Installation view of Spiral exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum, 2019, Dr Oliver Bown, photographed by Ryan Hernandez.
Installation view of Spiral exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum, 2019, Dr Oliver Bown, photographed by Ryan Hernandez

Dr Oliver Bown

Research Fellowship Project

October 2018

Project Title / Creative Work Title: Spiral
Fellowship Topic: Examining the role of player pianos in music technology history, through the Mastertouch company

Studio portrait of Dr Oliver (Ollie) Bown.

Dr Oliver Bown was drawn to the Museum’s Mastertouch collection of mechanical pianos, and the machines that Mastertouch used to create and copy piano rolls for an international audience. Mechanical musical instruments are interesting triggers for reflection on music technology’s present. Neither normal instruments nor music recording technology in the sense we are familiar with it today, they are hard to fit neatly into a simple lineage of music technology history. They continued to be popular in the face of the rise of audio technology; Mastertouch sold piano rolls through to the early years of the 21st Century. Naturally, the company updated its production process over the years, using digital technology to record piano performances that were then printed onto physical rolls.

Working with a number of collaborators, including the improvising ensemble Tangents, of which he is a member, Bown’s fellowship inspired the creation of a new musical work, Spiral (2019), exhibited at the Powerhouse Museum. Spiral explored the mechanical, situated nature of autonomous instruments, weaving in contemporary aspects of music technology including networked systems, generative music and augmented reality.

Bown is a Senior Lecturer at UNSW Art & Design, where he is co-director of the Interactive Media Lab. His research looks at new algorithms and technologies applied to the production and experience of music. Following Spiral, Bown collaborated with Squidsoup to create Murmuration (2019 – 2020), an immersive sonic exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Arizona. Bown has several recent publications and presentations regarding the use of computer coding to create compositions, including A. Fraietta, O. Bown, S. Ferguson, S. Gillespie and L. Bray, ‘Rapid Compositions for Networked Devices: HappyBrackets,’ Computer Music Journal, vol 43, no 2-3, 2019, pp 89-108; and presentations at the 27th Conference of Fruct Association (2020) and the 17th Sound and Music Computing Conference (2020).