There’s a “proper” way to play music, but Tim Exile isn’t having it. An experimental musician whose albums have appeared on influential labels like Warp and Planet Mu, he’s also the inventor of The Flow Machine, a musical instrument that joyfully breaks down barriers between live performance, multi-person orchestral work and DJ sets.
Since 2009, Exile has performed more than 500 shows with The Flow Machine, including the first — and only — TED talk to inspire a stage invasion of mad-for-it dancers. A Heath-Robinson-like-contraption that crams into a single flight case, The Flow Machine incorporates piano keyboards, six battered controllers, one or more computers, a beatbox, a microphone, and Exile’s own home-built software.
Says Exile, “I played the violin as a child. It’s an instrument that makes sound only if you physically touch it, and that was the approach I wanted to take when I first heard electronic music as a teenager. Good electronic music sounds real – it wants to be performed on physical instruments, and improvised spontaneously like jazz. Even as a kid, I wanted to find ways to make the experience of electronics more physical.
“Today, I make techniques that make these magic moments accessible to a layperson. Is it me connecting to an audience, or me helping others connecting to their audience? I don’t mind too much. There is value in all connection between humans – and as a musician I’d say even more value in musical connection.”
Electronic music should not be purely composed with computer and mouse, Exile says. “With The Flow Machine and its children, I want to make performance king. Take Bob Dylan – his guitar playing is the centre of everything he does. His recordings don’t have to translate to performance because they start like that. It’s a well-worn way of working, but not one that amateur musicians – or even many electronic musicians – have the opportunity to explore.”
Through his collaborations and work with The Flow Machine, Exile has become as much an inventor and technologist as a performer, and a regular on the TED and tech-show circuit. He sees these as complimentary facets of a career that demands multiple avenues of expression. “What interests me is communication, attempting to create a sense of humanity that elevates all true fans of music and performance.
“Making music live is natural to humans. Even five hundred years ago, we were an innately musical species but we didn’t have the technology to record and play back music. Music only existed when it was being performed in real time. Musical forms were distributed orally and each time they were transmitted they were freshly interpreted by whoever played them. The music was always live, the music was always living.
“My question is: can we return to that state? How do we become alive again?”