Sunday, January 4, 2009

Technology: What Might Music Yet Become?

   In The Myth of Orpheus and the Future of Music, I discussed the role of change versus tradition as a key issue of musical developments. The evolution of technology has had a large role in the music of the Twentieth Century, but what of it?

  Robert Jordan, in his book, Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, discusses technology's influence under the heading of "What Music Might Become." Jordan recognizes its benefits, pointing out that "new technology has always played a role in propelling music toward innovation." The evolution of simple horns to trumpets and trombones was the result of applied logic, and the piano replaced the harpsichord by offering a sturdier construction allowing for greater volume and expressive capabilities. Of course, it's the invention of electronics that concerns us today, but can electronics offer us new innovations in composition? Plenty of composers took on the piano, but it was only a select few who propelled it to forefront.

(Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, a band legendary for it's use of electronics, once remarked, "give a man a Les Paul guitar and he doesn't become Eric Clapton ... give a man a synthesizer ... and he doesn't become us.)

  So what of the Wired generation of music? Jordain highlights the possibilities: "Although computer-controlled synthesizers still have a long way to go before they can match an instrumental performance, they offer new vistas. One possibility is that we may learn how to cook up excruciatingly pleasurable timbers. Certainly the technical means are in place...." But he also points out the pitfalls of this approach: "... there are far too many alternatives to try them all and listen for the good ones. Instead, we'll need to derive sounds from the principles of pleasure and beauty. We have no such analytical science yet, so no immediate prospects."

  (Anyone who's ever played with a synthesizer or tone generator knows the pleasures and frustrations of going through hundreds of sounds, trying to find "just that right one.")

  Beyond tone generators, Jordain suggests that, "another option is to go on inventing more devices of melody and harmony and rhythm, as composers have for centuries. Could the music of the future be based on yet-undiscovered constructs?" Jordain doesn't believe so, but why? 


"Countless thousands of composers have spent their lives searching for new devices, and the rate of innovation has slowed to the point where it is almost impossible to concoct a worthwhile harmonic progression or metrical pattern that has not been heard before. No matter how large the continent, sooner or later every corner will be explored."

  Playing devil's advocate, Jourdain offers another possibility based on the new varieties of musical devices made possible by technology: "Computers can interleave sounds in ways too intricate for performers to coordinate, and can continuously combine sounds of diverse pitch and intensity that no player could manage. Synthesizers can also meld ('morph') sounds." This would be analogous to the new technology that enables car designers to apply paint that seems to change color as one moves past it. The implication is one of new sonic and textural possibilities: "The very idea of the discrete musical note could give way to more ethereal sonic entities."

  But is this enough? Jourdain warns, "beautiful textures and compelling devices are not the stuff of musical greatness. As we've seen, it is the largest structures that matter and that are the hardest for human beings to invent and to comprehend." This suggests that expansion of the cognitive abilities such as memory and imagination, not technology, are really the keys to the next musical advancement. But even this is problematic for Jourdain: "Can large-scale musical form be pushed any further than it has been already by Bach and Beethoven? Can sounds be arranged so that a brain is driven to perceive relations even deeper and more encompassing than those of the most powerful musical climaxes to date? ... As it is, our finest composers have been preternatural prodigies who were superbly trained and steadfastly dedicated to their craft. How can a human being do any better?"

  Perhaps this is where the new technologies can play a vital role. Jordain suggests the possibility that the use of artificial intelligence can sort through the possible sound patterns for new designs. But again, he offers a caveat that "this can only happen when someone postulates hard-and-fast descriptions of the principles by which music thrives, a precise typology of musical devices." This would require a systemizer, an "Isaac Newton of the mind," rather than another Beethoven to "describe music's deepest relations and make them analytically approachable. Like Ayn Rand, Jourdain suggests that the answers lie in the integration of musicology, psychology, and cognitive science. "Then perhaps—just perhaps—music will become even more powerful than we have known it….It will be all but lethal if it does."

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