I have been talking about Sufi Plug Ins for awhile now… But before we get to the download of version 1.0, let’s start at the beginning:
What on earth are Sufi Plug Ins?
[screenshot from Sufi Plug Ins' clapping drum machine, PALMAS]
To understand where the project is coming from, we must rewind a bit: As a DJ, I’ve always been interested in the creative mis-use of technology. The Art of DJing began, quite literally, with kids in the Bronx using vinyl and record players in ways for which they were not designed. The Technics 1200 turntable was built to be robust enough to withstand constant playback at radio stations. Guys like Kool Herc and Grand Wizard Theodore used its toughness and transformed it into a realtime performance tool. Similarly, ‘finished’ songs pressed on wax were treated with a brilliant irreverence (doubling, scratching, blending, etc), accelerated and reshaped to become elements of an improvisational mix.
[Grand Wizard Theodore on left]
The genius of those early hiphoppers remains a huge inspiration. They took devices intended for playback only and taught kids all over the world to think of records and turntables as hackable tools, as fragments of a conversation, as ours to open up and tinker with. This participates in a long tradition of radicality in black American music – but we’ll save that talk for another time. When I started making music with a computer after years of DJing, I approached the software with very much a DJ mentality, that deep impulse to push the gear – as well as ideas about what a song or performance is – beyond its normal limits, to flip and extend the possible. Which brings us to the next stage…
[Nettle: Abdelhak Rahal on left, myself, cellist Brent Arnold]
When I lived in Barcelona, Spain, I worked a lot with Moroccan violinist Abdelhak Rahal. The 4/4 time signature that virtually all music software defaults to was not the norm for Abdel, steeped as he was in the rich polyrhythmic diversity of Maghrebi & Arabic music. I would try to bend the software towards these rhythms and he would attempt to make long, sliding violin melodies make sense over stuff like a looping hiphop beat – ‘monorhythmic’ the way the software intended. It was fun, rewarding work. Here’s an essay I wrote about music-making in those days, more than seven years ago now! I learned a lot about Moroccan music, yes, but I also learned a lot about the many assumptions built into music software, which is written almost exclusively in Germany (Ableton, Native Instruments, Steinberg) and the U.S.
Sufi Plug Ins grew out of those experiences. After more than 10 years of working with music software, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what values the good folks in Berlin, Hamburg, and Silicon Valley believe is important in music software. But what about other groups, people whose music has inspired me from traditions far from the Eurocentric / Western norm?
[screenshot from Sufi Plug Ins' BAYATI synthesizer]
What if you could make music software with *different* assumptions, limitations, and beliefs built into it? For example, if West African griots were to design music software, what concepts and functionalities would they be most concerned about translating into the digital? Or a Berber muezzin, who performs the call-to-prayer beautifully but frowns upon music – could one make music software for him? This is not a rhetorical question – we did. It’s called Devotion, and it’s one of 7 different plug-ins we built and are giving away for free. They include 4 unique synthesizers, a drone box, and a clapping drum machine. Here is the Instructional Video for Devotion:
So – with all this in mind, let’s return to the question
What on earth are Sufi Plug Ins?
I can offer at least three answers:
The Big Picture Answer. Sufi Plug Ins is a an interdisciplinary project dedicated to exploring non-western & poetic notions of sound in interaction with alternative interfaces. (When we say ‘alternative’, we mean it.) I’m hoping to return to Cairo to do some music software teaching and take requests for further Sufi Plug Ins from some of the talented kids over there. Listen to them, figure out what kind of tool could be useful to their very specific circumstances, then build it.
The Immediate Answer. Sufi Plug Ins v1.0 is a suite of seven free audio tools for Ableton (Max for Live), including include four distinct synthesizers hardwired to North African & Arabic maqam scales with quartertone tuning built-in, a device called Devotion which lowers your computer’s volume 5 times a day during call to prayer (presets include Agnostic, Fervent, Devout), and a drone machine. The interface is written in the Berber language of Tamazigh, using their neo-Tifinaght script. Roll-over info texts provide fragments of Sufi poetry (plus a little Jean Toomer).
The Answer In Which you Find Yourself. As tools, Sufi Plug Ins are what you do with them. We make the synth, you make it sing. Connect it to whatever else you’ve got going on in your toolbox… Plug-ins, by definition, are about interdependency.
The plug-ins themselves have been available individually for over a week, but today we’re doing the full official launch. Ableton Live users equipped with Max For Live, head here to download. Not a producer? Don’t use Ableton? No worries: Even if you don’t make music, you can show your support of Sufi Plug Ins with a nice t-shirt.
White logo on black cotton. $20 for U.S. orders includes shipping, $25 includes airmail shipping to rest of world.
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I also made artist print versions of the Bayati synth and Palmas drum machine plug-ins, available in an edition of 7.
Let’s close with the Instructional Video for Drone. This should explain everything you need to know about this particular Sufi Plug In, and helps voice the project as a whole: