Subject: Re: WHY COMPUTER MUSIC SUCKS_Bob Ostertag
From: Morgan Sutherland (
Date: Tue Oct 04 2005 - 09:51:53 EDT

Popular music is not computer music? What constitutes computer music?
All digital? No recording?

On 10/4/05, Chris Leon <> wrote:
> 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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