Marcelo Wanderley: Crossing Disciplines

Researcher and supervisor Prof. Marcelo Wanderley discusses his interdisciplinary work, the art of supervising interdisciplinary students, and several recently-funded projects that are transforming the Schulich School of Music. (Photo: Christinne Muschi)

Professor of Music Technology Marcelo Wanderley has been on faculty at the Schulich School of Music for the past 18 years. He trained initially as an electrical engineer, and his PhD is in acoustics, signal processing, and computer science applied to music. And how did an electrical engineer end up as a professor in a music school? Wanderley has always been passionate about music and sound, and interested in recording, guitars, effects pedals, delays, and amplifiers. He recalls being adamant about doing engineering work that was related to sound, rather than “just integrated circuits.”

Wanderley's work is the embodiment of the word “interdisciplinary” - a word that is frequently used these days, but in Wanderley’s case, it is a word that comes with decades of experience in working across disciplines. He says: “It’s hard to do interdisciplinary work, because the goals are different, the training is different, and the vocabulary is different across disciplines. I’ve had projects in the past where words mean different things in music technology and in engineering… I think we can train people who can listen to others, without being defensive or dismissive of those from a different area of expertise. It's about what you share, and what people’s different qualities and strengths are.”

His main research interests include gestural control of sound synthesis, input device design and evaluation, and the use of sensors and actuators in digital musical instruments. In fact, he co-edited the first English-language reference in this field, Trends in Gestural Control of Music in 2000. He went on to co-write the very first textbook on the subject in 2006: Digital Musical Instruments: Control and Interaction Beyond the Keyboard; a work with close to 500 citations in Google Scholar. He is also very connected with his wider academic communities, as a senior member of both the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Prof. Marcelo Wanderley working with PhD student Johnty Wang (Photo: Tam Lan Truong)

Here at Schulich, Prof. Wanderley is heavily involved in laboratories and projects relating to his research: he is the director of the Input Devices and Music Interaction Laboratory (IDMIL), and was the director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT) from 2011 to 2014, during a time when the Centre and the Schulich School of Music obtained more than $17 million in funding from federal and provincial agencies, as well as from Schulich School of Music donors, to carry out interdisciplinary work in music, media, and technology.

Further afield, Prof. Wanderley is also an International Chair at Inria, a large research institute for digital sciences in France, which promotes scientific excellence and the transfer of technology. Wanderley is not only the first McGill researcher to be awarded this research chair, he is also the first music professor to ever hold the title. His work at Inria, with the LOKI team in Lille, is centred around research on music technology and human-computer interaction.

A leading figure internationally in his area of research, Prof. Wanderley maintains fine balance between his teaching commitments at Schulich and a number of invitations to give guest lectures and carry out work as a visiting researcher around the world. Last March he gave a Vollmer Vries Lecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute called “Frontiers in Musical Interactive System Design and Aesthetics”, aimed at showing the connections that exist between art, science, and technology; and was also a conference chair of the 9th International Workshop on Haptic and Audio Interaction in Lille, France, across audio, haptics, design and human-computer interaction. This month he will deliver a keynote speech at the NIME (New Interfaces for Musical Expression) conference, the main academic event in the field. Later this month he will also give a Distinguished Lecture at Queen-Mary University of London entitled “Multidisciplinary Research in Music, Science and Technology: A blessing or a curse?” that will review some of the opportunities and challenges he faces carrying out research across disciplines. 

Interdisciplinary Teaching at Schulich

A range of students are under Prof. Wanderley’s supervision at Schulich, enrolled in majors including electrical, mechanical and materials engineering, computer science, physics, mathematics, music technology, music performance and composition, and psychology. He has supervised or co-supervised more than 50 graduate students and post-doctoral scholars at McGill. The connecting thread between all of his students is a love of sound and music: all of their research projects include a musical component. Wanderley also attracts many visiting students – more than 35 students from all over the world during his tenure – who come for a few months or a year, with a specific topic or project to collaborate on.

His courses are designed to be interdisciplinary, with some elements aimed at technically-inclined students and others for more for artistically-minded students. This follows a trend in the Music Technology area at Schulich that offers two minors: A Music, Science and Technology minor (which is more scientifically oriented) and a Musical Applications of Technology minor (with a more practical focus). For instance, he teaches the 200-level course Introduction to Digital Audio from several perspectives: “The electronics point of view, the technical systems point of view, the mathematical angle, and the musical applications of these.”

The inner circuitry of PhD student Ivan Franco’s MITT digital musical instrument (Photo: Tam Lan Truong)

Wanderley says “everything I do involves crossing disciplines. Though it’s important to have disciplines, faculties, and departments that have defined characteristics – 'this is music, this is science, this is engineering' – in practice things are rarely that easily divided. For instance, for thousands of years, music has made extensive use of the technology that has been available at any given moment. And it obviously continues to do so!”

And when asked about the process of connecting engineers and musicians – especially within a school with such a focus on classical music – he had this to say: “I personally think that anything that is organized sound, is music. In fact, much of the music being done today is totally electronic, or based on synthesizers, sequencers and various related technologies. Especially in my research field, the design of digital musical instruments (musical instruments using computers for sound generation), the use of commonly accepted notions such as virtuosity or composition can sometimes be limiting, given the variety of musical styles to which they might not apply.”

The Input Devices and Music Interaction Laboratory (IDMIL)

IDMIL was established in 2005, and is led by Prof. Wanderley. Students in the lab work on projects relating to human-computer interaction, the design of musical instruments and interfaces for musical expression, movement data collection and analysis, sensor development, and gestural control.

IDMIL at the Schulich School of Music (Photo: Tam Lan Truong)

Students work to apply engineering, science, and mathematics to complex musical settings, with many projects relating to the creation of new musical instruments: “The computer today is so powerful, if compared to computers of a few decades ago. Today we can generate sounds that we’ve never heard before, even using our cell phones! So the question for me is: how can we play the computer in a way that we can feel like we’re performing? To answer this question, we typically build input devices that allow us to control sounds generated by computers. Given the digital nature of today's technology, the way these devices control the sounds becomes totally arbitrary, so that there’s no longer any link between the material and shape of an instrument, and the sounds it can make.”

Many of the IDMIL projects include engineers and musicians working together, and Wanderley points out that “engineers typically work in groups where someone’s strength can cover another’s weakness – and performers typically expose their abilities in front of large audiences, often in a solo situation. Engineers need to understand how musicians work, and vice versa. It’s a question of mutual benefit. When asked about a technological issue, engineers might say ‘this is not possible’ from their perspective, but then the reaction needs to be ‘okay, so what is possible?’ so that a conversation can start and a mutually satisfying solution can be found.”

Supervising in the Interdisciplinary Field

Prof. Wanderley takes a collegial approach to the supervision of his lab members, and enjoys guiding the energy of a group project: “We are shaping a new generation of people who are aware that there is more than their view, and who can use their expertise to help build something that is bigger than their own individual ability. I don’t see my students as students, I see them as colleagues. They like that they are allowed to bring ideas to a project, and everyone has a different thing to offer – including me. This is the only way we can progress.”

He talks about the need for students to find their strengths, and hone them for applying to group projects: “The challenge of the supervisor is to help the student discover what their strengths are. I don’t think students can do equally well, and nor should they - our goal is to help them find their individualities, and build on their strengths. For instance, I tell my PhD students that I don’t want them to learn what they don’t know, I want them to be exceptional at what they are good at. Graduate students should be encouraged to discover what their own mixture is; what makes them unique.”

PhD students John Sullivan and Catherine Massie-Laberge testing vibrotactile feedback gloves while playing a keyboard synthesizer (Photo: Tam Lan Truong)

IDMIL’s projects take on a “think outside the box” approach, and Wanderley notes that the process of evaluating students who are crossing disciplines is difficult. “The traditional ‘snap to grid’ evaluation, where one project or research is necessarily placed in an existing, pre-defined field (for instance, SSHRC or NSERC), does not work for interdisciplinary research. It forces students and researchers into one thing or another, therefore typically under-evaluating the contributions and impact of the proposed research.”


The “Probatio” Project

This ongoing project, initially developed by visiting PhD student Filipe Calegario, involves the creation of a new instrument for beginners (e.g. children or non-musicians). During the first phase of the project they created a list of existing playing positions, gestures, and ways of controlling sound (for example, cranks, turntables, buttons, bows, pads, strings, mouthpieces) from an analysis of hundreds of existing instruments. From here, they created a functional prototype that allows someone to build their own instrument shape and playing method from a range of possibilities, which can then be played straight away: “There’s predefined mapping, and preset sound modules, allowing for immediate sound production.”

“There are a lot of people who enjoy music, but don’t necessarily want to learn classical music or play an acoustic instrument – this is one approach to get music to people who don’t play acoustic instruments or don't have the technology to build something themselves. You just assemble these blocks, and play.” This video shows some adjustments being made to the prototype to create different sounds and playing positions:

The next phase of Probatio will involve a longer process of interaction between the engineers and performers: “we'll have sessions in the new performance-research lab, where we'll track how performers improve over time, then adjustments will be made to the prototypes, when they’ll be tested again, and so on." This phase has recently received substantial funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), with the project being evaluated by NSERC’s Computer Science Committee with an “outstanding” ranking.

Neuroscience and the Cello

This six-year project was a collaboration between Wanderley, Robert Zatorre and Virginia Penhune, carried out by PhD student Avrum Hollinger. It involved designing the first-ever fMRI-compatible cello prototype, in collaboration with the Montreal Neurological Institute. The cello prototype was developed to be played inside an MRI machine, to help researchers understand how the brain functions when a highly-trained musician is playing their instrument. Wanderley said that “our main challenge here was to create instruments that were made of non-magnetic materials, so we had to re-think all the electronics and sensors.”

Wanderley stresses the fact that this project wouldn’t have been done in either music or in neuroscience alone, in terms of both expertise and available funding: “A project like this can only be successful in this multidisciplinary environment, with funding specially made available by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI).” Watch a description of the research project and the cello prototype being played inside the MRI machine in this video:

The Multimedia Room and the Performance-Research Laboratory

Wanderley is also the principal investigator for two large CFI grants obtained by CIRMMT for the creation of two unique research spaces in the Schulich School of Music’s Elizabeth Wirth Building, with infrastructure funding of $12 million: a new Performance-Research Lab (PERL) and the Multimedia Room (MMR). The larger of the two projects ($11 million), entitled “Live Expression "in situ": Musical and Audiovisual Performance and Reception”, is a collaborative project between McGill and the Université de Montréal, and will allow for a unique performance-analysis hub linking the MMR to Salle Claude Champagne at UdeM.

Wanderley says that “CIRMMT is uniquely placed to shape the future of music. We will essentially have new laboratories to carry out innovative research to understand and help define how music will be played and experienced in the years to come.”

The MMR will be used as a research laboratory where its acoustics can be adjusted, but also as a recording and a concert space. It will have modular and virtual acoustics options, including 64 loudspeakers on three levels, and a full rigging system for placing microphones, speakers and cameras anywhere in the room. Wanderley says of the project: “because it has multiple uses, it's hard to design - it obviously needs to be excellent for research and virtual acoustic testing, but it also needs to excel for recordings and acoustic music performances, as people will be often performing in the space for live audiences… This is a unique space, for its size and technical capabilities, and will consolidate CIRMMT’s place among the top leaders in research involving music, science and technology worldwide.”

A simulation of how the renovated MMR will look when complete.