Building a Music Community

As discussed in my last post, electronic music making focuses on individual work and creation, with less emphasis on collaboration. However, I wanted to explore this further to see how other electronic music artists worked, and if any artist has found ways to balance the connection between machine and human being.

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Team Supreme members

I started by researching Ableton, a company that makes a variety of software packs used to compose and layer music and loops, and found a short documentary about a particular group called Team Supreme. I actually got a little distracted because I enjoyed their music so much I had to spend a few minutes on YouTube to listen more. Anyway, the documentary discussed how a couple of college students in a music class eventually started a music “crew.” The crew has about fifteen or so members, all young people in their twenties and early thirties, that support each other in music making. I found this really cool. No longer is the image of a lonely individual sitting at a desk with a computer all day the only picture that comes to mind when I think of electronic music composing. This group uses each other to build a music community, and learns from each other like a traditional band. And this crew is successful too, some of the members even  work with bigger names in music like Madonna. Even though they work independently– that is, each person is making their own music in their own style–they often collaborate on projects and generally support each other in the process. In this way, digital music is actually bringing people together and forming community.

I also found Ableton Link, a newer application of Ableton that allows more teamwork in electronic music. Link addresses the problem of virtual jam sessions. With traditional instruments, it is easy to improvise with others because you control when you play so it is  easy to keep in time with the other person. This is much more difficult with electronic music. Link offers a way to connect your device with another person’s, sort of like Blue Tooth connection, so that the music can synchronize better and allow cooperative creations. This is another way that technology is actually increasing human-to-human connection.

Most of the members of Team Supreme also DJ their music at parties and other functions. Knowing very little about DJ-ing, I was curious to learn more about it and I especially wanted to see what kind of connections, digital and human, they make at their concerts. The easiest way for me to start was by comparing DJ-ing to traditional instruments, musicians, and audiences. At a traditional concert, there is much for the audience to do:

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Team Supreme member “Goodnight Cody”

watch the signer as he/she gestures or dances to the rhythm, sing along to the song, dance to the beat, or watch the musicians produce music magic with their skilled hands and bodies. But what about watching a DJ or electronic music concert? After a few Google searches, I found a blog post by Ean Golden (perhaps not the most scholarly resource, but he brought up several interesting points about the role of a DJ). Golden mostly wrote about dancing: DJs have a job to keep people dancing happily, but also they are responsible for dancing themselves. It seems that unlike a traditional concert, electronic music that is created and played in real time by a DJ emphasizes dancing above all other forms of audience engagement. The DJ also has to play for the mood of the audience. If people look sluggish and bored, the DJ has to watch this and use his/her resources to create beats that uplift the crowd. And, the DJ must dance as well. Golden explains how the DJ can benefit by dancing to his/her own tunes because it will inspire creativity and allow audience interaction. In my experience, watching a DJ dance while I am dancing encourages me to continue, and brings confidence into the music. After reading this article, I have much more respect for DJs. Not only must they mix and layer loops of music and understand the software they use, but they also have to be social with the crowd, adapt to their needs, and dance along.

So it seems that technology can actually stimulate human connection, and even inspire  camaraderie and community. I now look at this technical process as one with possibilities for teamwork, and I’m sure that technological advances will continue to develop more ways to achieve this. I like to believe that humans prefer connecting with other humans over connecting solely to technology, and balance that is accomplished in the DJ world is wildly interesting.

 

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Monomes: Changing How We Make and Listen to Music

Imagine making and producing music a few decades ago… A band or artist would compose the score, perhaps write lyrics, perform the song, record it, and then distribute it through some tangible medium like a cassette tape or CD. I should mention that I am only nineteen years old, but I have vivid memories of my own cassette and CD collections, which proves how quickly music technology has advanced. Nowadays, I can search for a song on my computer, and with a few clicks of a button be able to download it onto my phone. And the song isn’t necessarily made from physical instruments. The bottom line: music making and distributing is changing rapidly, thanks to the development of technology.

I read an article which discussed the work of Matthew Davidson, who goes by “stretta” in his performance work. Davidson created a “maxforlive monome suite,” a software package for the monome device consisting of several different tools for creating more

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Davidson and a monome

complex electronic music. Though I read this article, but I honestly understood very little of it due to its use of technical language and vocabulary. Feeling lost in the specific jargon, I took a look at the video at the bottom of the page and found more clarity. The system offers new ways to compile rhythms and beats to create a musical score, reminding me of Apple’s Garage Band. My first thought was, “okay, but anyone can press a few buttons.” The article even pointed out, “it is pretty much impossible to produce a ‘bad’ note.” How does Davidson compare  to a traditional musician? More importantly, does his work require skill? Do I care?

In search of answers, or perhaps just more questions, I found and listened to a podcast interview with Davidson and Darwin Grosse, creator of the podcast Art+Music+Technology. After listening, I came away with several insights, most of which did not help me answer my question, but all of which made me more curious about electronic music production. First, Davidson talked about how he liked composing music on a computer because computers “don’t judge.” With traditional music, which I define as music created by tangible instruments, the musician works with other people to write the score, and the songs are often performed in front of live audiences. With music production through a monome device, no collaboration takes place, so there is no one to provide constructive criticism or judgment. But isn’t there value in that criticism? Maybe. When you collaborate with others, more creativity can be exchanged and explored so that the final product is esteemed by more than one person. In Davidson’s work, each song released is inspired and conceived by one individual. This idea, not good or bad, shows how the music industry has changed, and how it has become a more individual, rather than group, experience.

Another thing that struck me was the conversation exchanged between Davidson and Grosse about music originality and the true master of the creation. When making
electronic music, who is entitled with the credit, the human or the computer? Perhaps this is where the collaboration happens, between person and machine instead of personelectronic-music-20110112-110919 and person. As for originality, how can electronic music achieve this? Since this type of electronic music is made from purely pressing and adjusting buttons, how is one musician distinct from another? Can one person press a button and sound different than another person pressing the same button? Davidson compared it to two people playing the guitar: any person playing the same chord should sound the same…right? In theory this may be true, but not in practice, for numerous factors such as accent, tempo, and duration of sound makes it nearly impossible for two people to play identical sounds with traditional instruments. These factors are very different in the electronic music world. Even Grosse pointed out how early electric guitar music all sounded the same.

So what does this all mean? I think it comes down to this: do we, as consumers of this new electronic music, care about the ideas outlined above? Does the fact that advances in technology have allowed more stuff to be distributed to more people in less time bother us? Are we fazed by the fact that the dynamics of listening to a concert will change? Is it annoying that electronic music lacks the richness of physical human touch? Ultimately, I think the answer is no. To revisit my original question about skill: I think electronic music requires less, or at least the skill requirement is different. No longer must musicians be skilled in their muscle memory and rhythmic aspirations, but now they must be skilled in technical layering, or really, digital coding. Does this fact make music less enjoyable? Again, I don’t think so. We live in a dynamic, constantly advancing technical age, and I think what it comes down to is taste: if our ears are happy, then so are we.

 

The Interactive Classroom

I have often heard the stories about how our society will eventually be controlled and dictated by technology. “One day everyone will own driver-less cars,” my dad and brother would say. I may hear these remarks and chuckle quietly at the absurdity, but deep inside a small voice chokes, “I sure hope that doesn’t happen.”

I watched the introduction video for SMALLab Learning, a company which sells “room-sized embodied learning environments,” which look like something out of a science fiction film. These installations are quite fantastical: flashing lights, colorful animated pictures, and kids with mesmerized grins walking on a what looks like a movie screen. The video includes testimony from middle school science teachers, principals, and even young efsd_light_and_mirrors2-720x720students, all of whom boast of the product’s effectiveness in teaching and explaining tough concepts. My reaction to this was rather two sided. First of all, the product is very cool, to say the least. As a middle schooler, I would certainly have a great deal of fun learning about sound waves from one of these virtual environments than from sitting in a chair listening to a lecture. Actually, as a student at any age, the idea of learning and interacting in this way is greatly appealing. Why? I think it is because humans like the idea of learning by doing. Such “hands-on” learning is effective because it requires the learner to use more than just their vision, and SMALLab products do an excellent job of encouraging full body engagement in the learning process. However, my opinion of this virtual environment turns more cynical when I look more closely at the relationship between the technology, the student and the human educator. I think the interaction between student and virtual world can be affective, afterall we live in a world of digital interaction. However, it begins to scare me when that connection becomes greater than or even replaces the connection between student and teacher. If schools were to install one of these learning platforms in every classroom, is there any need to hire teachers? That is something to think about.

I did a little more research on interactive classrooms, wanting to find other ways that technology is used in schools. I found Echo360, a site which offers a platform for teachers to upload their presentations and then is given access to all kinds of tools and activities to virtually connect with their students as they are teaching a lesson. While exploring the site’s homepage, I was surprised to read this statement: “Students want digital interaction. Echo360 turns the devices they use from distractions into learning assets.” I cannot quite explain why I found this odd, perhaps it is because when I think of what I want as a student, I don’t immediately think of “digital interaction.” Anyway, this company is taking a less extreme approach to interactive learning, because the teacher or professor is still leading the class and building the lesson plan.

Comparing this approach to the SMALLab learning environments, I find Echo360 more favorable. With the former, technology has completely taken over, and while it may result in children who are more excited to go to school, we also have to examine the true goal here: to learn or to interact? SMALLab products clearly brand themselves to be learning tools, however interactivity is more powerfully at play. This is not to say that interactivity and learning are exclusive, for certainly learning can occur through interactions. However, in my opinion, SMALLab installations are more interested in testing and exploring the boundaries of digital potential, and I find the installations interesting but too futuristic. Yet, I think that Echo360 has found the balance between interacting with technology and traditional learning, finding an effective way to utilize technological advances for the benefit of education.

 

  • Photo:
    • from smallablearning.com

 

 

Interactive Art…For a Cause

What is interactive art? Well we can start by examining the word “interactive.” I discussed this in class with my Professor because I was having trouble with distinguishing “interaction” from “participation.” We talked about how both involve connecting with some person, object or situation, but interaction occurs when you initiate a change. Thus, interactive art is art with the potential for human connection and manipulation.

I watched a video about Myron Krueger’s Videoplace, a technical, responsive environment in which video cameras capture a person’s movements and project them on a screen. The

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Krueger’s critter

participants can do a variety of things such as interact with a miniature version of their body, draw pictures, or play with a virtual “critter.” My first reaction was one of shock, for I was completely unaware that this sort of invention was taking place as early as the 1970s. I quickly watched a few more videos about Videoplace, and specifically, the interaction of the participant and the “critter.”This connection occurs when the  green bug-like image detects a body part and “lands” there, and when the person moves their body the critter stirs and “flies away.” It all seems a bit silly, but this artistic creation is certainly interactive, as the participant is causing the critter to move and change its place in space. At the end of the video, Krueger explained how his hope for this feature is for autistic individuals to use this technology to help them learn how to connect with others, something that autistic patients struggle with.

I immediately Google-searched, “virtual reality to treat autism.” I ended up finding a website called autismspeaks.org and virtual_reality_685reading an article about a study conducted by Dr. Daniel Yang, who has worked to improve a program called Virtual Reality Social Cognition Training. Basically, patients are immersed in a virtual scenario with a computer screen as the interface. The patients’ facial expressions are filmed and projected onto a virtual avatar who interacts with other avatars, as the patient is guided through various exercises that require the use of social skills. The result? Patients come away with a better sense of how to act in society and connect with others. I find this rather fascinating, that a technology that looks like a computer game can actually be used to treat an illness. I cannot help but wonder if Dr. Yang was inspired by Krueger’s critter..

So what does all of this mean here? Well I think what I have learned is that not only the medium of art is changing, but also the viewing experience. Before, most art was viewed from a distance, with a passive, non-invasive eye. When you walk into an art gallery full of paintings, there is not much you can do besides admire them. But the increase in digital, interactive art lets the viewer change the course of the experience. Most likely, the viewer will have access to a button or some other interface that allows them to change and manipulate something, creating a personal experience that is unique. It is this individualized encounter with art that allows technology to achieve things like offering treatment for various illnesses, and that is something to be recognized and applauded.

 

  • Photos:
    • (top) from inventinginteractive.com
    • (bottom) from autismspeaks.org