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posted on 11.02.09

Hal: I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do. (2001: A Space Odyssey)

Our culture’s relationship with technology has a long history of reverence and mistrust. It is and has been no less problematical for working artists. For some contemporary artists, a connection to ancient history is such an overwhelming need that they will deliberately subvert the lessons learned by history and create work using techniques that would be considered largely unnecessary or superfluous. This is a deliberate act and requires active choice. If the adoption of technological apparatus serves the artists’ goals and meets their needs, there is generally no conflict (within the artist) about employing said technology-nor will there be a fear about being subsumed by the same.  Artists have always been the willing co-conspirators in the march towards progress on the path of technological change. 

In the following two examples, I want to briefly highlight two ideas that have recently come to my attention. Both concern the nature of the relationship between human artistic culture and technological practice.


A friend of mine sent me a link for an article by Mark Lawson on the Guardian website, which can be found here. In the article, Lawson disputes the provenance of a new composition by Professor David Cope…well, actually, Professor Cope created the software-known as ‘Experiments in Musical Intelligence’, or Emily, for short, and Emily is apparently the first type of software that can produce so-called  ‘original’ classical music. Lawson’s article presents a series of arguments that underline his personal discomfort with Professor Cope’s invention.  For example, he sights critics that are suspicious of any kind of technology that appears to make human creativity redundant. This is a valid fear because many arguments have been made about the availability of software that more and more realistically replicates the sound of acoustic musical instruments, and that could potentially make the skills of living musicians disposable. Or, as in the case of ‘Emily’ (her full name is Emily Howell) a software that is given a limited set of parameters to supposedly create an ‘original’ work of music. The amount of verbal chatter that this article created was interesting to read. Many people, I think, have too little basic musical training.

The software did not compose the piano concerto From Darkness, Light: Professor David Cope did. He created the parameters, and entered all the information that the software would need to ‘compose’ a piece that a general audience would recognize as ‘classical’ music because of the generative use of patterns that are common in traditional Art music. All composers use some form of structure, and create limitations for their works within particular parameters (even John Cage’s three-movement piece, 4’33” was bound by its duration). In the end, Lawson finished his argument hovering around fusty ideas about the human soul, and where that places human creativity into a subjective mix that can be discerned from computer-enabled or created, Art.



Listen for yourself-see below for the youtube link for some small samples of Emily Howell’s Op 1 piano concerto called ‘From Darkness, Light’.

To be fair, I will say that I am neither comfortable, nor annoyed, by Cope’s creation. As a composer, I use a great deal of technology in my practice, and in no way do I feel compromised by it.


This is a paragraph from a previous blog:  


The iPod and other types of portable media players have completely changed the way we relate to music-which is why I have included this type of product in this list.  More than any other type of innovation, the portability factor in music appreciation has, I think, created a lasting and profound effect on the way music is marketed and consumed. Music can and has become a product that is meant to ‘enhance our lifestyle’, and ‘uplift our mood’; it is also used to discourage young people from loitering in particular areas (and other forms of social control). Music listening and appreciation are human abilities that have been downgraded into marketable commodities that are easily digested.  Similar arguments have been made for earlier types of non-portable recording devices; but at least you were still forced to be in one place while listening. It is the portability of these new devices that create great promise and great danger, I think. The positive outcome of further developments in this technology appears unlimited, and it is already obvious that the technology has made it easier for musicians and other artists to interact with a global network of people never before possible.  As a musician and composer, this is an astounding development. But there are dangers as well, and the ramifications of how all artistic human behaviour will be profoundly affected by the new medium remains to be seen.[1]


I do not intend for this debate to be reduced to popular music vs. Art music: all music can become commodified. My contention is that certain types of technology have created a potential constraint on a human cultural process that historically remained largely outside of the capitalist marketplace. I will further argue that one of the reasons that the composers and musicians involved within ‘Remix Culture’ face constant criticism and censure is that they operate outside the boundaries of what is normally considered viable within what would be considered the conventions of market value.


More on Remix Culture later. For more academic arguments about music and the marketplace, see Adorno’s Aesthetics of Music by Max Paddison.

[1] Hormby, Tom & Knight, Dan. “Low End Mac: A History of the iPod: 2000 to 2004”

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