week 100: SMC / ICMC 2014

So I went to SMC / ICMC in Athens.  This was the fortieth International Computer Music Conference, which is sort of a mind-blowing concept, and the thirteenth Sound & Music Computing Conference.  I was there presenting a poster version of my paper, ‘A High Level Review of Mappings in Musical iOS Applications‘, which most people got a kick out of – downloading the text and screenshots for every single iOS music app is the sort of thing that appeals to academics.

The conference itself had some excellent moments, more on which below.  But first I need to shout out the event for its sort of awful logistics:  no computer sound in the actual theatres used to present the talks on the first day, iffy theatre air conditioning  for the first two days, (which is bad news when it is 30 out and you’re in a room with 55 sweaty nerds), iffy theatre wifi for the entire conference.  And then the less important stuff:  no lunch, lousy snacks, etc.  Greece has great food, but they sure don’t know how to bake.

I also need to comment, probably pretty snidely, on the theme:  ‘Music Technology meets Philosophy’.  I’m not much of a philo of philosophy, but even still, this combination felt pretty forced.  And, with the exception of one slightly overwrought keynote, most of the combinations that I caught were very forced.  It turns out that you can add the word “dialectical” to your paper and get accepted by the conference, but your paper will still be lousy.

Phew.  Those two caveats aside, I learnt some neat things and was glad I went.  Let’s talk.

John Chowning is a great guy, a charming speaking, and a much better composer than I thought.  His piece Voices was a musical highlight, and his keynote (including such money quotes as “along the way I discovered FM synthesis” and “I knew nothing about the mathematics”) was inspiring in all sorts of ways.

Jean-Claude Risset’s keynote was perhaps not as good, but his Elementa, performed on a hill outside the National Observatory of Athens, was fantastic.  Other musical winners included seven, by Caitlin Woods, Georgia Kalodiki’s Afterimage, Toy by Orestis Karamanlis, all of which are straight up tape pieces.  

The dance-plus-electronics Flow States, by Casey Farina, Mary Fitzgerald and Jessica Rajko, was excellent, as was Among Fireflies, a flute jam played by Erin Lesser and composed by by Elainie Lillios, and Scott Miller’s Contents May Differ, a drone / bass clarinet work played by Kostas Tzekos – who deserves a big shout for playing three improv jams in a row.  Finally, a fantastically brave Kinect / dance piece called Sonic Monster, by Jinghong Zhang, was excellent, despite the Kinect falling down multiple times due to lighting issues.

Another note:  there was an insane amount of content.  I went to about 1.5 concerts a day, each about 90 minutes long, but there were four concerts a day, and then a three-hour night concert. There were also three paper sessions running at once, and usually a workshop as well.

About those papers, then.  There seemed to be lots of people working with both swarming algorithms in software, and EEG devices in hardware.  There was a neat talk by Hanns Holger Rutz about a git-like version control system for reverting SuperCollider-esq setups to previous versions during performance, and Alexis Crayshaw gave a great overview of infrasound – working with waves from 0 HZ to 20 HZ.

Some cats from UCSD (Joe Cantrell, Colin Zyskowski, Drew Ceccato talked about a fairly typical system for converting two ‘performers’ breath into music – but then grounded their project in wanting to make a “non-patriarchal” interface.  Which was fine, and I thought it was simply the California talking…and then I was surprise to see the number of semi-hostile questions from the audience asking about ‘expertise’ and ‘agency’, and similar ideas of how an interface should work. (This tied into Peter Nelson’s keynote, which talked about how much control we have over sound, and how much control we should try to have.)

A winning poster, by the black magicians from Bristol, was Turnector – which is not totally there, but will be amazing when it is.  Along the lines of tangible interfaces, Diemo Schwarz’s talk was amazing, talking about some new magic (‘Rich Contacts’) that takes input from a contact mic and convolves some corpus of sounds with the input from the contact mic – which sounds trivially simple, and makes the system come alive like you would not believe.

Matt McVicar and NAIST had a thing that automatically generates guitar tabs, in the style of various famous guitarists.  Spencer Salazar from Stanford had ported most of ChucK to iOS, which has a ton of potential, and Mo Zareei did a really nice installation / drone / Art-of-Noises thing called Mutor, with motors and solonoids that acted as mutes.

Jumping away from real things and into points of view, Cort Lippe from Buffalo gave a interesting talk about the current state of  ‘electronic music’, which, alas, only meant academic electronic music.  This was a neat talk, and his idea that most composers don’t get electronic music is reasonable…but discussing the problems with academic electronic music seems to me to be complaining that you get less worm-filled gruel than the other prisoner.  Both scenes are so amazingly small that…so what if people write string quartets that don’t use Max/MSP?  (see also ‘Why Computer Music Sucks‘, as always.)

But computer music is also amazing.  The CAGE tools, for Max, made me want to dive back into Max and do some magically things.  Likewise, Ge Wang’s worldbeating talk on ‘Visual Design for Computer Music’ reminded me of everything that I like about my field.

Phew.  So that was ICMC / SMC.  I am sure I missed almost everything, but those are the highlights as I saw ’em.  As usual, the proceedings are worth reading, when they make it out.