Vol. 35 Issue 4 Reviews

The Third International Conference on Mathematics and Computation in Music

Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France, June 15–17, 2011.

Reviewed by Jordan Smith and Isaac Schankler

The Third International Conference on Mathematics and Computation in Music (MCM) took place June 15–17, 2011 in Paris, France. [The conference Web site is located at mcm2011.ircam.fr.] Hosted by the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), many of the sessions took place next door at the Centre Georges Pompidou. The packed program included nine paper sessions on topics ranging from s cale t heory to c ognitive m usicology , as well as two poster sessions, two panel and discussion sessions, and concerts each night after the conference programming. The conference as a whole was deftly organized, with a tight schedule that nonetheless gave enough breathing room to attend IRCAM’s evening Agora Festival concerts, which showcased a parallel track of artistic and technological innovation.

There were also three keynote addresses. For the first, Pierre Boulez and mathematician and Fields medalist Alain Connes held a discussion, moderated by Gérard Assayag, which touched on many parallels between mathematical and musical work and creation. The wide-ranging conversation was well attended and appreciated by all. The second keynote address was delivered by philosopher Alain Badiou. M athematician Stephen Wolfram closed the conference with the third keynote address, a talk entitled "Music from the Computational Universe," which was delivered via videoconferencing in a session chaired by Thomas Noll.

MCM conferences, which take place biennially and alternate between Europe and North America, enable mathematicians, computer scientists, and music scholars to come together and share their perspectives within an interdisciplinary environment. However, during the conference under review, many conference- goers and presenters called attention to the divisions that can persistently accompany this exchange of ideas. Many of these divisions were discussed at "Around A Geometry of Music," an open panel discussion centered on Dmitri Tymoczko's recent book . The panel discussion featured the author and was chaired by mathematician Emmanuel Amiot and music theorist Julian Hook (whose preamble provided an excellent overview of mathematical approaches to music theory, from Milton Babbitt up to the present day). The participants spoke about the separation between pure and applied mathematical approaches, between experimental and theoretical approaches, and repeatedly between American and continental European approaches. One of Tymoczko's stated goals is to help bridge this divide, and while Amiot seemed to view this as a step in the right direction, he was troubled at times by the lack of explicit formulae or proofs in parts of Tymoczko's book.

Parallel concerns arose at the lively panel discussion the day before, "Bridging the Gap: Computational and Mathematical Approaches in Music Research," featuring Guerino Mazzola, Geraint Wiggins, and Alan Marsden, who respectively represented mathematical, computational, and traditional approaches to music research. The moderators Anja Volk and Aline Honingh (incidentally, the only two female presenters to be scheduled) recalled the historic lack of communication between traditional and computational musicology, but Marsden put forth the possibility that these two branches of musicology perhaps ought to be appreciated as separate approaches, both of which are valid and insightful, but which are not intended to be intermingled. He told the audience not to expect or look for a “Grand Unified Theory” of music, because there would always be multiple ways of understanding, for example, cadences. Wiggins argued for a cognitive approach to music theory that incorporates an understanding of human perceptual abilities and limitations. Mazzola alone held out hope that the proliferation of musical theories might one day coalesce into a single, coherent set of musical laws, and drew an analogy between the instability of our nascent cultural moment and the instability of physical laws at the beginning of the universe.

All the panelists seemed to agree that bolstering education between disciplines is crucial. Marsden called for less emphasis on scale theory, which dominated the first day of the conference, and for broadening the scope of the conference program. The final day of the conference offered a glimpse of what this interdisciplinary broadening might look like. For example, Edward Large's paper presentation offered a novel cognitive model of tonality that combined the theoretical lineage of Hemholtz, Fourier, and Pythagoras with more recent research on neural resonance and enculturation.

Despite the copious attention devoted to intellectual divisions at the conference, at no point did they seem insurmountable. Instead, they served to highlight the vibrancy and diversity of the musical, mathematical, and computational communities. The impassioned and reasoned arguments that peppered the enjoyable panels, keynotes, and coffee breaks of this year's conference were evidence of the urgency and profundity of the issues being addressed. The fourth edition of MCM, in 2013, will no doubt be richer for this exchange of ideas.