The Music Tech Fest held its 10th edition in Berlin from May 27-30. A great weekend of creative chaos where makers, hackers, scientists and researchers experimented “musical transhumanism”. Makery was there.
Berlin, from our correspondent (text and photos)
Ten editions in four years of existence is a lot. Paris, London, Berlin, Umea (Sweden), Ljubljana (Slovenia) and an aborted attempt in New-Zealand: the Music Tech Fest (MTF) has the travel bug. A music and technology festival, that welcomed 240 artists, start-ups and creators and more than 800 participants for its tenth edition in Berlin. “It isn’t a festival of concerts or conferences, but a festival of ideas, more like literature or philosophy, describes its president Andrew Dubber. Where you don’t necessarily know the people on stage, but where they talk about things that interest you.”
The initiative was taken by Michela Magas, scientific director of the European project Mires (Music Information ReSearch), a roadmap for research in music focusing on the processing of digital data related to music. “The idea was to have a one-day workshop to gather people in one same room, says Andrew Dubber. Everyone said she wouldn’t manage it, that these people spoke a completely different language, that between academics and manufacturing professionals or between artists and scientists, it would never work. The more she worked on the project, the more she realized it was something important and more people got involved n the project.”
From the robot to the human being and vice versa
The stages: two podiums facing each other in the splendid Hall 1 of the Funkhaus, a recording complex overlooking the river Spree built in the ‘50s, headquarters of the East German state radio.
A myriad of artists, inventors, makers and creators of all kinds succeed one another at a rapid pace (15 minutes per artist) to present their projects and performances.
Some big names however: Matt Black, one half of the music duo Coldcut and sponsor of the festival, the British artist Matthew Herbert for a Skype live from Istanbul, the singer Eska or still Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner, artist who composes, amongst other things, soundscapes for morgues. Also Martin Molin, maker musician from the group Wintergatan, who met significant fame thanks to the video of his Marble Machine. This musical sculpture he built over 16 months attracted more than 20 million views on Youtube…
Martin Molin, from Wintergatan, onstage at the 2016 MTF:
Aficionados of the DIY musical scene and other technological oddities also had their share with Toa Mata Band, a group of Lego robots controlled by Arduino (from the Italian Giuseppe Acito), Cold Wave, London group that explores coded messages broadcasted on number stations during the Cold war or stillBlam, software that allows you to produce music on the online game Minecraft.
This year’s theme: music as an extension of the body or “musical transhumanism”. A little risky? “We don’t mean to say ‘we know things and will will explain them to you’ but rather ‘we will try things’”, says Dubber. And ask questions: “Is it important to know where the human body stops and where technology starts? In what way can music be involved in the prolongation of human capacities? It is more about a laboratory than a presentation of ‘discoveries’”, he carries on.
“Somaphony”, Antoni Rayzhekov, interpretation Katharina Köller, Music Tech Fest Berlin, May 2016 (extract):
75 hackers to create beyond “normal”
For if everything is done for Hall 1 to be comfortable, the festival also takes place (especially) in the passageways and nooks of the labyrinthine studio. In the entrance hall, an imposing and creative hackathon. Upstairs, musical technology start-ups present their prototypes: headphones that adjust to your hearing system (and that saw its Kickstarter campaign skyrocket), a a fair music streaming service or a tool that helps you to learn the guitar or by indicating where you place your fingers thanks to LEDs placed on the guitar.
More arty projects too: this red egg around which you dance and play (for all those who have had enough of dancing facing the DJ), Perc, the Midi-controlled system to play acoustic percussion instruments with staggering precision from the start-up Polyend that incidentally obtained the award for the best start-up of the Berlin MTF (Aphex Twin would be experimenting it, Piotr Raczynski, founder of Polyend, tells us). Or still Opto Noise, a group of London hackers who play music with lasers on disks printed in 3D.
“Getting your hands dirty.” Andrew Dubber will often address the assembly with this injunction. This is what the 75 hackers are doing, the largest edition of the MTF so far, coming from Portugal, Sweden, England or Germany (we saw no Frenchmen amongst the hackers) who are working to “create new forms, new powers and new ways of being something other than simply ‘normal’”.
Among the projects, a musical tree from the creator Tom Fox, who had also come to present his violin that you can play with one hand; a performance that stages two characters, one with sensors, the other with a LED costume, who are fighting in an “electronic jungle” and creating a sound and light show against backgrounds of enhanced accordion; a system to improvise from a distance on one platform; a Snake type game on midi controller; or still the development of Axoloti, a printed circuit associated with software that allows you to add your own modules, or association of modules, in order to create a unique instrument, all in open source. The matter is particularly complicated but Johannes Taelman, its developer, is very popular: as we are speaking to him, a hacker compliments him with a spontaneous “Thanks dude”.
Here, we are showing “something that doesn’t only involve music nerds but anyone who likes music”, explains Adam John Williams, talented artist and hacker, who won his position as director of the hack camp by walking away with all the awards of the previous editions. “There are other hackathons around music, like the Music Hack Day, that is held at the Midem or in other conferences. But they are often based on software tools linked to music, like scanning your Facebook to see what your friends are saying about a group, analyzing this data and finding out if this group is cool or not. It’s interesting but you can’t offer a performance with it.”
MIT Media Lab, neuroscientists and bionic artist
Well away from the joyful ambient chaos, labs. The blockchain one was held all week and was of the cerebral types. Conclusion? The block chain technology will once again solve long-standing problems, from metadata to the wages of artists. We are waiting to see it to believe it but a report from the lab should be presented to the European commission.
The transhumanism one also, where makers, neuroscientists or researchers from the MIT Media Lab racked their brains to create a show held on the Saturday by Viktoria Modesta, bionic pop artist. Sensors and a brain-computer interface allow the performer to control lights, sounds and images with her mind and movements.
“We captured her relaxation and her concentration, explains the neuroscientist Francisco Marques Teixeira. When she is relaxed, the sound is like breathing and the light is blue. When she is concentrating, the sound is more pop and the light red”. The show will be held in the absorption room, space located between two studios to absorb sound. “An aberration for all the acousticians present”, teases Andrew Dubber, but a space with a quite special atmosphere.
And what if all this was just a gadget? “The line between the physical and the digital world is an imaginary line, replies Dubber. All these things are made by humans. What is interesting today, is that everything interlinks and becomes a media through which humans communicate. Be it a gadget or a digital file, it doesn’t matter. It gives us the freedom to break the limits.”