Undergraduate Research Dispatch: Marissa Ahmed on Music, Improvisation, Ethnography

28 May, 2018

Undergraduate Research Dispatch: Marissa Ahmed on Music, Improvisation, Ethnography

This year, BCNM continued its undergraduate research fellowship program, which offers undergraduates the chance to engage in direct research experience with BCNM graduates. Marissa Ahmed was selected to work with Ritwik Banerji on his project “Music, Improvisation, & Ethnography.”

In her own words:

This Spring semester, I assisted Ritwik Banerji on his project Music, Improvisation, and Ethnography. I was drawn to this project because of its motive to understand the relationship between musicians and their music – while additionally gaining insight into the interpersonal dynamic between musicians themselves. Working on this BCNM project provided me with an opportunity to become familiar with human-computer, ethnomusicology, and social interaction research.

As a Cognitive Science major, I have always been intrigued by the diversity of human response to stimuli and the inherent rules of communication that develop among groups of people. Additionally, as a long time musician, I have often pondered how music transforms the masses and why it is a staple of societies around the world. Given the breadth of my coursework, it became a challenge for me to bridge my interests through my curriculum alone. However, this project allowed me to do just that.

Under the guise of an interactive music system designed to listen, respond, and play with human tendency, Ritwik endeavored to uncover an improviser’s true reactions and intentions when playing with another musician. He recorded sessions with numerous musicians “jamming” with Maxine or Bob (the interactive music technology) and the musicians’ subsequent feedback. It was my job to transcribe these candid conversations and provide a summary analysis of the 1-1.5 hour sessions, highlighting significant mentions and trends from the subject. In addition, I provided suggestions for improving the experiment protocol and data collection. Together, we worked to analyze the retrospective commentary from the musicians, being mindful of anything that would lend clarity to the unspoken communication between human musicians during actual an on-stage improvisation performance.

I enjoyed listening to the pieces of ethnographic fieldwork that included unique passages of great jazz musicians on horn, bass, and saxophone with brief interludes where they explained their own mind and grappled to understand Maxine’s. I found this project refreshing as it used technology only as a proxy to understand the fundamentals of human nature. In my experience, technology is often promoted to be the solution of all of humanity’s “problems” as the only champion of societal improvement. Contrastingly, this BCNM project was a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to understanding humans and two fundamentals of modern (or western) life: music and technology. The conversations about music contained underlying notes of major themes of today, including gender roles and cultural disparity. All in all, this project became an open dialogue about the future of music and education – namely, how this data can be used to assist musicians in improving collaborative music practice.