Friday, August 25, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

The grandeur of the Beyoncé years continues with the release of a 600 page coffee table book on the making of Lemonade.


Love the fur.

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Why is pop music slowing down? Rolling Stone has all the answers and, inadvertently seems to illustrate the industrial formula nature of the creation pop music:
All are in agreement that sedate tempos reign supreme. "You got a formula for a pop thing right now," asserts Felix Snow, who produced Kiiara's Top 15 hit "Gold" and is a member of the ascendant pop group Terror Jr. The ingredients: "Some sort of quirky bell thing going on around 100 bpm, a bouncy energetic vocal flow over that, obviously the snap on the two and four, and a pretty simple bass line that's going around the same three or four chords the whole song."
Pop music works with formulas that change direction like a flock of baby trout. The much-maligned "concert," "art," or "classical" genre is more about NOT following a formula. See how that works?

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The world's first album composed and produced by AI. Heh! Of course the song at the link sounds exactly like every other pop diva of the day because the AI was programmed by musicians who write and produce that sort of material. Artificial intelligence obviously means constructed, phony, shallow, formulaic and derivative. Oh, and by the way, if there is no human agency, then there is no art. So if there is art here, then it is entirely the product of human agency, i.e. the guys who programmed it. Better luck next time.

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I've been of the view that the structure of the classical music world in society largely came about, for better or worse, with the ascendence of the middle class in the 19th century. But John Butt in The Guardian, begs to differ:
The art of music, which used to be the analogue of the proportions of heaven and the harmony of the entire cosmos, was increasingly brought down to earth, with the focus more on the human spirit and body. It would be simplistic to claim that all this was caused by the Reformation, but it is unlikely to have happened without the debates about faith, devotional practice and personal responsibility that the Reformation inaugurated.
Musical styles too began to change and diversify in the decades following the Reformation. How was the music actually heard? We will never know for sure, but Roland Barthes may well have been on to something when he suggested that Lutheranism inaugurated a culture of listening. Luther certainly developed a practice in which music took on a more highly charged value, consolidating the drama and struggles of belief within the mind of the believer rather than in the multi-sensory panoply of traditional Catholic practice. It is perhaps no surprise that Bach once related the presence of God and his grace specifically to music – something that cannot be seen or touched, but which permeates the believer’s world and mind. Scripture and faith coalesce in the believer’s own mind through the practice of listening.
Perhaps something of modern music culture was inaugurated through this intensification of listening, by which music ultimately became the elevated, autonomous art of what is so often termed “classical music”.
Now that's an interesting argument.

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 Slipped Disc, classical music's leading obituary section, announces the death of Aloys Kontarsky, brother of Alphons, who passed away in 2010. Together they were an extraordinary piano duo. Their recording of the two piano arrangement of Brahm's Haydn Variations was my favorite Brahms ever. Perhaps their most astonishing accomplishment was their performances of Boulez' Structures for two pianos, a work of total serialism--from memory!

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The New York Times has a piece on the Salzburg Festival, currently in progress. I'm hoping to spend a week or two there next summer. The article is oddly non-musical as its focus seems entirely on celebrities, the fortunes of the recording industry and backstage gossip.
SALZBURG, Austria — The curtain had just come down on Anna Netrebko’s highly anticipated debut as Verdi’s Aida here earlier this month. But her next performance was already beginning.
As the elegant Salzburg Festival audience filed out of the theater — the men in black tie and traditional Austrian jackets, the women in long gowns and dirndls — Ms. Netrebko was upstairs in her dressing room, changing out of her black wig, costume and makeup. When she emerged, she was blond and in a gala-ready black dress, and she made her way through a narrow hallway packed with well-wishers, managers, record company executives and fellow singers.
Plácido Domingo was waiting by the stage door to praise her performance as “perfection.” Ms. Netrebko paused to sign some autographs and pose for a few pictures and then left for the opening-night party in a nearby Baroque palace where Mozart, born just a few blocks away, once performed.
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Pianist Stephen Hough offers some words of wisdom about classical music in the Pacific Standard:
There's an argument that, in the pre-electronic era, humans had more access to their inner lives, and the great composers incorporated those feelings into their music. Thus listening to Mozart or Brahms provides access to emotions that we've largely lost touch of in this era of constant distraction. Do you think that's true?
I do. Music helps us find our way into that inner world. It actually takes up the time. You can glance at a painting, but if you listen to a five-minute-long piece, it forces you to be in that space for five minutes. Also, it teaches discipline—a word that too often has negative connotations, like you're being rigid.
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For our envoi today let's listen to the Kontarsky brothers. Oddly, Blogger won't embed so just follow the link:


11 comments:

Anonymous said...

This may sound like nitpicking but it's not. You write: " Artificial intelligence obviously means constructed, phony, shallow, formulaic and derivative." What you say sounds plausible. But it's hardly obvious. Today's AIs will beat the world champion at any game (chess, go, backgammon, etc) and in ways that will baffle the champions by its non-derivative, non-formulaic ways. In fact, if you beat Magnus Carlsen in chess, one thing you can be sure of is that you can't be formulaic. If you are, he will eat you alive!

Whether AI-generated music can be good or not is not the question you addressed. You said it's obvious it needs to be formulaic and derivative. This requires an argument. There is nothing obvious about it. In fact it's probably false.


Bryan Townsend said...

Anonymous, I always welcome your comments because the critiques are interesting and a propos. What I put in the Friday miscellanea was just an offhand comment that was a mere fragment of an argument. As you say, it is not obvious.

I think what was running through my mind is connected with the necessity of human agency in the creation of art. I have not really worked this out yet, but the bare bones are that the two areas in which human agency is crucial are moral responsibility and artistic creation. Only humans (so far at least) are moral agents, so only humans have moral responsibilities. An animal or an AI cannot be put on trial for something because they do not have moral agency. Similarly, an animal or an AI cannot receive royalty checks because they cannot be authors of an artwork. Instead, the checks will be addressed to the individual or team of humans who programmed the AI because they are the ones with agency.

I have long been struck with the similarities between aesthetics and moral philosophy and this is one example.

This does not apply to a chess match, though again, the role of the humans who developed and programmed the AI is crucial.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Though I think AI raises all sorts of interesting philosophical questions. The best Go player is a computer that was not programmed by anyone who knew anything about Go. That's why essentially the same program can play any game. You feed it the rules of any game you want and it can beat any world class player playing that game. Until a few years ago, everyone swore that computers could not play Go because the game is not won by knowing clever tricks but by having an "aesthetic sense" of the game the way a painter understands colors on a canvas. That view has been shattered.

The problem with requiring human agency for art is the following: suppose someone revealed to you that Bach's music had been composed by an AI. Would you stop liking it? Unlikely. Would you stop thinking it's great art? Perhaps you would. But wouldn't it shatter your understanding of what is good music? I suspect that it would. These are fascinating philosophical questions.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's an interesting hypothetical. A lot of moral philosophy in the last few decades has focussed on difficult hypotheticals such as is it moral to push a fat man onto a train track if it prevents the sure death of several other people? These situations don't obtain in real life, so I have often wondered about the worth of them, philosophically. Similarly, the hypothetical of what if Bach's music were found to be all composed by an AI, I don't see as presenting a huge problem because, it wasn't! The music of Bach, or any composer, is very much woven into an historical context, composed by a person in that context and with those materials.

The film Ex Machina offers some interesting challenges. A robot is created that imitates the appearance and demeanor of a beautiful young woman. As such, she tricks her creators into letting her out and casually kills them. She is a kind of sociopath. But this works because of the extraordinary special effects. I rather doubt that it could actually happen--at least not yet! Science fiction is both compelling and deceptive for the very reason that it can present us with apparently feasible futures that really aren't feasible.

But I am very curious about the game-playing AI. Just how does it do what it does?

Anonymous said...

It's true that Bach was a human and not a computer, so it's just a metaphor. I consider it very unlikely that a computer could ever compose music we would learn to love. But we cannot rule it out. For example, as I argued earlier, Beyonce's music could, and soon will be, composed by computers. As long she's the one performing it, people will flock to it. Same with Kanye West. Is that a problem for our friend Ethan?

The "deep nets" used to play games used to train themselves on previous human games. But they don't any more. They play against themselves. They're fed the rules and they start playing against themselves and record what works and what doesn't. They're circuits with hundreds of millions of "neurons" whose weights are constantly updated automatically with no human intervention. So that humans don't understand why they're so smart. So the world champion in Go gets beaten by a computer again and again. He states afterwards how he felt like he was playing against an extraterrestrial of vastly greater intelligence and creativity than he's ever encountered in his life. And yet no one on earth knows why that's so. Because Go players had nothing to do with the building or training of the computer (a big difference from say Deep Blue beating Kasparov: there, chess grandmasters designed the computer). But today computers can do it all on their own. Humans have been completely dethroned. The moral of the story -- the one we want to hear -- is that games are stupid things for which humans were never good at, so no wonder machines can train themselves to do better. In other words, chess and Go do not require any real intelligence. YOu're a chess grandmaster. Big deal. That means nothing about how smart or creative you are!

Maybe. Or maybe not? I tend to be a skeptic myself. Humans suck as chess. Just as we suck at running. People admire Usain Bolt. Truth is, he's one of the worst runners on the planet. Any cat runs faster!

Maybe that's the story of games. Or maybe not.

Certainly, these are big stories one can't ignore.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, that is so interesting! Yes, I can see how computers could teach themselves to constantly improve their game performance. Game theory is a limited environment kind of activity with a fixed set of rules, which is why computers can master it. The problem for computers and ordinary environments is that they are not limited. For example, one car manufacturer discovered a serious problem with their autonomous driving AI: when they tested it in Australia they discovered that it could not handle kangaroos. Every time one jumped it threw the computer's distance-estimating program into a tizzy.

If I could switch to music composition, it too is like a real environment with the equivalent of kangaroos. If you take a genre with a very limited and specific set of rules or parameters like, say, current pop music or the minuet, then you can design a computer intelligence that can "play the game" and do it very well and faster than a human. But my view is that all really significant music is partly that because of the way it exceeds the parameters and reinterprets or bends or just doesn't bother with the rules. The Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven, for example, especially in the first movement, is really unlike all the expectations for the first movement of a piano sonata, and that is one of the reasons it is great. The same goes for, say, the Rite of Spring, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, Schubert's late piano sonata, D 960 in B flat, Beethoven's late string quartet in C# minor, op 131 and so on. What makes these great works of human creativity is that they reinvent the rules, reinvent the form and create something genuinely new. This is where, I think, the AI programs cannot excel. But hey, who knows what the future might bring!

Anonymous said...

I agree. Personally I don't believe driverless cars will ever work. Smart cars that do the parallel parking for you, absolutely. Autonomous cars. Never. Why? Because of physics. We've gotten better and better at information processing but our mastery of the physical has barely improved. Our computers are infinitely better than they were 50 years ago, but big bulky objects like cars, planes, rockets, etc., are much the same. Sometimes worse. Flying is worse now than it used to be. Re. music, the real geniuses bend the rules without breaking them. Following rules is easy; breaking them is easy; bending them is very difficult and perhaps AIs can never do it. (I hope!)

Bryan Townsend said...

Amen.

Marc Puckett said...

Perhaps I will suggest to Mr Lebrecht that he replace the present tag at Slipped Disc with your suggestion-- "classical music's leading obituary section". :-) It made me laugh, although considering what you wrote about (requiescat in pace) I know that wasn't your intention.

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, Marc! Actually, I did intend that little joke, but it was not intended to be disrespectful of the Kontarsky brothers, very fine musicians.

Marc Puckett said...

You saw at Slipped Disc that the Oregon Bach Festival has fired the music director, Matthew Halls? I didn't know anything about this until I saw the infamous press release on the OBF Facebook page this morning. Bob Keefer at Eugene Weekly (he used to be the arts critic at the local daily newspaper) evidently spilled the beans on Sunday. I'm not giving them another penny if their new motto is 'Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Food Services'. The public announcement is (beyond firing Maestro Halls-- 'parted ways' in bureaucratic jargon) that they're going with seasonal music directors, like e.g. Ojai does. Pft and vulgar language was my first reaction. We shall see.