A Musician’s guide to Inventing

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.

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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…