Various and sundry economists I like to peruse have been musing on the subject of envy as of late, so it makes perfect phenomenological sense that I’m reading it into everything this morning. Take two stories via ArtsJournal: one from Wired about David Cope’s continuing efforts to program a computer to write stylistically convincing imitations of famous composers (he’s tacking Vivaldi now), and a brief shout-out to The Really Terrible Orchestra, a Scottish amateur group that puts its technical incompetence front-and-center with its enthusiasm.
The Really Terrible Orchestra is in the time-honored tradition of defeating envy by flaunting one’s own lack of skill and making it as likely an object of admiration as another’s excellence. (There’s also, it seems, a bit of Scratch Orchestra anti-determinism thrown in for fun, albeit with a far more genial mien.) The RTO played one of the Edinburgh Festivals this year, and the Festival’s blurb says it all:
Shocking but true. The Really Terrible Orchestra is improving. This may be your final chance to hear them play really terribly. Book early. Last year sold out by 31st July.
(I suppose there’s a line to be crossed between bad enough to be an entertaining send-up of unscalable professional heights, and just good enough to be, well, just plain bad.) I’m of two minds about this whole thing. The members of the orchestra sound like they’re just in it for fun, and their enthusiasm should easily transfer to an audience, but I have a feeling that most of the audience is there to subconsciously stick a thumb in the eye of “high art” and its attendant level of discipline. Interestingly, you don’t see this sort of thing in the realm of, for example, athletics; but then, most of us can engage in some form of athletic activity that’s fulfilling even in its unskilled amateurishness. I wonder if the RTO would be as much of an audience draw if amateur music-making were as widespread.
The computerized Vivaldi seems to have issues of its own.
Cope reveals a key ingredient of virtual Vivaldi’s secret recipe: works by other composers. When Emmy [the computer program] created music based solely on Vivaldi’s oeuvre, he explains, the results sounded authentic enough, but bland. So he threw in a few pieces by baroque contemporaries such as Tomaso Albinoni and Giuseppe Tartini. Emmy’s Vivaldi then began to stretch a bit, take risks, and, ironically, produce music that sounded more like the real Vivaldi.
So in order to make the computer sound like a real composer, you have to program it to envy other composers enough to steal from them. Now that’s accurate modeling.