Morning in Málaga


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.

Toward a sixth media age

Over my years as an academic, I have developed several pillars of my research. These are ideas I return to time and time again as a leaping off point for understanding other things. I thought it was time I started to put some of them in a form that I can point to as a shorthand so that I don’t have to rehash old territory over and over again. Thankfully, we live in the Digital Age, and I can just publish my ideas and be done with it.

This is an article I have written in a number of different ways over the years. The idea of ‘five media ages’ has appeared in a couple of blog posts, and it also forms part of the setup in my book Radio in the Digital Age. But I’ve never quite been satisfied with the way in which the idea is stated, and it’s never managed to be something standalone that I can refer to in other work, point people to or bring out to discuss.

I’ve also wanted to have it in a form that is easily readable and shareable, not too bogged down in academic language, but thoughtful and scholarly at the same time. I think it’s an important idea, as ideas go, and it helps make sense of a lot of things. I use it to make sense of the media and music industries, but you may find it a helpful tool to apply to other areas of endeavour.

There are key phenomena that mark out the era in which we live. These are times in which government bodies of foreign nations can intercept and examine every piece of communication we exchange. In which we can go grocery shopping in the middle of the night, without leaving the house, in the name of convenience. In which we can quantify every aspect of our day to day activities through the use of a wearable device. In which we can speak face to face with relatives on the other side of the world as a matter of course. In which we can navigate to places we have never been with the aid of a speaking device that always knows the way. In which 10 million private homes around the world have their floors cleaned by a robot. In which national revolution is plotted and organised within a context provided free of charge by a global commercial corporation, supported by advertising. In which the vast majority of what we read, watch, hear, write, say and do takes place in a computer-mediated environment.

Very few people would dispute the notion that we live in a Digital Age. It’s almost a redundant statement – something taken for granted when speaking about anything at all that takes place here in the 21st century. Of course it’s the Digital Age – I mean, look how digital. But the phrase needs a little unpacking. We don’t simply “use a lot of digital things”, we live in a digital age. That is – we inhabit digitalness.

This is a period in history. There have been others. If this is the digital one, what were the others, and is there a pattern emerging between them? What can we learn about ourselves, about culture or even about the future by periodising history? How long will the Digital Age last, and what comes after it?

Essay: 5840 words / 23 mins
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Manifesto for the future of Music Technology research

New technologies for producing and circulating music have led many to question the status and purpose of music.

At Microsoft Research New England on Monday this week, Nancy Baym and Jonathan Sterne brought together a fantastic group of leading academics from around the world and from a wide range of disciplines at the intersection of music and technology for a one-day symposium which addressed the fertility of music as a subject that bridges computational, social scientific and humanistic approaches.

The symposium followed and developed ideas from the three-day Music Tech Fest (for which I am Festival Director), hosted at Microsoft’s New England Research and Development (NERD) Centre in Cambridge, MA.


Once more around the table


I went to a Professors and Readers lunch yesterday (and no I’m not putting any apostrophes in there). It was a small gathering in the (acting) Dean’s office in order to meet up, chat about things professorial and generally get a cross-faculty sense of who’s who and who does what.

You’d be surprised how rarely research academics in the same department – let alone the same faculty – cross paths. I think I see Tim Wall in Salford more often than I do in Birmingham, and our offices are separated by two flights of stairs. I hadn’t ever met two of the professors in the room – and I had only a passing acquaintance with the work of another.

As with so many of these sorts of things, we did a bit where we go around the table, everybody introduces themselves and talks about what they do. Unfortunately, as newest professor on the block, I was chosen to go first, so I didn’t get to take some of my cues from the other people there, which is always a helpful thing to do in terms of knowing what to say, what sort of language to use and so on.

As a result, I feel like I left some things out, spoke about some stuff that didn’t translate well outside of my discipline, or gave an incomplete picture of what it is I do. So I thought I’d have another go here.

Hi. I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m Professor of Music Industries Innovation.

I’m interested in three main things:

1) Independent music business and alternative music cultures online;

2) Innovation in independent music enterprise (which need not involve digital technologies); and

3) Music as a tool for social change.

I come at these things from a number of directions. I’m a Media Ecologist (with an interest in the concept of affordances borrowed from Cognitive Psychology, as well as the usual McLuhan stuff) in a Media Studies department with a strong Cultural Studies tradition, and I’m a member of the Centre for Media and Cultural Research. I’m also both a Radio Studies and Jazz Studies academic, though I should not be mistaken for a musicologist.

I have a non-traditional academic background, coming from fifteen years in the radio industry and having run an independent record label. I moved into teaching and then later research and a lot of my work is practice-based and experimental. I like to find things out by making and doing things, and I also focus on Knowledge Transfer / Knowledge Exchange activities, ensuring that the research I do has a useful and practical dimension to it that can be of benefit outside of academia – for instance, working with organisations and music businesses to help them do what they do better. And of course, my research informs the teaching I do as well.

I’ve written books on the music industries, I’ve just finished one about radio, and I am currently in the early planning stages of a book about independent jazz record labels.

I run an MA in Music Industries and an MA in Music Radio – both with attendance and by distance learning pathways – and I also supervise a handful of PhD students on a number of related subjects.

So – that’s my job.

The other people around the table did a whole range of interesting and diverse things, and most had been doing those things far longer than I’ve been doing any of the things I do.

Because we’re a Faculty of Performance, Media and English, there’s a lot of overlap between the sorts of things we’re interested in – from the performance of electronic music that uses obsolete computer technologies, to the history of modernism; from the study of jazz on radio in the first half of the 20th century to the linguistic analysis of the English language using the entirety of the internet rather than books as a source for text.

It was like being in half a dozen simultaneous episodes of In Our Time, only with sandwiches.

Shame I don’t eat bread.