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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