Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Response from Professor Hugill: Music & Digital Cultures

Following on from his lecture on the 16th of Feb., Professor Hugill has taken the time to read your comments and is including a response. He addresses a variety of questions which stem from your own blog responses. Please read Professor Hugill's thoughts and respond to his question (via the comments on this post) which you'll find at the end of his letter.

"Dear Jess, Thank you for asking me to respond to the student comments following my lecture. I thought your post about the importance of critical thinking and logical argument was excellent. I'm ill in bed at the moment, so the brain is not firing on every cylinder, but on the other hand I have some time to write!

I agree very much with Mandy's comment that we covered a lot, maybe too much, in two hours, and of course none of the students has studied music, so somehow they had to rapidly assimilate both technical and aesthetic information about some of the most challenging music of the past 100 years. I thought they listened well - attentive and diligent and, given the content, relaxed, which was not always my experience when I covered similar ground with music students, who often became quite agitated.

Andy P. seems to have had the most extensive reaction and makes a number of points. I'll try to approach these in the spirit they are intended.

Let's tackle the 'definition of music' thing frst. Bear in mind that what we are seeking here is a definition. Definitions have pretensions to being objective, verifiable, and universal (applicable in all situations). In practice, there are many types of definition (see for example) but they all share that sense of rational aspiration to the absolute.

Music as 'organised sound' is not my definition but that of Edgard Varèse in his lecture/essay 'The Liberation of Sound'. He had very specific reasons for making the statement, arguing in favour of the inclusion of sounds not considered 'musical' in the traditional sense (i.e. not necessarily produced by instruments). No doubt this has inadequacies, but it *is* a definition. Notice he is not ascribing any particular value to the 'music' he defines. He is not attempting to say 'this is good music' or 'this is bad music'. He is trying to be factual and objective in order to expand our understanding of what music might be. The affective layer (such as emotional impact, aesthetic judgement, etc.) is largely put aside.

The word 'organised' is somewhat loaded. The first question we might ask is 'organised by whom'? Some might hear organisation in natural sound (which takes us into soundscape, which I had no time to mention in the lecture), but I think for Varèse the idea was that a piece of music is organised in the same way as a living organism - made up of many related elements. This suggests intentionality. One standard definition of a work of art is that it is evidence of an artistic intention (if an artist calls it art, it's art). In the postmodern world, we might also argue that it requires a suitable reception (people have to agree).

The point Andy P makes that music has no material existence is of course correct. Sound is a disturbance in a medium. I don't think Varèse is being materialistic, but I do think he is being scientific. Phenomena, such as electricity, may be observed empirically. Music is a perceptual phenomenon, certainly, but that does not necessarily mean it has only *emotional* existence. (Notice that the statement 'music is a perceptual phenomenon' is not a definition either, because it is incomplete).

Analysis of emotion is a vast field. Academic and scientific approaches range from the neuroscientific to the psychological. The one that seems to be causing the objection here is the James/Lange idea that emotion results from experiencing bodily changes, rather than causing them. There simply is neither time nor space (nor do I have the expertise!) to attempt to summarize these theories, but I think it is true to say that we still lack an accurate and consistent mapping of musical gesture to emotional response, probably due to social, cultural and individual variations. This is what makes emotion shifting ground from which to attempt a *definition* of anything. In what would an 'emotional definition' consist?

This is not a denial of the importance of emotion in music. It is simply a rejection of that as a basis for a definition. One person's 'emotive sound' is another person's 'indifferent noise'. I, for example, find some of Merzbow's 'noise music' emotionally affecting, whereas much pop music leaves me indifferent (which puts me in a minority). But I still think pop music is music. My opinion matters not if I am seeking to define 'music', but it matters a lot when I am choosing what to listen to! Perhaps an interesting variation on your question would be 'what is music *for* - something I tackle in my book.

One final point of accuracy - Cage's music was not 'unorganised'. It was organised using chance procedures. That may seem like splitting hairs, but chaos theory has shown us that there is organisation behind 'chance' and that randomness is predictable. On a historical note, 'organised sound' has stood the test of time as a definition and is still widely used. In fact, there is a journal published by Cambridge University Press under that very title and edited by Prof Leigh Landy, who heads the Music Technology and Innovation Research Centre here at DMU.

Turning to the discussion of serialism, let's have a crack at the statement:

"since it can be generated by a computer with no inspiration need at all and (at this time to me) sounds terrible, how can we say it is any different from what we would accept as patterned 'noise' from any other aesthetically unpleasing machine?"
There are a set of assumptions underpinning this which need to be challenged. The first is the rather 19th Century idea of 'inspiration'. In fact, much of the world's music is written without inspiration and is really the product of some kind of process or formula. Even those people who acknowledge inspiration are famously modest about its true value ("99% perspiration, 1% inspiration", said Thomas Edison, discussing the nature of genius). This is not to say the results of these formulae cannot be inspiring. Think of Javanese gamelan, for example. Or hymn tunes. But neither does inspiration guarantee good music. In fact there are many pieces that are highly inspired, yet unconvincing as music. Believe me, I've written some of them myself!

The next is the assumption that computers cannot write pleasing music. I wonder how much music written by computers people have actually heard? I don't mean music played off laptops, I mean music actually composed by computers. For early examples, try Xenakis, Koenig or the celebrated 'Iliac Suite' by Lejaren Hiller from 1957. For more recent examples (and these I am pretty certain will be found 'pleasing') try the many samples of fractal music, evolutionary music, generative music, algorithmic music, etc. that can be found online. Check out 'Changing Weights' by our own Dr Ron Herrema as an example

Finally, and this is what Varèse was arguing about, why is it necessarily the case that a machine produces 'noise'? If we accept that noise is unwanted sound (one can challenge that definition, by all means), then there are situations where machines do not produce noise, and sounds that are 'musical' might be considered noise. I think the perception of noise changes depending on circumstance.

It is true that total serialism was very well suited to computer composition, and in fact grew up alongside the development of early computers and dominated computer music. Perhaps the biggest figure in this field was Milton Babbitt, who is definitely worth a visit

By the way, I'm not sure that additive synthesis is a good analogy for Steve Reich's phasing method in 'Come Out' and other pieces. Really, the crucial thing there is layering of sound and an audible process. It's a shame I had no time to play that piece - you really need to hear it to understand how it works. There is a copy in the library.

I could go on, but I feel the need of rest. Let's end with a question: what is the difference between a scientific experiment and a musical experiment? That should give people plenty to chew upon!"

Note, the image is
part of the score of Varèse's 'Poème Electronique' (1958).

1 comment:

Max said...

My initial thoughts were that a scientific experiment follows a well-recognised process that has evolved over centuries, a hypothesis is tested and either proven or dismissed. A good scientific experiment can be repeated with the same results. It is objective and unemotional and its purpose is to develop knowledge.

I am not sure of the process that a musical experiment takes, but would assume it follows a similar path. In order to be valid though it needs to be objective and unemotional., which made me question – what is the point? My untrained ear can only judge music by how it makes me feel.

Further reflection on the purpose of a musical experiment is that it is to test a hypothesis and not to create a musical arrangement, such as an artist’s cartoon is to test a pictures composition, perspective, colour, texture, etc. and not to be the final masterpiece. As many components are involved in creating music these need to be experimented with and the knowledge gained can be used in future musical compositions. For example, you need to ensure an instrument can achieve a pitch for the required duration before you include it in an arrangement.