It's a thing of life: we all have that thing we've been missing out on, the thing friends tell us incessantly we'd love. "You should totally go". "You're a designer and you love music, this is perfect for you". In my case, that thing was Music Tech Fest (MTF), a — formerly nomadic — international festival for music ideas and innovation.
The organizers set themselves on a yearly mission of bringing together a slew of musicians, researchers, innovators and artists with the goal of unraveling new ways of creating and experiencing music. I had heard about it for years. This year, part of the Low-Fi crew travelled to Stockholm at the beginning of September to take part in MTF Stockholm and I was finally among them.
If you’re a tech geek, music nerd or an (unsurprisingly) enchanting combination of the two, Music Tech Fest is where you want to be. More than that, it might quickly become the place you want to return to year after year, to keep exploring. This year, MTF participants were presented with an (almost) overwhelming variety of options. Choices ranged from diving into research on AI, human-music interaction, digital archiving or blockchain (among other topics), to seeing demos, performances or talks or taking part in creating some new music-tech fun on the Innovation floor in a joint hack camp and creative labs bonanza. As a bona fide lady-gang of curious minds, we had signed up for the hackathon.
photo: Mihaela Yordanova
Boundless tech honesty
Tech hacks are wondrous things, I think. Sure, they're X amount of hours of grueling fun and the (dis)satisfaction of exploring a topic for a very limited amount of time. But they're also like teenagers still growing into the size of their own limbs — they seem to be the disjointed embodiment of curiosity, fueled by technology, determination, Red Bull and candy. Hacks have a very honest quality to them, they provide an environment where it's very difficult to pretend that technology is flawless, our savior or our doom.
And the MTF hackathon makes no exception — it's filled with flawed exploration of hardware, flawed hardware exploration and a zest for tackling large scale themes like Radical Inclusion, finding antidotes to the Simple Sabotage Field Manual or building musical instruments for scientific exploration. The three themes as well as the challenges proposed at MTF Stockholm seem to speak directly of its manifesto: creating better worlds through honest, intersectional, value-driven exploration of music and technology. Moving beyond awards, the resulting projects are meant to serve as learning tools, both for the hackathon participants, as well as for the manufacturers of the technology that was used. They promote an understanding of innovation as a tool for inclusion, placed at the intersection of different fields, perspectives and cultures.
You might have noticed the name coincidence. Funny, so did I. It's not every day that I walk into a festival and stumble upon a t-shirt with my name on it. I searched my brains for any recollection of the names or the reasoning behind their order. I was stumped, so in the true fashion of a toddler, I went around asking anyone I could find for more information. While waiting in line to descend into a decommissioned nuclear reactor for a series of performances (true story) Google provided the answers: Ada Lovelace, Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram and Laurie Spiegel, four female pioneers of electronic music. As annoyed as I might be of my own inability to connect the dots (I am a nerd, after all), I find it telling that their names didn't slip off the tongue just as easily as a Brian Eno or John Cage would have. Not just for myself, but also for the dozen or so people I chased around with my question.
A lot of things have been said about the situation of women both in tech — female representation is in a constant low flux, workplace sexism is still making headlines (see Google, Uber) — as well as in the music industry and the conversation is seemingly never-ending. MTF preferred taking a more hands-on approach in this matter for the 2018 edition of the festival and made sure that 50% of all speakers, participants and attendees were women. Even more so, MTF decided to place women in the lead: Imogen Heap headed the MTF Labs, Kelly Snook took charge of the Creative Labs, LJ Rich lead the 24-hour hack and Nancy Baym took us through intense amounts of knowledge in the research symposium. Swedish singer Robyn lead the Tekla workshops, Danica Kragic and Anouk Wipprecht took care of the Innovation lab and Ginger Leigh curated the sound art for the MTF Space. So, maybe in 50 years it will be easier for people to recognize and nod to an MTF t-shirt that says "Imogen&Kelly&Nancy&LJ."And, who knows, maybe in the end we won't even need t-shirts at all.
We hacked, we heard and we saw, but when all was said and done, what we did most was meet, discuss, learn and be in the presence of each other. We had too many salmon sandwiches and ginger ales and never enough music. In fact, we gathered a playlist of over 100 goosebump songs from most of the participants in the hack, to prove it (shoutout to Michelle).
Also, some Low-Fiers did even more than discuss, they also won 3rd prize! (shoutout Anne, Charlotte, Mihaela & Jana)
MTF is a community of over 7,000 creative innovators and researchers meet and work together for events and labs. The festival was founded by Michela Magas and has held events in several locations, amongst which the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Microsoft NERD, Funkhaus, Berlin or the Barbican in London.