The Musical Wheel

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music performed by Sean O’Hagan of The High Llamas

PROGRAMMING Dominic Murcott, with Greg Bertrand
STRINGS Brian Wright, Sally Herbert, Jackie Norrie, Marcus Holdaway
VOCALS Winnie Asmah, Tania Degale, Sylvia Arthur
VIBES, MARIMBA Dominic Murcott
ENGINEERING Sean O’Hagan, Dominic Murcott
RECORDING Sean O’Hagan, Dominic Murcott

visuals by Jean Pierre Muller

ASSISTANT Khalifa Faye
CONSTRUCTION Laurent Becue, Gilles van Thienen

THE MUSICAL WHEEL / London-Brussels / 2004-2007


The Musical Wheel is a trio of freestanding circular paintings which follow the evolving wheel to Detroit, the spiritual home of the motor industry and the everlasting home of Motown.1

Thus the visible themes of the work – arrived at by a brief game of word association between the two artists - links the compositional wheels of the painting to the wheels of motor city - Detroit - and the long journey of musical history that passes through that place.

For O’Hagan and Muller the fact that this heavy industry was accompanied by music of sweetness and harmony is part of the paradox of pop music’s seductive combination of seriousness and disposability, of great weight combined with lightness. The roots of white pop in black American soul is here symbolised in travel, from South to North, from Louisiana and Memphis, through the fields of Kentucky to the factories of Detroit and Chicago. mw-atomium1Imagined by a British/Irish musician and a Belgian visual artist, with the voices of Tania Degale, Winnie Asmash and Sylvia Arthur, three R’n’B and Gospel singers from O’Hagan’s Peckham neighbourhood in London, these become mythical locations assembled in deliberate incongruity.


… Inside the paintings are the Hi Fi speakers and playback hardware that generate the music. By touching the painted panels, the audience interact with the composition the way the studio producer does. They can compose from the eight purposefully performed tracks a unique mix, as the playback progresses.

At the heart of the work is a complex structure, programmed on Max/MSP software by Dominic Murcott, High Llamas member and Head of Composition at Trinity College in London. Combined with the organic materials, the painted wood, the vocal harmonies, the acoustic and electronic instrumentation, and the simple manual interface, this technical sophistication is rendered functional, rather than fetishised. The looped playback acknowledges the roots of electronic composition in algorithmic structures but instead of dry repetition, melodic pop is combined with aleatory serial processes.

The Musical Painting previously used actual hardware to play the music, a DR16 Hard Disc recorder and a Kenton Midi Control Freak as the command module. The new painting will simply house a laptop computer within which the music will be stored and manipulated by Max MSP.

Max MSP is an advanced music and interactive computer programme which enables events. The programmer can command MAX to do virtually anything by selecting and building enabling modules and connecting them with virtual wires. For instance Max can command an individual track to mute or unmute, change its position in the stereo mix (pan), mutate the sound through filtering or add and subtract effects like reverb or delay. Max can also provide modules to command light interaction or even restricted motion. It is simply a case of selecting the right module within the programme and making the virtual connection and calculating the right series of commands.

Rob Flint







  1.   Motown Records is a record label originally based in Detroit, Michigan, USA. Founded by Berry Gordy, Tamla Records, the company was incorporated as Motown Record Corporation on April 14, 1960. The name, a portmanteau derived from the words motor and town, is also a nickname for Detroit.

    Motown played an important role in the racial integration of popular music, as it was the first record label owned by an African American to primarily feature African-American artists who achieved crossover success. In the 1960s, Motown and its soul-based subsidiaries were the most successful proponents of what came to be known as The Motown Sound, a style of soul music with a distinct pop influence.

    Motown has owned or distributed releases from more than 45 subsidiaries in varying genres, although it is most famous for its releases in the music genres of rhythm and blues, soul, hip hop and pop.  Read the rest on Wikipedia’s page. []