The First Absolut Choir
A groundbreaking tech-art project together with multidiscipline-talented
Interview with Jesper Kouthoofd head of Teenage Engineering.
It is wonderful when you meet with creative minds whom you admire and share mutual enthusiasms. You go deeper in your approach as you absorb new inputs. That is what also occurred when Scandinavia’s foremost technology-based multidiscipline creative studio Teenage Engineering (TE) made a collaboration with Absolut in the groundbreaking tech-art project Absolut Choir. Revered by its audiences, this artistic genius integrated a text-to-song-midi-based-self-learning synthesis system into a choir of static wooden dolls whose aspect has hints from an array of children’s literature, arcade games, the Memphis Group and the Marisol Escobar’s irregular pop-art sculptures. This gorgeous 22-piece multi-channel robotic choir was conducted by the 3x2 meters “mother CPU,” an A.I software in the same fashion of the WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) in War Games – programed to continuously run choir patterns and learn overtime. All the members in the choir were in harmony, so each doll could perform with a different set up independently, stretching contrast between low and high keys. TE built and assembled all the parts by hand at their garage- headquarters, in the southern most island of Stockholm, Södermalm. There, we had a meaty encounter with Jesper Kouthoofd, the dazzling founder and Head of TE. Entering their world you come across anything from synth guts and electric bikes to super sport cars Lamborghini Countach or Ferrari Testarossa. From this is clear to see their love of aesthetically pleasaning machinery. This does not just to depict the intersection between art and cutting edge technology in once-in-a-lifetime experience but also to inquire into their wits and our mutual enthusiasm about A.I and computer machines.
What did the brief look like when you talked to Absolut about making a collaboration together to explore the potential between art and technology?
I think the headline was “AI creativity.” It was a pitch; we sent a video with a few voices singing together with still images. They liked it and we proceeded to the next phase. It started as a competition between ten creative studios that Absolut invited from all over the world. Eventually TE was the only Swedish participant. We have a strong sound profile and a big collection of synthesizers – so we wanted to do something with that, some sort of artificial singing and it had to have some physical character to it.
How do you put things together in terms of both hardware technology and design?
We built in our studio everything from the characters to electronics, software, even a lot of the paint jobs. This is what our space is about. When you do something that you’ve never done before you don’t want to think, just work with your hands. It is more like sculpture and you let the hand do the thing a little bit. We started to build a lot of boxes, we made most of the heads separately and then we started to combine them. That is why they are a little bit un-proportional, but we think it was charming in its own way. We really enjoyed the assembling part.
So, as I understand it, all the aspects of the brief were not clear from the beginning.
No, it was rather a blank page. Especially when projects are open like this, I would say we are really good at limiting ourselves to certain rules, defining our framework in a really tight brief. Firstly, we showed just a wood box with two wholes for the eyes and speaker for the mouth and it was like okay (laughs) but you have to start somewhere!
It seems like it was a very organic process as you learned from yourselves.
Swedes traditionally are very skillful with woodwork but please tell me the benefits of making the choir in such a way?
Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren has a character called Emil, who was a troubled kid and every time he did something really bad he ended up in the woodwork shed. So he started to build small wooden dolls. I think for Swedes it is some kind of therapy (laughs). You get a warmer sound when you have wooden cabinets. When you build stuff by hand, you do tiny tweaks to the design during the process that otherwise you couldn’t imagine. Wood is good to paint on it, to drill in, you can saw it, and it is flexible material.
Please tell me about the creation of the characters that made up the choir.
It is a bit the same when we wrote the software, we relied on really old choir rules from the 12th century. By picking up known characters from the past from different backgrounds we created something that people could identify. The seed doesn’t need to be super original or super deep. You can add that later. We have students coming here and they try to come up with complicated ideas and we think it is better to use simple ideas and work really hard to make them into something new. We thought of a doll culture and had this really cheesy idea like “We Are The World,” (laughs). We had Pinocchio, the Babushka doll, the Easter Island heads in vector graphics, we gave them some hats like Mustafa, African, Devo or the wooden soldier like the H.C. Andersen character, all gathering together.
I wouldn’t mind having any of these dolls in my living room.
There was actually a rich Chinese guy who wanted to buy them or make copies. There was a point in the process we thought of having moving parts but we ditched that because it destroyed the complete feeling of it. It is much stronger when it happens in your head and they are still objects.
I believe the live choir was quite an experience.
There was a premiere for this installation presented at PUB department store in Stockholm. The choir went to Paris and also was presented in the World Expo in Shanghai. We created a controller for the choir whereby people could combine words for them to sing. The Chinese government sent us the sentences because of the sensibility, so we got a manuscript from the government with things they could sing. A million Chinese people did the experience.
Whilst the choir was in tight sync, was melody and tempo variable?
There was an algorithm in the code. Anyone in the planet could surf into this, write a text and transform it into a song, which each character could do in different scales. There were 22 parallel voices. Because they had different sizes on the speaker elements you could assign a certain harmony, for instance a low octave probably slower or maybe another smaller guy was in a really high pitch. We created a set of personalities and the mother CPU could decide who was doing what.
What did you find the hardest thing within the whole project?
One of the biggest difficulties of the project was the installation needed to be switched-on 24/7 for three months. This equipment is high current and we had to connect them to electrici- ty because of the limitations of the batteries and it was inside a department store. So imagine if some fire accident could happened, we probably would be responsible for it. I think it took about six moths to build it so about the last 3 months we had them connected all the time 24-hours testing. We couldn’t work so they needed to sign also (laughs).
Do you think this project with Absolut gave TE a new perspective?
I would say very much. During the process we explored that connection between art and machines. The Absolut Choir was an eye-opener to all of us, like a blueprint of how we should work in the future. When we made the OP-1 it was built in that direction. It was a really good timing for us too, a point in our lives when we wanted to start something fresh. You grow up and it is risky. You think you can lose creativity creating bigger teams of sales in a business model. We think we hopefully will not loss that first identity we had when collaborating with Absolut. We wanted to do creative experiences rather than technical solutions. Be off the grid. There is actually an internal story behind this project: Absolut needed a name, because we were all freelance at the time, so we came up with Teenage Engineering. So if we had not done the project with Absolut we probably would never have started Teenage Engineering. So, this was a starting point.
How do you remember your first experiences with the so-called microcomputers?
My first computer was a Sinclair ZX81. Hold on, I have it here (In grand gesture, Jesper moves swiftly to his desk and comes back with the smile of a kid) I had the expansion pack for 60K (laughs) and then a recorder on the side. It was a bit like what happened with PC and Mac. I would say when I was young, 15% had the Spectrum Sinclair. Then the rich guys, they had the Commodore. I remember I was nine or ten by then and I had a friend in school and we talked so much about computers and he had the Commodore VIC-20. He came home to me and when he saw it was not graphics but black and white pixels on my Sinclair, he laughed so hard at me.
How would you describe an AI system?
I think to create Artificial Intelligence for real takes a lifetime of research and work. I really like Wolfram Alpha. Did you know about it? They have developed a calculator but with words, so you can write stuff like “Does God exist?” and then it starts to calculate on that. I think AI will be used more and more for creating music. I find AI a very helpful tool in this context. I am sure it will make life easier (laughs).
So what is your position in the discussion over whether technology diminishes creativity?
I think it's rather the opposite. It not necessarily has to take your role as a thinking person but you can use it more like a tool. Imagine that you have a smart computer that gives you suggestions in your everyday life and helps you be smarter. You would say for some people that could reduce creativity. But there will be a completely new generation that uses it and takes control of it. We do use the machines as a part of the creative process.
So, TE does work in this direction?
Most of the stuff that we do now is exactly in that direction, especially as a tool for creativity and very much so when it comes to instruments and sound. Generally, displays are used as a source of information but we show that this is a source of inspiration, it is collaboration between you and the machine. With the OP-1 we found the work with the graphics to be very inspirational.
What is your vision about the moral borders between machines and humans?
The fantasy about new technology is often wrong. In real life it always ends up in a more boring way. That is why I don’t like Siri on the iPhone. It pretends to be this idea from the 1950s about a smart AI but in the end it doesn’t work that good. It is a gimmick. Society enjoys them for a very short time and then moves into some down-to-earth stuff.
I presume you are not going to see “Her,” the new Spike Jonze feature film with Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with Siri?
I have seen the trailer. It would be great if AI could get into our lives like that but it probably wouldn’t happen. I read an article about this guy who does word calculations. In 2030 we will be able to predict the future, how we use the past to calculate the future. And I don’t think this is a bad thing. I think it always comes down to mathematics in the end.