Computers and music

I'm at the Vermont College of Fine Arts this week for another residency in my quest for a Masters degree. My mentor and friend Michael Early gave a demonstration last night of the work he has been doing with computers and it was a giggling, thought-provoking good time. Much of the evening's music involved computer game consoles modified to alter preset software programs and loops. You stood there holding long strings attached to the console toggles and as you pulled them this way and that the volume, timbre, and at times frequency of the tones would change. It seemed to me the logical conclusion of one branch of modern music's quest for randomness and chance in the spontaneous composition of music. Instead of complicated instructions to the players, throwing the I Ching, spinning a wheel, etc. there was here essentially no human agency at all, at least in the music's birth. We could alter the tones as they came out (although nobody who tried seemed able to know how, at least in any systematic way) but the creation of the tones, the evening's acts of choice, were done by the machine. It was music. The sounds had pitch, timbre, even a kind of phrasing. But a larger question: Was it an act of communication? When you listen to Mozart or the Beach Boys or Sun Ra or Morton Feldman there is behind the music a person's voice, an attempt to reach the audience and tell them something. That I did not hear. The randomness of last night's music was so pure that it stopped being a human endeavor, lost its connection with the storyteller at the campfire. Michael Early is a dear man. I wanted to hear from HIM.

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