Mouse on Mars at M.I.T.: A Symposium Becomes a Dance Party

Mouse on Mars at M.I.T.: A Symposium Becomes a Dance Party

Recording the album coalesced all of Mouse on Mars’s recent fascinations. The duo wrote orchestral music for the Chicago Symphony and other classical ensembles, drawing on traditional instruments and virtuosity. They also developed mobile apps to generate music. “We thought, maybe we should take the Kraftwerk idea of passing on the torch — to become software, to take the idea of what we do in software and give it away to the people,” Mr. St. Werner said. “But we had so much fun using the software ourselves that we just kept on working.”

Mouse on Mars also wanted to generate computer-driven physical sound, teaming up with engineers to develop percussion robots that were robust enough to handle the demands of the music on the road. “We broke them all the time,” Mr. St. Werner noted.

Then came what Mr. St. Werner called, citing a German phrase, “the drop that made the bucket overflow.” They were working in their studio in the Funkhaus in eastern Berlin, which used to house East Germany’s top government radio station, when the conductor and arranger André de Ridder knocked on the door. He was putting together a festival and had some musicians with him, including Mr. Vernon and Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National. Many collaborations ensued, in Berlin and in an intensive phase at Mr. Vernon’s studio in Wisconsin.

“We had two rules,” Mr. St. Werner said. “We wanted to stick to 145 beats per minute, so basically we had a rhythmic scheme. And we had a specific key. So we could record whatever we wanted, with whomever we wanted, and we could always move things around. It would always make sense. It would always fit.”

They ended up with “a crazy mess of possibilities,” Mr. St. Werner said. “The information we had was so dense that we couldn’t really deal with the idea of that becoming a stereo record.”

Technology to the rescue: A German speaker company, D&B Audioteknik, was developing its “object-based mixing” setup of speakers and software to place sounds in space. In Swabia, in southern Germany, D&B had installed a demonstration system geared to club and concert producers; Mouse on Mars had other ideas. “Their thinking was, musicians create something, and we help to spatialize it,” Mr. St. Werner said. “And we’re like: ‘You have to start much earlier. You have to give this to musicians as an instrument.’”

Mouse on Mars brought its work in progress to D&B’s setup, closely examining and reconfiguring the three-dimensional possibilities of the tracks on the way to the eventual stereo mix. “We came to a point where, ‘O.K., it all fits together,’” Mr. St. Werner said. “So the record starts with a woodblock being played by a robot, and it unfolds into this universe. We time-stretched the sound of the woodblock and zoomed into the partials and spectra of a single woodblock stroke — just a millisecond of sound — and opened it up and basically unfolded the whole piece from there.”

The album free-associates its way through kinetic polyrhythms, Minimalist mediations, head-spinning auditory effects, a stark fiddle tune, passages of hip-hop and pop vocal harmonies, and surreal funk, and Swamp Dogg’s career reminiscences, among many other moments. Mouse on Mars is still deciding how to take it on tour. Mr. Toma contemplated a show without a stage, with live musicians and robots “spread among the people” instead.

“Music is a strong anarchic force,” Mr. St. Werner said. “It’s probably our last bastion of anarchic wilderness, that trace of nature that keeps just growing, keeps crossbreeding, keeps immigrating and migrating and cross-fertilizing and expanding our perceptual apparatus. It’s also a great means for orientation and for bonding with other people. We don’t have to think about music, we don’t have to talk about the term. Eventually we’ll find it, or it will find us.”

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