A (not so) short story (and a warning/reminder)

i don’t know if i’m going to laugh or cry…

i didn’t check the dates exactly but it was probably around 2007/2008 that i first saw the reactable on youtube. at the time i had just discovered kaoss pads and got one of the first tenori-ons. this led pretty quickly to getting a grid from monome, but the reactable always stuck in my head for one main reason: there had been talk for years about making music with juggling, and many (failed) attempts to incorporate electronic solutions into the process as far back as the early 70’s. the moment i saw the reactable, i knew that this was a tangible interface that would not only allow juggling to make music, but would also demand it!

the reactable looks like a crazy spaceship, but its actually a minimalist design- all the colors, block shapes, and visual feedback on the table surface carry important information for the player to use… you can see what state everything is in with a single glance. and since the interface is visual, an extension of its tangible nature, then the manipulation of those objects should also be visual. and its in the object manipulation that the spatial design, physical rhythm, and graphical aesthetics of juggling applies.

at the time, only 2 tables existed… björk had one on her volta tour, and then of course there was the, well not exactly first prototype, but the first one that was made to go out into the real world. i was obsessed with getting to play with one, and so constructed the world’s first master’s program in circus through the circus university in stockholm. our theme was… juggling and music! we got a crazy budget (and pulled off a completely crazy program), and were able to hire the reactable to visit our campus for one week back in 2009. the company also sent a “technician” to help assemble and watch over the equipment, though in reality we were very lucky to get an extremely talented musician, and in my opinion still the only person who can play the table as a true instrument to this day, carles lopez (worth a youtube search).

after spending one week with the machine, i realized 2 things- first, my intuition was validated that the reactable was some kind of “juggling instrument,” and that further research should be made. and secondly, i had absolutely no clue about how music works or how the musical side of the reactable should be used. our experiments for that week barely scratched the surface from a juggling angle, and were completely lacking any sort of real musicality (by intention, i mean we realized a room full of jugglers weren’t going to instantly turn into genius musicians in 7 days). but the experience made me even more obsessed with the table!

a few months later it was announced that they would be selling a limited number of tables to the public. previous to this, they had made a few more tables and sold them to science museums, children’s museums, etc. though the price was rumored to be something around €25,000… and of course someone said that peter gabriel had bought one for that price for his studio. i stalked the website, registered, got a friend to loan me his address and VAT number as the first batch would only go to europeans and stayed up overnight refreshing the page until the sale link went online in the middle of the night (my time). come to think of it, reminds me of the monome sales at around those same years, where you had to jump on the latest batch before they sold out in 2 minutes or less (and then the scalpers on ebay trying to charge thousands of dollars for a 256!)??

i managed to get reactable #002. it was €10,000. and sure, that might sound crazy… but in my business, in the circus world, people produce shows all the time for budgets with a few more zeros on the end of that number. cirque du soleil paid $100 million to make ka, and then spent another $100 million to build the theater in which to perform it. so 10 g’s made me broke, but i believed in my idea, had researched it (by administering and teaching an entirely new level of education no less), and so i set out to make a new show based around the reactable.

so here is where the story starts- when my reactable arrived, upon setting it up, i noticed that the image projected on the table surface was terribly out of focus. in fact, it was so fuzzy you couldn’t even read any of the text around the blocks, which was sometimes necessary to facilitate operation of certain parameters. i thought the focus must have gotten messed up during shipping somehow. i was in contact with the table support team though and i tried to fix the focus on my end. somehow i ended up making the software think my table was egg shaped instead of perfectly round… and at the time the program was not evolved enough to easily fix this discrepancy between software and hardware on site, so i had to send my first table back after a couple of weeks and get it exchanged for a new one. just to note, the current table calibration software is excellent and its impossible to have the egg problem again.

the second table arrived and i was of course eager to get to work. the focus seemed a little bit better at least and so i set off recording all original samples to load into the software, as well as studying the table functions religiously and practicing making music on it that i liked, with no juggling yet. the table was super fun… even if it didn’t work all the time, or ever really function fully. this story is going to be all neatly bundled and packaged here for you, and i don’t want to ruin the punchline. so i’ll skip over the main point for now, for the sake of continuity. what i mean is, looking back, i could easily say why it didn’t really work… but we’re not there yet! i worked day and night on the show- producing it myself as well, and got it booked as the headline performance at the helsinki festival of new circus.

the performance at the festival also included a residency a few months before the premiere, and it was during the residency that i researched the manipulation techniques, parallel to composing the songs with the samples i had recorded the entire previous winter. i started to match up certain physical moves to places in the score which needed a certain change or action to progress the composition. my first thought had been to just make a general pool of manipulation techniques, and as well have a deep knowledge over the sounds and how they could be combined, and then improvise the whole thing. i found out immediately that this was impossible, at least in the time frame which i had (months and not years), and had to meticulously choreograph every fraction of every second to pull off the desired effect. it was in the challenging timing of the choreography that the software crashes and lack of basic functionality took its toll.

as the premiere loomed closer and closer, i got increasingly more nervous- because the table behaved erratically, and besides my company’s reputation being on the line with this new production, the financial agreement with the festival was also very important to me to help to start to pay back the cost of the thing! i should say that i had always been in touch with the reactable support team. and of course some days the table would work fine. but i couldn’t trust it enough for a live performance and so a difficult decision was made- reactable had just released an all new version of the table, both software and hardware. i figured my hardware was just inferior, a previous generation, and that they had fixed most of the problems… even as the software found a 1.0 release. so i decided that since i had invested so much time and money and effort already, and i couldn’t cancel the helsinki gigs, we could made a deal where i exchanged my table plus some money (um… yeah), for the new version.

if you’re keeping count, this is table number three! but i thought, this is it! i have my music, my show, the latest hardware, its finally going to work!! and it did… sort of. kind of. sometimes. i got through the helsinki festival alive. though i’m sure a lot of my hair turned grey there, and quite a bit fell out over stress. imagine launching into an hour long set, in a theater, and you don’t know if your computer will crash or not. and then do that a couple of times a day for a week with live audiences, newspaper reviewers, industry insiders, etc. on top of that, the show wasn’t easy, what i mean to say is, it would have been stressful enough to do without the technical problems!! i toured the show a little bit, but was always almost reluctant to push it as i knew i would have to deal with this unreliability. of course this was not the plan, especially not financially where i needed the show to at least pay itself back down the road.

again, looking back, its so easy to pinpoint these moments and see what went wrong. or to ask what the hell i was thinking… if you buy something for 10k then it should work right??? its hard to explain how it all was in the moment- it was a nicely made thing, but it was also clearly not mass produced in a factory. in that way it had its charm like monome’s devices, they are obviously hand made in very small batches by people who are passionate about what they do. the table is complicated, and I’m not a computer programmer at all. or a musician. i am a reasonably intelligent human being (sometimes) but i just figured the thing was really complex, with many layers that were difficult to get all working together. or something. i thought that’s just how it was. i imagined everyone who had the table was going through the same thing. i mean, the one we had at the university back in 2009 looked like some cardboard and glue stuck together compared to the one i was currently using. so it had improved, it simply still had some more way to go.

i suffered through runs of shows in italy, france, and greece. i got really really good at fixing crashes. in fact, that’s what rehearsal was all about: not practicing things so they would go right, but learning how to fix them when they went wrong. because they would go wrong. and the goal was to fix things good enough that the audience could never tell anything happened in the first place. trying to be optimistic, that’s a whole valuable lesson there which i probably never would have considered, and I’m proud to say that i think i succeeded to cover everything up in all the shows. at least as far as i know, and to what (mental) expense I’m not sure! but it was too much and new projects were coming up so i put the show away for some time, not abandoning it at all, but needing to do something else for a while.

then, through an entirely bizarre contact (“hey i googled reactable and sweden and your name came up. my boss bought a table and doesn’t know how to play it. can you come to our special customer event and play his table for us?”), i needed to get the table out this spring for a gig. i wanted to design a new music set for the event, the music i had before was the soundtrack to a theatrical performance and i wanted to make something more appropriate. upon starting the table, it crashed 50 times in a row. i know it was 50 because the program sends crash reports back to the main office each time. and you can tell how mad i was, that i kept trying to start it even after the 27th crash… or 34th!? the ironic thing is, the gig was to play someone else’s table but i demanded to use my own because in my mind the tables were flaky, and at least i knew how mine usually failed! the people at reactable were nice enough to try and send a replacement to get me through my gig, but i didn’t want to pay the shipping and i was just exhausted so i did the gig with my own rig.

the table worked beautifully… until half way through where it not only crashed, but it somehow made my macbook air go completely dead?? luckily everything restarted, but i was the main sound for the whole event. there was a good 10 minute stretch there of total silence. if i had hired me, i would have been livid. if this was the main way i made my living, my career would be completely over. sure, technical glitches happen, but basic things like having equipment that works is half the job?? after that evening. i sent my table back to headquarters for diagnostics. skipping over some of the more boring details here, a few months later the table was sent back. just for the record, its my third table, but now the second time its been delivered to me. sigh. ok. they couldn’t find a single thing wrong with it. it worked perfectly for them. the table is driven by a computer. when the table had been gone, i got a new laptop. when the table came back… it didn’t work with my new laptop. it didn’t work with the old laptop. it didn’t work.

maybe by now some of you know what was wrong with it. i mean, once i tell you its going to be so obvious. and you’re going to be mad you read this whole thing for such a stupid explanation. and you’re going to be mad at me for being an idiot and wasting your time and my time and everyone’s time. because last night, 5 years after the start of this journey, i got my fucking table to work. fully. and completely. my reactable works. it works because earlier that day i had went to an electronics shop and paid €10 for a new usb cable. yes, that’s it. that’s all it was. but please, if you’ve come this far, let me explain-

the first table i had which went egg shaped, that was a legit problem. and when they told me to send it back so they could replace it, they said “keep the cables and cases at home, don’t pack those. we’ll just send the new hardware.” so i kept my original usb cable with me and got a new table back. then that table didn’t work. i arranged a deal with them to swap that table for the newest version before the premiere of my show. again, i kept all the power cables, video cables, usb cables, and travel bags at home. i only sent the central unit and structure. so i got the newest version back… which i hooked up with my original usb cable! same thing happened now this summer when i sent in my core for diagnosis… usb at home, table to spain, table home, bad usb cable.

now. i hear you! you’re saying why the hell did i not check the usb cable as the first thing that i did??? so that’s the thing- i don’t have any excuses but i can tell you what happened at least. for the egg table, that was clearly the table (and it really was looking back), and i’m pretty sure the cable worked fine at that point. something must have happened to the cable when the second table came, or before, maybe when i was packing and sending, etc. so here’s one thing- the cable always worked A LITTLE BIT. right?? its not like i plugged the stuff in and it didn’t turn on. as in, it was just black, and lifeless. it would try to start, it would start and crash, it would run for 10 minutes and crash. it would run for 3 hours and then crash. and in no particular order. again, i hear you. check the cables, right? here’s the thing- i did! but i did it in a stupid way… instead of getting a new cable, what, 3 or 4 years ago, i took the cable i had and plugged it into some other stuff to test and see if it worked. and it did work. on that other stuff.

its really hard to describe how not-obvious this seemed for the past years. i was so frustrated each time things went wrong, and i always thought it was a software issue. or again, the machine is nicely made, don’t get me wrong, but its a pretty complex system that gets shipped around europe. delicate electronics, right? can get tweaked or whatever… plus I HAD CHECKED THE CABLE remember?? sigh. dude. seriously. the fucking usb cable. €10.
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epilogue: the other thing that was confusing, is that somehow the bad usb cable would also sometimes manifest in sending a signal that the video cable was broken. i changed the video cable several times. anyway. i’m still proud of the work i have been able to do on the table so far, and if you’re curious, here’s a short video excerpt of some of the juggling work with the table from my first show:

p.s.- reactable just released a new version of the table, the Live! S6. it looks amazing, and the price has come down quite a bit. the design is really great for touring.

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note to self: never trust a usb cable.

must be an intense satisfaction to have it working though (hopefully enough to offset the undoubtedly intense frustration due to the fucking usb cable!).

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This would make a great Radiolab episode.

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Holly molly, at leats finally you got it sorted :smile:

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i applaud your persistence!

to be fair, i’ve hardly ever doubted a usb cable. on the occasions that i do find a problem related to a cable, the lesson doesn’t sink in for more than a month or so. and next time something suspect happens i’m suddenly doubting the firmware or circuit assembly, not the $1 usb cable.

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incredible dedication to an instrument, i would’ve given up a long time ago! thank you for sharing. a great reminder to persevere.

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Wow!!! A wonderful story with a happy ending!!

once at sxsw we played after vice cooler and he literally jumped on my usb cable so hard it split in half. linecheck surprise

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Great story. Good lesson too. I can totally relate to this… I’ve gone through lengthy diagnostics in the past only to find out it was a modular patch cable issue.

thats totally unreal.

wow. what a story. I think its pretty safe to say it would be a good idea for all to adopt the OSI model into everything.

edit: i forgot to mention how amazed/moved I am by your story. The level of composure you must have built adapting a cloaked defective cable has gotta be through the roof Not to mention the display of dedication. Much respect for sharing.

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