What is your background?
My background is both in science and in the arts. I studied mathematics, applied mathematics and computer science. I’m also trained as a dancer since a very young age. It was at the level of the PhD studies that both things became more entangled and dance practice also part of my academic endeavour.
How does your work relate to music technology?
I work very specifically on dance movement, whether it is learning or improvising through the body, or documenting the artistic practice or archiving and creating dance pieces with technology. So, technology is a big part in how I think about supporting and practising dance. As for the sound aspect, I had done many projects where I worked on sonification of movements. I’m not necessarily someone who works on music or on composition as I’m not a trained musician myself and I do not have a musical practice, I had a band back in the days when I was 20. But my interest in music is more related to sonification of movement and interactive sonification of movements in the context of dance and choreographic practice. I worked a lot on designing sensors and mapping between movements and sound and how that sound can become a support for the dancers, or how that interactive sound is generated through dancing, I am interested in the tight relationship between movement and sounds and how that can become an expressive tool for them to augment their body or have a wider range of expressivity or improvisation capacities, how can sound become a feedback for the dancers on what they are actually doing with their bodies. So that has been my main entry point towards sound and music. And of course, I did my PhD at IRCAM within a group that works in the intersection of movements and sound and works a lot on sonification and mapping between the body and sound. That has been a very big influence in my work since that was kind of the beginning of my academic research creation career. That is how I think of my link with music technologies.
What are your experiences being a woman in this music technology field?
Yes, a very good question. In the beginning when I just started working in an institution such as IRCAM, that was in 2009, I guess 12 years back, we were very little women in there, and I think in the field in general. If I recall well, I think there was one permanent researcher in the whole institution and then we were two PhD students who were female identified. That was kind of the normal scale and I felt quite intimidated by this environment. A lot of male power, a lot of knowledge that was impressive, composers and researchers who have a lot of charisma in a way. And I think back then I lacked the literary tools in order to be able to speak up. If I were to start a PhD now perhaps, I’d take it a different way. Of course, back then, at various level I think you feel as a minority. For me it was very clear, first of all I was the only one who didn’t have any musical knowledge in the institution which already makes you feel like a minority. Also I was female, I came from a north African country, I’m a Moroccan. But there had been people from the beginning that were very supportive, my PhD supervisor back then was Frédéric Bevilacqua who is still someone I’m very close to and who is very open to questions related to feminism and related to equality and inclusion. He contributed a lot to make his team, were I was working, a space that was safe and a good space to work. But despite that I would say there were elements of high masculinity in that kind of environment that makes it very difficult for a woman to feel naturally welcome. The scientists, researchers or academics have an extreme quantitative approach to knowledge in music, which is very much tight to how excellence have been thought of in France, as a very mathematical or engineering thing. It makes it very hard for people from different backgrounds like the humanities or design or social sciences, to be integrated in this kind of environments. In addition to that, contemporary music on its own right is a domain that is massively masculine. In comparison with the arts, it is very much a place where you don’t see that many women present. In the “wall of fame” in IRCAM there is maybe two portraits of women composers and the rest all white male throughout. You see don’t much of the representation that would make it easy for you to identify with that kind of space. That plus, yeah… I have been told many times ‘oh is it even research what you do?’ or dance as being a cute application in addition to serious things that other people do in music technology. Or when I had a permanent position as an assistant professor someone told me that I only had a position because I was a woman and the institutions needed to have good quotas of women. People were even astonished that I could publish my work. I would say, the whole culture, from how much women there are, to how knowledge is produced, to how music is made - is highly masculine, even masculinist one can even say.
Did you have any role models or mentors?
I would say Frédéric was a mentor for me, he is someone who had been extremely supportive and encouraging to me, and Christian Jacquemin as well. Frédéric allowed me to have many different opportunities, he always defended ways in which I was considering my work and had always shown a lot of interest in it. I was lucky to be in his team and under his supervision. He keeps on being someone who evolves a lot in his way of thinking and who learns from us, his past students but at the same time teaches us. It has been a very fruitful and nice collaboration throughout. He is very sensitive to question around feminism around IRCAM while he does not take reward from it. In many of the work that he did he prefers to stay in the shadow and leave the stage for us, women and young academics. For that I think he is a great ally. I’m inspired by many other women I would say, the list would be huge - I would not say they are my role models, but they are just great inspirations. Bell Hooks is one of them, my colleague and friend Laurence Allard who is a sociologist. Dance artist like LA Ribot among many others, these are women who have the strength and who have been able to be very coherent. I see them as carrying a torch, we are following that path after them and they really lay the ground for other women’s work. A lot of them are actually in the social sciences and the humanities, I think it is the place where we think of humans and the type of world we are building and how to cohabitate with each other in it.
What are you currently working on?
Right now I have a project called living archive, it is a project that is based on methods such as ethnographic design, it is about documenting and archiving dance practice through a lot of ethnographic work and design based on knowledge of field work and spending a lot of time with people, understanding their practice, designing with them tools that would allow them to document and archive their work from their own voice and perspective. In this project I’m interested in practices that are not so visible or that have not been valued by major institutions. I’m trying to work with women from the north Africa diaspora here in the north of Paris, which is a community to which I belong since I immigrated as well from North Africa 20 years back. I’m also working with practitioners of Isodora Duncan repertoire, a dance that is visible institutionally but which is no longer practised really. I also want to do field work in the Atlas Mountains this summer to see how that can work. I am working on some of the designs that I am thinking of including, some of the sonification work but also mobile technologies, and very simple recording tech. We were also thinking about producing podcasts and video work, things like that, that will retrace the process of getting people to actually articulate and engage in describing their practice.
What advice would you give to women who are interested in pursuing a career in music technology?
I think the advice is to read a lot of feminist theory. I feel that it really helps to feel the value of what you do and who you are and why you can have that kind of confidence. I think that is really important. I think that is what feminism gives to all of us, it gives the confidence to exist and to make our voices heard. For that I always go back to the books. They allow you to understand who you are and what you’re worth and that you’re able to create knowledge, your able to be creative. You are able to participate in the society in the way you want. In the way you envision. And your voice is as important as anyone else’s voice. And I think that is very important in academia, in the arts, in politics - anywhere and in music technology in particular.
This interview was conducted online on 2nd November, 2021.
- Sarah Fdili Alaoui’s website http://saralaoui.com/
- The PhD thesis in french Dance gesture analysis and physical models based visual feedback: contribution of movement qualities to interaction