Jace Clayton (DJ /rupture) just released his Sufi Plug Ins v1.0, and it’s one of the few digital tools I’ve seen that I would also consider art. It’s a tool that is not only designed to help musicians make new sounds, but also to self-consciously influence what is produced. Interface design decisions are guided both by functionality concerns and the creative expression of its maker.
The Sufi Plug Ins suite is comprised of seven free audio tools designed to work with the music software Ableton Live. According to Clayton’s blog it offers “four distinct synthesizers hardwired to North African & Arabic maqam scales with quartertone tuning built-in, a device called Devotion which lowers your computer’s volume 5 times a day during call to prayer (presets include Agnostic, Fervent, Devout), and a drone machine. The interface is written in the Berber language of Tamazight, using their neo-Tifinagh script. Rollover info texts provide fragments of Sufi poetry (plus a little Jean Toomer).”
In other words, it’ll create a lot of sounds you’ve probably never heard before, and use different presets from what you’re used to. Whatever is made from these tools won’t be what we expect. It’s the only tool I know of that does anything like this—other than perhaps Kid Pix—and it’s pretty great. I can’t wait to see what experimental musician Phill Niblock does with this thing.
Clayton has a good explain-y post on his blog about how the Sufi Plug-ins grew of out of his experiences in Barcelona, but an essay he wrote on NYFA Current seven years ago contains a lot of the conceptual meat that sparked the project. In it, Clayton ruminates on whether sampling can be a truly collaborative process.
Sampling maintains cultural distance; collaborations require closeness. The difference is huge. It’s the difference between one-way cultural flow and the kind of dialogue that could lead to real community.
Proper collaborations offer much more than sampling, but even they aren’t untroubled. World music festivals love “fusion” groups whose members draw on diverse backgrounds to produce an anodyne sound seemingly intended to reassure the predominantly Western, middle-class festival audience: world music as foreign music with its distinctive features rubbed off, now suitable for mass consumption anywhere on the globe; difference with a jazzy backbeat you can groove to; the exotic but never the extreme.
He goes on to discuss the synthetic approach of Pop music, ruminates a little on iconoclasm, and eventually concludes that he feels limited by electronic music. “I was unsatisfied,” he writes, “with the narrative poles of electronic music—loop-based dance pieces or abstract/ambient pieces without storytelling force.” In other words, where was the back and forth that happens in actual conversation? Why is community so frequently defined by those we already know?
The best part of this is that there’s not even a whiff of lipservice within to Clayton’s pursuit of more meaningful collaborations. Take a look at the Sufi website and you’ll see the development team is prioritizing building compatibility with Cubase & Fruity Loops—software most widely used in Africa, the Middle East and South America—over Western favorites like ProTools. That’s great news, because it demonstrates a commitment to cultural exchange that flows both ways.