What is your background?

I was trained as an engineer in electronics at NTH (Norges Tekniske Høgskole), from 1987 to 1991. After four years I wanted to do the diploma project abroad and one of my professors in acoustics here in Trondheim, Ulf Kristiansen said that he had some contacts in Marseille with an acoustics and mechanics laboratory (Laboratoire de Mécanique et d’Acoustique). So I went down there to do my diploma on active noise absorption. During my stay in Marseille I discovered that there was another research team doing much more interesting things than I did, led by Jean-Claude Risset, a pioneer in computer music. I decided finally that I wanted to do a PhD in his team. However it was a big struggle to get a scholarship. In that time there was very little music technology research in Norway, so I had to explain that I had to go abroad to do research in this field. I found an article by Rolf Inge Godøy who said that music technology was almost non existing at that time in Norway and that something should be done and so on. I had to apply several times to the Norwegian research council for a PhD scholarship, and I wrote to the ministry and even to the prime minister in Norway to explain my situation. Finally I managed to get a scholarship from the Norwegian Research Council.

During my PhD I did research on augmented instruments and did a synthesis model of the flute. After my PhD I spent a year at Stanford University (CCRMA), and during that time I realized I had to understand much more about human perception to be able to make realistic sounds and find out how to more intuitively control them. When I came back to Marseille and obtained my permanent research position at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) I therefore started to work tightly with a neuroscience team led by Mireille Besson who was very interested in comparing how we perceive language and music. From this collaboration I learned how to perform various listening tests combined with brain imaging (EEG).

From that moment I have been into interdisciplinary research. I find it really interesting and inspiring to meet people from very different backgrounds. Questions related to sound and music, in particular how we perceive our environment, have dragged me from one research domain to the other. It feels like a natural thing, since there are so many disciplines involved in such questions that you simply cannot stick to one single field. We regularly work for example with mathematicians who are interested in representations of sound signals, not just for the sake of being interdisciplinary, but to bridge such representations to human perception and cognition in order to identify perceptually relevant sound structures.

Sølvi Ystad during her WoNoMute presentation. Photo by Robin Støckert.
Sølvi Ystad during her WoNoMute presentation. Photo by Robin Støckert.

Did the interest in music come from your own practice?

I’ve always been very interested in music, I played the flute since I was 8-9 years old. One time I wondered if I should try to become a musician, but I was aware it would not be easy to get a job. But I liked school, it worked well and everybody said if you’re good at school you should do medicine or engineering. So I just went for engineering. I didn’t really know what it was about and I thought, why not. I was very much doubting whether it was the right choice in the beginning, I felt that it was only about technology, and that the human aspects were almost inexistent. My best friend who started together with me dropped off after six months because of this, and continued with psychology. I’m really glad that I did not give up, but I would have been much more motivated at that time if I had known more about potential applications linked to our courses at an early stage.

What are your experiences being a women in the field of music technology?

I haven’t really thought a lot about it because I never felt that it was an obstacle. Nobody told me that I could not do this because I was a girl. So I just experienced that there were a lot more boys than girls. My closest colleague now is a girl, Mitsuko Aramaki, but all my students are boys, I only had one girl PhD student. To encourage more girls to do technology, I think we need more role models, I liked for example very much the Millennium books of Stieg Larsson because of Lisbeth Salander who is a great hacker and very intelligent. But there are very few heroes like that. Another hero is Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Langstrømpe, and I think it should be compulsory for both girls and boys to hear about figures like her. She is so independent, she doesn’t even need her parents, she is the strongest person in the world and she just lives alone with her horse and an ape. Generally, in the fairy tales girls are just princesses who are supposed to be saved! We should break down these stereotypes. (By the way, I met a psychologist in Marseille, Isabelle Regner, who is doing research on stereotypes. What she tells about the influence of stereotypes on our performances is amazing. She did for instance a test with girls in a mathematics lesson during college. They were to memorize and reproduce a geometric figure that was quite complicated in a mathematical context. They were quite lost and did less well than the boys. Then she represented exactly the same figure in a design lesson asking the students to do the same thing as in the previous context, and then the opposite happened! The girls performed better than the boys. It is all in the head. As Simone de Beauvoir said, you are not born a woman, the society turns you into one.) There are also a lot of prejudices from girls themselves who are maintaining and reproducing these stereotypes. In my case I was very lucky to have a mother who always told me “of course you can do it!”, each time I was having doubts about my capacities.

Could you introduce more closely what you are working on at the moment?

For the time being we are working more and more on the perception of multimodal interaction, in particular audio-haptics. I have a PhD student who simulates haptic surfaces with ultrasound synthesis. By combining haptic and sound synthesis we hope to find out more about the interconnections between these two modalities from a perceptual point of view. Since you can perfectly control both kinds of stimuli, both coherent and incoherent interactions can be made. I’m really excited to find out more about this and possibly make illusions caused by their interactions that might modify your haptic or auditory perception. Such interactions are really exiting.

How does the system exactly work?

The haptic system is based on ultrasound vibrations which excite a glass plate which vibrates at high frequencies (around 35kHz). This signal is further modulated to simulate either bumps or fine textures depending on the modulation frequency. This device is really efficient and very interesting to explore perceived haptics. The sound synthesis model is essentially based on subtractive synthesis that can be intuitively controlled and that simulates audio textures when performing different actions like rubbing, scraping or rolling associated with different materials. By combining these two systems, you can for instance test whether a metallic sound might have some kind of influence on the perception of haptics and whether it induces more or less smooth or rough haptic sensations.

What is the follow up of this work?

It is hard to say. My main research goal is to learn more about how we perceive sounds and how the other modalities such as haptics, vision or movement influence our perception. This is the main road. Of course this road is constantly influenced either by students who come and show their interest in certain topics which favour certain directions rather than others, or by other researchers who bump in and say okay could we work together with this.

I don’t really have a uniform vision. On a long term the main road consists in continuing to work on perception and the distortions between the physical reality and what we actually perceive. There are a lot of things that interest me so it is hard to favor one in particular.

What advice would you give to women interested in pursuing a career in music technology?

Of course you can do music technology when you come from a musical perspective, when you are a musician and composer. But it is always easier with some kind of technical background, so I would try to encourage you to also get into technology and potentially do some engineering or fundamental science. With a scientific background it might be easier to open up towards human sciences and arts than if you have forgotten about mathematics and physics for a long time. That is what we see with our students. We also see that the students who come from a more technical background more easily adapt. It is for instance harder for a musicologist to do research as we do, when they are not familiar with basic computer science or have some notions about physics or mathematics. Encouraging more girls to do technology would be the best departure point to start from.

Do you have anything else to add?

I can’t really think of anything for the time being.

Thank you!


Ystad, Sølvi (March 11th 1998) “Sound Modeling using a Combination of Physical and Signal Models”. PhD thesis. University Aix-Marseille II and the University of Trondheim (NTNU).