An Interview with Andrea Agostini


    I recently corresponded with Andrea Agostini about his teaching practices. Andrea is an instrumental and computer music composer, and a computer music teacher/researcher based in Turin, Italy. He has collaborated with IRCAM on and off since 2010, has taught computer music at the Conservatoire of Turin since 2011, and is one of the authors of the bach package for Max. Please read on to learn about his teaching techniques, how Max is integrated in his courses, and his thoughts on distance learning amidst our current pandemic.
    How did you get into teaching music technology?
    It was pretty natural in a way — all of my fondness for punk rock notwithstanding, I have a rather academic musical education: classical piano, counterpoint, etc. At the same time, I’ve always been attracted to computers. I started coding as a kid and have continued doing it throughout the years, although in my mid- to late teens playing in a rock’n’roll band felt like a sexier activity. Eventually this mix sparked an interest in computer music, so I started composing electroacoustic and mixed-media pieces, and at one point I was lucky enough to be accepted for studying at IRCAM. It was there that everything clicked into place. I started seeing music technology as a branch of knowledge and a research topic, rather than a mere collection of tools. Around that time I started developing the bach package for Max with Daniele Ghisi. Then about 10 years ago there was an opening for a teaching position in computer music at the Conservatoire of Turin. I already had some teaching experience in smaller institutions, although not in the music technology field, and I really enjoyed it. I applied and got the job, and more or less that’s it.
    What do you cover in your courses?
    The main topics are sound synthesis and DSP on the one hand, and algorithmic and computer-aided composition on the other hand. I define algorithmic and computer-aided composition in the broadest possible sense: to me, this ranges from strict process music to anything you can think of in which the computer has a direct influence on your compositional process. For both areas, I use Max as the main reference tool, so even if I don’t teach a course specifically about Max, we still do a lot of Max programming. Then, over the years (I teach to both under- and post-graduate) I also like to show other tools, from analog synthesisers, which I still think are a great starting point, to textual languages like Python and C, as I think that more traditional coding skills are still a useful arrow in the electronic musician’s quiver.
    In general, how have your students responded to Max?
    It seems to me that there are almost as many responses as students. Some immediately get the formal, “linguistic” aspects and start using Max as an actual programming language. Others are more interested in the “musical instrument” side, and build amazing user interfaces and interactive systems. Others tend to hack things together and, without being really able to (or interested in) explaining what they have done, they happen to get great sounds out of it — this is an approach I generally advise against, as my feeling is that if you can’t describe how your patch works, chances are that it will break at the worst possible moment. But I have to acknowledge that some students, including a number of very musically talented ones, don’t have the inclination to formal thinking that programming requires, and yet they can produce interesting music with Max, so in a way I have to bend my preconceptions. A small number of students just don’t like it, either because they discover that they hate programming (which is actually a problem in an algorithmic composition course) or because they like doing it “the austere way”, so their faces brighten up when they see Csound or SuperCollider.
    Has Max been particularly helpful in teaching certain concepts?
    I like how Max allows me to bring together everything I was talking about above: I can teach the basic concepts of programming while keeping a very musical focus and, on the other hand, teach musical concepts while discussing the way they can directly be formalised and implemented. I love the kind of affordance Max offers, the fact that it is something between a musical instrument and a programming language, its focus on the relation between the interface and the process. And of course the sheer scope of things that are possible with Max, either natively or through third-party tools, is just amazing. It’s much broader than what can possibly be taught in a computer music curriculum. If anything, the question is what can’t be effectively taught with Max, and I have to say — not many things. Some forms of synthesis, such as granular synthesis, are perhaps easier if seen in a textual language such as Csound or SuperCollider where the expression of polyphony is more direct. And, although in principle it is possible to program any algorithm in Max, expressing them becomes increasingly cumbersome as their complexity grows, which is a good excuse to sneak in the slightly old-fashioned practice of textual coding. But, apart from this, Max really covers it all…
    A lot of schools have recently switched to distance learning, due to Covid-19. Have you taught remotely before? If so, what are some of the benefits and challenges?
    You know, everything has happened so quickly that I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I think that, at least in the very specific field of computer music, some forms of distance learning might turn out to be an interesting experiment. What I’m seeing is that students have more time now to digest difficult subjects. The fact that, among other forms of teaching, I’m sending them video lectures that they can watch over and over, stopping and rewinding when they don’t understand something, is helpful in this sense, although it is essential to make sure no one gets stuck and ends up being left behind. But yes, I’ve been seeing students work really hard. This is a nice, unforeseen side effect of this horrible situation.
    On the other hand, I really believe that teaching is not just about pouring notions into other people’s brains. There’s also an experiential and empathetic side to it that is seriously hindered by distance learning. The teaching modality I like the least is probably the most obvious one — me talking live on Zoom to a group of students who watch and listen. Unless the group is very small, it’s impossible for both sides to keep the level of concentration you have in a real classroom. I find it difficult to know if students are actually following along, as I can’t “sense” my audience. When it’s time for questions, it’s clumsy and messy and the whole experience is fatiguing and, at times, frustrating. This is also why I’ve always refused to teach remotely before, at least on a structured basis, not counting the occasional Skype call with a student. I look forward to the day when I’m able to resume in-person teaching — but I’m being told that it’s not going to arrive soon, so I’m trying to make the most of what I can do now.
    How do you foresee distance learning impacting students’ level of education and the material taught?
    I’m now more convinced than ever that real-life interaction among students, and between students and teachers, is an essential part of education. Even if technology makes possible today what was unthinkable only a few years ago in terms of quality of remote communication, this really can’t replace the real thing. And then there are very practical concerns: normally students can use the school’s equipment and collaborate together to carry out their projects, but now they are forced to make the best of the gear they have at home. They don’t have access to musical instruments apart from their own, they can’t work with performers… We are lucky to be in computer music, in an age where everyone has a laptop more powerful and equipped than all of IRCAM’s machines from 20 years ago. I can hardly imagine what it’s like to study, I don’t know, singing now. In the specific context of my own teaching, I don’t really need to change the subjects significantly. I’ll work more on synthesis and less on the processing of live instruments; more on solitary “desktop” composition and less on interactive practices — but these are my predilections anyway…
    This doesn’t mean that we don’t need to adapt. There will be scars in both the education and lives of students. But as I was saying, I think there are potential opportunities as well — they don’t outweigh the bad for sure, but it would be foolish not to try to seize them. Yes, it can be hard to concentrate if you live in a small, shared house with little privacy; and you have greater worries than FM synthesis if you used to rely on a night job or your own musical activity for making a living and economically sustaining your studies, or if a loved one is in a high-risk group, or is ill, or worse. But, if you find a way to temporarily overcome or, at least, push aside these difficulties, you may find yourself having more time and less distractions, and you might even discover that directing your energy to something as rewarding as music, art and knowledge can be a relief. Some of my students are studying advanced topics well outside the scope of their courses now, from exotic synthesis techniques to art philosophy; some are making compelling music, with an urge and a dedication that are propelled by the anguish and rage of these times. I think my job now is to help them channel all of this in the best direction, and hopefully, if they and I succeed, we’ll get out of this stronger and wiser than before.
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    If you would like to learn more about Andrea Agostini, please check out his website, www.andreaagostini.eu.