Research Champion for Creativity: Dr Damian Murphy

Our research champions outlined the challenges and opportunities facing researchers within each of their themes at a research showcase in October 2015 to mark the inauguration of the University's new Chancellor, Professor Sir Malcolm Grant.

In his presentation, Professor Damian Murphy showed how the most unlikely of collaborations can often be the most rewarding for researchers and the wider society...

It was perhaps inevitable that Professor Murphy should begin his presentation with the sounds of success: sounds that linked an opera singer’s voice; a leading work in 20th century electronic music composition; a string of all-too-familiar 80s pop hits; the first computer game soundtracks; and that bane of modern life – the polyphonic ring tone.

And what is the link between all these sounds? A rich and enduring creative collaboration between musicians, computer scientists and industry showing how technologies of the future can drive creativity, enrich our culture, and shape the ways in which we communicate.

This collaboration occurred not at York, Professor Murphy said, but across the Atlantic at one of the world’s leading universities – Stanford. Affiliated with 59 Nobel laureates and two Fields Medallists, its faculty and alumni have gone on to found global companies such as Google, Hewlett Packard and Instagram. Not a bad track record.

Damian Murphy leads research in virtual acoustics and spatial audio in the University’s AudioLab. He is Professor of Sound and Music Computing and an active sound artist whose creative work has featured in galleries, festivals and venues internationally.

Technological hero

But Damian’s story began with an unlikely technological hero: John Chowning. A traditionally trained musician, composer and PhD student in the Stanford Department of Music in the early 1960s, Chowning became interested in the work of computer scientist, Max Matthews. A programme developed by Matthews and written up in Science hinted at the ‘limitless freedom’ this emerging technology might offer the musician and composer.

Inspired, Chowning began to explore how computers might influence his own compositional creativity. With guidance from Matthews, he learned to programme, and started to use the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab’s Burroughs B5500 computer to realise his ideas. Chowning was experimenting with vibrato – the technique used by opera singers and musicians to give variation, dynamics and expression to their performances. In attempting to give his computer generated sounds a sense of dynamics and clarity – allegedly through a programming error – he found something new.

FM synthesis

Over the next six years he began to refine what is now known as FM Synthesis. He formalised the method and published a key paper that showed how this new digital technology could be used to synthesize more realistic and complex sounds. He then filed a patent that he handed to the Stanford Office of Technology Licensing for $1 who set about finding someone to exploit it.

That company was Yamaha – well known for pianos, organs and motorbikes. But Yamaha also had the foresight to see the future was looking increasingly digital. From these unlikely beginnings, Damian noted that a 40-year partnership between Yamaha and Stanford was born. This partnership transformed music making in the 1980s. Digital synthesizer technology could now be accessed by many more musicians, and enabled many of these artists to embrace this technology in their own work.

For Yamaha it resulted in the sales of a series of keyboards and synthesizers that has never been surpassed. And it didn’t stop there. This key technology went on to become the sound chip in our home computers, and then our mobile phones.

For Stanford University it generated more than $25million. It also enabled Chowning to establish the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics in the most prestigious building on campus.

Creative economy

‘But what on earth has this got to do with York?’ Damian asked. Well, just about everything. The creative economy (of which Chowning’s discovery was a forerunner) is vital to the success of any modern economy. And York is particularly well placed to help grow this part of the UK economy. Our founders understood the importance of creativity and excellence – they brought in the best and brightest scholars. They built a campus that encouraged collaboration, centering it around colleges rather than departments that would stimulate conversation and the sharing of ideas. This creative culture was being practiced long before companies such as Google got the idea.

Thirty years ago, York started to create and shape the modern discipline that is Music Technology through our research and teaching in both the Departments of Music and Electronics. This cross-departmental working helped to pave the way for our new flagship department in Theatre, Film, Television and Interactive Media, bringing together academics from many more departments and disciplines.

Multidisciplinary creative research continues to thrive. The Centre for Digital Heritage brings together researchers from across the arts, humanities and sciences in partnership with leading international universities to explore the impact of digital technology on heritage research.

The Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders – C2D2 – is a Wellcome Trust funded institution-wide centre for coordinating, promoting, supporting and maximising the benefit of interdisciplinary research and research-linked activities in these subject areas.

We are supporting C2D2 projects that will embed seven artists in research projects across Electronics, Biology, Computer Science, Health Sciences, TFTI, Psychology and History. The results of these collaborations – both research and artistic output – will be showcased atYork’s annual Festival of Ideas.

Our heritage in 3D

The Centre for Christianity and Culture in the University’s Humanities Research Centre develops interactive digital resources that explore England’s rich heritage. Their work helps organisations, including churches and cathedrals, engage with a wide range of audiences through innovative interpretation – all founded on fundamental archaeological and historical research. Digital 3D visualisations show how a typical English parish church evolves from the early Saxon period through to Late Saxon and Norman times.

The Digital Creativity Hub is a recent success for our University, building on an existing Intelligent Games, Game Intelligence Doctoral Training Centre (IGGI) and linking with more recent initiatives such as the city’s recent UNESCO designation as a City of Media Arts.

Digital economy

It brings together over 80 partners across all aspects of the creative economy – from the BBC and the British Library to Sony and the Science Museum. It is built on York’s huge research base of 84 digital economy research grants over ten years, amounting to over £90 million.

Creativity is nothing new for York – it is hardwired into our intellectual DNA.

York is naturally inclusive – every one of us, across every discipline, is creative in how we articulate the research questions that drive our work, in how we creatively address these questions and communicate the results to the wider world.

Our collaborations in creativity across departments, faculties and disciplines, together with industry and cultural partners, and working across arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences will have significant potential to enhance our lives and change the world – perhaps by accident (as with John Chowning) – but, more hopefully, by design.