WHY COMPUTER MUSIC SUCKS_Bob Ostertag


Subject: WHY COMPUTER MUSIC SUCKS_Bob Ostertag
From: Chris Leon (chrisleon@videotron.ca)
Date: Tue Oct 04 2005 - 09:36:50 EDT


  WHY COMPUTER MUSIC SUCKS_Bob Ostertag
WHY COMPUTER MUSIC SUCKS
Bob Ostertag
 
"Computer Music" per se is, at least for the moment, at something of a
dead end. This is the result of a bizarre sort of inverse development
over last few decades.

Back in the "old days," the electronic technology used in music was
quite primitive, yet the range of music that was attempted was
staggering, and a freewheeling spirit of adventure was prevalent.

Today, we have computers with technical capabilities inconceivable at
the time of Varèse and the early works of Cage and Stockhausen. Yet as
the technical capabilities have expanded, the range of musical
possibilities which are being explored has become increasingly
restricted.

Similarly, in the "old days" access to the electronic music-making
technology was limited to a handful of individuals working in a few
research institutions. Today, computers are ubiquitous in music. There
is almost no recorded music that does not involve the use of a computer
somehow or other, and the ever decreasing cost of the technology means
that a bona fide home computer music studio is within the means of any
erstwhile member of the middle class of the western world.

Yet just as computers' presence in music has mushroomed from nearly
invisible to downright unavoidable, the range of music considered to be
Computer Music has become increasingly fixed and rigid.

Why this contradictory evolution, which seems to impose social
restrictions as fast as technology seems to offer new freedom?

Why this emergence of Computer Music, instead of an openness to all the
musics which computers make possible?

Two reasons: one having to do with artistic stasis, and the other to do
with social self-interest.

1. Artistic Stasis. For all the self-professed interest in using
digital technology to create new musical forms, in fact the agenda of
"computer music" quickly ossified around the concerns of the Western
avant garde prevalent at the time of the introduction of computers into
music (in fact, concerts which pre-dated the appearance of the computer
in music): algorithmic composition (which is really a digital extension
of serial music), and extended timbral exploration.

When considering the 287 works submitted for the Ars Electronica prize
this year, it is remarkable how little the focus of Computer Music has
strayed from these early concerns over the intervening decades. This is
even more apparent when one considers that, formally speaking, the
large majority of pieces involving computer response to live
instrumentalist are simply variations in algorithmic composition.
(Though also the influence of the increased interest in improvisation
which has recently spread through the Western avant garde is also a
factor, at least in some cases).

2. Social Self-Interest. The emergence of Computer Music as a thing we
isolate off to consider on its own, to confer advanced academic degrees
in, publish journals and organize conferences about, and award prizes
to, is of course intimately linked to the careers, salaries, and
prestige of the individuals and institutions which benefit. Here the
logic of the inverse development of the broadening use of computers in
music against the narrowing of the concerns of Computer Music at least
has a clear and rational basis in the self-interest of those involved.
In fact, it is a phenomenon seen time and time again in academia: the
more an area of knowledge becomes diffused in the public, the louder
become the claims of those within the tower to exclusive expertise in
the field, and the narrower become the criteria become for determining
who the "experts" actually are.

The cul-de-sac these trends have led "Computer Music" into is a
considerably less enjoyable place to tarry due to a technological
barrier that is becoming increasingly obvious: despite the vastly
increased power of the technology involved, the timbral sophistication
of the most cutting edge technology is not significantly greater that
of the most mundane and commonplace systems. In fact, after listening
to the 287 pieces submitted to Ars Electronica, I would venture to say
that the pieces created with today's cutting edge technology (spectral
resynthesis, sophisticated phase vocoding schemes, and so on) have an
even greater uniformity of sound among them than the pieces done on
MIDI modules available in any music store serving the popular music
market. This fact was highlighted during the jury session when it was
discovered that a piece whose timbral novelty was noted by the jury as
being exceptional was discovered to have been created largely with old
Buchla analogue gear.

The problem of greater technological power failing to produce more
interesting timbral results would not be so central were it not for the
fact discussed above that Computer Music has made timbral exploration
its central concern. To put the matter in its bluntest form, it appears
that the more technology is thrown at the problem, the more boring the
results. People set out for new timbral horizons, get lost along the
way in the writing of the code, the trouble-shooting of the systems,
and the funding to make the whole thing possible, then fail to notice
that the results do not justify the effort.

It is interesting to note that the jury for computer animation found an
opposite result: in animation at least, the difference in quality
between work done with cutting edge versus commonplace technology is
immediately apparent to even the untrained observer. Even, in fact, to
an 8-year old. Thus the success of Toy Story. In Computer Music, on the
other hand, the merits of the works done with cutting edge versus
commonplace technology are certainly opaque to the uninitiated, and
often discernible only to those who have invested time and effort in
acquiring expertise in the very same technology.

(It must be said, however, that due to the enormous financial returns
which hinge on visual innovation, the resources thrown at computer
animation dwarf those involved in even the most high end music systems.
Who knows what might result if the resources put into developing the
two hours of Toy Story animation were put into two hours of music?)

If, however, we leave the confines of the Computer Music tower and look
at what is happening outside in the rest of world, what do we see?
Computers are revolutionizing the way music is made.

Take dance club music, for example. Techno, hip-hop, trip-hop, trance,
etc. Here we have genre upon sub-genre upon micro-genre of music which
is based almost entirely upon, and impossible to conceive of without,
the absolute regularity of tempo computers are capable of producing.

But this development is not limited to music with the regularity of
beat of those I just mentioned. The funkiness of almost every groove on
every Prince record would not have been possible without the timing
resolution offered by computers. Or to go to a different extreme, the
drum machine extravaganza's of Ikue Mori, with their almost absurdly
complex tempo and meter juxtapositions, usually determined on the fly,
are unthinkable without computers.

Or to take yet another development: automated mixing consoles and
effects processors have brought a sea change in the subtlety and nuance
possible in the mixing of popular music, as immediately becomes
apparent upon comparing recordings made before and after their
emergence. This has opened up a whole new range of studio artistry.

All these developments and more are cases in which the introduction of
computers has revolutionized the way music is conceived, played,
recorded, and appreciated, creating new genres, new fields of
expertise, new forms of experiencing a performance, and so on. All of
it is unimaginable without computers. And none of it is Computer Music.

And up to now we have not even added sampling into the discussion. Of
all the ways that computers have been applied to music, sampling has
had the most radical impact. Sampling has taken musique concrete, blown
it open, and showered the debris down on the entire musical world. New
genres been spawned and existing ones changed forever. New terrains of
collaboration and appropriation have been opened. Even more profoundly,
fundamental notions of authorship and artistic ownership have been
shattered, leaving for the moment no clear heir in their place.

It may not even be an exaggeration to say that the entire "post-modern"
aesthetic has been shaped in important ways by this technology.

Yet sampling is not Computer Music. Why? Precisely because it sampling
is everywhere. If sampling is the legitimate domain of any teenager
working on the family Macintosh, no one can claim a monopoly on its
knowledge. Thus it falls from the rarefied heights of Computer Music,
its vast impact and consequences notwithstanding.

I wish to be very clear here: I am not arguing that the market in which
popular music is bought and sold is a valid arbiter of artistic
excellence. As a composer who has worked for years with no
institutional connection or support, surviving on the fringes of the
music market, I am acutely aware of how the market imposes its own
constraints, and discourages the kinds of creativity that interest me
the most. It is the weight of these very market constraints that make
it so important that those musical arenas which operate according to
non-market criteria be as open and flexible as possible.

The very existence of all those kids goofing around with sampling on
the family Macintosh has helped to stir an interest in novel musical
approaches in general and music made with computers in particular that
is broader than ever.

Isn't it ironic? On the one hand we find market constraints squeezing
popular music with an unprecedented vigour, and on the other hand we
have a public with an equally unprecedented fascination with computers
and their possibilities. And yet Computer Music can find no audience
beyond those who make it



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