The music of Grimes, the ferociously self-made singer and producer, seems to resonate from an intimately familiar place, yet takes listeners’ minds to an alien pop landscape. It’s only natural that fans would want to physically enter these rock-candy-sweet sounds and nightmarish visions.
Last week at Moogfest, in North Carolina, attendees were invited to do just that, to step into Grimes’ infectious music. Like a synth-powered Holodeck, the interactive space, called “Realiti: Inside the Music of Grimes,” is rather sparse—an aluminum structure garnished with spools of fabric and foam-block furniture. In contrast, the music is rich; there are immersive realities hidden in plain sight within it.
The Grimes installation will not make you dance like Grimes in her music videos. That, sadly, is inimitable. “It’s a lot more about the music itself. How does it feel to be inside of it,” said Charlie Whitney, the programmer and interactive director who was in charge of calibration and setting up the play space.
“It’s about finding the rhythm of Grimes’ voice and floating inside that,” he said. To that end, the many layers of beats, synths, and vocalizations that live inside a Grimes song were peeled apart and assigned to different areas within the physical environment. By moving around inside the complex system of sound, the visitors get to “be a body,” to quote a Grimes lyric, using their physical presence to remix the master tape.
Like a cockroach that becomes a saint by improving itself each time its reincarnates, the installation has existed in several past lives. Initially, the installation was housed inside the New Museum in New York and stepped into the avant-house rhythms of the producer Matthew Dear, with circus safety nets, of course. The second time the installation emerged, it infiltrated the songs of four electronic musicians whose names the interviewee didn’t know and couldn’t pronounce. At last, the creators of the installation crossed wires with Grimes.
The result is a snaky sound that forever slips around and loops back into itself, instead of being locked down into a solid state. “You are completing and creating new works at the same time,” said Whitney. While the song is “on-rails,” to use his words, it is constantly in flux depending on the direction of the crowd. Elements of the song will fade in and go out. A synth track will launch into an soaring arpeggiation. The pitch may rise or fall, or the stereo effects get wet with reverb.
“be a body”
The song that was chosen for the exhibit was “Realiti,” the debut track from Grimes’ album Art Angels, perhaps because of the lyrics’ loose connotations to the burnout and crash of returning to Earth from an alternate reality. “When you hear Grimes sing ’welcome to reality,’ and you’re inside this weird altered reality, that feels cool,” said Whitney.
Curiously, the team opted to go with the original demo version of “Realiti,” which was recorded in 2013 and was intended to be included on Grimes’ lost album, instead of the studio version that appears on the new album. There was an ineffable quality that drew them to the unfinished version, something about the ring in Grimes’ voice.
“The vocals, especially in the demo version, are very floaty,” he said. The team understood that the voice was the main instrument, so they treated it very delicately. They wanted people to be able to interact with it, but not mangle it. So they went to the spandex shop and chose a special fabric that was smooth and semi-transparent, a fabric that had qualities they associated with Grimes’ voice.
Then, before they did anything else, they carefully considered how the fabric would feel to the touch, the amount of resistance it offered, and so forth. Finally, they synced the fabric with motion-sensing software, so that Grimes’ vocal chords were tickled when participants leaned into the weave with their bodies.
The finalized artwork, of course, took a lot of rigging: the process of aligning physical space to non-physical sounds with Kinect cameras isn’t easy. “We’ve spent hours and hours sitting inside this song,” said Whitney, sounding a bit virtual world-weary.
Asked if he had gotten sick of the track after being exposed to it for so long, he said not really. “After you sit in the song a while, you stop hearing it, and you go outside, and it feels weird that it’s missing.” “Realiti” becomes your reality.