Computer Bites Man

Posted: May 20, 2007 in Classical Music, Culture, Technophilia

Technology that replaces human effort has been around for a long time, which in its benign form may be a labor-saving device. The benefits are typically increased productivity and decreased labor costs, while the casualty is nearly always the disappearance of someone’s livelihood. Progress has always been a double-edged sword, technology is impossible to hold back, and most laborers do in fact find other means of earning a living. Those transitions are by now inevitable in a world that changes so rapidly that there is little continuity from generation to generation.

The Wall Street Journal has a recent article called “Fugue for Man & Machine” reporting on the development of a computerized orchestra made from sampled sounds, all of which can be conducted with a Wii remote or similar device. From an economist’s or empressario’s perspective, this may be just another labor-saving device, which allows music to be made with fewer actual musicians, or with none. From a musician’s perspective (mine), this is the worst idea I’ve stumbled across in some time. On a purely technical level, computer sampling must by its nature create an idealized notion of what each instrument should sound like, which homogenizes and strips out the character, variation, and imperfections that give music so much of its essence. How different players interpret a phrase, the nuances of vibrato, the timing and mistiming of an articulation, these all make huge differences in a performance, and manipulating the “performance” of a combination of computer voices completely misses the point of what it means to behave musically. Indeed, many of the best moments in musical performance are purely transient or accidental and they simply can’t be recreated. They’re temporal and momentary. Even a recording can’t fully capture them. To a trained ear, the fatuous “fauxharmonic orchestra” is clearly distinguishable from a real orchestra. Even if the technology erases the ability to hear the difference, the replacement of a real musical experience with a indistinguishable virtual experience cannot possibly be the direction intelligent people want to go.

Some 25 years ago, a similar threshold was crossed when a synthpop group called the Art of Noise made recordings from sampled sources. Many of the sounds were so heavily manipulated that a “performance” could only exist as a recording; live performance was impossible. We have similar impossibilities in, for instance, oversaturated pictures of the Grand Canyon with none of the haze of modern atmospheric conditions, or swooping camera shots in movies created from computerized images that can’t possible reflect a true human perspective. They’re titilating, to be sure, but totally unreal. If we used to be able to distinguish easily between the real and the synthetic, those boundaries are blurred by each new technological development or formulation.

Thinking and acting musically is a fundamental aspect of human culture. Singing and dancing are among the first experiences we all have, and now art music is being created using computers. It may signal the eventual triumph of technics over humanity. People are being rendered dispensable by technology in perhaps the most essentially human of all arts. This isn’t merging art and technology as one might observe in architecture. It’s the destruction of an art by those who should know better. It boggles the mind to read that so many sophisticated musicians are throwing in with this technology.

Update: I meant to include the video link below but couldn’t immediately locate it.

The important thing to realize is that the maker of the video can’t play drums or piano. Yet he has fashioned a “musical performance” based on his video editing skill. It’s clever, entertaining, and funny, but it’s not really about the music; it’s about the editing skill, which is considerable (maybe not — he has a lot of imitators). As mentioned above, it’s the triumph of technics.

Some musicians have been complaining that such editing skills are actually ruining music. Many studio albums are so heavily edited that the end product is essentially cut and spliced together from hundreds of takes. In pop music, the result is recordings by performers who can’t perform live, much like the Art of Noise, or are terrible live performers. They end up lip synching to their own recordings. In classical music, the result is live performances that can’t stand up to the quality of recordings. As a result, performers get so wrapped up chasing notes and avoiding imperfections that live performance frequently lacks feeling, transcendence, or abandon. The recordings, like the doctored images on a calendar or the impossible shots in a movie, ultimately undercut the art they purport to serve.


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