Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Conference report: EMS13, Lisbon

Ah. Lisbon. What a beautiful city! And a tile makers heaven, right Mike?

Honestly, it felt a bit odd to go this historic and pittoresqe place to discuss recent research in electroacoustic music studies inside the ultrabrutalist concrete and glass walls of the Culturgest. But I guess that's the charm of studying something so closely linked with modernist aesthetics.

Culturgest, Lisbon. These architects were not kidding! Photo nicked from http://www.panoramio.com

The EMS conference this year was more about networking and getting updated on what's happening in the field than coming to great new theoretical insights. But I learned a lot - especially that there are many people out there thinking many of the same thoughts as me, and that's both reassuring and disturbing. Damn, I thought I was more original! Luckily there were other saying the same.

As mentioned in the symposium report from Leicester a couple of year back, there are lots of things going on with regards to tools and methods for analysis of electroacoustic music. OREMA is getting stronger slowly, and I renewed my promise of contribution to Gatt. So, there I said it officially. Now I just have to do it! Michael Clarke's TAAILS also looks interesting. Will give a report when the beta is out. 

The great thing about being an ice cream: I feel welcome. 

I like the EMS network a lot. It seems very nicely balanced. Not too many artist presentations (some are nice, but a lot of them gets boring) not too much NIME (same). Maybe a finch too little philosophy/theory to lift the discussions. But socially speaking it was awesome. It is so great to be able to go completely nerdy about things that people in my everyday surroundings never have heard about. I probably should apologize to some people for sharing a bit too much of my knowledge about Nordheim, but I guess that's just an (un?)healthy side effect of doing a PhD. 


A thought that I got from the conference was that we might need a new perspective on how the periphery is understood in electroacoustic music. Maybe it could be interesting to use the insights form STEP - a network studying the practice of science and technology in the European periphery - on some of our cases.

I quote from the STEP website:

In particular, the centre-periphery divide plays an important role in the choice of the geographical settings which are selected as objects of study within our discipline. The historiographical canon of science, technology and medicine is still shaped by a central focus on French, British, German, and increasingly US national narratives (“the big four”). The shift to local studies experienced in the last decades in our discipline has not weakened this selective prioritizing of contexts. As a result, the canon is still biased toward French, British, German, and increasingly American actors.
 STEP seeks to revise this bias by expanding the spectrum of geographical and cultural contexts of research and proposing new questions, themes and tools of analysis. 
Particularly I find the following paragraphs important
This project is not about adding for the sake of adding. Neither does it seek to repair a historical ‘injustice’.
We truly believe that this aggrandisement will improve our historical understanding of the role of science, technology, and medicine in the emergence of modern techno-scientific societies.

Historical accounts of electroacoustic music tend to focus on the centers of development, in our case Paris, Cologne/Darmstadt, Princeton etc. This focus some times overshadow the fact that  the aesthetic ideas travelled both to and  the most unlikely places. Pedro Rebelo's perspectives on Portugeese electroacoustic music, Tatiana Catanzaro's talk on the Brazilian composer Gilberto Mendes (who in the best French neologism tradition composed music he named technomorphologic), Elena Hidalgo's talk about the spanish composer Eduardo Polonio, or my work on Nordheim all underline this argument.

My point is that aesthetic is always local in some sense or other. Even if electroacoustic music has been more international in its aesthetic than many other forms of music, being Parisian is also being local (but then, being local in one of the most vibrant artistic places in the world). It is then interesting to see how ideas travel, not only from the centre to the periphery, but also from the periphery to the centre. Often one finds surprising things. This is, extremely simplified of course, the core of the STEP-idea.

Maybe we should dedicate some time to try to see all these seemingly unconnected cases from Spain, Portugal, Brasil, Argentina - and Norway - in the perspective of each other? There are similarities here that at least I find intriguing.

A quick thought about electroacoustic music and audiophilia

During the conference concers I was thinking - why isn't this music more popular with the audiophiles?  "Everyone," at least in oil rich Norway, has 5:1 system these days. Why aren't these systems more used for this music, which from its core is elaborately spatially designed and mixed with the highest ear candy quality in mind? For me, it would be a dream to listen to Isabel Pires' Pulsars or Joao Pedro Oliveria's Mahakala Sadhana at home. But alas, I only have my headset and a pair of small Genelecs, so it will have to wait. 

Other highligts

  1. "John Cage was wrong," with Coulter & Bergsland
  2. "We are all epileptic," with Coulter
  3. The real meaning of a "dome," with Coulter, Chittum & Vermulen
  4. FPV to play at next years conference, with Coulter, Chittum & Vermulen
  5. The REAL Fado experience, with Bergsland and Rudi 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A radio controlled rat for demonstrating place cells

Some weeks ago I did a project for the IST Austria demonstrating place cells at the annual Open Campus science faire. The station was very successful, with more than 100 visitors in 5 hours.

The place cell is a specific cell type that neurobiologists study in the rat brain. Put simply, we have certain neurons that are active only when we are located at specific place in an environment. Some nevrobiologists, like the Csicsvari group at the IST, are interested in how the behavior of these cells relate to learning and memory.

Place field. Each dot represent a "firing" by the neuron. From knowingneurons.com

The idea was to demonstrate this concept by letting the visitors control a radio controlled rat running around in a maze not unlike the one the scientists use. With help of a motion tracking system we would then simulate that a "neuron in the rat brain" would "fire" when the rat was in a specific "place field."

The rat and the maze. Photo: Ola Nordal

Like in the real experiments, the "running path" of the rat would be drawn on a screen, and a red dot would appear on the spot where the cell had fired. In addition, a corresponding neuron would flicker on the drawing of a neuron network.

Not so easy to see, but the running path is displayed to the left. On the right a corresponding neuron would flicker in sync with the sound of the cell firing. Photo: Patrizia Gapp
Schematic of the set up

Getting technical

The set up is really very simple. The radio control unit was a 20€ RC car where I just flipped off the plastic hood. The rat was a 10€ cat toy I got off Amazon. I built the tracing and display system of the station with Max/MSP/Jitter, using a cheap standard webcam as tracking unit. The sound of a firing cell was diffused from a standard computer speaker. The total cost of the station, including cabling, a car that I broke, and two toy rats that were too ugly to be used, was less than 100€. Probably the "experiment table" built in the local workshop was just as expensive.

Photo: Ola Nordal

The Max patch

The core part of the Max-system was motion tracking. I previously had good experiences with the cv.jit package by Jean-Marc Pelletier, and decided to use cv.jit.centeroids as the central tracking object.
Main patch, displaying the video image after crop and brightness/contrast adjustment + detected blobs. The main problem was do calibrate the system so reflections on the maze did not get defined as blobs. 

The user would "look for" a cell on the table by driving the RC rat around, and when the rat would be detected in the assigned space, the patch would start playing back the sound file. The loudness output of the sound file would determine when a red dot would be drawn on the running path, and a when the "corresponding neuron" would flicker on the display image.
The mechanism for letting sound level threshold trigger "spikes" or "fierings"

I defined five areas on the board that each would be a "cell" or "place field."  The first "cell" was rather big and easy to find. When having localized a cell, the user could choose to look for a smaller cell. All together five "place fields" were defined, so the whole thing was a bit like a computer game. The kids loved that.
The five "Place fields"

The Open Campus day

Sadly I don't have any photos from the actual Open Campus day (I was on "kid duty"), but the station was highly popular. A logging unit built into the system recorded more than 400 "experiments." I estimate that each user ran 3-5 experiments, meaning that at least 100 people used the station the 5 hours it was open. The presenter from the Csicsvari group (Charlotte) did not have any chance what so ever to get a break, and actually the station was still surrounded by people one hour after the Open Campus day officially was over and the other stations already were packed down.

The whole project was a whole lot of fun to do, especially since the IST Staff, the Csicavari group and the visitors were so positive. I hope to put it up again for next years Open Campus, and maybe develop it further so it can travel to other locations not requiring my presence to set it up.


The concept was developed together with Charlotte Boccara. Thanks also to Mike Lobianco and Sophie Cate for help with the station.