Music and Tech in the City of London

What?

I never imagined I’d travel across an ocean and to another country for my STEP experience, but that’s exactly what I did.  In July 2014, I attended NIME – that is, New Interfaces for Musical Expression – in London, England.  NIME is an annual conference that unites academics, students, inventors, artists, musicians, engineers – an incredible variety of people from all different disciplines  – to explore how people express and interact with music.

I first heard about the conference after attending a lecture at OSU by Dr. Rebecca Fiebrink, an OSU alumna-now-professor who earned dual degrees in Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) and Music.  As a CSE major, I’m interested in combining music and technology for assistive projects in areas such as music therapy, healthcare, and education.  Dr. Fiebrink’s background and led me to sit in on her lecture and to later explore the research she has done – and the conferences she had attended. Consequentially I discovered NIME. Midway through the year, I was excited to hear that Dr. Fiebrink had moved to the very university that was hosting NIME in 2014. I soon found myself contacting her and developing my STEP proposal with the intention of attending NIME, and by May of 2014, I was booked for a flight to London.

Goldsmiths Music Studios

NIME was held at Goldsmiths College, University of London, which is well known for its music, arts, and media programs. The conference consisted of paper, poster, and demonstration sessions during the day, interspersed with performances in the afternoons and evenings.  Unlike most of the attendees, I was simply an observer, rather than a presenter or a well-established academic.  However, I do not say this with disappointment.  Attending just as I was, a curious undergraduate who happened to find her way to NIME, allowed more freedom to explore and reflect.  Wherever I went, my small black notebook was at my side, ready for my overzealous writing hand to jot down some important observation or fleeting amusement.

The conference had everything.  Topics included, collaborative music, motion and sensing, instrument design, and many others. The paper sessions were more academic in nature, whereas the demos and displays were often highly interactive.  In the same day, I could listen to a speaker from Stanford present on manipulating sounds with movement, then try my hand at something similar in nature by playing a modified version of Guitar Hero. And in the process of floating from room to room, my observer eyes wide with excitement, I met people from all different academic backgrounds and countries, each of whom had unique perspectives on music, technology, and life.

City of London Baglione

Aside from the conference, I got the chance to explore an incredible city.  Finding my wandering traveler’s feet to be the best mode of transportation (after the London rail system, of course), I walked myself from London Bridge to St. Paul’s cathedral, along the Thames, to the Globe Theater, and through the Tate Museum of Modern Art. I ventured into coffee shops and through the charming streets of SoHo.  I journeyed to Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral, and Covent Garden Market.  I even got to spend a day in the English countryside with the kindest relatives of a family friend.  I had a taste of London culture, and it was truly an experience.  By the time I returned to the U.S. just a week later, my shoes were marked with travelers’ miles and my notebook and head were bursting with ideas.

So What?

I went to NIME with the impression that I already knew what music was.  But from day one, the conference challenged me to rethink the way I heard (and saw and felt) music.  As I wove my way through countless displays, demonstrations, and paper and poster sessions, I became a part of a world where sound, movement, and creativity were one entity.  And no, I didn’t think all of it was music.  Yes, I found some sounds and performances harsh, sporadic, or simply “ugly” to my ears.  Others I found to be absolutely beautiful.  I also discovered that I tend to like the sound of music played on more “traditional”- sounding instruments (ones made of wood or brass or that have strings) rather than music generated on a computer (quite ironic, yes, for a student of computer science).

But music wasn’t the half of what I learned.  Through interacting with so many different people, I gained insight into how the rest of the world conducts itself in academics, politics, and many other realms.  One day I ate dinner with a student from New Zealand who had done his graduate studies in Japan and had experience with robotic musical instruments (as well as a keen knowledge of American politics). Another day I had a conversation with a man from the Finland about his music therapy research.

Why does all of this matter?  Because in one short week, I got to experience the world of academia in the context of subjects about which I am passionate – music, technology, and engineering.  And now I have a “game plan” for how to achieve my own research and personal goals in those fields.

Now What?

NIME has caused me to reflect deeply on what I want to do in my graduate studies and where I want to pursue them.  The experiences of that week in London that affected me the most were those that bridged the gap between music and people – specifically, how music and people’s thoughts and emotions link together. Having participated a previous summer research experience in Human-Computer Interaction, I feel like NIME reaffirmed that yes, I really do want to focus on the “human element” of technology in my graduate studies and in my life.

I want to contribute to the growth of music and technology in music therapy, healthcare, and educational settings. NIME really helped me to expand my network so that I can move toward this goal.  During the week I interacted with several professors from U.S. institutions who seemed very receptive of my reasons for attending NIME and who may, in the future, offer the opportunity to pursue one of their graduate studies programs.  If not for the STEP program, I may never have met these professors, nor seen all the ways in which music and technology can work to enrich the human experience.

I remember sitting in on a paper discussion about music therapy and dementia patients and thinking, “I can’t wait until I can contribute something to this!”  Thanks to STEP and NIME, I’m well on my way to doing so.

For more on music and tech and what I did at NIME, follow me on my blog: http://techiegonemusical.wordpress.com

and on Twitter: @TechGoneMusical