Art of the Beautiful Accidents-How to Embrace Failure

9th December 2018

Stories from the First Abbey Road Red Hackathon

Agile, minimum viable product, Kanban, majority of Red friends, mainly from a high-tech world, would instantly relate those terms to software development. But how many of us realise that methodologies which are currently at the foundation of the modern tech world are based on ancient philosophies, primary coming from Japanese Zen Buddhism.

Let’s look at Wabi-Sabi, a Japanese philosophy from the 14th century, a world view centred on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Wabi-Sabi is embracing authenticity, by accepting ‘three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect’ (Powell, Richard R. 2004, Wabi Sabi Simple. Adams Media). In design and art it means finding, and therefore almost encouraging, the beauty in imperfection, and maybe even arguing that errors, damages and signs of aging are making artefacts more authentic, more interesting, and simply beautiful.

In engineering this might be interpreted as imperfection of design with respect to unpredictable usage conditions. And from there we can fast forward to the 1990s when the wabi-sabi concept was borrowed by computer software developers and employed in Agile programming to describe an acceptance of the state of ongoing imperfection that is the product of these methods. The innovation culture of the start-up world has to be based on the same philosophy; understanding that growth is only possible through failure, and if one has to fail it’s best to fail fast.

The best product owners and start-up founders instinctively know that the sooner they get their (not yet finished) product to the market, the sooner they will realise the actual potential and development direction. They need to compromise on quality and completeness to allow the market response. And any response can define a new unexpected direction or kill the idea before too much time and resources are spent on it.

Hackathon as another model of innovation

In innovation product cycles, inventions or even businesses have to move quickly, and have to allow themselves to trip over, change direction and drop or pick up new ideas. It’s hard to find a better illustration to this process than the old good 24h hackathon.

Simply another model of innovation, the hackathon can be treated like an intensive camp. Only those who trust their instinct and are fast and truly agile will survive a night without sleep and yet have a great prototype in the morning. And what is going to happen when, alongside 100 of the brightest software developers (most of them also PHD students from the best universities in Europe), you invite the bravest music makers, producers and performers to your hackathon on ‘The Reinvention of Music Making’?
Well, as Nadav Poraz from Who Sampled said on stage at the opening of the hack: “With this amount of IQ we should be sending satellites to the moon” and shall we just say that we sort of did thanks to Moonbounce from Martine-Nicole Rojina. Working with Dwingeloo Radio Telescope and HAM Radio, Martine sent the sound of the studio to the moon, revealing the unique voice and characteristic sound colour created by its reflection on the surface structure. Delay and deformation of the reflected sound is in itself a symbol of wabi-sabi philosophy, embracing the unexpected and treating accidental values as creative artefacts.

In such a high paced, high energy experimental environment accidents are unavoidable, but today we wanted to mention a couple of teams which embraced accidents, randomness and their own failure. Lyra, a Microsoft Cognitive API powered inspirational tool for musicians suggesting an inspiration for the lyrics based on your first line of lyrics. Multinational team from Italy, Sweden & Eritrea analysed your given line of lyrics using artificial intelligence and scraped Twitter, Facebook and news for relevant sentences. At the demo they borrowed the voice of artist Lula Mebrahtu to sing surreal lyrics created with artificial intelligence. Whilst beautiful, Lula’s voice interpreted the mass of different suggestions gracefully and we were astounded and overwhelmed by the multi voiced noisy dialogue of tweets, posts and news taglines on the screen.

Everything, AI or accidents is an inspiration

It’s great to see that everything, including AI or accidents can be used as a source of artists’ inspiration. But how are you supposed to help a team which comes to you at 4am on Sunday morning saying that their idea failed and it’s the end of the road for them?

A team with the poetic name La Vaca Cega (a blind cow) sat closely to the mentors from Chirp, data over sound technology. They wanted to use Chirp to synchronise performance systems between musicians. Let’s imagine that we have three instrumentalists in different parts of the globe jamming together. Guillem Sebastià , Joe Munday & Robert Blaauboer, all experienced developers, working for recognisable audio brands, were realistic and didn’t want to investigate latency related to distance or bandwidth. Instead, they bypassed this issue using Chirp and simply wanted to move sound between three laptops to sync them.

When we sat down with them at 4am their voices were low and heads down, quietly telling me why this didn’t work. The internal system clocks in each of their devices were a millisecond out, which meant that synchronisation was impossible. With defeat in the air and saying how they didn’t want to submit the idea, they presented the sound effect with a strange reverb-like delay effect. Suddenly Joe picked up how this distortion, a side effect of a synchronisation, is quite stunning in itself. Within a few minutes the discussion took a different direction, with Robert and Guillem thinking how they could engage the audiences’ mobile devices during their demo the next day to create a similar effect enmass.
At that time, we had some doubts and we kept asking them to MVP it even more, and to concentrate on telling the full story of their discovery, of embracing their failure with all of its beauty.

They proved us wrong, but also made us very proud when with a “it’s not a bug it’s a feature” manifesto they turned the whole 170 members of the audience in Studio One into a giant distributed synth speaker. By synchronising music playback across the entire audience’s mobile devices, triggering movements via Chirp tones, they created a magical almost minimal techno performance with synth sound from our mobiles moving in waves through the room. Hearing music triggered from tiny speakers all around you is a magical experience and not only did they win the prize they had dreamed of, (the newest not yet on the market Chirp solution), but they also created the exact beautiful accident we had been waiting for. Most importantly they experienced the low, the failure and by embracing it, letting go and keeping their mind open to new directions they were able to create a new value.

From Archimedes the robotic owl to TuneButcher

There were so many more examples of risks, artists and developers overcoming barriers and their own limitations and creating wonderful and magical experiences. From Archimedes the robotic owl controlled via music and a smart hat, and AutoMelodiChord - an instrument whose note selection and volume is controlled by the position of your hand, to Play the Singer – a game where your voice pitch controls the game level of the player, and TuneButcher allowing an audience to make ‘director’s cuts’ of their favourite songs, plus Face Beat creating sounds reacting to facial expressions in real-time, LyricsToMood allowing artists to autogenerate an instrumental inspired by the sentiment of lyrics in their vocal to Kris Haplan’s performance with MiMiu gloves and Graham Dunning’s mechanical techno set with a self-built deck playing records cut at midnight on Saturday.

We failed, we won, we learned and we felt that the spirit of wabi-sabi is more than present in the building – the same space that witnessed the most experimental bands of the last century pushing creative boundaries and innovating the recording industry. Abbey Road’s sole reason for existence is to enable creativity and we know that means taking risks, embracing failure and being open to unexpected beauty everywhere around us, in music passing through the studios every single day of the year to the detail of the 87 year old wooden floors we could sleep on during the hack.
Editors notes:

Abbey Road Studios, the birthplace of stereo and countless innovations in recording technology, created Abbey Road Red in 2015 inspired by the original Record Engineering Development Department (REDD) from the 60’s. Abbey Road Red is an open innovation department designed to support the endeavours of the brightest music tech entrepreneurs, researchers and developers. A unique music tech start-up incubation programme – the first of its kind in Europe – supports the most promising music tech start-ups and collaborates with the brightest minds in academic research and high tech industry. Abbey Road Red run its first ever hackathon in partnership with Microsoft and Miquido in November 2018, bringing together over 100 developers, scientists and music producers in studio One. The hackathon competition, took place over a 36-hour covering variety of accelerated challenges around the future evolution of music creation and production. More on