Book Review, Oxford Handbook of Music and Virtuality

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My review of the Oxford Handbook of Music and Virtuality has just been published in the Spring 2017 edition of Studies in Popular Culture. You can read my review in the journal, and I’ll update this post with a link when I have one.

Better still, I recommend taking a look at the Oxford Handbook of Music and Virtuality for yourself. It’s a fascinating topic, by no means limited to digital media or even modern popular culture, and no other anthology has approached it with this level of detail. You can even contribute to the discussion via the blog at https://musicvirtuality.wordpress.com/2016/08/28/welcome-to-the-blog-music-and-virtuality/

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Conference Report – Athens Institute for Education and Research, Greece

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The speakers at the symposium on technology in education (myself, far-right)

I’ve finally got around to reporting on my attendance at the Athens Institute for Education and Research (ATINER) conference last month. The conference itself was somewhat shadowed in two respects; literally by an unexpected succession of rainclouds and figuratively by an equally unexpected succession of strikes. However, the two days of talks were exceptionally diverse and interesting, bringing together an international group of some of the most friendly and knowledgeable people I’ve ever met. This provided an opportunity to compare innovative educational strategies from all over the world, and even in the face of the relentless insomnia that seems to hit me whenever I travel any considerable distance, I came away with pages of notes, many new contacts, and a lot of new ideas. My own talk was very well-received, and though this might have been partly down to sympathy at my clearly sleep-deprived state, I feel that I was much better prepared than I had been at the NERA conference six weeks prior. A night of Greek entertainment after the first day of the conference was a definite highlight, with great food, live music and dancing.

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Gone on holiday by mistake

There were already some concerns about getting to the airport during the symposium, as a rail strike left transport options uncertain. Most of the delegates were staying on for a further two days of social events, such as a visit to the archaeological site at Delphi, but I hadn’t signed up for this as I needed to get back to see students, who had a submission deadline later in the week. My plan after the symposium was to see some sights, reach a state of drowsiness by means of local cuisine and raki, and get a much-anticipated rest before catching my flight via a reliable but expensive taxi. As it happens, I was robbed of sleep for a third night by a message from the airline informing me that my flight the next day had been cancelled due to an air traffic strike, and that I should make alternative arrangements as soon as possible. I eventually managed to get the last seat on a flight on Sunday night, the original flight having been scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. When I eventually got to the airport with vain hopes of gaining some insight into my situation, I found myself at the back of a long queue of angry and confused fellow Brits, at the conclusion of which was an equally confused lone airline employee showing remarkable determination but very little in the way of usefulness to the succession of outraged tourists all waiting to consecutively present her with the exact same set of questions and demands.

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Piraeus harbour

I was eventually sent off to Piraeus, a seaport on the west coast of Athens. After explaining my position online, I was able to contact my students to arrange support through email, and also got a lot of suggestions of things to do. By chance, a friend who works on a cruise ship happened to be docked in Piraeus, so I was able to spend a few hours away from my own company, which had by this point become insufferable. It also transpired that the Documenta exhibitions were on in Athens, so I had a couple of days to check this out. The bigger exhibitions were in places like the Athens Conservatoire and the Museum of Contemporary Art, but I also managed to get out to some of the smaller venues. Highlights included an installation involving an EMS Synthi-100, and a very solemn performance at the Archaeological Museum. I did not, however, see the Acropolis, being deterred by the high concentration of tourists. Still, I was happy enough to leave something for when I go again, which I surely will. As one of my friends pointed out, there are worse places to be stranded.

^ an EMS Synthi 100 at the Athens Conservatoire

^ a very solemn performance at the Archaeological Museum

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Conference Report – Nordic Educational Research Association, Copenhagen, Denmark

In October, I applied to present at the 45th congress of the Nordic Educational Research Association (NERA). I wasn’t sure what my chances of acceptance were, knowing how well-established the conference is and being a student researcher from a non-Nordic country, but I sent off my abstract anyway. This isn’t the place for a critical comparison of the UK education system against some of the Scandinavian systems, but we could certainly learn a lot from them, and that’s exactly what I was hoping to do. Fortunately, my abstract was accepted, so I was off to Copenhagen, Denmark on the 22nd of March for the biggest conference I’ve ever attended – 25 educational research networks all holding individual symposiums at Aalborg University (located, somewhat inexplicably, not in Aalborg). This involved 699 participants: 229 from Sweden, 182 from Norway, 151 from Denmark, 71 from Finland, 25 from Iceland, 12 (including myself) from the UK, 8 from Japan, 4 from both the US and Germany, 3 from both Switzerland and Ireland, and 1 each from Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain. This is a short account of the symposiums I attended, which of course is a small fraction of the entire conference.

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Aalborg University, Copenhagen

The network sessions were bookended by some very interesting keynote speeches in the impressive venue of the Imperial Cinema in central Copenhagen. A clear theme emerged in the form of technological considerations, providing considered perspectives on a matter too often seen as a panacea to educational issues. Ben Williamson of the University of Stirling kicked off the conference with his keynote speech entitled Imaginaries and Materialities of Educational Data Science. From the first slide, depicting a futuristic classroom of children wearing virtual reality headsets, a provocative and thought-provoking tone was established. I struggle to reconcile the idea of VR technology with the classroom for reasons illuminated in the picture – all the children are engaged by the virtual materials, unseen by us, but by connecting with this technology are they disconnected from each other? At a time when it seemed that the trajectory of technology was moving towards bringing people together, VR is something of an anomalous trend in that it cuts the user off from the world around them. With the mounting culture of constructed worldviews, or opinion over fact, and ‘rampant isolationism’, to borrow a term used in the opening ceremony, virtuality takes on a more cautionary aspect than it used to.

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Keynote speaker Ben Williamson

I digress from the actual content of the speech, though this was my train of thought as Dr Williamson presented us with challenging examples of educational big data and big business, alt-schools already using facial expression and voice recognition to analyse student experience and performance, and the emerging development of artificial intelligence teaching assistants. I found this suggestion of continuous automated quantitative performance evaluation disturbing to say the least – At what point does this pervasive influence make education a matter of interaction between machines rather than between people?

This theme was picked up in the later keynote by Katherine Hayles of Duke University, entitled A New Mode of Orientation: Planetary Cognitive Ecologies. Professor Hayles examined the differences in what we term cognition between humans and machines, neatly illustrated at one point with a diagram that showed the time it takes for sensory stimuli to arrive in our consciousness. This latency, incidentally, is 500ms or half a second, a pretty considerable lag when stacked up against modern computational power. I was taken with a fascinating example, which I’ll recount here: It seems that a group of researchers (I haven’t looked this up yet, so I can’t say where) showed participants in a study a repeating clip of a drumstick hitting a drum. Delaying the audio from the video by 10ms intervals up to, if I remember correctly, 100ms (one tenth of a second), what we see and hear are still perceived as synchronised, because we ‘confabulate’ to account for this gap. Essentially, we unconsciously recalibrate to make sense of what we’re seeing and hearing. The interesting thing is, resynchronise the audio and video and we perceive the sound as occurring before the drumstick hits the drum, because the 100ms margin we’ve created has now been taken away. After a few repetitions, we quickly readjust our unconscious focus and perceive the audio and video as synchronised again. Is this margin of human error an indication of our inferiority to computational cognition? Perhaps our capacity to construct virtualities which allow us to make sense of the world is one of the advantages of human cognition? That sounds convincing up until someone mentions ‘fake news’ I suppose.

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Keynote speaker Katherine Hayles

The last keynote speech, by Palle Damkjær Rasmussen of Aalborg University, Education and the Future of Society: Material and Social Dimensions, was a practical assessment of some of the wider considerations which had arisen during the course of the conference. Changes in society and technology are intertwined – one influences the other. As some functional roles within society become obsolete and others emerge, and, what’s more, as these changes occur at an exponentially faster rate, how do we as educators prepare our students for life, work, and wellbeing? Furthermore, is the role of the educator not just as susceptible to these changes? As we rely more on big data and computational cognition to chase an ideal of educational quality rooted in business concerns, what will our role become?

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Keynote speaker Palle Rasmussen

Between these keynote speeches, we relocated to Aalborg University for networked sessions by guest presenters. I mostly frequented the sessions on ICT in Education, being scheduled to present to this network in the first session. I was pleased with my talk, but more pleased to get some challenging questions and discussion afterwards. I signed up for NERA to address the rigorousness of the educational side of my research, to be asked tough questions by experts and eventually arrive at a more informed position. I learned a lot from other talks in these sessions also, most of which concerned studies on video games and social networking in learning contexts. For later sessions, I attended the symposium on Classroom Research, a network which I understand is now closing, for reasons I never learned. These presentations were almost all concerned with smartphone applications in the classroom, an area of research very close to my own. I’m fascinated by the (largely untapped, in the UK at least) potential of bring-your-own-device (BYOD), but can see issues around social equality – Some children will have newer, faster and more expensive smartphones than others, some will have none at all. Several Scandinavian education systems seem to have gotten around this by ensuring that all children have access to the resources they need, regardless of background. Finland, for example, subsidises all resources, transport and meals for all pupils, ensuring social inequality isn’t a part of school life.

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Many guests from many countries

The second day of the conference came to a very nice conclusion with a boat tour around Copenhagen and an extravagantly fancy meal. I’ll admit to having culinary tastes so simple that others may find it depressing, but it was good to try some new things, and the other guests at my table made for interesting company. The boat tour was a welcome addition as I didn’t have much time to explore Copenhagen on foot over what was a very busy few days. I didn’t manage to venture much out of the city centre, where my hotel was located, but I did drop in at the National Museum of Denmark on my last day there, and was astounded by the historical artefacts in their collection. I spent a disproportionate amount of time looking at the reconstructed Viking longboat and cryptically ominous runestones, and unfortunately didn’t make it through all the exhibitions before the museum closed. On the plus side, it was a respectable hour to go for a drink by this point, which I’d been holding off due in no small part to the expensive prices. In the UK, we might have problems with our education system, but at least we can console ourselves with affordable beer.

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The conference dinner

I learned a lot from my attendance at NERA 2017, things which I could apply to my own research, and a better understanding and appreciation of Nordic educational values and approaches. It’s a shame that so few of these successes are readily applicable to our own system, often being inherent cultural and social manifestations rather than standalone approaches or policies. This is the case with our system too, of course. The sense of competition and hierarchy which pervades our culture, cropping up as assessments, quantitative categorisations, and league tables, has in a sense led to successes particular to our system. However, it seems increasingly the case that these are successes that benefit the wealthier in society, and in which the priorities of our schools become indistinguishable from those of any for-profit business. I still have a lot to learn, as do we all, so I’ll look forward to my next opportunity to attend such a forum for positive educational attitudes as I encountered at NERA.

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I’ve forgotten what this building is called, but it seemed important enough for me to have a photo with it

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Performance and Composition at Key Stage 2

I wanted to share two sessions this week and last week at one of the primary schools I’ve previously visited for my research. This was a particularly productive and enjoyable session because of the performative and social nature of the activities. The children were from a Year 5 class, so about 10 years old, and they had a lot of fun playing Christmas carols with iPads and percussion instruments.

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200I’ve incorporated a lot of the ideas of Jeanne Bamerger in my research, particularly her ‘tuneblocks’ approach of dividing recognisable tunes into melodic fragments. In the first session, I brought in an iPad interface showing the tuneblocks for the carol Little Donkey. The tune could be played by following the melodic line sequentially along, as you would read any other musical score. This helped to establish the idea of meter and rhythm, and how pitches might be represented in relation to one another in graphic notation. In the second session, I brought in a new application, entitled Rainbow Keyboard, which used the same system but was operated more like a standard piano keyboard. The ‘tuneblocks’ for two carols were then given as a series of mixed up VLUU L200  / Samsung L200cards, which the children had to sort out. I found that the children were able to play the fragments and arrange them into the correct order without any detailed instructions or guidance. We then had a go at writing our own carols using the same kind of system. The class wrote some Christmas lyrics and composed in ‘tuneblocks’, performing these with iPads and percussion instruments at the end.

I was hoping to upload the application but it doesn’t seem to be accepted by WordPress. Hopefully I’ll find a way round this, or can just upload it to another location.

 

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Microtonality in Electronic Dance Music

20161010_134554I’m very pleased to see my paper on Microtonality in Electronic Dance Music published in the new issue 0f the Contemporary Music Review, which focuses on crossover between EDM and electroacoustic music. I first noticed a small but thriving online community of microtonal EDM several years ago as a Masters student, so I’m glad that I finally got around to doing a proper examination of it.

Check it out here.

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Max/MSP + TouchOSC Harp Interface

Early prototype of an electronic take on Phil Brissenden’s Reverse Action Piano Harp (RAPH). A multitouch interface made in TouchOSC transmits over a wireless network to Max/MSP, which interprets the X axis as a high or low pass filter and the Y axis as the chromatic scale over several octaves. As with the RAPH, the piano keyboard un-mutes the selected pitches across the range. In this case, the MIDI values sent by the controller keyboard open gates allowing the note values to pass through to a VST plugin when triggered by the touchscreen. Any VST can be loaded – I start with a harp synthesiser here then move on to some other sounds.

Apologies to Debussy for the shoddy attempt at Clair de Lune. Phil plays it much better.

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Graphick Score

For details of my current research activities, including an explanation of my music programme Graphick Score, go here.

GSprint

Further information and other projects to follow soon.

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Your Reflection in the Rippling Water

I haven’t uploaded any new music to Soundcloud in a while, but I have been tweaking a few bits and bobs when I’ve had the time. Here’s one of them.

I was completely remiss in posting it on here, but I very much enjoyed playing at Islington Mill last weekend for Sound Visionaries. All of the music was extraordinary, and it really pushed me to do a bit of production over the rest of the weekend, hence this post. This is the best picture I got in all the excitement, but at least it shows how impressive the visuals were:

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Leap Motion – Gestural Controller

A couple of months ago, I obtained a Leap Motion controller, a device which uses infrared sensors to look for the shape of hands in a 3-dimensional space. The first thing I did was to build a kind of digital theremin, whereby the X-axis controls pitch and the Y-axis controls amplitude. The additional Z-axis is assigned various signal processing parameters. This can be operated with both hands, allowing for polyphonic performance.

Image result for leap motionThe really exciting part is that the device not only outputs data relating to the XYZ co-ordinates of the hand but also it’s shape, direction, velocity, number of fingers etc. This wealth of data can be parsed in Pure Data to establish gestures which the patch then recognises. A simple example of this can be seen in the video below – Closing the hand into a fist mutes the audio, just as a conductor might mute an ensemble with a similar gesture. I’ll be developing this further over the next few months, and will post any updates and resources.

Here it is being used as part of an experimental ensemble, also featuring Phil Brissenden on reverse action piano harp, Aden Peets on electronic udu, and Alan Williams on accordion:

For an evening of live experimental music, join the Adelphi Contemporary Music Group at Peel Hall, University of Salford tomorrow from 7pm, and keep an eye on the twitter @adelphi_cmg for future performances.

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Microtonal Keyboard Mapper

Microtonal Keyboard MapperHere’s a patch for weird music aficionados. It lets you map your computer keypad to a microtonal scale and play it as an instrument. I made it because I wanted an easier way of writing music in unusual tuning systems.

There might be a bit of customisation needed unless your keypad happens to be identical to mine. See the help file inside the patch for details, and directions for use.

I’m really proud of this one so I hope someone else finds it useful. Download links are available here. You’ll need to keep the subpatch ‘adsr’ in the same folder or it won’t work, and you’ll need to already have Pd installed, which is available here.

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