Time for an update. I’ve been a bit silent about this whole Musician-in-Residence project lately, because I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of composing, drafting, sketching, followed by throwing it all in the bin and starting again. You know, the typical creative sequence of self-absorbtion then self-doubt.

This weekend Ableton has gone offline for some reason. It’s not just me. Musicians the world over are screaming at their laptops and venting on twitter right now. But it does mean that I can’t save or export anything I come up with.

I tend to use all manner of methods to capture my musical thoughts as they come – scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, iPhone voice-notes, manuscript, you name it. And I’ll often use Ableton to multitrack loops and ideas which sound well together, but for which I haven’t yet figured a final format.

Right this moment, I’m loathe to boot up Ableton and start noodling around on Noire or Cycles (my two most beloved go-to plug-ins, for now at least). I just know it’ll be sod’s law that the muse will strike (lucky me), but I’ll get frustrated I can’t save anything. So I’m writing this blog post, the one you’re currently suffering, while I wait for Premier Pro to export a test video file (I’ll be using something like that as a background loop for the entire performance on stage in May).

New eTextile Dancer's Jacket

Plans for a bespoke eTextile jacket have moved on well in the last couple of weeks. This will be worn by a dancer, who’ll be moving elegantly and expressively to some of the tracks.

The jacket is in a beautiful, minimalist style (combining well with my music, I think) and will be fashioned out of discarded items and reused fabric (again, like some of my own sound loops). Embedded in the fabric, sewn into a kind of mesh (to make it super easy to remove and repurpose once the jacket has served its purpose) are hundreds of mini LED lights, controlled by accelerometers in microchips at each wrist point. These are like the gyroscope that enables you to read your compass on a mobile phone, for example. In this case, they’re packed into an ultra small chip.

In the photos, Fashion Designer Alison Wescott (from Winchester School of Art) and Neuroscientist and Entrepreneur Devon Lewis (from University of Southampton’s School of Electronics and Computer Science) talk to me about an early prototype for the design. We’re interested in the tech, of course, but also the fit, style, look – as well as making sure that even this early mock-up has sustainability at its core: Alison made it from a simple, stitched square of material from a discarded umbrella!

So, when the dancer moves her right arm upwards, let’s say, a cascade of lights are triggered. The glowing thread flows down the right hand side of the jacket, over the shoulder and across the back. It’s all in time with her movements, because she is – quite literally – controlling it all.

At the same time, those microchips are synced to Ableton via MIDI-mapping. This is when you decide that a particular dial on a synthesizer controls a certain thing inside the software. You can pretty much map anything, to anything. So you can assign this knob to control volume, this other fader can control reverb, etc etc…

In this case, we’re assigning certain movements from the dancer (and correspondingly, the chips at each of her wrists on the jacket) to aspects of the sound. For example, she punches the air to her left, and this triggers a Whitney Houston 80’s style cowbell sound, inside Ableton. Except we won’t use that sound (thank God). We’ll be using found sound and other samples. Besides, I never liked cowbells, except in Mahler.

The other arm could open and close a filter on, say, a cloud of notes that are in the same key as the music. Or pan the sound from left to right. We’ll see… the possibilities are kind of endless.

Ultimately, the dancer will be able to shape and control the sound of the music she’s dancing to. And that’s crucial – because it’s an evocative metaphor for what this entire project is about.

A 180º change for our planet

All this is great, but it isn’t just about a cool jacket. Or about cutting-edge semiconductor tech. Or about my music, the players, or any of that.

The point is that if we’re going to have any hope of saving this planet, and turning back the tide of global climate problems, we’re going to have to do an abrupt 180º in our thinking – an about-face in the way we approach everything we do as a species – or else it’ll be too late. The concept of the Circular Economy – the idea of reusing, repurposing, repairing and recycling everything – is at the heart of the TRACE-E project. And it’s precisely this kind of thinking which we need to change in order to prevent the impending catastrophe.

A dancer who triggers the music, rather than simply responding to it, isn’t going to change the course of the world’s waste problems. However, it does succinctly encapsulate the whole idea of the Circular Economy within something artistic, informative and educational – precisely what TRACE-E is all about. The whole project is about sharing knowledge, enabling people to grow more aware of the problems, and to join together in the search for solutions (just as with the original TRACE and SÓN eWaste Projects).

The idea of a dancer creating their own music as they move is a radical shift from what is normally done on stage. And right now, we need to find ways to make a similar change for humanity, as we strive to steer away from the brink of disaster. A 180º is needed, pure and simple.