Cristian Canton, Head of Facebook’s AI Red Team and Musicologist

Music generates a feeling that the composer put in there for you to feel; that deep sense of communion between you and the composer through his/her work is what makes music so special for me. As an interpreter, I love the delicate process to squeeze those feelings out of the notes. Listening to a piece is not just listening anymore: I keep in mind the time in history, the context, and the point in the life of the composer so that I am trying to understand the context of that piece in a richer manifold.

My name is Cristian Canton and I am from nearby Barcelona (Catalonia). I live with my wife and two kids in the outskirts of Seattle, and this has been our home since 2013. I got a Ms and Ph.D. from the Technical University of Catalonia and have been in the AI industry for over 15 years in a number of different corporations, enjoying every day of my professional career. Currently, I work for Facebook where I manage the AI Red Team. This is a team that conceives worst-case scenarios involving AI and how adversaries of the company may try to abuse our AI-fueled pipelines for nefarious purposes.

For many years, I used to apply traditional computer vision and machine learning to solve a number of challenging technical problems. I had a great time doing research for the cinema industry (Vicon Ltd.) and at Microsoft Research. However, I had an experience one day that changed the course of my career. I was invited by a friend to take part in a hackathon where a group of engineers wanted to apply facial recognition to help find missing children. I never applied my computer vision knowledge in such a scenario, so I decided to give it a shot. The outcomes of that hackathon helped to rescue children that were abused or victims of sex exploitation (see this article). Shortly after, I resolved to join Facebook and make this my career motto: use AI to help the world be a better place. At Facebook, I managed one of the teams using AI to detect objectionable content (violence, child pornography, abuse, etc.) and now the AI Red Team.

Aside from spending time with my family, one activity stands out in my spare time: music. I have been playing the piano since I can remember and it is an integral part of my life and my daily routine. Beyond that, I have always been passionate about history and puzzles. Not surprisingly, the intersection of these two passions is musicology, an area of research I have devoted over 15 years to. Trying to unravel the lives of long-forgotten musicians and their legacies has been an activity that has brought me to travel all over South America, meet people who have strongly influenced the course of my life, and live experiences and adventures that are worthy of a Netflix series.

I always had a predilection for the classic classics (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven), early romantics like Chopin, and easy-to-digest music like Rossini’s. However, after you have listened to all the works of these fine composers multiple times, you develop a craving for more and for novelty. Then is when I started exploring the less-known repertoire of contemporaries of those above-mentioned composers. I started looking into music that is rarely performed nowadays (after all, the recording industry dictates what you listen to!). Composers that were very successful during their lifetimes like Martin-i-Soler or Myslivecek start to become ‘the usual’ in my playlist (these two even more famous than Mozart himself at the time).

Personally, one of the most shocking moments as a musician was when, in the course of my musicological research, I asked myself this question: while in Europe, we had big composers during the early XVIII to XX centuries, what was happening in Latin America? Then, you discover that there were musicians of immense talent that have been totally neglected by history. Names like Ricardo Castro, Ignacio Cervantes, Melesio Morales, Teresa Carreño, and many others arise as mirrors of Chopin, Liszt, or Donizetti in countries like Mexico, Cuba or Venezuela. Most of these musicians studied in Europe – when they went back to their homelands, and they hybridized local rhythms and harmonies with the styles they learned in reputed places like Paris, Berlin or Rome. The results leave the listener in shock. Discovering the talent of these musicians has brought me countless hours of enjoyment, plus the opportunity to travel to these countries, meeting interpreters that share a similar passion to mine and even descendants of these forgotten composers.

Musicological research of lesser-known musicians brought me to specialize in those composers from Catalonia (my country) who went to America, had a successful career there, and died forgotten by everyone. The list of Catalans who had a relevant musical career in America is long, over 300 people in the last two centuries. I personally focused on a few of them being the most relevant: Jaime Nunó (1824-1907, composer of Mexico’s National Anthem) and Luis G. Jordà (1869-1951, one of the most relevant musicians of Mexico at the turn of the XXth century). I have three amazing experiences that I would like to comment on.

The first one was when, while researching Jaime Nunó, I managed to pinpoint a person in New York City who happened to be his great-grandson. My wife and I traveled immediately to meet that person who was in shock since nobody ever asked about his great-grandfather (who, remember, composed Mexico’s National Anthem and is buried in the national pantheon in Mexico, together with all the big personalities of that country). When we asked if he had a picture or something about his great-grandfather, he produced a large trunk that had remained closed for almost a century. Inside, there were over 2500 documents never seen before: letters, scores, manuscripts, and even the baton that conducted the anthem for the first time in 1854. After that, we were in the newspapers for our discovery; I wrote, together with my wife, the first biography of this composer, which you can find in most libraries in Mexico.

The second one is a bit more emotional. While researching Luis G. Jordà in Mexico City, one day I returned to the hotel and there was a large crowd waiting for me. It happened that this composer, which had returned to Barcelona at the end of his life, had an illegitimate granddaughter in Mexico. Once the composer died, that Mexican branch of the family never had any further contact with the other family in Catalonia. Thanks to social media, they saw my research and decided to come and ask in person: “Can you tell us what are the origins of our family? Do we have anyone with our same surname on the other side of the ocean?” It happened that they had a long list of relatives in Barcelona. Nowadays, those families are back in contact after over 50 years of silence.

The third and last one is more personal. Again, while researching Luis G. Jordà, I went to his block of apartments where he lived the final years of his life and knocked on every door to see if there was any neighbour that could remember him. It happened that a very old gentleman living next door was his tailor! I interviewed him and he gave me a picture displaying the composer side by side with a young man, who happened to be the tailor’s son. The old tailor mentioned that the composer taught his son to play the piano. When I asked for the name of his son, I was in shock. That young man in the picture grew up and became a surgeon: the very same surgeon who, not many years ago, saved my life (that’s another long story). Shortly after finding this out, I visited the surgeon and handed him a copy of my book, and he was also in shock. What were the odds that an obscure and totally forgotten musician I had researcher for years in Mexico happened to teach music to a person that had saved my life? Bonus points, neither the surgeon nor myself live in Barcelona; hence, the probability is even smaller!

The first book I wrote, the biography of Luis G. Jordà, brought me to develop some friendships in the diplomatic circles in Barcelona, among them the ambassador of Mexico. In 2011, while attending a reception at the embassy, he came to me and told me: “Next year (2012) will be the 200th anniversary of the Independence of Mexico. It would be amazing if you could write a book about Jaime Nunó, repeating the success you had with your previous book”. I remember politely declining since many very prestigious musicologists tried doing the same over a century with no luck, and this was obviously out of my league. However, I gave a try and started doing some massive cross-referencing of databases (computer science helped here!) trying to see if something had been missed by others. I was lucky and found a very elusive lead that allowed me to find the great-grandson of the composer as mentioned before. Lesson learned: never stop attempting to do something because others failed before, even if they were better prepared (Below is a video of me playing the original piano from Luis G. Jordà in Barcelona).

I have a long list of composers and music to research in the future. Every year, I receive at least one or two emails that start like this: “Mr. Canton, we found a box/trunk/suitcase full of letters/manuscripts/scores that belonged to some long-gone relative who, according to family oral tradition, was very famous and came from Barcelona or Catalonia. It would be great to meet you; perhaps there’s something interesting!” At some point, I understood that I couldn’t follow every exciting lead in my musicology passion and align it with my family life and professional career. However, I will keep them in my Inbox in case I can take a sabbatical soon and go hunt for dusty manuscripts in, who knows, a remote church in Guatemala or an attic in an abandoned theater in Buenos Aires.

Approaching music can be done in multiple ways and every person has a path to it. Some follow the path of understanding (which is the most common): you learn the skills to dissect the music and understand it, which may take several years of study. Others follow the path of awe: you don’t try to understand it; you just let the music tickle your brain. The combination of the two is the ideal point: you are able to understand music at all its levels of complexity and appreciate its awesomeness at every layer. If you are new to music, start by letting music intellectually seduce you. Perhaps find someone who may guide you into this understanding journey, someone with whom to go to a concert and explain to you why this or that piece is a masterwork. This may help you to change your perspective on how to listen to music.

Composing music is another story. You want to create an emotion in the listener through sound, and that requires developing a personal language, understanding how to craft harmonies and rhythms, and putting them together in a coherent (or incoherent!) way. Music can be really simple or really complex and yet attain the same goal; with study and practice, you will get more skilled at conveying your thoughts and feelings into music, but it should not be a deterrent for early musicians to create beautiful and expressive pieces. There are plenty of masterworks of striking simplicity! Normally, the first hurdle in composition is putting notes in paper and mustering the courage to show it to someone. The world needs more artists among so many technologists – don’t be shy.

There is always more than tech. In my opinion, we live in a world of instantaneous reward, which is reducing creative passions. Creation requires time, a determined mindset, dedication, and passion. Unfortunately, we are surrounded by continuous and easy-to-get stimuli that make it hard to reach the conditions to trigger creation. Now, more than ever, it is necessary to encourage those who express themselves through creation (in any form and shape) to show what they produced, and to set an example to follow. I would encourage any technologist to spend time exploring their creative side – it will enrich you. And, more importantly, we live in a world that is changing at a vertiginous pace where new forms of artistic expression are arising as a result of the recent technological progress. Seize the opportunity!

To see a list of Cristian’s Musicology publications, be sure to check his website:

https://cristiancanton.github.io/publications/#booksMusic

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