It is very common to come across the complaint that computer or electronic music it’s not real art. People with application for making music on their phone would probably say that making music is easier than ever. By dealing with this topic superficially, we can find different reasons, why we could say that music making is really easier than ever: some reasons are technical, some are connected to the pluralism, the co-existence of different musical genres. 

Technically the possibilities of sounds are wider than ever, furthermore: we don’t really need musicians to produce different sounds. Composers themselves use more and more words to explain their work, which leads us to cover music with words and definitions. Looking from the distance it seems as almost every artistic attempt that raises the question “is this music?” can qualifies as conceptual art and every research in musical field can be called experimental music. 

After the emancipation of sound and the work of Edgar Varèse we know that “anything new in music has always been called noise”. Although dealing with computer and phone applications for making music doesn’t necessarily mean dealing with something musical or something new in music. More than ever we have the possibilities to express ourselves trough sounds, but not every expression is an artistic expression. It seems that the origin of above mentioned complaint about electronic music is the illusion, the narcisistic self-perception of the new society.

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By the introduction of computers in the composition and performance process the music constellation has radically changed in the last few decades. Computers are more and more used by composers and performers providing them with infinite possibilities of sounds. Somehow this fact destroys our romantic image of composers waiting for inspiration in some idyllic place. Thinking about a machine, which can generate new music much faster than a human, is somehow creepy. But what is creepier: the computer who can generate some patterns that are coherent or all the musicians (composers and performers) who are not dealing with art but rather with composing or playing musical patterns, although using traditional instruments? With the emergence of electrified music, the barriers that kept musician, composer, sound technician and instrument builder apart slowly started to dissolve. 

The new hybrid creative and performing system as an interplay between humans and computers transcends the traditional notion of musician/composer. New computational systems are capable of generating complex pieces autonomously, which is a radical way of using computers in music – completely removing the role of humans from process of generating music. David Cope, composer and professor at UC Santa Cruz created a program when he was in an artist’s block. He built an analytic engine. His program is named EMI (Experiments in Musical Intelligence).

In this program every note becomes five numbers. But the spooky part is that EMI can somehow be Beethoven, Scott Joplin, Bach or Mahler. This program deconstructs the works, finds patterns and creates brand new compositions based on discovered patterns. But is Chopin just a bunch of patterns? Yes and no. Of course we can find patterns and reuse them. The thing is that we are not able to do it as fast as EMI. The question is: did programs such as EMI really changed the definition of music?

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Computer and the purpose of music

Iamus is a program which goes a step further than EMI. It composes original contemporary pieces of music that are performed by musicians. The program was created at the University of Malaga by Francisco Vito and developed with pianist and composer Gustavo Díaz-Jerez. The first composition by Iamus Hello world for piano, clarinet and violin is based on musical genomes which are after developed in more complex forms. This type of structure is the core of all Western music and that’s why we can find logic in the compositions. What defines music is creativity based on logic and purpose. Iamus is called after the son of Apollo, who could understand the language of birds. The birds singing is by now not music in our perception, but can be somehow creatively used musically in electroacoustic music. “Music, which should pulsate with life, needs new means of expression, and science alone can infuse it with youthful vigor” claims Varèse. He was dreaming “of instruments obedient to my thought and which with their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspected sounds, will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm”.

As mentioned before, in dealing with programs which can generate music patterns, we should search for purpose.

In 1871 Darwin wrote about the origin of music in the book The Descent of Man discovering a paradox about music: it is very important for the individual but has no value in the meaning of survival. The only solution Darwin found for this paradox was seeing music as a way to charm the opposite sex. But are there other possibilities to solve this paradox? Biomusicologist Steven Brown suggest that music can be a device for group survival. In the traditional cultures music involved in every group activity: births, deaths, marriages, harvests. But Darwin and also other modern scientists saw the music as mysterious but irrelevant also for cognition.

Howard Gardner defines music as one of seven intelligences relying on studies suggesting that music is syntactic system similar to speech. Why should be there a specific space in our brain dealing with music? Music is perfect synchronization device. Last but not least: music has a hedonic function. Brown suggest: “I would say as follows: music evolved as rituals reward system, a type of social neuromodulatory system and group level adaptation”.

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Music as art is primordial. Art arises from the natural conflicts of mankind as something beautiful, not always gentle, but terrifying sincere and pure. 

“Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward wellbeing of individuals and of humanity.” (Tolstoy)

Speaking again about Iamus: why didn’t the researchers use the computer to create a new music experience, something that a human can’t really do? The use of technology in art should extend our possibilities, not proof that we can make a machine which can do the same us we do.

There is no need to discredit the use of technology in art. How could we make any instrument without technology? Is the key of a computer really so different than a key of a piano? 

Bartolomeo Christofori made the first piano in 1700. By now the piano has evolved with technology and just few weeks ago Baremboim presented a new concept of making pianos. 

Technology was always part of music. The question is how we use the technology. If we think contemporary art as reflection of the world here and now also the piano music and pianists can be put under discussion. 

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In the great and now more than a decade old article published by The guardian, Martin Kettle is discussing the problem of boring pianists. “There was a time when the piano was the most accessible and most powerful medium of music for many people. The piano was to musical culture what the internal combustion engine was to mobility. The piano revolution started around the time of Beethoven and began to come to an end with the arrival of the LP. But its time is clearly over.”

The world is changing and the art is responding, but it seems different in piano music. Pianists are still repeating the same repertoire. It seems that things concerning pianism are stopped somewhere in the past. For Martin Kettle the situation is even worse. 

“With the passing of time, the piano is becoming ever more a historical musical instrument and ever less a creative one. Perhaps that explains why, though the pianists can play all the notes as well as ever, the notes carry so much less meaning to some of us than they once did.” 

What is artistic in a piano performance with some predictable program, predictable behaviour of both-artist and audience? Where is the reason we are having doubts about electronic music as art? 

Learning piano is less about understanding, listening, creating. It is much more about remembering, repeating, competing and computers are able to do it even better than us.

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Interpretation and improvisation 

Pianist Roberto Prosseda is performing with Teo Tronico, a robot, to show us the importance of the interpretation and creativity in music. Teo Tronico has fiftythree fingers, can speak, has not even one possibility to make a mistake and was performing with great orchestras, but can’t replace Prosseda’s musical creativity in the moment of playing. Although Prosseda is not improvising, his expression lays in the time-space between the written notes. The fantastic pianist playing interesting repertoire was studying at the Conservatorio Otorino Respighi in Latina. At the same conservatoire  are studying students who are improvising with computers. 

The e-cor ensemble (Francesco Altilio, Giovanni Tancredi, Mirjana Nardelli, Cristian Maddalena) is creating a musical live landscape using electronic sounds. I met them at the festival Romaeuropa Festival Digital Life: Play 2014, where they were improvising. In their free improvisation they are focused on sound, texture and musical syntax. The communication between them is very clear and the logical development of the improvisation is just a simple consequence. The sounds they record or generate with computer are used on different pad instruments, but the musical result is always unpredictable: the music is made in the moment.

They are improvising now for quite a long time, but they are always making something new. The beauty of electronic music is the possibility to set all the parameters of sound and have the possibility to change the instrument by simply reprogramming it. The endless possibilities of sounds can be scary, but the freedom is always achieved by setting the limits. The only limit in electronic improvisation is choice. Although computer has no limits in repeating the same material, the time dimension is one of the most important dimensions of music. The musical material e-cor is using is very variable. The texture is often very dense. With different musical layers and moving sounds in space they are using the three dimensions. The musical gestures can be created by the most random noise. The only question is right timing. 

On one hand we have Teo Tronico, a robot, which can play perfectly, but is used just as a possible replacement for a real pianist. In the case of e-cor, the knowledge of music and the ideas are extended by the possibilities of technology. The same did every other composer and performer till now. 

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Well, what then? 

The question of music is the question of creativity and purpose. What is creativity? According to ancient view also one’s life is somehow an artistic performance. Let’s just think about Marina Abramović and all her work. Creativity seems to be linked to the question: who I really am? According to Schopenhauer to be an artist means to have the capacity to lose yourselves in the experience of what is beautiful and sublime. 

In searching for music Scriabin suggest us his way:  “To be an optimist in a real sense, one must suffer doubt and conquer it. Not by my own wish have I come into this world. Well, what then? In tender youth, full with illusions of desire and hope, I delighted in shining glories. I awaited a revelation from Heaven. It came not. Well, what then? I sought eternal truth and asked of people. Alas, they knew no more than I. Well, what then? I sought eternal beauty, and found it not. Like flowers which never bloom, my feelings were stilled. The rain of night dimmed the bright day. I sought solace in the new spring, new flowers, but nowhere found it. I strove not to change what was, but to return to the already spent, to recall the already experienced.
Into each person’s life, springtime can come but once. How people rush beyond these divine dreams, those enchanting delusions!

At last I took comfort in memories. But once used to them, they vanished. Well, what then? Whoever you may be, who jested at me, who plunged me into dark depths. Whoever you were, you who mocked me, cast me in prison, ravished in order to disillusion, gave in order to steal back, caressed in order to torment. I take my leave of you and ask no redress.

I am alive. I love life. I love people. I love them all the more because through you they have suffered. I will proclaim to all people that I have triumphed over you, over myself. I say that they can place no hope in you, that they can expect naught from life except THAT WHICH THEY CREATE BY THEMSELVES ALONE. I thank you for all the fears which your trials and tribulations aroused. You made me know my endless power, my unlimited might, my invincibility. You gave me the power of creativity. I will tell them that they are strong and mighty, that it is needless to lament, that there is no loss, that they must not fear doubt which alone gives birth to true triumph. Powerful is he! Mighty is he! Who feels defeat and overcomes it!”

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Musical creativity in digital era

The question of creativity is linked to the purpose of life. The choice to make music, to search creative ways to express our own individuality is a choice and a need to create something. In that meaning there is no difference between electronic and traditional music. The main difference between electronic and traditional music is notation and the possibilities of producing very complex structures without the problem of writing it down. 

The traditional notation gives us multiple ways of denoting each pitch, rhythm, metrum. Besides this it can also causes problems when a composers wants to write down some new technical approaches. The bad side is that in traditional music we have some methods of notating dynamics but what we really don’t have at all is a method of notating timbre. We just identify the notes played by a certain instrument having a certain timbre. This makes us thinking just about pitch and rhythm, but less specifically about other parameters. That is the most characteristic for Western music and less in non-Western cultures. In electronic music we rarely find scores.

This is manly because composers of electronic music don’t need to give information to the performer, all can be set in computer in details. Whilst composers rarely make some notation or structure of the piece of electronic music in rather traditional way, the traditional composers are breaking the boundaries and searching for new ways of notation. The division of rhythmic values into units of two, three and four is a domain of traditional notation, which can be a restriction for ideas. In electronic music the structures can be more free and also more complex from that point of view.

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To return to the question of the article: did computer change the definition of music? It has extended music in different directions: the main ideas are not anymore based on harmony, notes, rhythm. But we have to distinguish between the capacity of the computer to create some patterns and the musician who is using this pattern in musical and creative way.

“Our brains have lived so far by struggling to survive through knowledge, and when the machine takes all that over, what is going to happen? There are only two possibilities: either man will commit himself totally to entertainment – football, sports, every form of demonstration, going to the temple, and playing with all that stuff – or he will turn inward.”

There is no need to discredit the electronic music because of technology, while at the same time we can’t say that a computer, for now,  can be a good substitute for a composer or performer, if we think about music as art, as human urge and not as sound pollution. 

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Sources: 

BBC News: Daniel Barenboim designs ‘radical’ new piano. http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-32885683

Bouers, Faubion: Scriabin. Dover Publications, 1996 

Brown, Steven: Biomusicology, and three biological paradoxes about music: Bulletin of Psychology and the Arts, vol 4 (1) 

Collins, Nick; d’Escrivan Julio: Electronic Music. Cambridge University Press, 2007 

e-cor ensemble – https://soundcloud.com/e-cor-ensemble

EMI- http://www.radiolab.org/story/91515-musical-dna/ 

Hamilton, Kenneth: After the golden age: Romantic pianism and Modern Performance. Oxford University Press, 2008 

Hello World- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bD7l4Kg1Rt8 

Howe Hubert S., Jr.: The Musical Significance of Electronic Music: http://www.qc.edu/hhowe/articles/significance.html 

Kettle, Martin: Why are today pianists do boring?. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2002/sep/05/classicalmusicandopera.artsfeatures

Krishnamurti, J.:  recording, talk 1983 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6de8fG5eAA0

Krishnamurti: Krishnamurti: A timeless spring: Krishnamurti at Rajghat, 1999 (p.164)

Teo Tronico – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhxqDDaA3nU

Tolstoy, Leo: What is art?, https://archive.org/details/whatisart00tolsuoft

Varèse, Edgar: The Liberation of sound: Excerpts from lectures by Varèse, compiled and edited with footnotes by Chou Wen-chung, http://music.arts.uci.edu/dobrian/CMC2009/Liberation.pdf