Saturday, May 30, 2009

The concert interrupted!

I (Bobby) was excited to go to the concert (mentioned in our last post), but due to some fast-acting green coconut curry we had to turn back near Champs Elysees--Clemenceau, and high-tail it home... and thankfully not a moment too late either. This is a problem in Paris: little availability of public restrooms. Carla learned this the extremely hard way on our trip in 2007 --- the story of which is below. So I wasn't about to take the chance of that; and neither did I want to wait until we arrived at the 400 year-old cathedral, whose facilities I am sure are more treacherous that the public Parisian toilets. So we did the responsible thing, and ran home (with the occasional gasp and clutching to walls for support). New rule: no coconut curry immediately prior to an engagement.

Now I present to you the true story from July of 2007 of Carla Trapped in a Toilet.

On Wednesday July 4, 2007, I had a guided tour of IRCAM, and earlier in the day Carla got stuck in a public toilet for 45 minutes.

IRCAM is one of the most important centers in the world for computer music, having had a hand in much of modern electroacoustic music. Great luminaries have worked there, including Max Mathews, Jean-Claude Risset, Luciano Berio, and of course Pierre Boulez. Carla called me on my mobile phone, frantic, because she was stuck in an automated public toilet. She didn't know how to open the door. She had a flute lesson in less than 30 minutes, and she just couldn't figure out how to open the door. Some of the public toilets here are self-cleaning, so I pictured Carla getting sprayed by blue foam and being vacuumed repeatedly---sort of like in the beginning of The Jetson's.

My friend Diemo Schwarz, who has been at IRCAM for nearly 10 years, invited me over for a tour. He also nicely suggested I give a research talk next Wednesday. So I had to hop on a metro to find the public toilet in which Carla was stuck. Luckily she remembered where she got off. It took me nearly 20 minutes to get there, and as soon as I exited the station it was pouring rain.

IRCAM is housed in a huge building that is above and below ground several stories, right next to the Centre Pompidou--a modern art musee. I had to go around knocking on the various public toilets to see if Carla was there. I finally found the toilet and was relieved she wasn't stuck in a small one, but a large one for the handicapped. How can anyone get stuck in a handicap toilet?

Diemo showed me the impressive research space, the huge concert space with completely configurable acoustics--including a ceiling that can be positioned only 2 meters from the floor--the numerous studios for composition and sound design, the classrooms, the lecture hall, the library, and the anechoic chamber---which is built upon a 2 ton piece of concrete that is basically floating to isolate the room from noise. Being in that room was frighteningly quiet. The public toilet, however, was not sound isolated, and luckily (or unluckily) was not continuously cleaning Carla. I tried pressing the button on the outside, I tried kicking the revolving door, I tried asking the drunk guy who just wanted to pee how to get the freaking door open---all in French of course.

After the tour Diemo gave me a demo his impressive real-time concatenative sound synthesis software in MAX/MSP. This is actually how I know Diemo: our research overlapped for a while. His PhD thesis was all about concatenative sound synthesis, and he has had an excellent article about it published in the IEEE Signal Processing Magazine. So I ran into the local pharmacy and decided it was best to describe the situation in English. I found someone who spoke English and asked them to call the police to pry my wife from the terrible jaws of a handicapped toilet. I grew tired of waiting and ran back out into the rain to try again. Through the crack in the edge I could see Carla looking back and so I put my fingers in to touch hers. It was such a heart-touching moment, and with just our pinkies touching it reminded me of a scence from E.T.

I finished the tour by describing some of my research to Diemo: breaking sound signals into atoms to be reconstituted into coherent voices, informative representations of content, malleable voices, the freedom to choose what functions to put in the dictionary, and the dark energy that is created when the functions are not orthogonal. Finally I got a few more fingers in the crack of the door, and together Carla and I finally pulled the stuck toilet door open. We immediately embraced, just like in the movies but not after having run across a beach. Fourty-five minutes after she freed herself of wee, she was now also free of all the other wee.

Here I am recreating the ordeal of trying to get the toilet open, but without the rain.

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