TEDx Aldeburgh

Last weekend I was at TEDx Aldeburgh. It’s a TEDx conference devoted to music and it fits into the Aldeburgh Festival. The organiser, Thomas Dolby, explains the origins of the event. Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that grabbed my attention:

Tim Exile was part of the reason that I went to conference in the first place. I find the tools that he’s built for live music-making fascinating. See this video explaining his live setup. One of the points he made that I found interesting was that he’d had difficulty making live music in the sorts of clubs where he usually ends up playing because, while his music was impressive as live music, it wasn’t so perfectly engineered as the studio-recorded dance tunes that the DJs would be playing before and after his set.

Tod Machover spoke about the crazy projects that they work on at the MIT Media Lab. Most interesting to me was a piece called Spheres & Splinters that he’s doing with the cellist Peter Gregson. In this work, while Gregson plays the cello, there’s also a computer system running which interprets the movement of the bow and uses that information to generate an accompaniment. I was so impressed that I went along to a full performance of this piece last night at Kings Place.

Ashraf Nehru from United Visual Artists told us about the work that they do with light and visuals, often working with musicians. Indeed, they were also involved in Spheres & Splinters and contributed beautiful lighting to the performance using many thin pillars with LEDs surrounding the cellist. I hadn’t realised it, but I’d also seen their work before, including the sculpture, ‘Volume’, and the backdrop they made for a live performance of the Blade Runner soundtrack a few years ago.

William Orbit’s segment was conducted as an interview, with Thomas Dolby as interviewer. He spoke about being a producer and remixer of pop stars. He also spoke about the pressures of the industry, and how, despite the pressure to continually keep pushing out music, it actually was perfectly fine to take the time to create the best music that you can. Your fans don’t forget about you.

Felix Thorn’s Machine is a wonderful piece of engineering. It’s a collection of drums, melodic percussive instruments and a harmonium, all activated with servomotors and connected to a sequencer over MIDI. He was playing music that sounded like the sort of thing that Plaid or Aphex Twin would make. The quality of the engineering is impressive in itself. There are countless moving parts and it all worked seemingly flawlessly. (By contrast, most artists tend to be poor engineers, in my experience.)

Sarah Nicolls seems to think about pianos in the same way that I do: They can make so many interesting sounds if you just bypass the keys. She was also, in my opinion, one of the best speakers at the event. That’s perhaps what comes of being a university lecturer.

Sadly, one of the problems with getting musicians to talk about what they do is that they are often far better at making music than they are at speaking about it. Imogen Heap was very much in that category: under-prepared, wrestling with an uncooperative PowerPoint presentation, and lacking a clear message or structure. Which is a pity because she had some interesting things to say. She interacts with her fans via Twitter, YouTube and a forum on her website to an extraordinary degree, involving them intimately in her work. To someone like me who works very much in private it was astounding to see how much she involves her fans. I wonder whether the effect on motivation that it might have should make me try to break my hermit-like habits.

All in all, I had a great time at TEDx Aldeburgh. I hope that it becomes a regular event.

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