It is a matter of established public record that I’m a fan of both John Darnielle and wombats. So please forgive this non-musical divergence, but it has come to my attention (via my friend Ann’s twitter feed) that there exists a picture of John Darnielle holding an adorable wombat.
I am convinced that this picture could end war. Seriously. There’s John Darnielle, looking as if to say:
“Why, yes, I’m John Darnielle and this is my wombat. I have no time for you.”
And there’s the wombat looking like:
“‘Sup, bitches? I’m a chubby, adorable wombat.”
Net result? Perfection.
Okay, okay, if you insist on a musical connection, here’s the thinnest and most tenuous one possible. The Wombats, “Let’s Dance to Joy Division”:
Happy now? No? I refer you to the picture above.
Better? I thought so…
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side. ” – Hunter S. Thompson
Okay, so I really don’t have any clue what this is, but I kind of like it. It appears to be a woman drumming and speaking/singing in Japanese while a man accompanies her on a bass. And by “accompanies” I mean “grinds the shit out of the post”.
I have to admit, I really kind of like it.
This is the followup rant to my last post. If you didn’t look at some of the resources I linked to, this rant may not make a whole lot of sense. Now, this is a bit different that what I normally post on this blog, but given the lack of content that this blog usually contains, I imagine that might be a welcome change.
Let me say right from the off that I think Douglas Hofstadter is completely off the mark. His essay is a slow, elegant march towards a conclusion that is so wrong that I have a hard time believing that someone as undeniably smart and well-informed as Hofstadter entertained the notion. Now it could well be that he intended his conclusion to be irrational and purely emotive, but he seems to seriously suggest that the advent of well-composed computer music means one of three things:
(1) Chopin (for example) is a lot shallower than I had ever thought.
(2) Music is a lot shallower than I had ever thought.
(3) The human soul/mind is a lot shallower than I had ever thought.
Hofstadter’s basic argument, then, that a thing can be artistically meaningful only if it comes from human beings. In fact, a piece that was written in the style of and to the same level of genius as Bach or Chopin, is rendered valueless if it comes from a computer. So committed is Hofstadter to this argument that the only other option in his mind is not that art can be meaningful regardless of its origin, but that the art itself must be devalued. If a computer can create music, then Hofstadter believes that music must be shallower than he thought.
In other words, Hofstadter is so committed to his horror of computerized art, that he instantly deems anything made by a computer to not be art. This makes his article an essay-length exercise in begging the question. What Hofstadter is saying is that computers can’t create real art, because if a computer creates it, it’s not real art. Hofstadter hates the idea of computerized music so much that he’s willing to dismiss not only logic and music itself, just preserve his disbelief of computers generating artistic meaning.
To put it another way, by being presented with computerized music, Hofstadter was being presented with a logical and aesthetic choice. On the one hand he could discard his belief that computers can’t create art. On other hand he could discard the belief that music is a form of art. Given that choice, Hofstadter bids music a nostalgic farewell and throws it out the window. He does this despite his professed belief that music is “the ultimate inner sanctum of the human spirit.”
But Hofstadter’s logical and musical perfidy doesn’t end there. You see, Hofstadter only gets to his three possible conclusions after a path that takes him past a variety of wells, all of which he stops to poison. Now he’s a subtle man, so not all of his rhetorical cyanide-dumping is obvious. To highlight it, let me riff on an experiment he references in the piece. Here are two word lists:
List the first:
List the second:
Which of these is a list of terms that Hofstadter uses to describe computer-composed music? Which of these lists is used to describe human-composed music? Hofstadter’s moral disgust at the notion of computer-created art runs so deep that he can’t even bring himself to talk about it fairly. The two lists above are used to describe two different sorts of music that are so similar that, by Hofstadters own admission, trained professionals have a hard time telling them apart. And yet that produced by the computer is “grotesque” and that produced by the human is “sacred.”
So can computers create art? My initial instinct is to fall back on Samuel Johnson and simply say: “I refute it thus!” Of course instead of kicking a stone, I’ll offer up some computerized art. At the moment, I’m listening to some haunting, meandering ambient music that was composed by a machine. What’s more, the program used to create the ambient music can be run on any modern computer. And it can create novel ambient music, non-stop, forever.
Now lest this be open to special pleading arguments about ambient not being “real” music, refer to the demo given at the beginning of the video I linked to in my last post. Bowkett, in demonstrating his software, shows that it’s capable of generating interesting techno, and a solid groundwork hip-hop. Furthermore, as demonstrated by one of the articles I linked to, computerized compositional methods are now being used by actual musicians such as Brian Eno to create music.
Music, like all art, is a form of emotive communication. Musicians are good at music when they communicate powerfully, accurately, and richly. That is to say they evoke strongly the emotions they intend to and do so in deep and intricate ways. If a piece of software could be written that could reliably do exactly that, then that software would be an effective musician. The value of music has always been in the content. Not the source. We listen to musicians not because they’re great people and we want to support them, but because their music says something important to us. The truth of that emotional message, then, is not in the artist, but in the music itself. And that truth remains the same whether the message came from a person or a computer.
So what is the role of a musician in a world where computers are increasingly capable of conveying these emotional messages? These messages, for one thing, still have to be discovered or conceived. Craftsmanship (including composition and performance), after all, has only ever been half of a musician’s job. Bob Dylan, for instance, has always been a middling craftsman. But his ability to conceive of and articulate emotional ideas is almost without equal. This is the main reason why so many of Dylans work so much beter when they’re performed by other artists. The messages Dylan creates are powerful, and when conveyed by superior craftsman, the effect can be positively electrifying.
In other words, it’s not by accident that the current forms of software that are being used to compose music are composing it in genres that are already well-established. We’re at a place right now where computers can convey meaning and messages of a sort that have already been conveyed. An analogy might be taking all the love letters ever written, feeding them into a machine, and having it write out a new love letter, the exact text of which had never been produced. Sure, it’s reworking what has been done by other people, but that doesn’t mean that its letter doesn’t mean anything or that it wouldn’t flatter someone to receive it.
To continue the analogy, we may some day reach a day when computers can compose their own letters. Absent the influences of human artistic input. If that’s the case it won’t mean (as Hofstadter might suggest) that love letters are shallow. Rather it will just mean that the world itself is richer for having more loving beings in it.
The same is true of music. We may some day live in a world in which there are new entities that can not only relay emotional messages and mimic the emotions of others, but can themselves think and feel and love. If they can then take those emotions and convey them to us, then it will not be, as Hofstadter wants to claim, a poorer world. It will be a much, much richer one.
Okay, so I’m writing up a bit of a rant on computer-generated music. In preparation, here’s some background reading and listening that might make the rant more interesting.
Okay, so first, go listen to this fuzzy little Drum & Bass track. This track was created by Giles Bowkett with the help of an application which he built called Archeopteryx. Bowkett describes Archeopteryx as “a system for auto-generating, self-modifying music.”
Next, try to guess who composed this delightful little piano study. If you guessed Bach, you’d be wrong, but understandably so. That was composed by software written and maintained by David Cope from the University of California at Santa Cruz. The software was trying to imitate Bach’s compositional style, and nails it pretty damned well.
Now, on to the reading portion of today’s assignment. Go read this essay by Douglas Hofstadter on computer-generated music. Then check out this brief blurb about how Brian Eno helped create a recombinant, procedurally-based music generating algorithm for the game Spore. That blurb links to a much longer article about Eno. The money quote from that longer article is:
“[Eno] went on to demonstrate a simple software called “The Shuffler” which he uses to create fragments for the soundtrack of Spore and which even with a simple combination of samples possibly would never create the same composition twice within a lifetime.”
Next, if you have a desire for the broader view of the history of computerized music, read this history of the subject. If you don’t want to read through the whole history, at least take not of the following: “Lejaren Hillier was one of the first to use a computer in music, and is generally credited with the earliest published work, Illiac suite from 1958. This was composed by computer, but is performed by musicians.”
Finally, if you want to get your geek on, check out the above-mentioned Giles Bowkett doing his presentation on Archeopteryx at the RubyFringe conference in 2008. The presentation itself spends a lot of time not talking about coding and software, but definitely check out the live demo he does at the beginning (ending about 4:30 into the video).
The rant will be probably be up either tomorrow or Monday.
On the phone with my mother.
Mom: So what are you up to?
Me: Oh, just walking home from work.
Mom: So what’s the music I hear in the background?
Me: That’s not music, that’s a car alarm.
Mom: Oh, it sounded like one of those indie bands . . .
As long-time readers will know, some close friends and I make an annual pilgrimage into the badlands of Central Washington to attend the Sasquatch! Music Festival. Well the festival for 2010 is ON! It’s scheduled for Memorial Day Weekend, as always, and tickets have just gone on sale through TicketMaster. There are currently a limited portion of discounted 3-Day passes on presale.
So if you’re looking to attend, and you want to save some cash, you should definitely hit up the link and get your passes now. I’d say that all the cool kids are doing it, but I’m going to be there, too so it’s obviously not limited to the hip folks.
This girl has the right idea:
“A teenage girl had a smashing time when a bizarre wish she made from her sickbed allowed her to destroy garden gnomes with a guitar while dressed as a rocker from the band AC/DC.
Paige Jones, who made the request to a charity while recovering from a jaw operation, whacked her way through dozens of the garden ornaments with a bass guitar.
The 14-year-old, who dressed up as guitarist Angus Young in a school uniform and shorts, admitted she may have been under the influence of anaesthetic when she made the request to Russells Hall Wishing Well charity.”
Beats the hell out of a boring old theme park, I’d say. In the spirit of smashing shit with guitars, here’s some Smashing Pumpkins. (Yeah, I know, it’s a stretch. Work with me here.) This is their song “Eye” off the Lost Highway soundtrack.
It’s no secret that I have a giant crush (musical and otherwise) on Kristin Hersh (of Throwing Muses, 50 Foot Wave, and amazing solo work fame). I ran across this quote and it got me thinking:
“I don’t mind what the market is, but why is it vapid? If they’re such a bunch of idiots, why don’t you show them good music instead? They’re not going to know the difference.” – Kristin Hersh
Now, she’s right of course. If the reason why modern radio-filling tunes are so watery and weak is because the audience are idiots (or uncultured or what-have-you), then there’s no reason not to prefer good music on the radio. (Or movie soundtracks, TV shows, streaming Internet sites, etc. etc. and what-have-you). This to me strongly indicates one of three possibilities.
1.) The reason this stuff plays and sells is not because people are stupid or uncultured, but for some other, reason.
2.) There’s some appeal in vapid, milquetoast pop music that’s NOT present in better music.
3.) Some admixture of 1. and 2.
I have my definite theories about which is the case. But before I dig out my soapbox and dust it off, I’m curious about what others think. Any responses from my audience listening in at home?