The piano features a lot in your music what's the history behind you using this instrument?
It was the first instrument I studied, albeit very briefly and I got so fed up with it as a kid that I completely changed course and played pretty much nothing but drums for a long time. When I started exploring musical ideas outside of the punk and hardcore music I listened to as a teenager the piano was the instrument I gravitated towards.
What is the reason behind the name, Stratus?
Stratus clouds are these patterned, layered type of clouds that form in something almost like swarms. Seemed pretty fitting for the melodic textures that our software makes.
Can you explain what the Stratus Installation is?
Back on Piano Day in 2018, when we premiered it in Harpa Concert Hall in Iceland it was a kind of first look at what I had been working on for re:member. A derivative of an idea that felt bigger to me than just the music on that album.
The installation was to bring together creativity and technology, the composer and the listener. Essentially it's two self-playing pianos hooked up to a server/website that allows people from all over the world to play music together through a democratic voting system that Halldór came up with. The melodic content derives from pieces of re:member, but the performers are the people that visit the installation. This time, on Piano Day 2020, we'll be live streaming the installation from my new studio in Reykjavík for 24 hours, starting at midnight on March 27th (GMT).
*Contribute to Stratus here https://stratuspianos.is/
Can you share the process of creating the Stratus software and working with Halldór Eldjárn? How long did the whole thing take to build?
We did full two years on and off developing for Stratus. Mostly trials and errors, trying to find an intuitive way of making this idea work as a composition tool, not just a gimmick. When you see a piano play by itself for the first time it's really cool but that wears off pretty quickly and gets a bit gratuitous. Most of it started with what we wanted it to sound like and then figuring out how to get there. We would have ideas like, “I want the pianos to be a form of a physical delay effect with variable feedback” and then while trying to achieve that we would accidentally happen upon something else that would take us in a different direction.
The first functioning version of the software can be heard in 'Doria' from Island Songs (named after Halldór). That’s in 2016. But we were still adding features to it in 2019 and probably still will add more.
The installation was to bring together creativity and technology, the composer and the listener.
Is there a limit to how many pianos you can use with this software?
It is specifically designed for 2 pianos but the signals can be merged to use with just one (which is what we do when we use it for synths as well). I guess technically it wouldn’t be difficult to modify it to work with as many pianos as you want. But you might have to re-think the functionality then.
How has Stratus influenced your writing?
The making of Stratus was my way-over-the-top way of getting over a writer's block I had been suffering from. In hindsight I think I was just creatively drained so finding another project to put my energy into really helped.
All the experimentation and exploration involved in developing it stirred something up. The excitement and thrill of creating something so unlike what I'd done before just sparked so many other ideas. And that was what I tried to capture for re:member; getting lost in creation, letting things flow and celebrating creativity in general. That whole process and the ideas I was trying to wrangle at that time in my life have pretty much inspired everything I've done since.
Will you be developing the software further in the future? For example, in the new Spitfire Audio version you've incorporated synthesizers.
I have only recently started using this for synths and that really opened a whole new door for Stratus and is now something I am exploring a lot and we are already discussing some updates to the software relating to that.
Stratus is so multifaceted - pianos, technology, installation and now a sample library, what does Stratus mean to you now?
It represents a way of thinking about ideas I've tried to implement within myself the last few years. If the idea is good enough it can have several different manifestations. It can become almost anything. The central idea is the same, in this case, an alternative way for me to approach music.
How important is technology to you in exploring your ideas?
I think of technology as a tool. It's nice to have but not a necessity. Some of the greatest records of all time were made with bare bones equipment. First and foremost all extra technology you bring into the creative process needs to serve a purpose, spark ideas and have a function. Otherwise it's just clutter.
Collaboration is a key part of the installation. How many people overall would you love to see take part?
I can't remember how many people joined in last time, a few thousand I think. The more, the merrier really. If we crash the software because of too many people playing at the same time I'll be happy!
What can we look forward to next from you?
Working on some new music at the moment and planning a tour next fall. But with the current situation being as it is I guess we'll just have to take it one day at a time.