Jazz Hackathon at Columbia University

Programmers create new tech possibilities for jazz

On a Saturday in April, two-dozen jazz-loving computer programmers hunched over their laptops for 10 hours at Columbia University for the second annual Jazz Hackathon, generating a wide range of new electronic possibilities and analytical tools for jazz.

“Historically, music-information retrieval has focused on pop music and to a lesser extent folk and classical, and has really ignored jazz, partially because the problems are harder,” says Jonathan Marmor, 35, an electronic music composer and programmer at the Boston-based “music intelligence” firm the Echo Nest-recently acquired by Spotify-and a co-organizer of the event, which was sponsored by Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies and the department of electrical engineering. “Everybody knows every drummer has their own signature style, their own feel. How do we quantify that? How do we figure out what the difference is between Billy Higgins and Elvin Jones? Does Billy Higgins tend to be .045 milliseconds behind the beat? This is where computers can allow us to dig really deep.”

A hackathon is the programming equivalent of a jazz jam session: Programmers gather at a designated location to trade ideas, develop new ones and see a project through to completion. The first Jazz Hackathon yielded a Charlie Parker solo reinterpreted with bird sounds, a group improvisation directed by the video-sharing app Vine, and transcription software for automatically generated lead sheets. This year’s event led to the development of a pop-to-jazz converter, an app that sends a text notification with a digest of jazz-related e-mails, and an interactive map that displays the historic jazz recording sessions on any given date.

“We’re tying content analysis into discographical databases, making it easier to do deep queries about a jazz catalog,” says Brian McFee, 32, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia who co-organized the event with Marmor. “The example we like to use is to find all John Coltrane solos less than two-and-a-half minutes long-or over an hour long.” At a previous event, McFee created a searchable graphical interface using the online database Discogs that shows an artist’s collaborations by group or sideman, a veritable six degrees of separation of jazz. His pop-to-jazz converter takes a pop song, automatically generates a head from a repetitive chorus, alters the harmony, extracts the rhythm section and improvises over the changes.

Though the connection between jazz and computers lends itself to avant-garde innovation, the history of jazz and technology stretches back decades and across genres. In the early 1970s, producer and composer Patrick Gleeson began experimenting with tape loops and synthesizers, introducing Herbie Hancock to the nuances of the Moog on Crossings and leading to the seminal fusion sound of the Headhunters band. Early on, the AACM embraced computers: Pianist Muhal Richard Abrams studied electronic music at Chicago Musical College and trombonist George Lewis developed Voyager, an interactive computer system that responds to live performers. More recently, saxophonist Steve Lehman has employed computational analysis of timbre for his forays into spectral music; similarly, trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Eivind Opsvik have all turned to computers and live electronics to open up new compositional strategies.

Though not a musician or composer, software engineer Andreas Jansson, who also works at the Echo Nest, utilizes signal processing to examine, deconstruct and reassemble familiar sounds. “I really like bossa nova, but I don’t like the aesthetic around it. I like the chords and the melodies, but the whole sitting on a beach and sipping cocktails I don’t really like,” Jansson says. He analyzed a 1,000-song database to cobble chords together into a song: “The Girl From Ipanema” as a sonic collage.

Others developed programs with potential for performances or practice sessions. Music software engineer Andres Campanella created a step sequencer for jazz chords that employs the production software Ableton Live to sync with a database of harmonic inversions and substitutions-essentially an instantly programmable Aebersold track. “The object is a real-time exploration of harmonic possibilities. As the progression is playing, you can twirl knobs until you get a variation on the 6-2-5-1 that sounds pleasing to your ears,” Campanella says. “You need external influences to jolt you into innovation sometimes, so this is a good way to surprise yourself.”