March 7th, 2014 by Wil
I’ve talked a bit about the work of computer scientist David Cope who has developed several software tools that compose music. The exact methodology he uses is complex (he’s written several books about it) but his programs have ably output hours of music in the style of various classical masters.
In one of his books, Cope comments that he has not used his software to write pop music. This is partly because he isn’t interested in pop music and partly because he concedes pop music is about a lot more that just the notes on a page (which is what his software is fundamentally creating.) Pop is also about the tone of instruments, their hip factor, and a lot of contextual baggage the performing artists bring to the song (their personal history, persona etc.)
Nonetheless, I think it’s inescapable that computers will be composing pop song in the future. Or more likely, computers will be helping humans compose pops songs.
But, then what? Cope’s software can generate thousands of variations on a basic tune. Say someone does the same with a pop song. You have 10,000 versions of a certain melody in A minor. Obviously nobody wants to listen to all of them to find the “best one.”
But what if you could look through a data pool of what listeners were listening to and spot upcoming trends? For example, two years ago you could have noted, “Gee, it looks like people are really digging music with these wonky low end gurgles… I bet dub-step will be popular.” Basically, you would note what properties of music seemed to be getting popular and aim the computer composed music towards those styles.
But where would you get this data? This recent NY Times piece, noting that music analysis company Echo Nest has been bought by Spotify, may offer clues.
The Echo Nest is one of a handful of companies specializing in the arcane but valuable science of music data, examining what songs are being listened to by whom, and how. It makes this information available to its clients, including major media companies like Sirius XM, Clear Channel and Univision, which use the data primarily for music-related apps.
“Analyzing music preferences is something we’ve been doing for a long time,” Jim Lucchese, chief executive of the Echo Nest, said in a joint interview with Mr. Ek. “But being directly wired in, and sitting alongside the Spotify team, will give us the ability to push products a lot faster and learn a lot faster than we could before.”
I suspect Echo Nest is, right now, just analyzing “big picture” music trends, like “people are digging hip-hop country songs.” I think eventually they could move towards more granular observations like “major scale melodies that climb high over three bars and then fall down in a giant octave leap in the fourth bar are getting popular,” or “Synth timbres that sound like a theremin and glockenspiel are getting big.” That data could then be used to power the computer aided composition of pop music.
I’m not saying this is a good thing; it worries me. It could certainly lead to an arms race of musical ideas that would result in fads burning out faster and faster. But I think it’s the future.
March 5th, 2014 by Wil
The Guardian has an interesting article about the challenges faced by writers in the digital age. With that distinctively British pessimism, the article states…
Roughly speaking, until 2000, if you wrote a story, made a film or recorded a song, and people paid to buy it, in the form of a book, a DVD or a CD, you received a measurable reward for your creativity. Customers paid because they were happy to honour your creative copyright. When the internet began in the 1990s, many utopian dreams of creating an open society, where information would be free for all, sprang into prominence. Wikipedia, for instance, is the child of such dreams. Today, Wikipedia is appealing to its users for subscriptions.
Among many champions of the open (and free) society, Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future?, celebrated the idea of knowledge without frontiers from the comfortable security of a university post. The reckoning has been slow in coming, but now there are some crucial indicators of a change of heart. Lanier, for example, acknowledges that, in his excitement at the birth of the worldwide web, he forgot about the creative classes. He concedes that he has watched a generation of his friends – film-makers, writers, musicians – become professionally annihilated by the loss of creative copyright.
Copyright is the bone-marrow of the western intellectual tradition. Until the book world, like the music world, can reconcile the extraordinary opportunities provided by the web with the need for a well-regulated copyright system, artists of all kinds will struggle.
This is also interesting.
For Kavenna, this freedom is a reason to be optimistic about the future: “The digital age,” she says, “is an extraordinary revolution in consciousness. I grew up with the Modernists – Joyce et al – grappling with the technological developments of the early 20th century. The digital age is just as significant. We are developing a completely different mode of consciousness. So the digital age offers this new challenge for writers.”
A new consciousness… that’s some heavy stuff. I have to admit I was just thinking that despite all my complaints about this era of hyper-technology I do feel lucky to be alive during it. I think we’re seeing fundamental changes to how the human animal lives including changes that could indeed lead to something called “a new consciousness.”
March 4th, 2014 by Wil
I’ve really felt no need to comment on the Woody Allen sexual molestation allegation, mainly because there seemed to be little that could be said—for or against him—that wasn’t being said. Yet, I’ve had a certain nagging sense that something was missing from the conversation and what it was dawned on me today.
There is, for certain groups, a certain incredulity at the allegations. “Not this man,” people seem to be saying. “Not Woody.” I think if, say, Axl Rose were facing these accusations, many people, including many fans, would not be so resistant to the possible truth of such charges.
So why not Woody Allen? Why is he presumed to be to protected from such things? I don’t think that it’s merely because he’s funny or intellectual. I think it’s because he’s philosophical. Even more, he’s a philosopher of morals. He’s a guy who has seemed to agonized over issues of right and wrong (on film, in writing) for several decades. How could someone like that, the thinking goes, commit a so obviously evil moral transgression?
I should be clear here: I don’t know what to think about the accusations. Part of me abides by the above logic. But part of me recognizes there’s always been something a little creepy about Woody. He’s always been focused on sex. Is that because of some deviant swellings in his soul?
I’m reminded of a case I’ve discussed before: Bob Brozman. Bob Brozman was an eclectic folk and world music guitar virtuoso. But he was more than a musician—he was a philosopher of music. He had deeply thought out ideas on how music worked and how it had developed throughout history. Almost a year ago now he killed himself, possibly because allegations of molestation going back years were about to be leveled.
Both cases, if they are true*, assault this notion of the child molester as an evil, deviant, unkempt villain. They force us to contemplate the minds of such people and even find some kind of sympathy for them if we presume them to be cursed with dark desires. (I’ve long supposed that child attraction is some strange mis-wiring of the brain.) Because Allen and Brozman both so neatly defy the stereotype of the pedophile, the accusations against them may force us to really examine the minds of such people.
* Even if we never find out the truth, these cases attack our general cartoonish portrayal of child molesters.
March 3rd, 2014 by Wil
I’ve mentioned lately my suspicions that the idea of authorship might be dying out. I don’t think that people will no longer create art or writings but that the concept of attaching one’s name to the final work will decline. (Indeed, my understand is this is how much of European music was written in the pre-baroque era—you didn’t know the composer.)
This theme arises in an interesting article about “creepy pasta.” Creepy Pastas are short scary stories spread across the internet via “cut and paste.” As the article notes, because of this method, the author’s name often fades while the story survives.
What motivates the authors of all this stuff? Ego must play its part, but it’s interesting that the criterion for ‘success’ is a kind of oblivion for the creator. A winning copypasta is one that’s copied and pasted — one that gets circulated and shared, blending into urban myth, FOAFlore, netlore. The role of the author is not to be remembered down the ages; it is to disappear. In this respect, creepypasta appears to brush aside 250 years of authorial gothic, weird and horror fiction, returning shudder-making to its cultural roots. With its rituals and shared experiences, it seems more social than artistic. Scary stories, after all, serve social purposes: they help us to learn which fears are widely held and which are idiosyncratic, defining us as societies and delineating us as individuals.
February 26th, 2014 by Wil
In the realm of brain studies there’s a fairly reductionist view that argues that our consciousness and subjective experience is firmly rooted in our physical brains. The idea goes that we have these incredibly complex interactions between tens of billions of neurons and out of that arises our experience of being alive. Most authors I’ve read on the topic freely concede the exact nature of how consciousness arises from this is a mystery but it seems pretty clear that our self corresponds to our neural tissue. Simply consider that someone can have a brain stroke and they become a different person — they can no longer speak or form memories or control their anger. The soul seems to exist in physical form (or more accurately, it doesn’t exist at all.)
I’m pretty sympathetic to this view. But the book “The Mind’s I” has a thought experiment that does challenge this view. First let’s consider a brain in its ideal form. It’s sitting there, neurons firing, creating thoughts. Now let’s imagine an incredible surgery where you go in and separate apart every single neuron and place each one in its own chemical bath to keep it alive. (This is, or course, impossible.) You then attach electronic signaling/receiving devices so each neuron can communicate with whatever neurons to which it was “attached” (e.g. shared a synapse with) before. So, basically, even though the neurons are now separate, their signaling is exactly the same as it was in the whole brain. Can we still envision a mind rising out of all this?
Well, I dunno… maybe…
But it gets worse. Instead of putting little signaling/receiving devices on each neuron, attach little zappers that that simply fire different amounts of electricity. Now separate these neurons by hundreds of miles. Then fire of each of the zappers so that the neurons fire the exact way the would if the brain’s owner was thinking of a cat. (There’s no signaling going on, just neurons firing in the same order as if they were receiving signals.) Would some entity somewhere suddenly think of a cat?
It seems unlikely doesn’t it? But the individual neurons in all these cases are behaving exactly the same. So this would seem to dispel the possibility of a purely reductionist (e.g. it’s all in the tissue) model of consciousness.
I just stumbled on some general theories that address this issue. They are “Electromagnetic theories of consciousness.” (Link goes to wiki page about it.) The idea is that when you have a bunch of neurons in a brain they are, because of their electrical activity, creating an electromagnetic field. And somehow this field is consciousness. The field is not only created by the brain’s neurons, it affects them as well, so the field and brain effectively pass signals back and forth. The wiki page has details.
The starting point for McFadden and Pockett’s theory is the fact that every time a neuron fires to generate an action potential, and a postsynaptic potential in the next neuron down the line, it also generates a disturbance in the surrounding electromagnetic field. McFadden has proposed that the brain’s electromagnetic field creates a representation of the information in the neurons. Studies undertaken towards the end of the 20th century are argued to have shown that conscious experience correlates not with the number of neurons firing, but with the synchrony of that firing. McFadden views the brain’s electromagnetic field as arising from the induced EM field of neurons. The synchronous firing of neurons is, in this theory, argued to amplify the influence of the brain’s EM field fluctuations to a much greater extent than would be possible with the unsynchronized firing of neurons.
McFadden thinks that the EM field could influence the brain in a number of ways. Redistribution of ions could modulate neuronal activity, given that voltage-gated ion channels are a key element in the progress of axon spikes. Neuronal firing is argued to be sensitive to the variation of as little as one millivolt across the cell membrane, or the involvement of a single extra ion channel. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is similarly argued to have demonstrated that weak EM fields can influence brain activity.
McFadden proposes that the digital information from neurons is integrated to form a conscious electromagnetic information (cemi) field in the brain. Consciousness is suggested to be the component of this field that is transmitted back to neurons, and communicates its state externally. Thoughts are viewed as electromagnetic representations of neuronal information, and the experience of free will in our choice of actions is argued to be our subjective experience of the cemi field acting on our neurons.
I’m not agreeing with this (frankly, I still don’t really understand what electromagnetic fields are) but it does address the problems with the reductionist view.
February 26th, 2014 by Wil
One of the pleasures of having your own blog (aside from the numerous endorsement deals and come-ons from famous movie starlets) is that you can stay on a subject as long as you like. Though I just posted on the topic, I want to link to this informative and rather touching tribute Devo’s Gerry Casale offers to his recently deceased brother Bob. It’s worth reading if you want a nice look at Devo history.
These ‘graphs caught me eye.
Mark Mothersbaugh had a five-chord progression on a clavinet that became “Gut Feeling,” but Bob Casale came up with the arpeggiated, revolving, tingling guitar line that sounds like a twisted, devolved Byrds riff.
Of course, Mark and I wrote all the songs, but without Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale those songs would have never been fleshed out into full Devo expressions.
I presume Gerry means that he and Mark wrote the songs in the legal sense (e.g. the chords, lyrics and melodies) but it sounds like that in a practical sense Bob Casale actually did contribute to the writing; as Gerry says, he wrote a specific guitar line. Why doesn’t that count? Music lawyers could probably spout off some answers but this practice seems unfair. Sometimes the reason a song becomes popular is the great guitar solo or interesting chord pattern that isn’t considered a part of the song (as a legal concept.)
That “Gut Feeling” riff is great by the way. Check it out.
February 25th, 2014 by Wil
I’ve mentioned in the past an idea that I freely concede may be crazy but it’s interesting enough to keep afloat: the possibility that consciousness is a basic property of all things and when matter interacts in complex and networked ways (like it does in a human brain or an advanced computer) higher, self-aware consciousness develops.
This L.A Times article offers more food for thought. It’s about a UCLA scientist who has developed a microchip that he claims can remember. How does it do it? Well, the science writing in this article is so vague that I’m pretty sure the reporter doesn’t understand and I sure don’t. It basically sounds like the scientist is creating neuron-like connections with metal strands and passing electricity through them.
In a lab, they placed a series of copper wire posts, mounted on a silicon wafer, into a solution of silver. As the copper dissolved, the silver formed intricate hair-like strands, as complex as the human cortex. It was the birth of the dust ball.
Building the chip is “extraordinarily simple,” Stieg says. Once the strands are created, they are exposed to sulfur, which provides electrical and ionic conductivity, and when electrical signals are sent through them, atoms migrate through each intersection of silver, each strand over strand.
Much as stimulus changes the brain by building over time synaptic patterns that can be associated to memory, the signals over time change the structure of the chip. Bridges form between the strands, further altering the chip.
What I find interesting here is the default behavior of the components of this chip seems to be to seek out “connections”, to create bridges. Much like neurons in the human brain branching and creating new synapses.
What causes neurons and silver strands to seek connections? I believe it is the fundamental need of all things to seek love!
No, seriously, I dunno. But if there’s a basic property of matter to, in some way, attract other matter, then it’s not that amazing that connections of the sort that could engender consciousness would arise.
February 22nd, 2014 by Wil
In a recent acid logic article I claimed that authorship is dead. By this I meant that the notion of one person being responsible for a piece of art, writing, film etc. was faulty. I’m thinking this might point towards some interesting new ways of creating art.
Let’s consider rock music. The conventional approach is that there’s a band and usually within that band there’s one or two people who do the bulk of the writing. For example, on my two recent albums I am the sole credited writer. But, of course, I am not 100% responsible for every note you hear. There are many improvised solos and parts that I had little to do with (though I do tend to be a “guiding force” when people are laying down their tracks; I approve and reject ideas.)
Now, there’s a lot going for this auteur approach. One person can have a grand vision and make sure the final work matches that vision. But why not have all band members contribute ideas? Why not have dozens if not hundreds of people contribute ideas? (Thus really eliminating the idea of “a band.”)
But how would this work? Let’s say one person presented a template for a piece of music. Something like, “The song will start out slow and sad, then move into an uptempo happy section, then a driving but angry section, then back to an uptempo section then end with a variation of the slow and sad intro.” Perhaps people could contribute submissions for each of these “song parts” and then vote on how they go together. Or maybe they submit contributions to an authoritarian fascist leader (e.g. me) who decides how they go together.
The result may be that no one is completely happy with the work. But that’s kind of my point. The piece is satisfying a different kind of entity, a different kind of intelligence… a sort of “group intelligence.” The group would have to have a certain faith that the results are worthwhile and will bring to light interesting musical aspects that are not be available in more conventional “auteur style” writing.
Obviously this idea could be applied to other forms of art – film, visual arts, fiction etc.
Strangely, I’m reminded a bit of the Agetha Christie story where the killer turns out to be a group of people, each who stabbed (I think) the victim once. If one considers murder an art (and I see no reason why one shouldn’t) this may be the first conception of what I’m talking about.
I should also be clear that what I’m describing is probably what a lot of existing art collectives around the world are already doing. But I think I might be shading it a little differently and uniquely.
Finally, I should concede that why this is an interesting idea, it may not be something I would excel at. I am still rather ego driven and seem to be moving towards wanting more control over every aspect of what I create, not less. But maybe I’ll give this a shot.
February 18th, 2014 by Wil
Sad news that Bob Casale, founding member of Devo (my favorite band), has died. The CNN article on his death includes this interesting nugget.
“He was excited about the possibility of Mark Mothersbaugh allowing Devo to play shows again,” Gerald Casale wrote in his brother’s death announcement. “His sudden death from conditions that led to heart failure came as a total shock to us all.”
There’s always been a bit of a Mick/Keith vibe to Gerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh’s relationship. This public jibe that Mothersbaugh controls whether or not Devo plays shows seems an example of that. Who know what the truth is?
I interviewed Gerry Casale years ago.
February 18th, 2014 by Wil
A lot of people, myself included, complain about the music of Mozart. It often seems long winded and verbose, weighed down with endless scale passages and ornamental frills.
I think, by the standards of modern music, these complaints are valid. But I’m starting to “get” an aspect of Mozart’s music that I find quite interesting. Mozart’s music is really about conversation—it’s about the different “voices” (e.g. instruments or melodic characters) talking to each other. And the voices all have different personalities and “say” different things. In this sense his pieces are really like ensemble character dramas. Of course it’s not only Mozart who composed this way; many, perhaps all classical composers did. But I think the trait is especially pronounced in his music.
This is, in many ways, at odds with modern pop music. With pop music there is one voice, one point of view (usually the singer) and they are supported by the backing instruments. The singer says “I state this observation…” and the instruments say, “we agree and support you.” What doesn’t happen (for the most part) is a conflict between the singer and the instruments. You wouldn’t, for example, have a singer singing about tender love while a thrash guitar plays distorted chords in the background.
In this sense, I think modern music is more individualistic and ego driven. It’s about my opinions (me being the singer) and my emotional pain and nobody else’s. Music from the classical era is more communitarian—it’s about the group and how they interact. Something can be said for both styles, but as someone who has written modern, individualistic music for most of my life, I find a challenge in the more conversational style. And Mozart, despite his verbosity, is a good model.