On The Road: NIME 2017
I spent last week in Copenhagen, Denmark having my mind prodded, scanned, tickled, and – now and then – totally expanded. It’s time for show and tell….
Just in case you don’t already know, NIME (New Interfaces for Musical Expression) began its life as a workshop (NIME 01) at the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) interest group, calved off in 2001, and – since 2002, it’s been a rambunctious and interesting annual gathering that gathers people from all over the world with an interest in developing new technologies and wondering about, constructing, demonstrating, and investigating their role in musical expression and artistic performance. What I have come to love about NIME is that it’s a big tent; you’re just as likely to be sitting next to an engineer obsessed with The Perfect Rotary Encoder as you are sharing your table with an artist who tracks their eye movements while looking at illustrations from Dante’s Inferno, then uses that data to generate string trios. The discussions are wide-ranging and generous, the company a wonderful balance of seasoned NIME-istas and excited newbies, and the opportunity for surprise and delight is high.
This year was no exception – we found ourselves at Aalborg University’s Copenhagen campus (which, I am told, was once the local Nokia headquarters), making our way between workshops, paper, posters, keynotes, and coffee breaks. Our evenings consisted of opportunities for sampling the local beers and comestibles, interspersed with concerts.
The feel of the conference is open and welcoming from the git-go; if you were an absolute beginner, they first day started with a NIME “Primer” workshop that laid out the basics of what you’d be likely to be hearing and seeing and let you get the lay of the land. I went because I was interested to hear what the seasoned NIME folks would say about their own community….
Other workshops let you build your own hardware of various sorts, and the results more than suggested the wide range of approaches and interests.
The first of my several mind-blowing encounters for the week started off on afternoon one with Graham Wakefield and Charlie Roberts’ workshop on designing and developing languages for live coding that actually walked us through ways to create “mini-languages” to serve as basic materials we could use to create and use our own live coding dialects (By the way - you should check out gibberwocky - Graham's new release in the Package Manager).
The following days were a balance of papers and posters on everything from better training for ballet students to creating giant Dungeons & Dragons dice that generate ambient music, interspersed with well-spaced refreshment breaks, followed by a dive back into paper and poster sessions that mixed amazing controller prototypes
with inventive re-imagining of interesting things already in the world that suggested other possibilities,
new ways of doing our favorite things (the virtual guitar foot controller), and those great moments when a beautiful idea changes everything(a Myo controller used to generate sound only when its user is still).
The concerts were opportunities to hear some of these ideas in action, from curated concerts that teamed virtuoso flautist Margaret Lancaster with NIME composers. I especially loved Jean-Francois Charles' repurposing of the standard double-cd-turntable DJ controller for live electroacoustic purposes and a chance to see Kiran Bhumber and Bob Pritchard’s bodysuit controller (which you’ve read about in a previous newsletter) in the hands of someone who could make it do wonderful things.
Another of the curated concerts consisted entirely of robot orchestras and musicians, which united live coding approaches and plucked/bowed electronic instruments; this included a wonderful electric monochord/multidrummer outfit that brought to mind an opening trio for LaMonte Young’s Forever Bad Blues Band.
and some lovely examples of feedback.
But those things don’t solely define an event like this, and here's another reason I really enjoy NIME – it’s a community that is also engaged in thinking about itself; there’s now enough of a history of approaches and performance and papers (even a NIME reader, by the way) that participants are also gathering to talk about their shared practices: the longevity of these new instruments, the ways in which NIME attendees talk about their own practice, the pitfalls or benefits of categorization (and whether it’s possible to create an organology for new hybrid instrumental interfaces in the present age), and the importance of considering the aesthetics of design (courtesy of Ge Wang's keynote "The ME in NIME). The keynotes were great spurs to reflection and discussion.
That’s what I like about NIME – you can focus on one of those things and geek out, chat about all of them throughout the week and stuggle for clarity and vision, all while seeing and hearing interfaces you’ve never seen before and watching people make something new.
I’ll end by invoking my reporter’s perogative and giving a shout-out to my two most physically arresting instrumental encounters: Peter Williams' extended Actuated Digital Shaker, whose haptic feedback and controllability was astounding (especially when you unplugged the USB cable and the instrument’s “soul” left its body and you were suddenly holding an empty tube)
and Palle Dahlstedt’s astounding hybrid instrument that used contact microphones on the outside of the instrument (a Nord keyboard), gathered the acoustic sounds, and then used them as excitation signals into an extended waveguide model of virtual strings. After just a few minutes, you came away with the sense that this was an instrument that would really reward you for the time you spent getting to know its playability. See the instrument in action!
The final concert in the Danish Royal Library included an amazing multichannel audio performance by Wayne Siegel whose final gestures whose shadows almost resembled a benediction....
Next year's NIME will be co-hosted by Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia and take place in Blacksburg, Virginia. You should consider going.