European programmes | FERAL LABS

Making Magtronics in Swelovenia: Interview with MAG & Mika

Not to be outdone by the ongoing pandemic, which had already twice canceled their original 2020 artist co-residency in Slovenia, experimental musician MAG and e-textile designer Mika came together this winter to create their own intimate Feral Labs residency in the Swedish countryside.

The two artists had been working together for several years—first in Gothenburg, Sweden, where MAG is still based and before Mika moved to Berlin, then on various opportune occasions, from international artist-in-residency programs to PIFcamp hosted by Projekt Atol in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

MAG (Magdalena Ågren) is known for her spectacularly cumulative and multilayered musical performances, featuring live loops of voice and homemade electronics, as well as her signature megaphone and acoustic trombone, all converging into a megasonic “dystopian lo-fi orchestra”. Mika (Mika Satomi) is a meticulous costume designer specialized in electronic textiles and physical computing for interactive wearables, co-founder of the e-textile art collective Kobakant.

Magtronics beginnings at PIFcamp 2019. © Katja Goljat

At PIFcamp 2019, the MAG & Mika duo began to collaborate on actively developing Magtronics: a musical instrument controlled by an interactive costume to enhance improvisation and free expression during MAG’s live performance.

In December 2020, following the cancellations of their planned Slovenian residency, MAG & Mika decided to take the residency venue into their own hands and work together “feral lab”-style in a remote countryside house about an hour’s drive north outside of Gothenburg, Sweden. Through their daily blog, we followed their adventures in rural Övre Jubliana, experimenting indoors with an Organelle, a Bela, PureData, kinesiology tape… and of course, the magic gloves.

In this online interview for Makery, MAG & Mika reflect on the various aspects of their feral DIY residency.

Taking a walk around the lake in Övre Jubliana, Swelovenia. © Mika

Makery: How did you find this rustic house in the Swedish countryside for your shared residency?

MAG: The house itself is a house that I have been renting together with some of my friends for many years now. It’s a house community with four people that has been around way before I got into it. Everyone has their own room and shares the kitchen and living room, so we can be there at the same time. It is super cheap, except for electricity in the winter, but you can use as much wood as you want to heat it up.

Mika: We made up the name Övre Jubliana to feel a bit of Ljubljana there. It is a small modification to the real name of the village in Sweden. There are only five houses in this village, and the nearest neighbor is far enough that we could play trombone and loud music at any time we like. I met more horses and deer than humans while I was there! The house has no shower and only outside biological toilette… a bit like camping, which, rather than inconvenience, added a nice flare to the residency.

How did the relative isolation, reduced sunlight and rural environment influence your residency?

MAG: I’m used to the darkness of Sweden, and usually people feel a bit more isolated anyway this time of the year. So this was not super strange to me, even if this year got a bit more extreme during the three weeks in the countryside. Nature, darkness and rain become more real when you have to deal with it every time you need to go to the outdoor toilet. The darkness always affects me in some way. I get into a more melancholic, slower and more reflecting mood, with less interest in socializing than in summer.

Mika: The lack of sunlight made me lose the feeling of time. It made a strange routine of “wake up > eat > work > eat > work > sleep” and I did not know what time it was anymore. The borders of the days were getting blurred. I was not sure when the day ended and what I did on which day, so the daily documentation was helpful to keep track of what I did each day, and acknowledge what had been done. Whenever the sunshine came out, we tried to go out for a bit. We needed to get out of the routine and refresh our minds with fresh air sometimes. I was also very much drawn to the shapes and patterns I found in the woods: lichen, moss, mushrooms…

3:30 pm on December 25, 2020 in Swelovenia. © Mika
© Mika
© Mika

What does this project represent in the continuum of your ongoing collaboration?

Mika: The idea of our collaboration is to explore the expressive possibility of digital music instruments using e-textile sensor costumes. Over time we have tried different ways to integrate sensor data with digital music instruments. My challenge is to think of how the esthetic of costume and music concepts could work together, and how you would “play” them. It takes time to implement these systems, and until now, it was always small and quick try-outs of ideas. This time, we had at least two solid weeks together to concentrate on our project. The set-up we developed during this residency will be a base for us to build a more elaborate music interface that can be really performed as an instrument. So for me, this was a very big step in our collaboration.

MAG: I agree with Mika. We have got way further than the other times. And it feels that the costume instrument has now developed into something that is more controllable and can be used in music. There are so many possibilities, but also a lot of difficulties that pop up all the time when it comes to practical use in a live situation. The challenge is not to fall for just trying everything you can do using this technique with the sensors and the Organelle, but to choose one or two things that are the most useful and interesting for my way of doing music. And then develop that technique so that it will be as stable and easy to work with as possible. Then it can be used as an extended expression of the music in a fun and playful way, without worrying that things won’t work or will trigger wrong things.

Mika: This is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. I want to know how Mag wants to play and adjust the interface. Mag wants to know how the interface works and develop how she plays… Sometimes she plays to accommodate the behavior of the sensor, and it creates an interesting way of playing… on the other hand, I could fix the sensor so that she can use it in a more natural position or movement…

MAG, in what ways do you relate the very expressive act of playing your extroverted acoustic trombone with the similarly precise gestures of manipulating the Bela sensors to control the Organelle synth?

MAG: There are many things that are in some way similar but also very different. The trombone is a very visual instrument with a lot of movements going on while you play it. This is the same with the Bela sensors on my body, which are controlled by my body movements. The movement has to become automatic for a specific sound or tune, without thinking about it. It’s almost like the sound has to be implemented as part of your body.

And your body has to learn how to control things in a precise way. If you move a little bit too much, the sound will be different. The Bela board sensor is very sensitive to calibration and training. It’s sometimes better and sometimes worse, and then maybe you have to adjust your movements a little bit differently each time. That is also something that is tricky with the trombone, you also have to adjust a bit differently if it is hot or cold, because the tuning varies according to temperature.

So they are both quite difficult instruments to use if you are interested in getting a perfect sound. Luckily I’m a punk artist and I don’t have a big interest in that kind of perfection, because it’s not the way I express myself. So I can enjoy sounds that are more dirty and out of tune. I can also appreciate the unexpected thing that comes out of an instrument when you don’t have full control over it. I like wild and uncontrollable elements to a certain degree, because it can trigger you to go in unexpected ways.

Mika, how will the costume itself evolve?

Mika: During this residency, to make the best use of my time with MAG, I decided not to work on making the costume, but to focus on testing the placement and functionality. So I made the sensors in my studio first and brought a working system that is ready to play. The sensors are made out of kinesiology tape that you can stick onto skin. This way we could quickly test the placements of the sensors. The mini Bela board, which I am using for reading sensors and applying machine learning, can read up to 8 analog sensors. We started off by using 8 sensors on MAG, and slowly reduced to 2 on the wrists.

Magtronics prototype gloves. © Mika

We also tried out many combinations of controls: which parameters make sense to be controlled by the costume, and which should remain controlled by the original Organelle interface. Now that we have fixed the basic interaction and system, I am ready to start making the actual “costume”, which in this case will be gloves. MAG often has themes in her songs, and we talked a lot about what the costume could represent. She has a boar flute that she uses in one of her songs, and she uses the pig figures sometimes to represent her songs, and one of her last album’s song is called the Monster… We talked about wild boars, the figure of Krampus, something wild and hairy with glowing eyes. Well, this idea has to develop further to actually design a costume, but some ideas are already in my mind.

What kind of local field recordings did you incorporate?

MAG: This time I used sounds from rain, fire, cars, stones, water boiler, glass clinking, chopping wood and chainsaws. I used them in the dj patch record to speed up and down the sound and backward playing with one or two playheads. It’s interesting to modify a sound in this simple way, where the same sound can change completely from something dark, heavy and noisy that you can’t recognize to something uptempo, rhythmic and sometimes funny, or scary and dramatic to something funny.

I like using field recordings and playing with them, because it makes the music more cinematic and triggers my fantasy when it comes to composing and jamming. A sound brings up special feelings, emotions, memories and thoughts. I think field recordings bring other things to my music than sounds from already existing instruments that I already know from before. It also gives more variation to the music. I used the field recordings I recorded in this residency just as they are, without modifying them with the sensors, just in my sampler. For example, I cut the sound of wood chopping to a specific rhythm in a song together with a drum machine.

What were the biggest challenges of your residency, and how did it compare with your initial expectations and ambitions?

Mika: For the costume side, I did not know before starting how difficult it might be to connect the Organelle and Bela board, but this turned out to be quite straightforward. However, I expected the Organelle patches to be simpler, and this turned out to be much more complicated and hard to adapt or combine, as I am not a PureData expert. We managed to select two patches that work well with MAG’s music and modify them in the way we wanted it to behave during the residency, and I am very happy about it. I hope to look into the patches deeper before our next collaboration session, so that the process of adapting becomes much smoother than how we experienced this time.

PureData “spaghetti” by Mika. © Mika

MAG: Although I managed to make at least three different grounds for new songs where I used the new Magtronics instrument in a more improvised way, I was not able to make a totally finished new song with it, which was Mika’s original wish. Maybe we also had a different understanding of the meaning of “new song”. Because the Magtronics instrument wasn’t developed as an instrument that I could use to make a song on its own until almost the end of the residency, I thought it was more important to use the time to try out and develop it as far as possible, instead of me making and recording a new song along with my other instruments. So I stopped working on making a new song after a while.

Usually I make really loud music, so it was also a challenge for me to be working in a room with someone who is working on programming on a computer. I had a bit of difficulty relaxing, being as loud as I usually am when I am practicing and trying out things alone. Even if Mika wants me to be loud, I felt a bit uncomfortable with it, so I chose to work with my headphones or not so loud most of the time, so as to not disturb too much. I also think that not playing so loud makes me do softer, less punky songs, with synthesizer instead of trombone that is just too loud in itself. I don’t think this was a bad thing, just something else that I’m not so used to. I think it is a bit harder for me to be quiet, but it might be good for me to learn to do more quiet shows for the future.

Mika: Oh, but I enjoyed your loud music! Especially when you get into it and experiment with some sets, I go cook and listen to live instruments and chop some vegetables and think about combinations of spices… This was the best part of the residency for me!

What’s next for Magtronics?

MAG: I’m very happy that everything with the programming and technique now is working well, so I can go on using the Magtronics on my own. Practice it till I know it by heart and implement it into my music, so it can be used in a show in an interesting way. Curious to see how it will develop as a visual costume and final show.

Mika: For me, it will be about making a costume with an improved PureData control patch on the Bela board. I hope we can meet again to rehearse together and hopefully showcase it in public. It will be our dream to finally go to Ljubljana and do a concert!

Read the full Magtronics blog here

This residency was supported by Projekt Atol Institute, part of the Feral Labs Network, co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union.

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