There's a Thicket for that 

Denver-based musician Morgan Packard's addictive iPhone app brings generative art to the masses

If any company has enough inside knowledge about the world of mobile apps to decisively pinpoint what's hot and what's not, it would be Apple. And at the end of last year, when the company listed the "Hot Trends in 2010" for its mobile apps, the categories were pretty straightforward, things like "Fun for Foodies" and "Mobile Office."

But mixed in there was a category called "Generative Art & Sound," a name that would seem more likely to appear in the syllabus for an advanced course in theoretical linguistics. In brief, generative art refers to creative works that change over time, often in response to user input or the surrounding environment.

One of the 11 generative apps featured is Thicket, an interactive delicacy programmed by Denver-based musician Morgan Packard and his visual-art cohort Joshue Ott. Thicket turns iPhone and iPad touchscreens into a rarefied audio-visual playground.

The app is many things: composer and instrument, toy and tool, video art and record album. It presents itself, initially, as a black screen covered with a nanotech vision of pickup sticks.

These myriad razor-thin white lines glisten and bounce around to an elegant score halfway between the gauzy blankness of ambient and the automaton funk of techno. Had Jackson Pollock been a developer on the Atari arcade classic Tempest, it might have looked like this.

Touching the screen and rotating the device transforms sound and image. It's as addictive and beautiful as it is simple.

Packard is an accomplished electronic musician with several albums to his credit. He studied anthropology in college and spent some years in the jazz department at the New England Conservatory in Boston, then lived in Brooklyn for a decade. We spoke with him about programming at the intersection of art and interactivity.

Indy: So when you created Thicket, was there a piece of music that pre-existed the project itself?

Morgan Packard: The visuals existed before, in a way. When discussing where to start with Thicket, Josh and I both agreed we'd like to start with a piece from a DVD we did a few years ago called Unsimulatable. There was one in particular that we affectionately called "the ball of string." I took some of the sound from the ball of string, but mostly created the sound in response to the specific challenge of creating an interactive piece of music with no visible controls. So everything in the audio reacts just to finger speed and number of touches.

I definitely didn't repurpose an existing, static composition for Thicket. The idea of retro-fitting a studio production for interactivity gives me shivers. For something like Thicket, I'd only want to work with sound generation processes which were fluid, flexible. If I was going to use an existing song, I'd just be chopping it up into samples and triggering the samples. I'm interested in making something richer and more dynamic than that.

Indy: How does composing for interactivity differ from regular music composition?

MP: I've been into the idea of functional music for quite a long time. The idea of music not being just for music's sake, but to facilitate something larger than itself. That's what drove me away from an early interest in jazz, and toward club music, years ago. So, I really like the idea of creating music with the thought of "what does this music accomplish, how will it be used?" I like the idea of form following function.

For example, in creating a piece in the studio, I might compose a nice long melody, or a specific bass line, or come up with an intricate beat that I really like. The balance of those structures is often so delicate that if you change them just a little bit, they don't work any more. So for an interactive experience, I need to guide the user toward simpler structures, sounds and techniques that aren't so delicately balanced.

Indy: Have you found a like-minded arts community in Colorado?

MP: I do really like Boulder's Communikey Festival. It's an electronic music and art festival with a great combination of small-town enthusiasm and world-class talent.

Indy: Remixing is a big part of music distribution now — it's a promotional tool, a social tool, a functional tool. I wonder if part of what's cool about Thicket is how it makes remixing part and parcel of the cultural object itself.

MP: Actually, I'd say that Thicket is decidedly anti-remix in philosophy! I've distanced myself artistically from the idea of sample and remix culture. I don't deny the importance of it historically, and I love a nice breakbeat as much as the next guy. But I think the focus on sampling, remixing, whatever — basically musical collage — has gotten us to a place where the sparkle and life is missing from a lot of music.

I try to combat that with my own electronic music. I work basically only with synthesized sounds or recordings I've created myself. I try to avoid looping my own sounds, and to design software that, while pattern-oriented, makes introducing variations in the patterns extremely easy.

So, with Thicket, we want it to feel like there are no pre-built "chunks" that you're moving around, as you do with remixing, or collage. Instead, we want you to feel like you're interacting with a living organism, like every aspect of it is malleable, and never existed before you created it.



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