Prof. Aiyun Huang: Music and Technology in the Time of COVID

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A “Multi-Perspective” Approach

According to Aiyun Huang, Associate Professor of Percussion at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, becoming proficient in music technology is no different than playing an instrument. “How do we get better at an instrument? We practice.” Her attitude is not shared by everyone: “I think amongst the music community you will find a lot of musicians, especially performers, who are ‘allergic’ to music technology.” Professor Huang believes that these apprehensions of technology in the music community can and must be overcome: “if you want to play music, you need to know how to [use music technology], otherwise you are out of the game.”

Professor Huang is no stranger to the game of combining seemingly disparate skill sets. She has cultivated what she describes as a “multi-perspective” approach to music, that includes performance, research, teaching and producing. As she herself acknowledges, combining these perspectives did not come naturally; it required practice. “In the beginning it was hard to see them working together. They were kind of working separately.” Gradually, Professor Huang has been able to synthesize her research with her artistic work. “A lot of what I do is about taking the research mindset into the creative process and being able to incorporate research findings into the way that I think about the creative process.” Just as Professor Huang views science as an asset to her artistry, she sees creativity as a necessary element of conducting research: “I believe the top scientists are very creative people. When they think about ideas to investigate, often it’s based on very creative thinking.”

This synthesis of creative and scientific thinking is evident in Professor Huang’s newest project, “Research-Creation on Best Practices for Live Performance and Media Technology,” which this year received an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Working with five collaborators from across Canada and the United States, Professor Huang hopes to use pedagogy, composition, performance and research to “raise the baseline for performers interacting with music technology.” Through a course with guest teachers and workshops, undergraduate students will learn to play a percussive instrument they create using software and a video-game joystick, as an introduction to working with music technology. Professor Huang will also work with composers to commission new works for percussion and technology, as well as to restore existing compositions so that they can be played using today’s technology. Professor Huang hopes that by making music technology more accessible, she will empower performers to use technology to serve their art, rather than vice versa. “As a performer, if I need to play with music technology...I often feel like I have minimal control of what actually happens. I want people to feel like they have more control.”

Professor Huang’s aspirations are particularly relevant amid a pandemic that has forced performing artists to confront their fears of technology. “I think if you want to still have your work heard and be creative in the time of need to embrace [music technology] in a way that allows you to be creative.” Professor Huang credits her multi-perspective career with allowing her to “pivot” quickly in response to the pandemic, using it as an opportunity to explore the boundaries of music technology and remote performance. She has already commissioned new compositions that are designed to be performed exclusively on Zoom. Professor Huang believes that this opportunistic attitude towards music technology is catching on, with more artists “imagining what we can do” with music technology, rather than dismissing it as “an inferior product to what we can do in real life.”

Professor Huang is optimistic for the future of music technology; she believes that the long-standing rift between music technologists and performers is closing, with more and more musicians and researchers taking a “multi-perspective” approach. “Today’s reality is very different [from the past] because the students who are at school today...are bilingual in both the performance world and the technological world...So we are seeing a completely different breed of musicians and scientists in our student population.” Professor Huang hopes that, as music technology continues to improve, art will grow with it: “I think now technology has evolved so much...we have the opportunity to really think about what the artistic goal is, and what kind of technology we need to serve that.”

This article was written by Claire Latosinsky, a fourth year BMus Voice student.