Last week, I gave an Ignite Talk. And not just any Ignite talk – this particular event was being held at Google I/O – one of the largest developer conferences of the year, in the Moscone Center, San Francisco.
Walking into the room, which could easily have housed a major team sporting event, I noticed that it was about a third full – that is to say, about 400 people. Then the Ignite audience came in, and the room swelled to over 1000. I steeled myself, flashing through my slides in my head as I rehearsed my spiel one final time. For anyone not familiar with the Ignite format – it’s five minutes. You get to talk about whatever you’re passionate about, but once your five minutes are up – that’s it. Next please. And here’s the kicker – your slides auto-advance every 15 seconds. 20 of them, in quick succession, with NO speaker notes (that little bit of information I found out the night before the talk).
It’s a pretty terrifying format for the uninitiated, and I was giving a talk about a subject that has significantly more depth than ‘the best way to tie your shoelaces (this was an actual Ignite Talk). Namely, I was talking about experimental music, and how it can sound bad, and how maybe we as artists can work to achieve a balance between proof of concept and what I call ‘proof of context’. Throw a live theremin/sampler demo (all of 30 seconds long) into the mix, and there is significant potential for disaster.
That said, my talk went pretty flawlessly (you can view it here – I come in at 38 minutes). There were a few minor stumblages, and the ending was pretty hasty (since I was out of slides), but overall I was happy with how I delivered it.
Then comes the question of the content. I’m pretty convinced I will have pissed off at least some small contingent of experimental composers with what I said. Basically it was along the lines of “let’s do experimental music, but PLEASE, can we try and make it sound pretty?”. A gross oversimplification, to be sure, but my point was essentially that many experimental composers, at least historically, have been obsessed with algorithm to the detriment of aesthetics, and it doesn’t have to be that way. I use as an example of this my work with BCMIs (Brain Computer Music Interfaces). A large scale project that we conducted involved all sorts of cool technology and science, but the output was not, shall we say, particularly musical. If we had just tweaked a few things on the output end, we could have created a more musical context, but we were primarily concerned with making the damn thing work.
Of course, in building systems such as in Music for Online Performer, certain aspects must take precedence, and time is often of the essence, but if there is anything I learned from the project, it is that without a musical context, such an endeavor becomes less a composition than a science experiment.
Some composers who consider themselves on the leading edge of their art will probably take umbrage at my suggestion that we consider the audience’s reception of our work, but to these I say ‘let’s have a discussion about that’. I am certainly no stranger to the avant-garde aesthetic, but let’s just say I’ve bought the T-shirt on that one, and am quite willing and able to discuss its merits and shortcomings. If my approach of incorporating context into our work seems to fly in the face of ‘traditional’ modes of experimental composition, is that not in itself an approach that challenges the status quo, thereby qualifying it as ‘avant-garde’?
So, if the Ignite Talk taught me anything, it was that five minutes is a long time on a stage, and that even complex ideas can be distilled very effectively if faced with these constraints. For me, the talk forced me to take a position on my art, and elucidate it in front of a broad spectrum audience that didn’t necessarily have a context for my talk’s content. It was an amazing experience, and one I would highly recommend to anyone who has something they want to formalize, clarify and expound about their passion. As the Ignite slogan goes ‘Enlighten us, but make it quick’.