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.

3 comments to Musicians and programmers: handbags at dawn?

  • From the Society for Contemporary Music (GZM Klangbrücke), Aachen, Germany – Thanks so much for this – I will be posting your blogs to our GZM Facebook page from now on. Very best wishes, Gwendolen Webster, Chairman.

  • admin

    Thanks for the support, Gwendolen!

  • Isn’t there a danger that just as some programmers fetishize the embodied skills of musical practice so musicians (and others) may fetishize the logic and the newness of programming. Though many programmers could learn from musicians (I took Sam to one of my violin lessons!) and many musicians could learn from programmers, most in both camps can grow in skill admirably without ever reaching across this divide.

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