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ICMC 2001

ICMC 2001 Keynote Speech
by David Zicarelli, President, Cycling 74

Read by Richard Dudas
Friday, 15 September 2001
Teatro Amadeo Roldán
La Habana, Cuba


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I feel extremely lucky to have this opportunity to address a community of people that I so greatly admire. Rather than speak directly about technology, I wanted to use this occasion to reflect on this association, as well as the other associations I have in my professional life. Since I deal with both Nashville producers and university professors (and perhaps people who play both roles depending on the time of day), I think a lot about the differences between musical genres and their approach to computer technology. Since computer technology is now pervasive in a vast array of musical styles, the question repeatedly arises as to the defining nature of "computer music" as presented and discussed at a computer music conference. I don’t have a complete answer to this puzzle, and in any case, since the whole situation is potentially quite fluid, it is not clear that a specific answer will make any sense for long.

While I actually have a specific observation to present, I’m not sure it qualifies as a theory exactly--on the subject of the sameness of all computer music, the observation is actually a symptom of a larger topic I don’t fully address here. This is the future of originality, intellectual property, and music presentation in an increasingly connected world. I also believe that this connectedness points to the end of an era of the production of the sort of artifacts that are presented at conferences such as these.

Before introducing this observation, I’d like to start by taking about our relationship with information. My first girlfriend in high school was fond of a particular saying that she had heard from some older, wiser guy than me: "the first is the first, the second is the third, and the third is the sixth." I think it’s probably fairly obvious what she is referring to, but I believe it applies to many experiences, perhaps summarized by the following principle:

Abundance Breeds Disenchantment

Before I discuss this notion further, I’d like to take a step backward and talk about how we got to where we are. Not on a macro level, but a micro level, considering each of us as individuals.

Many of you are here in part because you are enthusiasts of "computer music." Think back to the first piece of computer music that you heard and really liked. If you’re at all like me, it was a formative, even life-changing experience. For certain personality types, I suspect computer music has this power because when you hear something that really knocks you out, it is not simply the sound, but perhaps a glimmer of the intellectual process behind its construction that opens up for you. In other words, the experience of listening to a seminal work stimulates further creation.

We can also observe that we are engaged in a practice that is a kind of by-product of an ongoing attempt to increase productivity among office workers. The vast majority of computer technology has been applied to tasks such as word processing, transactions, and clerical functions. Yes, it’s certainly true that computers continue to get faster, allowing more resources to be thrown at the problem of creating more complex audio. However, the accompanying marshalling of the traditional model of information technology productivity for music creation, particularly through the user interface, is equally significant. An innovation such as a graphical representation and manipulation of information, not to mention copy and paste, are naturally applied to note sequences and other musical gestures. They are not specific to music--instead they are applicable to music to the extent that it can be represented in the format of an office-style user interface.

We could say that the traditional work of music--involving instruments or voices--is "hot" while office work is "cool." I seriously doubt that most of you work up a sweat while assembling your compositions at a desk. Even if you work with real-time software, there is no sense that the work you are doing needs to happen in real-time. Even if you perform live, you prepared for the performance out of real-time, in a cool, calm, collected environment. This is simply the nature of the computer as it is used in computer music: there is, to use a beautiful intransitive verb, a tremendous amount of futzing. Exactly what we spend most of our time futzing over I will suggest in a moment, but the important point is that the musical process with technology is of a piece with word processing. I feel no qualitative difference in the computer skills I need in preparing this text, revising words here and there, than I do preparing a piece of music.

So we have identified two characteristics of the computer music process: it is driven by intellectual ideas, and it involves office gestures. By itself, these two characteristics are not responsible for the abundance of similar work we see being produced. However, they are both in the background as natural facilitators of the phenomenon.

For me, the issue is that the main focus of computer music and the tools created to enable it has been the production of timbre, to the exclusion of almost everything else. It is likely that originally, the emphasis on timbre arose from a sense of it being the unique property of computer synthesis of sound in comparison with acoustic instruments. The wide timbre palette made possible by the computer moved this aspect of musical perception from the background to the foreground. The endless revision and perfection of timbre and its evolution, which involves repeated auditions and adjustments, dovetails perfectly with the office stance toward musical work. Just as I might rewrite the same paragraph multiple times before moving on, the task of finding the right way to evolve the right sound can be iterated as many times as desired.

We could observe that various genres of music focus on a specific property not exactly to the exclusion of everything else, but often in a way that relegates the other properties to fairly straightforward forms. When computer music focuses on timbre, its formula for the other aspects of the work are subsumed by what I would like to call a metaphorical structure. These structures operate within the listener’s perception as categories that are based on our real-world experience with non-musical technology.

I would argue that these structural categories, once understood, have the ability to subvert almost any compositional intention of timbre-based music. I hope to convince you why in a moment, but first, without further ado, let me present the three metaphorical structures into which almost all computer music can be categorized. They are: machines operating properly, machines breaking down, and sword fighting.

The first two categories are by far the most important, and the third was added only recently. I am certainly willing to entertain other structures, but I suspect they will be of relatively minor importance, similar to my third category.

My argument is that the focus on timbre often leaves the other musical elements to play a supporting role. Certainly this was a unique order of things initially, but at this point it is the mark of a particular style, in the same sense that a Broadway show tune typically features a slower introduction followed by a harmonically-based medium-tempo AABA song form.

Given that the more traditional musical elements in computer music are generally vague and obscure, the listener is very quickly drawn to changes in the spectrum of the audio as the primary interesting component. In other words, we have rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic structures that generally play supporting roles to timbral evolution--the sequencing of changes in spectral content over time. This is basically the same scenario that we use to become aware of breakdowns in machines. The examples are all around us: automobile engines, refrigerators, water pipes, door locks. We use machines every day and are thus especially aware of any change in the sound of their operation. Occasionally these changes are rhythmic, but in cases where there is little or no rhythm, the timbre is the clue to something being amiss.

From this basic relationship with sound, we confront music that is often devoid of referential landmarks inviting us to follow it. Timbre-based music is generally difficult to for listeners to anticipate, so we often need to use different perceptual "muscles" to make sense of it. And the one muscle we exercise on a daily basis is that which lets us evaluate machine functioning by paying attention to spectral content changes over time.

Often a piece of music will play games with the perception of proper operation. This is a very easy thing for computer algorithms to do: move from the generation of ordered data to the generation of unordered data. Of course, completely unordered data often sounds as predictable as white noise, so often machine breakdown needs to be in a chaotic zone between predictability and unpredictability. We need to recognize the machine before we can tell if it is working or not.

I invite you to use this simple observation as you listen to the pieces at this conference. When is the machine operating properly and when it is breaking down? I am not making this assertion in an effort to disparage computer music in any way. Rather, I want to suggest that having fallen into this pattern of repetitive behavior and produced an abundance of pieces that are perceptually negotiated in terms of machine functioning, we are risking something. I am interested in the situation in which it is now basically impossible for any particular work to achieve any sort of status of enchantment, to distinguish itself.

The culture of our practice values originality highly. I remember a little sign above the copy machine at CCRMA that said "Don’t forget your original." I wanted to perform a little graffiti on this sign to read "Don’t forget you’re original." (y-o-u-apostrophe-r-e). We all wish, in some way or another to create work that avoids being called derivative. And yet, I would submit that any objective observer would find this striking similarity among the vast majority of composed works of computer music. The details of each work are typically quite unique, but the metaphorical structures at play remain severely constrained.

There is another similarity in works that focus on timbre, and that is the attitude about the nature of the listener. I’ve always been disturbed when I read interviews with computer music types where they claim that they work with machines because they were frustrated with the lameness of real musicians. But now I realize it’s actually worse: I think there’s some sentiment to do away with the audience too. In some ways, an approach to timbre manipulation presupposes an ideal medium of communication in which there are no speakers, concert halls, listening rooms, or embodied listeners. This becomes fairly apparent when we experience the nagging feeling in listening to a piece involving a live instrumental performer that there is a radical difference between the nature of the tape and the instrument. I’m not sure this difference can be sampled at 44.1 kHz and analyzed. It is best described as a sense of inappropriateness--the two sound sources conjure up radically different associations and expectations.

I think there is a way you can experience this for yourself. The next time you want to make a recording of your new instrument plus tape piece, resist the temptation to mix a recording of the instrument by itself with the electronic score using an electronic or computerized audio mixer. Instead, stick a couple of microphones in the middle of a concert hall and record the instrument plus the output of the speakers. Part of what you may notice immediately is that the notion of turning the volume up and down on the tape part is completely antithetical to the way we blend acoustic instruments. And of course, the tape part will always be the "wrong" volume. Mixing with instruments involve differences in quality not just amplitude, but in the vast majority of cases, the electronic part simply sounds louder or softer. And I suspect that even the most naive listener can tell that a volume knob is not a performance instrument.

What I am really saying is that timbre-obsessed composition imagines that listeners have eighth-inch stereo plugs that connect directly to their brains, that will allow the perception of subtle spectral changes. Would you want your latest work played over AM radio? Would its musicality survive? I’m not saying it has to, but those constructing the most perfect (machines operating properly) or perfectly imperfect (machines breaking down) landscapes should keep in mind that massive imperfection in the form of various transducers lies at the end of the road. I won’t go into this issue too much further, but when we say computers are an ideal medium, I think we sadly mean this in two senses: one that refers to its generality and other advantages, and the other which refers to its disconnection from biological reality. The ideal nature of this approach can’t help but shine through in a certain similarity of attitude and technique.

Finally, there is another constraint on musical output, which is the influence of the software used to make the work. We have moved from the title of Max Mathews’ classic book, The Technology of Computer Music to The Music of Computer Technology. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but we should get some sense of how it might be operating. The similarity between works reflects an increasing dominance of the machine over the individual even as it leads the individual to believe he or she is the master of the machine. This is the role of the user interface, what researchers at Xerox PARC originally called the user illusion. The logic is fairly simple: make it easy to do X, and X will occur. But what is the illusion? It is often presented in terms of X being the result of a creative gesture: a sweep of the mouse just so, or a deftly executed sequence of clicks (from whence we recognize the role of sword fighting). Contrast this with the early days of long waits, inscrutable text-based languages with little or no visual representation and feedback, and incomplete technical understand of digital sound generation. The power of the machine makes it easy for the first sound or process we produce to seduce us into thinking it’s worth using. When nothing was easy, there was perhaps more of a healthy disrespect for the initial results.

When I mentioned to the composer-performer Bob Ostertag my notion of the three categories, he sent me an essay he wrote after a particularly grueling experience of evaluating hundreds of entries for the Ars Electronica prize. We have both focused on the primacy of timbre and its discontents:

The problem of greater technological power failing to produce more interesting timbral results would not be so central were it not for the fact discussed above that Computer Music has made timbral exploration its central concern. To put the matter in its bluntest form, it appears that the more technology is thrown at the problem, the more boring the results. People set out for new timbral horizons, get lost along the way in the writing of the code, the trouble-shooting of the systems, and the funding to make the whole thing possible, then fail to notice that the results do not justify the effort.

You might think that I, as a software designer, would have an easy answer to this problem, but in fact I don’t because my entire career, like most of my co-workers, has been based on the idea of throwing more and more technology at a problem. And this is sort of getting out of hand. The latest versions of Max and MSP released this past summer have over 400 objects, over 80 tutorials, about 1700 pages of documentation, I’m sure untold thousands of bugs, and interfaces to about fifteen separate application programming interfaces and standards. I suppose the nice thing is that you don’t have to use all of this stuff at the same time, but there is certainly a lot of, uh, stuff, to throw.

I am not convinced that everyone confronted with a software environment such as this "gets lost" but I certainly know what Mr. Ostertag is talking about. And I would suggest that throwing some technology at users to keep them feeling "found" might not be a bad direction to pursue once in a while.

Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering about my third category, sword fighting. Let me suggest a little experiment, and I hereby provide you with perhaps the only technical component of this talk, my secret synthesis technique heretofore explained only to a handful of my closest friends and associates. Next time you are in your kitchen, take out an ordinary whisk--you know, the kind with which you beat eggs or mix flour--and grasp it at the very top. Now drag it across a wood surface such as a floor or cutting board outfitted with a contact mic using a technique that allows you to change directions and angles quickly. Voila: you will have replicated a fair portion of the electronic and computer music literature.

I would only point to an early example of sword fighting in electronic music: Vlaidimir Ussachevsky’s piece "Conflict" from a 1975 Folkways recording New American Music volume 4. This piece, at least from the liner notes that discuss some sort of Biblical struggle, seems literally to be about sword fighting, and with a little practice and the development of an appropriate notation, most of it could be replicated with the whisk technique I’ve described above.

Not much more needs to be said about this metaphoric structure, but I will point out that it is a fairly natural result to gestural control over timbral evolution, such as turning knobs or moving a mouse. I’m sure you won’t have any trouble finding it on display here at this ICMC--occasionally you’ll have to imagine sword fighting in slow motion, which describes a fair number of works that use granular synthesis techniques. One of the perceptual phenomena on display in this case is that even though vast terrains of the audio spectrum are being explored, many listeners group the work pretty much into one category. This occurs, I would argue, because these categories are shaped by things such as TV and movie fight sound effects, as well as, of course, machines.

But let’s say you teach at a university and every day you come into work at a building where you are surrounded by the incessant bleating of practice rooms where students are pounding out Chopin and Beethoven. Wouldn’t sword fighting seem like a perfect departure from the metaphoric structure you encounter all around you? Let’s turn the tables a bit and suggest the same music department, but now, it is twenty years later and the patent has just expired on the Zicarelli Whisk Synthesis Technique, and all the students are practicing on their whisks up and down the halls. Would you be tempted to write yet another sword fighting piece? Even if it is the best one ever conceived, do you think it will get very much attention, or seem very enchanting?

I suspect this is a little what happens for those of us who sense the limited categories of metaphoric structure on display at an ICMC. Yet we soon return home and feel some isolation from this phenomenon, perhaps being the token computer music person at our school, or in any case, not meeting a lot of others working with similar tools most days of the year. I think this is changing with the development of the internet, and that more of us are becoming aware of the truly astonishing number of recorded and performed works that fall into the computer music genre being produced each year.

Part of this explosion is certainly coming from the increases in power in hardware and software that make composition within this medium a far less forbidding prospect than it used to be. But as I suggested earlier, each new work greets an audience that can’t help but consider it a little less special than the thousands of others that preceded it. If we all seek to be original, I am not convinced we will all be successful in this new context. What is the solution? Going on strike? Ration composing with yearly allotments?

I’d like to suggest a couple of ideas. First, there is the idea that instead of writing pieces, one builds live systems and learns a performance repertoire on them. If you can figure out how to sustain interest--even your own--for at least a half hour on your system after a couple of years of practice, you’ll have contributed exactly zero additional recorded "works" for others to hear. Assuming your tenure committee finds this acceptable, everyone wins.

Second, we might see festivals in which the compositional parameters are artificially constrained so that the basic image of the solitary composer inventing a work of genius is disturbed. With each such work presented I find the burden on the audience is sometimes too much to bear--in other words, the quest for originality is itself repeated so many times that it ceases to become original. I would love to see a concert of "computer music" versions of Broadway show tunes, just to name one example.

Taking both the larger and the smaller view, I am not sure these suggestions really get at the heart of the matter, which is the perceptual similarity that results from a focus on timbre.

I am willing to predict that the timbre obsession’s short lifespan may well end soon, and with it, we will see the decline into increasing irrelevance of the institutions that have supported it. We can already see what its replacement will be. It will probably come from the side of electronica; in other words, from people who are not fundamentally intellectual in their approach to the construction of music. It will be based in live performance, and it will transform into something that cares nothing for timbre or audio quality as traditionally envisioned in terms of an ideal medium. The practice of performance is waking up from its sad subservience to an intellectual dream. Power will shift from institutions to festivals of performance, and these festivals need not be located in traditional locations of state power.

A few months ago my company started a label that exists to release recordings of works that use our software. The effort is in many respects one of documentation, arising out of the feeling that a lot of music was being produced, especially in live performance, and it was not easy to point to it. The label does not have a particular agenda--indeed our next release is a beautiful expression of almost nothing but timbral evolution--but we are particularly interested in documenting this transition to performance that seems to be happening. I mention this only to point out that I am committed to some involvement in the cultural output of my professional work, however peripheral. Making recordings of performances has always seemed like an anachronism, but some reason, I have often felt that the embrace of anachronism has an undeniable poetic appeal. Perhaps this confused speculation typifies that; if so, I hope that it at least suggested some poetry, and I thank you for your patience and attention. The machine has now been fixed.

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