5 Questions to Tina Tallon (creative technologist, sound artist)

Tina Tallon began her career as a researcher at MIT, where she developed computational tools to model cancer metastasis as well as the process through which stem cells switch from proliferation to specialisation. Last year, Tallon completed her Ph.D. in music composition at the University of California San Diego, and in August, she joined the faculty of the University of Florida as Assistant Professor of AI and the Arts. She is also a research affiliate in MIT’s Biological Engineering department, where she is developing a curriculum on engineering ethics.

Tallon’s music and installations have been performed and presented by the LA Philharmonic New Music Group, Ensemble Intercontemporain, wild Up, and the Talea Ensemble in concert halls, aquariums, subterranean tunnels, and grain silos. She recently moved to Italy as a recipient of the prestigious Rome Prize. She is working with Guerrilla Opera on an evening-length electroacoustic chamber opera, Shrill, which she began developing during a fellowship at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her article, “A Century of ‘Shrill:’ How Bias in Technology Has Hurt Women’s Voices,” was published in the New Yorker in 2019, and her opera builds on her research into technological bias.

What are your plans for your time in Rome?

While I’m in Rome, I’m working on an interactive multimedia chamber opera, Shrill, commissioned by Guerilla Opera, which will explore the social history of voice technology and how structural bias in its development continues to influence whose stories are told and how.

You’ve worked a lot with interactivity and AI. How do you see digital hybridity changing live performance?

There is often a lot of anxiety about this — rightfully so! The lack of criticality, transparency, and accountability in the ways that many AI tools are designed and deployed has been already been extremely harmful to society.

That said, I don’t believe that human performers will ever be rendered obsolete, as people often worry. One example that I like to use is exercise: in order to reap the benefits of exercising, you have to physically do it yourself. I think that making music is similar — people who love it and need it will keep doing it, because there is vibrancy and fulfillment in being involved in the act of making sound together. It’s an experience that you simply can’t automate away.

However, we do need to think critically about funding structures and how society values labor that artists do, both philosophically and financially. I do think that there are ways that AI can allow us to create more dynamic tools for performance and improvisation if we critically and thoughtfully engage with the opportunities that it presents — and we need musicians to be actively engaged with the engineers creating these tools.

Tina Tallon--Photo courtesy UCTV

Tina Tallon–Photo courtesy UCTV

As someone who frequently works with live electronics, I’m particularly interested in creating software tools that are easier for performers to use that can be easily tailored to their specific needs. I also believe that there are ways that AI can entreat us to question societal structures by picking up on patterns that we might be inured to, or which we might not yet have developed the insight to recognize. It can offer different and unexpected ways of knowing ourselves and the world around us. When we consider the materiality of agency and power and address those structures in our creative practice, AI can be a very useful tool for inquiry (and subversion). We just need to engage critically and and ensure that we understand these tools, and the histories of privilege and oppression inscribed in them (for instance, what data is being used to train these models? How was it collected? How is it structured? What values does it reflect? Who will have access to it, both now and in the future?) in order to ensure that we are not being complicit in the creation and propagation of systems that will cause harm.

I’ve been reading a lot about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes — at one time the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire –- who is now on trial for fraud. Without exception, reporters describe her lowered voice as a kind of freakish artifice. Can you talk a bit about gendered voices and what you’ve described as technological bias? How did you first become interested in this phenomenon?

As a vocalist and computer musician, I was very interested in creating live electronic tools for vocal performance. However, when studying the history of different voice technologies for my doctoral qualification exams, I started digging into documentation of the research and design decisions that led to disparities in access and usability. In some cases, engineers knew exactly who they were excluding and what could be done to be more inclusive, but they chose not to act. This unfortunately still happens today (for instance, when Google fired leading researchers on its ethical AI team).

Thus, it’s less useful to focus on individuals and more useful to talk about the systems (both technological and societal) that force people to modulate their voices to fit certain contexts. While yes, some of that is highly gendered, there are so many other intersectional biases that we need to take into account as well (race, class, disability, etc.). Because of the voice’s relationship to the body, the policing of voices is, in effect, the policing of bodies. This is unfortunately something that many of the systems underpinning society are excellent at doing in the most violent ways. Holmes’ voice gets a lot of attention because of the drama of the story surrounding it, but there are so many people who need to modulate their voices every day, not with the intention to deceive, but simply in an effort to survive. This is what we really need to be talking about, and how we can act to change these unjust systems.

What was your relationship with music when you were growing up?

When I was four, my grandmother bought me a toy piano at a flea market, and apparently I spent a lot of time with it, trying to pick out jingles that I heard on TV. However, there are no musicians in my family, so no one really knew what to do when I showed a genuine interest in it. My extremely conservative Seventh-day Adventist mother did end up starting me in piano lessons with a local church pianist, but her sole goal in supporting my engagement with music was for me to play at church. She shunned any sort of popular or contemporary music (even Christian rock — she calls it “Satan’s counterfeit”), and she thinks that drums, guitars, and saxophones are instruments of the devil (literally).

Tina Tallon with her toy piano--Photo courtesy of the Tallon family

Tina Tallon with her toy piano–Photo courtesy of the Tallon family

Getting online in the late 90s and early 2000s definitely expanded what I could access, although I had to listen to things in secret. I would make mixtapes and burn CDs, but I always had to be careful about how loud I listened to music on my Walkman if she was around, because if she heard anything with a beat bleeding out from my headphones, she would confiscate it. For me, music always had to do with control, guilt, and shame. Because of this, I think I resented a lot of the (very limited) classical music that I was allowed to listen to and perform growing up. I hated the piano, and soon started playing the violin, which I felt gave me much more freedom — but I also hated practicing, and would often spend the time that I was forced to practice improvising and arranging pop songs instead, since my parents didn’t know the difference (in fact, my father would retreat to the garage whenever I practiced because he found it annoying).

I would have completely stopped engaging with music-making when I got to college if it weren’t for a Community Sing put on by the MIT Concert Choir during my sophomore year. A friend wanted me to go with her, and the director, William Cutter (who is now a dear friend and colleague) encouraged me to join the vocal program. He even encouraged me to audition for (and eventually win) a vocal scholarship. Dr. Cutter, who is a composer himself, made sure that we very frequently performed and commissioned new music. I feel so privileged to have been part of a program where this was normalized, and am very much indebted to him for creating a fun and joyous environment with which to engage with music again.

I do think that there are ways that AI can allow us to create more dynamic tools for performance and improvisation if we critically and thoughtfully engage with the opportunities that it presents — and we need musicians to be actively engaged with the engineers creating these tools.

What imprints do you think the pandemic has made and will make on our experiences of live performance?

We all have complex and multifaceted engagements with live music, and the pandemic gave us an opportunity to reevaluate our relationship to it. I think that initially, live performance was something that many of us really missed — I certainly did. As someone who is hard of hearing, much of my creative practice has become focused on the ways in which non-sonic aspects of sound production processes can be expressive (for instance, visual, haptic, communal, etc.). To be disconnected from the complexities of that mode of engagement certainly left me feeling empty.

However, experiencing compendiums of poorly-recorded pieces mashed together on virtual concerts quickly became even more dissatisfying. I of course respect and understand that people were trying to make do with what they had (and furthermore, acknowledge that most music programs unfortunately provide performers and composers with extremely limited training in documentation and production), but without performances/compositions that took into account how the mode of transmission was going to negatively impact the performance (or that treated the mode of transmission as material), a lot of the details that I hold dear in live performances were lost in translation.

That said, there were a lot of positive things that came out of the necessity for livestreams and better documentation, and I hope that we can find ways to maintain (and expand) that access. Im someone who experiences an enormous amount of social anxiety, and I did admittedly enjoy having more opportunities to experience concerts in a way that gave me more agency in terms of how much I wanted to engage with other viewers or participants (for instance, no one likes showing up at a concert and being ambushed about an email they havent had a chance to answer yet, or worse, having to interact with an abuser, and unfortunately, there are many of them in our community). More importantly, many venues are nowhere near accessible, and oftentimes, concert culture is not accommodating to people with different sensory relationships to concert experiences. I think the pandemic gave us a much-needed opportunity to re-imagine the variety of ways that live music can be experienced, and how we can be more inclusive in terms of how we provide access to those experiences.


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