Posted by Rob Knies

Music Tech Fest image

What do musicians and computer scientists have in common?

More than you might think.

“If you think about it,” Nancy Baym says, “almost everything musicians do is technologically mediated—their instruments are technologies, they manipulate the sound with technologies, they sing through microphones that are technologies, they depend on speakers, production software … all kinds of technologies just in the music-making processes themselves.

“If you add in the music distribution and communication that happens through social media and other communication technologies, there are infinitely more ways technology shapes what musicians can and can’t do, as well as what they are expected to do or not to do.”

Baym, a principal researcher for Microsoft Research, is discussing the connection that encouraged her to host the first Music Tech Fest in the United States. The event is scheduled for Cambridge, Mass., from March 21 to 23 at the Microsoft New England Research & Development Center.

Music TechFest—created in London a few years ago by Michaela Magas, who now runs the event with partner Andrew Dubber—collects all the elements of the music-technology ecosystem for a single event—from performers, hackers, developers, and researchers to media, startups, and app creators. This amalgam is billed as a “festival of ideas,” rather than as a conference, and features performances, presentations, demos, installations, and other activities to promote the sort of innovation technology can deliver to the art of music creation.

“I was at a small conference about music and digital culture at Oxford University last summer,” Baym recalls, “and spoke with Andrew Dubber, who was also there. We had known one another for several years, and when he said they were interested in starting it in the U.S., I thought right away that there were great links to the Boston music-tech community and that this was an event that would be in keeping with Microsoft and with Microsoft Research New England’s interests in a number of ways.

“The goal is to get people who share interests in music and technology together in an environment that will be both fun and inspiring. People will be able to see demos and performances as well as talks, and there will be many opportunities during the day and at off-site events in the evenings and nights for conversations to continue and for new collaborations to be born.”

As it turns out, this is precisely the sort of non-traditional, cross-disciplinary pairing that the New England lab was designed to encourage.

“One of our lab’s core missions is to span across disciplines,” Baym notes. “In this regard, I’m excited to have a group of people who span the arts and technology on site, telling us and showing us what they are doing right now. I also expect that there will simply be many things that are fun, entertaining, and fascinating that will open some new ways of thinking for people who attend.

“Boston has many of the world’s most brilliant technologists and some of the world’s smartest music technologists, and we have several music schools and universities with music departments. I expect there will be plenty of world-class, fascinating innovation on display at this Music Tech Fest.”

The first international Music Tech Fest was held in Wellington, New Zealand, in February. Among the speakers during the Cambridge event will be:

  • Bryan Pardo, a computer scientist and music professor at Northwestern University, who includes among his projects a “social mixer” interface that uses machine learning to identify which equalizer settings are associated with the words people use to describe music.
  • Jonathan Sterne, a professor of media studies at McGill University who is spending this spring as a visiting researcher at Microsoft Research New England. Sterne is one of the world’s foremost authorities on sound studies, the cultural history of sound technology.
  • Aram Sinnreich, a communication professor at Rutgers University whose book The Piracy Crusade traces the antipiracy movement and makes important connections between efforts to stop piracy and the erosion of civil liberties.

Baym herself will be participating in a panel discussion during the Music Tech Fest.

“I will be talking about my research on musicians’ perspectives on audience interaction and relationship—and how social media have and have not changed that,” she explains. “I’ll cover how social media’s potential to foster continuous ongoing relational engagement raises interpersonal opportunities and challenges and how much work it is to balance them.”

Baym is known for her interest in examining musicians and how they relate to and use technology, so this event is a natural fit.

“My work focuses on social media and relationships between musicians and audiences,’” she says. “In that case, technologies of personal connection have changed communicating with audiences from something that happens in spurts with very long breaks in between into something that can be done all day, every day.”

With its host possessing that kind of perspective, the first Music Tech Fest to be held in the Americas promises to be an intriguing event.

“Aside from the fact that I expect it to be very creative and engaging,” Baym says, “music technology connects deeply social/humanistic concerns and computer science. That kind of bridging is something our lab is organized to do, and music is a particularly rich space through which to do it.

“This is going to be a festival environment full of creative, engaging people working at the boundaries of technology and music who are excited about what they are doing and excited to share it with one another. I’m excited we are able to host it!”