Pauline Oliveros: “Quantum Improvisation”

In an article entitled “Quantum Improvisation: The Cybernetic Presence, (in Sound Unbound, ed. Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky)” composer/improviser Pauline Oliveros provides a commentary on the intersection of human intelligence/creativity and computer intelligence, beginning with a reference to Ray Kurzweil’s book The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence and specifically mentioning the idea of a potential brain “implant.”

A fantasy “musician chip” – a surgical implant, something that Oliveros says she doesn’t feel comfortable with, except, perhaps, if it’s reversible – might allow various enhanced abilities, including heightened memory, unlimited pitch/frequency recognition and production, stylistic knowledge, comprehension of spiritual and healing components of music, etc.

As a set-up to such futuristic imaginings, her article includes a brief history of musicianship and music technology, particularly focusing on those implements which most affect creative music-making.  Examples include the purpose, contexts and relative importance of improvisation (both “historical”, as in reference to a certain musical tradition such as jazz, and “free”) in American and European cultures; recording technology – its availability on the consumer level and its use in hip hop and other sampling-based music; the roles of the computer in music, including use in musical improvisation and forays into “musical intelligence.”

“Quantum Improvisation” refers to (or “could mean”) a “leap into new and ambiguous consciousness opening a new variety of choices.”  I can understand this at least conceptually but, admittedly, she sort of loses me here: “ambiguous consciousness would mean the ability to perform in more than one mental state simultaneously.” I can understand this part on the literal level, but fail to imagine what this actually means in the practical sense.  I guess I’m only capable of being in one mental state at a time.

She advocates for an “Improvatory” of music, an education system that emphasizes the development of creative abilities in music.  I say, hear, hear!  As Oliveros mentions, our current “content-oriented education limits or suppresses rather than encourages creative problem-solving.”

I quite enjoyed this article, and it is certainly thought-provoking and thoughtfully written, though, perhaps a little meandering.  I have two main contentions, although I think these do not detract from the general points of the article.  The first is the notion that improvisation is music “without reference to memory.”  I can’t get on board with this at all. I believe that even “free” improvisers are influenced by a vast array of musical experiences, some of which are in the forefront of our musical consciousness, and cannot help but provide some reference as we improvise, either as an aid to a personal “creative voice” or as something to avoid.  The second is the notion that we don’t use all of our neo cortex and, hence, there is potential of “evolutionary expansion.”  Recent research has shown that previous myths of not using 100% of our brain are false.  The resulting myth that we might somehow tap into that which we supposedly do not presently use, thereby allowing us to evolve into superior beings has been vigorously debunked.  However, intellectual expansion is potentially possible if we continue to “merge with machine intelligence.”  Also, this update in brain research may not preclude future enhancements in the capacity or capability of the human mind since there’s still much about the brain/mind that we don’t know.  Perhaps, the aforementioned Improvatory is key towards expanding musical intelligence and enhancing overall creative abilities even outside of music.  Like I said, the presence of a version of said myth does not detract from the article.

The highlight for me was the following quote, which I think sums up the article’s essence succinctly: “improvised music is not a game of chess – improvisation, especially free improvisation, could definitely represent another challenge to machine intelligence. It won’t be the silicon linearity of the intensive calculation that makes improvisation wonderful.  It is the nonlinear carbon chaos, the unpredictable turns of chance permutation, the meatiness, the warmth, the simple profound humanity of beings that brings presence and wonder to music.”

That statement is in line with my own feelings that while computers will continue to be supreme chess players and immaculately-disguised imitators of any musical style, they have a long way to go to being able to make musical magic out of thin air – being able to respond imaginatively to chance occurrences –  which is what we do as improvisers.

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Two interesting (and amusing) facts about Nam Jun Paik

In the Wikipedia article about Nam Jun Paik, Korean-American artist (1932-2006), I found the following juxtaposition of facts amusing and thought I’d share. I added names in brackets for clarity.

The last sentence of the first paragraph of the “Works” section reads:

“In a 1960 piano performance in Cologne, [Paik] played Chopin, threw himself on the piano and rushed into the audience, attacking [John] Cage and pianist David Tudor by cutting their clothes with scissors and dumping shampoo on their heads.”

Next paragraph starts:

“Cage suggested Paik look into Oriental music and Oriental religion.”

I’d probably make that suggestion, too, after I’d been “attacked” in such a manner. LOL.  Zen anyone?

Aesthetics of Electroacoustic Performance

The key word is “performance.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about modes of presentation within the context of electroacoustic music.  There is always a bit of a conundrum when it comes to presenting music that is created with a computer.  One of the complaints I hear a lot goes something like: “just a guy with a laptop – could be just checking his email.”

No doubt that when it comes to “performance” there is not much inspiring about somebody sitting behind a laptop, especially if he or she is not doing anything else.

Today I’d like to raise a few points in response to the opinion that visuals are necessary to complete the experience of computer-based music. I have neglected to present any of my electronic/electroacoustic music because of the complaint I mentioned above, which I find to be off-putting and discouraging.

1) We listen to music without seeing the performers all the time.  That is a valid experience of music – entirely through a recorded medium.

2) It is common or typical to have electroacoustic concerts without live performers – just speakers set up in a concert location.  It’s like listening to music on your own except enhanced with a much better sound system in a space designed for the experience of sound.  Some people find this boring; I do not (unless the music is boring).

3) When I go to a chamber music or orchestral performance, it is about the sound of the music in that space at that time and not about the performers sitting on chairs behind music stands.  To me, there is not much difference between this visual and the person with the laptop.  But I’d like to emphasize: it is not about how the set-up looks, it is about the sound.

4) I find visuals distracting from the music.  Are we there for the music or for the visuals?  In film for instance, the music serves the film.  Film music is often interesting in its own right but the golden rule for film music composition is: it must not detract or distract from the film.  Conversely, if music is composed for its own sake and then visuals are added, I cannot appreciate the music as deeply if I am also experiencing the visual elements.

It seems to me that an interesting preference arises when the humans responsible for creating the music are necessarily present to make the music happen.  We need them not only to perform, but we need them to be interesting performers.

We could, however, just sit back (close our eyes?) and enjoy the music.

New composition (and early challenges)

I’ve begun work on a quartet for clarinet, bassoon, trombone and percussion.  For this piece, my first consideration was to start with a design for the overall structure – a procedure I have not used before.  Since the goal is to write a nine minute piece, I thought I’d divide the piece into nine one-minute chunks arranged in a 3×3 A-B-A’ structure.  The idea is to structure a 3-min A-B-A’ from and then triplicate it with variation.  Also, each one-minute chunk is itself divided into an A-B-A form, each portion intended to be around 20 seconds each.  The primary variation I have in mind for each of the three-minute sections is to interchange the roles of the three wind instruments, with the percussion having its own role for each section.  I’m really thinking about musical “gesture” in this piece and initial thoughts about the role for each wind – at least in the A sections – is to basically have one play fast note flourishes, the second play sparse shots with medium-fast notes and the third to play slow, sustained notes.  The percussion will play sparsely, punctuating the phrases and adding melodic interest.  In the B sections, the piece will emphasize melody with accompaniment – carried out by the winds – and a groove-based part in the percussion.  The A’ (or, perhaps, more appropriately C) section will reference the A in the winds but have the percussion playing melody.

As for more specific content, I was trying out a new chord progression I’ve been thinking of, with the hopes of deriving some melodic material.  However, after an extended session at the piano and making some notes on some chord voicings and melodic fragments, I discovered that what I really wanted would require a different instrumentation capable of delivering thicker, richer chords.  I abandoned this in favor of a rhythmic approach centered around a 12/8 time signature that includes references to a West African bell rhythm, Celtic jigs and jazz-funk.  I think after experiencing some frustration trying to be artistic and experimental with my chord progression idea – which I’m sure I’ll come back to in another piece – I acquiesced to doing something totally fun.  I haven’t yet used jazz or ethnic music material in a chamber music piece (i.e. a piece that isn’t in either of those traditions) and with approaching things from a design perspective I’m off into new sound worlds, which is very exciting!

Vignette #1

I’ve decided to compose a series of mono-thematic structures for the improv group.  I first brought something in for the group to work on at our third jam on Jan. 5th.  The first of the Vignette series is entitled “Consummate Processional” and is essentially a rhythmic canon with a loosening up of the rules.  Imagine a traditional canon (and a simple example like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”) and you’ll recall that as each player or singer enters – at a specific time – the music must proceed exactly as initiated by the first player, with the same melody and tempo.

In my piece, although there is a consistent tempo, the players enter successively at a moment of their choosing.  Moreover, the players can add space between the segments of the melody, which consists of the composed rhythm with pitches each player chooses from a given set.  The canon gets a break somewhere in the middle as players converge on a rhythmic vamp which repeats until all the players are playing the rhythm in unison.  Essentially, it is as if the “processional” arrives at a particular place and remains in that place until the last player joins and then picks up again as the first player steps away, then the next and so on.  A similar gathering of players happens near the end, before a grand gesture indicates that a penultimate section is to be played in rhythmic unison prior to playing the final chord.

The funky rhythmic line is composed by building upon a simple, repeated motive, and gradually lengthening and varying the phrases.  In other words, each of these phrases begins with the same or similar rhythm and is combined with an extrapolation.  There is some degree of rest written into the score between each of the segments.  For now, we will experiment with players having the option to lengthen this space if they feel like it.

The piece is in four main sections, excluding the last held chord.  The first and third are the rhythmic canons, and the second and fourth are the tutti sections.  Each of these sections has a different, yet related set of five notes for the player to choose from.

The strategy of putting notes to rhythms is not a novel approach to improvising or indeterminacy, nor is the idea of playing segments (or “cells”).  However, the possibilities of potential design within the scope of these techniques are endless.  And, in the case of a piece whose focus is rhythm, if it is interesting rhythmically, the notes hardly even matter.

Improv Ensemble (and the value of the short piece)

We have yet to name our new group.  I might bring this up tomorrow at rehearsal. Our instrumentation is percussion, 2 pianos/keyboards, guitar, trumpet, and saxophone/clarinet. Hopefully, several more musicians will join us. I’d like to see a group consisting of 9 or 10 members.  We could get some very interesting colours and textures that way.

So far we’ve had three rehearsals.  In the first rehearsal, it was just me on sax with the percussionist and guitarist.  We spent some time on a freestyle jam.  “Freestyle” is my favourite word to describe the musical genre of our group.  In my experience, the extended jam becomes the norm in freestyle improv.  Arguably, it’s the best platform to develop aural skills because of it’s meandering nature, generally speaking. However, it’s valuable to focus on smaller pieces, if only for the sake of contrast.

I suggested we each think of an idea that we’d play for one minute, watching the wall clock for timing, and then switch to a contrasting idea for the second minute and return to the first idea for the third minute, creating a simple ABA form.  The advantage to this approach, assuming we don’t share what our idea is or plan something intended to be somehow compatible, is that interesting textures will arise even with a small group.  We don’t plan to play in a particular key, for example.  The challenge, of course, is to play such that your idea fits musically with the other players.  Proceeding this way also helps with one’s sense of time, particularly with regard to how long a certain period of time like 1 minute “feels” as you play.

If nothing else, developing a repertoire of strategies for shorter pieces will be useful for various performance contexts when there are time constraints, like participating in a variety concert.  Also, I think shorter pieces are more palatable for audiences.

Longer jams are a lot of fun though, so we’ll definitely continue to work on pieces of various lengths.  And when you don’t plan how long you’ll play for, it is good practice for choosing a good time to end – not an easy task sometimes, especially with a large group.