The thing I love the most about playing music is improvisation (or spontaneous composition). It has always felt magical to tap into the intuition of what to play next, and what would sound or feel like the best next move, right in the moment of playing. This spontaneous instinct has its opposite in the careful construction used when writing music on a computer. This counterpart is enjoyable in a different way, but nothing is as good as actually playing music in the moment. This craving is what inspired me in my attempts to create unique computer music interfaces while studying Music Technology.
My name is Simon Kenny. I work with technology and music (though not always together, and it’s not always “work”). From an early exposure to the ultimate synergetic multimedia experience – computer games – I’ve been attracted to using technology to produce art. What I’ve done, and continue to do, is create art – usually music, but also visual art and technological tools. A third important area of my work is education and mentorship.
My current role is Technical Lead for a small team at Marino Software. At present, we are the Android platform team for Vero True Social, a privacy-focused and ad-free social network. I have only recently been given the technical lead role and it’s certainly a new experience for me in my career, as before I was only a programmer in this company.
Part of my work is mentoring other developers in a technical sense, but also in “soft” skills. It’s really rewarding to see people grow in their work and to be a part of that process. I see this as a continuation of the work I have done in education, having previously taught a semester at the University of Limerick, and as a lab assistant in Maynooth, as well as coder dojo mentor.
I grew up in Galway, though I was born in Northern Ireland. I’ve lived in London and Buenos Aires, but the size of a town like Galway is attractive.
Outside of my job, I love music. My family and friends are also very important to me, my daughter especially – we play music and games that she makes up in her imaginative 3-year-old mind. It is really wonderful to encourage her, especially in music.
I didn’t really become interested in music until several years after I started playing it, strangely. I started piano lessons at age 9 or 10 in my primary school. Like many children, I did not enjoy the grade exams and elected to stop lessons after a few years. It wasn’t until my early teens when I was introduced to Nirvana and The Offspring that my interest in music was really ignited and I began teaching myself. I picked up the bass guitar and started playing with friends, performing in local youth clubs.
In my later teens, my uncle gave me some hard-to-get computer programs to make electronic music (I really owe my uncle Christopher a lot, thank you!). I took over the family PC, a process that had long been in the making, and started slicing up samples and generating melodies and basslines in synthesisers. I made my first album at age 18 with a friend: we called it The Moonsonic Project, and we printed about 100 CDs and sold them locally.
Around that time, towards the end of school when I was about 18 or so, a friend asked me to fill in on the drums in his punk band until they found a proper drummer. It turns out that you don’t need to be a proper drummer for punk music, so I ended up playing with them for about 3 years. By then, I had gotten a little better and went to London with another drummer friend to study drums there for a year. We ate, drank and slept drums for 10 months, and it was truly transformative. Most crucially, it convinced me of the merits of formal education, after becoming somewhat disillusioned with it in secondary school.
I continued to play music in a doom metal band that was widely enjoyed by those who enjoy that kind of thing, and a post-rock band, as well as a smattering of smaller projects. Later, I studied Music Technology, which I’ve always seen as the perfect mix of my interests. At the end of my studies, I graduated top of my class with a tiny fragile music tech startup.
My main project in my Music Technology degree was about understanding how to program a computer to make music randomly which had a more than passing resemblance to music created intentionally by a human. The most important thing I learned with this project and degree was to appreciate what others have already done and to build on that instead of blindly marching off with only your own thoughts as your guide. I learned to listen more widely to music and dig deep into the archives. When I was formally introduced to Musique concréte, I couldn’t believe that the contemporary artists I knew and loved came from such an old tradition. The people I thought were “doing it their own way” were actually from a long line of people experimenting and reusing older ideas – doing it your own way doesn’t have to mean rejecting what others have done.
My all-time favourite musician is Mike Patton. Much of his work is what you’d call avant-garde – as a singer, he is partial to abrasive screams typical of hard rock and metal, beatboxing from hip-hop, and RnB from 90s pop. His music is wild and unleashed yet meticulously designed, which is a huge inspiration to me. I also owe a huge musical debt to electronic musicians and groups like Plaid, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Nine Inch Nails. Together with Patton’s output, it has expanded my understanding of what is musically possible.
My main genres of interest are electronica, metal, post-rock, and Javanese Gamelan. They’re all quite different, but I’ve enjoyed transplanting aspects of one to another over the years. Writing and performing electronica is a very intense, very mentally heavy, and introspective process for me. In metal and post-rock, I play drums – I’ve been in a number of bands which have played internationally.
Javanese Gamelan is very different altogether. A gamelan is a large ensemble consisting of a variety of bronze metallophones (think xylophones) and gongs ranging in size from a small pot to a huge paella dish. I was lucky enough to be introduced to this wonderful music thanks to the Galway local arts programme, That’s Life, who provide music facilitation to adults with intellectual disability (https://www.thatslife.ie/music). I’ve been playing the gamelan as a music student, and now as a collaborator, for nearly ten years.
There have been two situations that I can recall as my purest musical moments. One was playing a 40 minute fully improvised set in the Black Gate in Galway with the jazz post-rock trio Zinc. We rehearsed for so many months to get to the stage that we could construct songs on the fly and keep things fresh and moving. I remember being in those moments and the feeling is like no other; complete musical trust and wonder as ideas are revealed and flower in what feels like an almost automatic process. The other pure musical moment is playing deep, dark, slow metal in Fred Zepplins in Cork with Trenches, on probably the loudest rig we ever played on in the dark. Trenches had three guitarists, a bassist, me on drums, and a vocalist – it was so intense, people were walking out. Being in that space, especially as one of the writers and performers, was like being transported to another planet.
In whatever shape or form it takes, music will always be central to my life. Right now, I’m still involved with That’s Life and their project called In Flow (https://thisisgalway.ie/in-flow-inspiring-new-show-by-thats-life/). We will be recording an album in the coming weeks, and there are sure to be more performances in the near future.
In the last half-decade or so, I’ve gotten more realistic about what my contribution will be to the Arts. When I was 18, I posted my first album, The Moonsonic Project, to 20 or 30 record labels, in hopes of getting signed and making a career. Since then, I’ve self-published music but have also seen friends getting signed and making their own careers of music – it’s really hard and it’s a brutal lifestyle. What I know I’ll continue to do is community-based projects where I can support those who need it, and teach my daughter what I know and have fun with music.
My music is methodical and a little strange; I think that those who know me would say that it transfers onto my work style, not to mention the rest of my life. I do see some similarities in approach to music and my job, especially regarding collaboration. The people on my work team will tell you that I like to get a consensus and discuss ideas – I have strong opinions, but try not to be too absolutist about them and I admit when I’m wrong. The same goes for music. While I love working alone, the real source of joy comes from combining what you know and think and can do with what other people know, think and can do. The results are often surprising.
I absolutely think music has been beneficial to my tech career. Writing and playing music together is about building interlocking abstract structures that only exist in your head, and then using them to guide your body and voice to produce coherent music as a group. It’s easy to miss this when you focus on how music is written on paper or a computer, or as it exists in a recording. However, it’s very apparent when the music either isn’t written down at all or it is spontaneously produced. I think that writing computer code taps into a similar faculty of mind. When you write code, you are keeping a lot of information in your head about all the other code you’re not seeing, about your plans for the future, and the architecture you are adhering to. When writing code, like when writing music, you need to remember and reference lots of other parts. I can see the complex structure of a certain song I wrote years ago with my collaborators, which took months of deliberation and experimentation to write. Likewise, I can visualise the structure of my current work project’s codebase, which has been years in the making, and see what plans we have for it.
There is always more than tech. If we’re talking about software, most software is extremely boring and mundane in the purpose it is put to – it is not going to light your artistic fires. However, writing software, while not art itself, is a creative exercise. It does not surprise me that the creative mindset is adjacent to the artistic one, and this is why we find so many technologists using their skills and interests to other ends which they choose. It’s cool to see what people do and to remember that we’re all more than what we get paid to work at.
Simon has also shared 15 years of his electronic music on Bandcamp: https://bitwiseoperator.bandcamp.com/
Be sure to give a listen to Simon’s first release, The Moonsonic Project, as well as some music from his post-rock band Zinc: