Andrew Dubber

I am currently in the process of assembling partners for a research network project that brings together a number of different institutions whose academic staff are interested in the intersection between music and technology. While my own focus is on media and cultural studies, I am particularly interested in approaching this from a very broadly interdisciplinary perspective – and while I am situating this within an Arts and Humanities framework, I am extending the reach of this partnership to bridge the sciences as well as the arts.

Recently, this work has taken me to a number of different universities and research institutions in a range of different places and I have met with some fascinating people whose academic approach and intellectual framework differ quite radically from mine and those of my immediate colleagues – but whose subject is almost identical. It’s interesting to observe what the differences are between those academic practices, but also to discover where the commonalities of interests and points of intersection may lie.

As a starting point for research, music technology is a fertile field. While my colleagues at the Centre for Media and Cultural Research and I have had a tendency to think about this primarily from the perspective of popular music, methods of distribution, consumption and promotion in a changing media environment, and the ways in which the economics of the industry shape meanings and practices within the broader music industries, colleagues at other institutions (indeed, in other parts of BCU) have an entirely different methodological and conceptual approach in which this forms only a minor part of the research.

Some researchers I have met and worked with at IRCAM in Paris, for instance, are primarily interested in new ways of creating and engaging with musical sounds. Not simply an attempt to develop new technologies to assist in the production of popular music as we currently understand it, but to invent entirely new experiences of music through the use of both new and existing tangible and intangible technologies.

For instance, a project might focus on the ways in which the ubiquitous mobile devices that we have can afford new ways of communicating through the co-creation of musical experience. This results in a very experimental approach that requires a high degree of skill in terms of programming, a playful approach to the tools themselves, and an incredibly lateral way of thinking about the objects, the invisible technologies that connect them and the ways in which human beings make meaning from music. The idea of music as ‘play’ (and not just ‘playing music’) is an approach I find very interesting – and it’s one that reconfigures the ways in which we might think about how people might make use of music (not to mention make sense of music) in a post-digital age.

So it becomes immediately possible to see overlaps with my own research, in that I attempt to conceptualise musical experience in dialogue with a prevailing media environment. For instance, the print age of media allowed for a particular consumer experience that involved buying printed sheet music from the store, bringing it home and playing it on the piano in the parlour, where the electric age ushered in an era of recordings, broadcasting and a primarily passive listening experience (though a more overtly active and engaged collecting and curating set of experiences). I have been giving a great deal of thought recently to what lies beyond the digital environment – not in an attempt to future-gaze, but in recognition that we may already be in the process of moving beyond the digital media enviroment.

In other words, our relationship with what we think of as popular music is not fixed in stone, and new media environments provide different affordances for the ways in which we make meaning. With an increased focus on music creation in physical space, and a shift away from the screen as the dominant mode of human-computer interaction (which has seen our music collecting take on the form of the business spreadsheet in iTunes, Spotify, etc.), the cultural practice of music engagement could conceivably radically change once again – and it is in places like IRCAM where the early experiments that go on to inform these sorts of cultural shifts take place. My own field of research offers a way of thinking about these shifts and contextualising them within society – and this is an idea on which I will expand in a later post.

Meanwhile, at Queen Mary University London, some colleagues that I am working with are part of the Music Information Retrieval (MIR) community – a deeply scientific research area that analyses the sounds of recorded music using models of the human cochlear to find not only how music ‘works’ for us, but also to identify similarities and process digital music libraries to make sense of how songs act as data sets, and to extract meaningful conceptual connections between them. The MIR field of research is what gave rise to Shazam, The Echo Nest and MoodAgent – businesses that use MIR technology and analytical processes to help identify music, create intelligent systems for music services such as Spotify and help create playlists for music consumers. The science behind it is fascinating, though again, what Media and Cultural Studies has to offer is a way of thinking about how these sorts of processes connect with and can make meaning for the people who make, distribute, promote and consume music, and the cultures within which those processes are embedded.

In Amsterdam, STEIM is a music innovation and research laboratory. First established by composers in the late 1960s, the institution is one of the oldest – if not the oldest – lab of its kind: a sort of MIT Media Lab focusing particularly on music. Earlier this week, I visited and met with the centre’s director who explained that one of the purposes of the institution was to facilitate the creation of new types of musical expression. Experimental music, he explained, is only experimental once – and what he has noticed is that what we consider to be experimental music is little more than a genre category – and one that has been broadly unchanged for the past 30 or 40 years. STEIM, like IRCAM, considers new ways of creating music and pioneering innovation in musical creation, but it appears to do so in yet another way – and bringing together these different approaches, or at least putting the people in a room so our work can inform and reflect upon that of each others seems a productive thing to do that could potentially accelerate and focus the research across the board in line with the broad outcomes of a shared vision for the field: a manifesto.

In March, I was at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, MA where Nancy Baym and Jonathan Sterne brought together a symposium of academics to create a Manifesto for the Future of Music Technology Research. This manifesto was drafted by a room full of people that included cognitive scientists, media theorists, computer scientists, designers, social scientists and cultural researchers. It’s a broad group of people and while the frame through which they examine the phenomenologies and ontologies of music technology differ tremendously, it is the fact that this intersection of music and technology – of art and science – is such a broad and rich field of research that unites the researchers and offers an incredible opportunity for genuinely interdisciplinary work.

One further potential partner for this intended collaborative project in the making (and a place I shall return to over the summer to further develop this relationship) is the University of Umeå in Sweden. Umeå is particularly interesting in that they have recently (and very deliberately) established a framework for interdisciplinary collaboration between the arts and sciences. At Sliperiet – a new building designed specifically for collaborative projects and interdisciplinary work – a range of tools and facilities are made available to actively encourage and support this kind of engagement. By embedding tools for media production, design, and all manner of 3-dimensional fabrication (including a machine that can essentially 3D print a car) – as well the space and encouragement for researchers to work together in a creative and institutionally-supported way, there is a model for the kinds of work that could potentially bring together minds like those at IRCAM, those at QMUL, at STEIM and here at BCU.

Already there have been some projects that point the way for music and technology researchers (or rather, ‘Music Technologists’, as the manifesto has collectively branded us). The ‘Voice Harvester’ is a machine that has been created by a group working in Sliperiet to allow a local composer to collect samples of the voices of Umeå citizens in an engaging way. Essentially an installation consisting of an arrangement of perspex tubes with different coloured materials in them and an array of microphones and digital processing and sampling equipment, the Voice Harvester uses the feedback of voices interacting with substances such as a coloured liquid or glitter to ‘see’ their voices rise up the tube as they sing, shout or talk into the microphones. By making a game of the interaction, the researchers have been able to collect a wide range of voices that have been used in a composition. By making and exploring, the researchers have discovered new ways of creating music, new ways of engaging people in that creation, and new meanings for the music as a result. This is just one of many examples that could arise within such a space – and while Sliperiet is not primarily focused on music, music provides a fertile space for exploring the sorts of cross-disciplinary collaborations that make sense of science through art, explore culture through design and interaction, and merge theory and practice within research projects.

My intention is to begin to make connections between these threads through collaborative partnership to both amplify and collectively learn from these different approaches and experiments. There are, of course, a great many institutions working on music and technology in a range of different ways – and the more I work with the partners I am assembling for this networking project, the more I discover some of the interesting work that is going on around Europe and elsewhere. By starting to connect the dots, I believe we can learn from each other, expand the parameters of our own disciplines and, for my own purposes, use that intersection of music and technology to learn a great deal more about the ways in which media, culture and society operate.

The next step is to bring some of these academics together to develop on the ideas outlined within the manifesto, brainstorm some collaborative projects and begin to build a network of mutually engaged academics whose work operates at the point of intersection of music and technology.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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