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Overview of day

The ISEA workshop was titled Musical Selfies: Feedback and Self-Reflection through Mobile Composition. Differently to the previous two Pet Sounds workshops, we designed it as an experiment in ‘speculative design’ in which the outcome was to prototype a putative ‘musical selfie app/device’. The organisation of the day was kept deliberately loose in order to achieve this objective through dialogue, collaboration and making – all guided around the question ‘what is a musical selfie?’ Moving from abstract to concrete, we began with structured discussion; moved onto a ‘musical selfie manifesto’ where we defined the concept more rigidly; then designed prototype devices that drew out different themes of the discussion, while adhering to the terms of the manifesto; and finally, presented the results to the rest of the group in a final performance. It was a huge success: lively, energetic and creative, with all participants engaging fully and reporting positively on the experience.

Session 1: speculation

Upon arrival, each participant was given a polaroid camera and asked to take an selfie which would be placed on the white board as an icebreaker activity. 12 people participated, with a thirteenth joining after lunch. Pete and Chris then gave a short introduction in which we described the Pet Sounds project: it included accounts of prior workshops and short presentations on our previous work. We then solicited brief introductions from the participants. Mostly comprised of Ph.D. students and lecturers, they included Darin Reyes, an undergraduate design major at UC Davis; Josephine Lindebrink, a Stockholm based acoustician; Colin Johnson, a professor in computer scientist from University of Kent; Lee Cheng, an assistant professor in music education at University of Hong Kong; Luke Pendrell, a lecturer in visual communication at University of Brighton; June Kim, a Ph.D. student at Queensland University of Technology studying virtual environments and augmented reality; Judy Jheung, a visual artist and animator from Simon Fraser in Vancouver; Michael Straeubig, a post-doc at University of Plymouth with interdisciplinary interests in machine and systems theory, sound, and ‘play’; Mick, a lecturer at Hong Kong PolyU who is both a music producer and a cinematographer; and Tan, a student at the Korea institute of science and technology studying electrical engineering.

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Figure 1. Playing back audio recordings

After the introductions we began the discussions, asking simply, ‘what is a musical selfie’? A number of preliminary ideas came forward. Colin argued that the musical selfie was an index of place and time, similar in this way to a photograph but with these attributes enhanced. June agreed, but added that the musical selfie might be used as a memory trigger; a way of logging or capturing glimpses of ones own autobiography through sound. Mick added to this the important point that emotion and mood might be included in the musical selfie. He argued that music can be a strong conveyor and conduit of mood and emotion, and that the musical selfie concept might harness that in some way. Lee took the discussion in a different direction, proposing that the musical selfie might convert image selfie to sound; while Darren brought the conversation to cultural issues, reminding us that selfies are ways of curating ones’ public persona, and picking and choosing what you want others to see.

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Figure 2. Keywords from the brainstorming in session 1

At this point, Pete asked whether anyone would like to play the preliminary recording they had made. (This was a requirement of the workshop – participants were asked to make a recording of some aspect of their day or journey prior to the workshop.) Michael volunteered first, playing the group a recording of sounds he had created at a workshop the previous day using networked computers. Darren followed with two recordings: one, a piece of music he had created on the ukulele that, in the audio recording, featured the sound of him giving himself verbal prompts for what was supposed to come; and two, an interesting recording of a phone conversation with a friend in which he had recorded only the sound of his side of the conversation, his speaking voice punctuated by large, suggestive silences.

Two participants played recordings of their own compositions: Luke’s, a sound art piece derived from shortwave radio; and Lee’s, a notated piece for solo flute. Mick, Josefine, June, and Chris played field recordings produced recently: for June, the sound of a fan in her hotel room; Mick, the tune played in the subway before passengers rush onto the train; Josephine, a tunnel in Germany; and Chris, a recording of a retired American guard speaking inside Teufelsberg, an American listening station that was used to intercept Russian radio during the cold war. Pete played a recording of sea lions recorded in California recently.

Colin’s contribution was particularly interesting: a hastily recorded document of himself humming a nameless tune. He told us that this was his part of an attempt to discover the title of a song that had been running around his head during the night, yet he still couldn’t name it. It was a nice example of something private made public: the quality of the recording and its presentation together creating an intimate audio self-portrait.

Session 2: defining the concept

In the second part of the session we aimed to move beyond open discussion to something more determinate. Through discussion and argument, we took the hour before lunch to draft a ‘musical selfie manifesto’ that would state what both a musical selfie is, and what it is not. Participants seemed to enjoy this section considerably – it made the discussion more focused, issuing further lively debate and questioning. Some of the highlights of this section were:

1) the assertion that, while visual selfies convey realism, surface and semblance, musical selfies might harness mood, abstraction, emotion and embodiment;

2) a question concerning the difference between avatars and selfies;

3) the idea that there are ‘genres’ of selfies: bathroom selfie, institutional or government selfie, landmark selfie, ‘extreme’ selfie…

4) the observation that people often use their own voice to ‘sound’ a space and hear its reverberation or echo, and that this might be conceived of as a sonic record of place, time and subject’;

5) reflection on the ‘death’ of the answering machine message and the rise of visuality (or textuality) in social media networks. What communicative purpose do audio recordings actually play in our contemporary networked environment of words, photographs, animations, and emoticons?

6) the idea that making sound is always (or usually) a conscious act;

7) a recurring focus on the embarrassment that issues from hearing one’s own voice;

Following this, we came up with a manifesto:

A Musical Selfie must A Musical selfie must not
be deliberate be equivalent to the visual selfie
be recorded (casual memory) be a field recording
be made with intent to share

(initiate response)

be a mixtape or other

representation of musical taste

derive from the body  
include environment  
be ad hoc  
be miniature  
represent the self  


Session 3 and 4: design and demonstration

With the manifesto written, we then split into groups of three in order to prototype putative ‘musical selfie devices’. Each group was assigned a theme deriving from the discussion before the manifesto; the designs were to bear in mind the 12 tenets of the manifesto. The themes were ‘filters’, ‘devices’, and ‘environment’. Participants could move between themes if they wished, and were free to collaborate or work solo on as many prototype devices as they wished. Although one participant used a computer and code (Michael), the majority of the group worked with basic materials: card, plastic, paper, foamboard, mobile phones, speakers, and assorted craft materials.

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Figure 3. Devices lined up for the show and tell session.

The devices that were premiered in the final show and tell were extraordinarily diverse and imaginative.

Chris and Colin showed ‘Ear-Spy’ (Figure 5), a game-based device for generating text-sound performances. The idea was that the device (in this case Chris) would issue ‘prompts’ based on the environment in which the user found themselves. The prompt could be a descriptive word or concept based on the surroundings, not unlike the game eye-spy. Based on the proximity of the mobile device to the user, the represented word would transition from semantically-intelligible words, to non-representative utterances, to noise based sounds. To give a concrete example, for the environmentally-situated word ‘air’ the user of the device might be prompted to utter words associated with air when the device was close to him or her (‘flight’, ‘molecules’, ‘breathing’ etc), sounds that might represent air when at an intermediate position (‘whoosh’, ‘pfff’ etc), and fractured noise-utterances when the device was far from him or her. The success of the performance depended upon the performer’s ability to think quickly and improvise based on the concept and the device’s’ proximity to him or her.

Mick demonstrated ‘The Musical Selfie Stick’ (Figure 5). The device allowed a user to channel their voice along a long thin tube, not unlike a periscope or didgeridoo. This allowed them to place their voice at a distance and hear their voice from a different spatial position. in this way mimicking the selfie stick that allows one to acquire a greater distance between camera and face than the arm alone will allow.

One project took the concept of ‘rhythm’ as a way of thinking between the visual and musical selfie. This took the abstract shape of reflections in the window and translated them into musical rhythms (Figure 3, second from left). Various methods of physically altering or filtering sound were also explored (Figure 4). Luke’s, the ‘selfie ocarina’, used feedback and a changeable cavity to explore resonant tones, while Michael took a different route, creating custom software in SuperCollider to record, alter and loop back snippets of sound. Lee created an audio selfie stick that was designed purely to facilitate the gesture of taking a selfie; amusingly, it did not provide any other technological function (Figure 4). Finally, June displayed a device that used the string-between-two-tin-cans principle to pass your own voice back to yourself and allow for greater self reflection (figure 6).

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Figure 4. Functionless Selfie stick that reproduces the gesture associated with taking a selfie

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Figure 5. Resonant Cups, Selfie Ocarina, Sound Periscope, Physical Filters

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Figure 6. Directing audio back around to yourself

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Figure 7. Musical Selfie Stick

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Figure 7. ‘Ear Spy’ and ‘Selfie Maker’

Conclusion and feedback

The musical selfie workshop was a stimulating, enjoyable and convivial experiment in speculative design that moved easily between conceptual and practical invention and produced a number of genuinely novel individual and collaborative results. The joint expertise of those present meant were able to essentially delegate our speculative idea – the ‘musical selfie’ – to the group for us to work out collectively; very little explicit guidance was necessary. Looking back on the workshop, one of the most useful outcomes was the way that our prototype app (the ‘feedback app’) was deployed in the practical session in the afternoon. After a short demo, three participants took hold of it and extended it in surprising ways, designing physical appendages for it that modified the sound in novel ways (see figure 5).