Killcode: Or, an unfinished collaboration

Killcode: Or, an unfinished collaboration

The short version: here’s a prototype audio game that Simon Flesser and I made a while back. Download it and have a play and let us know what you think!




The long version:
Some time ago I was able to spend a really amazing week with an artist who I greatly admire – Simon Flesser from Simogo. Simon and Gordon’s games are wonderfully crafted interactive stories with an obsession for detail and an uncompromising aesthetic approach that has resulted in widespread acclaim.

Simon and I had often spoken about collaborating on something, but we didn’t really know what form that would take. I think many of our early ideas revolved around emotionally powerful audio and lovely hardware – in retrospect perhaps Simon was looking to explore a world of game design away from a screen, and I was looking to integrate narrative into the objects I had been building. In any case, we both blocked a few days out in our calendars and Simon booked a trip to Scotland.

In between going to see Songhoy Blues and discussing media representations of rapping teachers, Simon and I worked on some ideas. We were both somewhat in between projects, and both in the incredibly luxurious position of being able to throw around ideas for a few days. So on his first day in Edinburgh, Simon sat in a chair in my ramshackle studio and said “What are we doing here?”

My studio, around the time of this project, set up for the filming of Michael Brough’s 868-HACK trailer

That question led to a long set of discussions about what we were interested in; what would we make if we had no restrictions, and (more importantly) what did we want to explore creatively? We quickly started to focus on the idea of making a sound game – a video game with no screen, if you will. This leads to a number of interesting restrictions, particularly when making something with a strong narrative element. With no screen to look at, how do you design the interactions? How do you make something where the player feels in control and aware of their place within the story, whilst still holding back enough information and retaining enough mystery for it to feel like a game? There are a number of good examples of this, perhaps the most famous recently being Papa Sangre, and here in Scotland the wonderful Other had many audio-only features as well. For an incredibly exhaustive list go to audiogames.net.

But stepping outside the mobile gaming bubble for a second, audio-only experiences shouldn’t strike us as all that groundbreaking. Radio dramas, after all, preceded TV dramas by several decades – and oral histories were the media format of choice for many cultures for millennia before that.

Mixed in with all of these concepts was a desire to make something physical, something with movable parts that you hold and move and twist and love. Perhaps we were both tiring of working on games for touchscreens – the last few games I made with Lucky Frame can attest to that. From a music technology perspective this is no anomaly, with ’boutique’ hardware and opaque modular synth systems now becoming positively mainstream. In many ways the most exciting game development happening now, in my opinion, is of the ‘alternative controller’ variety, where designers are reimagining the physical methods for playing games. These trends could be seen as something of a rejection of the omnipresent touchscreens and standardised controllers that pervade mainstream media culture nowadays, and our discussions certainly reflected that.

Out of this jumble of concepts grew an idea for a game built into a custom-built box covered in an array of dials, buttons, lights, and switches. It would have a headphone jack, but no screen. The game would take place entirely within a sound world, with the controls at the player’s fingertips. I think we were imagining something like an old Ham radio transmitter combined with an Enigma machine, which informed the general aesthetic of the storyline that Simon developed.

When we started sketching out the story concept we jokingly titled it “Killcode”, with the idea that we could change the name eventually. As often happens in this type of process, we never managed to find a better name and the name stuck. The story itself borrowed from mid-century spy novels and TV shows, with some cold war-era espionage and intrigue thrown in for good measure. The as-yet-unbuilt box became known as the “Telemental Remote Operating System”, and we mapped out an outline for how the game would work.

The core mechanics of the box, as we imagined it, were three dials or sliders for tuning into radio frequencies, a couple of light-up buttons, and a four digit code input system. The game would be divided into chapters, each of which would revolve around cracking a code and sending it back to headquarters. We saw this as the rough basis for a game-like interaction which could then be extended in different ways based on how the story would progress.

With this structure in mind, we decided that the best approach would be to make a software prototype which would emulate the physical box. After a few rough drafts, Simon wrote a text for the first “chapter” of the game complete with world building, game clues, and a wonderfully chilling introduction. The incredible Roxana Vilk, one of my favourite voices (and people), very kindly agreed to play the main character, and the rest of the voices were played by myself and an assortment of friends and family (thanks Kate, Jenny, Fraser, and Jeannette!). Thanks also to Pete Vilk for the extra recording work!

The sound design was super fun to do. I used my analog synth for the bleeps and bloops, found an old broken radio to make a library of static, and delved into my collection of field recordings, including one of my favourite ever – the sound of wind rushing through fishing line on a pier on Whidbey Island.

I built the prototype in Max/MSP, which was an interesting challenge as it is certainly not designed for building games. I was pleased to be able to make a fully functional prototype that was pretty close to how we had imagined, from the flashing light inviting you to press the start button all the way to the method of tuning into the various sounds. It didn’t look very pretty, but it worked!

It was really great having a finished prototype. It instantly became something a bit more real, although perhaps not quite as real as we would have liked, since the whole concept really revolves around building a physical controller. But nevertheless, I think we were both really proud of getting that far.

However we definitely struggled to figure out how to approach making this happen in a “finished” way. There are some technical hurdles, though these have become a bit easier – I can now imagine building the game in Pure Data, for example, and running it on a Raspberry Pi. However the real challenges are in terms of cost. Using proper voice actors would be crucial, for example, but expensive – not to mention our own time. Even if we were to source funding of some variety to cover this, we would be limited by our own vision of creating a lovely handmade object. My own back-of-the-envelope calculations result in needing to sell a minimum of 50 for at least £200 each just to break even.

It raises a number of interesting questions, really…virtually anyone who learns about this project thinks it sounds excellent, but the cost of producing it – particularly at a smaller, handmade scale – makes it virtually unfeasible. In a somewhat depressing indictment of modern technology, it would probably be more commercially viable to design a box that could be made in a factory by the thousands, rather than an adorable handmade object made from reclaimed materials.

An obvious solution for this would be to compromise on the artistic vision – make a mobile version, perhaps, or make simplified mass-produced boxes. But that just doesn’t seem worth it – we came up with an idea that works precisely because we avoided those sorts of compromises in the artistic development of the piece. If we compromise the core identity of the work in order to fund it we will necessarily lose what it is that makes it so special to begin with.

In any case, other projects and life events stalled the further development of this project, but it has stuck in the back of our minds as something wonderful that could one day be revisited. The other day as I walked to my studio it occurred to me that very few people had even played the little prototype, and I thought that the time was right to let it into the world. Perhaps it gives us some kind of closure for a project that we both dearly love…in any case I’d love for you to play it, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Send me an email at yann@yannseznec.com, or find us on twitter: @yannseznec and @simonflesser.


Many thanks to Dave House and Kevin Hay for help building the Windows version.


Screen prints for sale

Category : Sound

Some of the screen prints I made last year during my Smithsonian residency are now available for sale – go and visit the shop to have a look. A few more should be ready in the coming weeks.

Sound Signature: Explorer 7

These are all from my Sound Signatures series, which are screen prints of spectrograms made from the sounds of rare and disappearing aircraft. Each purchase comes with a high-quality digital download of the audio recording used to create the print.


AntiTheory, plugin for Ableton Live

I’ve just finished an early version of a side project I’ve had on my list for a while – AntiTheory for Ableton Live. This is a plugin which changes the notes that you play, freeing you from your own musical knowledge.

Download the AntiTheory Max 4 Live Plugin Here

I grew up playing piano, and as part of my education I did a lot of classical music theory. I always really loved it, but I do often find it difficult to separate myself from patterns, chords, and scales. I catch myself sticking very rigidly to arbitrary rules, and I often wonder what it would be like to play an instrument without any preconceived theoretical ideas.

In an attempt at making this happen, I’ve made a plugin for Ableton Live which jumbles up the notes being sent from a MIDI keyboard. There is only one parameter, a dial which controls how jumbled up the notes are. When this is set to “1” there is no change and everything is familiar. Changing this to “2” means that some notes will be swapped – maybe a middle C will be a C#, and vice versa. If you turn it up to 12 then a note could be moved anywhere within an octave.

Crucially, no matter what value you choose, only once instance of each note is available. It’s as if you took all the notes, shuffled them around and put them back together again.

The result is surprisingly fun to play. I started stumbling upon combinations of notes I never would have imagined – it’s incredibly freeing to just play around.

This is a very early version. If you have Ableton Live you can have a play and maybe even open it up and improve it if you’re so inclined. Drop me a line if you have any suggestions, ideas, or if you’ve used it for anything fun.

(warning: it is incredibly buggy. it shouldn’t crash your machine but it may well make some really uncontrollable noises, as you can hear at the end of the video. also you can’t save any of the settings.)


Serious Work, Serious Danger

Category : Music

woods

I recently finished a fun project with Bonnie Brae Productions for the Forestry Commission Scotland. The idea was to take the sounds of timber production and turn them into a sort of music, as a way of showing just how dangerous it can be to ignore the safety signs in the forest.

I got to spend a really fun day recording in the woods, and the end result (made entirely out of field recordings from the day) is both catchy and kind of intense!


Sound Signatures

Category : Sound

I’ve finally managed to put together a little page about my recent Smithsonian Fellowship, which resulted in a series of screen prints which I’m calling “Sound Signatures”.

Sound Signatures

You can read all about the project and see photos and listen to the recordings I made. If you have any questions or comments be sure to get in touch!

Yann Seznec – Sound Signatures


Playable City Lagos

Danfo

A few days ago I came back home after a trip to Nigeria where I was participating in “Playable City Lagos”, organised by Watershed and the British Council.

The aim of the 10 day program was to encourage new thinking, relationships, and ideas around the theme of a Playable City. It involved a number of creative people living Lagos as well as a few of us from Britain, and we spent the first few days getting to know each other and exploring the conceptual basis for this theme. What does it mean for a city to be “playable”? Why is it important? Can residents of a city like Lagos afford the time to play, when the legendary traffic jams force people out of bed at 5am?

The group discussions and personal conversations that came out of these first few days were fascinating. It was such a privilege to be able to dig deep into the identity of the city, hearing about day-to-day experiences as well as larger generalisations and patterns.

We eventually split into groups in order to develop ideas that we could put into practice and test in the city. I ended up working with Desiree Craig, Inua Ellams, and Jeremiah Ikongio, a fantastic group – our only problem was that we had too many ideas.

Eventually, however, we decided to try and make something that focused on Danfos. These are the yellow minibuses that operate as one part of a multi-layered public transport system within Lagos. They are publicly regulated but privately run – putting them somewhere in between the informal motorbikes and the big fancy BRT buses which wouldn’t look out of place in any European city. Incidentally, the Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh has done some really great work about the sound of Lagos in general and danfos in particular.

Playable City Lagos

You can’t go very far in Lagos without seeing a danfo, typically crammed full of people and in varying states of disrepair. They are cheap, easy to use, and very democratic – several locals told me that in any danfo you’ll get a nearly perfect cross section of Lagosian society.

I found this fascinating, which shouldn’t be a big surprise because I keep finding myself doing projects about public transport. There is something very interesting to me about how at given moment in Lagos thousands of people are having something of a shared experience: sitting in a danfo, surrounded by strangers, on their way somewhere (and probably stuck in traffic).

Danfo bus stop

As a group we started thinking about how we could play with this idea, and we came up with the idea of connecting random people in random danfos. What would happen if you could start up a conversation with someone you had never met who is in the same situation as you, but in a different place? What would you talk about? What kind of serendipitous interactions could be created?

And so we created the Danfone.

Danfone

The concept behind this is that a number of buses would be fitted with Danfones, which have only a phone receiver and some non-linguistic instructions. Picking up the phone would make a phone in some other random bus ring. If someone in that bus picked it up, you’d be connected and you could have a chat. If you hang up and try again, you would be connected to a different bus. That’s it! It’s an idea that I found pretty freeing in its simplicity. The lack of structure opens up a bunch of questions and unknowns, which I really liked.

We didn’t have enough time to build a fully functional version of this, so we made a sort of proof-of-concept. We focused a lot on the design, making it fun and engaging (with some flashing LEDs of course), and making sure the interaction made sense. To that end we hacked an old fashioned telephone handset into a mobile phone, since we liked the idea of a really tangible interface with very little control.

Danfone progress

To test out our creation we brought it out to one of the main bus stops in the centre of the city, right next to Tafawa Balewa Square, and pitched it to the danfo drivers. The people at the bus stop (and on the way there) were remarkably responsive to the idea, with some really interesting conversations starting up about how it would work and how it would be used in practice. Several people mentioned how it fit well with the Nigerian traditions of group discussion and gossip (ofofo).

Danfone

In practice the way we used our prototype was hilariously low-tech: we dialled the number of a mobile phone hidden in the Danfone, answered that phone and then put it all back together so you could only speak through the handset. Then we put the whole thing in a danfo and waited for people to interact. The incredibly patient Desiree waited for anyone to pick up the phone and have a discussion. We did this twice, once with Inua and Jere in the bus engaging with people who were interested, and once with Jere hiding in the back to see if anyone would pick it up.

Danfone

It was only really half of a test, but I would say that it was very successful. A few people spoke to Inua and Jere and tried it out, and on the second test a very curious person built up the courage to pick up the phone – only for the mobile to drop the signal! That was a bit frustrating, but by showing the limit of our prototype we also saw the potential for what it could be.

As a part of our work we also thought about what future possibilities could be explored. For example, we considered a future radio show, “Danfo Diaries”, which could be built out of conversations between strangers on danfo buses. This could make for some pretty compelling listening, and encourage future conversations.

I’m super proud of this project. I think it embodies the idea of playfulness really well – it does not get in the way or require extra time and energy, and it does not pretend to be creating extrinsic value. It is open and free and potentially magical (or funny or sad).

It’s really hard to sum up my time in Lagos in a blog post. To say it was an “incredible time” really doesn’t seem to do it justice. I learned so much and I’m only beginning to process it all. Whilst I definitely think that the Danfone is a powerful idea that can be developed further in a number of directions, for me it was only a part of the whole experience. Many thanks to everyone involved!

Danfone


Spores in Santa Cruz

Category : Installation, Spores

Secret Sounds of Spores

Last week, after finishing my Smithsonian fellowship in Washington, I travelled out to California to install my Secret Sounds of Spores installation at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

Secret Sounds of Spores

If you’re not familiar with the piece, it is a musical installation that uses a mushroom to control music. A green laser shining at the mushroom reveals falling spores, and a camera sees those spores and uses them to send pulses to small electromechanical instruments that play in response.

Secret Sounds of Spores

I built a smaller and slightly improved version of the installation for the show, “Wild Mushrooms & Functional Fungi”, which includes a number of other wonderful mushroom-based pieces. My new version uses cherry wood from the farm in Maryland, which I think looks lovely.

Secret Sounds of Spores

The opening was fantastic – I had tons of brilliant conversations and fascinating feedback. Many thanks to the museum staff for making it all happen. The show will run until the end of March 2016, so be sure to go and have a look if you’re in the area.

Secret Sounds of Spores

Special thanks to Felipe Goncalves for laser cutting the connecting parts to the installation, and to Danny Haeg for hosting me in California. This new version of the installation was made possible thanks to a Creative Scotland artist bursary.


A few months at the Smithsonian

Category : Sound

A few weeks ago I arrived in Washington DC to start a two month project at the Smithsonian – specifically at the National Air and Space Museum. This is for a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (wonderfully shortened to SARF), which means I am embedded in the museum until early December.

IMG_2648

My general aim is to explore the sounds of aircraft, and in my first few weeks I have been focusing on military planes in particular. I managed to record a number of WWI-era planes at the fantastic Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome…if you’re ever in the Hudson Valley area in the summer or fall I would highly recommend going to visit! The staff was wonderful and they put on an amazing show, complete with dogfighting planes, pumpkin bombs, a rascally neighbouring farmer, and dastardly villains. Before all of that got going they very kindly ran a number of their planes just for me to record, which resulted in some excellent recordings. Have a listen:

I’ve also managed to record some WWII-era planes, which their considerably throatier 12 cylinder radial engines.

I’ve found it really interesting to make spectrograms of these recordings. This one, for example, is of the Fokker Dr.1 Triplane (the plane most strongly associated with The Red Baron). You can see the distinctive harmonics created by the air whistling through the braces of the wings – as well as the general ambient noise created by the leaves in the trees rustling above my head, and the high frequency whooshing of the air being moved by the propellor.

fokker dr1 spectrogram

Over the next few months I’ll be making more recordings and also dipping into the museum archives to see what kinds of sounds I can find. I’m really looking forward to seeing where it all leads.


MistO-MistO out now!

Category : Music

At the end of 2014 I traveled to Addis Ababa to record a new band, MistO-MistO. A mix of traditional Ethiopian music with electronic, rock, hip hop, and American folk music, the sessions were fantastically sprawling and inspirational.

I returned to Edinburgh and spent a few months editing, mixing, and adding bits of synth and keyboard. The end result is this fantastic album: part afro-pop, part psych-rock, part sci-fi concept album. I’m very proud of it.

The album is now available! So you should go buy it, or at least have a listen. You can get a digital download and/or CD from Bandcamp, and it will be on iTunes/Amazon/etc very soon.


Helmsdale CD available now!

Category : Music

Helmsdale by Yann Seznec

My new short album Helmsdale is now available for sale on CD. You can go get it right now on my Bandcamp page – you can buy the digital files for just £4 or for an extra pound (plus shipping) you get a beautiful CD.

The album was made entirely out of sounds I recorded in the small village of Helmsdale in the Scottish Highlands during a residency at Timespan. You can learn about the project here.

I only have 75 or so of these CDs for sale – but if you manage to get up to Helmsdale you can also get it in the Timespan shop (be sure to say hello to everyone there for me).


All aboard the Floating Cinema

Category : Sound

Today I’m starting a new project which will keep me busy for most of the summer – I’m very pleased to be artist in residence with The Floating Cinema, a wonderful canal boat kitted out with a miniature movie theatre, for their Summer Tour, which is going from London to Bristol (which takes a rather long time by canal boat!).

IMG_0572

For the next six weeks or so I’ll spend a bunch of time with the boat and the wonderful people at UP Projects. I’ll be running workshops and recording sounds, and at the end I’ll use all of the material I’ve collected to make a new piece of work.

I’m starting all of that today at the launch of the tour in Brentford, West London (go bees!). From 2pm-7pm I’ll have a little stall by the boat, and a small pile of microphones and recording machines. I’ll be looking for people to help me record the area, aiding me on my quest to capture the sound of Brentford. I’ll have a list of sounds I want to record – these will range from obvious (cars, the train, crosswalk beeps) to perhaps slightly more conceptual (what is the sound of gentrification? what is the sound of disparity between wealth and poverty?).

Over the course of the whole tour I’ll be uploading sounds to my soundcloud account, posting lots of pictures to my instagram, and of course tracking it all on twitter, so you can follow it all as it happens.

Check the website for full details on my schedule, and to see all the other exciting things that are happening along the way – there are plenty of screenings and workshops for all ages. If you’re in West London today please come by and say hello!


MistO-MistO

Category : Music

Last December I took a trip to Ethiopia to work on a really exciting project – the debut album by Afro-Psych-Electro-Rock band MistO MistO.

We recorded a whole pile of amazing material, and I spent a few months editing, mixing, and adding lots of synth tracks. The album is now finished and I think it’s really fantastic, I’m super proud of it. Release details will be announced soon, but in the mean time the band have been making some teaser videos.

Check out “Ambassel”:

Recording in Ethiopia was not always the most straightforward thing, and one thing we had to contend with was frequent unexplained power outages. During one of these episodes we recorded this acoustic session…it’s so good that we’re thinking we should probably do a whole album of material like this!

More details to come soon. In the mean time, be sure to “like” MistO MistO on Facebook and share the videos far and wide.


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