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Two Reflections on the Relation between Machines (Computers) and Composers

Communication #1: Computers, Slavery and Making Art

At the moment, I am involved in a drawn-out and difficult music project. I always conspire to find diversions to keep me from actually working on what I am supposed to work on. Hence this tirade.

To the chagrin of my family, I am spending an innordinate amount of time in the company of my assistant, which I happen to like. I have no feelings about this relationship being good or bad, and I don’t find it productive to spend time worrying about it. It just is. As a practicing composer, I have had a number of assistants in the last 30 years. Most of them have been machines.

Certainly, the music coming out of the relationship is different than it would have been had my assistant been a smart human music copyist. Not better, just different. But the process, by and large, is the same. Like a copyist, my machine has been educated. It has formalized knowledge of the work I do. It comes from common or rarefied breeding. It has a quantifiable amount of smarts and memory. It is fast or slow depending on what I ask of it. I submit my problems to it and choose to take or ignore its advice. Should the relationship prove unsatisfactory, I can fire it and hire another one. For this, I pay money. Either way, I don’t feed it, nurse it or love it. It just needs to be friendly, not too annoying in public company and do as told.

The organizational and cultural aspects of these kinds of relationships have been discussed to death in the sociology of labour, class warfare and the generation of wealth. It is my concern only in so far as it does not impede my productivity. I am not ready to feel sorry for my machine since the one different parameter in the man-machine relationship is the irrelevance of physical pain and punishment. Guilt of exploitation has been removed. I’ll be the only one sorry when I throw a brick through the monitor. Thankfully, my machine does not have dignity and readily handles my mood swings. To a point — this leaves me a lesser human in not having to deal with the subtleties of human frailty.

I lived in India for a year. India has a weird relationship to machines. India can make machines with the best of them. But machines are seen as usurpers at the bottom of the caste system. Labour is cheap, survival a daily concern and human dignity a foreign concept. Roads, skyscrapers are built by hand and a slave is available for every task known to man. Calculate pi to 15000 points of precision? Here are 5000 bean counters.

For India, and if you are Indian, this makes perfect sense. It is a culture that manages to function within the guidelines it set for itself. And it falls apart spectacularly when appraised by western eyes. We use machines because we like to think we understand and have compassion for humanity.

So. Machines, computers and content? In my life, not a federal case. I sign the music I do, not my machine. Some things are easier to do with their help but, strictly speaking, anything one may think has been contributed by them is largely the result of serendipity — which I can also use. My computer is not and never will be an artist because it lacks the capacity to claim the work. I don’t subscribe to conspiracies: machines will never be able to do so.

Content is the mysterious to you and me, it is the imaginary adventure a work travels through. I have no decent explanation for this phenomenon, nor do I desire to have one. You can dissect its mechanics but that will not help you recreate it. In that sense, the mechanics are completely irrelevant to the artistic experience. There is no new content to technologically based art forms. Successful art that uses technology is successful because, fundamentally, you could have done the work with other means, assistants, media, helpers, machines, instruments or slaves. The rest is window dressing and flashing lights. If it’s cool, it flashes. If it’s really cool, it doesn’t.

Afterthought: One of my jobs is teaching composition to grown-up kids. I always think teaching is like micro-coding. The more tuned the program, the less it can do.

Communication #2: Virtuosity

“-j.” wrote interestingly about virtuosity, but started with this quote:

Back in the pre-techno days of industrial dance music, Al Jorgenson (sp?) of Ministry (and many other WaxTrax projects) repeatedly told interviewers that “[his was the future of music.]” He envisioned a day when anyone, including the most old-fashioned of schoolmarms, liberated by samplers and the personal computer, could and would be making (industrial) music. My formal art education which followed reinforced these notions of democratization of the creative arts.

I am assuming that you disagree with the pronouncements of our enlightened (Ministry) friend. Weren’t Etch-a-Sketch and Paint-by-Numbers supposed to do the same for the visual arts? What our friend failed to realize is that by the time the citizens were cranking out industrial music, it would have become largely irrelevant as an expression of the times, beyond the sale of second-hand technology. Void of any creativity, democratic or not.

Onto the question of virtuosity, which I find quite urgent in this debate. I am also surprised that it has not been brought up before.

Practicing artists mediate their ideas through tools and the latitude of expression permitted by these tools. Whether the tools are a paint brush, an electric guitar, a video camera or the latest workstation is largely beside the point. When a technological shift occurs, the only thing that changes is the bar moves, laterally or vertically, to a different position. Transcendence occupies a different plane. After a short time on the technological hit parade, the facile ways of the gizmo emerge and join the trash heap of “engineered” tricks of the trade. From there, it is on to other hopefully more insteresting things. And, as you said, much of this comes back to virtuosity. Not as in “pyrotechnics” but as in “transcendence”. The ultimate, and for me desirable, absence of technical reference.

I have experienced this connundrum quite frequently, in both my professional life and my teaching life. The last time was when we developed a sound-processing program that placed value on productivity for experimental music (as defined by yours truly). The software was unleashed on unsuspecting students and the relative “quality” of the productions jumped by an order of magnitude in 12 months. Experience has shown that artists will initially always espouse the path-of-least-resistance when using new tools. This is true of the banjo, the editing suite and the computer program. What we did with this program was make the path-of-least-resistance a more divergent one. What came out, obviously, was a different music, or at least a differently-mediated music.

One of the predictable side-effects of this tool was that practitioners were left with an inflated sense of what they had actually accomplished. This became clear on concert night when an alert ear (again yours truly) could easily discern which buttons had been hit and when. I suppose this could be dismissed as just another example of the pervasiveness of the “novelty” factor. Nevertheless, I am quite convinced that next year’s music output will be quite different, as expertise/virtuosity honed with many hours in the studio takes its toll on what is/is not acceptable as well-formed output. Lest this theory get out of hand, it seems practice, after all, still makes good.

I agree with j.’s assessment of virtuosity as the thin edge of the knife where perception makes an unsuspected leap into a different/intuitive territory. Mechanical inspiration, such as encountered when drawing and improvising on the piano, belongs in the realm of reflexivity. Some sort of semi-conscious brain stem short-circuitry. But, up to now, the path through the woods was trampled by hard work and personal investment. Transposing this to the computer is problematic since physicality of effort is once removed. Resistance is in the mind. Puzzling, that. Especially for musicians, who have presumably grown with the inevitability of fighting the laws of physics.

Brings the idea of technological cutting-edge to a new light. The music industry’s modus vivendi in the late 20th has been: Just in case you get too comfortable and start sweating on the music, allow us to distract you with a new gizmo. Virtuosity is an economic threat. Do not aspire to it.

Which leads us to the impossible quandary of the electronic media artist lost in constant tool-building and tool-learning; tools that benignly impose ways of making. As problems get sorted out in the art world’s research labs, the artist becomes slave to a kind of permanent apprenticeship. Like a swarm of unpaid debuggers for the idea of a generalized art machine that one day will allow you to walk away from the details and yet still claim the whole as your own. A kind of air-conditioned ego mind-bath that has just the right amount of daring-do and cool stances to sustain the illusion that something is actually being said.

Ironically, it is not art which has inspired me to contemplate virtuosity today. Instead, it is my golf game. This is my first season golfing. Only now, after a couple months, am I beginning to physically understand the sport. When I make a good drive (“good” for me is still just over 200 yards and straight), I now feel it before it happens. The moment is difficult to describe because it is without words. My head is clear. Though I am not exactly “one” with the golf club, I do feel in my arms, my hips, my calves and wrists when the club will strike the turf. I know its reach. I know its weight. There is a familiar grove [sic] for each club being worn into my motions. I visually know where to line up the head of the club with the ball to counter inaccuracies in my swing. I know all this and much much more — but I know it only with my body — not with my verbal mind. In fact, the minute I think a word — any word — I lose it all.

I can attest to the veracity of the above. Golf has made me a fine connoisseur of the flora and fauna in the world’s bushy undergrowths. I have therefore given up on the practice but do remember the “icy” vapours of virtuosity in the occasional 200 yarder. In my case, serendipity. In more talented people/athletes, brain stem stuff.

Virtuosity is not a transparency or an invisibility of technology. Nor is it a “smart” device that does the entire job for you at the push of a couple buttons. Rather it is a state of simultaneously active and meditative physical awareness during which one responds in real-time to sensory input that exists at or below the threshold of conscious perception. I think one of the stumbling blocks toward achieving this sort of relationship with a device is when one remains focused on its nature as a machine rather than its use as a tool. (There may be an inverse proportion at play here. The more complex and “out of our hands” the workings of a tool are, perhaps the harder it is to achieve virtuosity with the device.)

Yes. Yet it seems this does little for off-line art making, studio practices. I am also ambivalent about this. Simple tools that are easier to transcend? Perhaps. Or complex tools where virtuosity is itself redefined? The difficulty with the latter is we have to perpetually reinvent the barometer of virtuosity without the benefit of intellectual pause. When effort-inducing processes are unveiled, a software-upgrade is in the works.

Are artists/musicians not aware of this? Just yesterday on the national news, this story on a “new” invention that, according to the self-satisfied CEO, will revolutionize music-making for the masses because it allows the control of musical textures with your hand moving through the air (never mind that Leon Theremin did this in 1927, but that theremin was too hard to master). Besides the preposterous notion of this kind of “democratic” music making, most distressing was the awed look of the journalist when 10,000 notes were unleashed screaming with a swift (and irrelevant) flourish of the attending musician’s hand. Absolute removal of effort, hence virtuosity, towards Disney’s imperial sense of power and control. Nothing new. Even worse, nothing old. And 5,000,000 people went to bed thinking that they too, finally, have a way of expressing their inner thoughts about life, death and taxation levels.

Well, I don’t want to seem too cynical since I do rely on technology for my practice. But it seems the more it goes the less of a primary concern technology becomes. My students now know much more about the tech than I do. I just hope some day they will also fall behind.

Jean Piche

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