Jean-Baptiste Thiebaut of Music Hackspace

A charming Frenchman in buzzing Hackney, Jean-Baptiste Thiebaut has been here for over a decade and now calls it home: first achieving his doctorate at Queen Mary and slowly but surely, the dream of Music Hackspace at Containerville - where he won a year's lease in the film competition last year. 

His PhD studied how musical ideas are realised in the first moments of the creative process by people and by computers, and if the latter could do with some of our spontaneity at that pivotal starting point. So Music Hackspace is a natural step; it marries the human mind, technology and sound by gathering hobbyists and professionals across disciplines such as audio production and software development, facilitating skill exchange and artistic combustion that results in regular explosions of innovation, genius and pure madness. It’s a total party, and Jean-Baptise is the host.

Are you musical?

I could barely play the guitar, but when I was nineteen I went to a few concerts and got really passionate about ska music. The musical ideas I had perfectly matched the range of expression of the bass guitar, so me and three brass instrumentalists played in a band together for six or seven years I think. It was really good, we had a blast!

Who are your favourite artists?

Desmond Dekker, a great Jamaican artist. And I worked at a French music research group called GRM - it helped establish an electroacoustic music conglomerate called musique concrete that recorded especially for hearing through speakers rather than live, and there was one composer from the collective who really stuck with me called Bernard Parmegiani.

Tell me about your paper…

My PhD looked at using analogue tools like pen and paper during the creative process, in comparison to the way computers interact with music. Is there a need for machines to move closer to the way that musicians work and represent music to themselves offline? I researched at a lot of 20th century composers like John Cage, because they were the ones who archived their work, and some of their scores were just drawings showing the evolution of pitch. I did a survey and 50% of the composers started to engage with music by doodling; either doing a sketch or writing down notes. What happens there is that the idea is still very vague, and that's actually the best moment to be creative, because it could become anything. As soon as you start specifying what the music is on your computer, you're very fixed in that form and much less free to disengage from the initial concept. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, so I feel that’s the thing I can claim credit for, as opposed to the Music Hackspace which is the work of so many of our members.

Jean-baptiste at HIS DAY JOB, HEAD OF BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT FOR roli

Jean-baptiste at HIS DAY JOB, HEAD OF BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT FOR roli

What happened next?

Now I work at start up company called ROLI that has made a new musical instrument called the Seaboard, an evolution of the piano. Your hands land in the same position but when you press down on the keys, which we’ve replaced with silicon, the sound starts immediately and as you press harder it gets louder, so you're controlling it with pressure - and also with friction where you can create a vibrato effect by wobbling your finger like you would do on a violin. What we're doing at the moment is revolutionary; the company is one of the most interesting in the world at the moment in terms of pushing forward a new musical instrument with such ambition. I'm a part of it so I'm biased, but I genuinely think it is inspiring.

How did you come to establish Music Hackspace? And how has it grown?

This is my passion! After my studies I went to work in the music industry, building and manufacturing synthesisers for an audio engineering firm called Novation. I was very lucky they had some spare parts and I was a member of this amazing self-organised environment called London Hackspace, and thought perhaps somebody would be interested in recycling them and repurposing them. That really kicked things off; the first day there was 15 people, and a few months later there were 60 people – that was actually disruptive to everybody else as we were kind of taking over the space. So as a group we decided to grow into our own entity, we had this momentum and we wanted to keep it up, and we now have around 800 people signed up.

Why did Music Hackspace capture the imagination of all these people?

Some people take pride in doing one thing very well all throughout their life and refining the process - I love experiencing new things and try to stay as far away from repetition as possible. At Music Hackspace nothing repeats, there's always different speakers coming here, diverse projects happening, every day is new. I'm very curious and love growing, so I could be equally happy discovering a fjord in Norway or meeting someone for the first time and going on to build an amazing relationship, which is what happens in a community like this. For me, it was very much aligned with things I wanted to do - engage with creatives, musicians, hackers and engineers - friends of the future. Before things become products, they are entertained between groups of passionate people and users. 

What was it that put Music Hackspace on the map? And what activities go on now? 

There are hackathons, installations, concerts and residencies - which is what really got us started. We had this interesting guy in whose initiative was to meet with members of our collective and build different installations together: you could interact with them individually but they made sense together as well because it had a central brain where all the input was coordinated. The exhibition was called Cave of Sounds and placed at the V&A museum and the Barbican, and shown in Italy and other countries. 

However the most regular activity is the seminar on Thursdays and workshops every weekend; we just had one about circuit bending which is about rehashing the electronic boards of things like kid's toys, adding a cable here or there, to make a sound they didn’t originally make - creating music out of experimenting. You have so many consumables lying around growing up and they just die somewhere, so it's a fun way to revive them and reinvent childhood.

There’s a youthful excitement when you talk about what goes down here, can you tell me about some of the magic that happens?

We’ve had a couple Kickstarter projects that were successfully funded, like The OWL which saw four of our members re-programme the guitar pedal, keeping the original sound feature while adding different functionalities that can be downloaded using software. Because of the ecosystem where you need to be a coder to make these sound patches and the infinite possibilities they present for guitarists, it became a marketplace and they raised £33000 after only asked for £8000. 

One of our more fun workshops is Hackoustic; they meet once a month and build new acoustic instruments. It’s very different because they're not about tweaking electronics; they're all about banging nails in and working with strings to create these funny shaped instruments. People get to be part of the hands on creative process, have control over the hardware and come out the proud owners of their own music making machine. These are the things that make me think ‘Yeah, this is really, really worth it!

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What does the future hold?

Recently we'd been invited to exhibit the work of our members to a TEDx at the 02 arena which was incredible; there were loads of kids super excited to see what we're working on, no fear! The fun and amusement that came out of that room felt like a real achievement, it was full all day long and these people were really engaged, like they would have been ten years ago if it was about video games, it was like that. They'd spend some time, tell their friends and then come back with their friends - that level of engagement was surprising because we're pretty niche, most of the time our projects are just artists working on something for themselves. It was a real highlight and we really hope to include families more in the future. 

We definitely want to be an incubator for all these great projects and continue on here at Containerville, because we have very creative neighbours to collaborate with and it has become a landmark for locals, so how we're going to sustain ourselves aside from donations is something we're still figuring out: I think finding and developing an economy in a social enterprise environment is very difficult, how do we transform into a business with a conscience?