Amon Tobin premieres ISAM at MUTEK

Greetings! I’m Aylwin Lo, CFC Media Lab’s newest staff addition. As a Tech Coordinator, I provide technical and design support to many of the Media Lab’s exciting activities. Last week I took a trip out of the lab to attend the 12th edition of MUTEK, Montreal’s prestigious and groundbreaking festival for electronic music and digital art.

As in previous years, this year’s MUTEK promised an array of acts ranging from seasoned acts premiering their latest audio-visual work to up-and-comers making a break for it. One of our own current residents, Laurel McDonald, has performed at MUTEK and was recently featured on their website for her performance project combining vocals and visuals, Videovoce.

It was my privilege to be able to interview four of the acts performing at this year’s festival. We’ll be posting roughly an interview a week until they’re all up. Be sure to visit Stabletalk once a week if you aren’t already subscribed to our RSS feed or email updates.

Among the highlights at this year’s MUTEK was the world premiere of Amon Tobin’s ISAM audio-visual installation. Billed as a larger-than-life, “next-level HD” experience, the installation features a 25′ × 14′ × 8′ projection-mapped installation surrounding Tobin as he performs ISAM live.

One of the higher-profile artists carried on the well-respected Ninja Tune label, Tobin’s work has also been featured in video games (Infamous, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory) as well as film (Italian Job, 21). We sat down with Tobin a few hours before a media-only preview of ISAM’s premiere.

So, how’s the installation going for tonight? Is it complete now?

You know, thankfully it all arrived in one piece – well, not one piece. But you know, without being broken or anything. We sighed a collective sigh of relief when it got through customs as well. None of us are used to doing anything of this scale. It’s usually just me and a pair of decks or something and suddenly we’ve got crates of stuff so it was just great: “Okay, everything made it!” and everything’s working and putting it together – it’s good. It’s a nice start.

Where were you bringing it from?

From LA.

So that’s where the space that you have been developing this is.

Well, I say me, but the credit should really be going to the guys at V Squared who have been building it, literally there for hours every day, putting that shit together.

Presumably, the plan is to go on a tour with all of this?

Right, yeah, we’re gonna fly with it for the first time this week, we’re gonna take it to Berlin, which will be another “Ooh shit, how’s it gonna fly,” y’know? Hopefully they won’t lose any pieces of it.

Can you tell me a little about the team and the building process of the installation?

Of course, yeah! There’s a few different people involved: Alex Lazarus, who kind of set up – he’s overseeing the actual physical build of the thing. And Heather [Shaw], who designed the set, and then you’ve got people who are doing the actual visual content, and there’s a whole range there, being overseen by Vello [Virkhaus], who’s the creative director of the project. And he came to my studio and we spent some days going through different ideas and kind of started from the idea of using projection mapping to somehow integrate me into a visual.

I wanted to not be the visual focus of the show. I wanted it to emanate from what I’m doing, but I don’t find my presence on stage particularly visually engaging as an electronic musician. So I wanted to be part of a bigger thing and projection mapping just seemed really interesting. I could see the idea of working with dimensions, illusions, perspective, and so we storyboarded a bunch of ideas and came up with the kind of a loose narrative – and it is a loose narrative – of going into space and having those kinds of experiences and then he took that idea, that rough storyboard, and mapped it out with visual concepts, and got different groups of people to do rough renders of those concepts for each track, and then we would go back and forth and slowly developed it over 5 months.

So, that was all developed at V Squared?

That’s the collective that has been doing all this: Alex, Vello, and all these people are all affiliated.

I’ll have to find out more about them.

Well, I didn’t know much about them when we started.

I’m interested in some of your videogame and soundtrack work. As a part of the Canadian Film Centre we’re interested in narrative and also about things like transmedia, which is a buzzword, but…

I’ll have to use that one.

… well, if you’re working with Ubisoft more you may hear them talking about it! But the work that you’ve done with movies and videogames – both are storytelling, but one is more linear, one is less predictable. How do you factor storytelling and narrative into music? You were talking about a loose narrative for ISAM.

I haven’t had a huge range of experience, to be honest. I’ve only done a few small projects, a few larger ones, but really my experience has been trying to musically articulate a scene – what’s happening at a particular moment. I would probably approach it that way. Looking at the sound aesthetic of the whole project but then taking each scene as its own thing so hopefully you can link it all together through style, but often the actual cut of how things get put together will get changed even after I’ve done my part. So it’s probably not my role to tell an entire story, it’s more to feel it out with the director of the project to say, “We really need this to be emphasized here, and how can we do that with music?” It would be more like that.

And what about the stories in your own work?

I don’t really think in terms of stories or visuals, either, to be honest. When I make my own music – it’s very much that sort of vague, emotional thing really. Even though it’s electronic music I think there’s still something that’s – that’s just what it is. It’s an emotional thing. Technically, I have ideas which I’d like to try and realize and I’ll try and achieve those by trial and error. But when it comes down to the music part it’s about you’re partially there, you’re just feeling your way through it.

One of the things I was also curious about was that in the last couple of albums you’ve moved away from samples and towards having your own foley sounds and then manipulating those. Is there a point where – how do you decide when you’ve manipulated something enough or you want to leave it as it was?

I see it all as sampling in some way just because it’s all about – well, sampling to me from the beginning wasn’t really about, “I can’t get a guitar, so how can I get a guitar in my song? I’ll sample one.” It was more about trying to change the context of something. That’s what I was interested in. If I took Latin drums and put them in an electronic track, I wasn’t really interested in Latin drums. I was interested in what would happen if I took that out of its natural habitat and put it in this new musical environment and the contrast and how this creates this weird dynamic of things are pulling apart, or trying to hold together. I just find that fascinating, so to me that’s what sampling is about personally. About manipulating things.

So it’s the same thing that I’m doing. The source material is different, it’s maybe not from old dusty vinyl so much anymore or at all on this record. But it’s still about changing the roles of sounds and manipulating them into something that I’ve imagined, I guess, or as close as you can.

Back to ISAM – how much room is there in the installation for improv? How do you get that in there when you have a very complicated setup?

It’s not really – well, that’s not true, there’s some – I guess I’m going to wait to see how brave I get with that because it’s – we’ve tightly choreographed so much of what’s going on but it’s a performance and it’s not like a party, really. It’s not entertainment which maybe sounds a bit weird. It’s more of a personal presentation of what I’m doing and I hope people are entertained by it. But it’s not like I’m like, “How can I make this as fun as possible for everyone” and interacting with the audience. It’s more about, “This is really what I care about. This what I’ve been doing, I really want to share it with you. Hope you guys are really into this.” It’s more like that. So improvisation for me is about feeling what the crowd – doing where they’re going and adapting to that, riding that wave, which is interesting to do as well, but I’m much more dictatorial when I (laughs) – It’s more like this is what I really believe in.

I think that’s valid too.

I think it’s different, that’s all.

Aylwin Lo is a Technical Coordinator at CFC Media Lab, providing technical and design support to many of the Media Lab’s activities. He is a graduate of Seneca College and the University of Waterloo.

More Photos

For more amazing photos of this performance see our flickr photostream!  Check it frequently for new photos!

  • isabelle rousset

    One thing few people are aware of – the visuals for the Amon Tobin show run in an application made with Toronto’s own TouchDesigner from Derivative – projection mapping, playback, effects, triggers, etc.