2nd Royal Musical Association Music and Philosophy Study Group Workshop on The Philosophy of Human+Computer Music

Held at the Department of Music, University of Sheffield on 27th May 2015

In our report on last year’s workshop we stated that the day ‘was a success, as much for what it did not achieve as for what it did.’  The feeling then was that there were any number of burning musico-philosophical issues relating to human+computer music which simply could not be given an airing within the limited confines of a single day’s workshop.  With these thoughts in mind, the call for papers for this second workshop shifted its focus away from the technical mechanics of human+computer music’s inception, composition and performance (conferences on such topics being legion) towards debate about the aesthetics (broadly construed) of these musics.  We invited contributors to consider the philosophical aspects of musics outside the conventional work-concept paradigm of Western Art Music.  And we were not disappointed.

The first part of the workshop was structured conventionally, with two sessions of paper presentations. The day was then rounded off with a live musical performance by the clarinettist Pete Furniss, followed by a discussion, chaired by Dr David Roden, of the philosophical issues raised by the performance.  The programme for the day and the paper abstracts can be found here.

My paper, Entangled Network Space – The fuzzy space where music is, started proceedings.  Taking a view on the metaphysical possibility spaces described by writers including Deleuze, Guattari, Latour, Hodder, Vitale and De Landa, and invoking the ‘fuzzy logic’ of Kosko, I questioned whether the ‘assemblages’ which we usually describe as ‘persons’, ‘minds’, ‘computers’, ‘musical works’, and so on, are really quite as discrete as ordinarily supposed.  I concluded that they are not discrete and that the dynamic, diachronic activities within the possibility space mean that they are ontologically fuzzy and entangled.  The script and slides for the talk can be found here.

Robert Bentall’s paper, Imagined performances in electroacoustic music, examined aspects of ‘virtuosity’ between musicians using ‘conventional’ instruments and those using ‘technology-mediated’ instruments.  In using technologies which allow, for example, the sounding of a hexachord on what would conventionally be a four-stringed instrument or the creation of infeasible ensembles, are we listening to a ‘disembodied extension of human capabilities’?  Robert introduced Climent’s notion of ‘de-hyper-instrumentalisation’; the thought that the sounds produced within an electroacoustic performance ought to be, in principle, performable, even though they are technologically mediated.  I was struck in particular by his use of the term ‘unimprovisation’, the practice of musicians using improvised samples as part of the palette of sounds in further composition.  This question of normativity raises many issues concerning the path of current and future performance practice and organological ontologies.

Owen Green gave us Surfaces, systems, senses, social circumstances.  His contention was that there is no ‘waiting set of lingual and conceptual tools’ to enable us to discuss ‘the music’ simpliciter, given the ‘plurality of disciplinary and musical commitments at work in the current milieu’.  Owen said that the consideration of musical surface alone makes difficult (if not impossible) the development of any adequate discourse of the praxis of electronic musicking, to use Small’s terminology.  He acknowledged the relevance of the assemblages described in my paper when discussing the importance of ‘the concrete social and material circumstances of production / reception’ of these musics; such assemblages, he said, ‘Enlarge the frame of what we consider to be technology.’    He suggested that Richard Shusterman’s bridging of the pragmatic / continental divide might help us here.

There was a great deal of heated debate and conversation over a splendid (and most un-conference-like) lunch at a nearby Turkish restaurant.  All of the delegates expressed their satisfaction.

The afternoon paper session began with Amy V. Beeston’s Do we need robust audio interfacing based on psychoacoustic principles of hearing? Amy began by pointing out that the human ear/mind is able to compensate for the surroundings in which a sound source is produced in under a second (probably in virtue of our brains’ massive parallel processing capacities) whereas even the best current technology cannot ‘learn’ to do this in under several hours.  If we are ever to use the microphone (or other sound input mechanism) to control the dynamics of the mediated electronic performance of musical outputs, then ought we to consider the application of the processes of our biological psychoacoustic principles to these technological tools?  My question would be, would the development of these ‘intelli-mics’ have relevance to the issue of agency in musical performance?

Next was Valerio Velardo with his paper Are computational composers really creative? He pricked up our ears with the fairly bold claim that a computer (Iamus) is a better composer than Mozart!  Valerio began by explaining how Iamus is an autonomous compositional system, before going on to ask whether such systems can be considered to be creative.  He proposed the concept of General Creativity to explore the ontologies of human / human-machinic hybrid / machinic creativity.  Further, he gave us a schematic nested ontology space, in which musica humana is a subset of musica mechanica, which itself is a subset of musica mundana. I took these categories to represent the possibility spaces of, respectively, all possible human-composed musics, the much larger (but machine-tractable) space of machine-composed musics and, finally the intractable, but possible space of all musics.  This latter space, at least in its outer fringes, must (of computational necessity) be some transcendent Platonic realm which need not concern us.  Valerio considered the corpus of machine-only musics, i.e., musical artefacts composed by machines and only understood by machines.  Valerio’s paper received animated response from the audience throughout.

Our final paper was Textility of live code by Alex McLean.  He described the production of music from the changes written in real time to computer code.  Such code is, according to Alex, a meta-order object, where individual components of the code (unlike, e.g., a crotchet in a conventional score) might trigger a number of lower-order musical events.  In this sense, the code is a ‘live material’ and part of a feedback assemblage of an iterative process of musical activity.  Apart from the constraining nature of the real time decision-making processes, Alex pointed out that these changes to digital inputs in order to vary the outputs are nothing new, giving us the example of weaving patterns on looms from the Neolithic period to the present day.

Our final session was a musical performance / discussion session.  We were fortunate to hear two pieces by the clarinettist Pete Furniss, the first on clarinet and the second on bass clarinet.  Since one aim of this workshop was to move beyond technical descriptions and commentary, I will myself refrain here from such commentary.  Suffice it to say that Pete improvised his clarinet output, which, via microphone input, was mediated, moderated and mashed around by a computational process, involving the manipulation of his input signal with the addition of synthesized elements.  The product of this manipulation was output as sounds through loudspeakers which complemented his playing.  These speaker sounds provided material for feedback which further influenced his improvisatory playing.  And the effect on the uninitiated auditor such as myself?  The performance struck me as a musical duet between the observed clarinettist and some acousmatic partner.

The discussion session following Pete’s performance was co-ordinated by David Roden, who, in his introductory remarks, tied some of the phenomenology of Pete’s performance into aspects of the day’s previous papers, particularly the topics of assemblages and of agency in human+computer performance.  Pete noted that, whilst he knows that the sounds generated by the system are not the result of action by an intelligent agent, it feels nonetheless that he is collaborating in an improvisatory co-performance with another live agent. Certainly, that is the effect which I perceived as a lay listener.   Pete has installed a ‘cut-out’ pedal into the system so that he can occasionally mute the system-produced sound in order to take back an element of control.  He says that he is very aware, during performance, of being part of a performer-clarinet-software-hardware assemblage.  There was a discussion about what it would mean for a machinic ‘collaborator’ to possess real agency and about what criteria would need to be applied in order to tell – a kind of musical Turing test.  David asked Pete about these dynamic interactions between performer and system.  Pete is very aware of them.  Certainly as an observer/auditor it was possible to see the haptic effects that certain system sounds seemed to induce in Pete (from hunched shoulders to smiles).  There is much further work to be done in this area, not least in terms of the epistemology and ontology of such ‘works’ and of performance philosophy more generally.

The day was rounded-off with a cocktail session and snacks in the foyer of the Jessop Building.

We are in discussions with an academic publisher about producing a volume of the proceedings of the workshop.  We also hope to set up a page on our website of suggested reading on these topics, such an online resource being singularly lacking at present.  There are plans to run a further workshop next year.

The organizers would like very much to thank the RMA Music and Philosophy Study Group for the opportunity to run this workshop under their aegis.

We are grateful for financial support from CHASE, one of the new AHRC doctoral training partnerships, and from the University of Sheffield Arts and Humanities PGR Forum.

Follow our Twitter updates at Φ H+C Mus

And finally, many thanks to the co-organizers for their impeccable management of the day, Mark Summers, Adam Stansbie and David Roden.

Tom Hewitt

PhD Student and CHASE Scholar

Department of Music

The Open University