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Image credit: Nick Koenig & Viacom NEXT

How one artist is reinventing the music album with VR

Hot Sugar breaks new ground again with 'The Melody of Dust.'
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Nick Koenig & Viacom NEXT

Nick Koenig is no stranger to musical innovation. The artist, better known as Hot Sugar, has been dabbling in the art of associative music since his teens. As he describes it, the technique involves taking found sounds and "manipulating them into more." Basically, he can turn just about anything into music.

Now with The Melody of Dust, a new project coproduced with Viacom NEXT and premiering at SXSW this week, he's taking that concept into virtual reality. We've seen music videos and other experiences in VR -- most famously from Bjork, one of the most tech-savvy artists working today. But this is notable for being the primary method of hearing an album, instead of a separate VR project. And no, it's not as easy as just hitting "play."

The Melody of Dust starts in a castle-like room. Since it's an HTC Vive experience, your first instinct is to start walking around and interacting with the space. Pretty quickly you'll notice that just about every object you can pick up -- be it a bird, a glass or a vase -- produces a different tone. After some time, a vortex erupts in the room, and you can throw those objects in. For every three things that you toss, you get a different melody.

None of this is spelled out for you. Like a good adventure game, it's up to you to explore The Melody of Dust. Once you've loaded up the vortex enough, you get to hear one of 87 different songs Koenig mixed for the experience. As you can probably guess, the song you get depends on what you've actually thrown in.

"I'm looking at it as a new music listening experience," Koenig said. "It's like jumping into a new venue for listening to the music." While he's planning to release a traditional album with 13 of the experience's songs, Koenig sees The Melody of Dust as his true new album.

It's not the most visually rich experience I've seen, but it's conceptually fascinating. I played through it without hearing about Koenig's grand vision for the future of interactive music, but even without that philosophical setup I still enjoyed exploring the environment and hearing the sounds every object created. I was relying on pure intuition and the minor triggers from the game, but I still got a sense of what Koenig was aiming for. It's the sort of thing that would reward a few plays through it, especially once you know that you're supposed to experiment to hear new songs.

"The technology is constantly evolving; 360-degree video to Vive is already a whole different thing," Koenig said when I asked him about his thoughts on VR's potential as a new medium. "As this continues developing, the future of most media will be some iteration of this sort of thing ... That's why we're not afraid of jumping the gun and doing an album on a platform most music fans don't even own. I have faith in a few years it'll be just as relevant, or at least unique."

Given the expense and scarcity of VR equipment, there's a good chance most of Hot Sugar's fans will hear The Melody of Dust album without even catching a whiff of the virtual component. But Koenig doesn't seem too concerned about that. He's more interested in trying something new than being traditional. And with The Melody of Dust, he has a shot at being a pioneer in a whole new medium.

Click here to catch up on the latest news from SXSW 2017.

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