"Artistic research offers alternative paths to scientific methods"

Interview with Markus Noisternig

Markus Noisternig is a researcher in acoustics and signal processing at IRCAM at the joint research lab STMS. For nearly 15 years, he has been actively contributing to the development of 3D sound recording and diffusion technologies such as higher order Ambisonics. His research work coupled with a solid experience in electronic music and in immersive and interactive sound arts has led him to many artistic collaborations.
Appointed in 2019 as the person in charge of interactions between research and creation at IRCAM, Markus shares his vision of one of the founding principles of the Institute: symbiotic cohabitation between scientists and artists, and how to make this relationship even more meaningful and productive.

How would you define 'artistic research'? What are the general issues and what are the opportunities?

I won’t go into a definition of artistic research in general as it covers many different fields. I prefer to concentrate on a definition of what artistic research at IRCAM is; that is to say, research that revolves around sound and acoustic phenomena and everything that musical composition involves today, from conception to creation. I have a scientific and artistic background so to me artistic research offers alternative paths to scientific methods.

The evaluation criteria used in scientific approaches are very strict: reproducibility of experiments, publications, etc. By introducing a creative dimension into the process artistic research opens up the experimental field, which on the one hand involves artistic production, and on the other, original scientific advances, in terms of both theory and methodology or applications.

How and when was the concept of artistic residencies at IRCAM conceived?

The concept is an integral part of IRCAM's initial project. The idea of IRCAM was, from the outset, to invite both artists and researchers to develop their ideas within a common framework.

   Photo 1 : Nadine Schütz, Conception sonore de terres urbaines - composer dans (l'intérieur de) l'existant
   Photo 2 : Brynjar Franzson Davíd, Résidence : Une archive urbaine comme un jardin anglais - Environnement acoustique dans le temps et dans l’espace.

Could you name some innovations which, without this artistic research at IRCAM, would probably not have seen the light of day?

I'm not sure that any innovations would not have been produced. Most of the tools pre-exist the demands of the artists, but the needs and wishes of the artists have a determining influence in adapting, refining, and questioning them.

For example, improvisation software, such as Omax and those which followed, were strongly influenced by art, as they were evaluated by artists, whose specific requests were taken into account.

The artistic idea also allows new methods to be developed. In the field I know best, i.e. spatialisation, I remember my first project with Olga Neuwirth who wanted a 'cloud of sounds' fluctuating in space.

We already had many sound spatialisation tools, but her request was a driving force for developing new algorithms adapted to her needs. Similarly, our team's collaboration with Natasha Barrett in 2012 enabled us to develop our encoders/decoders for the Ambisonics dome. For Olga Neuwirth’s Le Encantadas o le avventure nel mare delle meraviglie (2015), capturing the acoustic footprint of a Venetian church was the result of long-term research projects, which were then mature enough to have both artistic and scientific applications. We then used these applications for other, very beautiful, projects.

In 2019, you took over from Greg Beller as head of the Research/Creation interface team at IRCAM: what is the current situation?

The main challenge today is to reconcile the time frames of artistic and scientific processes. The planning schedule of an artistic production, with a production date set well ahead of time, does not necessarily allow space for scientific research to be completed. Similarly, past calls for residencies were generic calls, launched once a year, and the residency sometimes ended before the research teams had achieved satisfactory results.

What changes have you encouraged in this respect?

As soon as I arrived, I wanted to bring the artistic residencies closer to the scientific teams, if only in terms of space, by having them share offices, in order to encourage real collaboration.

On the other hand, from an organisational point of view, artistic research activities were previously independent of the research and creation departments. Still, with the idea of bringing musical and scientific research closer together, we decided to integrate them within the UMR STMS unit.

With one foot planted firmly in the domain of the arts and the other in sciences (I am pursuing my research in the field of acoustic space), I try to evaluate the needs of each to bring them together, and I lead the interactions, while coordinating the residencies and musical research projects and ensuring the sharing of knowledge among the institute’s different departments (including the department of Education and Cultural Outreach).

It is a transversal collaboration among departments, teams, and external partners, especially at an international level. The interaction and sharing of knowledge between all the players is essential.

Ircam - T2G - Dôme Ambisonique @ Ircam-Centre Pompidou, pic by Quentin Chevrier

Let's talk about the new modalities of artistic residencies...

At IRCAM, there are two types of residencies: on the one hand, those that result from a commission or an invitation from the artistic direction and, on the other, those that follow calls for applications. It is mainly with regard to the latter that I wanted to review our way of working. The general principle does not change: the driving force behind these projects is an artistic issue which involves music or, more generally, an audio aspect (music, theatre, cinema, architecture, etc.).

These calls for projects are now thematic. Following regular exchanges among the artistic direction, the joint research lab at IRCAM, the production team, and the computer music designers, we try to identify the most promising avenues, the fields of research that are sufficiently mature for interaction between artists and researchers yield results. These are themes (for example, deep learning, which is very trendy), not tools or predetermined applications. The point is in no way to close the research horizon, but to focus on certain areas. Each team has its own artistic collaboration needs.

The computer music designers are key players in these matters: they are the ones who work with the composers and help develop the specific tools needed. Moreover, their role within the research and production teams is not only to develop a piece, but also to share knowledge and to always make the link between fundamental applied research and artistic research.

A part (3 to 6) of these residencies based on calls for projects are carried out in itinerancy within international partner institutions (such as Georgia Tech's School of Music, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab Taipei, Montreal Society for Arts and Technology or the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe), which therefore naturally take part in the discussions.
Then, because a few months of residency are sometimes not enough to mature a project, collaborations that were supposed to be brief can be  (extended) or even lead to a commission. We try to keep the necessary flexibility to get to the end of the subjects.

  Las Pintas of José Manuel Fernandez as part of the Ircam Live concert at the Pompidou Center © Ircam-Centre Pompidou, pic by Quentin Chevrier

In your opinion, what are the major challenges of artistic research at IRCAM today?

We often observe the effects of fashion, which generally correspond to research that is on the point of being completed. These fashion impacts are very permeable to the "spirit of the times" which reigns over the rest of the applied sciences, and they echo the major issues and needs of the business world: this is the hallmark of the art/science articulation of the house. Thus, about ten years ago, there was a lot of talk about score following or gesture capture, then, more recently, about augmented instruments. Once the tools work, there is much less talk about them, which does not mean that they are no longer relevant or in use: they even continue to progress with the projects that use them.

Today, the fashionable themes are artificial intelligence and deep learning (applied to various domains, such as improvisation, music generation or voice), spatialization (which is increasingly moving out of the laboratory and into companies, in the fields of writing sound space or distributed sound space: broadcasting sound on speakers that are not speakers, such as mobile phones), virtual and augmented realities, as well as the non-linear composition that often goes with it (in the context of installations or interactive experiences). As for research into violin making, it has recently been focusing on the changing purpose of instruments.

It would take too long to draw up an exhaustive list here: many lines of research are eminently promising.

Interview by Jérémie Szpirglas