SXSW 2018: Wednesday afternoon at German Haus and a conference session on Music and the Brain – 14th March 2018 (Part 2)

By on Monday, 26th March 2018 at 1:00 pm
 

There are two nice things about afternoon showcases. You get to see acts in less claustrophobic confines, and you can see them without really worrying about running off to your next showcase. Two excellent reasons, if you ask me! Following my time at the JW Marriott for The Original Celebrity Chefs and Restaurants session, I returned to German Haus at Barracuda for two German acts I was excited to see and hear live. When I arrived, a bald Brit with a guitar was on the Barracuda indoor stage, playing to a small, but entirely appreciative crowd. I was confused. Hrm. He definitely didn’t have a German accent. What was he doing there? I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t recognise Midge Ure of Ultravox and Visage fame. Don’t hit me. I feel embarrassed enough!

Midge Ure at German Haus Wednesday at SXSW 2018

You have understand that during SXSW, most of us aren’t checking our emails, and I certainly did not see the German Haus missive that he would be part of the screening of Conny Plank – The Potential of Noise and its related panel that afternoon on which Ure would appear. I can see this was one of those times that it probably would have helped to have the event to all, or at least wristband holders in addition to badgeholders. But maybe Ure appreciated playing to a small crowd for once?

Blackberries at German Haus Wednesday at SXSW 2018

I ran out of time to write up my best bets of groups from the Continent showcasing at SXSW, but I have an Excel spreadsheet with many tabs to prove I did all the research if you want to see it. Blackberries were on my list because they’re exactly what you don’t expect from Germany. I think these days, German artists from outside Berlin are overshadowed by the electronic scene in the capital. Blackberries hail from Solingen, in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany, and have their unique perspective on what krautrock means in 2018. How often do you see psych rock being performed with maracas? I had an idea in my head even before I got to Austin that British artists would be less important to my experience at SXSW than in past years, and that prediction turned out to be right.

Munich experimental electronic duo Joasihno were set up back inside Barracuda. Synth heads, this was a wet your pants moment. If Cico Beck and Nico Sierig’s extended tabletop setup was filled with the usual keyboards, synths and sequencers, I might not have been as impressed. I might have even yawned. Instead, their unusual collection of equipment, which included a mechanically activated xylophone, rods that spun around and what looked like rocks connected to wires (???), plus loads of other things that looked like something out of a mad scientist’s laboratory. This kind of music couldn’t be further from Taylor Swift and other pop stars who top the charts.

Joasihno at German Haus Wednesday at SXSW 2018

And you know what? That’s okay. Some of us want to be entertained with new sounds and in new ways. Ryan Walsh said in his talk Wednesday afternoon that 1/3 of the world’s population makes music sometime in their lives. There’s plenty of artists out there now and will be in the future to satisfy all of our music listening needs. And that’s good news for everyone.

I returned to the convention center for one of the last conference sessions of the day, Music and the Brain: How Sounds Become Pleasurable. The first two talks were given by Dr. Alain Dagher, a neurologist and professor at McGill University, and Pablo Samuel Castro from Google. Dr. Dagher began with an explanation on how dopamine release mediating the desire for pleasure, whether it be in anticipation of listening to music or eating food we like. I guess this was a good starting point, as I would guess most attendees didn’t know how dopamine and reward-seeking behavior worked. (I took pharmacology in university and the classic example of dopamine activity is the abuse of cocaine and the feedback mechanism in the human body, so this was simply a refresher for me.) I guess, too, that it isn’t surprising that the reason why as children or young adults we remember music from those periods of our formative years. However, it appears that the reason for these memories is not because our brains were still developing at the time, but because the pleasure we associate with listening to those pieces of music when we were younger essentially burns into our memories. One step further, moderator and third speaker Indre Viskontas of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music showed evidence later in the session that our brains can anticipate specific moments in song that are associated with stronger feelings, such as that feeling of a pleasurable chill down one’s back.

Castro’s talk was about machine learning and artificial intelligence. He specifically had studied building requirements for a computer to learn how to write counterpoints, which J.S. Bach essentially cornered the market on. Read more about his mastery of counterpoint through here. I had a lot of trouble in my early piano-learning years trying to get through Bach, so I was amused to see someone had gone through the trouble to ape his music. Castro played a Bach original against what his computer had come up with and he insisted that the computer had done a pretty good job in approximating the intended counterpoint. My ears weren’t having it, though. As Gunter Loibl of REBEAT Digital said the day before at German Haus indicated, I have every confidence that human being-created and produced music will never be surpassed by AI-made music, at least not in my lifetime.

Music and the Brain Wednesday at SXSW 2018

Before the evening showcases, Carrie and I both checked in at the Townsend for the Focus Wales drink reception. The Townsend is a fancy-schmancy cocktail bar on Congress Avenue. I wondered if the reception would be well attended, as it was a bit off the beaten path when it came to the usual 6th Street-type haunts during SXSW. I don’t know why I was worried. We ran into plenty of friends there, friends who were no doubt tempted by the lure of free drinks and good company. Along with the actual musical performances themselves in Austin, having a drink with your friends is up there with the top experiences you’ll have during SXSW.

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