A chat with Jay Curtis / Lysdexic
I don't remember exactly how I first learned about Jay Curtis, aka Lysdexic. But our first in-person meeting was playing on the same bill in Melbourne, Australia, early in 2019, with Jay laying down an impressive and memorable live audio-visual set. I was soon following everything he did, and I quickly realized he was a powerhouse Max programmer. This led to Cycling '74 contracting him to help develop RNBO in 2020, where his contributions to its development and testing were greatly appreciated.
Here I catch up with Jay, who is always very busy, for six quick questions, followed by the many places you can see, try and check out his work.
Tom: When did you first learn of Max? What was your first thought and interaction with it?
Jay: I'd first heard of Max years before I ever used it - friends of mine had used it for theatre productions and I'd assumed it was for that. As I got more into doing sound design and making music it continued to pop up in discussions with people as a means to design "non-linear" improvised music. Like a lot of people when they start out with making sound - I was using any available software environment I could for jamming out in real-time - and not really for arrangement. Where the music structure becomes more of a naturally evolving artifact of the sound design process as opposed to the way you might curate an arrangement by hanging quantized sounds off of a big grid. I had a load of old weird standalone programs on a windows PC and would just run them without any sync and record them to cassette tapes. I was treating DAWs more like synths - things like Propellerheads Reason etc kind of embodied that idea a bit. Skeuomorphic design was really pervasive back then, lots of things emulating or simply just trying to look like hardware designs - and people seemed to be more used to having 15 different little boxes to do something simple. The all-in-one digital workstation that you could do all of your work in was still kind of a new idea. Eventually, I learned more about using software for arrangement. As I got more into arranging music on a timeline I slowly realised I really missed that initial exploratory creative process, I was drawn closer to Max as a means to recapture that way of working, but bringing over what I'd accumulated from working with sound, instrumentation and production concepts. Once I finally sat down with it I wondered why I used anything else.
Tom: What was the first patch you made, and what did it do?
Jay: I was at University and had the opportunity to take Max as an elective - taught by my now friend Casey Rice. When people say they have difficulty starting with Max the answer is "all you need is an objective - then the addiction kicks in". Casey said something like this back then - and it stuck. I'd arrived at a place where I had hours of recorded material that I wanted to explore algorithmically. I created a patch that would segment the audio and arrange it - by selecting shorter, transient elements for the percussion and longer elements for pads and using spectral information to figure out other melodic elements to work with them. I remember being really stuck on the DSP aspect - counting zero crossings etc. and Casey showed me that there were externals and abstractions that people in the community had made for things and you didn't need to craft it all by hand from MSP objects. The guidance I was given during that first project really defined the next 10 years of creative work when I continued to use Max and later, in using other languages and frameworks. Casey was about as flexible as it gets except when it came to messy patches! Learning about encapsulating logic into subpatchers to reuse as abstractions while keeping them neat and documented right from the start of a project was critically important for me. I'd say now that this was really the biggest factor in continuing to be able to use Max at deeper levels of complexity.
Tom: You've done a series of installation works with other artists and researchers in Australia; could you highlight a few of those for us?
Jay: While at University as both a student and a teacher I used Max in every project I was involved with. There's something really satisfying in trying to use Max for something it probably wasn't strictly designed for - makes you approach it in different ways than perhaps you would otherwise. I was assisting with a research project in studying the effect of binaural and monaural sound stimuli on driving for mediating drowsiness - we needed something that could produce a range of sound stimuli, measure and record EEG brainwave activity and conduct a psychomotor vigilance test (this is a simple test where the participant pushes a button when they see a dot appear and randomised intervals). Using Mira I was able to put everything onto an iPad that we placed in an acoustically controlled isolation room and used by each participant which also stored the results in a Max dictionary. I also had the opportunity to work with a group headed by Patrick Humbert - Professor of Cancer Biology and Co-Head of Cancer Research at La Trobe University on a project called "The Sound of Cancer" sonifying the genetic behaviour of the human body in response to Melanoma - which is an escalating issue here in Australia. I developed a Max standalone application called the "SonoGene module" as an interactive means of articulating the process of Melanoma in seven discrete phases from Melanocyte (Healthy Cells) to Apoptosis (Death of Cancer Cells.) Each cell is represented by a single voice of a purpose-built 250 voice synthesiser. The sonic output of the SonoGene module is expressed as a spectrogram, allowing the data to be both visualised and sonified. The database entry for each genetic signature was linked from the app in the browser. Patrick was able to use the application on stage while presenting to the conference, and also make it available for people to interact with themselves as a digital "poster" exhibited as an installation. https://www.lysdexic.com/sound-of-cancer-sonogene-module
Tom: What are you most excited about Max + RNBO being out in the world?
Jay: I've actually been working with all of the awesome people in the RNBO content team for a few years helping and watching it grow, so now is a really exciting time. RNBO is an extension of things we've seen in recent years like Node For Max, Miraweb, Gen plugin export all together - but supercharged and much more fluid. It's an absolute game changer for folks coming to Max for the first time and who've been using Max for years alike. The concept of being able to take a patch to the web or to the Raspberry Pi and plug in some sensors is something you could almost do before that with some perseverance and some hacking - but now it's so seamless the doors are wide open for a whole new world of creativity - especially for folks who've never explored domains like electronics or web development. My sense is that there will be some people out there that will appreciate some demonstrations so I have a series of video tutorials and articles coming out covering some RNBO workflows for different export targets that I'm really looking forward to. I strongly believe that Max is the most flexible and best-learning platform available for teaching sound and media technology, it's a great teaching tool. A patcher is about the best whiteboard you can get. I've also been building a RNBO performance system that I tested out on some livestreams for Blast Radio a little while back - that I'm looking forward to taking out to some shows. Some of the modules in this system are going to be available in some RNBO packages that will be released soon too.
Tom: What are three to five artists that inspire you (any medium)?
Jay: I absolutely love seeing Richard Devine post clips - "hey check out this new weird sound everyone!" - it's about the purest feeling toward electronic music you can get. This is a guy that must have heard every possible configuration of the sound spectrum there is and he's out there making everyone else excited for it on the daily. That's always a day brightener. I'm a big fan of Emptyset, never had the chance to see them perform (come to Australia lads, please). The tonal and expressive quality of their music just really sits well for me at high amplitudes. There's also something about that punishing commitment to their palette that I really appreciate. I've just started watching 1899 for Ben Frost's score - really impressive stuff. He's just going from strength to strength.
Tom: What's the one piece of advice you'd give to someone starting for the first time with Max or with RNBO?
Jay: Start with a simple objective, make something you think you already understand and it will grow into something new. Leave yourself comments. Keep everything neat. Don't forget that someone might have made an abstraction for the thing you're stuck on. This is all the guidance I really needed and they're still ideas I think about all the time (thanks Casey).