The right to make creative progress

Why musicians should be allowed to move on – and why we should, too

Concert pianist Dejan Lazic caused a stir recently, by requesting that the Washington Post remove an unflattering review of one of his performances from their website. Some commenters confined themselves to expressing wry amusement at the tender egos of performers. Other voices were more critical, with Ivan Hewett at the Telegraph branding the episode an instance of ‘misguided madness’.

Hewett: Lazic’s ‘misguided madness’

Hewett notes that the Lazic affair is not directly analogous to requests that have been made to Google and other search engines under Europe’s ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling – rather than requesting that the offending review be de-indexed from searches on his name, Lazic went to the Washington Post directly and requested the removal of the review entirely. He also notes, rightly, that the European Court of Justice ruling is not directly applicable in the United States.

However, Hewett uses the Lazic incident to launch an attack on the warrant of the ECJ ruling itself, calling it a ‘legal monstrosity’ that should have been ‘laughed out of court’. Hewett claims that the ECJ ruling creates a dangerous precedent for ‘thousands more thin-skinned pianists, actors, novelists, etc.’ He warns that such artists do not have the right to attempt to ‘massage their public image into a more flattering form.’

There are several problems with Hewett’s argument, not least of which is his slide from an acknowledgement that Lazic’s case is different at core to the ECJ’s ruling, to a critique of that ruling on the basis of the Lazic case. However, Hewett also misses a deeper issue, in his treatment of the case: an important, and overlooked, way in which the internet has impacted on the role of the critic, and on the nature of our engagement with artists.

What is the role of the critic?

A good critic is, above all, an expert commentator on the state of an art, as Daniel Mendelsohn argues. A good critic does not gush senselessly, nor does he or she spout vitriol without justification. A responsible critic engages constructively with the artist. She points out strong points, she points out weaknesses, and she keeps an eye on the artist’s output to date as she does so – out of respect for the performer, and for the art itself.

It is important to remember that music critics are, first and foremost, music-lovers. And they want us to love music just as much as they do. It follows that negative reviews are just as important as positive ones – as long as they’re honest, of course – because they help us to understand what is valuable about the art in question.

So, whether the review is positive, or negative, the critic is interested in encouraging us to engage with the art constructively and critically ourselves. The critic wants to promote further discussion. She wants to help us to form our own considered opinions.

And this is where things get tricky, in the digital age. Dejan Lazic’s case is complicated, so let us take a hypothetical case: one of the ‘thin-skinned’ pianists, who Hewett thinks will now be emboldened to distort her public image under the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling.

When a ‘thin-skinned’ performer wants to move on

Suppose that a Google search on Jane Doe unfailingly returns, at the top of the list, one negative review. This review isn’t damning: it’s a careful evaluation of a performance that didn’t quite come up to scratch. Suppose that review was entirely justified, as an assessment of Jane’s merit, in that performance, on that night, as assessed by the critic in question.

But this assessment is not valid for all performances, for all nights, and for all critics. The critic in question would be the first to acknowledge that. But this is the problem that the hierarchical ordering of Google searches creates. In Lazic’s case, Google’s mysterious algorithms place the Washington Post review above far more popular websites (such as Wikipedia), and well above any other press articles.

If one negative review unfailingly appears as the top result – which could happen for algorithmic reasons that have nothing to do with that review’s continuing validity – this does not encourage us to explore Jane Doe’s work further. It has the opposite effect: it is more likely to discourage us from doing so.

Search results can discourage us

Why? Let’s suppose that I see an advertisement for an upcoming performance by Jane Doe, of whom I haven’t heard before. She’s playing, for example, Ravel, le Tombeau de Couperin. It’s one of my favourite pieces, and it also happens to be very challenging for the performer. I ask myself: is it worth going? Is she likely to pull it off? Or is she likely to fall short of the mark?

I could look up back issues of music magazines, or I could ask my friends if they have heard of her. I could try to find recordings of hers, in order to familiarize myself with her style. But in the digital age, the easiest way for me to proceed is to open a browser window, and search for ‘Jane Doe’.

Now, the first thing I see when I do that is a review that, while constructive, is negative overall. It praises her technique, but points out certain expressive misjudgments in her playing, noting that, given time, she is likely to improve.

I don’t notice that the review is from five years ago. It doesn’t immediately occur to me that perhaps Jane Doe has, in fact, improved her technique, just as the critic hoped she would. Really, I don’t think too much about it. I just say to myself: well, that’s that decision made, then. And I don’t book tickets.

We don’t always behave like ‘digital natives’

Now, it might be argued that we do not so unwittingly swallow Google search results. We are ‘digital natives’: we carefully contextualise the information we read on the internet. We don’t take the results of online search as gospel, nor do we necessarily internalise their hierarchy, as indicating a truthful and exhaustive evaluation of a given performer.

This may be the case in general. But sometimes, we don’t really behave like digital natives. The instantaneous decisions, and choices we make online, are not always so considered. Let’s go back to Jane Doe.

Suppose that there are two performances, of the same work, on the same night. One is by Jane Doe, and the other is by Joe Bloggs. I don’t know either performer, but my lunch break is nearly over, I have a meeting in five minutes, and I have to book the tickets fast. I only have time to do the most rudimentary research.

When I Google Jane Doe, I see the negative review in first place, followed by other, more positive ones. And when I Google Joe Bloggs, all the search results are positive reviews. Which performance do I book, as I drain my mug of tea and check my watch? I book tickets to see Joe Bloggs.

The right to move on

This is what Ivan Hewett fails to appreciate, in his dismissal of the possible concerns of future ‘thin-skinned’ performers. Performers like Jane Doe should be allowed to progress beyond a bad performance. They should be allowed to get better. They should be allowed to move on

And we should be allowed to move on, too. We should be allowed to approach Jane Doe’s performance of the Ravel with curiosity, rather than with suspicion. We should be given room to explore carefully all of the critical reviews of Jane Doe, taken in context – including, of course, the negative ones.

It could be that de-indexing of reviews is not the solution. And writing to newspapers, requesting them to remove negative reviews, is doubtless not always the solution either. Perhaps what we need are better search tools, when it comes to performers and artists: ones that enable us to see all of their reviews, taken in context, from the oldest to the most current. It seems clear, however, that the current system we have does not necessarily encourage us to approach artists with an open mind.

We should be given space to give artists the benefit of the doubt. This is the space that any self-respecting critic wants to give us in the first place – the space to come to our own conclusions.

And performers should be given space, too: the space to move on from past performances. They should be given room to get better. And it is not necessarily a sign of egoism, or cravenness, or dishonesty, for them to request that space.

A Martian take on dance

A funny thing happened at 10:45 last night.

A roomful of humans started to move. They didn’t move to anywhere, or move away from anything. They began to move in a strange, stylized way. They didn’t seem to be trying to reach for anything, or to achieve anything, or to perform any perceivable task at all. They were just moving.

Some were moving their entire bodies, expending significant amounts of energy, so much so that in no time at all, jackets were being removed and brows mopped. Some were hardly moving at all, but they were swaying slightly, or nodding their heads. Some were moving alone, others were moving together, sometimes touching. The only people in the room who seemed to be moving for a reason formed a small group, huddled together, who appeared to be manually manipulating a set of tools of varying shape and size, again in synchrony. This little group seemed to be the nucleus of all of this coordinated movement, since when they started and stopped, the whole room did too.

And the strangest thing of all was that everyone was moving together. It was possible to make out a pattern in all of these very varied movements, a constant pulse that everyone seemed to be able to not only detect, but implement through their own bodies. It must have taken enormous effort to coordinate that much movement, across such a vast group, but everywhere people were smiling, relaxed, showing no signs of the strain that such a Herculean cognitive achievement must surely have been costing them. Some even had their eyes closed.

When you put it like that, performing and dancing to music does seem extraordinary. That we can use sound – periodic patterns of energy propagating through the air – to coordinate our actions to such a precise degree, entirely without effort, is baffling. It feels like the most natural thing in the world: even babies do it. Still more baffling is the enjoyment that it brings. The performers last night took a clear pleasure in the whole enterprise: in the precision with which they timed their entries, the tightness of the fit between the bass line and the drum beats, in the exactness with which the singer insinuated his melodies into the little gaps in the texture. They had smiles on their faces, they were looking at each other, eyebrows raised, nodding at each other. And they were looking at us, moving with them, responding to us, modifying their playing as they went to give us more of what they could tell we wanted. All this effortless communication was happening without a word being spoken.

But it is the fact that a great deal of the philosophy of music has proceeded without considering bodies that move together is the most baffling thing of all. Philosophers – some of them, at least – have tended to talk of music as though it were disembodied and abstract, characterising it as patterned sound in some musical empyrean. They tend to talk about music as though we don’t feel it in our sinews, in our blood: in our very bones. Where they have discussed the embodied nature of music, their observations are relegated to footnotes, or to speculative comments at the end of chapters. And they have historically paid little attention to how music gets performed, by players and their instruments. Philosophers are usually good at bringing out the significance of the little details that night be overlooked by others, but it was clear to me at 10:45 last night that sometimes, they can miss out on some very obvious things.

Explaining brains: a cautionary fable

If you didn’t know anything about him, you’d have no reason to think he was anything other than cautious.

He moves around the house quietly, careful not to disturb me as I work. He keeps to himself, for the most part. He spends much of his time in his favourite battered armchair, snoozing, snoring lightly. When I come in to check on him, he will sometimes raise his head, if he is not sleeping. His green eyes are bright. When he’s had his fill of rest, he gets up from the chair and makes his way downstairs in front of me, his step agile and elegant, compared with my own thumping progress.

Then he usually sticks his face in a bowlful of tuna before rubbing himself against my legs, mewling to be let out into the garden.

Bump is blind, though you’d never know it. He was born that way, apparently; his optical nerve has never functioned. But he seems like an entirely normal cat, albeit a little more careful in his movements than your average feline. When you wave his favourite bit of elastic string in his face, he tracks its movement, for all the world like he’s keeping its dancing tip in view. What he’s actually doing, though, is sensing the movement of the air it’s displacing, listening to the little whispers it makes when it comes into contact with a surface, all of which he can do with such acuity that you’d swear – blind – he could see.

All of which points to a cautionary tail – sorry, tale. When reverse-engineering the mind, it’s easy to go wrong. If I conducted a behavioural study on Bump, I might very justifiably come to the conclusion that he has arthritis, for instance; this would explain his cautious movement and his seeming lethargy. Or he could just be a very lazy cat. But actually, he’s cautious because he can’t see anything. At any moment, there could be something in front of him with which he could collide; and every time he alights from his favourite chair, he is, in effect, leaping into a void. It’s amazing that he gets around at all, really.

Brains are a bit like cats. They can’t speak. And, more to the point, they can’t signal intent in any other way either – a brain is unlikely to mewl, to curl itself around my legs or to climb on my pillow at night when I’m trying to sleep. It might be easier, in fact, to reverse-engineer a cat than to reverse-engineer a brain. And my explanations of brain-behaviour are just as susceptible to gross error as are my explanations of Bump’s excessive caution, in the absence of having all the facts. Because, despite what neuroscientists sometimes imply, brains no more ‘speak’ than cats do.

Of course, we can still study cats; and we can still study brains. We should just be careful not to rely too much on any one methodology, however promising it might seem. And when we’re about to make pronouncements — or encourage journalists to do so — about having unravelled the secrets of the brain, it might be wise to assume, as a matter of course, that we are not yet in full possession of all of the relevant facts.

‘Musical innovation': why new music is not like a new vacuum cleaner

Musicians are sometimes described – in the media, and by themselves – as ‘innovative’. Musical innovators are progressing their genre, it is sometimes said. Expanding its horizons, making it better. They are ‘advancing their art’.

This kind of talk makes me uneasy. Advancing the art – to where? From where? Our talk about music has, at least since the 19th century, tended to take this teleological stance on music. It’s progressing, is the idea: it’s being transformed from a state of embarrassing primitiveness to something altogether better. We are much better off, musically-speaking, than those unfortunate figures of the past, who had to make do without all the new musical resources that we are lucky enough to have at our disposal today. Music history is linear, in this view; it has all been leading up to here, to the creative genius of today. Of course they’re ‘innovators’. What else could they be?

But I don’t think this is the right way to talk about music at all. Music isn’t linear, for one thing; it branches off every which way – and this isn’t just a feature of modernity, either. Western music histories have ironed over the interesting furrows and bumps, humps and hollows of our musical past, giving us a misleading idea that there has been some inexorable, logical musical force pushing its way to the very point on which we stand. We have a tendency to talk about art in quasi-technological terms, as though music could be looked at from a safe distance, as though it were a new vacuum cleaner that had just rolled off the conveyor belt; as though, brow furrowed, finger on chin, we could poke it with spanners, scribble on clipboards and declare that, yes, Music 2.0 does the job demonstrably better than Music 1.9 did.

Of course, innovation doesn’t have to mean progression towards a well-understood end. It can just mean doing something new. And I’m definitely not implying that creative musicians don’t deserve our praise and admiration. But I think we need to be clear about the sense in which music, or something like it, could be ‘innovative’. Music isn’t a matter of producing better artefacts or tools, to be examined and tested like vacuum cleaners. It’s a matter of expression – it’s a matter of teaching us something new about ourselves. It holds a candle up to the world and illuminates some forgotten, dusty niche for us in a way that we haven’t seen it before. It discloses the world, that is; it doesn’t just mine it for resources, to advance its own cause. Being musically ‘innovative’ – advancing, progressing the cause – just misses the point.

A ‘musical genius’ didn’t always have the connotations that it has now. When it was first introduced in the 18th century, with the generation of Rousseau, the term meant somebody who was adept at finding new modes of emotional expression. It was only with Schenker, much later on, that it came to indicate some purely technical musical faculty that had nothing to do with expression. I think we would be well-served to step off the conveyor belt of ‘musical innovation’ and take a leaf out of Rousseau’s book. Maybe then we’ll finally move away from the ‘Dyson view’ of music.

Aesthetics and philosophy of perception: happy ever after?

The discipline of aesthetics has been conducted in something of a vacuum over the last hundred years or so. Philosophers of perception have had little input, or interest, in the discipline. Aesthetics was, they felt, too concerned with formal features of artworks to have much to say about perception. And philosophers of perception were too focused on epistemic certainty to be able to say much about areas of human experience where being certain of what is thus-and-so seemed to be less of a priority.

This is changing, as the recent conference on Philosophy of Perception and Aesthetics in Antwerp showed. A measure of how much things have changed was how difficult it was to categorise the individual talks as being ‘about’ either philosophy of perception or aesthetics; rather, the focus was on cases where the line between the two disciplines gets blurred. Talks about the perception of absences and empty space suggested the possibility that a successful account of perception can’t always be straightforwardly about ‘what is present'; in cases like this, the aesthetic glimmers in the background. Discussions of the role of testimony in matters of taste brought epistemology and aesthetics into conversation. And the really compelling thing, for me at least, was how natural it all seemed. Of course we don’t just perceive canonical, extended, physical things. Of course testimony features in the aesthetic as well as the perceptual. Of course the two disciplines aren’t as far apart as they have been assumed to be.

The day after the conference, I spent a few hours wandering around under the looming rib-arches of the Cathedral of Our Lady, staring open-mouthed at the enormous Rubens works on display there. The bulging sinews, the luminous skin, the sheer vibrance of the figures impressed me deeply with the force, not only of one artist’s skill, but of an entire world-view: these paintings said more to me in an instant about how a people saw its place in the world than any number of historical texts could have done. Seeing these canvases in the space for which they were designed, imagining their effect on the devout burghers of Antwerp, reminded me that art isn’t about formal features. Not really. It’s about communicating something about how the world should be seen. And if seeing the world isn’t a question for the philosophy of perception, I don’t know what is.

I like to think that Dewey would have been pleased. Dewey famously argued that the aesthetic and the ‘everyday’ were intertwined, each lending support to the other. It seems that it is only now that this insight is beginning to be taken seriously. The day that aesthetics is no longer a ‘fringe discipline’ in philosophy will be the day that expressive experience is finally given the philosophical respect that it deserves. If the conversations I had in Antwerp are anything to go by, things are changing for the better.

But this shift isn’t just something for philosophers to get excited about. Maybe society itself is changing, with respect to how it sees the role of art. Perhaps we are moving towards a situation where art, in all its forms, is no longer seen as an optional luxury in a developed society. Art, in some form, has existed for as long as society itself has existed. It’s high time that philosophers, but even more importantly, policy-makers, took this basic fact seriously. The sooner that expressive experience gets the respect it deserves in philosophy, and in society at large, the better for all of us.

Music and philosophy: together at last?

What does music mean? What does it signify? Is musical meaning ineffable? What is music, anyway?

These questions, and more, have been topping the agenda at the RMA Music and Philosophy study group conference in King’s College, London this weekend. Using every available conceptual tool at our disposal, we have been valiantly chipping away at the inscrutable coalface of musical meaning.

However, I can’t help feeling that some of the talks that I’ve attended have been missing the point a little bit. For me, what the entire thorny mess of musical meaning boils down to is one basic question: Why do we even do music at all? That is, what does it mean, not in itself, as some kind of ineffable entity, but for me? At this moment? Right now?

There is a tendency in the philosophy of music to talk about Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms; to hanker wistfully after the days when music and philosophy were true bedfellows. But there’s an elephant in the room. Instead of evaluating how music and philosophy used to be two sides of the same coin, why not make it so again? Why not abandon attempts to reconstruct what it was like to think about music in the nineteenth century, and instead ask, why do we do music now? It seems to me that, if I want to address that question, I have to at least consider music as it is now. This conference is happening in London, one of the most vibrant scenes for contemporary music, from classical and avant garde to electronic and jazz, in the entire world. And yet, the innovation, the expressive striving, the sheer dynamism of the music that is happening right now in this great city gets ignored by its philosophers.

And considering that music, now, is inherently wedded to that scene itself, the venues, the crowds, the participants, it seems as though a philosophy of this new way of doing music must change its tack somehow. If philosophy is interested in what drives this hive of musical activity, what music means for those who seek it out, then we must ask some new questions about musical experience. Questions of ontology, for instance, don’t sell out shows in Shoreditch. Aesthetic experience is not a matter solely for conceptual analysis – although of course, conceptual analysis must have its place. But aesthetic experience is also something that we need, something that we actively seek; it’s part of the everyday. It involves bodies, not just brains. It involves other people, not just detached, contemplative thought.

Andrew Bowie suggested yesterday that music is about making sense of things. So is philosophy. So surely, what philosophers must really try to do is to make sense of music as it really is. This means  bringing the music of today into our conferences, and testing our ideas in our own musical practice. Philosophy must embrace the music of now, not just the music of the past. It must try to make sense of the new sounds and gestures that are unfurling in the dimly lit, crowded spaces of this city that shimmers beyond the closed doors of our lecture theatres.

Musicians and programmers: handbags at dawn?

“But how do we get musicians more involved with systems like this?” asked an audience-member at Sam Aaron’s talk on Overtone in Cambridge recently.  Sam had discussed several ongoing issues surrounding computer music, including the search for sufficiently-abstract programming languages for sound synthesis as well as concerns surrounding digital interface design. “After all, this kind of system is ultimately for making music. So, how would Overtone look to musicians?”

As a musician who has used Sam’s system, I would say: it looks off-putting. Lines of text on a black screen immediately scream ‘SCARY’ to me. Okay, it’s made a little more appealing by the presence of some friendly-looking coloured parentheses, but the very idea of using linguistic commands to control sounds is somewhat alien to me. However, I understand what the system is capable of doing, so I’m happy to at least try to learn how to use it. If we ultimately want to be able to plug in more embodied controllers to the system, we have to understand how it works; we need to know what parameters are there, and which ones we want to control, in order to envisage the kind of real-world ‘thing’ that we might want to manipulate to control sound in interesting ways.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with the composer Tom Mays about the Karlax, a new digital controller that he’s currently using in his compositions. We discussed how, with the Karlax, anything is possible, so that the real virtuosity, if that’s even a useful concept in this context, consists not in manipulating the instrument as such but rather in designating the mappings between the interface and the sound-generation engine. In other words, the instrument – interface plus sound-generation engine – has to be ‘composed’, and that’s the hard bit. Pianos are given to us, ready to play. We don’t have to invent the piano every time we go to play ‘Twinkle Twinkle’. We simply don’t have that luxury with electronic music. But that’s the great challenge, too; that’s why it’s so exciting. Since nothing is pre-given, we have ultimate freedom to take advantage of the computational resources in whatever way we want – in ways that go far beyond what traditional instruments allow us to do.

But if we want to compose instruments, we need to understand the processes. We need to ‘get inside’ the system and work out what the parameters of the sound-generation engine are; we need to figure out which ones are interesting for our current purposes – having, of course, worked out what those purposes might be; we need to have some conception about how the overall architecture fits together. In other words, to make computer music, we can’t just think like ‘musicians’ in the traditional sense, who deal with pre-made instruments. We have to think like programmers. If we don’t, we’ll throw our hands up in existential despair; freedom turns into paralysis, and we either won’t make any music at all or we’ll give up electronic music as a bad business and retreat, grumbling, to our pianos.

When Sam responded thus to his interlocutor – “I first thought that programmers need to learn to think more like musicians, but the more I’ve seen, the more I think that musicians need to think more like programmers” – a ripple of nervous laughter spread around the lecture theatre. It was as though everyone present – mostly computer scientists, but some musicians too – was uneasy with this notion. “How can we abase musicians thus? Musicians are the cultural heroes of our society, divinely inspired; to suggest that they need to become mere technicians is treachery! Seize him!” Okay, so nobody actually said that, but I suspect that sort of intuition is what underpinned the reaction. It is of course a wonderful thing that musicians are so valued in society, but that doesn’t mean that they should be regarded as untouchable. The converse – that computer programmers could do with learning more from musicians – was seen as uncontroversial; if that had been Sam’s conclusion, the assembled audience would have nodded sagely. Nobody would have laughed. It is still assumed by many that the sort of knowledge that musicians have is somehow more culturally valuable than that possessed by programmers. There is surely no warrant for this view any more.  Musicians and programmers have much to learn from each other.

It’s not just musicians, though. I think we could all do with thinking more like programmers. After all, programmers are sophisticated problem-solvers. What do I want to do? What are the parameters I need to think about? How can I design a system involving those parameters that will achieve my ends? Those sound like reasonable questions to ask, whether you’re designing a word-processing programme, ‘composing’ a new digital instrument or maybe even writing a symphony.

The Laptop Orchestra

“You see,” says the sceptic, stroking his beard, “one of the big problems I have with electronic music has to do with its insularity.  Not that that’s the only problem I have with it, of course!” He guffaws, compromising the integrity of the buttons on his tweed blazer. “The music – if we are to call it such – is produced by an individual sitting at a computer, feverishly typing and blinking at a screen, without any possibility of interaction with others. And surely, is not the interaction with other musicians one of the most compelling reasons we have to produce music in the first place?”

He’s right, of course. Music is, ultimately, a way of communicating. And certainly, I can see how electronic music, thus construed, might be seen as inherently introspective, possibly ruling it out of being considered as music at all. However, it doesn’t have to be so. Enter the Laptop Orchestra. Electronic musicians all over the world are emerging from their dingy basements and coming together to improvise in jam sessions with fellow enthusiasts. The only difference is that, instead of guitars and keyboards, their instrument is the computer. Electronic music doesn’t have to be insular after all.

Sam Aaron and I are currently working on setting up a laptop orchestra in Cambridge. This would be by no means limited to bespectacled, Star-Trek-merchandise-collecting ubernerds – the idea is that anybody who’s capable of pressing buttons and executing simple commands can join in an impromptu, improvised electronic jam session. More traditional musicians can even bring along their acoustic instruments and play along. We use our computers for almost everything else: why not use them to make music together? Watch this space.