MP 2014: Session 1b: Interactivity – René Mogensen (Birmingham Conservatoire/Birmingham City University), Colin Johnson (University of Kent)

René Mogensen (Birmingham Conservatoire/Birmingham City University): ‘Identifying types of musician-computer interactivity in score-based concert works’, and Colin Johnson (University of Kent): ‘Music as Computational Process: Beyond Romantic Algorithmicism’.

The first part of paper session 1b consisted of René Mogensen’s fascinating exploration of the ways in which interactivity exists between performers and computational aspects of a scored concert work. Mogensen expands upon the idea of interactivity as a two-way flow of information, examining the dialogical processes that characterise musical works featuring electronic elements.

Mogensen began by noting that listeners receiving a piece of music with live electronics may experience a difficulty in understanding the processes at play in real-time. In undertaking a data-flow analysis of Saariaho’s NoaNoa (1992), Mogensen mapped all activity contributing to the sound of the piece, constructing a visual representation of the complex interactive procedures. This allows the analyst unfamiliar with live electronics to easily visualise the ways in which the multiple elements required to perform the piece interact.

Interestingly, Mogensen continued by detailing how this type of analysis can lend itself to comparative investigation. By constructing system diagrams for several pieces, he was able to assess similarities and differences between them, paralleling the way in which comparative methods are possible using more traditional methods of analysis.

Consequently, Mogensen proposed a categorisation of interactive types. By comparing multiple score-based works throughout the session, he explained how comparative analysis could form the basis for this typology. By analysing at this abstract level, said Mogensen, comparative analysis becomes easier as a result of removing the complex technological elements, allowing systems to be compared more easily.

Colin Johnson’s thought-provoking presentation centred on algorithmic processes, and the ways in which these might inspire musical composition. Johnson detailed a range of different types of process, employing his background in computing to demonstrate how exactly the algorithms manifest in reality.

The metaphorical comparison of found algorithms to compositional structure was particularly fascinating. One memorable example of Johnson’s involved looking at the pathfinding habits of ants. Faced with a number of options, ants would quickly learn, through placement of pheromones, the quickest route to a food source. Johnson identified this as a stigmergic process: collective action organising a change in the environment.

Johnson’s categorisation of the types of processes that might inspire composers in the future had the aim of confronting the idea of computational process as rigid and unmoving. Johnson’s processes, rather, aim toward interactivity and adaptability: Learning, gamification and search processes are three more of Johnson’s examples that illustrate this sort of approach.

Although both Mogensen and Johnson’s explorations of the idea of interactivity were different, both speakers evoked computational processes. Whilst Mogensen took technological setups and developed an abstract ‘interaction interface’, Johnson began with metaphorical references to algorithmic process – such as the ant colony example – and considered how composers interested in algorithms might use such examples as inspiration.

– Adam Byard, Music and/as Process Intern 2014