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Tag: music technology

Open letter to Paul White

Birmingham, 22 September 2003

To Paul White, Editor in Chief, Sound On Sound magazine

Dear Paul,

thank you for your leader column on the October 2003 issue. You have simply and beautifully put into words something we all feel when working on a music project in a technology-dependent environment, be it on a lone laptop or in a complex project studio: our creative energy is often held captive by the incredible amount of big and small technological problems we have to solve all the time.
Music software (almost ANY music software, unfortunately…) is the classical example, where hundreds of features are there to mask essentially flawed designs. Or how else would you describe technology that requires you to spend anything from 25% to 50% of your working time fixing things?
I worked for 5 years with the late Luciano Berio. One thing we disagreed upon was the role of technology in music: he was still convinced, like Stockhausen and the other great masters of his generation, that technology should be the result of musical thinking, the answer to a compositional problem; musical ideas triggered and in a way generated and justified the development of technology. My argument on the other hand was – and still is – that today music technology is more like a sea of possibilities, a huge expanse where composers wander and pick cherries at leisure. Musical ideas cannot influence technology developments anymore. Technology is already there. We must learn to choose and select what we really need for our musical projects. Sadly, the advances in technology have not made the choice any easier.
Which brings me to the last point: have you ever thought that SOS articles – with their unrelenting focus on new products and technologies irrespective of the human/emotional/musical value – are fostering a culture of technology for technology’s sake? It is maybe time for you to take a stance, and focus only on those products/technologies that show a real concern for the workings of the musical mind and the needs of the creative process. The risk of course is that you’re probably going to end up with a very thin magazine…

Best wishes


Fanfare interview

George Caird, Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, interviewed me for the Fanfare magazine in 2001.

* * *

Composer and Music Technologist, Lamberto Coccioli came to the Conservatoire in September 2000 to take up the newly created post of Head of Music Technology. George Caird spoke to him about Music Technology and his particular interest in new technologies applied to music performance.

GC With our diaries the way they are, interviewing for an article in Fanfare will be a very good way of catching up with you on all that is going on in the Music Technology Department. I suppose the first and most obvious question is: why did you decide to come and work in England?

LC The main reason was that the new Head of Music Technology post here offered the chance to do something “from scratch”. My experience is that it is much harder to undo habits and established ways of going about things and it seemed possible at the Conservatoire to move forward very quickly. I was also interested in the artistic possibilities for Music Technology which you seemed so open toward.

GC And we were very interested in this approach too. You are a composer who also has become expert in music technology. For you, what is music technology?

LC The expression “music technology” covers a vast range of interrelated disciplines. My specific approach to technology is to look at it from a performer’s point of view. We need to consider technology just like another instrument – albeit a very multi-faceted and complex one – and learn how to play it. It is a powerful tool for composers and performers alike. Technology can amplify and project musical ideas and gestures. Technology can help expand and unmask what is latent in the music. But musical ideas should always remain the starting point of any technological process applied to them.

GC For many of us, Music Technology can be a confusing term. The explanation you have just given does not include recording technology for example.

LC That’s right. As I said, Music Technology is a byword for many things and covers recording and production, live sound, music for traditional and new media, and many other areas of application. We are covering all of these areas within the department , with a specific emphasis on technology in performance.

GC When you came to the Conservatoire, our facilities were not very advanced. Since then, we have invested quite a lot in new facilities for your department.

LC I’m very pleased with the consistent and generous support for the department. We now have an iMac lab with 8 fully equipped music workstations running the latest software, 2 editing suites, one for audio-visual projects, and three recording studios: we have completely renovated the recording studio for the Adrian Boult Hall and we are now building a new digital studio for DVD authoring and surround sound in addition to the existing recording studio in the Ground Floor Extension. Both these studios will feature state-of-the-art ProTools HD3 systems and the new Yamaha DM2000 and 02R/96 digital mixing desks.

GC What about staffing?

LC We have also been lucky to appoint Simon Hall as Assistant Head of Music Technology. Simon is Course Director for the new BSc joint course in Music Technology which we are running with UCE’s Engineering Faculty at the Technology Innovation Centre. He is a composer and contributes to our work on performance with technology. Matthew O’Malley, our studio manager, is himself an accomplished musician and ensures the smooth running of our facilities.

GC Tell me something about the creative work which the department is doing.

LC We are working with the Conservatoire’s composition students using live electronics. Some of our students, notably James Hoult, David Denholm, Liz Johnson, Chris McClelland, have taken to this medium with great imagination and new works have been performed on a number of occasions over the past two years.
In addition, some instrumentalists and singers have shown interest in this kind of work. Pianists Laure Pinsmail and Katharine Lam have performed with live electronics in the past year and soprano Sarah Busfield’s performance of Jonathan Harvey’s From Silence with the composer in attendance was a memorable highlight this year.

GC What are your artistic aims for this area of performance?

LC To perform important works by leading composers like Harvey, Boulez, Nono, Reich, Francesconi, etc., in order to establish a continuity between existing repertoire and new works. I want to promote the use of technology in performance to convince artistic directors and conservatoires that this is an important, growing area of creativity. My dream is to establish here a Centre for Performance and Technology, a place where students and professionals can work together.

GC Of course, you are primarily a composer and you worked for many years with Luciano Berio. Are you finding time for composition and what are you working on?

LC I am writing but I certainly need more time! After my experience with Magma I’m planning to write another operatic work with new technologies. Magma involved amplified actors, singers, and orchestra, live electronics and real-time video manipulation. It explored musical gesture and ritual structures, using technology as a means of revealing hidden archetypes. I am interested in how technology can add layers of meaning to the music, “extracting” meaning from a kernel.

GC What other works have you written recently?

LC I’m working on an orchestral piece based on recordings I made of Indian songs and natural sounds from the Orinoco basin in Colombia. Here I analysed the harmonic spectrum of the sounds and then used them to create with the orchestra a sort of “blurred photograph” of the original soundscape, filtering sounds into a complex score. Last year I have also finished river teach me, a work for soprano and string quartet on a text by the late Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, performed recently by the Thallein Ensemble in the Conservatoire.

GC What would you like the Conservatoire to do in response to your ideas on new music?

LC To be more aware of what is going on creatively. To move towards more varied creative ensembles and away from the conventions involving larger orchestras. I would like to see us involved in more cross-faculty and cross-arts work with new media and interdisciplinary creativity, especially with BIAD. We will be showing some possibilities at next year’s Music Xtra Festival in March.

GC I agree that we must look at the potential in all these ideas. It is very exciting to see the Conservatoire responding to the possibilities created by you and your department. Lastly, you are a fine musician and an expert in Music Technology. You also speak four languages fluently and you and Gloria just had a third child…how do you manage so much?

LC Of course I have been lucky to grow up in the center of Europe where speaking more than one language is common. But I am interested in the power of possibilities, in lateral thinking and in taking opportunities as they arise. All these things bring new cultures and enrichment to us all.

Music as Memory conference

Geir Johnson, Artistic Director of Ultima, the Oslo Contemporary Music Festival, invited me to give a talk on “Music and Technology: past, present and future” at the _Music as Memory_ conference, on Friday 6 October 2006. The conference was part of this year’s Ultima Festival. I enjoyed listening to Geir’s profound, personal talk introducing the conference, and to Stein Henrichsen (BIT20 Ensemble and Opera Vest), Luca Francesconi, Lasse Thoresen and Asbjörn Schaathun, also giving very interesting talks. Asbjörn gave an entertaining definition of a “perfect” creative person, obtained by combining together the different talents and characters of the four Beatles. The notes for my talk follow below.

Music and Technology – past, present and future

Music as memory
The relationship with tradition, the interaction of current artistic trends with the past is a central aspect of music making. Thanks to technology, composers, performers, indeed all music actors like you – artistic directors etc, have direct access to a wealth of resources that extend both on the geographical, horizontal plane, and on a very long vertical axis towards the past. This three-dimensional, always available on-demand mapping of human creativity in the arts is an unprecedented feat that demands a complete rethinking of our relationship with the past, with musical tradition.

The same technology that allows us to explore and appropriate the musical universe in space and time, has altered our perception of the world in many ways. Digital technology allows anything. When everything is equally available, what is the aesthetic, artistic value of a choice? How do we establish a dialogue with tradition in the current situation?
We live in the age of technology, after science, history, philosophy, religion.
Technology is overwhelming. Also, technology is *never* neutral. How can we make sense of it? By reconducing it to a human dimension. How?

The Humanist Challenge:
# junghian, ethnomusicological alternative – the consolation of archetypes
# ethical alternative – music with a message
# gestural alternative – music with the body

I’ll try to give an answer to these questions later on in my talk, from the point of view of music technology.

The past
Music as memory – from the perspective of music with technology the challenge is to allow music to become memory in the first place. Preservation of interactive, real-time, live electronics works is a daunting task that has to be tackled in a novel way.
[If we look at electroacoustic music, the situation is comparatively quite good. Once the original analogue supports have been converted to digital, preservation is ensured. True, the passage from analog to digital is difficult, and many works from the 50s and 60s where conceived with the idiosyncrasies of early recording, mixing and diffusion equipment in mind [another example of non-neutral technology!]. Those peculiarities became an essential part of the work, as it has been shown time and again in the works of Berio, Stockhausen, Schaeffer, etc.]
To get back to live electroacoustic music, as we should call live electronics, the obvious problem is the longevity of technologies, hardware and software, their rapid change, the commercial, hence temporary, nature of many of the devices used and the overall lack of documentation from the composers and interpreters. To maintain a piece using obsolete technology is very difficult, sometimes downright impossible. If a piece is not performed anymore, then it ceases to be an active agent in cultural and music life. This is too bad.

The role of the research centres
IRCAM – it has certainly helped to shape the contemporary music scene, and its contribution cannot be played down. Boulez managed to create something that lasted and thrived for many years, expanding in more directions as time went by. If we compare this with the UK experience or the Italian experience, for example, IRCAM has been an outright success. In the UK, the efforts to create a National Centre for Electronic Music were never taken seriously by the government, and in Italy, a place like the Centro Tempo Reale in Florence, founded by the late Luciano Berio, never took off properly, and was widely regarded to be just Berio’s own technology plaything – of course this says more about the difference in character between the two composers (Boulez and Berio) than about local obstacles to achieve a similar goal.

IRCAM, nevertheless, as a growing big institution has suffered from many organisational and structural problems, that have become often artistic problems, like the establishment of an IRCAM style that can be quickly recognised – again, technology, the means of producing music with technology, are never neutral, but they affect every aspect of the creative compositional process.

Computers are not neutral tools. Software and hardware impose their own architecture. As any composer that works with technology will tell you, when you are working on a new piece and sit down at the computer to do any of a number of things (analyse, design, edit and mix sounds, prepare your own compositional material by using algorithms, note generators, etc., put together your performance environment and so on), your frame of mind changes, and you have to adapt and limit your thought processes to those that the machine, the software you’re using will allow. It is all very well to say that if you need to alter the software you are interacting with, or if you are unhappy with it you can modify or write your own – in practice you can’t transform yourself in a programmer – apart from the vast amount of time that would be needed, if you do it you will need to distance yourself even more from your musical mind, the one that initially triggered the need.

So again, technology is not neutral. And if a composer works on the technology with a musical assistant, this creates another layer between the musical mind and the machine, another constraint. (Critique of IRCAM) At IRCAM and elsewhere, the main policy has been for many years to support composers through musical assistants, acting as a filter between the composer and the machine. It is no wonder that the software developed at IRCAM has never reached the simplicity of use, the fluidity that one would expect from an institution with such great minds and resources behind it. The maintenance and documentation of the software has also been always very patchy. Obviously a pachydermic institution like IRCAM has a built-in inertia that makes change difficult, but creating simple tools for musicians has never been one of the IRCAM’s priorities.

Maintenance and preservation are also thorny issues. We are trying to find a possible solution to these issues with the Integra project.

The present
Technology is the beast. From a philosophical standpoint, music technology offers a very exciting challenge: artists working with computers, altering the code, hacking it, to realise things that were not planned by the software designers, fulfill the historical role of art: disrupting received knowledge, reordering, reassembling the symbols and objects of our society in an original, critical way. But can we apply to technology the same concepts that worked for art in the past? I doubt it.

Technology is so embedded in our lives, but we still feel the distance from it. It’s here but it’s not here. We think we have the philosophical tools to dominate it, to explain and describe technology, but in reality we don’t. Technology is a self-feeding monster, what can be realised will be realised. There is no goal in technology, no purpose, everything is outside our human horizon of meaning. We are now learning to find a new vocabulary to deal with this monster, but it is early days.

Technology has no memory, Technology has no meaning. Why technology in music? We have to humanise it, and adopt standards. The fundamental issue with technology lies in its unlimited potential and its self-replicating nature: technology is inherently meaningless. If we are going to use it in music we will have to ask ourselves some hard questions. Why do we need it? How can it be musical? How can it be controlled? In order to be harnessed, technology should be brought back to a human dimension, and considered just like another musical instrument – a polymorphous one, to be sure, but still an instrument – that we can learn and play. To achieve this, we should simplify music technology, and to establish a standard vocabulary to describe it.

The word “standard” is often disliked, but we should not forget that the musical instruments employed in our concerts are themselves “standard”, in fact quite limited ones: nevertheless, they allow the transmission of an extremely complex and diversified musical message.

Integra is not alone in this effort towards more user-friendly technology, although it is only recently that usability, good interface design and a preoccupation for how humans operate have started to appear in technology products. Sadly, as far as the history of music technology is concerned, we are still living in the colonisation phase. I like to compare our current experience with the Wild West: new territories are conquered every day, there are no common laws, survival depends from individual initiative. And we are all still digging in search of that elusive gold mine.

This explains the proliferation of do-it-yourself systems over the past three decades, when each work, even by the same composer, required a different technological setup (hardware, software, or both). The often-poor documentation of the electronic parts and the rapid obsolescence of the original hardware and software have prevented the adoption of a core repertoire of works using live electronics in mainstream concert programmes.

Design – usability = make it simple! We need to trade the technological DIY approach (temporary, non-standard, often undocumented) with a user-centred approach, to ensure more performance opportunities and long-term preservation. Standards and limitations in technology can be an incentive for creativity.

The future
Integra project

Integra environment outline

Integra namespace – class hierarchy describing all the modules, parameters and functionalities, including time. Built-in inheritance. Everything is an object. The namespace is OSC-compliant for interaction with other software, network performance, etc., but not internally. OSC is one of the possible implementation of the Integra namespace model.

Database [postgres sql]
• Integra modules [the building blocks of the system]
• Composition metadata [documentation on the work, the composer, the technical setup, etc.]
• Composition performance data [control and audio network and signal flow, behaviour in perfomance]

All data is encoded in XML format. All the XML files that constitute a work can be downloaded and will automatically generate modules and connections in the GUI.

GUI [any graphic library, prototype realised with Max/MSP using custom graphic library]
• interface for the musician, fine-tuned for the three main modes of utilisation: composition, rehearsal, live performance
• modular and powerful: everything is an object, every object can interact withj everything else
• extremely user-friendly
• uses new paradigms to represent concurrent timelines [Iannix]
• generates xml files
• talks to the engine in real-time
• visualizes processes in real-time

Engine [any DSP application supporting the Integra namespace]
• runs Integra modules

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