Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Event: NIME Conference 2012

During the Events Calendar on Dead White Guys last Sunday, I mentioned the New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) conference coming to U-M next week, and would now like to tell you more about it.  Hopefully, you’ll be convinced you should attend, because if you don’t attend it will prove one of the great mistakes of your life, one of the great missed opportunities you’ll tearfully recount to your only, reluctant, there-because-s/he-would-feel-bad-otherwise friend while decaying on your deathbed after a disappointing existence spent shunted off from intellectual exploration.  Trust me, go and your corpus callosum will thank you for it.

Did I say conference?  That’s unfortunate, because most conferences aren’t fun.  The presenters usually compete with Saltines for dryness. Everyone in attendance seems as if instead of Sports Illustrated there’s the Proceedings of the American Society for Plant Husbandry in their toilet-side magazine racks, and people only really go to wipe sweat on each other’s hands and get blind drunk on business expenses afterwards.  But I hope and expect this one is different.

NIME is three days worth of presentations, papers, and posters by visiting boffins and U-M affiliates on new ways to perform, produce, listen to, analyze, and interact with music and sound creation.  For music geeks like you and me, that’s already promising, because dear heavenly Hostess we really don’t need to hear anything more about the influence of the metronome on late classical-Romantic performance practice, or what actually killed Mozart.  (Answer: aliens.)  There’s the future and experimentation to think about, and the future is really, really interesting, and what people did to innovate with interfaces in musical expression in the recent past is still incredible.

And now, a digression.  For thousands of years, up through the 19th century, musical technology was confined to the tangibly physical, and most physical innovations to sounds and instruments were innovations and refinement of shapes, materials, and mechanical processes – better alloys, piston and cylinder valves, slowly perfecting resonance chambers and such. And in fact, most of these innovations (along with other reasons I won’t go into here) were accompanied by a narrowing diversity of instruments and sounds in art music.  Think about how few instruments actually appear in most acoustic music, and how many became extinct in the meantime.  There’s a reason we don’t hear traditional crumhorns and glass harmonicas and melodeons anymore.  They didn’t live up.  They were crap to play and crap to listen to and far too limiting in performance compared to what replaced them.

The addition of electricity and electric recording media reversed this trend significantly.  Electric pickups, synthesizers, soundboards, software, tapes, synthaxe drumitars, all these things popping up in the last century and dominating how we create and process sounds.  It’s freaking amazing to think what the possibilities can be, limited not by chemistry and physical laws and physical abilities so much but now by computing power, creativity, and the limits of the human hearing.  (Even that last one is debatable.  Would a symphony written in the range above human hearing still be music?)

And these last – no, latest – frontiers are what NIME appears to explore.  If you hadn’t suspected, yes, I did wet myself a little while writing that last paragraph.

Here’s a sampling of the titles of posters, papers, and demonstrations listed in the programs for this year:
“Temporal Control in the EyeHarp Gaze-Controlled Musical Interface”
“A New Keyboard-Based, Sensor-Augmented Instrument for Live Performance”
“SenSynth: a Mobile Application for Dynamic Sensor to Sound Mapping”
“The Planetarium as a Musical Instrument”
“Movement to Emotions to Music: Using Whole Body Emotional Expression as an Interaction for Electronic Music Generation”
“Tweet Harp: Laser Harp Generating Voice and Text of Real-time Tweets in Twitter”
“AuRal: A Mobile Interactive System for Geo-Locative Audio Synthesis”
“FutureGrab: A wearable synthesizer using vowel formants”

Why aren’t you excited?!?!  I’m excited.

Best yet, there are two sessions of concerts each night of the three days, which appear to be demonstrating these amazing things.  Heck, the nighttime concerts for Tuesday and Wednesday are at Necto for goodness sake.  Maybe they want to keep the tradition of having the opportunity to get blind drunk at these things.  I will do my best to be in attendance for the conference and concerts and, if feeling enterprising and sober enough, will post retrospectives after each day to this blog.  Stay tuned.

The conference is all day Monday-Wednesday, May 21-23, largely held on U-M's North Campus with concerts at the Lydia Mendelssohn theater.  I’ll leave you with links to the website and some videos of NIMEs past.

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