The Moog Ensemble, RNCM

As a synth enthusiast with very little expendable income, I have a certain reverent fascination for Moog synthesisers, so it was particularly thrilling to be in the company of almost 10 of them, alongside a few equally impressive Roland and Korg instruments. This was at a concert at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester last night (7th of November) by the Moog Ensemble, led by Will Gregory, best known as the composer and keyboardist with Goldfrapp.

The concert opened with a series of Baroque pieces arranged for synth, an homage to Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach. After a short piece by Handel, three variations on a theme by Bach showcased the timbral qualities of the instruments and the polished technique of the ensemble. This concluded with a stunning rendition of Brandenburg Concerto no. 3, before Gregory introduced the members of the ensemble and their respective instruments. The MiniMoog and Sub 37 were notable among the lineup, along some some more obscure but fascinating machines, some operated by Yamaha WX7 MIDI controllers in the manner of wind instruments, which gave the players impressive command of expression and articulation. Each player showcased their instrument with an idiosyncratic flourish, filter sweep or squawk. As Gregory noted at the conclusion of this exercise; ‘much like dog owners, synth owners tend to resemble their instruments.’

A final member of the ensemble now took to the stage – Adrian Utley of Portishead, a noted collector of synthesisers – to perform a piece from Wendy Carlos’ score to A Clockwork Orange, culminating in a revival of the Brandenburg Concerto. The first half ended with two pieces composed by members of the ensemble – Graham Firkin’s Swell, followed by Gregory and Utley’s Arcadia Lost – which explored some of the more ambient and avant garde sound design possibilities of the instruments onstage.

Following the intermission, the ensemble resumed the concert with a novel take on a 2-minute Bach allegro, stretched out to a glacial adagio, with Gregory inviting the audience to imagine someone listening to the piece while falling into a black hole and experiencing distortions of time. ‘We’re working our way along the knobs’ he announced, before the ensemble launched into a rhythmic piece composed entirely of white noise. Further exploring rhythm and movement, the next piece played with duration, accompanied by pounding drums from a modular synth. The concert wound up with an homage to John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, followed by an encore of pieces about, inexplicably enough, Tim Henman.

This is the second outstanding concert I’ve attended at the RNCM this Autumn, after a supremely entertaining performance by Canadian pianist Chilly Gonzales in September. I’ll be keeping an eye on the listings for 2019.

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PhD Thesis Bound and Submitted!

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It’s been four years in the making, but I finally have my thesis bound and ready to join the other theses wherever they end up.

The corrections were fairly minimal: a couple of diagrams, a definition in the first chapter, and a new abstract. I had a month to do them, but there was a bit of a delay over the summer while I waited for my examiner’s report.

I submitted it with a digital appendix, containing the Pd patches and the clips of compositions made in the classrooms I visited, so I’ll be uploading those to this page soon. That’s all for now.

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New track…

🚀

^ click the rocket

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[polyform~] – Eigenlicht (22-EDO)

New music project, new Soundcloud page, new track.
I’ve been working on a live set of microtonal electronica with reactive geometric visuals for a while. No visuals to upload just yet, but this is a first demo of one of the tracks, Eigenlicht (22-EDO).
There will be a theme of unusual geometry, colour and pattern to these tracks.
This one uses 22 notes per octave rather than the usual 12. I made it using Max/MSP and Ableton Live.
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My Viva Experience

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had my PhD viva last week. In the weeks leading up to it, I spent a considerable amount of time reading posts about other people’s experiences. You don’t have to go far down the search results to find the awful stories about it all going wrong, and four years of research going out of the window – these stories are probably the most widely read viva experiences, and yet the chances of anything similar happening are pretty remote, assuming that you’ve done the work yourself and made some contribution to your field, however small, and that your supervisor thinks you’re ready to submit. So, I decided to post about my viva experience in the hope that someone else finds it useful as they wait for their own exam.

I submitted by thesis at the end of April – This took a real push, as I could have extended the writing-up phase indefinitely if left to my own device. I constantly felt that it just needed a bit more work, so I was still adding material when I really should have been cutting it down and tidying it up. Eventually, my supervisor encouraged me to just give my notice of intent to submit and get it boxed off. This turned out to be the push I needed to finish it, and though I got it submitted in time, I was working right down to the deadline making changes. After this, I didn’t look at my thesis at all. I went on a short holiday, did some other work, and allowed myself to do other things I hadn’t had time for, such as making music and doing things with family.

I had the viva date confirmed for the 9th of July, and started preparing 3 weeks beforehand. The first thing I did was to re-print my thesis and put it in a file, and then collected various highlighters and post-notes of different colours. I then read my thesis for the first time in 2 months. It was important that I’d had this break as it meant I had a fresh perspective; I spotted a lot of typos and other errors which I’d been completely unaware of when submitting, and also noticed other things, such as opportunities for further research, weak points in the argument, good points which should have been reinforced or worded differently, and so on. I marked any errors with red pen, and then assigned a post-it and highlighter colour for four areas I’d look for:

1. Key points and findings – anything which leads to and supports my conclusion
2. Originality – anything new or novel
3. Gaps and limitations – any weak points, limitations with the research model or thesis
4. Opportunities and wider application – any ideas, findings or suggestions which could be taken further in future research

As I went through the thesis looking for these four points, marking examples in the text and writing a few notes on post-its, I tried to think of any questions I might be asked, and added these to a list. If I had any responses on post-it notes, or within the thesis, I added the page numbers to these questions so I could find the material again later.

I probably went through the thesis, in this level of detail, three times over the next couple of weeks. During this time, I had a mock viva with my supervisor, which was useful as it gave me an idea of the kind of specific questions I might get asked. Having something of a tendency towards pessimism, many of my proposed questions were unrealistically aggressive, so I was put at ease by the line of questioning my supervisor took, which was aimed at promoting discussion rather than finding faults.

I then made a list of questions I might get asked, and added notes and page numbers from my thesis to help me answer them. There are lots of examples of viva questions online – You will often be asked to start by describing your thesis briefly, and will almost certainly be asked about your methodological model. Some questions will be specific to your thesis, so it’s a good idea to come up with a list of your own questions as well as some general ones. I had a few pages of these, and worked on notes and page numbers for all of them. I also had some other notes, such as a summary of my findings across all of my studies, a summary of each chapter, some abbreviated useful quotes which would be central to my argument with their page numbers in the thesis, and so on. All these notes, and my annotated thesis, were what I used to revise. I would look up a question at random and then give an answer to an imaginary panel. If I struggled with any question, I made more notes on this subject. This was a useful process, as it highlighted certain things I wouldn’t have expected to find difficult; for example, I knew my findings, but struggled to summarise them concisely. I spent a lot of time going on walks and fixing these details in my mind during these couple of weeks, and I think this paid off.

I’d been making sure to maintain a regular sleeping pattern, get up early, exercise etc. so I actually felt quite well rested when the viva came around. The day before the viva (a Sunday), I saw family, went for a walk, did a few things I enjoyed and took a break from my thesis and revision, so I didn’t feel too stressed out. I generally have difficulty sleeping at the best of times, so I didn’t have high hopes for the night before the viva, but I think having a day off helped me to relax. I felt that I’d prepared as well as I could so I didn’t feel anxious.

My viva was scheduled for 10.30am Monday, so I got up at 5am. I have an unshakeable belief in sod’s law, so I was fully expecting some sort of commuting catastrophe, and set off just after 6am to allow lots of time. This got me in before 7am, so I checked I had everything then had a walk around the park while I waited for the building in which my exam would take place to open. At 8am, I got in an set up the room how I wanted it – I had some software to set up for demonstration, and some tablets and other resources I wanted to use, so I set these up and arranged the tables. Below is a photo taken later on by my supervisor, of the view from the room I was in – As it happens, my dad was working on that building site that day just over the other side of the river. If he’d brought some binoculars, he could have checked how it was going:

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At about 9.45am, a caterer arrived with some coffee and pastries, and the external examiner at about 10am. I was a bit nervous about meeting my external examiner, who is a prominent academic from my field who had come over from Cambridge University. I was glad that they arrived early, as I was able to have a chat with them, and this put me at ease. My supervisor later arrived, along with the internal examiner and the chair.

The chair introduced the session, and myself and my supervisor left for a few minutes while they discussed the agenda. I then was called back in, demonstrated the software and was asked the questions. This all took about 2 hours. The questions were tough but encouraging – it was mostly aimed at extending ideas rather than finding faults with them. I defended certain points, such as the methodological and analytical model I’d used, and the implications of the findings, and conceded certain other points which I knew would involve minor corrections, such as unclear definitions and possible additions, diagrams etc. As the exam went on, we began to discuss possibilities for future research, so I was pretty certain by this point that I’d passed. I was asked to step out again for a few minutes, and was called back in to be told that I’d passed at A2, which means a few minor corrections. A1 means pass with no corrections, which I understand almost never happens. My supervisor had been confident that I’d get an A2 after the mock exam, and it turned out he was right.

After the exam, the caterer brought lunch in, and we all chatted for a while until the external examiner had to catch their train back to Cambridge. They had some very nice things to say about my research. All in all, I couldn’t have hoped for it to go much better than it did. I was glad I’d prepared for it, and thought about the amount of time I’d spent fretting about it. For anyone else who’s viva is coming up, I’d say don’t get worried, just get ready. It was a really enjoyable experience – after all, how often do you get to discuss something you’re passionate about, that you’ve worked on for 3 or 4 years and become an expert in, to an interested specialist audience?

I don’t have any photos of the viva itself, but I did present some of my work for the Festival of Research at Salford yesterday, so here are a couple of photos from that:

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Viva and other news

This page has been quiet for a while. I’ve been fairly busy finishing off my PhD, so the months since my last post have been occupied by writing, revising and the occassional existential crisis. I’m pleased to report, however, that I passed my viva a week ago, with just a few minor corrections. My external examiner was a prominent theorist from my field, whose work is cited at several key points in my thesis, so I was very proud to have my research not only passed but very positively reviewed. I’m going to post a detailed explanation of how I prepared for my viva later this week for those who may find it useful.

In other news, I’ve started a new research project at the University of Salford with my PhD supervisor Professor Alan Williams. This project is aimed at producing an orchestral piece for performance at the Red Brick Sessions which will be written by local primary school children using my sandbox composing programme Graphick Score. My current job is to migrate the system to Unity so it can run on touchscreen tablet. More updates on this project to follow.

Finally, I never got round to posting about my attendance at NERA 2018 in March. After attending NERA 2017 last year, I wanted to attend again and present my research in it’s final stages. Again, I’ll maybe say more about this in a future post, but for now here are some photos of the beautiful Oslo, Norway, where this year’s conference took place:

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New Approaches in Open Access Publishing

Open access publishing has presented new opportunities for making research accessible and interactive, and the publication of my paper Towards an Effective Freeware Resource for Music Composition in the Primary Classroom in the London Review of Education last month raised one such possibility.

My research involves experimenting with new software approaches for musical pedagogy, and consequently much of my evidence consists of materials which cannot be effectively communicated by the usual text and image format of academic journals, such as audio, video and interactive examples. This has been a source of uncertainty for me in terms of how I’ll submit my PhD thesis, and how I’ll present the evidence I’ve collected during the past few years. The editors at UCL IoE Press wanted their readers to be able to see and hear the examples I discuss in my paper, so they asked me to export the files pupils made with my composing environment Graphick Score as videos. These were uploaded to the London Review of Education YouTube channel, with hyperlinks to specific videos embedded in the text of the article. This is an original approach which, in the spirit of open access, allows the reader to more fully engage with the materials discussed in the paper.

I’m very proud to see this approach taken with my paper, and am excited about the kinds of opportunities open access publishing presents for linking with other media. Practice-based research projects with creative and interactive outcomes have often faced compromise and limitations in how the work can be presented for academic discussion. This example raises the question of how other forms of media may be used to connect readers with research.

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Towards an Effective Freeware Resource for Music Composition in the Primary Classroom, London Review of Education

Second new paper in as many days! My paper ‘Towards an Effective Freeware Resource for Music Composition in the Primary Classroom’ has just been published in the new special issue of the London Review of Education on music education in context.

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This paper goes into some of the research I’ve done for my PhD at the University of Salford, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I talk about how musical pedagogy and creativity can be supported by ‘sandbox’ virtual learning environments, and present classroom research with my own VLE ‘Graphick Score’. The article also breaks new ground by embedding video within an academic paper, which has some real potential for communication and interaction with research of a more practical nature.

The London Review of Education is published by the Institute of Education at University College London. The IOE has been ranked 1st globally for education in the QS World University Rankings since 2014, so I’m exceptionally proud to have my paper published here alongside these other fantastic articles.

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The Tablet as a Classroom Musical Instrument, ATINER Conference Paper

atinerMy conference paper for the Athens Institute for Education and Research, which I attended in May, is now available online. It will be published in one of the forthcoming journals, but the paper is also available here.

The article is about the use of the touchscreen tablet for early-years music education. It refers to some research I did last year with a Year 5 class, working with a fairly simple iPad app prototype to look at some of the basics of collaborative musical performance and composition with a touchscreen device. There were a lot of interesting outcomes from just these two sessions, and I’ve since done more work in this area. I’m currently writing a follow-up paper looking at some further applications of digital technology for creative pedagogy, but before then I’ll be posting links to my article for the London Review of Education, which is also out this month.

I maybe should have waitied another month to post this paper though, as the lessons took place last December and there’s consequently a bit of a festive theme!

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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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