Music and Technology Incubator Group Holds Inaugural Meeting at Calit2

By Stephanie Sides

Group around meeting table
Group around meeting table.

La Jolla, CA - January 29, 2006 -- With nearly 30 people in the room, there were only two laptops. When I offered the other laptop owner a generic Calit2 login to check his e-mail, he said he didn’t need it. In the Calit2 world of telecom and IT, how could that be?

When I thought about how these people are trained in music, whether as instrumentalists, singers, composers, producers, festival organizers, music hall designers, researchers, or teachers, I realized that one of the skills they hone is listening. And listen to each other they did. Listening extended to a 15-minute audio piece presented by Hans Tutschku, Harvard University, in the audio spat(ialization) lab during which many of the meeting participants bowed their heads and closed their eyes, absorbing every nuance of the performance.

The group included two dozen researchers from industry and faculty members from universities with highly regarded music departments around the U.S., England, France, and Germany, including 10 from the UCSD Music Department, and some dozen local graduate student observers.

This was the M&T [Music & Technology] Incubator Group Inaugural Meeting January 21-23, and they’d chosen to have it at Calit2. The organizers were UCSD Music professors Roger Reynolds, Rand Steiger, and Miller Puckette, and visiting researcher Matthias Kriesberg, all associated with the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts, which now lives on the first floor of the New Media Arts wing of the Calit2 building at UCSD.

This group included various flavors of people who’ve specialized in music, media, and technology, some early in their careers, some by way of engineering, some through the sciences, some through performance work. But they’d all arrived at the same destination: the value that computers and related technology bring to music. Some even acknowledged the length of time they’ve been involved in this field, with comments about having “programmed in machine code on a yellow pad of paper” and using an Atari ST when it first came out.

Roger Reynolds and Steve McAdams
Joseph Waters and Rand Steiger
At left, Roger Reynolds, UCSD, and Steve McAdams, McGill University.
At right, Joseph Waters, SDSU, and Rand Steiger, UCSD. Both photos
are from the reception held Saturday night before the formal meeting began.

The meeting was part planned, part improvisation. Said Kriesberg, “Over the next 10 years, we’ll see more exciting developments in our field than the last 50. Let’s talk strategy here and take a predictive approach. The agenda is based on ideas that interested us. We’ll assess what happens the first day to choose appropriate topics for the second.”

I thought I heard him say they were going to “play fast and loose” on that second day. I felt stimulated to listen more carefully.

I sat in on two panels. In each case, the moderator and three panelists spoke for 10 minutes followed by general discussion.

The first topic was collaboration among researchers and musicians. A central issue in this discussion was what Reynolds perceived as a disconnect between expert musicians and sophisticated computer programmers: “They do not speak the same language nor seek the same satisfactions. What can be learned from experience to date, and what can be done to optimize future interactions?” he asked.

Shlomo Dubnov and Trevor Wishart
Shlomo Dubnov, UCSD, and Trevor Wishart, York University.

The second panel dealt with dissemination through mainstream musical institutions. Steiger asked: "Why are so few works involving technology commissioned and performed by major musical institutions? How can this group encourage the development and performance of a new repertoire that embraces new technologies and reinvigorates the evolution of the orchestra?"

While both of these discussions were interesting, I was listening for recurring themes.

One was the issue of preservation – preservation of repertoire and the need for standards in transferring archives from one medium to another. “Standards will also enhance communication among composers,” said Philippe Manoury, UCSD. Composers work alone a lot of the time - not a good thing to many in the room.

Another theme was the interaction between computer musicians/technologists and the traditional orchestral community. While both “speak” music, they’re essentially distinct communities. Instrumental musicians can be hostile and mistrustful of technologists because they see their jobs in potential jeopardy and the tech as apt to crash during a performance or, at the very least, increasing the amount of rehearsal time needed.

Even the terminology can complicate such relationships: “Music technology” is a loaded term. “Computer music” seems to be better, with the emphasis on music, which both communities can agree on.

The technology works best when driven by great ideas. Technologists need to help the audience understand why their work is so interesting in the context of the tradition of music.    

Some, including Dave Wessel of UC Berkeley, recommended the “stealth” approach by establishing relationships with key figures with an orchestra, such as tech-savvy (especially younger) directors, conductors, and development directors. If computer technology could be worked into a charismatic new direction or an aesthetic expansion for an orchestra, technologists could offer a way to a new (business) model for orchestras struggling under staggering deficits.

“Some great conductors are taking jobs in the middle of nowhere where they have more freedom,” said one. “That’s a way for them to circumvent the inertia that’s there.”

One participant noted the “graying” of the typical orchestral audience: Technology can be a way to reach younger generations that typically are not orchestral concert goers. “A sea change in how things are done will depend on some dramatic change that becomes generally accepted,” said Dick Moore, UCSD. “We need a Star Wars or Cirque du Soleil model.”

Of course there was a lot of talk about the tech itself – the need for developing analytical tools to transform sounds and to enable real-time music. Said Trevor Wishart, York University, “Pieces I work on grow out of exploration, not preconceived notions. I need the technology handles to get at things I hear in the sound.”

And there was the issue of how much tech to throw at music: The higher the tech required, the fewer the venues in which to present it. Perhaps “scaled down” versions of pieces should be developed to reach greater numbers of people.

One of my favorite statements, encapsulating the issues at hand, was about the need to “link semantic qualities to verbal descriptors to perceptual values to acoustic properties.” The participants seemed to agree they were a long way from that, which argues for the need for exactly this type of group.

Article by Stephanie Sides, director of communications, Calit2. Photos by Barbara Haynor, UCSD division, Calit2.

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