A weekend at Floda 31

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To the untrained eye, Floda 31 appears to be a series of about half a dozen old farmhouses and barns on a large plot of land overlooking a forest. In reality, it’s a multidisciplinary design research facility.

Birmingham-born Rich Holland and his Dutch partner Marije de Haas established it (and are still building it) in the last remaining wilderness of Europe, on the site of a farm in northern Sweden surrounded by incredible views of ancient spruce forests, just south of the arctic circle.

I’m staying here for a couple of days, relaxing, taking in some scenery and getting my head around the kind of innovation that can happen in a place like this – and it’s on a scale that’s much larger than anything I’ve come across.

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Pretty much anything that can be made, can be made here. The workshop contains everything you might need to build anything from a website to a skate park – from a feature film to an observatory to chart the transit of Venus.

The residencies held here bring together science, art, architecture, design and technology to explore ideas and themes – primarily around the concept of sustainability. All of the ideas and innovations created at Floda 31 are made available to the public under a Creative Commons licence.

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The people here are smart, fun and interesting -and the scenery here is breathtaking. It’s a place I’d love to spend a bit more time.

We’ve been talking about putting together an event of some kind. Something that grows out of the Music Tech Fest, but extends it to bring together music and technology, art and architecture, design and innovation. It’d be great to hold some kind of residential event in this really beautiful part of the world.

We’re just kicking around concepts at this point – but something interesting could come of this. Watch this space.

In the meantime, it’s an amazing place to be – and so incredibly quiet. Except, that is, for the constant bouncing around of ideas, the sounds of cooking, laughing and the toddler playing in the corner.

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Just had a lunch of freshly-caught pike from the adjacent river – followed by a swim in an enormous, pristine, and beautifully warm lake entirely surrounded by forest. I could get used to this sort of thing.

Not entirely sure I could get used to the other half of the year when it’s 20-odd degrees below zero and you could walk across this lake, but that’s another story.

Time to move on

Moving house is not the most stressful thing you can do in life, but I’m pretty sure it’s in the top five. Even so, I’ve chosen to do it a lot over the years. I’ve lived in around 25 different houses, flats or apartments since I left my parents’ home in 1989. That’s an average of one a year.

The impulse to keep moving is a strong one. After leaving New Zealand almost ten years ago, I’ve traveled a lot. Thirteen countries just in the last year. Over half of those more than once. I like being elsewhere. I enjoy forward momentum. ‘What comes next’ has always been my primary interest.

As a long-term renter, being able to find somewhere else to live – somewhere better – at short notice is important to me. I like having that option, even if I don’t make use of it.

After all, a house is just a place to keep your stuff. And if you find a nicer place to keep your stuff, why not pack up and move on?

Except at some point, where I live became “home”. I’ve been there for almost five years, which is something of a record for me. It’s in a part of town I love, it has all the elements I like about a house, and I’ve made the place my own. There have been a lot of changes in that time, but I’ve built a life there. I’d even thought about cutting down on the travel, maybe getting a dog and living a more settled life.

So the landlord’s sudden decision to sell comes as something of a shock. I guess that’s the downside of renting: flexibility also means uncertainty.

I wasn’t looking to be packing my life into boxes again, but here we are. I have about six weeks to ensure that this is a move up, not just a move out.

It’s been upsetting – but only for a little while. It’s also exciting. Perhaps this is what I needed. Maybe that feeling of comfort was complacency. It’s possible my love for that house was more a matter of inertia. It’s just a bungalow in Kings Heath. We’re not talking mansion on the lake here.

I don’t know what happens next. I’m stepping out into the unknown. Part of me likes that feeling. It’s a little stressful – and will become more so. But I’m going to look at it as an opportunity. Life is change, right?

Whatever happens, and wherever I go, my contact details will remain the same. I live on the internet.

That festival thing I keep mentioning…

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In May last year, I went to an event called Music Tech Fest to talk about the work that I do as ‘Professor of Music Industry Innovation’ at Birmingham City University… and I pretty much never went home.

Today, I’m the festival director, and we’re taking it around the world.

Music Tech Fest is not a conference. It’s worth pointing that out up front. It’s a festival of music ideas. People come and demonstrate or perform with their new musical inventions, their new research, their new startup company or their new way of creating music – and those ideas are shared, celebrated, discussed and so on.

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While that’s going on, we run an overnight hack camp at which music technologists, DIY electronics enthusiasts, software programmers and makers respond to challenges – to create new types of musical instruments, invent new ways of engaging with music, producing sounds, sharing music or interacting with it. There are prizes.

What’s really exciting is the diversity of music and technology on show. The London festival in September is at the home of the London Symphony Orchestra – and will include everything from Geek Punk (“gunk”) to dance music to pop to contemporary classical composition. We’re going to have live music, the whole thing will be streamed online, and it’ll be both fascinating and a whole lot of fun.

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We’ve already been to Wellington and Boston so far this year and are also going to host Music Tech Fest in Berlin in October, Paris in November and New York in December. Next year is even busier. It’s simultaneously immensely exciting and entirely terrifying.

To be clear – I’m still Professor of Music Industry Innovation. Festival Director is my other full time job. And of course it’s full-on. But I very rarely do things that are not related to that intersection of music and technology these days.

Every piece of leisure time I have is more or less connected to that theme of music and technology. Of course, there is so much overlap between my two roles, it’s sometimes difficult to tell where one stops and the other starts. Which is probably just as well.

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For instance, the festival has an academic symposium component to it – what we call the ‘afterparty’ – a one day seminar that brings together the best academic brains on music tech to discuss and plan research projects. When we did the festival in Boston, Nancy Baym and Jonathan Sterne led a mission to create a Manifesto for the Future of Music Technology Research.

And one of the great things about that was the fact that the academics in the room had just spent the weekend at the festival being inspired by a non-stop showcase of new ideas, inventions and performances. The London ‘after party’ will be a symposium at Queen Mary University London at which we will discuss possible interdisciplinary and collaborative research projects (and potential sources of funds to run those projects) that might arise out of that manifesto.

The festival itself is hands-on, performance-based, experimental, improvisational and kind of messy – but never dull. It’s a lot of work pulling all of the threads together that make it all happen. I do everything from securing sponsorship to booking acts, negotiating with venues to arranging food for the hackers.

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But the thing that makes it all work is the fact that I am part of an incredible team of people. Don’t for a moment assume that I’m doing all the work here. Far from it. I get to do the fun and interesting stuff: meeting with incredible people, finding out what they do and inviting them to be part of the excitement. I do some of the logistics, of course – and I don’t want to downplay how utterly involving the whole thing is – but I am far from alone in this.

And the interesting thing about this is that the entire team is made up of people who, like me, went to the festival and pretty much never went home.

The reason I bring this up is the fact that I’m going to be talking a lot more about Music Tech Fest in blog posts to come. It’s a strange beast, and it takes a while to get your head around it – unless you come to one. Then it immediately makes sense in all its crazy, creative and surprising aspects.

But if you haven’t really encountered it before – consider this a brief introduction. There’s a lot more to it – and I’ll be talking about that here – as well as on the Music Tech Fest site itself.

Teaching machines to make art

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Much of yesterday was spent inside the Málaga Interactive Museum of Music, where I was part of a day-long seminar called 0music – about what it means that computers can now compose music.

The seminar came at the end of a four year research project by Professor Francisco Vico and his team, during which time they had not only created computer software that was capable of composing pieces of music, but had also used that software to create probably the biggest repository of free and open source music in the world.

I was one of five presenters given an hour to explore what exactly that might mean for culture, for society and for the science of music.

It should be said right at the outset that the music that Iamus, the computer composer, has created is a particular kind of contemporary classical music that will cause little or no concern to composers of popular songs. But what’s interesting is that these thousands upon thousands of compositions provide a tool, rather than a replacement, for composers who do work in that area.

And – moreover – it would appear to pass, if such a thing exists, a Turing test for music. Had I not known that ‘Hello World!’ was not written by a human, I for one would not have been able to guess.

The presenters represented a cross-section of approaches to this idea: a computer scientist working at the intersection of artificial intelligence and music; a science writer who has written a book about the human need for music; a communication professor with an interest in the relationship between humans and machines throughout the history of music, a composer and pianist who uses scientific principles and computation as the basis for his work – and me: someone who thinks about the relationship between media technologies, music and culture.

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The different perspectives were interesting – not least because of the overall optimistic tone about the prospect for computer-composed (and not just computer-generated) music.

We discussed the fact that the idea of humans using machines and algorithms to shortcut the process of music creation is hardly new – and that regardless of the level of autonomy of the artificial intelligence at work – what is being enhanced is the degree to which human beings can communicate through music.

But while this is clearly a landmark in the development of artificial intelligence in the area of music, I’m left with the idea that it would have been interesting to find out whether Iamus could have written a simple pop song, a house tune, or even some library music for commercial use. It seems that the rules in those areas of music are fairly straightforward – but that there are also some things that humans do intuitively that lift those forms beyond mere algorithm.

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In fact, it may even be an indictment on Western classical music that so much of the intellectual heavy lifting of composition can be convincingly outsourced to a machine. There have been computer-generated Bach pastiches in the past that have been incredibly convincing – but only because of the rules and parameters that Bach himself adhered to in the creation of his music. But contemporary classical music, to most listeners, is at a level of abstraction that can make it difficult to locate the intention, the communicative content and the emotional essence of a piece.

Even so – to call what Iamus creates ‘art’ is contentious at the very least. Art suggests some sort of intentionality. Where the art happens for me is the point at which Gustavo takes the compositions and arranges them, edits them and performs them. How those pieces are used as acts of human communication are more interesting to me than the works themselves.

And yet, when you listen to ‘Hello World!’ and forget about the provenance of the composition, there is an unmistakably authentic musicality about it. Perhaps this comes from the fact that the piece is played by human musicians using traditional orchestral instruments – and we simply ascribe particular meanings to those sounds played in those ways – but I think it would be wrong to say that because of the way in which the music was made, it has no meaning.

Interestingly, one of the criticisms of the project that came out at the seminar yesterday was that the pieces that Iamus creates are not abstract enough. That a computer should be able to do things with music that humans won’t do: create works that only a 27-fingered pianist could play, perhaps. But I’d like to see it attempt simplicity.

That said – a really fascinating day – and given that it was one that included some very good tapas, a walk around a beautiful city, a successful bit of second hand record shopping, a siesta and a group of new friends, I’m calling it a success.

Morning in Málaga

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I deliberately woke up early to catch the sunrise in Málaga today. I’m not here for long, and I want to see a little bit of it, so I think a walk before breakfast might be in order. That view above is from my hotel room. You can smell the sea from here. It’s already warm and I can hear music, motor scooters and seagulls, despite being right in the city centre.

I’m here to do a presentation at a one-day symposium about computers in music. I’m not entirely sure how that happened, but I’m glad that it did.

My host is Francisco Vico, who for the last four years has been running a research project in which he has developed an artificial intelligence system that can compose music with no human intervention. That music has been performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and has been recorded and professionally released.

This article explains the project well.

As you might expect – a computer composer can be prolific. Iamus, the non-human intelligence behind the works, is about to release its second album. The first, which contains the contemporary classical work ‘Hello World!‘, was the first record solely composed by a computer programme and recorded by human musicians.

I’m here with UK science writer Philip Ball, whose book The Music Instinct is one of my favourite works on the subject – up there with Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia.

There are just five speakers today, but they are from very different fields – ranging from respected composer Gustavo Díaz-Jerez to a media and cultural studies academic (that would be me). Our role here is to reflect on different aspects of what it means that computers can compose music. None of us, as far as I can tell, seem particularly averse to the idea.

Not that all music should be composed by artificial intelligence, of course – but that it can, and is being composed. I think that’s interesting, and I think it’s important that it’s happening – because that potentially changes our relationship with music yet again – in much the same way that the industrialisation of music production changes our relationship with it.

Our audience, however, might differ. For the most part, we’ll be talking today to a group of musicians from the Málaga Conservatory, and our brief is to be provocative. Not argumentative, necessarily – but provocative in the sense of challenging people to think in ways they ordinarily might not. I think I can manage that.

My presentation is about how music has fundamentally changed in terms of how we compose, produce, distribute and consume it with each major shift in the dominant media environment – from an oral society, to a print society to an age of digital media – and beyond. I started writing about that here on this blog a little while back, but I’ve since refined the idea somewhat – and this one-hour presentation today is my first chance to try the now slightly more elegant theory out in public.

Of course, it’ll have to be clear – and, since the presentation will be in English in a Spanish-speaking country, I’ll need to keep the pace significantly below my usual rapid-fire delivery – but I’m looking forward to presenting and defending my work, because this is what a lot of my research over the last decade has led up to – and there have been a number of recent ‘Eureka!’ moments that tie all the pieces together. And this reflection on the Melomics AI research project is the perfect opportunity to try these ideas out.

But first, I’m going to have a proper look at Málaga – as much as you can before breakfast, at any rate. And later today, I’m told there’s a very good second hand record store where I can pick up some flamenco music on vinyl. Because really – that’s the important bit.

Not my film about Brazilian music

British DJ Gilles Peterson has made an album of Brazilian music, and in order to promote it, he took a filmmaker to Rio with him to make a 3-minute promotional ‘behind the scenes’ YouTube video. That video grew in ambition and scope to become a 75 minute film about Brazilian culture, politics, musical heritage and the making of what appears to be something of a landmark album.

The film’s now completed – and it had a preview screening upstairs at my local pub, The Hare and Hounds. And I was invited to host the Q&A afterwards. Partly, I suppose, because of my own interest in Brazilian music.

Brasil Bam Bam Bam is about, among other things, Gilles’s hunt for a rare and elusive Brazilian record, some of the overlooked history of Brazilian music, the culture and social setting from which the music emerges, and also, of course, about making a record that brings together traditional and new sounds.

The film is very much about Gilles himself too. Probably far more than Gilles was probably expecting. Here is someone with a lifelong passion for something that a lot of people would see as very geeky and insular – digging for rare and obscure vinyl – and yet this is a celebration of the connections, experiences and friendships that can come out of seriously indulging your enthusiasms.

In the film, Gilles is essentially a kid in a candy store, and the wide-eyed excitement at every encounter is a real insight into someone who is simply incapable of becoming cynical, jaded or blasé about continually meeting his heroes and experiencing both new and old music for the first time. Gilles has so many fans, because over and above everything else, he is one.

Gilles has been a DJ, broadcaster, record label owner and producer for over 25 years – and for me, he’s been something of – if not an inspiration as such, then at least a sort of guide. As a record collector and as a radio broadcaster, Gilles has been pretty influential in terms of my tastes and my search for selecting “the right next record”.

Far more than John Peel for me, Gilles has been a model of eclecticism – because he adds that dimension of working within a set of parameters that considers how one song is given context by the songs you play either side of it.

There’s an incredibly broad range of music in the sonic world of Gilles Peterson – and it includes music from so many different countries and eras – but it all hangs together. It makes sense as a collection, and each tune relates to each other tune in some way. I really admire that way of thinking about music, and it’s that aspect of his ‘oeuvre’ (if a DJ can be said to have an oeuvre) that really appeals to me.

Put another way – if Gilles likes it, I’ll probably like it too – whether it’s jazz, reggae, hip hop, soul, funk, bossanova, cumbia or disco.

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By sheer coincidence, the screening happened one year to the day after Michela and I went to Brazil to start work on our own documentary film, ‘Occupy Music’, which is still in the pipeline and has a long way to go yet. So I was very interested to see the differences (and there are many) between the Brazil that Gilles experienced and the one that we have caught on camera. That’s probably another story for another day.

The fact that this preview screening happened to be at my local pub, and the fact that I got the opportunity to chat with and finally properly thank Gilles for his influence, is something that I’m very grateful to my friend Adam Regan for.

Adam is not only the owner of the pub nearest my house, he’s also a DJ, promoter and label owner with a long history of working with some of the best musicians and DJs in the country.

As a result, we’re often spoiled with gigs by the likes of Quantic, Alice Russell, Marlena Shaw, Basement Jaxx, Roy Ayers, The Hot 8 Brass Band, Norman Jay, Mr Scruff – and we’re looking forward to gigs by Jungle Brothers, Amp Fiddler and more. Having a place like that on your doorstep really gives a neighbourhood an incredibly special vibe – and everyone around here who frequents that place is very aware of how unique that is.

And for me – you couldn’t ask for better. We are a small village in South Birmingham that gets an incredible array of the best of my favourite music in the world pretty much every week.

Of course, Adam and Gilles have been friends for years.

So… it’s moments like these, when you approach ten years of living in a place, when you start to notice that you’ve become part of the life of that community. And I’m really lucky that that life intersects so closely with so much of the music that I love. That sometimes I get asked to play records, or – in this case – talk to the people who do.

And it happens in a way that is entirely particular to this place, with these people, at this time. It’s a good moment to be in Kings Heath, Birmingham for me right now. I’m often far too busy running around everywhere else to notice that.

This was a real honour for me – as well as a long overdue opportunity to stay out late, spend a bit of time on the dancefloor, as well as catch up with some of my favourite people in town.