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Student Design Competition winner interview - Charles Holbrow

Student Design Competition winner interview - Charles Holbrow
    1) Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and what do you study?
I am a PhD. Candidate at the MIT Media Lab, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA (right next to Boston). My dissertation focuses on the affordances of the internet for music and media. If we build internet technology in service of music, instead of in service of the major internet platforms, what can we do differently, and how can media content evolve? If Sgt. Pepper's illustrates what sound recording technology did for music, what can internet technology do for music? I love to build technology that extends and complements human musicianship and composition, and have been doing this professionally and as a graduate student for the past decade. 
    2) What initiated your passion for audio? When did it start? 
When I was a teenager, I loved playing music! But I also loved writing code, and have been building technology since I was very young. 
    3) Tell us about production of your submission? What is the story behind it? How long did you work on it? Was it your first entry? What kind of problem can it solve or improve?
A friend of mine who is a composer told me that she had been trying to compose polytempic music, but the limitations of her DAW (and all DAWs really) made it impossible to do with precision. I became fascinated with trying to understand how multiple simultaneous tempos could accelerate and decelerate relative to each other, and synchronize at carefully composed times. I asked everyone I knew how this could be done, and no would could figure it out. The problem turned out to be very difficult to explain, so along the way I learned a lot about communicating the idea. Finally with some help from my grandfather, who is a professor of physics, we figured out a solution using integral calculus.
I simplified the equations, and arrived at what I think is a very elegant solution. Several years later, I wrote a software interface for composing with many simultaneous tempos. It is quite a strange idea, and it was mostly completed in little bits of spare time over the last years. I think we first started working on it around 2015. 
In preparation for the convention I did a literature review of other polytempic music projects. It turns out I am not the first person to use integrals to calculate tempo curves. I think my solution is the most elegant, but I'll leave that to your judgement! I believe I am the first person to really use fully constrained polytempic swarms, and make an interface for composing with them. Nancarrow and Xenakis had similar ideas, but didn't solve the tempo equation. Read the full project description if you are curious about the history.
    4) Did you considered commercializing your project? Are there any business or product possibilities?
I am not interested in commercializing this project. I am proud of it, but it is loosely related to my longer term interests and research goals. The idea is unusual and experimental enough that I do not think commercializing it is the right move at the moment. However, I do think that the underlying mathematics are useful for some other audio applications that could have commercial value. In the meantime, I'd be happy to share the software with anyone who is interested in composing with swarms of polytempos - know that in its current form, the interface is not ready for casual users.
    5) Do you know or consider any future steps? Will it be linked with the project you’ve presented?
Next steps: survive the PhD process. While I don't think commercializing this project is the right move, I love building technology for artists and musicians, and I'm looking for the right way to continue this work after graduation in 2020. Please reach out if you think it might be fun and productive to work together!
    6) Tell us about your favourite experiences at the 146th AES convention in Dublin!

My favorite part was meeting other Students! I was the only current student from MIT,  but I did meet an alum from the Media Lab, and lots of other current students and of course the SDA officers. I loved how international the conference was. With so much political turmoil in the world it felt great to be surrounded by others who just want to geek out about audio together. I left the conference with new friends, and excited for the next one.  

See Charles's project description

Posted: Thursday, May 9, 2019

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