Coachella: Björk's wild sound machines, and report from the turf

(Photos, top image and first two in post, by eecue of, cc-licensed).

I'm at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival in Indio, California this weekend.

More around the web: Flickr "coachella" tagged photos, technorati, LA Times coverage, band lineup, Wikipedia entry.

I haven't been out here in a couple years. The event seems much larger now. The desert town where this takes place only has a population of about 70,000, but they're expecting another 60 – 70,000 200,000 to show up for the event this weekend. Profit estimates I'm hearing for the event's organizers are around $50 million.

I'm crashing on an airconditioned couch in my friend Wayne Correia's world-famous, geek-pimped, beWiFi'd bus on the event grounds. He has a better satellite 'net connection on this thing than my broadband in urban LA.

I'm listening to a low-power FM pirate radio station here at the event site: "Renegade Radio," at 103.3 FM if you're nearby. Paynie put the tracks together.

It's 108° F. outside, according to the gauge on Wayne's bus. When I drove in yesterday afternoon, there were mobile sprinklers all over the place to keep dust down. RVs, tour buses, and tent encampments stretch out as far as I can see in either direction right now.

More than 120 bands are on the lineup this year, and lots of robots, flamey stuff, and software-driven art installations, some of which might look familiar from Burning Man.

Coolest thing that isn't a band so far is the fully functional, but stationary, steam engine. Coal and everything. I'll try to upload video later (or post links to someone else's), but here's a still photo from eecue below.

(At left, Coachella Tesla Coil photo from Flickr user omarr, cc-licensed).

We wandered around from stage to stage Friday night. Interpol, Peaches, Charles Feelgood, Marques Wyatt, Jarvis Cocker, Amy Winehouse, and Sonic Youth all played, among others.

The biggest draw last night seemed to be Björk, performing material from her new album, Volta. The set was great, but what made really my jaw drop (and those of the two nerd pals I was with) was the Mac-based hardware and software system used in her set for live sound manipulation.

Flat video displays flanked the stage, and the camera lingered on closeups of that equipment inbetween shots of Björk, her horn and chorus ensemble, and the live drummer.
My friends and I squinted when close-up shots of the gear came up, then googled the brand names we saw on our phones, to figure out what the components were. Here's what we found.

First: JazzMutant's multitouch control surface for live performance called Lemur, built in Bordeaux, France. Snip from manufacturer's description:

At first glance, the Lemur looks like a high-fashion etch-a-sketch. As a performance interface, the Lemur is immediately appealing. You touch colorful rounded interface objects on the 12" LCD display to control your computer in any way you can imagine. The Lemur's elegant simplicity is made possible by its sophisticated graphics processor and proprietary touchscreen interface that tracks multiple fingers simultaneously.

Using the JazzEditor application running on your choice of Mac or Windows, you drag and drop switches, faders, and other objects into an exact simulation of the Lemur's screen. Make any number of interfaces, store them in an XML-based project file, then upload them to the Lemur and it's ready to go. You can reuse them with the Import/Export feature.

The other electronic music instrument that made us drool in in Björk's show was the reactable (think: react + table), which boasts a "tangible user interface." Image below.

I'm seeing reports online that she/they used it for the first time in their show earlier this week, during the SNL performance (Video Link).

The reactable was developed over the last few years by a team led by Sergi Jordà, Martin Kaltenbrunner, Günter Geiger, and Marcos Alonso in Pompeu Fabra University's Music Technology Group, in Barcelona, Spain. Snip from description:

reactable is a multi-user electronic music instrument with a tabletop tangible user interface. Several simultaneous performers share complete control over the instrument by moving physical objects on a luminous table surface. By moving and relating these objects, representing components of a classic modular synthesizer, users can create complex and dynamic sonic topologies, with generators, filters and modulators, in a kind of tangible modular synthesizer or graspable flow-controlled programming language.

(Photo of baby on reactable: diemo schwarz).

Videos of the reactable in action: 1, 2, 3 (or on google video: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Electronic music godfather Robert Moog playing an early prototype of the reactable at the NIME conference 2004 in Hamamatsu, Japan. Here's a Video Link.

More about the Björk show from bandmate Jónas Sen's Volta tour blog: Link. Excerpt:

I must confess I felt I was about to faint when we walked on stage. Such an enormous audience! Almost the entire population of Reykjavik.

(…) We have "ear monitors" with a metronomic click sounding in our ears to keep the band's playing together, plus everything else we need to hear. In some songs I want to hear as little from the drums as possible (even though Chris' playing is damn good!). In other songs I want to hear the drums clearly but less of the brass. This is so unreal… yet amazing that it is possible.

(Björk photo from Friday night's Coachella set by Flickr user mediaeater, cc-licensed, more here.)

Big ups to all the BoingBoing readers out here! It's been great meeting so many fellow happy mutants here at Coachella. Thanks for saying hello. <throws internet freak sign>.

(Thanks, Wayne Correia!)

  • Update: eecue has more photos up: 1, 2.
  • Update 2: Best botched press coverage so far surrounds a police raid at a Mexican Mafia meth lab yesterday in the Coachella Valley. Again, the Coachella Valley, but not *at* the Coachella Festival site itself. During the raid, officers found 50 guns, live pipe bombs, tonza tina, tens of thousands of dollars in cash, and evidence linking the activity to "La Eme." But an Austrian publication misreports that the bust took place on-site at the festival, while Björk and Sonic Youth played: Link. There have been minor drug arrests at the festival, 25 of them according to Indio police as of mid-day Saturday, but far more low-profile than the big bust referenced above.
  • Reader comment: Kasey says,

    Saw that you have a photo of the coils that Syd Klinge built and took out to Coachella. It'd be awesome if you could throw his name in there. I don't have more details on the coils, but I believe they're the largest dueling coils ever run. Here's his site: Link.

    Update: Here's more video of the Reactable device used in the Bjork show: Link (thanks, Nicholas Mir Chaikin!)