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The Official LJ Rich Blog

Musings on Tech, Music, TV Presenting, Travel and Food – By Laura-Jane 'LJ' Rich

A Musician’s guide to Inventing: How to build your ideas and make them real

I gave a talk at the wonderfully diverse and always thought-provoking Thinking Digital 2015 conference.

But instead of a conventional keynote speech, Herb Kim the organiser kindly said that I could present whatever I liked. The result: “A Musician’s Guide to Inventing”.

I worried before going on stage that this was a completely crazy idea – and a bit far off anything else in the conference. I couldn’t sleep – I was up late tweaking the presentation. I knew the room was full of interesting and influential people who knew about technology trends, and when I give any presentation I’m obsessed with the idea of giving the audience something that they could use – something that would be valuable to them. How could I give something new to feed their amazing brains? Perhaps I could share something more personal that they might not know about… but maybe that’s not going to be interesting enough? Oh, how I fretted…

So, completely unsure if this would work and with the inherent sense of adventure that gets me into all kinds of amazing situations – I did this:

And I’m so glad I did it. I was so relieved! It went better than I could have imagined! What a pleasure to have 3 floors of such an energetic and friendly audience laughing, clapping and bonding! It’s weird, the one thing I wasn’t worried about was the music performance – even though that bit is really complicated!

Of course, with hindsight I was very happy that I decided to go with my audacious idea – it was only then I realised that by doing what I did I was taking the advice of my own presentation! So I guess this is a post dedicated to those thinking about doing something amazing and ambitious and wonderful who perhaps need that extra push to go ahead and start. Go on! And let me know in the comments what you’re gonna do.

Synaesthesia and Interaction – how to talk about it

Well,

this started as a paragraph and escalated to an essay.

It’s dedicated to those of us who find it hard to integrate their synaesthesia in public, those of us who are yet to learn that it’s OK and in some cases lovely to be a little different, and those of us who might be struggling with interacting with the bright loud sharp world that we inhabit compared to those without our quirky neurology.

I went back to see my old music tutor at Oxford a few weeks back. It must have been around 15-20 years ago when I studied music there. The prof told me I spoke like no-one else he taught. I would describe, say, Bach in terms of texture, taste, colour, touch – with so many layers to music it was really important to me to be accurate in my description, but how odd to my tutor for me to describe Bach as a green forest or the smell of damp wood – back then I didn’t know about synaesthesia so it was a joy to finally talk to him about it.

For him, it made sense of all the things I used to say about music – I got a feeling that he was almost relieved to have an explanation for it!

And for me, it made me think a lot more on what might be why many of us with synaesthesia struggle with human interaction.

I think describing the world and especially music cross-modally (i.e. synaesthetically) works really well in a creative context, but in normal conversations I started to wonder if my happily jumping between senses may be jarring to people who are just trying to understand what I’m on about.

Here’s my theory: we synaesthetes freely switch from taste to sound to colour to texture to <insert sense here> when we are talking about something – we engage whatever description works to convey the feeling we have with the most clarity or accuracy, just like someone else would, though we have a much larger vocabulary to choose from, sometimes even including gestures or noises. So to a non-synaesthete I wonder if it might sound like we’re picking from the wrong list.

For example – let us imagine people are expecting a food to taste like <taste>.

When instead we supply someone with

‘this food tastes like <sound> or <colour> or <noise>’

this may seem at right-angles to conventional expectation and leads to scenarios like:

a) Conversation partner completely ignores modality switch consciously but gets confused on some level; tries their best to continue

b) doesn’t notice cross modality at all; continues as if nothing out of place

c) (common with non-synesthetes) conversation moves to curiosity and synaesthetic experience questions – the question of what the food is like is not as important anymore! Questions, so many questions!

d) (common with other synesthetes and close friends) conversation partner understands, accepts and enjoys description, conversation continues and comparative modalities are explored. Amazing, a meeting of uncommon minds!

All of these are OK.  I’ve probably missed some others out.

So, I learned a few sentences to say that a) put people at ease and b) put me at ease. I’ve found these are great to use with both “unaware synaesthetes” and non-synaesthetes as it gives a context to our choice of words or actions when they don’t quite fit what people expect. Here they are:

“I have synaesthesia which means my senses are a bit mixed together” works really well.

“I think everyone has a version of synaesthesia, some people experience it more intensely than others” is great when people are more curious and want to perhaps explore their own associations. I believe that everyone has the potential to experience cross-modality at some level.

I’m actually happy to talk about my synaesthesia when asked, much happier if I have access to a piano at the same time.  If/when someone says I’m weird that’s OK. I tell them that they are probably right and smile gently. If someone says I’m making it up that’s OK too, it doesn’t matter to me what they think, I smile and say that it’s my experience, which is all we have to go on. If I’m feeling a little like I’m being judged negatively – and some people will be suspicious of things they don’t know about – I try to remember that everyone has their own struggles, perhaps they’re not in a receptive mood for other reasons – then I’ll think privately on how much I’m enjoying delicious food or music around me more than someone who’s not wired the same way.

We have many challenges as synaesthetes.  Having said that though I feel that the overall potential to experience the world so deeply with so little effort is worth the odd strange look, explanatory conversation and sense of overwhelm that we no doubt all have to deal with.

__

Here is an interview I did (it was really early in the morning!) about food and synaesthesia for a documentary on Radio New Zealand – I’m among a variety of artists interviewed all talking about their own experience.

http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/secretlife/audio/201762931/the-secret-life-of-synesthetes

#ljtunes

I broadcast a weekly streaming show on the Periscope app. 12 weeks in and it’s rather good fun. In fact, my #ljtunes show has picked up quite a bit of late (over 400,000 likes at the time of writing) – for those of you who haven’t visited, please do come by on a Monday night 20:30 UK time.  Or hop on through my twitter account – where links to the show are posted…

 Live – from anywhere with a piano can mean #LJtunes – more info www.ljtunes.com / or twitter.com/ljrich

It’s clear streaming has finally hit the main-stream  – perfect for the sort of concerts I give – live, interactive, conversational composing.  I love playing music while guiding viewers along genre-irrelevant leaps –  awesome tunes, fun with synths – or even performing live-composed glitching soundwalking through London – all this while chatting away to a brilliantly engaged, interactive audience.

And it’s not just playing music – I sometimes talk about the music theory behind the great tunes – what makes things catchy – why the best bits of a song work, my favourite chord progressions, original compositions and pastiches of contemporary and classical tunes, music theory, mashups, music tech and live-composing, all with the simultaneous challenge of conversing with a virtual audience!

A maximum 200 people can chat through the app (though we’ve had 1,600 people on – not sure of the upper limit of viewers).  When the broadcast fills up the chat regularly spills over onto Twitter using the #ljtunes hashtag – it’s amazing and very challenging having to process so much information while playing the piano and chatting to everyone at the same time, but even with those challenges it’s an incredibly pleasing experience.

I’ll see you online!

 

More info about Live Streaming

Background:

Periscope is an app (like Meerkat, Bambuser and predecessors Qik and Seesmic) allowing a bunch of people to watch one person’s smartphone camera – in effect turning everyone with a mobile phone and an internet connection into a broadcaster. Viewers can communicate not just with the person generating the feed but crucially with each other too – and those discussions during real-time events give a sense of immediacy to the wildly varying content.

I was (I think) the first in the world to periscope while broadcasting live on the BBC (BBC World News, April 9, 2015) but just 90 days later it’s quite normal for news outlets to host ‘behind the scenes’ clips or even integrate real-time streaming into their programming. People stream their public transport journeys, back gardens – even sunsets. I’ve seen someone sleeping and chatted with other people who were also watching that person sleeping.

Watching live streams is an oddly voyeuristic experience – an insomniac moment leaves me awake at 3am and instead of browsing a forum I watch someone else’s cat watching TV, or my friend drinking in a hotel bar or someone walking in their garden on the other side of the world.

It feels like there’s currently a sense of authenticity about live-streaming content – which will last at least until someone figures out how to spoof the camera feed.

More great blog posts on periscope here, here and here.

Protected: Space Experiment:

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Livestreaming on BBC World …

This has to be one of the weirdest bits of TV I’ve done in a while, but thoroughly enjoyable at the same time.

A frankly strange case of broadcast-ception, live-streaming a pre-recorded live stream while talking about live streaming on BBC World News.

Meanwhile I’m looking forward to tonight at 20.30 UK Time, please join me online for my live streaming interactive music show!

Diving into Periscope – interactive streaming with a musical edge

I’ve recently started playing with an app called Periscope, giving interactive music concerts at my stage piano.

My ‘cast’ (if that’s what it’s called?) includes talks on music theory, breaking down similarities in familiar tunes and of course playing the odd request – like a classical version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ – or a mashup between Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ and The Commodores’ ‘Easy Like Sunday Morning’

It’s really fun – and my usecase seems to be a unique enough to get a mention in the Daily Telegraph‘s round up of the technology.

So, what do I get up to when I cast? you can find out on Mondays at 20:30 UK Time! At least, that’s the plan…

Essentially I’m talking about classical music theory using contemporary tunes – why is something catchy? What songs sound similar? What bits make a tune feel good? The session is mixed with live composition and conversation – content creation and audience interaction in real time.

Giving the audience access to the creative process and also a chance to communicate is pretty much exactly opposite to a traditional classical concert, where I’d be on a stage, far away from the listeners.

I believe it’s possible to demystify music without dissecting it, it’s so fun to explain what’s happening while playing some of the most memorable songs on the planet. I think this kind of informal direct broadcast is a great proving ground until I have my own big budget show where I have a huge grand piano and some notable musical guests to riff with.

Until then, viewers who make the effort to interact and contribute positively are going to shape how this cast evolves. How exciting! What works, what doesn’t, what do people want more of? I’m finding out every day. I’d hope to keep the audience interactivity if a big TV company wants to fund the huge grand piano and notable musical guests version.

For those of you reading this on Thursday 9th April 2015, there’s a replay available until 22:30 tonight, but you’ll need to download the app on an Apple device to watch at the moment. They say there’s an Android version coming. And, if you do visit, please ignore my faffing with the cables at the start, it definitely gets better.

At about 1AM this morning, I think I solved the problem of getting a decent audio feed in and listening at the same time, so Monday’s cast should have really rather good sound quality.

Oh and a final note from the technology presenter in me – streaming from mobiles has been available before – apps like Seesmic and Qik did this many years ago. But now data is cheaper, social media makes things more immediate, plus our connections are generally faster. This means the tech is ripe for mass adoption.

A notable alternative Meerkat has some big names endorsing it – Madonna released a video using this platform recently. I’ll let you know if I get a chance to try it out. And I’m sure there are other players in this area. In coming months we’ll get to see whether a single platform gains dominance, or if these apps can co-exist. It’ll inevitably play out over the next few months. Interesting interactive times!

In which I co-write a musical…

Date: Mon 23 March 2015:   Event: My first ever full-length musical !

TICKETS AVAILABLE!

I’m super-excited to call myself a London Theatre Impresario! A date, a venue, a show, tickets on sale!

Scary as I’m currently only about 70% of the way through writing every single note of the upcoming musical adventure that will be held in conjunction with the inimitable Hack Circus in exactly one month’s time.

We’ve written a story to go with some expert talks and some rather spiffing tunes as well even if I say so myself. Leila happens to be a genius librettist in my opinion and I’m hoping my tunes and orchestration will do those fantastic lyrics justice. She and I have hatched a musical monster of a night out… What a nerve-wracking but satisfying experience this is!

TERRIFYING REALITY:

  • I need to finish building the scores and orchestration
  • we need to finalise the order of songs and talks and audience interactive bits
  • I’ll have to learn and sing pretty much all the songs on the night
  • Leila and I have to pre-record some short bits of audio to give on-stage a break
  • I’m trying to build a home-made instrument that may or may not work on the night
  • Eek I need to do all the audio show control while performing (Ableton I’m looking at you)
    and;
  • people are actually buying tickets so it has to be good because we have a paying audience.

ONE NIGHT ONLY

Talking of which, if you’re in London that evening AND want to be the first to see this quite peculiar and creative take on the musical genre. From the HC site:

We will be travelling in a unique sound-powered tunnelling vessel, currently under development. Please bear in mind: we really don’t know what we will find. We need a strong healthy team. It might be worth getting down to the gym now if you can.

Bring a torch. This is very important. We are expecting it to be dark.

We will be guided on our journey by three experts: monster afictionado sci-fi author Chris Farnell, historian and volcano enthusiast Ralph Harrington and shark-mad comics legend Steve White – but who knows who (or what) else we might encounter?

From: Hack Circus

TICKETS STILL AVAILABLE!

OK, I’m intrigued, tell me more:

hackcircus.com/underworlds/ 

(link for mobile users: http://www.hackcircus.com/underworlds )

DID I MENTION TICKETS ARE ON SALE?

Yes!! I’m ready and can’t think of a better way to spend a Monday night!

SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!!!

(link for mobile users: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/hack-circus-underworlds-tickets-15756232315?aff=es2&rank=1 )

^^This link goes to the EventBrite Ticket Page if you’d like to buy a ticket or two.

**For some reason, none of my links work. Head over to hackcircus dot com forward slash underworlds. Oh the humanity…

How to win the TechTent Xmas Quiz without cheating

 

TechTentQuiz

The odds were most certainly not in my favour.

I was asked to take part in the Tech Tent annual quiz all about the tech news of 2014, pitted against none other than the people who actually make the news – the BBC Technology website team. Sounded to me like a guaranteed failure – these people know everything about the stories of the year – not only would they have written the articles, they would also have researched the stories thoroughly and (worse!) know background and periphery information.

How could I game the system without cheating? My plan below actually worked…

 

 
 
 
1. UNDERSTANDING THE FORMAT – where the scoring happens
The email came through with the rules: there will be “12 questions each relating to a big tech news story during 2014 – there’s one question for each month BUT they will not come in order. The order was selected by random draw. Most questions are in two parts offering two points, with an extra bonus point available for guessing which in which month the story happened. FWIW, I doubt we’ll get through all 12 questions in the limited time we have. If one team fails to answer a question or part of a question correctly, that q or part of question will be offered to the other team.”It made sense to memorise the news stories and their months as according to the format knowing these represented 12 points straight away.

2. CREATE DATA SET A
I gleaned the main events in technology from Wikipedia by month with a definite nod towards business and consumer electronics. I based the emphasis on quizmaster Rory’s preferences and my knowledge of the stories producer Jat tends to choose for the Tech Tent podcast.

3. CREATE DATA SET B AND SEE WHAT STORIES APPEAR IN BOTH A AND B
The click news scripts from the whole of 2014 were cut and pasted  – all the click newsbelts together by month made it really easy to work out the most likely questions in each segment. I amalgamated this with the Wikipedia and The Verge year in review and other sources, then applied weighting depending on information available to ask deeper questions around a topic.

4. FURTHER ANALYSIS TO PINPOINT MOST LIKELY STORIES
Based on my analysis, some stories were more likely than others to work as questions for a quiz –for example Twitch and Apple buying beats were big stories in otherwise quiet months so it made sense to drill down into those. Flappy Bird was also pretty much guaranteed to be a question based on the analysis – and it helped that Rory did rather a few spots on flappy bird in 2014, so again, a likely candidate.

5. EDITORIAL CONSIDERATION
I could also discount any stories that weren’t appropriate for a Christmas quiz tone, which reduced the viable stories further.

6. EXPERT AREAS
It made sense to look at key stories like the Apple launch, top tech mergers and acquisitions and crypto-currency as big stories of 2014. So I memorised as many numbers and month/story combos as possible to maximise those easy points. Knowing about the business of tech meant that I could at least make informed guesses when I wasn’t sure of an answer – which sometimes paid off and sometimes didn’t (Google nearly bought Twitch = correct, The tablet-sized device launch was the Nokia tablet not Microsoft’s Surface pro tablet – nearly)

7. A BIT OF LUCK
As soon as I realised the last question (Number of World Cup Tweets) was directed at the Tech Website team first, it was easy to make an N+1 or N-1 call which would automatically cover more ground than the first guess, which led to eventual (if messy) victory!(It made up for correctly stating the flappy bird developer was making £32,000 per week ($50,000) which was not picked up!)

 

Yes! Emerged Victorious! Dave and Zoe from the BBC Tech Website team were worthy adversaries – because of the calibre of opponents, I had to up my game in order to even stand a chance against them. Thus I learned that when the odds aren’t great, it’s still worth doing the best you can, a great lesson to bring in 2015. Hurrah! and Happy New Year!

 

The Sound of Stars

Music inspired by colour/art

An artist I know called Debbie Davies made a giant light-up interactive star for the Burning Man festival this year. I never got to see it in real life, but the pictures were enough to trigger the most amazing melody in me. I was so utterly happy to hear that she loved the composition. I can’t really explain why I wasn’t surprised.

Debbie, this is your star. I told you it was beautiful!

Photo credit  duncan.co

Music-Powered Spaceship

Last Sunday I took part in a very unconventional story/experiential theatre event run by a friend of mine. I live-composed the music. The event involved taking an audience on a fictional journey into space. Then (whilst in that context) they were given amazing lectures by real rocket scientists (Dr David McKeown), artists (Toby HarrisSinead McDonaldJeffrey Roe and more. The talks were diverse but relevant. Imagine hearing what space travel would feel like – as if you and the whole theatre was in fact in a spaceship – travelling through space. Kate Genevieve, a visual artist talked about the messages sent with the Voyager space probe. A man from SETI (Alan Penny) informed us of the best way to survive first contact in a suitably realist approach. There was more, but I’ll get to that nearer the end.

And I? I powered the spaceship with music.

It’s because of Leila Johnston – Hack Circus is her thing. She asked if I would like to create music to simulate ‘hypersleep’ during extended space travel, I went one step further and wrote the following email reply…

I have a great job of being the hyperspace engineer – the piano keyboard is in fact my console muwahaha

Leila responded with;

Oh I love that. Yes! Play us into hyperspace! What a lovely lovely idea.

This really captured my imagination, so much so that I appeared to send the following response:

Yes, the equations are quite complicated to most people. But hyperspace mathematics calculations actually have more in common with Bach fugues than physics, turns out those aren’t musical pieces but formulae all along. A fantastically complicated spatial equation can be surprisingly easy to solve musically which is why the keyboard is my usual preference for transport consoles. Bach was a hyperspace engineer from the future who got stuck in a time travel incident. Before he got transferred back to his timeline he enjoyed annotating his equations in musical form and confusing the natives.

Though the sustain pedal just puts the kettle on

I found this in my ‘sent’ items the next morning, and hurriedly dashed off an apology for sleep-emailing. Clearly I had really taken my role as Hyperspace Engineer to heart.

For some reason this didn’t put her off, and the event was quite literally a blast.

There were cabin crew. There were flashing lights. There was hazard tape. Dr Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist, played some amazing sounds from space that triggered my synaesthesia like you wouldn’t believe.

The sound of Saturn’s rings original, courtesy Cassini Radio & Plasma Wave Science team:
“…the sounds produced are exciting! You can listen to the sound of passing through the ring dust by clicking here. sound Listen ” (nb the ‘Listen’ link opens up a video file)

Wow! What magical unearthly sounds! What a weird recording! I had to share how wonderful it felt to absorb these strange vibrations! I attempted to convey my synaesthetic response to the sound of Saturn’s rings – what I hear when I hear them…  and this is the result.

 

For those interested, here’s the mission page. Off topic, I’m joyous to report that the Sun in our solar system plays a giant Major 7th.

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