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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Remote Controlling a Digger using Virtual Reality

It really did feel like I was ‘inside the machine’ even though the resolution was low!

I composed the music especially for this feature, there is something very pleasing about a digger in C.

Full story here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-28425844

Musical CV: About me 2014

So, I’m a freelance presenter and music composer/hacker.  I do a lot for Click, the BBC’s tech show but I’ve also hosted BBC Orchestra events and most recently hosted my first Radio 3 show, which was great fun. I love doing projects where music and technology meet, so any excuse to do more is fallen upon with great joy.

These are the things I love.

1)     Music composition and performance –  I do a lot of classical piano and orchestral composition – including spontaneous classical piano composition in pretty much any style.  It just comes out like that, I can’t explain it, but I’m OK with showing it off now.  I really enjoy giving live recitals! https://soundcloud.com/ljrich/140420-flying-through-colour  – recently performed at BBC NBH much to the surprise of some of my work colleagues…

Here’s an informal performance from a few weeks ago:

 

2)      As well as presenting on TV (hard work but lots of fun) I enjoy hosting live events – a few weeks back I had the fabulous experience of hosting a classical orchestral concert including the National Orchestra of Wales playing the Doctor Who Theme. I also give keynote speeches on technology and social trends. I grew the @BBCClick twitter account to nearly 2 million followers, so I used to give talks about how to do that until I realised it’s much more fun to talk about future trends, music innovation and host events instead.

 

3)      Music hacking – tech/music innovation  – I filmed a feature for the BBC in Boston which involved entering MusicTechFest‘s Hackathon competition and staying up for 24 hours – I won one of the top prizes! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-27067106

 

4)      The two things I liked most about my music degree were composition and critical music analysis. I do like explaining why songs work and sound good…  music theory, but with a contemporary twist. Here’s a radio pilot I made a while back

 

5)      I recently gave a talk at TedXTokyo 2014 about a musical device I built with the aim of giving other people the chance to hear the world like I do.  I built the first iteration of the device in my room while sharing a tiny apartment with a bunch of other music obsessives – the process is ‘Glitching‘ – not a new technique, but certainly easier to do with today’s tech. I’ve augmented traditional glitching with musical inserts based on what key the world is in. People doing it report the practice as a pleasurable and slightly psychedelic auditory experience. More of the story is documented in the talk, and I’m working on an epic blog post which explains a lot more.  I love classical composing in the wild! I want to do ‘glitching’ concerts in cities around the world! 

 

6)      I’m very interested in new musical interfaces and software synthesisers too – these deserve their own blog post.

 

7)     And Finally…  here’s a link to even more BBC stuff I get up to and finally, here’s a link to loads of free Music I’ve composed.  

 

Living with perfect pitch and Synaesthesia – what it’s really like

I was at a party last week, and a fellow dinner guest asked me what having perfect pitch was actually like. They wanted to know if it was just knowing what an ‘A’ was – and whether it could be learned. They were musical and seemed genuinely interested – so I decided for once to give them the full, no-holds-barred explanation. It’s complicated, and I get asked this a lot, hence this post.

Yes, having perfect pitch includes knowing whether something is an A or an A flat – that’s also the case for excellent relative pitch which is something that can be learned with time and effort. But for me perfect or absolute pitch is more than that.

With the caveat that this is my personal experience, and it might be different for fellow sufferers/carriers, this is how it feels for me to be a composer with perfect pitch.

Train from Gothenburg to Stockholm is in B Major – the trees outside are beautiful. Composing on the train is a wonderful experience. I love the sound of the train and how it interacts with the landscapes. Trees and lakes and the sea are generally in major keys so it feels uplifting and inspiring to me! This music was recorded in two takes – first the strings, then the piano sound.

 

Now, I’d like you to imagine you’re chatting with your conversation partner. But instead of speaking and hearing the words alone, each syllable they utter has a note, sometimes more than one. They speak in tunes and I can sing back their melody. Once I know them a little bit, I can play along to their words as they speak them, accompanying them on the piano as if they’re singing an operatic recitative. They drop a glass on the floor, it plays a particular melody as it hits the tiles. I’ll play that melody back – on a piano, on anything. I can accompany that melody with harmony, chords – or perhaps compose a variation on that melody – develop it into a stupendous symphony filled with strings, or play it back in the style of Chopin, Debussy or Bob Marley. That car horn beeps an F major chord, this kettle’s in A flat, some bedside lights get thrown out because they are out of tune with other appliances. I can play along to every song on the radio whether or not I’ve heard it before, the chord progressions as open to me as if I had the sheet music in front of me. I can play other songs with the same chords and fit them with the song being played. Those bath taps squeak in E, this person sneezes in E flat. That printer’s in D mostly. The microwave is in the same key as the washing machine.

 

For me perfect pitch is not knowing notes, it’s about living in a world where everyone resonates, every thing has music. Everything and everyone weaves together a fantastic audio symphony that I have no choice but to absorb. For me if there isn’t music somewhere, I’ll add it in. Say someone is walking along a station platform, I almost unconsciously compose a tune fitting into their footsteps – it’ll generally be in the same key as the resonance of the station. While I hear a piece of music I generally imagine a counter-melody to complement the existing melody everyone else hears. It was only on talking to my friend Jonathan in Boston that I found out these things are not typical.

It’s odd – though I’m a composer by nature, I also love encoding the melodies and harmonies I hear in music for other people to appreciate, for example – the sound of a sunrise – or the beautiful noise of an aeroplane at 33,000 feet in D major.

I recently live-composed some classical music for each of my friend’s children at a naming ceremony. They had very different personalities and I captured them each in a short musical piece recorded for posterity. It never fails to amaze me how many people agree with my musical perception of someone – even someone young! There must be something I pick up on that is there, intrinsically, inside everyone.

When I taste things, I also hear music, mainly chords – sugar and desserts almost always in major key and chocolate and coffee are particularly complex sounds, with overtones and harmonics. I love broccoli and cauliflower which are a cycle of fifths. Sushi tastes like power chords on an acoustic guitar. Lemon meringue pie is a concoction of A major chords and inversions, 7ths and minors. I’ve ‘played’ tastes to a bunch of very gifted musicians who agreed with my interpretation of doughnuts, eggs and the like. I love delicious food mainly because of the pleasurable sounds it generates for me. Roller coaster rides also kick my synaesthesia into overdrive, oh, the harmonies and melodies of weightlessness and acceleration, I’d love to live-compose in variable weight conditions like that!

For me every single piece of life is flooded with sound – so much so that I didn’t realise for many years that this is not the case for everyone.

Auditory is most certainly my main sense.

 

Finally a few other strange characteristics that may or may not be attributable to perfect pitch – listed below in case any fellow perfect-pitchers would like to add their comments!

Picking up a language is easy – once you hear which notes people associate with particular things, it’s generally just a question of working out which scale they are using. My grammar is almost always terrible but I’ll pick up vocabulary words quickly. Optimism and the desire to communicate take over once I’ve decoded where words begin and end. For me, a laugh is almost always in a major key – crying is almost always in a minor key, regardless of language.

Other traits!

  • difficulty recognising people visually – especially if I meet them again out of the original context. I can however (given enough of a sample) recognise people by gait or voice.
  • hardly ever get motion sickness
  • great sense of direction
  • rather clumsy if I’m not paying attention
  • ultra-high scoring spatial awareness and pattern recognition skills – but also incredibly unobservant in everyday situations
  • I’m rather good at opening locks!

Hopefully I’ve given you an insight into the condition. It’s clear to me now that we all encode the world differently – and in my case very intensively and musically. Though I feel surprisingly vulnerable sharing these thoughts with the wider world, it’s also a pleasure to finally explain what it’s like to have perfect pitch.

 

Music Live-Blogging – Classical Piano on the Fly

At a recent event, the Music Tech Fest in Boston, I took part in a 24-hour hackathon.
Ostensibly I was filming it for the show I present on, BBC Click. But as well as recording it for the programme, the experience and the people I met that weekend left a deep and lasting impression on me.

For the first time, I was surrounded by those who live comfortably in the centre of the Venn Diagram of Music and Technology – I found it to be an incredibly nourishing few days. I was able to talk openly about my synaesthesia and the very sensitive musical side of me that I don’t normally talk about during my day job. That’s since changed –  this week’s show is all about Music Technology.

Plus I finally had the guts to do some live composition in front of people I hardly knew – and their response was incredibly positive, which led me down the path of putting live-composed piano music up on the web.

 

Each piece of music was recorded live, in just one take.

For years I spent a lot of time fixing every little thing in my compositions – a bit like proof-reading a book for spelling mistakes, but here I’ve deliberately left the mistakes in, this goes up completely untouched by anything – I don’t even record to a click track. And actually, it feels kind of exposed and fantastic all at once to send this out to the world.

 

Good Business is the New Business

Whilst on holiday in South East Asia, I came across two incredible companies. In each case, the proprietors and I chatted about how customers find businesses – and how businesses could find the right customers. See, in Cambodia, places routinely emblazon TripAdvisor signs in huge font outside their establishments to pull in the tourists. Even if it’s a 3.5 star review, it goes up on corrugated plastic on a sandwich board outside – I found the whole thing very interesting, as both the businesses below chose not to go that route.

Though I am not a big business CEO (yet!) I have been lucky enough to talk frankly with some pretty big movers and shakers in technology, manufacturing and more as part of my job. And tea and good food makes me very talkative. I was particularly intrigued by the places below because there was an extra element to them: the idea of running a small business with a degree of social responsibility built in.

Place 1: Haven, Siam Reap, Cambodia

Haven Restaurant is run by a formidable couple who after holidaying in Cambodia, decided to sell everything they owned, and pack in Switzerland for the ‘wet and sweat’ combo of Siam Reap – beloved home to Angkor Wat and hundreds of smaller temples. Sarah and Paul braved the complexities of setting up a business in a foreign country. They built (and now run)  a chilled-out restaurant that serves tasty cuisine at a reasonable price for tourists – the place also happens to train young adult orphans as apprentices as part of its business model. As well as a salary, graduates gain the skills required for re-employment, and have all their tips saved in a bank account so they also get a lump sum at the end of their year’s training.

The food is good too. So I asked if Haven could make me a fresh Vietnamese roll that I could triumphantly unpack and eat while everyone else looked on with undisguised jealousy. It occurred to me – if I (and other lovers of tasty food) could be discerning enough to seek out good restaurants then clearly we would be prepared to pay for a nice packed lunch. I suggested this to Stef, one of the staff members between mouthfuls of baked Oreo cheesecake.

My business-minded companion added that this is actually a well known strategy – to ‘expand into related revenue streams’ outside a business’s limitations – for example, in a restaurant, you can only sell to people physically sitting in a space, and when they are full of food and drink, that’s it. So, restaurants can offer cookbooks, hampers, packed lunches, food delivery, you get the idea. I’ll update this blog if I hear they’ve decided to do that – because my lunch was indeed triumphant.

Above: Pictures from Siam Reap, Cambodia

Place 2: Reaching Out Teahouse, Hoi An, Vietnam

A beautiful coastal resort, Hoi An is liberally scattered with tourists who forgive the ‘theme park’ nature of the Old Town because of its beauty and tranquility, that is, on certain days when they close the tiny streets off from motorcycles.

Side note: People who spend enough time with me know I have a serious thing for tea – notably pu-erh and oolong as well as good old builders (without sugar), not forgetting what I like to call a Picard (Earl Grey, Hot). These long-suffering types have accepted that passing a teahouse for me is pretty much impossible. They are resigned to the fact that, left to my own devices,  I am happy to consume tea until there is no tea left. Small wonder then, that the Reaching Out Teahouse and I were destined to cross paths. An artisan teahouse, complete with artisan biscuits. As far as I was concerned, this was where I would sit for the rest of the day. And so I watched the sun set, slowly bloating myself with delicious, high-quality tea.

Time passed. After a vast and quite frankly impressive quantity of tea – in many forms –  was absorbed, one of the owners of the social enterprise, Quyen, came to say hello. She explained that the staff here are deaf or speech-impaired, which is why it is in fact a silent teahouse. Everyone communicates with smiles, gestures, or wooden blocks with writing in English on one side for the customer which is held up to summon the staff member.  By the way, it wasn’t just the contentment gained from silently enjoying tea and biscuits which made me fall in love with this place. It’s also that the Single Estate Oolong tea might be among the best I have ever tasted. Readers of the previous paragraph will realise that is a very, very big data set indeed.

Above: Pictures from Hoi An, Vietnam

I like the “Good Business” business model!

Both places were so delightful, I visited them twice. And, in both cases, this was mainly because service and product were outstanding. I came away with the feeling that if places just had a good idea and ethical ‘feel good’ factor it might get people visiting – but repeat custom and earnest recommendations will only come if the product is ultimately desirable regardless of any worthy underpinnings. I wish both Haven and the Reaching Out Teahouse the best of luck in their endeavours.

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Above: Pics from the Heaven & Earth Bicycle Trip, Vietnam

Look at me on my lego piano!!

Presenting Ideas Persuasively

I gave a presentation for the London Girl Geek Dinners 6th Anniversary event. For  a brilliant blog post all about the event – along with an unfortunate picture of me and an angry bird, click here.

Meanwhile, my aim for the presentation was to use some of what I’ve learned from my experiences as a TV presenter and producer to help other people get their voices heard, whatever their walks of life.

During my talk, I repurposed some of the techniques in telling a story for television for use in real-world situations.

I used an example of one of my most recent features for BBC News as a way to illustrate the core elements of presenting ideas in an easily accessible manner.

Presenting Ideas Persuasively – LJ Rich

I was incredibly flattered that the original Girl Geek asked for my last slide to remain up so she could communicate her ideas to our audience using this technique!

After the speaking was done, something amazing happened – quite a few people came up to me after the speech to tell me that they were inspired!  Inspired to pitch something at work that they knew they could do, or to try again to present an idea they had faith in but didn’t quite manage to convey it the first time.

Before I gave the speech, I remember thinking that if I could encourage just one person to have more confidence in their abilities, and act positively, I would feel like the presentation was a success – so this result was even more gratifying.

I had a few requests to stick the slides up online, so here they are – and GirlGeekDinners, thanks very much for having me!

Look at me on my lego piano!!

The video I used for talking about presenting