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28th September 2020

Music has been part of my spoken word for a few years now. When perfectly synchronised, it highlights mood and dramatic moments. When it’s live and a bit rough, there’s the possibility of happy accidents: odd juxtapositions that create exquisite moments that can’t be easily reproduced.

I feel really sad when I meet somebody who won’t touch anything that makes music. It’s usually because they had a bad experience in school, with a music teacher who told them they were no good; or because they think that knowing scales and Italian terms is a necessary prerequisite to making the first sound. Sure, nobody becomes a virtuoso without that stuff. But there’s so much pleasure and satisfaction to be gained from earlier steps.

Of course I was going to apply to the Alternarratives programme from Nesta. This was a challenge to reimagine short-form storytelling for young people aged 11–16 and I spend all my time thinking about different ways to tell stories. My first ideas concerned hypertext and interactive fiction, but one day I looked at Ableton Live and thought: how about a simple DJ interface to control music beneath a story? One where you can’t screw up?

The result was The Reader Remix. At first I pitched a project with existing software and a tactile MIDI controller. But just as we were approaching our first in-person meeting, COVID-19 arrived. Everything went online. I wasn’t hit as hard as Viccy Adams, whose project told a story through physical geocaches. But I had to retool quickly for online delivery.

Thanks to some rusty Javascript and the howler.js library, I was able to get a prototype working online. Development was pretty fluid: two decks didn’t provide enough variety so I added a third deck. The pitched story felt too slow, so I wrote a new piece about a first-time teenage DJ racing to do a set at a slowly collapsing party. I composed eighteen music loops where all the combinations worked, more or less. And Rhiannon Grist recorded a great female voice version of the story so that readers could choose.

If you enjoy The Reader Remix, why not try the other projects which are still available on BBC Taster? I suggest starting with Jasmine Richards’ lush multimedia story Project Earworm or Thomas McMullan’s computer desktop mystery The Unsettled Ground.

I felt privileged to have the time and support to work on Reader Remix as part of Alternarratives. Those who tried it seemed to enjoy the experience, but the other projects were so slick that I didn’t expect what happened: it won. This means that I can work on it some more; the next stage of development is to make it available for download and customisation, so teenage (and adult) creators can replace my content with their own stories and music loops and publish the results. I can’t wait to try them.