August 2021 - Xiao Xiao


In the August 2021 episode of the Theremin 30 podcast, host Rick Reid plays music from the UK, Japan, and France. Rick's interview guest is Xiao Xiao, Ph.D., a thereminist and postdoctoral researcher working in the Laboratoire de Phonétique et Phonologie at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3. 

▶️ Listen to this episode on Spotify.


  • "Starstruck (featuring Terrace Radio)" - Kevin Sinnott (Liverpool, England, UK)
  • "Spooky" - Steve Stroud (Liverpool, England, UK)
  • "Russian Medley" - Mable and Da (Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, Japan) 
  • "Field Sketches from Sonic Dreamscapes" (excerpt) - Xiao Xiao and Manuel Gaulhiac (Paris, France)
*The full-length recordings featured in this show were used with the knowledge and permission of the artists and composers. Please support the artists by visiting their websites, purchasing their recordings, and attending their performances. 



  • Xiao Xiao, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3. 





Copyright 2021 Rick Reid 



Please note: This is a machine-generated transcript that has not been manually edited. There will be numerous errors. Check back soon for a corrected version.

David Brower  0:04  
This is there have been 3030 minutes of ceremonies, news events and interviews with a new episode about every 30 days. Now, here's

Rick Reid  0:14  
your host from Denver, Colorado, USA, Rick Reid. Hey there, welcome to Theremin 30 the only regularly scheduled English language Theremin podcast where you get to hear me try to pronounce the names of musicians and the songs from around the world in my crazy American accent. This is episode number 27 for August 2021. I'll be playing music from England to Japan and France. And my interview guest is Dr. Xiao Xiao. She is a computer scientist artist and musician based in Paris who blends her interests in some fascinating ways. Among other things, we'll be talking about how she got her Theremin to sing. Let's start the show now with a geographic double play two tracks from recording artists based in Liverpool, England. I don't know if they know each other already, but if they don't, they really should introduce themselves. First you'll hear music from Kevin senate and then Steve Stroud. I'll give you details about both tracks after the set. Sea around witness match when you raised

Rick Reid  9:30  
we started the show with a song called starstruck by Kevin Senate. He released that song as a single about three months ago. After that we heard a track called spooky by Steve Stroud from his current and fourth solo album called sketches from the bunker. Steve sang and played most of the instruments on that track, including the Theremin, he runs a recording studio in Liverpool called the big cloud productions. You can learn more about Kevin and Steve by clicking on their names and this month show notes at Theremin 30. dot com. After the break, I'll take a look at the calendar of Theremin events and play some Russian music by way of Japan. So stay tuned.

Rick Reid  10:21  
It's now time for the Theremin 30 calendar. Look at the Theremin related concerts, workshops and other events happening around the world in the weeks ahead. On August 10. Robert Meyer plays an outdoor concert in zinna Wits Germany on August 21 squirrly ainger will present a French language lecture and performance in lenses Switzerland on August 28 Dorit Chrysler leads online and in person Theremin workshops from Berlin Germany. And finally, this month happens to mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of Leon Theremin. Depending on which calendar you use. His birthday is either August 15, or August 28. So I recommend celebrating for the whole two weeks. For details about all of these events and more, check out the interactive calendar on Theremin And if you have an event you'd like me to put on the calendar, send me all the details through the website, Twitter or Facebook. Up next is music from an album I featured earlier this year called the Renaissance and evolution produced by Masami Takeuchi. It's a compilation of recordings by two of my Assamese music projects. This time around I have a track from mobile and da. I was curious about the name of the group, so I asked Masami about it. He explained that he used to have two different metrium and groups. One was called marble taking the first two letters from the word maitri Omen, and then the last three letters from the word ensemble. The other group made up of his matri Omen students was called da, which is the Russian language word for Yes. Eventually, he combined the two groups into a huge metrium an orchestra with 100 members. So here now as a recording of marble and da performing a track called Russian medley.

Rick Reid  17:09  
That was Russian Medley by marble and to draw from the Renaissance and evolution album produced by Masami Taguchi. Coming up after this break, visit with Dr. Xiao Xiao, so stick around

Rick Reid  17:41  
Xiao Xiao is a multi talented artist, musician and computer scientist who has combined her interests to create a piano that will play a duet with you, and a Theremin that can speak and sing in French. She has a PhD from MIT and works as a postdoctoral researcher in Paris. I spoke with her recently to find out more about her fascinating projects that blur the lines between art and science. Dr. Shah, thank you for being on Theremin 30. Thank you so much for having me. Rick, we should start with a little bit of your background. In music. You are originally a piano player, right?

Xiao Xiao 18:18  
I am. Yeah, I started classical piano when I was four years old. Music has always been a really important part of my life.

Rick Reid  18:26  
And then Theremin is something you came to much later.

Xiao Xiao  18:29  
Yeah, I was at the MIT Media Lab. And my official research topic is human computer interaction. There's a conference called nine new interfaces for musical expression, where I actually met door at Chrysler in 2017. And that was how I started playing the Theremin in the first place.

Rick Reid  18:48  
So you studied this human computer interaction through undergrad grad school and your doctorate degree.

Xiao Xiao  18:55  
I went to MIT for undergrad and I study computer science. And then afterwards, I was at the MIT Media Lab, and did my masters and PhD in this group called tangible media, which is all about envisioning new ways that people might interact with the computer or with digital information in the future. And at the same time that I was doing my Masters and PhD at the Media Lab. My first year, there was a class on music, improvisation. And I took that class and it totally changed my life because well, I've always been really into learning. But I guess I had always thought that people who become really really good in music, have some sort of special talent in the rest of us. If we're not so talented, then, you know, we can only get so far. This class made me really interested in thinking about music as a sandbox for learning how to learn.

Rick Reid  19:51  
What do you mean by sandbox?

Xiao Xiao  19:52  
I guess it's a metaphor about kids in playgrounds, right you have a playground you have the sandbox, the kids are always like, rule laying around in the sand, experimenting, learning about different ways of forming the sand and creating these little worlds for themselves to understand objects and physics in their own bodies. And I think this sort of learning is something that's really important. The world today is constantly changing. And I've personally feel like one of the most important skills that anybody can have is the ability to learn something quickly, efficiently, and maybe have a lot of fun while doing it.

Rick Reid  20:32  
One example, I think of what you're talking about is a video on the web, where you are playing a duet with a reflection of yourself, Is that the right way to describe

Xiao Xiao 20:42  
it. During my Master's in the PhD at the Media Lab, I had worked on some projects, imagining how the piano might be like in the future, where it could be augmented with digital information. And when I was playing the piano, one day, I was looking at the reflection of my hands on the surface in front of the keyboard. And I just had this thought of, wouldn't it be really lovely if instead of seeing your own reflection, you could see someone else's reflection and play a duet with the reflection of somebody from far away, or maybe even somebody from the past, I applied to the Media Lab with this as a project idea. And I think my advisor her she, she really resonated with the ideas behind the project. And I got accepted to the Media Lab and kind of spent the next few years trying to build this vision. Eventually, I had built enough prototypes to convince Yamaha to loan me a disc of your piano, which is like a player piano that plays itself. And so then I began to projection map onto the piano videos of pianos hands and the upper body projected as if it's on to the keys and on the part where the music would be. And this is synchronized with the moving keys of the Disklavier your piano gave the illusion, especially if you're sitting in front of it, that there's a person there, it really kind of hacks your brain to feel like there is a presence there. So at the Media Lab, people build demos of their projects. And the demo is kind of a way to tell stories about the future. One of the stories that I like to tell is about what it would be like for instance, having concerts streamed not just to your computer, but onto your piano at home, and you can actually feel like there's a hologram of the pianos in front of you. 

Rick Reid
A lot of people first became aware of you few years ago when you were teaching a Theremin to sing.

Xiao Xiao
This was a project called tea box. It's about t v. Okay. S and the idea is to connect a vocal synthesizer to the Theremin, which gives the Theremin the ability to sing with lyrics and to recite poetry. This project came about when I was doing a short research pilot project at a lab in Paris called Lem, which stands for luthier acoustic music. This group had developed a vocal synthesizer that's controlled by hand gestures, and they connected it to a Wakeham tablet where you're able to kind of draw on the screen and seeing with this really realistic sounding synthesized voice, and I had come to the group because I had seen their work at a conference and I had this idea of using their interface to help people learn Chinese tones. Tones are just one of the biggest difficulties with learning Chinese. And it's unfortunate because you can pronounce English or French with a horrible accent and people will still understand you. But if you don't get tones in Chinese, even if you can read and write really well speaking is always going to be a problem. In Chinese a tone is actually a frequency change. So in Chinese you have four tones. There's AA, which is just you know, like singing like Oh, ah which is it rises Ah, which dips and then ah which goes down. And if you play the Theremin, actually, maybe it's easier for you to understand tones because you can think of them as different gestures and they are different gestures of the voice. So anyway, I was in this group doing this pilot project and at that point, I had started to play the Theremin and I had been playing for a few months and I was really excited about it. And with a colleague, Greg Acker from the lab. We kind of got together during weekends to see whether we could connect the vocal synthesizer to the Theremin. Then it kind of worked pretty well because we already know is Theremin player That the Theremin has this incredible capacity to mimic the human voice when you add lyrics to it. That's just another dimension that you can play with.

Rick Reid  25:09  
Well it reminds me of how the Theremin was invented Professor Theremin was inventing something else. And that Theremin just sort of came out of that by accident.

Xiao Xiao  25:18  
Yeah, yeah. And you know, Professor Theremin is such a hero for me. He represents so much the spirit of exploration and discovery and self learning and connecting the dots between art science technology. I really wish I could have met him. He's just such an incredible inspiration.

Rick Reid  25:35  
Tell me about your Theremin experience outside of research are you performing

Xiao Xiao 25:41  
I performed that I bid when I was in New Orleans working on my art projects there before moving to Paris. In terms of more recent projects. There is something that I'm cooking up with a couple of friends from the Media Lab group, john D blown and Ching Lu, who have made this really amazing Sonic experience, which they presented at Ars Electronica last year, called the wandering mind. They take field recordings that are freely available on the internet, they do a spectral analysis of all the recordings like 1000s 10s of 1000s of them, then they feed it to a neural net, which clusters the recordings by similarity in terms of sounds. So then you get this 2d space where you can wander around using just like your keyboard, and your little square and you hear the sounds that are closest to you. And as you move around the space, you get this transforming soundscape. We have been experimenting with jamming with it in the Theremin. And so we got together a few times and he would pilot the wandering mind and I would play the Theremin. It's almost like you're a neural net yourself. And you're fed with these different sounds and you have to understand them somehow. Even if I never become professional in the world that the Theremin it's still such a gift to be interacting with this instrument and also is such a gift to be interacting with the Theremin community because it's such a beautiful close knit community like people are so generous with their knowledge and it's just really amazing to be part of it.

Rick Reid  27:22  
Now let's end the episode with Xiao Xiao on Theremin and Manuel Gualiac controlling the Wandering Mind sound system.

Rick Reid  29:18  
And that wraps up the August 2021 edition of the Theremin 30 Podcast. Thanks so much to Kevin Sinnott, Steve Stroud, and to Masmami Takeuchi and the 100 members of Mabel and Da for allowing me to play their music in the show. Also, a special thanks to my interview guest Xiao Xiao. The pandemic isn't over so be careful out there. Until next time, I'm your host Rick Reid, I'll see you around on Facebook and Twitter.

David Brower You've been listening to the "Theremin 30" podcast. Visit "Theremin 30" on the web at Theremin-three-zero-dot-com.