Early November’s second annual TEDx Aldeburgh event saw a diverse collection of fascinating people gathered together to share Technology, Entertainment, and Design experiences. ( http://www.tedxaldeburgh.com/ ) This was an independently organised TED event, but it definitely continued the ‘ideas worth sharing’ concept as seen in the videos on the TED.com website. ( http://www.ted.com )
Deep in the Suffolk countryside near Aldeburgh, Snape Maltings is the perfect venue for an eclectic music event: it is steeped in music, art and history. The converted malting buildings are now the home of Aldeburgh Music, which was founded by composer Benjamin Britten and which offers a breadth of music from classical to experimental. See http://www.aldeburgh.co.uk/
Last night, Thomas Dolby opened his new album tour with a concert here, where he noted that the building was built by his great great grandfather, and today, as TED's musical director, he is the host. His studio is in a converted boat just along the coast from here, and he opened by introducing us to the 'Floating City' game website that links to the music on his new album, as well as incorporating themes from lots of his past work too.
( http://www.floatingcity.com/ )
Last year's event featured a piano adapted for live performance by tapping, scraping, plucking, etc., and this year we saw a very different modified piano. Kathy Hinde's piano has been turned into a 5x5 matrix where video in each of the cells triggers interaction with the piano strings or frame. Starting out from simple examples where birds sitting on telephone wires are turned into a musical score, the final result is a fascinating instrument where the link between the video projected onto the piano frame is obvious and intuitive, even though there is a lot of processing happening to make it appear that way. ( http://kathyhinde.co.uk/ )
The first video from the TED archive featured Ted Heatherwick talking about making the Seed Cathedral that was the UK Pavilion at the 2011 Shanghai Expo. Thomas heads a design company that mixes art, design and technology in amazing ways. The Seed Cathedral uses lots of clear light-guides to bring the outside light inside a building where it illuminates seeds. Stunningly simple and effective. ( http://www.heatherwick.com/ )
Jennifer Stumm revealed her love for the viola, which she described as 'imperfect', and then went on to show how it is those very imperfections which make it so fascinating. With a range very close to that of the human voice, and a complex series of compromises causing its special character, the viola was brought to life by her playing and enthusiasm. ( http://www.jenniferstumm.com/ )
Akala looked ordinary enough, but beneath that streetwise exterior lurked an erudite and talented individual. He started by asking the audience to vote on quotes: were they from Shakespeare or Hip-hop? Once any lingering preconceptions had been stripped away, he then proceeded to demonstrate how the rhythm of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter prose fits into hip-hop timings too. And his demonstrations showed an adept ability to speak the bard's words at speed, and in time. A mind-expanding experience, and the perfect end to the first session. Thomas reminded us that at TEDx, it was allowed to talk to the presenters afterwards, and so that's what happened over lunch. ( http://www.akalamusic.com/ )
The afternoon started with a talk by Vincent Walsh, a cognitive neuroscientist, and the person to whom I had chatted over lunch, unaware that I was doing exactly what Thomas had said we could do! Vincent talked about something that many musicians may be aware of already, but he told us why it happens: sleeping on it, or coming back to it later. It turns out that to be really creative, you need to immerse yourself in the subject, soaking it up, but then to trigger the creativity, you need to relax and let your subconscious mind solve the problems, extrapolate, explore, and produce the really interesting stuff.
The video that followed had Suzanne Lee describing how she 'grows' clothes using microbes to create cellulose. ( http://www.biocouture.co.uk/ ) It has long been a meme in science fiction that advanced cultures would grow their spacecraft, and this gave a glimpse as to how that might happen. So can microbes make music too? Perhaps next year...
Just when you thought that you couldn't be surprised any more, 12-year old Hannah Brock stepped into the light on the stage and introduced us to the Guzheng, an ancient Chinese instrument. As her fingers danced nimbly over the strings, plucking, bending and damping with speed and considerable virtuosity, the audience did that weird gasp where you draw the breath in, but forget to let it out because you are spellbound. Stunning. It reminded me of Emmett Chapman... ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUDbdBvG7t0 )
Eric Whitacre featured in a TED video showing the result of bringing together 2052 vocalists from 58 countries over the internet. The 'Virtual Choir 2.0' performed one of his choral pieces, with computer graphics used to composite the videos of the performers into a representation of a more traditional choir. (http://ericwhitacre.com/the-virtual-choir )
Peter Gregson, the cellist who mixes the cello with electronics at the leading edge of contemporary music, then told us about Auto-tune, and how it affects much of the commercial music that we hear. Thinking back to the viola earlier, perhaps auto-tune should be used more creatively to provide interesting imperfection instead of pitch-perfection. ( http://petergregson.co.uk/ )
Scorer, performer, composer, writer, and collaborator, Nitin Sawhney, asked 'What is the point of music?', and went on to illustrate his views in words and music. Accompanied by a continuous video, his talking and playing was perfectly synchronised with the video, and yet it seemed like he was just talking to us, unscripted.
A video version of Brian Cox then walked us through an incident at the start of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, where a minor problem led to some magnets becoming mis-aligned. It all looked quite believable, until he revealed that the magnets in the photo weighed 20 tons and had moved about 25 centimetres. After seeing him presenting many television documentaries about broad science topics, it was fascinating to see him talking about his 'day job'. ( http://www.ted.com/talks/brian_cox_what_went_wrong_at_the_lhc.html )
The day ended with the Modified Toy Orchestra, who take electronic musical toys and repurpose them into performance instruments. With considerable skill, musical ability and a quirky sense of humour, they showed that musicianship can inject emotion and humour into the most technologically limited and challenging of instruments. No MIDI, no sequencing, and no laptops - just found sounds, circuit-bent electronics and live performance at its best. Oh, and they encouraged the audience to come and gawp at the toys afterwards. ( http://www.modifiedtoyorchestra.com/ )
Actually, the day didn't end there. Simon Limbrick and James Saunders had their musical installation 'Surfaces' in another of the studios, showing an exploration of the sonic properties of materials. ( http://www.sonicsurfaces.co.uk/ )
The second album is often difficult for musicians, but the second TEDx Aldeburgh passed with flying colours. Thoroughly recommended for a mind-expanding day out.
Sound On Sound is proud to be a TEDx Aldeburgh media sponsor.
Report by SOS author and representative Martin Russ.
All photographs copyright Jana Chiellino.