Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Music Machine

Reading this article from AAAS, it suddenly occurs to me that the common argument about machines vs. humans in music is flawed. As I note in my last post about Liza Lim’s “How Forests Think,” we naturally hear the sounds of the forests as music – it is a human response. We turn the sound into music because we’re musical creatures that come from the forest. That small insight, applied here, provides the key to understanding our future role with technology and the arts.

Music isn’t necessarily in the making – deciding which notes and rhythms go together – but in the human response to organized sound, the enjoyment and participation of in the making and listening. That makes AI seriously less threatening. Will machines make music equal to that of humans in creativity, complexity, even spiritual depth? Sure! Will it matter? Nope.

Because, after all, what’s the point?

We ultimately will be able to teach computers how to respond to music like we do. And they will be capable of making music on par with a human composer or performer. But the musical experience itself is human and the need for humans to make music and to appreciate the music that is made, will never, ever go away. Machines are just us – an extension of us and an extension of that musical impulse.

This idea actually extends a slim hope for the economics of music – a weakly floating board to cling to amid the shipwreck of the music industry. As far back as Marshall McLuhan, students of culture have noted that it is only when an object’s use becomes obsolete that we, as a culture, begin to fully appreciate it. The value of paintings and appreciation for the skill of the illustrator increased with the advent of the photograph. Tape and LPs became highly prized when that had been eclipsed by CDs and digital downloads and streaming. We are seeing a rather sudden appreciation of the physical, printed book, separate from the books we read online (the scores of George Crumb and the rise of the graphic novel are just two examples that spring to mind). Once its usefulness is eclipsed, the human achievement of the old medium becomes the thing itself, a source of admiration and appreciation.

That’s where we’re headed with the use of live performing musicians for entertainment. Already it has become a kind of status symbol – only the poor wedding will have no live music. Musicians now can make a living as cover bands, some focusing on famous old acts like Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, but some just cranking out the tunes at parties, human juke boxes – whether imitating artists or rendering them in a more personal style, doesn’t matter, so long as they’re not recordings but flesh and blood, communicating the rhythm.

It is common, too, to see live performance transcriptions of works never designed for live performance, like Frank Zappa’s “G-Spot Tornado” at the 1990s Yellow Shark concerts, or the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” by Alarm Will Sound, or the endless MIDI scores composed for video games performed by orchestras. The subtext there is clear: music is better with living human beings making the sound.

Not better because humans do it better; simply better because human.

It will be no surprise when a future sophisticated robot (like Data in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) can play Paganini perfectly. But because it’s no surprise, it will also be less valuable than a human achieving the same goal. A player piano can execute rhythms and counterpoints impossible for a human to play. The only reason to care is because a human dreamed up those impossible compositions.

Music is part of our evolution into the creatures we are now and technology is part of that. But the connection between our music and our biology is deep, and it exists now with or without technological aid, offering us immediate union with one another and with the world. We will carry that forward, come what may.

Let’s admit that the Turing Test is merely a landmark on the horizon, and that there will come a day when we literally can’t tell the difference between humans and machines, or the part of us that is human and the part that is machine – no matter how well we know the hybrid. That day is a long way off, but when it comes, the confusion will be best expressed in a song.

August 15, 2017

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Forests and ICE

ICE, photo taken from the group's website

The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) performs “How Forests Think,” 7:30 p.m. Monday, August 14 at Merkin Concert Hall, Lincoln Center

The program – part of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart summer festival – takes it’s name from a work for 10 musicians by composer Liza Lim. (Perhaps coincidentally, this is also the title of an interesting book about interconnected rhythms of life experienced by Amazon forest natives.) In addition to Lim’s music, the program includes Pauline Oliveros’s “Earth Ears,” and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Aequilibria.” The ensemble will be conducted by Baldur Brönnimann and musician Wu Wei will perform on the sheng, a Chinese mouth-blown reed organ.

The thread of the program, obviously, is the connection between music and nature, something that is very much on my mind as I prepare for the course, Music and the Natural World, that I teach each Fall for freshman at The College of New Jersey. The topic runs deep and crosses all lines of human investigation, including biological and physical sciences, philosophy, religion, politics, the visual arts, dance, psychology and sociology. 

The reason for this blurring of lines is the root of music is deep in prehistory – it prefigures and shapes many aspects of human activity that reason would typically try to parse into separate channels for analysis. Music doesn't parse. Any part of it interconnects to any other part. (Try defining harmony, for instance, without talking about pitch, time and esthetic impressions.) Music organizes  people like . On the one hand it lifts individuality and makes us conscious of time; on the other, it submerges our individual identities into the pool of the communal response, which holds all of the past, present and future in one bowl.

Those realizations are apparent with very little investigation – just an open set of ears and a heart tuned to an old song. Lim's composition uses for its model the life of the forest itself, the activity, growth and structures that define it. We hear forest sounds as music – is that because an ancestral association of good emotions with the sound of the forest? Or are we anthropomorphizing those sounds, turning them into human-style communication, reflecting our humanness back onto the non-human forest? Or is it because our understanding of music emanates from there, so we are ourselves manifestations of the forest? (Answer: yes. Mark this spot on the map in your brain: this is the approximate place where words stop, while the landscape of music keeps right on going.)

ICE is one of the best new music groups around, so you’re pretty much guaranteed a memorable and probably definitive performance. You can read and watch clips from my 2013 interview with founder and former artistic director Claire Chase on TheStreet’s website [The video link in the article isn't working. Use this one to watch the video.] Tickets to "How Forests Think" are $30 and are available through the Mostly Mozart website (www.lincolncenter.org/mostlymozart) or by calling CenterCharge at 212-721-6500.

August 8, 2017