Rémi Fox & Jérôme Nika 1/4 : Artificial Hippocampus

Artistic Residencies: The Blog

For half a dozen years, saxophonist Rémi Fox has been a guinea pig - but a voluntary one. It is thus voluntarily that, periodically, he goes to the underground of Ircam to submit to the experiments of scientists.

Mainly those of Gérard Assayag’s Representations musicales team.Trained in jazz and improvisation, Rémi Fox is indeed an ideal subject for testing improvised musical interaction tools in the framework of the Omax, SoMax, or Improtech projects and, more recently, DyCI2, developed by Jérôme Nika.

Fox and Nika hit it off immediately, and the idea soon arose to work and perform as a duo: Fox on the sax, possibly modulated by effects pedals or the electronic processing of the Ableton Live software, and Nika on the (computer) keyboards, driving DyCI2.
It is from this duo called "C'est pour ça" that the desire for an artistic research residency at Ircam was born, which would allow them to build an act II of the collaboration, but also to take the time to deepen the subject.

Rémi Fox en studio à l'Ircam © Deborah Lopatin

“The residency will give us the opportunity to exhaustively test all the ways in which the tool works," says Rémi Fox. The machine can work from an existing musical memory or by simply listening to its partner.

Then, in the flow of the performance, Jérôme 'plays' with his machine: he can order it to follow me or not, and in what way, he can ask it to take up whole phrases or simply grains of sound. Sometimes, he may want the speech produced to sound like a machine (in the sense that it would be impossible for a human to produce this kind of phrase), or, on the contrary, he may want that one can no longer distinguish between machine and human. From one extreme to the other, there is a whole range of possibilities that we are eager to explore.”

Beyond the "local", let's say performative, manipulation of the software, the duo will also be keen to take a step back from the tool: "If we work on improvisation, it can be, contrary to what one might think at first glance, highly elaborated: We develop what are called "meta-compositions", i.e. improvisations that are planned in their broad outlines, either by plans determined beforehand (by saying for example that we will first interact with a particular musical memory, then with another, and so on, or, on my side, on musical figures), or by generative processes. It is important to remember that this is, in fact, generative music: it is generated on the one hand by Jérôme from the musical memories that we feed to the machine, and on the other hand by the stimuli that I provide.

It is this fundamental play on musical memory(s) that gives the project its title: "Artificial Hippocampus" - "hippocampus" being a key region of the brain in terms of memory, and "artificial" being a nod to the concept of artificial intelligence.

Jérome Nika during the TEDx talk "Composing the human-machine musical interaction", on the right Diagram DyCI2

“Here, the software plays the same role as the hippocampus: it is an instrument - and I insist on the term "instrument": DyCI2 is not an autonomous creative AI - capable of mobilising a memory, but to respond to a human musical intention” explains Jérôme Nika.

For Rémi Fox, the first stage of the work consists of learning the software itself, the handling of which, for the time being, was Jérôme Nika's domain.
"Jérôme is of course a scientist, but in our duo he is also and above all a musician whose instrument is his software. So, I also want to take a step towards him and be interested in the scientific aspect. The idea is to be able to manipulate the machine myself, but also to create new musical memories with which the machine can work, to create our own library from my saxophone playing techniques or other sounds.

Understanding better how the machine works will allow me to better react to what Jérôme does and to find new ways of interacting. Of course, at first sight in our duo, it is Jérôme who drives the machine by playing on its parameters, but I also drive it, with my musical intentions. This learning process can not only be beneficial to our working relationship: but also help us to better understand each other!”

In the following episodes, we will look in more detail at each of the aspects of this work, as well as the Représentations musicales team members who are specifically involved.