniquely packaged EPs. He solders every chip by hand in limited number as the physical embodiment of his releases, and even though they make pretty, functional objet d’art there’s much more to this music than meets the eye.

In the days following my first encounter with Fantasy Mansion I arrange to meet Daniel in a sunny spot to talk about his latest EP, the methods behind creating them and how a PCB constitutes an EP.

I’ve been playing around on your “EP” at Jæger.

Did you come up with anything good?

No, but I did have a lot of fun. I’m curious did you use it to create the album?

I used it a little bit, for some sounds, but the music is so convoluted, programmed and processed that it is hard to recognise. I do however build all my instruments, it’s part of my ethos. By building the instruments I play at a concert or to compose music, I try to move the abstraction layer one step down, so that I’m not guided as much by other people’s choices in instrument design.

Is it completely analogue?

No, some of them will be analogue, and some of them will just be controllers. The most important aspect is how you use it and how it invites you to use it. For many years I’ve been building instruments out of found objects. I’ve been very focussed on the functionality of the instrument, conscious of how I’m shaping the creativity by controlling the parameters of the instruments.

Is it about a tactile thing thing for you?

Yes, I also have this weird duality where I’m making instruments and then using them. When I’m building instruments, I’m building instruments for somebody that’s going to make music with them, and I tend to think how can I build these instruments to influence the way the music is composed.

Recently it’s also been very much tied up to the aesthetic of the instruments. I’ve become more aware of how the appearance of an instrument influences how you use it. Before It’s been more about a practical observation like how many strings a guitar has limits you to how many notes you could play simultaneously.

Is this something that started for you through an education?

No I studied phonetics and linguistics in Trondheim and recently I did a bachelor’s degree at the arts academy in Oslo, but I wasn’t there much… I was on tour.

I had a very utopian idea about the field of modern arts was going, but it wasn’t anything like that. I should’ve expected, it’s all  about networking, following the current paradigm, and being relevant, and not so much about free expression, which is what I would like it to be.

Do you feel that you were very constricted by the institution of art?

No, it was  more that you were expected to deliver something within a paradigm with its own innate values and focus on areas that I wasn’t that interested in. Like stacking pieces of wood in a corner of a room is interesting art, but when that’s the only accepted form of expression, then it becomes forced and uninteresting. My utopian idea of what the field of arts should be like is obviously ridiculously naive and impossible to implement in real life.

Was your sole focus on the sound and sound art?

Yes I had done a bunch of installations, and my live performance was my main focus. During my first two years, there was a professor that was very interested in what I was doing, art as algorithms, which went completely over the heads of the others and he had to leave.

At what point did you start making the instruments and how did you get into it?

In around 2007. What happened was that I had made a bunch of music and was asked to play a concert. I looked into what the norm was for playing electronic concerts during this time, and it looked like you were supposed to stand behind a laptop with a trackpad and check your emails while your music was being played in winamp. (laughs) I didn’t want to do it so I decided to build a set of instruments that would be intuitive to use and improvise on, but that would also be explanatory to the audience.

In the way you can see a bass guitarists play a note or a drummer hit a beat, I built my instruments in modules so I had a specific module that does a specific thing that is very audible in the soundscapes.

So there’s a visceral association for the audience between the instrument and the sound?

That’s the idea, but I realise that it gets a bit hectic and confusing.

It would at least make it very entertaining to watch though.

Yes, and for me it wouldn’t be fun to just sit behind the laptop and press play,  

To what end do you make these instruments for recording, since this a completely different context where there’s no audience on the physical plain?

In recording their purpose is to force me to work in specific ways, through limitations and the possibilities of the hardware. I also build software instruments and effects that I use in the production process.

For Fantasy Mansion, did you make any of the instruments with an underlying concept in mind, even if it’s only in the subtext?

There definitely is a lot in the subtext that I’m pretty sure nobody’s going to get. This album has a lot to do with my fascination with quantum mechanics and parallel universes and the work of Max Planck. When it comes to the instruments, inadvertently yes I specifically made instruments for this release, although that wasn’t the intention at the time, it just happens.

And the PCB  that’s now hanging at Jæger was one of those instruments?

Yes, I used an early prototype of it for inspiration and for sounds. For example: That circuit board is very simple so most of the work is in the code. While I was programming it, I recorded all the noises it made. Often I’ll  go back to a recording I made weeks ago and find that it made something really interesting and I have no idea how I came to make it do that, but then at least I have the recordings.

That’s an incredibly organic process from designing the instruments to the end result. Was there anything you were specifically trying to achieve with this album in terms of sound?

I was actually going for a cleaner, simpler sound than I’ve made before. I’ve released a similar circuit board EP about two years ago, which was also a step into a cleaner soundscape from the stuff I released before that again. (Laughs) I suppose in ten years it would be House.

Why a PCB?

I’m very fascinated with the concept of sentience, intelligence and artificial intelligence. And the fact that there is no real way to define sentience or the sense of self in an objective way. I’ve always been interested in making things that seem to live, and things that are unpredictable, to the extent that you have no idea why it’s doing what it’s doing, but at the same time coherent, so it seems like it’s taking conscious choices.

I wanted to compose music that would convey this as strongly as possible, and the most obvious way to do that in a sensible way is to build a platform that is able to make music that is randomly generated in a set of rules that is fake sentience. Which is why I have the tagline sentient instrument on the circuit board.

So the circuit board is in fact not the album, but rather an extension of the album, taking on a life of its own after the fact?

Yes.

It’s also really redefining ideas of composition, performance and reception that have been incredibly ingrained in our modern listening experience.

Yeah, exactly, but that’s a very post-modernist way of viewing music really, as a fixed recording, that’s defined by a start and an end. The content is crystallised, but the content is not always going to be interesting.

Do you think there will come a time when perhaps there is no content to your music?

Where everything is generative? I am sure there will and I hope it’s before I start making House, because generative House might be entirely indistinguishable from ordinary House. (Laughs)

The idea is to release three EPs and this is the second. The first one was 100 copies and when you plugged your headphones in it started playing an infinitely long song, but it would always play the same infinitely long song. And the second one takes it more into the realm of interaction but at the same time, it gives the circuit board a bit more control than if you were to perhaps use it as an instrument. It occasionally moves notes, deletes beats, transposes your music or just deletes everything and starts again.

It’s completely algorithmic of course and pre-defined to an extent. When you turn it on it samples the electromagnetic radiation there and then and it samples the level of light twice (with a small break in between) and then adds those numbers together to get it’s random seed. That number is going to be different every time you turn it on. And interestingly enough one percent of background radiation is from the big bang, so one percent of the composition is the end of the universe.

And the third release?

I haven’t made it yet obviously, but I have a few prototypes that might come to fruition. I want to base it on the same tiny chip. I like to use something underpowered to do something more complicated than what it’s supposed to. Most of the work of this last EP is about cramming enough code onto the chip. It’s completely full, you couldn’t fit another byte of code on there. But the third one might become an audio processing device which will pitch incoming audio up and down and modulate it in some other ways and the idea is that it will be a sentient universal remixing device.

It seems that you have a very clear purpose in taking away the human control in your music.

Yes, that it’s a running theme in these. The sentience of the device requires that you take away some control from the person operating it.

Which is completely the opposite of your live show, which all about introducing your human impulses to the music.

You’d think, but then you are assuming you know what I’m doing. (Laughs) It’s set up in a pretty complicated manner, so there’s a lot that can go wrong, and I’d like to keep it like that because when things go wrong and I don’t understand what’s happening interesting shit happens that I definitely would not be able create if I knew what I was doing.

 

*Fantasy Mansion is out 23rd of June.
*Catch Captain Credible on stage live at Hærverk on the 23rd of June.
*The next Notam night at Jæger is on the 17th of October.

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