Welcome to Daejeon
On my last day in Korea, I wouldn't even have noticed. Nothing about staring at a heaping bowl of pickled cabbage first thing in the morning would bother me. After one week of eating kimchee three meals a day, every day, the part of me that needed two chocolate croissants and a double americano just to feel normal would finally have acclimated. On day one, however, I'm not quite there yet. After sputtering out a weak, black broth, the coffee machine advises me to “Have a nice time”. I’m giving it my best, but looking down at my bowl of rice with seaweed broth and trying to see oatmeal is more that I can manage. To any outside observer I'm sure I look like what I am: a coffee starved software engineer very much out of his element.
“Excuse me,” I hear someone say, “you must be here for NIME.”
Getting to NIME from the Toyoko Inn requires a fifteen minute taxi ride, circling the government complex at the center of Daejeon and crossing the river into KAIST campus. Staring out the window on the way over, I’m not entirely sure what to make of my surroundings. Based on the gnashing juxtapositions all around me, I’d say the city of Daejeon seems to think it can shock me out of sleep deprivation with bewildering choices in urban planning. The humble government complex, for example, rises no more than three stories high in the center of a large public park, yet towering apartment blocks housing thousands flank the complex to the east and the west. I decide that the squat government building must be nothing more than a gateway, and that beneath the park extends a labyrinth sprawling hundreds of miles underground. Also, peering into the distance beyond two apartment buildings, I notice a strange, metallic spire. It looks like a spaceship from my vantage point, but that would be crazy, my mind must be playing tricks on me. Of course, as we get closer it looks more and more like a spaceship, until it turns out that’s exactly what it is. In an attempt to clash maximally with the drab apartment units on the south side of the river, northern Daejeon sports a giant amusement park.
I give up on trying to understand the city and opt for conversation instead. My first traveling companion is Simon Hutchinson, who when he complains about being fatigued and confused does so in a voice both energetic and lucid. He explains that he’s come to NIME to perform a piece called Shin no Shin, using an iPad to turn touch and acceleration into music. I’m tempted to spout off about Mira, but I decide that there will be plenty of time for that later at my poster session. We exchange a few notes about the iPad as a performance instrument. I wonder if Mira will be useful for musicians like Simon, or if the tools that already exist are good enough.
I’m also fortunate enough to ride with me Adam and Liam of Alphasphere, who tell me about their spherical music making gadget of the same name. My description can’t do it justice, but you can think of the Alphasphere as an overgrown buckyball with aftertouch. For a more precise picture, imagine plastic rings arranged in a ball, with flexible, pressure sensitive fabric stretched over each one. You play the instrument by distorting the fabric, which Alphasphere translates into MIDI and OSC data. As Adam describes the hardware I notice a strange tension in my fingers, my first taste of what I’m now calling NIME Complex Sigma. It’s a debilitating condition that I will encounter several times throughout the conference, characterized by acute mental anxiety and muscle twitching. The cause comes from listening to the description of a revolutionary new instrument; really, really wanting to play it and then not getting to play it.
NIME doesn’t officially start until the next day, but people like me who chose to show up early get to attend one of several workshops. I want to go to all six, but somehow the conference organizers expect me to pick just two. Of course, the whole question of which workshop to choose becomes moot when it turns out that none of us can find the building where we’re supposed to register. Each of the buildings on KAIST campus has a letter and number associated with it, which would in theory make finding a given building an easy task. However, at the center of campus the correlation between number, letter and proximity approaches zero–building E16 is right next to N4. Naturally, asking for directions is an exercise in futility, as what little Korean I know comes from watching Arrested Development. Eventually by walking in ever-widening circles we manage to find the right building. We’re a bit worried about showing up several minutes late, until we notice two crucial facts. Fact one: there is a giant mob of not-at-all-Korean looking people standing outside the building. Fact two: the man who is supposed to lead the first workshop is among them.
Sometimes people who make NIMEs forget to bring keys
When at last we manage to enter, the first thing I discover is that black coffee is not as easy to find as I would have hoped. Canned coffee drinks come easy, with vending machines at every corner offering sugary, undrinkable swill with names like Joy and Yes. But it seems I’m going to have to wait a bit longer to get a taste of something fresh roasted. Not having caffeine impairs my decision making process, which makes my second discovery all the more significant. As it turns out, two of the workshops are free, whereas the other four very much are not. So in the end, I opt for the NIME orientation workshop and for the one on making music with Web Audio.
KAIST poses an anatomical conundrum
Michael Lyons, a NIME veteran and researcher in musical interaction, leads the first workshop. His presentation does a great job of filling in the gaps in my knowledge on NIME related topics, subjects like primary versus secondary feedback (secondary feedback is the sound an instrument makes, primary feedback is everything else it does). He also provides a thought provoking overview of why people make NIMEs in the first place, which I find particularly interesting. Beyond techno-fetishism and fascination with the human-machine relationship, he posits that the #1 reason that people are interested in building new instruments is because of an insistence on cultural fluidity. People want new ways to make sound because they want their own tools–they don’t just accept what’s given to them. No wonder so many NIME builders use Max.
As Michael brings the presentation to a close, my mind is humming with new ideas to take back to the Cycling ‘74 think tank:
- Mapping (between input gestures and sound output) is the heart of NIME, and indeed of instrument building in general.
- MIDI is plug and play, OSC isn’t because there’s no standard
- Programmability is a curse, and it’s important to have long-term versions of things
- Primary feedback (lights, vibrations) is critical for intimacy
- Music is becoming increasingly process oriented as opposed to artifact oriented. People who are not virtuosos are willing to go out in public and make music, and are eager to find a forum to do so.
Important links from that talk include:
After the workshop, we stumble back outside on legs made weak from six hours of sitting. Since I’ve gone over ten minutes without complaining, I seize on the opportunity to mope about the cloudy weather. No one around me seems to pay any attention, perhaps because they wisely understand that overcast and humid is probably an overture for rainy and chilly. For now, we take advantage of the warm weather to restore circulation to our feet and converse about all things NIME. As we chat, we’re treated to the first appearance of the chair of KAIST 2013, Woon Seung Yeo, better known as Woony. I had been told at some point (by someone very foolish) that Koreans have a cultural lacuna when it comes to sarcasm. I suspect that Woony knew this and made it his personal mission to wipe away my misconception. “I encourage you to visit the famous KAIST goose crossing, especially since I know NIME participants are all great lovers of animals,” he says. “Not in that way,” he adds. Woony’s dry and biting wit would only desiccate in the days to come.
The nicest day of the whole conference
Drawing his short opening remarks to a close, Woony directs our attention to the area behind us, where a seemingly infinite quantity of food seems to have materialized out of nowhere. “And now, enjoy the banquet,” he says. “And of course the free beer.” Well, there you have it. Free beer and unlimited food. No points for guessing how long it took me to fall asleep after that one.