Electric Influence

Electric Influence

Rebecca Fiebrink is a Ph.D. student at Princeton University, where she studies applications of computer science to music performance and analysis. She completed her undergraduate work at Ohio State University and her Master’s in Music Technology at McGill University. Rebecca is a classically trained flutist and an active developer of the ChucK music programming language. She has worked on music software research and development at Microsoft Research, Sun Microsystems, and Smule, Inc., where she helped to build the “I am T-Pain” iPhone application. She is also an assistant director, performer, and composer with the Princeton Laptop Orchestra. Her academic research spans music information retrieval, computer music performance technologies and practices, the creation of new hardware and software musical interfaces, and the application of machine learning to real-time, interactive human-machine musical performance contexts.

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Gender and diversity in science and technology has always been a divisive topic; one need only recall Larry Summers’s controversial comments on this matter during his tenure as President of Harvard University, when he held a closed-door meeting regarding the shortage of women in the sciences and engineering and questioned the “intrinsic aptitude” of women in these fields. The under-representation of women in technology and science has been well documented, and was recently discussed in a New York Times article (Bias Called Persistent Hurdle for Women in Sciences, March 21, 2010). The conspicuous lack of female role models in the field of music technology and electronic music is certainly a deterrent to young women interested in pursuing this field, but Rebecca Fiebrink, currently the assistant director of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk), has set a place for herself at this table.

Fiebrink is a performer (flutist), composer, music technology researcher, and admittedly a rare bird in the male-dominated field of computer science and computer music. “Generally, my social experience is that of an outsider, due to some combination of being a woman in a male space, a queer person in a straight space, a computer scientist in an artistic space, or an artistic person in a technical space. I got involved in music technology after completing an undergraduate degree in computer science engineering (mostly men) and a music degree with a flute concentration (mostly women). As an intersection between engineering and the arts, I naively expected music technology to have more of a gender balance, but I was shocked when I found the computer music conferences and literature to be just as male-dominated as computer science, if not more so.” Though Fiebrink adamantly states that gender “is rarely the most defining aspect of my experience or identity,” she does admit that being a woman in a male-dominated field requires her to continually strive to outpace those around her. Naturally, this raises conflicting sentiments—in one aspect she desires to belong to an established paradigm, yet on the other hand she admits wanting to exist outside of this paradigm. In order to adopt a healthy approach to this juxtaposition, Fiebrink describes her strategy: “For me, this frequently means being more technically proficient than the men around me as often as possible, yet adopting a more ‘feminine’ view of technology as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.” With this alternative perspective in mind, Fiebrink avidly challenges women to embark upon careers in music technology. “We need more women to be making computer music—by virtue of being females living in our society, women have different relationships to technology, art, and performance than men, and we should be seeking out their contributions and the contributions of other voices that we haven’t heard.”

Fiebrink’s Ph.D. studies at Princeton focus on how to use technology effectively in the composition and performance of live and interactive computer music. In essence, she develops software that enables composers to creatively utilize machine-learning algorithms to build new instruments, and then studies how composers and musicians interact with these tools. She explains, “In my research, I get to think a lot about what it means to interact effectively with computer algorithms to accomplish real-world tasks. Additionally, my work investigates how the sort of real-time, exploratory, and creative interaction in music composition and performance challenges the assumptions underlying traditional machine learning theory and applications, often with exciting and unexpected implications. To me, being a computer scientist is about creating and sustaining a dialogue between technological possibilities and real-life concerns, including real-life concerns about aesthetics and artistic processes.”

Founded in 2005 by Dan Trueman and Perry Cook, PLOrk is an ensemble consisting of approximately twenty-five undergraduate students, each playing a laptop connected to a hemispherical speaker and a subwoofer, which sit on the floor next to them. The format is varied and diverse; pieces range from abstract to popular dance music, from through-composed compositions to improvisational jam sessions. Students control sound with an assortment of tools, including laptops, game controllers and webcams, and perform works composed by Princeton students and faculty as well as outside guest composers. At this point, they have teamed up with a phenomenal range of guest artists including Zakir Hussain, Pauline Oliveros, So Percussion, the American Composers Orchestra, and the experimental electronica duo Matmos. PLOrk uses an array of programming languages including Max/MSP, SuperCollider, and ChucK, originated by Ge Wang (himself a former PLOrk member) and Perry Cook. Fiebrink summarizes the group’s mission: “Really the only common denominator to PLOrk is that there are some people making sounds with laptops, and everyone’s got a speaker.”

Much of the research and creative work in computer music is, in some way or another, about defining what it means for humans to interact with, wield, or otherwise engage with technology. Creating digital art is one way of working toward an understanding of what it means to be human in an increasingly digital world—collectively, our understanding of that has not yet been formed.

Rebecca Fiebrink, Assistant Director, Princeton Laptop Orchestra

As the assistant director of PLOrk, Fiebrink is passionate about her participation in advancing the boundaries of computer-human interaction through musical collaboration, and notes the success of PLOrk in challenging old definitions of orchestral and ensemble music. “It’s given me (and many other composers and performers) a fantastic platform to interrogate notions of improvisation, composition, collaboration, and interaction in computer music. Once upon a time, if you were a composer and wanted to create a very loud and timbrally rich musical composition, you had to write for an orchestra or similar large ensemble. With computers and the loudspeaker, the orchestra is no longer necessary to accomplish these goals. However, there is still something essentially compelling about humans making music together in a group, that isn’t replaceable by technology. To me, PLOrk allows us as composers to ask important questions: What is the role of human musicians in an era when no human interaction is necessary for making live music, beyond the push of a “Play” button? What is the role of human-human collaboration in an ensemble when, using loudspeakers, a single human performer can make more than enough noise to fill a concert hall? In a way, it’s the signature hemispherical speakers of PLOrk that really allow us to address questions about human collaboration and agency; when each performer has a speaker, each performer has his or her own sound localized and identifiable in his or her personal space. PLOrk is able to support musical interaction among humans in a way that’s more true to the orchestral paradigm than sending everyone’s sound to a mixing board and piping it through the same set of loudspeakers located elsewhere in the space.” Fiebrink has also composed for the ensemble, and in 2006 created PLOrk Beat Science (PBS) with Ge Wang, an electro-acoustic structured improvisation for flute, two humans, five laptops, five pressure-sensitive finger drum pads, and thirty audio channels distributed among five hemispherical speakers.

Photo by Spencer Salazar

PLOrk is not unique in its digital orchestral ventures. The successful confluence of the seemingly disparate worlds of classical orchestras and laptop producers is currently being pursued by numerous ensembles, among them the Moscow Laptop Cyber Orchestra (CybOrk), the University of Michigan’s Digital Music Ensemble (DME), the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk) and Berlin’s Laptoporchester. As an educator, Fiebrenk is encouraged by the opportunities this type of music making offers students. “My personal goals for PLOrk are to have a platform for exploring new ways of collectively making music, and (perhaps even more so) to use it effectively as a teaching space. I want to get students to think critically about the relationship between music and technology, and to learn how to express themselves in this medium. We’ve been incredibly lucky to work with all our guest artists and composers, because each new person we work with sees the potential of a laptop orchestra differently, and the students and audience get to experience the aesthetic consequences of those varying perspectives.”

Looking to the future, Fiebrink sees computers transforming both the process of music making and aspects of music listening. “Music is a powerful marker (and constructor) of social identity,” she acknowledges, “and I think there remains a lot of room for technology (e.g., using social networking technologies) to support communities around listening to and making music. I also believe that people are inherently musical and crave access to the tools to create music; technology can potentially play a huge role in allowing people—all people, not just professional musicians—to take a more active role in making and sharing music. Electronic music can be made in ways that transcend problems of distance and expertise, and I am hopeful that the next wave in musical innovation will facilitate an even greater participatory musical world. Just the act of making and sharing music can be a powerful experience of building and strengthening community identity.”

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