An Interview with Cynthia Liem: The PHENICX Project

The PHENICX project is supported by the European Commission, FP7 (Seventh Framework Programme, STREP project, ICT-2011.8.2 ICT for access to cultural resources, grant agreement No 601166). The project is running for a year now and Cynthia Liem is involved since the initial planning and proposal writing. Currently, she is a work package leader in the project, and part of the overall project coordination team in the role of dissemination coordinator.

Partners in the project are Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, ES; Delft University of Technology, NL; Johannes Kepler University Linz, AT; Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Vienna, AT; Video Dock BV, Amsterdam, NL; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, NL; and Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya, Barcelona, ES. More information on the project can be found at

Q: What is the goal and scope of the PHENICX project?

PHENICX is about music and concert experiences. We want to use multimedia technologies to enhance the experience of a concert and make it more interesting and accessible for broad audiences. In this, we mainly focus on classical music.

Basically, the project has two sides. First of all, there is a content analysis side, in which we analyze concert performance data in a broad sense. We do not only look at an audio stream, but also e.g. at videos, gesture information, and social commenting information from people who attended concerts. Besides multiple modalities, we also try to take into account multiple perspectives: think of multiple cameras and microphones registering an orchestra, but also of multiple types of people (a conductor, orchestra musicians, or just your personal friends) speaking about a concert. Finally, a concert really is a multilayered phenomenon, with lots of things going on at the same time in which one could be potentially interested. The particular notes being played from a score are part of a larger structural whole; and while 130 individuals may be playing at the same time in a symphony orchestra, they form sub-groups which all have a particular role in the musical narrative and instrumental mix.

On the other side, it’s about the experience, about getting and keeping users from different consumer groups engaged. This is not just targeted at live attendance scenarios in the concert hall, but also for scenarios in which people attend concerts off-site through a live stream, or want to relive a concert on-demand after its performance. While for the content analysis part, we mostly focus on signal-oriented research topics, for this experience part we strongly look into topics such as recommendation, visualization and interaction. For example, how can you make the whole multilayered aspect of music more tangible? This can for example be done with automated score-following, through more simplified visualizations, but also by contrasting a particular performance against other existing performances of the same piece.

Our mission to broaden audiences for the classical music genre can be seen as a way of cultural heritage preservation using ICT. In the end, we really hope to see digital technology affecting culture consumption in a positive way. [As a concrete example, our partners Video Dock and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra already are working on a commercial tablet app called RCO Editions. The technologies we work on in PHENICX can really help in making the production of the app more scalable, expanding its feature set, and optimizing its user experience.

Q: Are there special organizational challenges?

In the project there are seven partners, four of them being academic partners. The three non-academic partners are major players in different parts of the music stakeholder spectrum, but have less experience with academic projects – especially the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which really is involved for the first time in a large academic technology project. So in communicating and working with each other, there is always some translation needed between partners with different background and project experience levels. This is a very interesting organizational challenge in which we always try to find an optimal balance between different stakeholders.

Another potential challenge is language. Especially in the first year, we have been running a lot of focus groups to validate use cases. But while we have grown completely accustomed to using English in our daily academic work, as soon as you wish to interact with realistic local potential users of your technology in all project partner countries, you can’t take for granted these users have full expressive command of English (the younger generation typically does, but you don’t want to only reach them). And music is a very attractive topic for general public dissemination, since it’s a concrete part in many people’s lives; but once again, to make full use of this opportunity, you may have to look beyond English. So we’re having some dedicated organizational activities on that, working to also hold some studies and get some publicity material available in local languages.

Q: What is your personal relation to the project?

Well, I wrote a significant part of the proposal, so in that sense have a considerable relation to the project … but, at least as importantly, my musician background creates a strong personal link to this project. Having degrees in computer science and classical piano performance, I’m really interested in the interface between these two: working with music and digital data, using data technologies to improve on what you can learn and do with music – and PHENICX definitely is about this. So I’m very actively trying to use this double background for the project. It is especially useful for communication and dissemination: I can talk to people at the more musical side, many of which do not have extensive technical backgrounds, but also to those at the more technical side, who do not always have an extensive music background.

Funnily enough, the project also affected views I had from my own musicianship. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of the most famous orchestras in the world. If you’re a music student in Holland, you can be backstage and engage with people from many national orchestras, but only the lucky few will manage to get even in the neighborhood of this particular orchestra. Now I’m having this connecting role in the project between academics and music stakeholders, and the orchestra became a project partner, I suddenly find myself being in their office quite often. I would never have expected that!

Besides that, with our work on user requirements and focus groups, I really managed to be in contact with actual audience. In our focus groups, we asked people why they liked going to concert performances, and we frequently heard people responding they valued feeling isolated from external influences in the concert hall, to have themselves being swept away by the music. Probably because a concert hall is a bit of a working space for me, I had totally forgotten this escapism aspect of concert attendance. So here, the project really made me aware of my own professional biases and ‘put me back on the ground’.

Q: Would you ever write an EU project proposal again?

Well, yes, I would, definitely with a consortium and project as inspiring as PHENICX. But I hope that next time I’ll have a bit more time than the three weeks in which we raced to completing the PHENICX proposal. 😉

Curriculum Vitae:

Cynthia Liem obtained her BSc and MSc degrees in Media and Knowledge Engineering (Computer Science) with honors at Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands, and currently is a PhD student at the Multimedia Information Retrieval Lab of the same university, working under the supervision of Prof. Alan Hanjalic. Besides, she holds Bachelor and Master of Music degrees in classical piano performance from the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. Her research interests are strongly motivated by her background in both engineering and music and concentrate around multimedia content analysis for the music information retrieval domain.

From this background, she has been very active in getting music on the multimedia research agenda, particularly at the ACM Multimedia Conference, where she first initiated and served as the main organizer of the ACM MIRUM workshop (2011, 2012). This led to her becoming a co-chair of a dedicated ‘Music & Audio’ area at ACM MM 2013, and currently the more broadened ‘Music, Speech, and Audio Processing in Multimedia’ area for ACM MM 2014. She also was a main initiator of the EU FP7 PHENICX project (2013 – 2016), in which she now serves as work package leader and dissemination coordinator.

She is the recipient of several international scholarships and awards, including the Lucent Global Science Scholarship in 2005, the Google Anita Borg Scholarship in 2008, the Google European Doctoral Fellowship in Multimedia in 2010 (which partially supports her PhD research work), and the UfD Best PhD Candidate Award at Delft University of Technology in 2012. Besides her ongoing academic and musical activities, Cynthia has interned at Bell Labs Europe Netherlands, Philips Research, Google UK and Google Research, Mountain View, USA.

The interviewer, Mathias Lux, is a Associate Professor at the Institute for Information Technology (ITEC) at Klagenfurt University, where he has been since 2006. He received his M.S. in Mathematics in 2004 and his Ph.D. in Telematics in 2006 from Graz University of Technology. Before joining Klagenfurt University, he worked in industry on web-based applications, as a junior researcher at a research center for knowledge-based applications, and as research and teaching assistant at the Knowledge Management Institute (KMI) of Graz University of Technology. In research, he is working on user intentions in multimedia retrieval and production, visual information retrieval, and serious games. In his scientific career he has (co-) authored more than 60 scientific publications, has served in multiple program committees and as reviewer of international conferences, journals, and magazines, and has organized several scientific events. He is also well known for managing the development of the award-winning and popular open source tools Caliph & Emir and LIRE for visual information retrieval.

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